Naturally, New Year is all about new beginnings, but with my next adventure in sight and my first transatlantic flight booked for the spring I opted to instead start 2016 by revisiting the place where it all began.
I might not have been born in Elgin, but it is where I spent my earliest years. Until the age of six, and, following a few years in Australia, another year or two at eight, I crawled, walked and ran its streets as a boy. It was in Elgin that I took my first steps, watched my first movie, and wrote my first words.
Naturally, it made a huge impression on me, so much so that even to this day its name catches my attention as though it were my own. Surprisingly, given that I retain no friendships from my time there, it still remains a presence in my life, with my studies and work life introducing me to others from the area. I even returned briefly in 2012 for one friend’s wedding.
This time I booked a room at the Premier Inn, which, when I last lived there, had only just opened down the road from my house. Back then the whole area was new, at that time forming part of the town’s perimeter, on the very verge of what was to my young mind the known world. Apart from occasional trips to Dundee, to see family and visit Toys ‘R’ Us, I rarely left the Moray area. But that didn’t matter, it felt huge.
However, upon arrival it was clear that much had changed in the subsequent years. The hotel had been extended, as had Elgin itself. While the high street had shrunk by about the same amount as I’d grown, there was no doubting that the town had sprawled, with both a McDonalds and a KFC having set new town limits at some point in the past before further developments had pushed the boundary still further into the surrounding country. Where once my old house had backed onto a cornfield, a burn and a railway line now it was just houses as far as the eye could see.
I had anticipated the loss of John Menzies and Woolworths, as I may have left Elgin but I had long since returned to the UK, but so much else had changed too. The 21st Century had encroached, with the likes of Starbucks, Lidl and Burger King opening branches where they had never existed before. I stalked the backstreets in search of Toymaster and Audrey’s Tearoom, the two places that I had spent most of my time as a child, and was stricken to find the former out of business and the latter operating under another name. Happily, if a little inconveniently given my tight schedule, it was still cash only and remained closed on a Sunday.
I met Paul off the train, having offered to show him the former cathedral city’s sights and agreed to do a little bit of walking while we were there. He had brought a route map for Quarrelwood, a name I wasn’t familiar with despite its close proximity to my old primary school. We crossed the River Lossie, having stopped for a short tour of Elgin Cathedral and the Biblical Gardens next door, before entering the woods via Spynie Car Park and finding our way to the trailhead. The Internet had promised a henge, which was very exciting, but without the stones to go with it the reality was very disappointing indeed. We emerged onto a large clearing to discover nothing more than a few small rocks and a depression in the ground.
Nevertheless, it still made for a nice walk, with frequent crossroads promising endless possibilities while a discreet viewpoint provided spectacular views over Lossiemouth. There, between us and the RAF base, stood Duffus Castle, one of my favourite places in the world, and the castle against which I judge all others. According to Google, Duffus Castle is just five miles from Elgin, but with no car and no obvious path it seemed that we had no option but to walk it, astride a series of increasingly narrow country lanes. I set it aside for another day, as the sun was setting and we had plans to meet a friend of mine for dinner back in town.
Mel had recommended that we eat at Scribbles, a pizzeria that I had never heard of but that it seemed everyone currently living in invariably Elgin had. While checking in at the hotel the guests in front of us had asked the receptionist for a good place to get pizza, and she too had singled Scribbles out as being something rather special. We wanted to return to the room first, however, which meant not only walking back to town but retracing our steps up the A96 (not once, but twice). The journey took us from my old high school to my old home, a staggeringly short distance given how mammoth it had seemed all those years before. The trip was ultimately worth it, however, and the pizza at Scribbles exceptional. I arranged to see Mel again on the Sunday, and Paul and I set off once more up the main road.
