Continuing our voyage around the British coastline, today we’re setting out our recommendations for the best beaches in Scotland you must visit. I’ve said before here that there’s a bit of coast for every reason and every season. There are beaches that reward a long wild walk, when the sky is full of gloom and there’s rain in the offing. Then there are the beaches that are just waiting for a bathing of sun, a big beach towel and a sense of childhood wonder. Never think that the beauties of the coast are just for summer. Here for your exploring pleasure are some of the best beaches in Scotland that we’ve happily explored, stumbled upon, hiked around and run to the water for the sheer pleasure of being alive.
Best Beach For Being Worth the Journey – Luskentyre
Luskentyre has, amongst many other plaudits, been described as Britain’s best beach. So you’d think it would be really busy, right? But being situated on the Isle of Harris gives Luskentyre that protection of being a bit of a jaunt. You’ll need the CalMac ferry from the Isle of Skye or the Isle of Bernerey. And is it worth it? I’ll give you a wholehearted yes to that one.
Harris is totally gorgeous, and if it were a bit warmer, you could be dreaming that you’re in a Caribbean paradise. But the landscape here is a mere few millions of years older, with the gneiss being one of the oldest rocks in the world. From Luskentyre Beach you can see both the mountains of North Harris and the island of Taransay. If that last sounds familiar, you may remember it being the setting for BBC’s Castaway, where a group of people sought to build a small society on the island.
If it gets too bracing, you’re in exactly the right place to warm yourself up with some fine local Harris tweed. Don’t forget to bring your provisions and your necessities because there are few facilities; your closest source of provisions is Leverburgh.
The Best Beach for Beauty In Sadness: Ceannabeinne Beach Durness
To the east of Durness, you’ll find a beautiful beach with a sad story to tell. Its traditional name is Traigh Allt Chailgeag, meaning the beach of the burn of bereavement and death. It is said that an elderly woman fell into the burn – in spate at the time – which flows onto the beach and drowned. You can see ruined stone dykes from an earlier small farm by the shore.
Out to sea is the small island Eilean Hoan – the burial island – which was once home to four families and is now a nature reserve.
Best Beach For Running: West Sands, St Andrews
Near the town of St Andrews, famed for its golf course, you’ll find the pretty wide expanse of beach that is West Sands. While many of Scotland’s beaches are understandably remote, this is somewhere you can build your coastal meanderings into a lot of town-based exploring. Plus the opportunity to play a wide variety of golf courses if that’s your thing.
West Sands is, of course, infamous for that scene in Chariots of Fire, and it certainly has the ability to make you run for the sheer pleasure of the wind in your hair and sand under your feet. Although in my case, probably a lot less far that the beach permits; it’s nearly two miles long. The beach has a dramatic backdrop, with the ruined castle and the cathedral on the skyline. It’ll take less than two hours by car to reach St Andrews from Edinburgh, or you can fly into Dundee and take the half hour drive onwards.
The Best Beach For Your Inner Robinson Crusoe: Sandwood Bay, Sutherland
The remote nature of this beach, possibly one of the loveliest in the UK as well as one of the best beaches in Scotland, means that it can often be yours alone. And that’s worth the effort it takes to get there. Owned by the John Muir Trust, this is a mile of sparkly, pristine sands backed by dunes. You get big wild North Atlantic waves, plus rocky cliffs and a giant sea stack called Am Buachaille – The Herdsman. Perfection.
Your nearest town is Kinlochbervie in the Northern Highlands. You can plan a hike out to the bay via a moorland track, with two streams to cross, and lochs to pass with their own beaches. You’ll know that you’re half way when you reach the bike racks for those who have ridden that far.
Be sure to watch out for the ghost of the mariner at ruined Sandwood Cottage. It is reported that his galleon foundered nearby, and he knocks on the windows at night for help. If you are more fortunate, you might even get to meet a mermaid, as described when a local farmer went in search of a lost sheep:
“On 5th January 1900 … Gunn’s collie suddenly let out a howl and cringed in terror at his feet. On a ledge, above the tide, a figure was reclining on the rock face. At first he thought it was a seal, then he saw the hair was reddish-yellow, the eyes greenish-blue and the body yellowish and about 7 feet long. To the day Alexander Gunn died in 1944, his story never changed and he maintained that he had seen a mermaid of ravishing beauty.” Sandwood Estate Culture – John Muir Trust
Best For Being Small And Perfectly Formed – Clachtoll Beach
This is another beach in the Northern Highlands, making me think that they are mightily lucky in their coast. The nearest town is Lochinver. Clachtoll is a small sandy beach protected by headlands, making for safe swimming owing to the absence of big waves. It’s prime sandcastle-building and paddling territory, making it very family friendly. Here you’ll also find a ranger hut and toilet facilities.
There are local opportunities to go bodyboarding, kayaking, sailing, coasteering, abseiling and caving, making this a great spot for an active trip. There is a campsite just over the road from the beach too. Lochinver has a bank, post office, newsagent, fuel, food and other facilities. I’ve added it to the list of the best beaches in Scotland for its ability to make beach holidays as they used to be, full of exploration and the excitement of discovery.
