The conifers stand tall, straight. They look old but there are patches where trees have been cut, and there is replanting elsewhere, evidence of tree harvesting. The evergreen forest is popular with tourists. This is in spite of the latitude: there are more northerly places in Scotland, but not many. The climate is not as bad as may be expected, as the mountains shelter the coast from the westerly storms and rains. But summer may not happen every year. The forest is sandwiched between the land around Brodie Castle and Forres to the south, and the shores of the Moray Firth to the north. “Sandwiched’ somehow seems the right word: scrape the fallen needles off the ground, and sand appears, as if the trees were growing on a beach. It is a forest out of place, the kind you might find growing in a wardrobe. If these trees could talk, what story would they tell?
Nothing in Culbin Forest is natural. The trees are all planted, in a battle with the environment that lasted more than 200 years. Once this was thriving farm land. But one year, a northerly gale came and whipped up a sand storm. Hour after hour the wind blew and the sand kept coming. Nothing could be seen: people left their tools on the fields and fled. Eventually the storm ended, but it was too late for 16 farms and their laird. Over an area of 3800 hectares (38 km2), nothing was left. In places the sand lay 30 meters high. This was the year when the Sahara came to Scotland. It was in 1694.
The story is re-told in many places including the BBC. It sounds unbelievable: can there really be a sand desert in Scotland? The answer is complex: there was indeed a disaster and it did involve migrating sands, but the official history should be taken with a grain of salt. The disaster had roots: it did not come out of the blue. And while the sand storm was obliterating the Culbin estate, elsewhere a volcano was altering history.
Scotland after the Middle Ages was a feudal society, where the land was owned by the estates, and awarded by the king. If the estate had a castle or manor house, it could be called a ‘barony’ and it’s owner a baron. The baron was considered ‘nobility’ but was not inherited: the title could be bought by buying the manor. This was unique to Scotland since elsewhere in Europe ‘baron’ was an inherited title which was not tied to specific real estate. In Scotland, the system of a barony awarded by the king was stronger in the east than in the west, as the authority of the king traditionally was stronger in the more hospitable east.
Another group were the tenant farmers. The most powerful of these had tenancies that could be passed on to their children. Over time, this group became as powerful as the barons, and together they became known as the ‘Lairds’, the ‘Lord’ (owner) of a large estate. This title brought voting rights in the Scottish parliament of the day (there was a minimum size to the estate to qualify). Whoever inherited (or bought) the estate would also get the title and the rights.
Below the barons and lairds, there were by-and-large three groups: the (non-tenured) tenant farmers, the crofters and the cotters. Tenant farmers were nominally independent but tenures were often short, typically for 5-10 years. This wasn’t as insecure as it may seem, as renewal was nearly automatic. The rent might be increased at renewal: some land owners were more supportive, other less so. There could also be special rents, payable for things like peat-cutting, collecting seaweed (used as fertilizer), etc. The size of the tenured farms varied a lot, and many were so small that several farmers would pool resources, for instance sharing a plough with a team (8) of oxes. For many, it was a life of poverty. Rents were often paid in-kind, especially with grain. During the late 17th century, there was a slow shift to rents paid as money, where the most recently developed farms would pay in money and older farms in-kind. Rent arrears were common, especially among those who paid in-kind. However, eviction was relatively uncommon. Rent arrears were often seen as a normal part of the ups and downs of the farming life. A fraction of the tenancies were held by women, often as widows.
A cotter lived in a cottage provided by the land owner, and would work the land for the owner in lieu of paying rent. This might be for something like three days per week, leaving him the rest of the time to earn his own living. Cotters could be villeins: these were nominally free but were not allowed to leave the land. This was almost a form of slavery, but had the advantage that they could not be evicted and so it gave some security. In Scotland the arrangement was normally a bit different, and obligations appear to have been limited to occasional labour service, seasonal renders of food, hospitality and money rents.
Finally, a crofter would own his (or her!) cottage, and rent a small piece of land, often as part of a community. Crofters play no part in our story.