The next day we decided to go to Lossiemouth, after breakfast at The Pancake Place. Understandably sick of hearing about my childhood, Paul was looking to share a remnant of his: something called a haddock mornay. His fishy, cheesy pancakes sounded disgusting, however, and mercifully the restaurant seemed to agree, for the dish was no longer on the menu. After the snow and rain of the week before, the sun had finally won out and now blazed gloriously in the sky, leaving us eager to visit the nearest beach. Whether the bus had hiked its prices up in accordance with the weather, or perhaps it’s just always extortionate to travel by bus in Moray, we paid the £3.10 (for a single!) and watched as the sea drew ever nearer. We alighted at South Beach, on Clifton Road, and took the small wooden bridge out onto the beach. We did a small circuit of the peninsula as a Chinook circled overhead, before returning to the mainland to take the Moray Coastal Path up to Covesea Lighthouse.
Mel had recommended a cafe close to our destination, promising the largest slice of cake we had ever seen, but unable to find it we decided to return to Lossiemouth for something to drink instead. We cut through a big, apparently abandoned campsite on our way back to the beach, our thoughts punctuated by the cries of the only occupants we could see, comparing it to a ghost town. I’ve never seen the appeal of such sites, and as removed from Lossiemouth as this one was I struggled to imagine how anyone else might either. The helicopter was still loud overhead, but even it couldn’t compare to the racket made by jets or other military aircraft. While we waited for the bus back to Elgin we had coffee at La Caverna, which I followed up with ice cream from Miele’s of Lossie.
Paul was booked on an early bus to Aberdeen, but with seven hours until my own ticket home I still had another day to explore the area. I had come to Elgin with the express intention of revisiting Duffus Castle, and to catch up with Mel in the process, so I arranged to meet her there and set off on foot along the Covesea Road. It might as well have been Memory Lane, though, as I spent its entire length — a surprising distance, having previously only ever covered it in the family car — reminiscing about every dip or bend. It starts close to another of my old houses, not far from the Buccaneer’s Service Station (unmistakeable thanks to the unmissable Buccanneer parked out front), and carries on for a good few miles past a large generator I remember being terrified of as a kid, finally terminating at RAF Lossiemouth where a road to the left leads along the fence to Duffus Castle.
I arrived just as Mel did, though at my request she let me walk the final few feet myself as she went to park her car. Each carrying a camera, we toured the site of the old motte and bailey whilst trying not to intrude into the other’s shots. I’ve since read that Duffus was once one of the most secure fortifications in Scotland, which seems more than a little surprising given its current state. I began to wonder what exactly it was about Duffus Castle that had made such an impression on me as a child, and I had to admit still so impressed me now. I have been to grander castles in more dramatic locations, many of them considerably more intact, and yet it was Duffus that I favoured above all others. I decided that it was because of, not despite, Duffus’ ruined state that I loved it so much; because it gave your imagination free rein to imagine it as it might have been, dungeons and dragons and all.
By car, we now set off for Spynie Palace, finding the visitor’s centre closed but the gate unlocked and a family of five picnicking within the grounds. My memories of Spynie Palace weren’t anywhere near as comprehensive as those of Duffus, both because we visited it less and because it didn’t have quite the same appeal (it had a visitor’s centre, for one), and no sooner had we arrived were we off again — to Findhorn beach. I love walking, but there’s definitely something to be said for the flexibility that comes with being able to drive — something that I should probably get around to learning at some point. At Findhorn beach I found a dolphin centre I never knew existed, and resolved to return in the summer when they were more likely to be seen feeding in the Moray Firth, from either Findhorn itself, Chanonry Point or the Scottish Dolphin Centre at Spey Bay.
On the way back to the station we stopped at The Drouthy Cobbler for a Sunday roast, sampling a couple of local beers as we ate, including Windswept Breweing Co.’s wheat and blonde lines. I had hoped for a night out at Johanna’s, Elgin’s nightclub, which I had often passed as a child en route to the cinema and never thought I’d be old enough to actually enter, but it hadn’t come to be. I still hadn’t been then, but this here seemed like a fitting way to mark the time that had passed since I lived there. Or at least tide me over until the wild weekend of driving, dolphins and dancing now penciled in for the summer.