I’d come to the Sands of Forvie in search of ruins of a medieval village abandoned to sand-blow. In legend, this was lost when three women lay a curse on Forvie, so I’d arranged to walk out there with David Brown, the local ranger and also a storyteller. In this tufted, off-kilter dunescape the colour of faded rugs, he was a tall, dark figure with a black greyhound that slunk alongside.

Left by retreating glaciers after the last Ice Age, Forvie’s sand settled first on the seabed beyond the mouth of the River Ythan. Ever since, currents, waves and onshore winds had been pushing the sand ashore. Today, the Sands of Forvie is the least disturbed dune system in Britain. Seaward, the older stabilised dunes soon gave way to a landscape of sculpted, wind-rippled peaks, where sand fell away from a knife edge. These were Forvie’s youngest, most dynamic dunes, and even today’s gentle breeze was lifting sand grains to send them creeping and skittering north – an ongoing process over the last four thousand years.

Forvie is one of a number of settlements around the coast abandoned to sand-blow as the Medieval Warm Period gave way to the Little Ice Age. According to local tradition, the village was lost in 1413 during a nine-day sandstorm. In support, meteorological records suggest that in Aberdeenshire, severe gales and extreme tides did coincide in the August of that year.

Yet little is known of the village, not least as it remained buried until the late nineteenth century, when a local doctor dug the floor of Forvie Kirk from the sand. In the 1950s, square medieval huts were also uncovered, and aerial photographs show ‘rig and furrow’ made by ox-drawn ploughs. Nearer the church, burial grounds show the last bodies were interred in the century of the legendary storm.

The Herald: Lost to the Sea: A Journey Round the Edges of Britain and Ireland, by Lisa WoollettLost to the Sea: A Journey Round the Edges of Britain and Ireland, by Lisa Woollett (Image: free)

We reached a gap in the dunes above the shore, and at some signal I didn’t see or hear, there was an explosion of greyhound speed. Making for the ruined kirk, David told fragments of stories that grew up in the centuries after Forvie was lost. The earliest describes how after the death of the Laird of Forvie, his lands were inherited by his three young daughters. But either deceived by a wicked uncle, or driven from their home by a mob of villagers, the women were cast adrift in a leaky boat. And from the sea, they lay a curse on Forvie.

If ever maidens’ malison did licht upon dry land Let nocht be fund in Forvie’s glebes Bot thistle, bent and sand Malison was a medieval word for a curse: if the women were ever to reach dry land - and they did - nothing would be found in Forvie but thistle, bent (marram grass) and sand. Their curse raised the nine-day storm, and to this day Forvie continues to ‘dree its weird’ or suffer its fate.

The following evening, I returned to the kirk with my daughter. Sheltered from the wind inside its walls, the turf grew thick over rubble and the old kirk floor. I lay my phone between us, and with a touch of the screen David began telling The Priest of Forvie. He’d described first reading the story as an epic poem, although this was a Gothic version recorded here in the kirk: missing children and an outsider priest, a hidden passageway from the altar to sea caves. ‘Some say it went on for nine days and nights,’ came David’s voice in the half-light. ‘But when the wind finally fell, dawn could be seen in the east. Forvie strand lay storm-shocked and wind-wrecked. Strange and new: great hills of sand distorted beyond recognition’.

In the centuries following the loss of Forvie, the Little Ice Age brought longer winters and colder summers to much of Britain and Europe, with heavy rains and crop-destroying thunderstorms. This change in climate appears to have coincided with a rise in the belief in weather magic, along with a search for scapegoats. As accusations of witchcraft began to escalate, control of the weather would go on to become a feature of the witch trials that swept across Europe.

Scotland was particularly fierce in its prosecution of witches, due in part to the personal involvement of King James. With witches widely thought to have control over the weather, he blamed them when the arrival of his new wife, Anne of Denmark, was delayed by a series of violent storms. Waiting out the weather in Scandinavia in 1589, the King became convinced it was part of a wider witchcraft conspiracy, with the storms conjured to keep his fourteen-year-old Queen from the Scottish throne.


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In Copenhagen, women were tortured and executed as witches for causing the fiasco. Back home in Scotland, King James also set up the North Berwick witch trials, and was personally involved in extracting confessions. Accused of raising the same storms, Agnes Sampson - a widow and folk healer - initially ‘stood stiffly in denial’.

Later, she was pinned to her cell wall in a ‘witch’s bridle’, sleep-deprived, and had her head ‘thrawen’ (constricted) with a rope. Finally, after she was shaved and ‘the Devil's mark was found upon her privates’, Agnes confessed. She and other women, she told the King, had raised the ‘contrary wind’ by tying a dead man’s hand to a baptised cat they cast into the sea. In 1591, she was taken to Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, garrotted and burnt at the stake.

Seventy years later, Isobel Gowdie would give an even more elaborate confession of witchcraft, widely considered the most extraordinary on record in Britain. And in detailing her pact with the Devil, she described a sandstorm at Culbin, eighty miles from Forvie. Later that century, Culbin too would be buried in sand, with the laird said to have been made a pauper in a matter of hours. ‘The wind comes rushing down through the openings between the hills,’ wrote John Martin of Elgin, ‘carrying with it immense torrents of sand . . . Nothing can be seen but sand above, sand below and sand everywhere’.

Afterwards, with the course of the River Findhorn altered, it was almost impossible to know where Culbin had stood. With some exaggeration, the estate is said to have included sixteen farms, a chapel, a forge and a mansion, with rolling lawns and a famously fruitful orchard. And while in truth Culbin’s destruction was accelerated by the stripping of marram grass, the laird blamed the loss of his estate on a local witch’s curse. Others, though, said he’d brought disaster on himself by disregarding the Sabbath - which is the story told today. Playing cards one Saturday, the laird insisted on playing past midnight, losing his soul to the Devil as the estate was lost to drifting sand.

In the centuries following the Great Sand Drift of 1694, sightings and stories abounded, as sands shifted to reveal traces of the Culbin estate. After a visit in the 1890s, the Scottish artist George Bain described the tradition. ‘A portion of the old mansion house, a hundred years ago, appeared like a ghostly spectre amidst the sand, and became an object of superstitious interest to the people of the neighbourhood, especially as one man who had bawled down the chimney heard a voice distinctly respond to his cry.’ Yet in time it was reburied in sand ‘as suddenly as it came on the scene, and has not been seen for eighty years.’ As well as parts of the mansion, the old dovecote was said to have appeared, along with the upper branches of the laird’s famous orchard. Having blossomed and borne fruit, the trees were again swallowed up.

Surviving records suggest origins for some of the legend’s details: the sixteen farmhouses were perhaps sixteen tenants (in five or six houses), and the dovecote from a standard phrase of legalese. Today, there is no sign of Culbin or even the dunes, as from the 1920s a pine forest was planted to stabilise the sands. Just before, sandstone blocks were found, displaying part of the laird’s family coat of arms. A decade later, while the pines were still being planted, shifting sands exposed an outline of foundation stones: briefly, with no record made of the site.

In the grassy quiet of Forvie Kirk, I wondered if villagers had gathered within its walls during those medieval sandstorms. Today, the bones of their ancestors still lay undisturbed beneath these sand. Yet Scotland’s land – still rebounding from the weight of glaciers - is no longer rising faster than the sea. One day these sands will shift again, and storm waves carve into the dunes. After all, these are places of revelation as much as concealment.

Lost to the Sea: A Journey Round the Edges of Britain and Ireland, by Lisa Woollett, published by John Murray, is out now