In the coastal lowlands the agriculture was focussed on growing crops, especially barley, and wheat in the best locations. The yields were not high, 2 to 3 times the seed sown, which is near the limit of viability for farming and explains why rent arrears were common. A bad year could spell disaster, not just for the farmers but for everyone requiring food on the table. To mitigate, after a crop failure food would be imported from the Baltic. This was so common that there were Scottish colonies in the Baltic! Famines were regular until around 1650. After that, famines ceased, in part because of better farming methods introduced by those most hated of enemies, the English. The improved tillage methods were first introduced in the south of Scotland, and were very slow to reach the north. By the time the story begins, agriculture at Culbin was probably still traditional. And the improvements failed to prevent the last of the Scottish famines – the awful years of 1695-1700.
The story is often republished, and can be readily found. The emphasis is invariably on the suddenness of the disaster that befell a prosperous community.
The barony of Culbin was run by the Kinnaird family, and dated back to the 13th century. Their manor house was a stone-built square building, with a large garden and orchard. The accompanying land lay between the rivers Findhorn and Nairn. It was was rented to some 16 farms who did well, both because of the fertile soils and because of the river Findhorn which provided excellent salmon fishing: the barony held the fishing rights on the west bank of the river. It was a well-to-do community and the baron became wealthy.
The storm came suddenly, in 1694. It arrived so fast that the reapers and a ploughman had to leave their work and tools on the land and flee from the sand drifts. The sand attacked everything, from the cotter’s hut to the baron’s mansion. The weather calmed in the morning but the sand was so deep that the people had to break their way out of the houses where they had sheltered. Now the storm restarted, and everyone fled. The sand continued to flood in. It even blocked the Findhorn, which flooded the land until it found a new path to the sea, directly north.
When the people returned, they could not find their houses. Everything was covered under deep sand. Even the manor house and chapel had disappeared. The people left; the baron (and his wife, child and nanny) never returned. The land and manor were abandoned to a desert of sand. Over the years, the sands kept moving and tantalizingly would reveal a glimpse of the buried barony: a ploughed field, part of a ruin, a dove cote, or the chapel; once the chimney of the manor house appeared. Legends tell off the fright it caused among the people exploring the ruins. However, a bit of fear never stopped a Scotsman. Whatever the sand revealed was quickly stripped of any stones that could be used for building. The sand always quickly returned and covered the past up again. A hundred years ago, before the forest took root, Culbin still remained a sand desert.
The baron had lost his income. He petitioned the Scottish parliament not to have to pay the land tax, because there was no income. The barony was sold, but the family had lost its wealth. The last surviving member of the family died in 1743.
This is the official, i.e. oft-published story. There are some minor issues with it which I’ll come back to. We need go a bit deeper to explore the sea, the sand, and the people.
The sea in Scotland is a funny thing. During the depth of the ice age, sea level was a hundred meters or more lower than it is now, because of all the water locked up in ice. So you might expect Culbin to have been far from the sea. You’d be wrong. Scotland had grown some glaciers itself, effectively transferring the water from the North Sea to the land. And the glaciers were much thicker than the 100 meters lost from the sea. The glaciers weighed down the land, and pushed Culbin down by more than the amount by which the sea had fallen. Culbin was 50 meters below water, although the glacier itself may have kept the sea at bay.
When the ice melted the sea quickly rose and for a while Culbin became even wetter. Different ice sheets melted at different times, so that the sea level rise was not always regular. But of course, the removal of the glaciers meant that Scotland shed a lot of excess weight (the so-called ‘water diet’), and the land rebounded, in isostatic rebound. The lithosphere isn’t as quick as the sea: one acts like treacle, the other like (ahum) water. So initially the water rose faster than the land, but after a while the land caught up and eventually it began to rise faster than the water. Whether the sea level rose or fell around Culbin depended on which one rose faster at any particular moment.
