Catterline is so inextricably linked with Joan Eardley it would be impossible to arrive and not mentally revisit the classic photograph of this most brilliant artist valiantly painting at the harbour as the stormy waves rose higher and higher in front of her.
The photograph, and the vast body of work which Eardley created in her spiritual home, show land and seascapes of such heightened intensity that a visit to the village inevitably becomes something greater than a walk along the shore and a meal at the Creel Inn.
For me this most recent trip certainly was another personal homage to Joan but also, happily, it became a weekend when the pleasures of lovely food, simply cooked, supplied the punctuation marks to my solitary reverie.
It always feels reassuringly like nothing has changed in this part of the world, although of course it’s a constantly evolving community. What galvanises it for me is that I believe Eardley’s spirit continues to be present everywhere you look, from the surrounding potato fields to the row of cottages clinging precariously to the cliff face as the North Sea swells beneath them.
It’s certainly present in the Creel, where a plaque adorns the outside wall and one of Eardley’s works hangs proudly in the lounge.
Thus, a coastal walk in the moonlight encouraged a silent, spiritual connection with the Great One while a shimmering blast of sunshine provided a time for quiet contemplation and admiration of this most singular artist, who died at the age of 42.
What a legacy she left behind, and so much of it can be traced to Catterline, a place as thrillingly individual as the artist who came to define it. Joan Eardley would have been 100 this year and a raft of exhibitions continue to celebrate her work – the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh currently has a show based around her centenary while the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is showing an exhibition relating to Eardley in Catterline. Both are essential viewing.
My visit this time was actually to cat-sit for friends, who happen to live in Joan Eardley’s old house.
I arrived there excited yet still grief-stricken after a bereavement and, as such, I needed respite from my normal world. I also hoped in vain that Joan’s ghost might pay a restorative visit in the night or that even a tiny bit of her genius might somehow bestow itself on me by Sunday.
If my mental state on arrival here felt like being trapped in the spin cycle of a washing machine, my departure three days later brought a serenity I never thought possible in such a short space of time. I left a much happier man.
I read a lot. I walked a lot. I ate a lot. My waistline expanded as quickly as the horizon when a new day dawned.
I learned that you can sometimes buy fresh fish from Jack at the harbour if you happen to be up early enough to witness his red boat sail back through the stormy seas. I realised that neighbours and community are everything.
I discovered that nearby Stonehaven is a bit of a foodie enclave when I had a fantastic brioche roll filled with smoked mackerel (£8) from the Seafood Bothy (Posh Tucker by the Sea) at the end of the harbour. Truly brilliant.
But first, the Creel Inn.
As the Creel was mere steps from my new front door I had two meals there over the course of the weekend – and I would have stopped in for a drink each night had I not been so enthralled with the staggering view from my own, borrowed doorstep.
There is nothing I like more than a solo lunch and so, shortly after saying goodbye to my hosts, I wandered along the cliff path and, less than a minute later, I was ensconced in the lounge at the Creel (the dining room at the restaurant was full and thus I was the only person eating in the lounge).
It was Friday and I felt like I was at the start of an adventure which would either make or break me, since I planned to spend most of the weekend alone, which I know isn’t exactly One Hundred Years of Solitude but even ascetic monks have to start somewhere.
I ordered a distinctly un-ascetic pint of beer and settled down, yet again admiring the three paintings in the room, which all became part of my narrative: Eardley’s work, a piece by the still hugely underrated Lil Neilson (a former partner of Eardley’s) and a fantastic work by my friend Stuart Buchanan, in whose house I was temporarily residing.
A wood-burning stove sits in the lounge-bar area although it wasn’t needed today. Aside from that and the paintings there is little adornment.
As this was a solo weekday lunch I didn’t want to go for the whole three-course extravaganza that the simple yet enticing menu offered, so I had two starters.
The first, an exemplary Cullen Skink, was £5.95 and could have sent an army into battle, such was its nourishing succour.
