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Historic running tour of Duffus and the Laich of Moray

By Jenny Gillies

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A RUN can be so much more than just burning the calories. This nine-mile loop around the Laich of Moray is as much a sight-seeing tour as exercise, with stately homes, ancient churches and the option for an exciting excursion along the coastline.

Dave and I started at Duffus Village Hall where a chilly northerly wind gave me an outlook similar to that of the black clouds looming to the north. We knew that it wouldn’t be particularly pleasant but the upside of the stiff breeze would be that the forecast hail and sleet showers should pass quickly.

Looking out from under one of the many arches
Looking out from under one of the many arches

Taking the footpath beside the road towards the Duffus Inn, we turned right along a minor road, the leafless trees on the verge failing to offer any protection from a particularly mean sleet shower.

We followed a sign pointing right into the graveyard of St Peter’s Kirk. A church has been located on this site since at least 1190 and, sheltering from the wind and rain in the lee of the ancient chapel wall, there was a feeling of age among the centuries-old gravestones.

Sleet now easing, we made our way out of the rear of the graveyard, following a path through an avenue of trees alongside arable fields, turning left at the track end to reach Shempston House. The house’s grand hedge-lined drive made for a good short race down towards Old Duffus and once at the end I could see the ruins of Duffus Castle against the skyline.

Duffus Castle
Duffus Castle

Reaching the castle car park, we turned left to run around the outside of the moat as Dave assured me this circuitous approach to the castle was worth the detour. Sure enough around the “side” of the castle the original cobbled bridge led over the water-filled ditch and made for a stately entrance to the motte.

The ruins are great fun to explore with one of the most noticeable features (after the garderobe, always my favourite place to find in a castle) being the alarming angle of one of the curtain walls that has slipped down the side of the castle mound.

After a thorough investigation of the castle we retraced our route up the drive of Shempston House, turning right to run behind the house and across the runway of Shempston airfield. Unsurprisingly, given the inclement flying conditions, the grass strip was deserted.

The grand lake leading up to Gordonstoun House then came into view and we turned to run alongside the water. Turning right before reaching the imposing mansion a tree-lined avenue led towards our next destination, another small place of worship called Michael Kirk.

The alarming curtain wall of Duffus Castle
The alarming curtain wall of Duffus Castle

Surrounded by daffodils and enjoying some gentle warmth from the spring sunshine now breaking through the clouds, I found its centuries-old burial ground a peaceful place to pause.

Skirting the school playing fields we joined a lane heading directly northwards toward the coast. A stiff headwind and slight incline hampered any chance of getting up some easy speed and, after crossing the main Lossiemouth-Hopeman road, the route carried straight on along a farm track. White horses adorning the Moray Firth confirmed the wind was as strong out to sea as it felt on land.

After a quick detour onto Lossiemouth East Beach to admire the broad sands, we rejoined the coastal path before soon breaking off right to scramble down boulders onto the rocky foreshore.

This section of our route would allow little running and had needed careful planning to ensure the tides were safe. The route runs along the base of the cliffs towards the Sculptor’s Cave, the next site on our run through the ages. The cave is only accessible at low tide, and we wanted to make sure we reached this point several hours before low tide to allow safe access to the inside.

The steps up the cliff face - an adventure in themselves
The steps up the cliff face - an adventure in themselves

If the tides are wrong, or you want to continue running, simply stay on the coastal path – this is an equally worthwhile option.

The showers had made the shoreline rocks slippery and it was slow and tiring work picking our way alongside the sea. The onshore breeze meant the roar of the rough sea was always loud as it echoed against the sandstone cliffs – something I found alarming but Dave really enjoyed.

After passing several bays and teetering sea stacks, we sought shelter in an archway as a particularly vicious hail shower rattled through. I was beginning to get quite cold but Sculptor’s Cave was close by so was very pleased when, round the next headland, the cave appeared above us and we made our way up into its dark entrance.

When I entered the first thing that struck me here was the dry, warm nature of the cavern – even the collection of animal bones scattered on a large rock couldn’t dislodge a feeling of comfort. Pulling out my headtorch, we wandered around the cave, using the light to pick out the Pictish carvings after which the cave is named.

St Peter's Kirk graveyard
St Peter's Kirk graveyard

The past thoroughly explored, we stepped back out into the strong wind, and turned right to retrace our way around the coast to an old set of steps carved into the rock. Dave, having done the route before, had come prepared and produced an old climbing sling to help make the first, high step up easier.

Safely above the rock band it was then a trial by gorse bush as we took a trod to join the main coastal path. Turning towards Hopeman our speed soon picked up along the well-maintained track. The coastal strip has a barren feel as the gorse either side has been ripped up and ploughed in – perhaps to help the prevention of further wildfires.

Running straight on past the first turning leading away from the coast, we followed the cliff top for another few minutes, taking a left just before the quarry to climb up and over the hill and reach the main road again. After crossing carefully, we carried straight on, the track shortly leading us directly back into Duffus and the village hall.

Route details

A Duffus exploration

Distance 9 miles / 14km

Start/finish Duffus Village Hall

Maps OS Landranger 28; OS Explorer 423

Terrain Tracks, minor roads, coastal path and rocky shoreline

A route of twists and turns through the history of Moray – optional shoreline section to visit Sculptor’s Cave requires careful planning to ensure the tides are right

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