Scottish National Tourist Routes: Deeside

If you want to travel from Perth to Aberdeen in your motorhome, you can take the A90 dual carriageway, which will get you there in around three hours. Or you can take the much hillier and more spectacular Scottish National Tourist Route over the mountains and through Royal Deeside, which will take around an hour longer.

You could, of course, go one way and come back another and get an even better taste of what Scotland has to offer by way of scenery and things to do.

Before you start, it’s worth taking time to look around Perth, which calls itself the “Fair City” with some justification. The River Tay offers pleasant walks (when it’s not in flood), the setting is beautiful and the city is architecturally very interesting.

View from Kinnnoull Hill. Photo Credit: ShinyPhotoScotland

View from Kinnnoull Hill. Photo Credit: ShinyPhotoScotland

Perth also has plenty of places to eat and drink, good shopping, a swimming pool, a curling rink, several museums and art galleries, an excellent concert hall and a recently rebuilt theatre.  Kinnoull Hill, on the outskirts, provides excellent walking, and the Branklyn Garden, further down the hill, is famous for its rare and unusual plants from around the world. We’d recommend allowing a day to enjoy the city.

When you’re ready to head to take the Deeside road, cross the river away from the town centre and follow signs for Scone Palace and the A93 (don’t follow signs for the village of Scone, which is on the A94). Scone Palace (pronounced Scoon), original home of the Stone of Scone (or Stone of Destiny) on which Scotland’s kings used to sit for their coronation, is open April-October. As well as the house, there’s a tartan maze to wander round and over 100 acres of grounds (which stay open most of the year).

scone palace

Scone Palace is a popular tourist attraction for those visiting Perth. The stately home has a rich history, and you can visit the Palace Rooms from April through to October. Photo credit: Aaron Bradley

The grounds of Scone Palace are also home to one of Scotland’s horse-racing courses; you may want to avoid visiting on racing weekends, as traffic can get very heavy!

From Scone the road meanders in and out of sight of the River Tay to the junction at Kinclaven.  If you turn right here, you can visit the historic textile mills at Stanley, which date from the 1780s.

If you continue along the A93 you pass a hedge at Meikleour. Not just any old hedge: this beech hedge is recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the longest and tallest hedge on Earth. It’s 580 yards (1740 feet, or 530 metres) long and between 80 and 120 feet (24-36 metres) high, with an average height of 100 feet (30 metres). It takes four men six weeks to hand-trim it so, not surprisingly, it doesn’t get cut back all that often.

The hedge was planted in 1745. The man who planted it, Robert Murray Nairne, was killed at the Battle of Culloden the following year and his wife moved to Edinburgh. The hedge is now owned and cut by the Meikleour Trust.

The road continues past some of Blairgowrie’s many and famous golf courses; book ahead if you’d like a game. Blairgowrie itself is one of Perthshire’s largest towns and the centre is very attractive. Originally famous for flax (linen), it’s now the centre of Perthshire’s soft fruit production: between them, Perthshire and neighbouring Angus produce around a quarter or all British raspberries and strawberries.

Blairgowrie is the last town you’ll come to before you cross the hills, so it’s a good place to stop for lunch or a cup of tea. Back on the A93, you take a turn to the left shortly after leaving the main square and crossing the river: follow  the signs to Glenshee along the River Ericht.  At Bridge of Cally cross the River Ardle and follow the road right. The road on the left would take you over the hills to Pitlochry – a great trip for another day.

road glen shee

The road through Glen Shee. Photo credit: Bob Hall

You’re now into heather moorland, heading up Glen Shee. It’s a small part of the huge Cairngorms National Park, which covers most of the Grampian and Cairngorm mountain ranges and boasts some of the highest peaks in the country. Keep your eyes open for wildlife as you pass through it: you may see capercaillie, ptarmigan, golden eagles, deer, snow hares and even, if you’re extremely lucky and quiet, wildcats.

In a snowy winter, Glenshee is Scotland’s largest skiing and snowboarding area, while in summer it’s popular with walkers and mountain bikers (you take your bike up on the Cairnwell chairlift, a spectacular start to the exhilarating 3.2 km run). There’s a huge car park, so there’s no problem parking your motorhome if you want to head into the hills.

