Best of Scotland: Five Destinations for Beach Combers

by Keith Savage · 21 comments

Shetland Beach

Scotland is not the first place that comes to mind when one considers a beach vacation, but the quantity of pristine, largely empty beaches scattered across the breadth of Scotland will blow your mind. From white sand wonders to pebbly quilts littered with hunks of sea glass to entire shores composed of tiny shells, Scotland’s beaches cover the style gamut. In this week’s round-up of the best of Scotland, I’ve collected a handful of my favorite beaches.

Many of Scotland’s most beautiful beaches are in incredibly out-of-the-way regions (case in point: Sandwood Bay), but there are a huge number of gorgeous swaths all around the country within easy reach. Fair warning: While these beaches are, indeed, awesome places, it’s best to keep your dreams of tropical drinks and skimpy swimwear in check. Scotland has a temperate to sub-arctic climate prone to gales.

Skip the swimsuit and slip on the sweatshirt, we’re going beach combing in Scotland!

The Beach at St. Ninian’s Isle, Shetland

Is there a more beautiful place in Shetland? It would be hard to fathom, though Scotland’s most northerly archipelago possesses scads of incredible white sand beaches. This thin strip of sand, called an ayre or tombolo, reaches out to St. Ninian’s Isle along the southern finger of Shetland’s mainland, fringed by coarse grasses waving in the north wind. Caribbean blue waters reach toward each other and fall just shy of meeting.

In 1958, a hoard of 8th-century silver was discovered on St. Ninian’s Isle beneath the floorboards of an ancient chapel. Many believe it was hidden from raiding vikings by the Culdees, a sect of Christian monks, while others believe vikings may have hidden it there themselves. In any case, if this gorgeous beach isn’t enough to propel you to Shetland, than the prospects of your own Indiana Jones-esque treasure hunt ought to do the trick.

Claigan Coral Beach, Isle of Skye

Just north of Dunvegan Castle in western Skye hides the fascinating wonder of Claigan Coral Beach. This crescent of whitish “sand” is actually a vast stretch of tiny shells and bits of coral that the tide regularly deposits here at Claigan. The fact is, this isn’t coral at all, but desiccated and sun-bleached algae! Hiking north from Dunvegan, you first see a black crescent beach and then your destination further on, and from a distance Claigan looks like another unremarkable coarse sand beach.

Press on!

It feels wrong to walk on Claigan, to hear the minuscule shells crunching beneath your feet, so kneel instead and get an up close and personal look at this incredible beach. While it might not be coral beneath your feet, that truth doesn’t take away from the magnificent wonder of this hidden place.

The Beach at Machir Bay, Islay

On the western horn of Islay, near Kilchoman, you will find the wide, fine beach at Machir Bay. Dunes of white sand and coarse grasses are reminiscent of the ayre of St. Ninian’s Isle, but here the Atlantic wind slams into the first bit of land after hundreds of miles at sea.

The beach at Machir Bay is a windswept and foreboding place on an overcast day, and swimming is prohibited here due to strong currents. Peace and quiet are in plentiful supply on Islay, but this large beach is the perfect place to enjoy some solitude on one of those welcome sunny Islay days. If you’re looking for a winning idea, pop into the Kilchoman or Bruichladdich distilleries and bring a bottle of your best friend out here to help you watch the waves and seabirds.

Findhorn Beach, Moray

The Moray coast is littered with all manner of pretty beaches, as these final two choices prove. Findhorn Beach, just north of Forres is a well-known beach in the area for family fun and outdoor enthusiasts. A little boardwalk runs along the backside of the beach where kayaks and canoes are stacked along the shore. Those ubiquitous grasses thrust up from white sand dunes, forming a border between the boardwalk and the quietude of the sand.

Low tide is a great time to look for seals while high tide leaves little but the shingle at the top of the beach in view. One of Findhorn beach’s more interesting quirks is the series of seaweed-crusted concrete pillboxes built to repel what was believed to be an impending German invasion during World War II.

Cullen Beach, Moray

An hour east of Findhorn takes you to the wind-streaked beach at Cullen. Even the rocks lean away from the powerful north winds that howl in from the arctic. This otherwise sheltered beach of golden sand is often the gathering place for dolphin-watchers, though I’m happy to simply watch the waves turn to plumes of mist as they break on the rocks.

Coastal walks line the beach and provide you with a convenient way to experience a stretch of Scottish coastline too often missing from visitors’ itineraries.

Cullen is the home of the delicious seafood soup Cullen Skink, and you may need a bowl after any extended time on this chilly, damp stretch of beach. Still, with Cullen’s awesome viaduct behind you and the otherworldly sea winds blowing your hair back, this is a special place.

DeborahNo Gravatar January 22, 2017 at 11:39 AM

Hi Keith,
My family is planning an RV trip along the North Coast 500 route in Scotland. Do you know of any good beach glass / sea glass beaches from Ullapool along the north coast of Scotland to Inverness? Or perhaps near to Inverness?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 23, 2017 at 8:19 AM

There are absolutely tons of beaches along the North Coast 500, though I have to be honest that I didn’t see much sea glass (nor was I particularly looking for it). Some good places to check out that are beautiful even if there’s no sea glass: Achmelvich Beach, Balnakeil Bay, Sango Sands, and Chanonry Point on Black Isle.

DeborahNo Gravatar January 24, 2017 at 6:29 AM

Thanks, Keith! We will look out for those beaches.

