Rachael Ironside
Image by: Euan Stewart, CCB Student on placement in the Research Strategy & Policy department

Culbin: the disappeared village project

By Lucy Young, Creative & Cultural Business Student on placement in the Research Strategy & Policy department - 28 July 2022

Researchers Professor Peter Reid and Dr Rachael Ironside discuss their most recent project: lost history, literary inequality, and the ghostly story of a village that suddenly disappeared.

Culbin, a tiny village on the Moray firth coast was swallowed by a great sand drift in 1694 and has since been shrouded in mystery. This natural phenomenon can be easily explained away by modern science but has been the source of much supernatural speculation since it occurred. The story of the “Disappeared Village” has been whispered and ruminated upon for centuries and two researchers at Robert Gordon University Aberdeen have been awarded funding to unravel this web of folklore and truth. Stories are culture, after all. Predating the written word, they are the only way we know what happened before mass literacy swept across the world. From sending children to sleep at night to scaring campers around a fire, stories have their own importance to everyone who comes across them. But what happens when these stories are lost, or buried under years of ambiguity and sand?  

I sat down with Professor Peter Reid and Dr Rachael Ironside to chat about the intentions of the Culbin: The Disappeared Village Project.  

Dr Rachael Ironside is one of the researchers on the project. Her expertise is in the supernatural, and the way that this influences our views on history and culture. Following the completion of PhD at the University of York, Dr Ironside has worked on a handful of research outputs associated with the relationship between tourism and accounts of the supernatural. Her counterpart on the project is Professor Peter Reid, born and raised in the North-East, who has done extensive research on heritage and Scottish Public Libraries. When asked about his general opinions of the Culbin story, he said “I’m really interested in the things we’ve forgotten to remember.” 

Professor Reid continued: “I can’t claim credit for that phrase but the things that we have forgotten to remember really for me encompasses all the stories, the tales, the myths, the legends, and the highly factual things that have gone on in communities and for whatever reason have fallen off the radar.”  

It’s not all scouring through records and academia, however. The team have also opted to include an artistic approach, commissioning three creative practitioners to use the Culbin Project as an outlet for their art. 

Izzy Thompson is a visual artist who has created a series of twelve small oil paintings that outline the story of Culbin’s Disappeared village. Her materials are all eco-conscious and the work is her own take on what happened during the Great Sand Drift that buried the little coastal settlement.  

The second creative on the project is Fiona Percy, a textile artist who has focused on the way that stories change and transform. She has produced a set of sixteen pincushions, each with a different combination of various techniques including knitting, ropemaking, crochet, and stitching. Fiona’s work mantra is “Gather, Create, Destroy, Repeat” which is reflected in her contribution to this project through her use of different mediums of textile art. 

The final creatives on the project are Annie MacDonald and Jenny Johnstone, hosts of the podcast “Stories of Scotland.” Archivist Annie MacDonald grew up near the site and is keenly interested in the mythology and legend of this mystery that she was raised next to. Her counterpart Jenny Johnstone is an environmental scientist and is interested in Culbin as such a unique perspective of becoming a variety of different landscapes over the past 400 years. Their series focuses on the testimony of Isobel Gowdie, a woman accused of witchcraft in the area at the time, and the context that this gives to the story of the Disappeared Village.  

Like all research, the Culbin project has experienced its fair share of difficulties. Professor Reid emphasised the importance of recognising that most written accounts were done so by the elite of the time, therefore will come from a privileged perspective. 

He said: “We’ve got screeds of stuff about the Laird’s petition to the Scottish parliament for a relief on tax because his land had been covered in sand. We don’t have the account of the Cotter who was out ploughing the field when the sandstorm came because the Cotter couldn’t write it down.” 

One of the research inputs is tracking down personal accounts of both those who may have experienced supernatural phenomena in the area, and those who have a connection to Culbin in any way. This proves difficult according to Dr Ironside: “The big challenge is getting the personal stories. Part of that process asks people to actually write down their story and that can be quite challenging for them.” She continued, “Often people are very willing to tell you their stories but actually getting them to record or write is a real logistics challenge.” 

The Culbin project is part of a bigger European Union funded scheme called Northword. This is a large-scale academic focus on the tales that make the North of Scotland such a unique place in spite of often being overlooked for more southern and easily accessible areas.  

There is an exhibition of their findings being held at Elgin Library from February 19th to March 16th, 2022. Plans include a storytelling and crafting session to engage children in their work, and a broad exhibition of their findings displayed alongside the artwork that was made by the creative practitioners involved in the project.  

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