If you want to “bag” a Munro (mountain over 3,000 feet) or two, there are several nearby to choose from and, because the road has already brought you so far up the mountain, their summits are much easier to reach than most.

The road through Glen Shee is an old military road, built after the Jacobite risings to enable the redcoat soldiers to root out the rebels. It’s a long climb to the top: this is one of the highest roads in Britain, though the former highest point (the notorious Devil’s Elbow) is now bypassed.  Once you’re past the ski centre you start heading downhill towards Braemar; the military road parts company with the A93 a few miles before the town.

Braemar has a 17th century castle, built by the Earl of Mar as a hunting lodge, garrison and family homes; it’s now owned by the local community and open to the public. Mar Lodge and Kindrochit Castle are also both open. The town is a good place to stop and enjoy what’s on offer locally.

The Cairngorms National Park includes several Munros, miles of bike trails, the highest golf course in Britain, fishing (you’ll need to buy a licence) and deer stalking. Braemar hosts not one but two Highland Games: the Junior games in July and the world-famous Highland Gathering, usually attended by the Royal Family, at the beginning of September.

Braemar Gathering

The Braemar Gathering has been running in its present form since 1832. Events include heavy lifting, pipe bands, dancing, tug o’ war and other athletic competitions. Photo credit: HandsLive

Rejoining the old military road and following the course of the River Dee, the A93 continues to probably its most famous point, Balmoral Castle. The earliest part of the castle dates from the 16th century but you wouldn’t think it to look at the building. It was completely remodelled for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1852 in the sturdy “Scottish Baronial” style.

You can visit Balmoral’s ballroom, which houses an exhibition, and the grounds if you arrive at the right moment. They’re only open three months of the year and that obviously doesn’t include the period in summer when the Royal Family spend their holidays there.

Just past Balmoral is Crathie. The kirk is famous as the Royal family’s summer parish church; a visit to the nearby Royal Lochnagar distillery might prove slightly more relaxing.

From Crathie roads follow both banks of the River Dee; the A93 follows the north (left) bank and is the better choice in a large vehicle.

Ballater, the next town on your route, bills itself as “The Jewel of the Cairngorms”. It’s certainly a very attractive Victorian town, standing in the shadow of “dark Lochnagar” and Craigendarroch mountains. If you’re looking for somewhere to eat, this is a good place to stop for a bite.

There’s an 8-mile footpath round nearby Loch Muick, part of the Balmoral Estate, which makes a for a good day’s walk. You can often see red deer, golden eagles and grouse here. Glen Tanar nature reserve also offers good walking and mountain bike trails, as do Drummy Woods. The Glen Tanar estate also offers highland safaris.

Red Deer Scotland

Red deer near Loch Muick. There are some excellent walks in the area and plenty of opportunities to spot Scottish wildlife. Photo credit: Vince O’Sullivan

At Muir of Dinnet you’ll find a National Nature Reserve with woodland, heath and open water.    There’s a family-friendly bike route from Ballater to the rocky Burn o’Vat in the reserve.

Once past Dinnet you’re out of the Cairngorms National Park, and the scenery becomes less spectacular, more gentle and prettier. You’re still following the valley of the River Dee, but the hills either side are lower, with more open fields and woodland.

At Aboyne you’ll find the Deeside Activity Park, which offers quad biking, go karting, archery and clay pigeon shooting if you want a change from walking, cycling and golf. Aboyne was built as a Victorian inland resort and still feels pleasantly relaxed, with good shopping and eating facilities.

Kincardine O’Neil, one of the oldest villages in Deeside, missed out on the Victorian building boom, which means it has kept a large part of its charm. It’s been a conservation area since 1978, so with a bit of luck the charm will continue to survive. The town made its money from control of one the main fords across the Dee. Later it was also on the coaching route from Aberdeen to Braemar: the route stopped at Kincardine O’Neil in winter because of the snow.

