St Abb’s Head Circular
As walking mistakes go, poor navigation can be one of the more costly and trip destroying ones you can make. Yet so many, setting out for the trail from the central belt, forget to look south to find the great hills and routes for a days exploring. While it’s true that there is a near endless supply of great routes and mountains to the north; there are more than enough routes to the south of the country to keep you busy for a lifetime or two.
One of these incredible routes lies immediately to the north of the village of St Abbs. About an hours drive South of Edinburgh, the coastal walk takes in extraordinary cliff-top ocean views, occasionally ocean life, and more diverse scenery in a single trail than you can get under foot in a single trek. On the right day at the right time of year, the wildlife along the coastal trail is as extraordinary as the walk itself.
The village of St Abbs is a hugely popular summer tourist spot. Once a busy fishing village, today the town is host to one of the most popular diving spots in the country. The crystal clear waters which surround the coast lend themselves well to learning to dive and mastering the craft. In the last year the picturesque town has even featured as a backdrop for Marvel’s latest superhero series, adding to the draw of the location.
The most spectacular walks in the area take you away from the village itself and high above the cliffs in the St Abb’s Head nature reserve. The reserve, a national trust property, covers some 190 acres outside of the village. The protected landscape provides a haven for birds and small game which enjoy a vast area of open fields, coastal wildlife, and large cliffs to hunt and nest on. On the right days the trail can be a birdwatcher’s dream, on the wrong one the howling wind and driving rain off the north sea could keep even the hardiest of enthusiasts away.
St Abb’s Head Trail
The trail starts at the Trust car park, the last turn off the single road in and out of St Abbs. The site features a relatively generous amount of parking and even road access to skip straight to the lighthouse at the top of the trail, for those with accessibility concerns. Thankfully, leaving the car behind is the last interaction with the road required to access the trail.
From there you can turn right and continue along the footpath into St Abbs or turn left to continue the coastal trail to St Abb’s Head.
The path exits from the car park and out past a local craft shop and cafe open in peak times. Timed right for the return leg, most are exceptionally grateful to stumble on the latter of the two. Beyond the shops, a well marked footpath follows the main road bordering the fields and down to a small junction.
Every step away from the junction feels as if it’s getting pleasingly further and further away from the traffic and towns to the rear. The path borders the field for a short while, reaching a wooden farm gate at the end of an enclosed lane bordered by a high stone wall and fence-line fields.
At the end of the lane a bright red sign is positioned to warn of dangerous cliffs and sharp drops ahead. Had the sign been ten feet further along the path it would have been utterly redundant. Had it been twelve feet further along it would have been over the edge of the very cliffs it warned of. The end of the enclosed lane marls the last bit of shelter on offer for quite some distance.
Right from the off, the trail itself places gentle reminders that it’s not one to be taken lightly or without due care and attention. Erosion has taken giant bites out of the land immediately next to the path, the result is sharp drops and steep slopes just a hop to the right. It’s not a difficult or precarious place to navigate, but not one you’d like to encounter at night or without reasonable visibility.
Just a few paces away from the ACME style danger warning sits what could arguably be the most scenic picnic table in the British Isles. Perched on the edge of a cliff with seats only on the trail side, the fixed wooden bench looks out across the red stone rock faces of the coast. The remarkable lunch spot offers a view as far out into the North Sea as your eyesight can manage.
You could be forgiven for frittering away your time, and your lunch, sitting to look out at the seabirds swooping from the rocks and waves crashing against the coast. But, as hard as it is to believe in that moment, there’s even more yet to be seen and explore further along the trail.
The path starts uphill almost immediately from the picnic table. The gradient is gentle enough to enjoy and steep enough to quickly climb high above the sea below. The gentle climb never turns into a long slog as the scenic views and climb to the cliff-tops is to exciting to bore anyone.
As you reach the top of the first set of cliffs, the path veers outwards into the sea and offers a spectacular view over the village of St Abbs and all the way across the coast to Eyemouth. A select few memorial benches are stationed at the top of the cliff looking back towards the village. They’re enough to warrant a 10 minute rest, an afternoons gaze, and a brief check of local property prices to consider moving here to make them a daily visit.
A New Landscape
The rocky coastal landscape of the reserve dictates that you’re either climbing or descending gently for the entire walk out. Out past the first small ‘summit’ the landscape takes a dramatic twist. The left hand side features endless rolling hills and acres of farmland while the right hand side is populated by rocky stacks and an endless view out into the ocean.
The path descends all the way down onto the shore and the rock and pebble beaches. From here the cliffs and stacks look somehow even more foreboding and impressive than they did from the heights of the hilltops.
From the shore, the trail borders local fields and winds around the slopes to begin climbing uphill towards the lighthouse. At points you could be forgiven for thinking you’d left the coast entirely, finding yourself seemingly in the middle of farmland which resembles some of the more remote reaches of the central belt.
Continue climbing however, and a sharp reminder brings you straight back to the sea. In no time at all you find yourself high above the waterline and over the cliffs which make this landscape so memorable and well worth the visit.
The trail continues almost directly to the brilliant white buildings which make up the old lighthouse cottages. The light itself is automated today—along with the other lighthouses up and down the country. The cottages and outbuildings of the former keepers are now privately owned homes. Care should be taken when visiting the lighthouse and its cliffs.
From the lighthouse buildings you can continue the trail out along the coast stretching out further towards Pettico Wick Bay and returning down the opposite side of the loch, or follow the access road down a little and come back across the coastal side of the loch on a remote single track path.
If accessibility is an issue at the lighthouse you can similarly hike the road back down and eventually return straight to the National Trust car park you started from.
Whether opting for the longer route or taking the shortcut, both will eventually return you to the base of the hill that began the final lighthouse climb. From there you can follow the trail back by the coast, past the benches, and stop off again at the picnic table which started the day.
In every scenario you’re likely to find yourself back by the coffee shop and, if you’ve timed it right, ready for a warming drink and a well-deserved rest.