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.
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.