MORAY has played a vital role in history with many important links to ecclesiastical milestones.
Sandwiched between Inverness-shire to the west and the old county of Banffshire to the east, it occupies a special place in northern Scotland, thanks to a particularly mild climate that has justifiably earned it the title of the Riviera of the North.
That mild climate played a key role in attracting early settlement to the Moray coast in particular, where Bronze and Iron Age sites abound. Later it saw the arrival of religious settlement with significant architectural features such as Kinloss Abbey and Elgin Cathedral – both now in a fascinating ruinous state and steeped in history.
Religion played a wider role in Moray where scores of country and town centre churches stand testament to a devout past and today create their own appeal as structures of outstanding beauty and interest.
Close to the county capital of Elgin is Pluscarden Abbey – one of northern Scotland's most unusual attractions and one which is unique in Britain. It is the only medieval monastery in the country still inhabited by monks and being used for its original purpose.
Founded in 1230 by Alexander II in a sheltered south-facing glen, the abbey is a beautiful construction in a fine setting.
The road to Pluscarden winds six miles south-west across the wooded countryside round Elgin.
Today’s Benedictine Monks have a warm welcome for visitors who are treated to an atmosphere of quiet reflection – the same now as it was in the thirteenth century when an organised community of monks first came to this part of Morayshire.
In the skilled hands of the present-day monks, Pluscarden Abbey is a living entity that is returning to something approaching its former splendour after a long period of pillage and decay.
If you visit the Abbey, you can enjoy not only the beauty of its architecture and setting but also the restful atmosphere of devotion that has so deeply permeated this little corner of Scotland.
Originally known as Elginshire, the county has centred itself on the vibrant City of Elgin – the seat of local government for Moray Council and the largest settlement in the area with more than 20,000 inhabitants.
It’s a rich and historic communiuty with a busy centre, many hotels, an outstanding museum, major shopping and retail areas and leisure locations that include one of Scotland’s finest public parks and boating ponds in Cooper Park. Nearby is the Moray Leisure Centre that is a magnet for swimmers and fitness fans while Elgin’s Town Hall regularly hosts concerts, displays and shows.
The modern Moray political map includes Buckie and Cullen to the east – both visitor centres in their own right with the former boasting the Moray Firth’s largest commercial harbour with a fine fishing fleet and rich maritime heritage in addition to shipyards and a repair and maintenance base for the RNLI’s Scottish lifeboat fleet.
Along its stunningly beautiful coastline are many fine beaches. To the east of Lossiemouth with its excellent new marina, is a stretch of sand that reaches many miles to the mouth of the River Spey, one of the world’s greatest salmon fishing rivers.
To the east of this attractive former fishing port is a mixture of sandy stretches and cliff paths including the unusual Hopeman Golf Club that features spectacular cliff-top fairways.
In this area are the smaller coast communities of Hopeman, Cummingston and Burghead where another long stretch of forest-fringe sand nearly eight miles long takes you to the beautiful yachting centre of Findhorn – a fascinating village with an important maritime past and set among sand dunes that are listed as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Findhorn is also home to the New Age Findhorn Foundation that attracts visitors from around the world.
With Scotland’s largest coastal tree plantation to the west, the 7700-acre Culbin Forest, this part of Moray includes attractive Findhorn Bay and the historically important Royal Burgh of Forres.
With a population of around 10,000 it is Moray’s second largest settlement – and packed with interest. Apart from its recently modernised Falconer Museum and outstanding palaeontology exhibits, Forres boasts the fine Grant Park, many free car parks, a bustling town centre and two major distilling visitor attractions – Historic Scotland’s Dallas Dhu Distillery and the delightful privately-owned Benromach Distillery that produces a fine malt and has distilled for well over 100 years.
Moray is well served with communication links – major road and rail arteries run through its heart and local buses serve the Moray uplands and fascinating villages like Dufftown, Knockando and pretty Aberlour. Throughout the county are many castles and fine large houses – some in ruins, but many still occupied and, like Brodie Castle three miles west of Forres, a National Trust for Scotland property that is open to the public.
Rich in scenery, forest and superb coastal and upland walks, Moray has one other unique claim to visitor fame.
Lossiemouth and Kinloss each play host to two of the busiest and most important RAF airfields in Britain. In 2009 they celebrated 70 years of service and are continuing to play key roles in military aviation.
Every year they attract thousands of aircraft enthusiasts – something that underlines the area’s fine weather record and the main reason why the air stations were established here in the first place.
Moray is another north of Scotland gem – gentle and green with a coastline fringing the Moray Firth that offers sand, spectacular cliffs and outstanding wildlife interest.
Drams of distinction on Moray’s whisky trail
THE first road sign you see when you enter Moray leaves you in no doubt – welcome to Malt Whisky Country.
Around half of all Scotland’s distilleries are found here. With a mild climate, fields of barley and crystal-clear springs, Moray has all the ingredients needed to produce and mature whisky to perfection.
The process of making whisky hasn’t changed over the centuries. Distilleries go to great lengths to ensure that methods of production remain the same as they have over generations. The slightest variation could alter the taste – from the shape of the stills to the type of cask in which the whisky is matured.
Even distilleries next door to each other, using the same water and barley, produce whiskies with very different tastes.
The Speyside Malt Whisky Trail covers around 70 miles on a round trip through Moray, visiting eight distilleries and a cooperage. From world-famous brands to malts of distinction you may never have heard of before, it’s well worth visiting all the distilleries on the trail.
Even if they’re not on the official whisky trail, many distilleries in the area have their own visitor centres – and at those that don’t, visitors are often made welcome by appointment.
If you think that if you’ve seen one distillery, you’ve seen them all... you couldn’t be more wrong! Every one is different, just as every whisky is different. And if you think you don’t like whisky, perhaps you just haven’t tried enough of them!
Pictures courtesy of The Northern Scot (Elgin Cathedral, Lossiemouth beach) and Glenfiddich Distillery