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Discover Culbin's extraordinary and ever-changing sandy forest landscape on foot, by bike or on horseback

Culbin's landscape: the changing forest

In the beginning…

A deep trench cut into the sands in east Culbin by local scientist and writer Sinclair Ross revealed layers of sand punctuated by thick layers of fertile soil.  This proves that the Forestry Commission forest we see today isn’t the first thing ever to grow at Culbin: there have been thousands of years of shifting sands vying with tenacious vegetation here.

We need to imagine sand being blown in from the sea and rivermouth, mingled with nutrients from old riverbeds and seeds carried on the wind and the rain.

When the resulting trees, grass and scrub died down naturally, they formed a layer of peaty soil which became known as a moss locally (e.g. Cloddy-moss).

Maps of the mosses

In the past, local people knew exactly where to dig for peat to burn or where to plant through the sand to more fertile patches of soil below, and an old map in the Guard Room at Brodie Castle shows where these ‘mosses’ lay in 1770.  The image on the right (which you can expand to a larger scale) is a detail from a hand-drawn copy of part this map.

The clues are still there in the landscape if you know how to read it.  Birch trees grow lush on the old course of the river Findhorn, and pines struggle to thrive on the shingle ridges with little to feed their roots.

200 years ago

200 years ago, Culbin was one vast area of mobile dunes, scattered with vegetation, but not enough to stop the progress of the dunes.  Within living memory, sand would choke the lanes and doorways of Findhorn village and the fertile fields around the area.

The vast dunes of Culbin got the blame, but this was probably unjustified, as the prevailing wind is from the east, not the west.  There were also the persistent myths of whole thriving villages disappearing suddenly beneath its shifting dunes.  And so planting the sand with trees to stabilise it would have seemed a logical move.  It also created useful employment locally for many years.

Earliest plantings

The earliest plantings at Culbin date from the 1850s (see Culbin’s natural timeline).  Here and there you’ll walk past areas of what are clearly much older Scots Pine trees.

Brash being unloaded from a horse-drawn cart in Culbin forest, MorayshireThe Forestry Commission took over Culbin between 1922 and 1931.  But the first plantings weren’t easy.  Early attempts in the 1930s were not always successful, with the sand burying seedling trees or the wind blowing them away.

Marram grass was replanted in advance of the trees to help stabilise the sand, but this too was only partly successful and took too long to make an impact.

Eventually, branches from neighbouring forests were brought in by horse and cart to thatch the dunes. With this added protection, which released small quantities of nutrients and beneficial fungi into the soil, the young trees planted through the branch wood began to flourish.

Planting over the dunes

Trees being planted through brash on the dunes at Culbin, MorayshireThe dunes were planted over as they stood, and the contours of the immense sand dune system can still be clearly seen today beneath the trees.

The sand often continued to shift around the trees as they grew, in some cases partially burying the main stem. This has led to an odd phenomenon where the sand has shifted around the trunks as they have grown, so that some trees have grown up with their trunks tapering in size downwards through the sand - rather like a pencil in shape (see Lady Culbin’s Buried Trees).