Discover Cullen

by Robin McKelvie

“Some people just come and park up just for our epic beach and others just to savour our world-famous Cullen Skink. But there is so much more to Cullen and at our tourist office in the heart of the village we lead the way, whilst also helping people discover our thriving independent shops and vibrant community,” explains David McCubbin, of the Cullen Voluntary Tourist Initiative, the people behind Discover Cullen.

The Cullen Voluntary Tourist Initiative are a community/volunteer run tourism group that was set up almost 30 years ago. Run then and now exclusively by volunteers, they focus on helping manage and support one of the town’s key economic sectors – tourism. Dovetailing with SCOTO, they aim to connect local independent businesses and bodies with the private sector and then weave visitors into the community so that they don’t feel like tourists, but ‘temporary locals’.

Volunteers Encouraging Tourism

The Cullen Voluntary Tourist Initiative came into being when locals and businesses were asked to brainstorm on what could be done to better run and encourage tourism in the area. McCubbin explains: “The initiative came together organically in close consultation with the community, growing out of a meeting at the community council. We are all still volunteers and anyone is welcome to become involved. Covid put things back a bit, but we are now making inroads into local schools as it would be great to get some younger members of the community involved, to teach them new skills and further their own journeys.”

The literal focal point of the group is the tourist information office that they open seasonally in the old town hall. McCubbin tells the story: “The room we use used to be part of the town hall. We worried when it was sold it off to become a hotel, but part of the deal guaranteed we could still use it and indeed that the room had to continue to be used as a tourist information office. There is a heritage centre here too in the old reading rooms that I recommend people visit too, run by the Cullen, Deskford and Portknockie Heritage Group.”

Covid has had its obvious challenges for Cullen, but one positive of government pandemic recovery funding was the brace of grants secured to develop in ways that would otherwise just not have been possible. Discover Cullen also developed their social media channels and acted on behalf of Cullen's tourist industry by attending relevant meetings and webinars, engaging with local DMOs and liaising on their behalf with the media. As well as the new website, a map, leaflet, new branding and signage have been created to improve the visitor experience still further, all the while helping shine a light on the impressive independent businesses.

Cullen Skink, Epic Beach And So Much More

I already feel connected to Cullen having visited a number of times over the years. Fearing the Cullen Skink could not possibly be as good as the creamy, salty, buttery delight we conjure up at home, I was relieved the first time I visited that it tasted even better in Cullen where it was first conjured up. Not just that it is so well made and fresh, but it’s served with a salty sea air tang within sight of the sea your haddock came from. And yes I love that epic beach, one of the finest around the Moray coast, but also on all of Scotland’s eastern seaboard.

As you can see, though, from a quick glance at the Discover Cullen website there really is so much more. The village is awash with the sort of little independent businesses that are often so sadly missing in many other places in Scotland these days. When I mentioned this to McCubbin he pointed to a ‘problem’ that is good to have: “We have such great footfall here and such a positive retail environment and experience that when properties become available, they are snapped up quickly. Rarely do we have empty business premises.”

The local walking is superb too. My favourite is cutting out of the village along the rugged cliffs. En route look out for dolphins, seals and other marine mammals; seabirds too. My target is Findlater Castle, once the seat of the mighty Earls of Findlater and Seafield. For me, this craggy coastal wonder is up there with Dunnottar Castle for location and sheer drama. It is a delightful ruin these days. I would recommend – as do Discover Cullen – not heading down to it to ramble around the crumbling ruins. Much better to play it safe and appreciate it from the path above, where the best photos are from anyway.

There is great golf locally too and community-driven events that everyone is welcome to attend, such as the Cullen Harbour Gala in summer. It sees a flurry of local groups come together. There are stalls, live music, kayaking and paddle boarding, in a real community event, which the Cullen Sea School is a major player in. Then there is Cullen’s quite remarkable history, including strong connections with Robert the Bruce. Did you know his wife’s organs are said to be buried in Cullen?

Where to get the best Cullen Skink?

What increasingly pious Bruce in his later years would have made of the glorious frivolity of the annual Cullen Skink World Championships I dare to think, but I’m in. You should be too if you love delicious creamy, fishy chowders. Anyone is welcome to enter the competition, with entry fees ploughed back into Discover Cullen. After a gap for Covid, the latest championships were staged in 2023, with local cooks having the ignominy of seeing the top prize spirited over to Kyle of Lochalsh. There were entries from all over the UK and even continental Europe. It’s great fun to attend. After the judges have enjoyed their blind tasting, you get the chance to fire in yourself. It’s back on this year…

Before we finish our chat, I ask the age-old question. I know that you want to know too – where do you get the best Cullen Skink in Cullen? “You’ll just need to come back to Cullen and find out for yourself!” laughs McCubbin. “We can tell you more than one place to get great Cullen Skink. Come into our wee centre and you can buy local artisan products and enjoy an experience you’d never find digitally. We’re very people-focused and embrace the idea of ‘temporary locals’ – it’s a two-way street as we genuinely are rewarded by helping people out and steering them towards our local businesses and other community bodies and projects.”

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