Cullen Caves and Cullen to Portknockie Walk

Written by Chris Thornton | 14th of March 2024
Cullen Caves and Cullen to Portknockie Walk

As a child, I visited the caves on the west side of Cullen Bay... I remembered them being absolutely cavernous, and I was scared to enter in case it gobbled me up!

When my wife asked what I would like to do for my birthday this year, I decided to take a trip down memory lane, take my young family to Cullen Bay's caves and walk to Portknockie and Bow Fiddle Rock. Mid-June weather this year has been unusually warm; you will see in some of the photos in this article that it looks like the Mediterranean!

Read on to learn more about our walk from Cullen, the caves and Portknockie and Bow Fiddle Rock.

Our walk to Portknockie

We took a slightly different path to Portknockie and did not follow the old railway line.

  1. We started at Cullen Beach car park, then followed the path next to the golf course.

  2. From there, we rejoined the beach and headed to the caves just around the cove.

  3. We explored the caves and then continued to Jenny's Well, then the Whale's Mouth, a short distance away.

  4. We climbed the hill and reached Portknockie, and continued to Bow Fiddle Rock.

  5. Retracing our steps, we returned to the cliff but took an alternate path back down towards the golf course and then back to the path parallel to the fairway.

Our entire circular walk was just under 3 miles / 4.8 km; it took us about 2.5 hours at a leisurely pace, including exploring the caves.

The "proper" Cullen to Portknockie walk will take you over the disused railway line and further into Portknockie itself but still takes in most of the coastal sights mentioned in this article.

Cullen Beach, harbour and town.
Cullen Beach at the harbourside.

The town of Cullen

Cullen can be found in east Moray in Northeast Scotland. It's such a lovely wee town with a great deal to offer, from its picturesque sea town, Victorian viaduct and stunning beach.

My daughter Olivia loves to attend Cullen Sea School for paddleboarding and kayaking. There are also many great places to eat and interesting shops to investigate. There's even a shop with a dinosaur head on it!

We parked at Cullen Beach, which was very busy on this sunny Saturday morning, but we got a parking space not far from Coffee at the Kings.

The overflow car park with Cullen Viaduct in the background.
Additional parking is available if the main car park is full.
 
Cullen Beach, promenade and golf club.
Looking back towards the town.
 
The Three Kings, Cullen.
Two of the famous "Three Kings" rock formations.
 
Cullen Beach
Cullen Beach was still fairly quiet for such a nice day.

Cullen Beach

Despite the allure of the epic beach at Cullen, we decided to complete our walk first and then return to the beach at the end of our walk. Lauren, Ellie and my wife Janette were desperate to have a dip in the cool turquoise sea.

We opted to take the path parallel to Cullen Golf Course, which looked a bit worse for wear after nearly two weeks of hot sunny weather and very little rainfall.

Cullen Golf Course
A very yellow-looking Cullen Golf Course.
 
Cullen Beach and Three Kings.
Looking back at the beach and Three Kings.
 
Path to Portknockie
The ladies leading the way as usual.
 
Cullen surfer.
Does this just not look idyllic for surfers?

Toilets are available at the beach just before you come to the golf course.

Rejoining onto the sandy beach, we walked along the sand to the cove near our first cave. The path here is uneven and could be impassable at high tide.

Walking to Cullen Beach
Back to the beach from the golf club path.
 
Cullen Beach
Cullen Beach is expansive and beautiful.
 
Cullen Beach rock formations.
There are some very interesting rock formations at Cullen Beach.
 
Walking to Cullen Caves.
From the beach, the caves are hidden.
 
Coastal path
Following the coastal path to the caves near Portknockie.
 
Coastal rocks.
We navigated our way past these rocks to reach the cave.
 
Cliffside view.
Looking back towards Cullen.
 
Cullen coastal view.
Cullen as seen from the cliffs near the caves. Pink thrift grows everywhere here.

St Duane's Den / The Preachers Cave

Following the coastal path, the first cave is just a short distance past the cove cliffs.

