By Elizabeth McQuillan
Scotland boasts over 50 beaches that have been awarded flags recognising their safety, water quality and beach cleanliness. Another seven beaches have also been awarded the blue flag, for which the beaches must pass over 30 stringent environmental criteria.
That is a very good starting point for any beach, but for a beach to be special, it should make you draw breath when you first see it.
Wide strips of the finest white sand lapped by pale turquoise (albeit cold) sea water and framed by a rugged coastline must place Scotland’s beaches as some of the best worldwide.
Combine this beauty with a dollop of folklore, some local knowledge or an unbeatable view, and you have a beach worthy of a visit.
Often remote, and requiring a little effort to get there, the following five beaches are definitely worth the effort.
Sandwood Bay, Sutherland
Arguably one of Scotland’s finest beaches, here the Atlantic meets a wide stretch of golden sand, backed by dunes and surrounded by towering cliffs and a tall sea stack, Am Buachaille, Gaelic for the Herdsman.
Remote and beautiful, it requires a six-mile round trip that takes you across moorland, past a freshwater loch and the ruin of a croft reputedly haunted by a mariner who would knock on the window on stormy nights.
With the Atlantic breakers crashing into this bay, many vessels were shipwrecked here through the centuries prior to the building of the Cape Wrath lighthouse in 1828, and there have been many strange sightings in the bay.
A good many walkers and crofters claim to have seen the ghost of a uniformed mariner, thought to be from a shipwrecked Polish ship. In 1900, a local crofter and his dog were terrified when they saw a mermaid perched upon a rock in the bay – the crofter remained adamant about his encounter throughout his lifetime.
Sanna Bay, Ardnamurchan
This picturesque white shell sand beach sits nestled at the most westerly point in mainland Britain. Getting there involves a tortuous drive on single-track roads along the Ardnamurchan peninsula.
Huge dunes and outcrops separate small bays from large sweeping bays on this stretch of coastline, and the outlook from the shoreline is spectacular.
Sitting on the beach you look out to the Ardnamurchan lighthouse as well as the islands of Rum, Muck, Eigg and Canna. The Cuillin of Skye can also be clearly seen.
On the approach to the bay there is an anomaly in the surrounding countryside worth noting. Next to the hamlet of Achnaha is a flat circular area, about two miles in diameter, that is encircled by a ring of steep and craggy hills – the crater of an extinct volcano that you drive across to reach your destination.
Traigh Ban nam Monach, Iona
Iona has a peculiar spiritual quality. Besides the peacefulness, the light and colours are somehow special: verdant greens against pink granite, and the palest white and pink sands shelving into an azure sea.
Traigh Ban nam Monach (Gaelic for “white strand of the monks”) is one of many fabulous beaches on Iona. Close to the abbey and nunnery, this stretch of white sand, with smooth flat rocks, is a place to quietly sit and contemplate. And to examine beached jellyfish.
On the west side of Iona at Camus Cuil an t-Saimh (Bay at the back of the ocean, pronounced approximately Cam-us cool un tav) is a huge expanse of white beach, with the Spouting Cave next to it. This spews foaming seawater upwards in a jet when the tide is right.
A little further on is St Columba’s Bay. Here, on the glassy smooth pebbles, St Columba landed in his coracle in 563AD.
Kiloran Bay, Colonsay
Kiloran Bay is an inlet on the north-west coastline of Colonsay and forms a perfect crescent of golden sand. The beach is bordered by Colonsay’s highest hill, Carnan Eoin, and on a clear day Mull can be seen in the north. Looking out to the Atlantic, the next stop would be America.
In 1882, a Viking boat burial was found at Kiloran Bay. The grave dated from between 875 and 925. The Viking man was buried in his boat with his horse, his weapons and a number of other everyday objects.
Coilleag a’ Phrionnsa, Eriskay
Better known to non-Gaelic speakers as Prince’s Bay, it was here on 23 July 1745 that the French ship Du Teillay put ashore a small boat with a famous passenger.
Prince Charles Edward Stuart – Bonnie Prince Charlie – first set foot on Scottish soil at this white sandy strip, before sailing to the mainland to raise his standard at Glenfinnan.
Rich in history and culture, this bay and the surrounding beaches would have been worked by the crofters and their ponies, collecting seaweed and shellfish in creel baskets.
Eriskay ponies, the crofter’s best friend and most ancient of Hebridean breeds (and critically endangered) still free-range and can be found grazing the machair and wandering upon the sparkling white sands.
When the SS Politician sank off the Western Isles in 1941, carrying a major cargo of whisky bound for New York, the Eriskay locals – once the crew were safely rescued – raced to retrieve the ship’s liquid cargo, hiding the bottles before the excise men could find them.
This was the inspiration for Compton Mackenzie’s comedy Whisky Galore!, which was later made into a successful film.
But as well as whisky, it is said that the Politician was carrying eight cases of currency to the West Indies and the United States. In all, there were nearly 290,000 ten-shilling notes, worth the equivalent of several million pounds at today’s prices.