Erosion at Burghead Bay and the Culbin Sands

MFC Paper 23 SM Ross 1977

The entire length of the coastline flanking Burghead Bay and the Culbin Sands areas of Moray is backed by low "cliffs" of sand and shingle which are open to attack by waves from the north east quarter.

Over the centuries as Burghead Bay was being scooped out into its present semi-circular form, shingle and sand from the eastern parts were being deposited as ridges near Findhorn in the west and formed into the various bar systems across the mouth of the river. Eastern parts gradually became more sheltered by Burghead Point and the centre of erosion has moved progressively westwards so that today the western parts of the shoreline are suffering the maximum erosion.

Using the rate at which the old wartime defences slip down on to the beach as a guide to the rate of coastal retreat we arrive at a minimum average rate of 1.0m per year. In close agreement with this figure is the amount by which the salmon fishers have lengthened the leader to their nets over the past 15 years which averages 1.33m per year.

Maximum erosion occurs only when onshore gales are coincident with high tides and fortunately northerly gales are not a frequent occurrence in Moray. This means that several years may elapse with no noticeable erosion, then an "attack" will produce a brief flurry of local interest and within a few days all is forgotten - but another slice of the coast has gone for good. It may be of interest to recall some of the more recent losses.

Early in 1976 and again in the summer of that year heavy seas scooped away between l and 2 metres of the coast. Thereafter little erosion occurred until late in 1977, when, during unusually high tides a further 1-2m were lost along the entire length of the bay. During the high tides in December 1977, which were the highest many people could recall, the seas were not rough, otherwise losses would have been much more severe.

On 11th of January, 1978 another northerly gale struck and this time severe erosion occurred, in particular near Findhorn and on the north east shore of the Culbin Sands. In the eastern corner of Burghead Bay, erosion was minimal but in the central parts a good 2m were lost while at Findhorn a minimum of 4m was measured with bights here and there of up to 12m. The sea washed over the bank near the beach huts on an almost continuous front of 130m and flooded the car park area. (This low lying area between the ridges has been flooded during past storms and it is of interest to note that it appears on a map dated 1859 as a tidal loch, open to the west, known as the Muckle Loch and with a shingle bar on its northern side. This points to this part of the shore still being a deposition area at that time.) Two smaller lochs formed in hollows to the north of the boatyard.

At the other side of the mouth of the River Findhorn erosion over the years has been much more apparent with trees being undermined and falling on to the beach with each attack. As the bar extends westward the river cuts steadily into the northeast corner of the Culbin Sands and along the north-facing shore similar rates of erosion to those at Findhorn are being recorded. Over the past 8 years the Forestry Commission have been experimenting with various systems of groynes along this shore in an attempt to stop the erosion. Both wooden and caged stone types have been erected in various patterns and series of windbreaks strung along the dune edges in attempts to trap the sand. Although these may have lowed the processes of longshore drift, they proved ineffective against the bigger storms. After the storm of 11th January, 1978 the beach here was a chaotic jumble of firewood from smashed groynes and newly uprooted trees.

Perhaps the most disturbing fact is that the sea has almost broken through into the Buckie Loch * the Mecca of the Botanists. Just west of the Shelly Head Bothy waves have washed inland up to llm through the trees while l5Om farther west the ridge to the seaward side of the "loch" has been reduced to a low bank which at its lowest is only .75m above the beach shingle. The road inside the Buckie Loch is only 30m from this point and the level of this road, which is a good approximation to the level of the loch is 1.52m below the level of the hank. Here waves have washed over along a 50m front and carried debris to within Sm of the road. Westwards the bank rises slowly, but over some 200m where it measures 1.50 to 2.00m above the beach shingle, waves have splashed over. Within another 150m westwards dunes rise to a height of 8m with the line of their crests 28m from the road. Their seaward side has been truncated along this crest line forming a very unstable vertical cliff. The outlook here is bleak indeed. As each storm produces freshly cut cross~sections through the shingle and sand formations and exposes long buried marine clays, lake bed and peat deposits and old soil surfaces our knowledge of the former landscape steadily increases, but there is little comfort in knowing that each new section will in turn vanish without trace.

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