This is the biggest cave we found here, with a large angular opening and a fair amount of space inside. The quartzite rock sits at a 45-degree angle; this seems to be a distinctive feature of all the rocks in this area; the nearby "Whale's Mouth" and Bow Fiddle Rock share these angled rock formations.

The cave itself was nowhere as big as I remember it; I guess when you're seven years old, everything looks bigger and more wondrous.

Sadly there was a lot of mess left within the cave by dirty campers; it's a real shame people can't take their rubbish home with them or deposit it at the beach bins or bins within the town of Portknockie.

Janette was the only one brave enough to explore the inky black depths of this cave; the kids weren't having any of it.

This cave was also called "Preacher's Cave" and was used by the Free Church after breaking ties with the Church of Scotland in the 1840s. It's said that the headmaster of Portknockie Public School, Mr JK Moyes, preached a sermon in the cave, attended by 5000 people.

The cave is named St Duane's Den after St Dubhán, a 5th-century priest and pilgrim... I'm not sure exactly what his link is to this cave near Cullen, as he is linked more with Wales and Ireland. Perhaps the cave's religious use in the 1800s led to new Christianity-related names.

Entrance to the largest cave.
The entrance to St Duane's Den / The Preachers Cave.
 
Cave interior.
The cave is quite big inside; Janette was the only one who would go to the back.
 
Cullen Cave interior
Olivia gives a sense of scale to this epic cave.
 
Thornton's posing at Cullen Cave.
The girls posing for a photo outside the cave.

St Stephen's Cave / Jenny's Cave / Janet's Cave

A smaller cave exists a short distance past the first cave; it's much smaller but still possible to stand inside and get shelter from the elements. The cave again has a religious name, likely linked to past use by the Free Church.

On old maps, this cave is also titled "Janet's Cave" and later "Jenny's Cave"; the story of Janet or Jenny seems to be mostly lost in time, but she seems to be linked to the cave and nearby well. Brenda Wood from Cullen is quoted as saying:

I was told it was called Jenny's Well because a tinker family who lived in the caves had a daughter called Jenny who died and was buried along side the then spring, but that is only a story so not sure how true it is.

Old manuscripts also mention a woman named Janet Carstairs, who was said to live in the cave, but was "deranged in her mind". Both are unfortunate stories. It's unbelievable that society would just let mentally ill people live in caves.

We may have missed a cave named "Fern Rockshelter" near Jenny's Cave, perhaps obscured by the heavy vegetation.

St Stephen's Cave / Jenny's Cave / Janet's Cave
Janet's Cave
 
The view from Janet's Cave near Portknockie.
The view from Janet's Cave.
 
Lauren Thornton in Janet's Cave.
Lauren posing on a log inside Janet's Cave.
 
Entrances of both caves near Cullen and Portknockie.
This view looks back to both caves.

Jenny's Well

We continued our walk, gingerly making our way to Jenny's Well while hoping to avoid the dreaded ticks that might be lurking in the long grass around it.

This well seems a little forgotten in time, with weeds everywhere and the pretty writing made from white stones partially missing. Built-in 1936, it was constructed to try and attract visitors to Portknockie.

A regular festival sprang up around the well, and it became a tradition to drink from the well on the first Sunday of May. Even the elderly would make their way down the cliffside path to drink the "100% pure and refreshing water" or risk being unwell the whole year. An annual contest would also be held, with men from Cullen and Portknockie fighting in the vicinity of the well.

In its slightly run-down state, the water coming from the well did not look palatable at all, with long green globs of plant material emanating from it. I couldn't bring myself to give it a taste. The water here is rich in iron, which could explain why people felt well after drinking it.

Jenny's Well near Portknockie.
Jenny's Well.
 
Path to the Whale's Mouth.
The slightly treacherous path to the Whale's Mouth.
 
Snorkelling.
These snorkellers were taking advantage of the fine weather.

The Whale's Mouth

After exploring these fantastic caves and Jenny's Well, we continued our walk and came upon the Whales Mouth, known locally as the "Whale's Moo/Mou" or "Whale's Mooth".

