A laid-back staycation on Scotland’s spectacular Moray Firth
If you’re looking for a Scottish holiday spot with great scenery, a bucket-and-spade vibe, friendly locals, and a bit of peace and quiet, then Cullen is just the place. It’s packed with quaint cottages, a huge beach, a destination ice cream shop, a traditional harbour, a golf course…and not much else. Chilled out holiday heaven.
The beauty of Scotland’s Moray Firth coast is well-known, but you just don’t find the huge crowds here like you do elsewhere in Scotland. Cullen has a hidden gem quality about it that’s pretty beguiling.
I’ve visited many times, but we took our first trip as a family in August 2020, and found it to be a really child-friendly place for a staycation. In fact, we’ve already re-booked for August 2021.
Quick Guide to Cullen
The Royal Burgh of Cullen sits right in the centre of Scotland’s beautiful Moray coast, in its own curved bay.
Cullen is divided into the shorefront Seatown, full of lovely little cottages, and “New Cullen” further up the hill around the village square (so called because “Old Cullen” used to be half a mile away and the settlement was moved over time). The harbour dates back to the early 19th century, but fishing has been going on here for about 500 years.
It’s a picturesque, laidback place with a population of about 1500, although this rises in the summer as there are lots of holiday cottages. If you’re looking for a lively holiday, go elsewhere. If a relaxed Scottish holiday with beach days, coastal walks, and outstanding ice cream is your thing, then definitely take a trip to Cullen.
Things to do in Cullen
There are plenty of family-friendly activities to enjoy in and around Cullen. On our last trip, we had kids of 4, 8, 9 and 11 with us, and we found plenty to keep them amused.
1 Enjoy stunning Cullen beach
Cullen’s beautiful beach is the main draw for families, especially on sunny days. At low tide it’s quite vast, and as the tides come and go there are fantastic rock pools to explore. There are also some great waves, and bodyboarding is really popular. The beach is instantly recognisable because of its famous rock stacks, known as the Three Kings.
The beach has a car park which does get busy so get there early on a sunny day – or you can walk along the seafront and through Seatown from the harbour. The end of the beach nearest the car park is quite gravelly at high tide, so I’d recommend heading westwards to get the best sandy spots and rockpools.
In the car park there are well-maintained toilets and a great coffee van that also sells hot food.
2 Wander around Cullen Harbour
Cullen harbour has several sea walls to walk along, as well as two separate sandy beaches that are amazing for small children as they don’t have the waves of the main beach. The tide flows gently in and out of these little beaches, providing clear shallow water to play in, and there are plenty of minnows for little ones to hunt with a fishing net.
In the summer you’ll also see the local kids kitted out in wetsuits and spending hours jumping off the harbour walls into the water.
There are toilets at the harbour, although they were being renovated during our trip so I can’t comment on the condition of them.
3 Try paddle sports at Cullen Sea School
Also located within the harbour walls is the fantastic Cullen Sea School, which offers instruction in sailing, kayaking and stand up paddle boarding.
In the summer holidays they have one or two paddle sports sessions a day (tide-dependent) where kids and adults can try their hand at kayaking and paddle boarding round the harbour. It’s a bit like a free play session, but with instructors on hand to supervise. Our children absolutely LOVED the Sea School and went several times during our week in Cullen. It’s mainly for age 5 and up, but the youngest was more than happy to play on the sandy beach while watching the others.
The sessions get busy so I’d recommend booking in advance. The staff are lovely, and all you need is a wetsuit as other equipment such as helmets are provided.
4 Walk on Cullen Viaduct
Once part of the Great North of Scotland Railway, the old 8-arch railway viaduct dominates the Cullen skyline, and several of the town’s streets run through the arches below. Apparently, the reason the viaduct was built was because the Countess of Seafield would not allow the railway line to pass too close to Cullen House, which lies about 1km outside of the village.
The railway line was closed in 1968, but the lovely viaduct remains and now makes up part of the Moray Firth trail and the National Cycle Network. It’s flat, easy walking – and the views are fantastic: when it’s clear you can see all the way across to Caithness.
To get onto the viaduct, you can head to the bottom of North Deskford Street and follow the path up the bank.
5 Take a stroll up Castle Hill
Behind the viaduct you’ll see Castle Hill. It’s an easy walk from the viaduct up the path to Castle Hill, although the hill also has its own car park making it easily accessible. The hill has actually been transformed into an accessible space in recent years by a local volunteer group.
Castle Hill is full of history: it’s believed to be the place where Elizabeth de Burgh, wife of Robert The Bruce, died – and it’s also apparently where the Duke of Cumberland’s forces gathered prior to the Battle of Culloden. Today it’s a peaceful spot – if a bit blustery on a windy day – and you can see across to Caithness and Sutherland when it’s clear.