Banchory, the next town on the route, is a long, skinny town with some fancy shops and a locally famous garden centre. It’s also home to Crathes Castle, a romantic maze of turrets and towers, with exquisite painted ceilings and oak panelling, which is now a National Trust property.

Crathes Castle roses

Crathes Castle boasts romantic turrets and spectacular gardens. Photo credit: Nick Bramhall

Crathes has a fine walled garden, 300-year-old yew hedges and several marked trails. Wildlife spotted here includes herons, roe deer, red squirrels, woodpeckers and buzzards. It also has a “Go Ape” tree-top adventure trail, which is very popular in fine weather.

Drum Castle, between Crathes and Aberdeen, is another National Trust property. More solid-looking than Crathes, it’s one of Scotland’s oldest tower houses, its history covering 700 years. The chapel dates from the 1500s, the main mansion is Jacobean and the library was remodelled in Victorian times.

Where Crathes has a walled garden and ancient yews, Drum boasts a garden of historic roses and an ancient oak forest where you might see red kites, deer, red squirrels and (at night, of course) badgers.

From Peterculter to Aberdeen the road becomes largely built up. If you’re heading south from here, and want to avoid Aberdeen altogether, cross the river from Peterculter to Kirkton of Maryculter and follow the B979 to Stonehaven where you can pick up the A90 (beware: there are humpback bridges on this route). You have to go through Stonehaven and out again towards Dunottar Castle to achieve this; Dunottar is worth the detour in its own right.

If you’re playing it safe, follow the A93 all the way to the Bridge of Don on the outskirts of Aberdeen. There are several car parks at the shopping centre near the bridge where you can leave your campervan, if you don’t want to drive it into the city.

If you’re heading south, cross the bridge and you’re on the A90, heading back towards Perth to complete your circuit. Or, if Edinburgh’s your destination, you could drive your motorhome down the East coast route south from Stonehaven that’s described in a previous blog

Scotland’s Northern Isles by Motorhome

When people think of Scotland’s islands, it’s usually the Hebrides they have in mind. But there are two other, very distinctive, island groups off Scotland’s north coast that are well worth the effort of reaching: Orkney and Shetland.

The best time to visit is during what Shetlanders call the “Simmer Dim”, midsummer, when the light never quite leaves the sky. Or in winter for the Northern Lights (aurora borealis) and Up Helly Aa Viking festivals. Or in spring, for the wildflowers. Or any time, really!

Shetland ponnies with landscape of Mainland, Shetland Islands, Scotland, UK

Shetland ponies relaxing on Shetland Island

There are three different ferry services to Orkney and two to Shetland, and it’ll take you a couple of days to reach the islands from Edinburgh whichever you use. If you’re visiting both sets of islands, the best way is to drive up to the north coast, take the ferry to Orkney, cross to Shetland, and return on the overnight ferry to Aberdeen.

The Pentland Ferries catamaran from Gills Bay, near John o’ Groats, across the Pentland Firth to St. Margaret’s Hope, on South Ronaldsay, is the shortest, most sheltered sea route to Orkney; it’s also the cheapest if you’re taking a vehicle. There are four sailings a day, weather permitting (it doesn’t always!) and you pass several uninhabited islands on the way so there’s always something to look at.

Orkney Mainland

From St Margaret’s Hope you cross onto Burray and then the Mainland (largest island) by bridge. On your way, you can see three of Orkney’s major attractions. The Tomb of the Eagles is on South Ronaldsay; you’ll find both Stone Age and Bronze Age sites here, a little way apart. Then the ornate Catholic Italian Chapel, built in a tin shed by Italian prisoners of war during World War II (WWII), is just off to your right as you cross Lamb Holm.

detail of the Italian Chapel on Orkney

Inside the Italian Catholic Chapel at Land Holm on Orkney, constructed during the Second World War.

And you’ll be driving across the Churchill Barriers. They were part of the WWII defences of Scapa Flow, the sheltered water between the islands which was a major naval base. Scapa Flow is also the site of the sinking of the German WWI  fleet in 1919; the ships are very popular with scuba divers.