This is yet another impressive natural rock arch and very reminiscent of the more well-known Bow Fiddle Rock a short distance away. We stopped here to have our picnic.

Walking to the Whale's Mouth.
The path to the Whale's Mouth rock arch.
 
Panorama of Whale's Mouth.
Panoramic shot of the landscape near the Whale's Mouth.
 
The Whale's Mouth near Portknockie.
The Whale's Mouth.
 
Picnic at the Whale's Mouth.
The Whale's Mouth was a great place for a picnic.

Up to Portknockie and Bow Fiddle Rock

Portknockie is a short distance up a moderately steep path past the Whale's Mouth. We decided to walk to Bow Fiddle Rock, one of our favourite places to visit locally.

Bow Fiddle Rock has recently been shown some love with a brand new car park and paths part of the way to the rock's viewpoint. Many tourists were exploring the area, and it was nice to see the new car park being fully utilised. For those of you interested in caves, there is another couple of caves to the left and right of Bow Fiddle as you look at it.

We didn't walk down to the water's edge this time and opted to retrace our steps back to the top of the cliff overlooking the Whale's Mouth, but instead, this time, we took the path back down to the hill to Cullen Golf Course.

View of Cullen from Whale's Mouth.
Looking back at Cullen while ascending to Portknockie.
 
The top of Portknockie cliffs.
The ladies beat me to the top!
 
View of Cullen from Portknockie.
The view was spectacular.
 
The path to Bow Fiddle Rock.
Walking to Bow Fiddle Rock.
 
Bow Fiddle Rock.
Bow Fiddle Rock in all its glory.
 
Panorama of Bow Fiddle Rock.
Panorama of the landscape around Bow Fiddle Rock.

Heading back to Cullen

This was another great path with fantastic views of Cullen Bay and the golf course. We eventually reached a viewpoint with three benches and one of the best local views I've seen.

We spent a little time here soaking in the sunshine and taking a few photos, then continued our walk down the hill back to Cullen, eventually reaching the golf course and then back to the path running alongside the beach.

Path to Cullen Bay viewpoint.
Walking to the Cullen Bay viewpoint.
 
Cullen Bay viewpoint benches.
Benches at Cullen Bay viewpoint.
 
Cullen Beach
Using my 400mm lens to get some crops of the beach!
 
Cullen Bay
The view from this point is utterly breathtaking.
 
Family photo at Cullen Bay viewpoint.
The perfect place to get a photo of the ladies.
 
Path from caves to Whale's Mouth.
The view looking at the path between the caves and the Whale's mouth.
 
People at Cullen Beach.
Zoomed in crop of Cullen Beach.
 
Heading back to Cullen Beach.
The path back to Cullen Beach.
 
View of Cullen Bay.
More photo ops are available all along this path.
 
Back to Cullen.
The sundried path back to Cullen.
 
Cullen Beach car park
The car park was packed this sunny Saturday afternoon.

Time for a dook!

Getting changed back at the car with a handy poncho, the girls decided to change into their wetsuits and go for a dip in the sea. Despite the glorious warm weather, the sea is still a bit cold for the uninitiated.

Lauren got wiped out by a big wave early and decided to make sandcastles instead, but my wife Janette and eldest daughter Ellie spent a good 30 minutes jumping over the waves. The water was so clear and fresh.

Girls in wet suits.
Ready for a dip!
 
Swimming at Cullen Beach.
Ellie and Janette going for a swim in the lovely blue waters.

FAQs on Cullen Caves and Portknockie Walk

Are there toilets available?

Cullen has public toilets available at the beach, the harbour and the town square. Some can be closed at certain times; the harbour toilets do seem to be closed randomly, even at busy times.

Cullen Beach toilets.
The beach toilet block.

How fit do you have to be to walk from Cullen to Portknockie?

Moderate fitness is required, but I would rate it as a very easy walk. There are some steep parts but nothing too strenuous. The path isn't suitable for wheelchairs.

Are the caves safe?

Yes, the caves seemed to be very safe; there were no signs of freshly fallen rocks within the caves, and the seawater no longer reached the mouth of the cave. There were signs that people had camped in both caves overnight.

