On the many occasions that I’ve driven to and from Edinburgh, one of the highlights of the route is the stretch just north of Berwick, where the road follows the line of the clifftops and the untamed North Sea is close at hand. It’s not in the same league as Amalfi’s Nastro Azzurro for drama, but it has some magic all the same. Then when my journeys took me north by train, the rails ran even closer to the edge and I was able to concentrate on the rocky coves and inlets here. One in particular caught my attention for the presence of a ruined building perched above the waters.
Luckily there is another route that runs even nearer to cliff’s edge; a footpath that allowed me to indulge my curiosity, and there is much to be curious about.
This stretch of what is known as the Berwickshire Coastal Path includes a nature reserve where peregrines fly (though the low grey clouds that accompanied my visit meant there was little chance for me to see them or them to see prey). The fulmar nesting in the cliffs are so numerous that they were no compensation.
Those cliffs, and more specifically their geological formation, are historically important. The sea has exposed a number of patterns in the strata over the centuries, revealing folds in the layers and junctions between different formations.
In the 18th century a merchant’s son inherited some farms in Berwickshire and was fascinated by these formations (and the fossils within them). That man was James Hutton, and the theories he published based on what he saw here and elsewhere along the coast were the first steps towards understanding how the crust of the earth was formed. Hutton was the “father of geology”.
But on to my objective and the ruined house. This was not part of Hutton’s estate but rather the enterprise of a less esteemed individual. A coastline like this, with a national border nearby? This is a location ripe for smuggling.
Further north of here in Eyemouth stands Gunsgreen House, the most audacious statement of ill-gotten gains. Whilst not quite equivalent to Pablo Escobar’s Naples Estate, Gunsgreen was designed by the leading architect John Adams for the notorious Nisbet family. The structure here on the cliffs was rather more modest, though built in the same era as Nisbet’s show of wealth and Hutton’s meanderings.
The “cover” that John Robertson used here at the “Smuggler’s Bothy” as it is now known, was that he was running a fishing business, though in fact he was in partnership with a Swedish shipping line in the lucrative business of importing that highly addictive substance… tea! (Of course the duty on this product was the cause of problems elsewhere in the 18th century)
Down on the shore you can see a net winch and a storage cave which add to the romance, but sadly these are remnants from a later period; when there actually was a fishery among these stones that have been a draw for so many reasons.