Orkney’s main towns of Kirkwall and Stromness are both on the Mainland. Kirkwall has St Magnus’ Cathedral, which goes back to Viking times, the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palaces, which are somewhat later, the Highland Park distillery, and a busy harbour and fishing fleet. It also has some fascinating museums, including the Orkney Wireless Museum. Stromness prides itself on its artiness, offering craft shops and art galleries galore.

You’re never far from the ancient world in Orkney. On the A965 between Kirkwall and Stromness you’ll see signs to the right for Maeshow, an extraordinary Neolithic chambered burial cairn. Further along the road the B9055 heads off to the right past the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, a Neolithic stone circle. This is the road to Skara Brae, Europe’s most complete Neolithic village, which pre-dates the Pyramids. After visiting Skara Brae, carry on up the coast to the Brough of Birsay, which has Pictish and Norse associations, including an 11th century sauna! The nearby ruins of the Birsay Earl’s Palace are also worth a visit.

Six of the standing stones of Stenness a neolithic henge monument on the Isle of OrkneyScotland UK near the Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe

Six of the standing stones of Stenness a neolithic henge monument on the Isle of Orkney, Scotland UK near the Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe

Smaller islands

To reach Rousay, take the Orkney Ferries ferry from Tingwall (you’re advised to book their ferries in advance if taking a vehicle). The island has over 160 archaeological sites going back 5,000+ years, including a Neolithic settlement of seven houses, similar to Skara Brae. If you follow the Westness Heritage walk, you can cover the entire period from the Stone Age to the mid 1800s in a single mile of coastal path. Even in pouring rain it’s an amazing day’s walk.

If all this ancient history is too much for you, how about climbing a sea-stack? Hoy, Orkney’s second-largest island, boasts a decidedly challenging climb, the 450-foot Old Man of Hoy. It’s quite a hike even to get there, but there’s plenty of wildlife to look out for as you tramp. At the southern end of the island you’ll find the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre, where you can find out all about the harbour and Orkney’s role in WWII. Cross the bridge and take the road past Longhope to Hackness to see one of the few surviving Martello Towers, part of the defences built to protect Scapa Flow during the Napoleonic Wars.

Westray, long and skinny on the map, is Orkney’s second-largest island. You reach it by passenger ferry (no vehicles) from Kirkwall, an hour and a half’s journey that can be enlivened by watching out for orcas, dolphin’s and sea-birds. Westray is famous not just for its archaeology (of course) but also as the home of hundreds of thousands of razorbills, guillemots and gannets, which nest by the lighthouse at Noup Head.

Male Orca Killer whale swimming, with whale watching boat in the background, Victoria, Canada

Male Orca Killer whale swimming, with whale watching boat in the background

At the Heritage Centre in the main town, Pierowall, you’ll find the Westray Stone and the Orkney Venus, two fine stone carvings, and a short distance outside the town is Noltland Castle, a fine but unfinished Z-plan fortress.

Other unusual attractions on the island include a crab processing factory and the world’s shortest scheduled flight: less than two minutes, across to Papa Westray, which is home to the oldest standing house in northern Europe, the Knap of Howar, dating back 6000 years. Papay, as it’s also known, has a rare patch of maritime heath, and the North Hill bird sanctuary has terns, puffins and great skuas (known in the islands as “bonxies”).

Orkney Ferries can take you to 13 of the islands – more than we have time or space to cover here. Their site provides a page of information for each island with ferry access, so if you have plenty of time it’s a useful aid to planning extra excursions. However, we have to move on.

Shetland mainland

Head back to Kirkwall to take the NorthLink ferry to Lerwick, capital of Shetland, Great Britain’s northernmost outpost – nearer to Norway than to mainland Scotland and, indeed, a Norwegian province until 1469. There’s still a very Norse feeling to the place, especially if you’re there in January for the Up Helly Aa festival.

As on Orkney, there’s a wealth of ancient history laid bare at sites all over the country and plenty of scenic beauty and wildlife, too. Lerwick is a good place to get your ear in for the distinctive local accent and dialect words, many of which go back to Viking times. The city’s been a major fishing port for centuries and the harbour is still busy – though now you’re as likely to see oil-rig supply vessels and ocean-going yachts as fishing boats.