Best Beach For Appreciating the Vastness of The Ocean: Sands of Morar
With a population of less than 300, Morar is a very small village indeed, just three miles south of Mallaig on the west coast. The coastline here is part of the Morar, Moidart and Ardnamurchan National Scenic Area. Development is restricted to protect the exceptional scenery. Although Morar is tiny, it has a train station on the West Highland Line. It is also on the Road to the Isles between Fort William and Mallaig. So this is a beach that’s certainly easier to access than some of the others mentioned here.
I was fascinated to find there’s also a Scottish country dance called the Sands of Morar…and yes, the two on the right are eventually able to join in!
The beach, known as the White Sands of Morar, featured in the films Local Hero and Breaking The Waves. Nearby, you’ll find Loch Morar, the deepest freshwater body in the British Isles. From the Sands of Morar you can see the beautiful and wonderfully named isles of Eigg, Rum and Muck, all ready for daytripping. You’re also close to Skye.
I’m not sure if you’ve given much thought to these westerly coasts, but there’s something strangely thrilling to contemplate that the next landfall is America. Settle down for a massive Hebridean sunset, time with your thoughts and an appreciation of this big wide world.
Best for a Whole Lot Of History For A Small Place: Calgary Bay, Mull
Situated in the Inner Hebrides, Mull has lots going for it. With a population of around 3,000, it’s the second largest island of the Inner Hebrides after Skye and the fourth largest around Great Britain. Mull has the only Munro (over 3000 feet) on a Scottish island, and a section of the Stephenson Way.
If you’re fascinated by history, then Mull has it aplenty. It’s been inhabited since the end of the last Ice Age, host to Irish migrants of the 6th century and then a Viking invasion three centuries later. There’s plenty more to discover about the Lords of the Isles, the chief of the MacLeans, the shipwreck of a Spanish galleon from the Armada and the seizure of Mull by the Campbells.
Much of the population lives in Tobermory, familiar to Brits of a certain age as being the name given to the inventor genius among the Wombles. The children’s television show Balamory is also based in Tobermory, and accounts for many new younger visitors in summer. Balamory shows off the beautiful coloured houses of Tobermory to great effect. In Tobermory, you’ll find Mull’s single malt whisky distillery – Tobermory Distillery – should you be ready for a dram.
Calgary Bay itself has a free campsite set back from the dunes on this beautiful expanse of white sands with a backdrop of the hills. The small hamlet of Calgary can be reached by bus from Tobermory (some 8 miles away), and you’ll find a hotel and public toilets here. The Gaelic name is the beach of the meadow, with a broad band of machair between the land and the beach. Calgary Castle, a 19th century castellated manor house, overlooks the bay. There’s a small stone pier, originally built to offload cargo from the Clyde Puffers, and the deserted village of Inivea close by, part of the Highland Clearances. Calgary Castle once hosted Colonel James Macleod of the Mounties. That’s how the other Calgary came by its name.
The Best Beach for a Game Of Chess: Uig, Isle of Lewis
This is another destination that has such a wealth of fascinating history to offer. Nestled in the Outer Hebrides, Uig’s name is derived from the Norse word for bay. This is a land of high peaks, and the deepest offshore lake in the British Isles. Uig Bay is a big strand of shell beach, bordered by machair. All around are cliffs and chasms. and the area is full of such geological interest that the biggest sapphire ever discovered in the British Isles – a whole 242 carats – was found there. You can see it now in the National Museum of Scotland. More than half of the residents in Uig parish speak Gaelic. Uig is the ancestral seat of the Clan MacAuley.
Uig Beach is best known as the home of the Lewis Chessmen. A local crofter discovered a buried hoard of chess pieces, which had been uncovered by a storm. You can see the chessmen now in the Museum of Scotland, with replicas in the Uig Heritage Centre. The chessmen are mostly carved from walrus tusks and probably originated in Norway.
The Best Beach For A Flying Visit: Traigh Mhor, Isle of Barra
Not just one of the best beaches in Scotland, Traigh Mhor – the Great Beach – has to be one of the most unique beaches anywhere. Take off for the Isle of Barra, and you’ll find yourself landing on the two mile cockle shell strand that is Traigh Mhor. This must be one of the few flights in the world that is dependent on tide times, as the beach itself makes up the runway. Scheduled air services from Glasgow are provided by Loganair, who describe the flight timetable as understandably “flexible”. The local post bus meets the flight and will transport you to Castlebay. There is no public access to the beach when the airport windsock is flying.
Here on Barra, you can find crofts, a hilly interior and beaches lined with machair. There are more islands nearby to enjoy, including Vatersay and the uninhabited trio of Mingulay, Parbay and Sandray. You can explore Boldnabodach, a village abandoned by its last residents in the 1920s. The Clan MacNeill has its home in Barra at 15th century Kisimul Castle. Open to the public, the castle stands on a rock over the harbour of Castlebay. There are some shops, and the church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, a rather wonderful concept for an island so dependent on the tides. Time it right, and you could be there for the Barrathon, a half marathon run clockwise round the island.
Are You Ready For The Best Beaches In Scotland?
I think I’ll race you. There’s some seriously beautiful coast there, and one full of history and geographical interest. I urge you to investigate Visit Scotland to see what’s on offer, and you’ll find Travel Scotland’s Guide To Beaches here.
If you’ve enjoyed this, may I also send you to our recommendations for the best beaches in England, and the best beaches in Wales. For lovers of the coast, don’t forget to check out Sea Fever, a look at the many different types of coast in the UK. You can also try out the best boat trips as voted by travel writers.
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