The plot shows the results for northeastern Scotland. 15,000 years ago, at the location of Culbin, the land was 50 meters below sea level. However, it was rising fast. You can’t keep the Scots down. 13,000 years ago Culbin rose above sea level and it continued to move up in the world. It peaked 10,000 years ago, at 15 meters above sea. Now the sea began a new assault. 7,000 years ago, Culbin found itself again at sea level and shortly after, a few meters below water. Since that time, the land recovered, and rose a little, and the sea withdrew to its current location.
The higher sea levels 6000 years ago left raised shorelines in many places around the Moray Forth. In low-lying areas, these can be a considerable distance in-land. The sea formed gravel beaches, and the ancient shorelines can be recognized by these gravel ridges. Many are now hidden underneath Culbin forest.
The retreating sea left sand behind. Sand is as funny as the Scottish seas. It comes in an incredible variety, from the black sand of Hawai’i (which burns the careless feet) to the dazzlingly white White Sands in New Mexico (which, I can tell you, also can get very hot). Sand is defined as small particles, up to a few mm, but it can have almost any composition. Some is biogenic, consisting of marine-life’s skeletons. Colour doesn’t always tell what it is: the white beaches of tropical islands are made from the lime in the reefs, whilst the white of White Sands is gypsum and the whiteness of Florida’s beaches is quartz. The most common type are mineral sands, often quartz or granite.
Sand forms by battering rock into submission, through weathering, wind, waves, or ice. The sand contains whatever the rocks contained: even some uranium is not impossible. Wind and water moves the newly formed sand around. The North Sea is full of it, partly from the scrapings of Norwegian granite by the ice age glaciers. The waves deposit it near the shore, and once it has dried, the wind can pick it up. The dry grains blow low over the surface and if trapped by some obstruction, form sand dunes. If a large area is exposed during low tide, more sand can dry and more land can be covered by dunes. Scotland has 50,000 hectares of these sand dunes.
The character of the dunes depends on distance from the sea. The shore has no vegetation and lots of blowing sand. In-land are the mobile dunes, with a covering of marram grass which captures the blowing sand but which does not prevent the dunes from moving. Further in-land there is more vegetation and here the sand is fixed in place. But in general, sand shows that water is (or used to be) near.
The Moray Firth acts as a funnel: sea currents bring sand in, but the currents are too weak to take it out again, and the sand collects along the southern shore. When the sea rose, sand dunes formed on land and sand banks in the sea. When the sea retreated, the sand was left behind. And because the sea shore moved around so much, sand has been left everywhere around Culbin. The wind formed a large dunescape, covering the old gravel beaches. The coast here has long been prone to moving dunes: Boethius in 1097 AD already mentioned inundation of parts of Moray by sand thrown up during storms in the North Sea.
In this area, there was more going on. During the high sea level of 6000 years ago, the river Findhorn created a wide estuary, terminated to the north by a gravel bank. The bank diverted to river to the southwest, where it dropped its sediments. When sea level dropped again, the estuary became dry land, where soil and peat formed. When people came, they found good pasture. The barony of Culbin was located on this old estuary.
The land around Culbin had originally been given to Richard de Moravia in 1234, founder of the Murray family. Later, the Kinnaird family joined by marriage: they were an equally old family, given land in 1184. Both families were originally Flemish. By the way, the Moray Firth is not named after the family: the name was adopted from the Pictish kingdom of Moray. The families did well, and the estate could support a wealthy life style. But this changed in the 17th century, and by 1660 financial issues appeared when the baron had to borrow money.
The tenants and farm workers did not share in the wealth. Theirs was a life of poverty, with a total lack of luxuries. One of the problems was that the sandy coastal land lacked stone for building. The workers therefore build their houses from turf, whilst the mansion and the chapel were reportedly build from sand stone, perhaps sourced from Caithness. The turf huts didn’t last long, and often had to be repaired or rebuild. The people took the turf from the carse: the ancient gravel ridges where farming was not viable. The roofs were made from grass, and for this the marram grass on the coastal dunes was used. This harvesting was fine, as long as the soil, turf and grass could reform and regrow at the same rate as it was taken. As a form of recycling, the old walls and roofs were dumped at the place where the new was taken. But in the deteriorating climate of the 1600’s, regrowth no longer kept up with demand. The dunes here always had had a tendency to move around, using the plentiful sand. Around Culbin, it appears that the dunes had been stabilised by the vegetation, even at a time when dunes elsewhere were increasingly activating: this has been inferred from soil profiles. But the turf removal stripped out both the vegetation and the soil and opened up the sand, whilst the marram harvesting activated the mobile dune system. The dunes began to move.