6 Walk east to the old Salmon Bothy
You can walk east from Cullen Harbour to the remains of an old salmon bothy by the water’s edge. It was used by fishermen up until 1975 who would leave nets out overnight and row out to haul in the catch in the morning.
Like Castle Hill, this walk has been overhauled for accessibility by local volunteers, who successfully crowdfunded to upgrade the paths and add signs.
Leave from the harbour, past the Sea School and along past the well-maintained Pet Cemetery. The path and signs will take you along to the site of the salmon bothy, and on the return journey you can head up the hill and walk back along the cliff top past the caravan park and back into Cullen.
7 Visit Findlater Castle
Findlater Castle sits in a precarious position on the cliffs jutting out to sea and must have been pretty impressive when it was fully built. This walk involves a bit of scrambling and isn’t for the faint of heart – just saying.
For the less brave, i.e. me, you can also access the castle by car if you leave Cullen on the A98 towards Portsoy.
7 Walk west from Cullen to Portknockie
West of Cullen is the small village of Portknockie, and you can walk here either along the coast, or along the old railway line and viaduct: or do a circular route taking in both. Details are on Walk Highlands.
One of the highlights of this walk is Bow Fiddle Rock, the unmistakable rocky promontory sticking out into the Moray Firth that looks like the tip of a fiddle bow.
If you have small children and the weather is hot, Portknockie has a little open-air paddling pool built into the harbour. It gets very sandy but is a good spot for a wee splash about.
9 Head straight to Cullen Ice Cream Shop
If you speak to anyone in the know and tell them you’re going to Cullen, they’ll probably mention the ice cream shop – and for good reason. If you visit on a sunny day, either get there early or be prepared to queue! It’ll be worth the wait though. On our last holiday, my favourite combination was Turkish Delight and Birthday Cake flavours, but you’re bound to find something you like.
(The nearby village of Portsoy also has a famous ice cream shop if you feel like comparing the local competition.)
10 Eat fish and chips with the best view for miles
Practically next door to the ice cream shop (handy!) is Linda’s Fish and Chip Shop, which serves up amazingly fresh local fish and chips. Take it down to the nearby benches overlooking the bay, watch the tides rolling in and out, and enjoy. Maybe watch out for passing cheeky seagulls if you’re a slow eater though.
11 Try the famous Cullen Skink
Love it or hate it, Cullen Skink is world-famous and it originated here. A creamy soup made with undyed smoked haddock, milk and potatoes, it’s rib-sticking stuff. My husband loves the stuff. Me not so much. It’s definitely worth a try to see what you think.
12 Go for a walk in the Crannoch Wood
Half a mile or so outside Cullen (towards Portsoy) is the Crannoch Hill and Crannoch Wood, which is great for a walk in the established pine forest. The tracks are well-marked, there’s a lochan to explore, and a great rope swing for the kids. You can park in the layby off the A98.
Things to Do Near Cullen
If you’ve got a car and want to explore a bit further afield, here are a couple of ideas:
Visit the Scottish Dolphin Centre at Spey Bay
This section of the Moray Coast is famous for dolphins, and if you’re lucky and/or eagle-eyed, you might spot some from the shore at Cullen. If you want to increase your chances, drive 20 minutes west towards Lossiemouth and you’ll find Spey Bay, the beautiful estuary where the River Spey arrives from the Highlands and flows out into the Moray Firth.
Spey Bay is home to the charity-run Scottish Dolphin Centre. Don’t worry, there are no captive dolphins here: instead it’s just a great place to see them in their natural environment and it’s operated by Whale and Dolphin Conservation.
There are no guarantees you’ll see dolphins, but the stunning pebble beach is so hypnotic that you can sit very happily there for hours watching out for them. There are also walks along the Spey where you might spot deer, otters, and a variety of seabirds.
The centre is free to visit, and there’s a shop and café (takeaway only during the pandemic).
2 Explore the delights of The Spotty Bag Shop
if you find yourself with a rainy day and small children with coins in their pockets, then you could do worse than to take a drive along to Banff and experience the Spotty Bag Shop. It’s a discount store that sells just about everything under the sun. My kids have completely fallen for the marketing hype and are convinced it’s world-famous.
On a useful note, if you find yourself in need of things like kids’ wetsuits, fishing nets, body boards, buckets and spades etc for your holiday, the Spotty Bag Shop stocks the lot.
What to Pack for a Family Trip to Cullen
As well as clothes for all kinds of Scottish weather, the things we found most useful for our week were:
- Wetsuits and water shoes
- Buckets and spades
- Kite (great for the beach)
- Fishing nets for the kids
- Beach tent for little ones (for both sun and wind shelter)
- Decent walking shoes for exploring the rocky coast
- Elasticated waistbands for enjoying all those ice creams
I hope this post gives you a good idea of what to expect on a family holiday in Cullen. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll reply!