Is the Cullen to Portknockie walk safe for children?

There are some cliffside areas that you will need to be careful of; there are no railings to protect against some fairly substantial falls.

Is food available at Cullen Beach?

Yes, there is a food truck, "Cullen Beach Burgers", available directly next to the golf club building, selling burgers, hot dogs, wraps and even Cullen's own signature dish - Cullen Skink.

If you don't fancy fast food, there are many great restaurants and hotels in Cullen itself where you can grab something more upmarket.

Cullen Beach Burgers
Cullen Beach Burgers

Are there any other good walks in the Cullen area?

Yes! I highly recommend these walks:

What wildlife can be seen on this walk?

We saw many types of seabirds on this walk, but no dolphins, seals or whales on this visit. Portgordon Beach to the west is the perfect place to see seals; you are pretty much guaranteed to see them here, especially at low tide. Dolphins can regularly be seen at Spey Bay further west.

If you're interested in sealife in the Moray Firth, the Macduff Aquarium east of Cullen is the perfect place.

Cullen Beach revellers.
Families enjoying the nice weather at Cullen Beach.

Cullen Caves and Portknockie Walk Videos

Here are a few video clips of our day at Cullen and Portknockie.

Overview of the outside of the Preacher's Cave.
 
Walking into the Preacher's Cave the Preacher's Cave.
 
Jenny's Well.
 
Jenny's Well #2.
 
Whale's Mouth.
 
Bow Fiddle Rock overview.
 
Bow Fiddle Rock.
 
Bow Fiddle Rock zoomed in.
 
Cullen Beach.
 
Cullen Beach #2.
 
Ellie and Janette jumping over waves.
 
Car park and town.

Key information on Cullen Caves and Portknockie Walk

  • Start the walk from Cullen Beach car park or Portknockie.

  • The walk takes in a spectacular beach, caves, rock arches and many amazing views of Cullen Bay.

  • Our walk was 3 miles / 4.8 km and took us about 2.5 hours to complete, with many stops and a picnic.

  • Toilets and food/ice cream are available at Cullen Beach.

  • The walk requires moderate fitness; most people would easily manage it.

  • Be aware of sheer drops on the paths, particularly if you have small children or dogs.

Conclusion

The walk from Cullen to Portknockie, through caves and scenic paths, offers a rich tapestry of experiences intertwining the raw beauty of nature, fascinating geological features, and enchanting tales of local lore. The trails, caves, and rock formations each whisper their own tale of history, painting a vivid picture of the Scottish landscape that extends far beyond just the visual spectacle.

It was a great way to spend my birthday in the glorious sunshine with my amazing family, exploring this unique coastal path and relaxing on Cullen Beach afterwards. Highly recommended.

All information was correct at the time of writing, please check things like entry costs and opening times before you arrive.

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Comments:


Dian Ferguson
9th of August 2023 @ 15:28:49

Superb itinerary , I did not know about the whales mouth cave or Janettes Well. So again thank you , now need to go back and explore in a more detailed fashion. Seems we missed lots of things. Yes this walk is stunning and Picnic n the beach or up on the top with views is highly recommended

Gwenda Shaw
8th of August 2023 @ 20:03:36

I live in Australia but remember this area well on my visit to your land

Lynne Demay
8th of August 2023 @ 09:54:23

Fascinating, wish I'd discovered your work earlier . Great read.

Kerri
8th of August 2023 @ 09:33:53

Wow, this was amazing and fascinating to read. Thank you

Neil Simpson
7th of August 2023 @ 21:56:32

A great resume’ of our glorious costal paths, well done.

Alison Wonnacott
7th of August 2023 @ 18:40:04

Very well written. Great photos.

Paula
7th of August 2023 @ 18:32:20

I just luv cullen beach and all it has to offer very informative article thank you

Shirley mclean
7th of August 2023 @ 18:31:34

Great pictures and videos love portknockie been here for 40 odd years

Jayne Hughes
7th of August 2023 @ 16:39:02

Thank you for this interesting information. I moved to the area two years ago and did not know much of the information that has been shared.