According to the stories, the sand storm of 1694 came without warning. In reality, the warnings were there and they were recognized. Two previous storms had already brought sand, in April 1663 and in the autumn of 1676. From fragmented records, it appears that the peat supply on the Culbin estate had been lost some years before, perhaps covered in these earlier storms, and the laird (a bit of a scoundrel) had resorted to pillaging the peat of his neighbour. This, of course, caused a fair amount of tension, not helped by the fact that the Kinnairds were catholic and the neighbours protestant, at a time this difference meant something. But the sand didn’t care about beliefs and morals. To the west, the inhabitants of the town of Findhorn were already preparing to relocate their village. To the east, the town of Nairn was being threatened by drifting sand. Here, the local council ordered that the stripping of turf should be stopped. But the rulings were not enforced, the dunes were on the prowl, and in the big storm of 1694 a large dune covered most of the Culbin estate. The following year, when Culbin was lost and the baron petitioned not to have to pay property tax on his lost property, an act of parliament was passed to prohibit the removal of grass from the dunes. This was too late: the horse had bolted.
The land never recovered and the sand remained without vegetation. Up to the early 20th century Culbin remained a sand desert, a Scottish Sahara, the largest such area in the UK. Early attempts to stabilize the dunes by planting failed. But clearly, it was unacceptable to have
migrants dunes wandering around stealing jobs – loitering with intent threatening surrounding areas. Tree planting began in 1922, with the added economic advantage of providing 20,000 m3 wood per year. The planting was completed only in the 1960’s. Nowadays, we would have considered the sand dunes a unique landscape, and (perhaps) protected it. But in those days, people saw no value in sand – it was just a nuisance.
in the popular stories about Culbin it is said to have covered an area of 3600 acres (about 1500 hectares), with 16 tenant farms: a large and populous estate. Both numbers are incorrect. The number of 16 farms comes from a document that actually lists 16 tenants, over only 6 holdings.
The size of 3600 acres comes from a document from 1866, but it refers to the area of the sand dunes, and these covered more than just Culbin. For some of the holdings we know the size from older documents. Putting these on the map, and adding the rough ‘carse’ of the gravel ridges, shows that the Culbin estate was around 750 acres, of which less than half was useful for farming.
The second false fact is that it was lost in a single, dramatic storm. But in reality the sand had been encroaching for some time. The petition made in 1695 for tax relief stated that over half the estate had been covered with sand. It was this petition that started the legend of the sand storm and the buried barony. And the text of the petition was dramatic: “where the best two parts of the estate of Culbin, by an inevitable fatality, was quite ruined and destroyed, occasioned by great and vast heaps of sand, which had overblown the same, so that there was not a vestige to be seen of his manor place of Culbin, yards, orchards and mains thereof, and which within these twenty years was as considerable as many in the County of Moray, and the small remainder of his estate which yet remains uncovered was exposed to the like hazard, and the sand daily gaining ground thereon, wherethrough he is like to run the hazard of losing the whole.” The plea convinced parliament and the baron was let off for two thirds of the tax. A few years later, shortly before his death, he again petitioned parliament, stating “having the three parts of his own and his predecessors’ estate overrun with sand, and the fourth part yet remaining is sold for payment of his creditors, as far as it will extend, and having nothing but to recur to his frugality and industry for a living in time coming.” This shows that part of the estate had survived the storm. The 1694 took a big bite out of the area, but it had already lost some before and would lose more later. The 1694 onslaught was probably when the manor house was lost, and which tipped the finances over the edge. But these finances had already been deteriorating since the 1660’s. Was that because of the sand and the loss of peat? Because of wasteful Lairds? Or was there an impact from the improved agriculture further south which had ended the famines and made grain more affordable – i.e. less profitable? We don’t know.
