How a storm-stricken Scottish village was swallowed by sand

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An unlikely feature of the Scottish landscape, a desert of shifting sand, was created by a north-westerly storm of great ferocity that began blowing on 19 October 1694. It took several days for towering dunes to engulf all the fields of Culbin on the banks of the River Findhorn. The sand covered 16 farmhouses, the village and finally the laird’s mansion, by which time the entire population had fled – leaving behind 5 sq miles of featureless sand.

The devastation was made worse because the storm also changed the course of the river, making it virtually impossible to discern where anything had been.

Like so many “natural” disasters of modern times, much of the problem was manmade. Coastal dunes are normally stabilised by abundant marram grass but Culbin villagers had been harvesting it to make mats and thatching, leaving the sand free to blow inland. After the storm, removing marram grass was made illegal by the Scottish parliament.

Apart from the chimney of the mansion appearing above the sand a century later, which entertained visitors to this strange landscape, little was done to reclaim the desert until the Forestry Commission began to plant pine trees in the 1920s. The project took 40 years. Now the whole area is a fine nature reserve.

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