Sun, sand and birds: April in St Abbs

by Martin.Pilkington

The eastern Borders coast of Scotland has secret beaches and spectacular cliffs. And out of season you may be the only visitors sharing them with the seals and puffins

You get an idea of the height of St Abbs Head when you notice they didn’t bother to build the lighthouse at the very top. The cliffs nearby are spectacular, and not for vertigo sufferers, though faint-hearted birders may still be tempted, such is the profusion of puffins, kittiwakes and fulmars, plus hawks aplenty eyeing the numerous rabbits.

We had finally found the ideal holiday cottage location: Near Bank Cottage was 20 yards from the nature reserve on the headland, and 10 minutes’ walk from milk and the papers in the village. It was, unexpectedly, even a mere 100 yards from a terrific art gallery. Other than for fish and chips from Eyemouth when we arrived late on Saturday, the car stayed put for days.

The St Abbs Head Nature Reserve ( hides secret beaches and coves dotted round its serrated shoreline where we gathered dried-out driftwood to burn on the cottage fire. There are few finer occupations than poking around in rockpools, especially when rewarded with darting fish and tiny crabs. Returning at dusk just beyond Mire Loch we watched two deer hurdle fences then disappear in the gorse-strewn hills. That’s relaxation.

Just beyond St Abbs, an easy walk of perhaps a mile, is the deep beach at Coldingham Bay, another hidden gem, its yellow curve edged with rocks left by the retreating tide. A good place to collect sea-glass polished smooth by sea and sand, and more searching for marine life. Another day well spent.

The seas around St Abbs are a Marine Reserve that attracts divers from far and wide, the Cathedral Rock just beyond St Abbs harbour one of the great underwater attractions in easy reach. With the North Sea and Atlantic currents meeting here, the marine life is very varied, with species like wolf fish and angler fish often found. For those of us who prefer to stay above water, the pretty inner harbour is a pleasant spot to fish – we caught nothing, but that’s irrelevant.

When we finally needed to venture out we kept it local, visiting Eyemouth. Another maritime discovery: World of Boats (, a museum on the harbour with fascinating small craft from around the world inside, and outside a Chinese junk and a drag boat built by Brunel among other larger vessels. In the harbour mouth a tame seal scams visitors for fish they buy at the seafood kiosk there: mackerel for him, prawns for us. But the culinary delight that drew us back the next day was over the road from the museum: one of those brilliant Italian ice cream suppliers Scotland seems stuffed with; Giacopazzi’s gelatos are fabulous (18-20 Harbour Road; 01890 750317; www. We ate a full meal there late in the week; it’s a chippy too. I am still annoyed I never got to try the deep fried haggis though.

Finally succumbing to attractions further afield we spent a terrific morning in Berwick, walking the ramparts and then the breakwater that goes on for miles; then on to Bamburgh Castle, another hit. Bamburgh would be memorable just for the views to the Farne Islands, but the museums within made a change after the outdoor life. Maybe we caught it on a bad day, but Lindisfarne was strangely without atmosphere, though we loved driving over the causeway, having watched the waters retreat to reveal it.

Our last trip kept it local again, to Paxton House, a supremely elegant Georgian pile with the mark of John and James Adam on it. The Ellem Fishing Club’s historic display there was fascinating for a fellow angler (it’s the oldest and seemingly poshest fishing club in Scotland), but our 11-year-old would vote for the adventure playground (not Georgian) as the highlight, especially his 30 rides on the rope slide.

A big benefit of cottage holidays is the pleasure of sitting by the fire when the weather is bad, but though we were there in April we were even able to eat in the garden one evening. We still had the fire going though, but when it was finally needed we were packing to go home, packing that included a singed print of a naive painting of St Abbs harbour as a memento, and for my wife a jewellery-box as a surprise present (“I really like that one”) for her birthday the following week, both from Number Four Gallery (018907 71111;, situated on the same farm complex as our accommodation..

We will be back, and next time for the diving and to try out the fishing trips from the picturesque harbour. With only pretty basic food supplies available locally – the Co-op at Eyemouth is the nearest larger store - we’ll take more provisions. But not enough to keep us from Giacopazzi’s fish, chips and ice cream, the perfect holiday diet. And not forgetting deep fried haggis.



Martin Pilkington is a freelance writer and journalist, writing for a wide variety of magazines and websites including Sailing Today, Harper's Wine and Spirit,, Hortus, various county magazines, and the wonderful His particular interests are food and drink writing and travel, with another strand in business journalism. All three of those areas were linked in his previous career as a polyglot sales director in manufacturing industry, being paid to travel the world and eat well. Married to a very supportive wife who didn't faint when he decided to change career in his late forties, a company merger having given him the option, Martin has a teenage son who is still not convinced that what he does now is a proper job. And as it is so much fun, he may be right. Favourite places: France: Normandy, the Dordogne, the Cevennes, Burgundy for the food and wine. He loves the USA having travelled extensively there on business, Indonesia likewise, and the Basque region of Spain where they really know how to eat.