In the middle of town you’ll find Fort Charlotte, a five-sided fort dating from the 18th century Dutch Wars. There’s also the Shetland Museum, with its Boat Hall full of ships of all sizes and ages. Or, if you prefer, sample some local beers at the Lerwick Brewery, a family run business that launched its first beers as recently as 2013.

LERWICK, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 24; Bressay Island and a boat viewed from Fort Charlotte Lerwick Shetland Scotland United Kingdom. View from the embrasure for the cannon. Taken August 24, 2012

View from Fort Charlotte, Lerwick Shetland, dating back to the 18th century

The Shetlanders have long been famous for their knitted lace and garments, and you can find out more in the Shetland Textiles Museum in the Bod of Gremista (the building’s as interesting as the contents). Shetland Wool Week, in late September, offers a packed programme of talks and events for textile lovers.

Down at the south of Shetland’s Mainland you’ll find Dunrossness and the Shetland Crofthouse Museum, which shows how crofters lived until the 1960s and later. Right at the tip of the island, at Sumburgh Head, you’ll find three attractions. The first two are from ancient history: the Old Scatness Broch and Iron Age Village, and the more famous Jarlshof settlement. The latter has buildings of all ages, from Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age, Pictish, and Norse to mediaeval and 16th century structures.

Sumburgh’s third attraction is right up to date, an RSPB site famous for its thousands of puffins, kittiwakes, fulmars and other seabirds during the nesting season. The views out to sea are pretty spectacular, too, though you may find the site somewhat draughty.

Puffin emerging from its burrow, Sumburgh, Shetland

Puffin emerging from its burrow, Sumburgh, Shetland

Head up the west coast to St Ninian’s Isle and take a walk across the UK’s largest active sand tombolo (causeway). You might discover more of the horde of silver Viking treasure that was unearthed under the island’s church in 1958…

Of the 100 islands in the archipelago only about 15 are inhabited – but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see on the others.  Back on the east coast, you can take a boat from Sandwick to Mousa. No-one lives there now, but they did once: Mousa Broch is an Iron Age tower, one of the most impressive and complete in Scotland.  You can climb stairs all the way to the top for fabulous views. At night the broch is home to swarms of storm petrels and it’s quite a sight as they come in through the darkness to roost.

Six miles from Lerwick, Scalloway used to be the capital of the islands. In the Scalloway Museum you can find out all about the Shetland Bus – nothing to do with public transport. It was the WWII scheme that used Shetland fishing boats to transport men, supplies and weapons to the Resistance in Nazi-occupied Norway. There’s also a castle built in the early 1600s by the local laird, Earl Patrick Stewart.

At Hillswick there’s a sanctuary for seals and otters and at Eshaness the Tangwick Haa Museum, another laird’s house full of local history, photos and artefacts. Eshaness also has a picturesque circular walk around the coastline, including the lighthouse (though that’s now privately owned and closed to the public).

Eshaness in the Shetland Islands stunning cliffs and dangerous sea.

Eshaness lighthouse (now privately owned) in the Shetland Islands, beside stunning cliffs.

Rona’s Hill, Shetland’s highest point at 450m above sea level, is a good place for plant lovers, with alpine varieties such as mountain azalea and spiked woodrush. There’s a chambered cairn at the top and you can see almost the whole of Shetland laid out below you – even as far as Fair Isle if the weather’s good.

Other islands

Shetlands Islands Council operates the inter-island ferries. From the Mainland you can reach Papa Stour from West Burrafirth; Whalsay and Skerries from Laxo and Vidlin; Bressay from Lerwick; and Yell (from which you reach Fetlar and Unst) from Toft. You can also get to Fair Isle, which is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, from Grutness. All the ferries, except the Fair Isle one, can accommodate motorhomes.

All the islands are different and all are worth visiting but probably the most rewarding for the first-time visitor is Unst. Unst, the UK’s most northerly inhabited island, is home to possibly the oddest bus shelter in Britain: it’s fully furnished, with sofa, table and curtains, and gets a new “look” every year. You’ll find it at Baltasound.