AnneNo Gravatar August 24, 2016 at 6:47 PM

Hi!! I love Scotland and this Sept/Oct will be in the southwest area of Galloway then also the southeast area around Berwick upon Tweed. Any good seaglass beaches in those areas? Thanks so much for your help

Keith SavageNo Gravatar August 25, 2016 at 7:44 AM

Hi Anne. I found all of my good seaglass beaches in the north and far north (like Shetland). That doesn’t mean there aren’t good options in the south, just that I didn’t personally visit them. Keep your eyes peeled and visit whatever beaches you pass!

Linda brownNo Gravatar March 2, 2016 at 2:32 AM

Love your photographs .up in the west coast of Scotland couple times a year .back to Skye a must next year .xxx

Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 2, 2016 at 8:23 AM

Thanks, Linda. Enjoy your trips.

Barb GeorgeNo Gravatar May 14, 2015 at 8:56 AM

I am a challenged traveler… But one of the things I most want to do is go to Scotland. My days are shortened by a brain injury, so it takes me longer to do things… go places. And, I very well can ‘lose a day’ here and there… so I do tend to plan every other day systems.
So. Do you have any recommendations or thoughts regarding this sort of complication… I am not able to ‘power through’ like I used to. All it will do is make me lose more time.
My interests are not really on the city areas–more in the outlying locales. Probably should not be driving (uses too many ‘brain bucks’).

Keith SavageNo Gravatar May 15, 2015 at 3:01 AM

Hi Barb,

The best thing for you to do will be to get a Britrail pass that you can use to travel around Scotland at your leisure. They usually give you a certain number of travel days within a set period of time. This will allow you to avoid the constant travel and potential stress of having your own car.

The train will limit your travel options, and from there it’s just a matter of boiling down your desired places to stay to fit within your allotted vacation time. Given your challenge, I recommend fewer bases with more days. It’s something I recommend to everyone, really. It’s always nice to let the stress of logistics fall away.

Best of luck,

JulieNo Gravatar August 18, 2014 at 8:58 AM

Hi there! I am an American coming over to indulge my passion of searching for sea glass. What in your opinion are some of the best beaches for searching for sea glass?! I am going to Seaham in England and then up to Scotland (one of my favorite places EVER!). Thanks for your help in defining my search!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar August 18, 2014 at 10:16 AM

Hi Julie,

I always seek out sea glass when I’m in Scotland! I’ve found beaches on the west coast and among the islands there to have the highest concentrations of sea glass, though you can find some just about anywhere. The East Neuk of Fife around Elie had some beaches with a lot of sea glass. The absolute best place, however, was Shetland. The islands are full of alternating white sand and pebble beaches, and the pebble beaches are loaded with sea glass. The number one spot is the pebble beach at Hillswick, far up in the northwest part of the mainland. I spent about 30 minutes combing that beach and captured a pint glass worth of sea glass with endless amounts left behind.

Best of luck!

MichelleNo Gravatar January 28, 2017 at 5:51 PM

Hi, Keith
I’m traveling to Scotland from Alaska at the end of February. Do you have any updated advice for beaches to find Seaglass? I will mainly be on the eastern coast but could travel several hours away if the glass is really good. Any suggestions you have would be greatly appreciated. Thank you. Love your website. Michelle

Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 28, 2017 at 5:54 PM

Hi Michelle. Unfortunately I don’t have any updates regarding seaglass. Shetland was far and away the best place to find it. I haven’t noticed it on any of the beaches I’ve visited in the past year, but to be fair I’m not out searching for it either.

Marysia @ My Travel AffairsNo Gravatar December 29, 2013 at 7:00 PM

Amazing pictures, I’m in love with Scottish beaches, must visit for next year!

Kevin ScullionNo Gravatar November 25, 2013 at 1:55 AM


I have just discovered you and your web site. What a wealth of information for me to enjoy. I travel around Scotland on almost a full time basis and yet I have so much more to learn and to discover.

I’ll be a regular visitor to your site when I am laid up at bricks & mortar for a few days here and there.



Keith SavageNo Gravatar November 25, 2013 at 9:37 AM

Hey Kevin,

Count me jealous of your situation. I clicked over to your site and see that you’re a motorhomer. That’s awesome! I made some great friends in Scotland a couple of years ago who were traveling around Europe in a motorhome for 3+ years. Seems like a really cool way to do it.

What brings/keeps you to/in Scotland?

Kevin ScullionNo Gravatar November 25, 2013 at 12:55 PM

Hi Keith

I have spent most of my life in Scotland although I worked in England for 8 years. I lived in the Highlands for 10 years and I just love the place. I have a 12 year old daughter that I see every week-end, so that keeps me grounded in many ways (good ways). Maybe when she is up and gone I can venture further afield. I did spend 3 weeks with her in the van in France this year. The year before I went around Europe in a month in a Mazda Bongo which was a good experience too.

I do enjoy Scotland all year round and a van gives you the flexibility to do that. Will keep in touch.


HoggaNo Gravatar November 19, 2013 at 3:12 PM

so beautiful!

GabrielNo Gravatar November 16, 2013 at 11:16 AM

Great shots to go with the beaches. Will definitely keep this post in mind when we make our way around Scotland.

KenNo Gravatar November 14, 2013 at 7:42 AM

I love your photographs. Together with the descriptions they create a tug at my heart and bring back many wonderful memories.

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