Did the storm actually happen? There are other reports of a major storm around the North Sea basin in July 1694. However, some of the modern stories give late October as the date (it is not clear on what basis) and we have no other reports of storm damage from that time. But going back a bit in time, in the late 19th century a subtly different view of the events (http://www.kinnaird.net/culsands.htm) existed. This told that the sand had first come in 1686 when a large dune approached. Over the next ten years this dune marched over the estate and swallowed farm after farm. This version makes some sense knowing how dunes move, but none of the old documents that we have mention it. The estate was taken over by a new (younger) Kinnaird in 1691, and at that time it must still have been (or appeared to be) viable. We just do not know all the details and some story telling is inevitable.
But this is not the end of the story and the storm of 1694 did not stand on its own. Events elsewhere in the world would shortly be making any recovery for Culbin difficult. After half a century of good times, bad times were coming. The period 1695-1702 would become known as the “seven ill years”. After decades without famines, now there were four failed harvests in quick succession (1695, 1696, 1698 and 1699). In the past, Scotland could obtain grain from the Baltic, but now that area too suffered from failed harvests. Famines came, and the people were unprepared. As many as 20% of the population of Scotland died. This was the last major famine to hit Scotland. (The European Drochshaol (potato famine) 50 years later, which so utterly devastated Ireland, also affected Scotland but to a much lesser degree). It hit hard.
And the problems were not limited to Scotland and the Baltic. The winter of 1695 was one of the coldest and snowiest on record, not only in the UK but also elsewhere in Europe. In France, the big complaint was that in the Palace of Versailles the wine froze in the glasses. Several very cold winters followed, with sea ice reported 20 cm thick around the UK. Estonia was hit hard: the summer of 1695 was too wet for the crops, and an unseasonably early frost in autumn ruined the harvest. Here also the winter was extremely cold and lasted until May, and another wet summer followed. In the great famine of 1695-1697, 20% of the population of Estonia died. In Finland too it became known as a year of many deaths. Further afield, Iceland was hit, with sea ice surrounding the entire country and remnants of the ice staying throughout the following year. Asia did not fully escape: in 1695 the southeast monsoon was drier than usual and this became a pattern that lasted a decade.
An ice-cold Atlantic may have contributed to the damaging frost of September 1695. In the UK, it began with a storm, after which the wind turned north: this suggest a low pressure system in the North Sea. The wind borrowed from unusually frigid air further north: the northern Atlantic ocean was ice-cold. The traditional explanation is that the 1690’s was when the Little Ice Age hit its peak. But that does not explain the runs of extreme weather – it just gives it a name. Did something amplify the changing climate? What had made the North Atlantic so cold?
There have been other times when the weather became exceptionally cold for a few years. If you plot average temperatures over the past 2000 years these show up well. Some care should be taken with this: there were no actual measurements done (thermometers being a recent invention) so indirect indicators are used, such as the composition of snow (amount of the heavy isotope of oxygen) as measured in ice cores, or the width of tree rings. The plot below shows an example, where the long-term variations (a cooling trend in the middle ages and the pronounced recent warming) have been removed to make the fast fluctuations stand out. It turns out that these fast fluctuations are always of colder weather, not warmer. And the largest drops are associated with major volcanic eruptions: 536, 1257, 1453, 1815 (note that the cold weather lags by a year). How about the smaller fluctuations? That is not known, but it is notable that the 1695-1700 drop is one the largest of these less major drops. Could it be ..?
