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Burghead in Moray

Welcome to Burghead
 from the dawn of Moray.....!

Burghead must be one of the most fascinating locations within Moray.  It is an area blessed with a beautiful beach that extends 5 miles west to Findhorn, panoramic views and wildlife, combined with tradition, a sense of community and amazing historical sites dating back to the Bronze Age. 
Burghead is a small, peaceful town with a population of approximately 1,640 residents (Census 2001) and is situated on the shores of the Moray Firth approximately 11 miles north west of Elgin and 13 miles north east of ForresBurghead was initially established on a narrow sandstone promontory which projects north westwards into the Firth and, much of the street layout you see today, was designed and built in the early 19th century to a ‘modern new town’ grid plan of broad streets and narrow lanes with traditional well-built, sandstone, terraced houses. 
Burghead has traditionally been viewed as a fishing and trading port, but this perception is gradually altering due to the decline of the fishing industry in Moray and the increase in regulations relating to cargo combined with the use of larger vessels.  Burghead in the 21st century is very much a combination of heritage and progress.  Burghead is adjusting to the decline of its traditional industries, and is actively developing and promoting tourism which is contributing positively to the local economy.    
   Burghead may be one of the best kept secrets in Moray, as there is so much to do and view on either a day trip to the town or for a more extended stay.  It will appeal to you on so many levels, whether you are a history buff, enjoy walking and wildlife, fishing, water sports, or just want some peace and quiet and time to recharge your batteries.
 Burghead benefits from the warming effect of the Moray Firth ensuring, that coastal area temperatures are comparable to areas in the south.  Combine this with the fact that Burghead is one of the driest parts of Scotland, with less than 650mm of rainfall per annum, with some of the longest recorded hours of sunshine in the UK, and you can see why Burghead is establishing itself as a holiday resort.
 Burghead Attractions and Amenities
Iron Age Fort

Much of the remains of the pictish Iron Age Fort that was to give Burghead its name was destroyed with the development of the town in the early 19th century, and only partial remains of the ramparts remain today at the outer end of the promontory on Doorie Hill. Even by today’s modern engineering standards the size of the original fort was vast.  It is estimated that it enclosed approximately 3 hectares with ramparts that measured 8m thick and 6m high, far larger than any other iron age fort discovered in Scotland.  Evidence suggests that the ‘Borg’ was captured by Sigurd, Norwegian jarl of Orkney during the Viking raids of the 9th century. Links to its past were discovered during the ‘new town’ development with the discovery of the enigmatic pictish ‘Burghead Bulls’.  Two of the surviving Burghead Bulls can be viewed at the former coastguard lookout station that was built on the inner ramparts of the fort, that has been converted into a visitor centre by the Burghead Headland Trust. This excellent facility is definitely worth a visit as it walks you through the history of the area over 1,600 years and will allow you to get your bearings and imagine how the fort would have looked originally.
The Burghead Well

The Burghead well was discovered and cleared out in 1809 while searching for a possible water supply for the new town development.  It was initially thought to be of Roman origin, however it is now clear that this is not the case.  Its purpose is still a source of archaeological debate,  however it is generally agreed that it dates back to the dark ages. The well consists of 20 steps leading down to a chamber containing a tank fed by fresh water springs.  It measures approximately 12 feet high, 12 feet across, with a ledge around the edge of the tank measuring approximately 4 feet.  The tank itself is 4 feet deep and once took six days to refill when it was emptied.  The well would have been situated within the walls of the fort, and it makes sense that it may have supplied the fort with drinking water.  A fort without a protected water supply would quickly succumb to any type of siege.  What is clear is that the effort involved in creating the well out of the living rock would have been unimaginable, so the debate continues as to whether this unique site also has pictish ceremonial significance.

Burghead History 
It can be argued that in many ways Burghead’s early history is also effectively the development of early Moray.  The archaeological sites’ of the town indicate that Burghead is the earliest known settlement within Moray and some estimates date back over two thousand years.  Burghead has a romantic but brutal past: it was the land of the Picts, the Vikings, a place of intrigue and power struggles, the land of Duncan and Macbeth and the bedrock of Scottish Kings. 

Burghead’s natural promontory and safe harbour was the perfect site for fortification and established itself as the Pictish capital of Moray.  The iron age fort is believed to have been one of the largest in Britain, although much of its remains were destroyed or buried under the early 19th century development of the town.  There is debate as to whether the fort was the ‘Winged Camp’ noted by Ptolemy on the chart he compiled following the Roman circumnavigation of Britain in AD86.  The Picts dominated the north of Scotland, replacing the Celtic culture which had existed earlier.  They worshiped pagan gods and were skilled craftsmen, working in stone, metal or wood.  This is evidenced by the six surviving carved symbol stones excavated during the 19th century new town development, each depicting a striking bull engraving. In the late 9th century the Vikings sphere of influence impacted on what is now Moray, and there is evidence of Viking activity at Burghead during this time, which by the Norsemen was called ‘Torfness’.  The origin of the name relates to the large peat ‘torf’ bogs that existed to the west of the town, which the Norse cut and shipped back to Norway. The Norse overran and occupied Burghead for around 200 years and during this time extended and reinforced the ‘borg’-fortress, from which the name Burghead derives.  The start of the 11th century heralded the demise of the Vikings in Moray, with their defeat by the Scots at Burghead.  Sources suggest that Macbeth was born within the vicinity of Burghead and became something of a local hero.  In 1040 Macbeth killed King Duncan in battle which is believed to have taken place at Spynie Loch or Pitgaveny, which is near Burghead (often referred to as the battle of Torfness or Burghead).   Macbeth was crowned King and for 17 years brought stability to the country until his death at the hand of Malcolm.  The following years would reflect much political intrigue and infighting as the local population continued to support the successors to Macbeth.  Burghead (and Moray) would continue to maintain a form of independence, despite attempts to bring it under the control of the establishment but as the centuries progressed Royal authority would finally be governed over Moray.

By the late 18th century Burghead’s town (or village) hugged the fortification on the promontory in tightly packed streets.  However, the layout of Burghead was to change dramatically with the development of the ‘new town’ at the start of the 19th century.  Much of the original Burghead was demolished (along with potential archaeological sites) to make way for the development of the harbour and much larger grid patterned town that you see today.  The harbour and surrounding three storey stone warehouses were designed and built by Thomas Telford, who was also responsible for constructing the Caledonian Canal.  The construction of the Coastguard Station and supporting infrastructure for the fishing industry ensured that Burghead established itself as a major herring fishing port within Moray.  The 19th century would record Burghead as a hub of industry and activity within Moray, the town was home to a fleet of 43 fishing boats and there were regular steamer services to Glasgow, Leith and Inverness.  The arrival of the railway in 1863 established Burghead’s links with the whisky industry.  Cargo vessels brought grain to Burghead harbour, which was then processed through maltings established within the town. In 1963 another axe would be wielded in Burghead, however this would be sanctioned by the establishment of  the day.  ‘Beeching’s axe’ would destroy much of Moray’s rural rail network, and Burghead would be no exception, which with hindsight was so short sighted.  However, Burghead would continue to adapt to changing circumstances, as it had for the previous two millenniums.

In the past, due to its safe and deep harbour, Burghead was a major centre for sea trade and as times changed became a busy fishing port. Talk about the trade and boats that came out of burghead to london etc – talk about who developed town.