Life’s a beach – a new book spotlights the very best of Scotland’s beaches

The small, sandy beach of Traigh Ban Nam Monach gently hugs the shoreline on the Isle of Iona, offering anyone lucky enough to stand by the water’s edge delightful views towards Mull and the tidal island of Erraid.

Nearby, rare corncrakes hide in beds of wild blue iris, sometimes heard but rarely seen. On the shore, a gently sloping sandy shelf means the clear water is shallow enough for children to paddle.

Close to the village of Baile Mò and the ferry pier, the beach’s calm beauty, however, has a dark, disturbing past: its name translates as Martyr’s Bay, after the killing of 68 monks in ad806 by marauding Vikings.

These days it is tourists who seek it out; one of hundreds of Scottish beaches that, if not for the bitter wind and constant threat of rain, could have fallen from the pages of a Caribbean holiday brochure.

At the start of her mission to track down Scotland’s most beautiful beaches for a new travel guide, outdoors writer Stacey McGowan Holloway noted Martyr’s Bay on her list of those which merited inclusion.

But, on Iona alone, an island only 1.5 miles wide and 3 miles long, she found a further three: along with Martyr’s Bay was Camas Cuil an t-Saimh (Bay at the Back of the Ocean) with its crashing waves and beautifully coloured pebbles, Port Ban, secluded and sheltered with steep cliffs embracing white shell sand, and North End Beach with dramatic, rocky shores, pristine sand and occasional seals.

By the time she had finished her list of Scottish beaches worthy of being included, it had stretched to well over 400.

Some were remote and rarely visited. Others, like Portobello near Edinburgh, were a stone’s throw from large towns and cities. Many boasted stunning rocks and sweeping bays, the promise of spectacular sunsets and mesmerising views of neighbouring islands.

Others had gripping historic stories to tell, or offered a unique chance to be close to wildlife.

Eventually, her list was whittled down to just over 150 ‘best’ beaches, stretching from the Northern Isles to Dumfries and Galloway, down the east coast and right across the Hebrides.

Some were well known ‘Instagram’ beaches – it would be hard not to include Traigh Shiar on Vattersay, with its wide stretch of machair and wooden gate that opens on to dazzling white sand and blue water.

Others are even further off the beaten track. Visiting them would involve her spending weekends travelling hundreds of miles by bicycle and car, noting down their features and detailing just what makes them so special.

The 150 plus beaches have now been included in The Beaches of Scotland, which details how to find the nation’s most beautiful beaches, their potential for a dip, paddleboarding, kitesurfing, kayaking and other sports, and how easy – or tricky – they are to get to.

However, some of Scotland’s most precious beaches have been left out, deemed too good to include for fear of opening them up to too many visitors.

“The hardest thing has been choosing which beaches to include and which to leave out,” says Stacey, who splits her time between working as a cancer research scientist and, outdoor writing. She is also a member of Oban Mountain Rescue Team and founder of the Tyndrum 24 ultra-running race.

“There are so many wonderful beaches, and some were too good to put include.

“What can make a place special is that it’s hard to find and too hard to get to.

“I do drop hints that there might be a beach nearby that could be worth visiting, but I prefer to leave it to the readers to work out where.”

Instead, the book focuses on beaches which are reasonably easy to reach – even if some, such as Kearvaig Bay in Sutherland, require a strenuous 12km hike – that can sustain tourists and which offer something more than a stretch of sand and some chilly water.

Such as Blackwaterfoot, on the island of Arran, where the long beach of sand and rocks gives way to a coastal walk passing impressive Drumadoon Point, a breeding area for fulmar, jackaw and kestrel, and where divers and black guillemot can be seen.

The walk leads to King’s Cave, where Robert the Bruce is said to have hidden in the winter of 1306 and took inspiration from a spider, while ancient carvings and Pictish symbols on the walls suggest he was not the cave’s first inhabitant.

On the Ardnamurchan peninsular in Lochaber, Camas nan Geall – bay of strangers – has mesmerising views over Loch Sunart, the remains of a Neolithic chambered cairn at its head and the ghosts of crofters cleared from the land following the Jacobite uprising in 1745.

While remote Scoor Beach (Traigh Bhan Na Sgurra ) on the southern coast of Mull has large, white sandy beaches with crashing waves, awe-inspiring views and caves to explore.

Scoor Cave is hard to find, explains Stacey in her book. But the reward comes in dramatic views and cave walls covered in rock carvings said to date back to 2000–3000 BC. A few kilometres away are the ruins of the town of Shiaba, emptied during the Highland Clearances.

Some of the beaches featured may be very familiar: Dornoch beach with its sweeping sands and nearby caravan parks bustling with holiday makers, Aberdeen beach near the city centre with its Category B-listed, art-deco Beach Ballroom and Brodick and Lamlash on the Isle of Arran, wide, east-facing and when the sun shines in summer, packed with visitors.

According to Stacey, however, the best Scottish beaches don’t need a blistering sun, which is probably just as well.

“One of my personal favourites was Blanakeil Bay, right on the north coast, in Sutherland,” she says. “I arrived in April, it was freezing and the sun was very low.

“I was by myself, it was sunset and I’d be travelling three days in the car and camping at night.

“There was no-one around, and it was like standing at the end of the earth.”

While the beaches she visited offered beauty and closeness to nature, waste and pollution was also often not far away – even at beaches like Oldshoremore (Am Meallan) near Kinlochbervie in Sutherland.

Miles from anywhere, its white sand of eroded stones and crushed seashells is offset by aquamarine water and, unfortunately a share of marine waste.

“Sandwood Bay is another,” she adds. “I would try to pick up and take away as much litter as I could.

“But it’s a 7km hike to get to it. A lot of fishing rubbish gets washed up and if you’re picking it up, you then have to carry it back with you, which isn’t always easy.

“I found the amount of fishing litter really quite shocking.”

That aside, she points out is difficult to dampen the magic of a day at the beach.

“Scottish beaches have so much history, there are croft ruins or iron age ruins. It’s not just this expanse of water, because in the ground under your feet or behind you is all this history.

“When you’re on the beach, you get this perspective that reminds you how small you are,” she adds.

“There’s something about being by the water that is really ‘freeing’, all the background noise seems to disappear.”

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