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Issue 38 - 10 of the best..beaches

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 38
April 2008


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10 of the best..beaches

Scotland has some of the most dramatic coastline to be found anywhere in the world. Liz Pickering highlights some beautiful beaches.

Achmelvich, Sutherland If you are willing to take your life in your hands on a single track coastal road, the beaches at Achmelvich will reward you.

Achmelvich itself comprises a campsite, caravan park and a youth hostel – hardly a village – but its collection of stunning white sand beaches amongst craggy headlands typifies the sort of scenery that makes northwest Scotland so special.

Geologically speaking, a short walk along the beaches here can display the processes of rock formation and deformation spanning 1200 million years.

Rather more recently, around 1950, Scotland’s most peculiar castle was built close to the beach. The concrete structure, known as Hermit’s Castle, was built by an artist as a retreat and could almost be part of the rock it stands on, but for its unusual windows and bulky square chimney stack.

The sea views from here are breathtaking.

Sandwood Bay, Caithness If you like the sort of scenery that makes you gasp at the magnificence and sense of drama, then Sandwood Bay is the beach for you. As one of the most northerly beaches on the Scottish mainland, the bay faces out into the wilds of the Atlantic and its imposing cliffs give the impression that this coast of Scotland will stand proud against the encroaching sea until the end of time.

Saying that, the experience of exploring Sandwood Bay can be very peaceful and private. The silvery sea, pinkish sands and the isolated sea stack, Am Buachaille, are perfectly framed by the bay’s cliffs and great rolling sand dunes, with a loch behind.

It is no surprise that the beach is said to be haunted by the ghost of a mariner who bangs on the windows of nearby Sandwood Cottage, or walks the dunes in search of hidden treasure.

Gott Bay, Tiree The Isle of Tiree is the most westerly island of the Inner Hebrides and is unusually low-lying and flat, so the wind whistles across the land, relatively unhindered. Not necessarily the best advert for the Isle of Tiree, but for surfers it is a different story.

Tiree is something of a Mecca for surfers, with its beaches facing in all directions and its numerous beach breaks and offshore reefs. Gott Bay is a long horseshoe shaped bay of white sand, facing southeast towards Mull. It is the largest bay on the island, with its crushed shell-based sand forming the basis of the machair above and behind the beach, covered in grass and wild flowers.

The only sounds you are likely to hear are the crashing of the waves on the shore and the cry of seabirds, on the island with some of the highest levels of sunshine recorded anywhere in Britain.

Sanna Bay, Lochaber Sanna Bay is not just one beach, but a series of beaches ranging from the small and private up to the vast and spectacular. The bay is a short distance from mainland Britain’s most westerly point, the Point of Ardnamurchan. On a clear day the view from nearby Sanna Point includes the islands of Rum and Eigg, with Skye and Coll in the distance. Facing due west you will see nothing but the ocean, and the closest land mass is North America.

The beaches of Sanna Bay sit amid a diverse coastal landscape, and the contrast of the rocky outcrops against the pristine white sand gives the impression that this is a desert island, that you might be the first to intrude on its untouched beauty.

Balnakeil Bay, Caithness The beaches at Balnakeil Bay are wide and open, with clean white sand and tall grassy dunes behind, and beyond the dunes the buildings at Balnakeil are inextricably linked to the bay.

The bay itself was named after the church that stands there, in Gaelic ‘Ba-Na-Cille’, or Bay of the Church, and the churchyard is the burial ground for infamous highwayman, Donald MacMurchow, poet Rob Donn MacKay and the crew of a ship that sank in 1849 off Faraid Head.

You could not surpass this as a final resting place, with the stunning views over Balnakeil Bay to Faraid Head, and the night time brightness of the stars above the vast expanse of the bay.

Lunan Bay, Angus Lunan Bay might be tranquil today, but in the year 1010 it was the landing point for Vikings intent on sacking Dundee.

Since then, you could be forgiven for thinking that nothing much has happened.

In good weather the long beach imbues a feeling of serenity, its reddish sands and low cliffs appearing gentler than some of the more dramatic Scottish beaches.

Traditional fishing still takes place here, the fish caught at the falling tide by nets strung from poles on the beach. At the mouth of Lunan Water, the Red Castle is a constant looming presence, watching over the bay. Originally a fort built in the 12th century, the castle is now a ruin, making Lunan Bay even more atmospheric, especially at sunset.

North Berwick, East Lothian Whether your passion is history, birdwatching or simply sunbathing and paddling in the ocean, the beach at North Berwick provides one of the best days out in Scotland.

There is a putting green behind the beach, and children can safely paddle and sail boats in the pond built into the rocks. From the shore you can look out at the yachts and boats, and the Bass Rock: a striking trachyte plug of volcanic rock, rising 313 feet with sheer cliffs on three sides.

Despite, or perhaps because of its uninviting appearance, the Bass Rock has a long human history, having been inhabited by a monk in the eighth century, by royalty, by garrisons of soldiers, and used as a prison by King James I and Mary Queen of Scots. Now the Rock houses a lighthouse and is occupied by North Atlantic gannets, the UK’s largest seabird.

North Berwick Beach has a huge amount to offer, and is a beautiful destination in its own right.

St Cyrus, Angus St Cyrus beach is not at the top of the list of destinations for many tourists, but it is well known among artists, ornithologists, botanists and entomologists. This is because the National Nature Reserve between the village of St Cyrus and the beach supports a huge variety of habitats for flora and fauna, and as a consequence the beach feels like a small corner of paradise.

Sitting on the beach, you may well see porpoises playing in the sea, or a variety of birds that nest here, such as stonechats, whinchats, fulmars and terns. The Nature Reserve is renowned for its variety of butterflies and insects.

The golden sands and south-facing cliffs give the beach a warm and sunny aspect, though, like so many Scottish beaches, there is a nearby castle with a darker history. In this case the story is difficult to believe, but legend has it that the laird of the castle dabbled in cannibalism and boiled the sheriff alive!

Giordail Beach, Lewis There are more than 300 beaches on Lewis, which is the largest of the islands forming the Outer Hebrides. The whole island is famous for surfing, with the Gulf Stream warming the sea and numerous reef, point and beach breaks found along the western side of the island.

Giordail Beach is just one of the many great beaches of Lewis, but it is particularly special for its seclusion and the number of pastimes it affords. Tolsta Head to the east provides shelter for the beach, and there are several caves waiting to be explored.

Tolsta Head is a nesting ground for seabirds, and the rock pools found among the low level reefs at each end of the beach provide a wealth of crabs, whelks and mussels, as well as various sorts of seaweed.

The more intrepid visitor will see Giordail as a great seafood restaurant and cook the whelks and mussels right there on the beach, or otherwise just sit and watch the ocean over a long summer evening that barely gets dark.

Columba’s Bay, Iona This southern end of Iona is a land of rock and marble, ruggedly beautiful and rather magical. The sea shimmers an almost Mediterranean blue on a calm day, and if you are lucky you will find the famous Iona greenstone, known variously as Columba’s Tears or Mermaid’s Tears. According to legend, the green streaks in the stone represent Saint Columba’s tears on leaving Ireland, and you will never drown if you carry a piece with you.

Columba’s Bay is thought to be the first landing point of Columba and his 12 followers in their coracle, 60 feet long and covered in hides. In Gaelic the bay is known as Port a Churcaich – Bay of the Coracle, and legend has it that Columba settled on Iona because it was the first place he found that did not have a view of Ireland, which he had left after an ill-fated and bloody battle.

The bay has a sandy beach and rocky outcrops, with small cairns said to have been built by the monks as penance for their sins.