In truth, I don’t think the eight words on the menu could ever sum up a thing of such delight – “creamy soup with smoked haddock, leeks and potatoes” is presumably aimed more at the English and American army of cyclists who were soon to join me in the lounge, although they seemed more concerned with decaffing the world and eating chicken burgers than investigating one of Scotland’s culinary treasures.
More fool them, and is it horrible to admit that I got a secret pang of mirth when the loudest of them was asked to move the huge van they’d parked outside so that locals could actually access their own houses?
This Cullen Skink really was the absolute business. As thick as porridge, as creamy as Marc Bolan’s Creamed Cage in August (what WERE those 70s popstars drinking to even conceive such nonsense?) and as ambrosial as a tin of creamed rice pudding, this simple bowl of soup – well-made, well-balanced, well -priced and so well-endowed it would hold up a wooden spoon – was simply a great lunch.
But there was more!
On hearing that the crab and lobsters used at the Creel came from Jack, the local fisherman whose boat I could see from my house, I had to order the crab spring rolls which were so delicious I ate both fat crab cigars in minutes.
Lightly spiced and tasting fresh and subtle, these beauties were enhanced by a good chilli jam and a little salad which I viewed like cheap ornamental buttons on a favourite coat – you know they’re there, you know they have a reason for existing but really they’re not offering much enhancement to life.
I emerged into the sunshine feeling that the world was a better place and, emboldened by my pint of real ale, I invited two friends over for Saturday lunch, ending my planned three days of solitude before they had really begun.
Saturday lunch at the Creel was even better, not least because we bagged an outside table, one of two overlooking the bay. I immediately felt the benefit of being a local as we took our seats and marvelled at this incredible view.
It’s important to say here that the food at the Creel isn’t fancy – but that’s no slur in my book. This is good quality ingredients, many of them local, cooked simply and with maximum respect for flavour. As such, I’m happy.
I started with seared scallops with black pudding and salad (£9.95) and this classic combination didn’t disappoint, although again I’d say the salad wasn’t quite interesting or punchy enough to justify its existence.
David had a very 1970s deep-fried Camembert coated in a herb crumb and served with tomato chutney (£6.75).
Again, this dish wouldn’t win prizes for innovation, reinvention or just straightforward culinary campness – in fact it’s still worthy of much derision and you can buy it ready-made in Aldi – but this pleasure wasn’t guilty.
It tasted good, albeit of The Good Life, cookery cards, continental quilts and the Common Market. I’m down with that.
My shellfish platter main course was £29.95 and featured half a Catterline Bay lobster, crab claws, and mussels steamed in a garlic cream sauce. It came with chunky chips and the ubiquitous salad which reminds me that legendary food critic Fay Maschler recently quoted me Terence Conran’s description of eating lollo rosso as being like eating pubic hair.
The shellfish platter was ace and also came with everything needed to pick every morsel of meat from the lobster, including a tool which I thought might also be very useful to expel a nasty whitehead from my nose.
Andrew’s breaded sole goujons (£13.50) were so light that he likened the batter to that used for tempura – I tried it and he was correct. Great stuff. David’s vegan strudel (£13.50) included kale, vegan feta, butternut squash and harissa and came with a nice herb sauce and – every vegetarian’s real love – mounds of chips.
Catterline is a very special place and going there reminds me somewhat of going to Dungeness, where the footprint of the artist Derek Jarman is writ similarly large over the landscape. It’s small but seems bigger and, as such, is a place to treasure, to tread softly in, respecting the landscape, nature and your fellow humans.
That the Creel Inn seems as much embedded into Catterline as the harbour below, where Joan Eardley would defy the elements to produce monumental work of international significance, is indisputable.
Given its wonderful location, it doesn’t really need to provide food this good, plus notably good service from a very young team. It does though.
Address: Catterline, Stonehaven, AB39 2UL
T: 01569 750254
- Food: 4/5
- Service: 5/5
- Surroundings: 4/5