Ice holds the answer. It faithfully records large eruptions, in the form of sulfur spikes in the annual layers. I made the plot below from the data in Michael Sigl et al, 2015 (https://www.nature.com/articles/nature14565). Red (lower line) is for Greenland (northern hemisphere), and blue (upper line) is for Antarctica. I have shifted the Antarctica line upwards, by the way, to avoid confusion. You will recognize the volcanic spikes, and in some cases will know the responsible volcano. The huge spike in Greenland in 1783 is of course the eruption that (I remember Henrik telling us) caused the French revolution. And indeed, there is a clear spike at the start of the cold period at the end of the 17th century. It wasn’t just the Little Ice Age: it had help.
There seems to have been a northern eruption which shows up in the ice from early 1693, which would have happened in the winter. Was it in Iceland? Jon Friman, in his marvellous compilation of Iceland’s historic eruptions (https://www.jonfr.com/volcano/?p=765), mentions a damaging, ashy eruption from Hekla beginning Feb. 13, 1693, with ash going northwest – towards Greenland. The real firework came a year later. The sulphate in the Greenland ice cores began to increase at the end of 1694, and it peaked in the summer of 1695. In Antarctica the increase began a few months earlier, in the autumn of 1694, with the largest peak in the autumn of 1695; here it took until 1697 before the sulphate was down to its usual level. The fact that it is seen in both hemispheres shows that it was from a tropical eruption, and although not a Tambora, it was significant.
The evidence for the temperature drop and for the tropical eruption are strong. But are the two related? That is always difficult to proof! It wasn’t a massive eruption, and no one complained about the Sun being faint or red. The typical signpost of a volcanic winter is snow in summer, and that indeed happened in 1695 (counting September as ‘summer’ – in Scotland, the first month of autumn is usually August). I would argue that in itself, the eruption would have had a notable but fairly minor effect. However, the north had already cooled to dangerously low temperatures as a result of the Little Ice Age, which appears to have been the onset of the real ice age. In northern Canada, permanent snow cover had begun and everywhere glaciers were growing. In this precarious situation, the volcano erupted. It pushed things over the edge. But not irredeemable: after a few years, the climate did recover.
What about the sandstorm of October 1694? This appears to have come before, or at best simultaneous with, the eruption, so it is hard to blame it on that. The 1693 Hekla eruption was also too small to provide a helping hand. The storm just happened. We don’t know how severe the storm really was. Storms in Scotland get their energy from the temperature contrast between the warm side and the cold side of the polar front. A cold northern Atlantic increases this contrast and should strengthen storms. Indeed, storms were more frequent and stronger during the Little Ice Age (and conversely, they have diminished in the last 30 years as global warming took hold). (This is not true for the subtropics where the storms get their strength from the warm sea water – here the number of storms has not increased, but their strength has.) Anything that would have cooled the northern regions could have increased the chance of such a storm. And that is what the Little Ice Age had done. But either way, it was inevitable that eventually, a bad storm would come. It is like that friendly neighbourhood volcano: you should be prepared for what every bone in your body tells you won’t happen. One day, it will. The most dangerous factor in disaster prevention is the human tendency to take the future for granted. Even though people had seen the warnings of the encroaching sand, and knew they needed to stop taking the cover off the dunes, in the end the choice between a living and a high risk of failure was easy. People needed houses and fuel, and the future would have to take care of itself. It did.
And so the sand came, and the volcano came, and the people lost their homes, land and living just at a time when famine was about to hit.
The story of the Culbin sand disaster is legendary. It may not quite have happened as legend has it, and we will never know all the details, but it is well worth remembering how this part of Scotland was lost. In itself, it is a local story about human vulnerability and loss. But there was a much wider context. As Culbin was lost, the Little Ice Age and an unknown volcano came together to bind northern Europe into years of winter, and cause major famine in much of the region. The people of Culbin lived a small story within a much larger event. Isn’t it always that way? Nowadays, we would also point at the power of nature, and would see the formation of the largest area of sand dunes in Great Britain as a treasure coming out of a disaster. But in the past, people did not see it that way. They just saw sand, and they planted a forest instead. And so the treasure that kept the memory of 1694 was lost. And that, in the end, is the story of the trees.