For winter visitors, the island has its own Up Helly Aa festivals (several of them), slightly later than the Lerwick one. Unst is a also great place to watch the northern lights (aurora borealis) and, later, otters, puffins, and other wildlife.

The island’s Viking heritage is everywhere – this is thought to be where they made their first landings in what is now Great Britain. At Haroldswick there’s a reconstructed longhouse and the Skidbladner replica Gokstad ship. More longhouses have been excavated at Hamar, Underhoull and Belmont. The sites are open all year.

If all this Viking heritage has worn you out, a visit to Valhalla (where fallen warriors were revived with a horn of ale) is obviously indicated. The Valhalla Brewery is Britain’s most northerly and produces a range of 7 beers. Take a guided tour and then buy your own take-away reviver package.

Shetland Ale from Valhalla Brewery, the northernmost brewery in the UK. Credit: Peter Schofield Flickr

Shetland Ale from Valhalla Brewery, the northernmost brewery in the UK. Credit: Peter Schofield Flickr

Blow away the fumes of the beer with a visit to a nature reserve. There’s Keen of Hamar or Hermaness, dramatic on its cliff-top overlooking Muckle Flugga and home to thousands of  nesting seabirds. You might see puffins, fulmars, shags, gannets and seals at the sea’s edge, and great skuas and red throated divers on the landward moorland stretches. Lovers of wild food should come later in the year, when the bilberries and crowberries produce their fruit.

On your way back to Lerwick for the NorthLink Ferry back to Aberdeen, take time to visit Yell’s white beaches and blue but chilly waters. If you haven’t yet had your fill of history, Yell also offers a folklore and local history museum at Old Haa, located in a 17th century laird’s house. The garden is also open and there’s a tearoom and craft shop, so it’s a great place to spend a few hours and stock up on quality souvenirs.

Camping

Camping in Orkney and Shetland is easy.  There’s a variety of campsites all over the islands, with anything from 2 to 80 pitches. Many are community run; some are just regular car parks with electric hook-ups added. Not all have pump-out facilities or water points, so use them when you find them!

Wild camping is also permitted. The islands are not heavily populated and the outlook is relaxed so, as long as you don’t outstay your welcome, you’ll be fine. Do make sure the ground is hard enough to take the weight of your vehicle, though – you don’t want to end up in a peat bog. Watch out for the weather, too: many of the finest views are accompanied by strong winds.

Orkney Camping Pauljennywilson Flickr

Orkney Camping Pauljennywilson Flickr

If you do the whole trip we’ve outlined here, it will take you at least three weeks – and there’ll still be whole islands you don’t have time to see. The more time you can take, the better. It’s a long way to travel and trying to “do” the northern isles in a week is just a waste. If you haven’t time to do both sets of islands, do one. But promise yourself you’ll come back and do the other soon.

There’s nowhere quite like Scotland’s Northern Isles, at any time of year.

 

Touring Scotland’s Outer Hebrides by Motorhome

The Outer Hebrides (also known as the Western Isles, Outer Isles or the Long Island) are one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland, with white sands, turquoise seas and very few people. Life moves at a slower pace here, especially on Sundays, and the roads are quiet. The weather’s not always reliable, but this is Scotland’s Wild West, with climate to match.

Some of the islands are connected by bridges now but you’ll still need ferries to get out to the Isles and between them. The most cost-effective way to do this is to buy a Hopscotch ticket from Caledonian MacBrayne (better known as CalMac), who operate almost all the ferries around the west coast of Scotland.

A Hopscotch ticket allows you to travel for 31 days from the date of your first ferry trip and you can use it to go in either direction between the islands. It doesn’t guarantee you a place on a particular sailing (booking in advance is highly recommended during busy periods) nor does it save you money, but once you’ve bought your ticket you don’t need to shell out again, which makes budgeting easier.

The other vital piece of equipment for your Hebridean trip is midge repellent. The islands are a stronghold of the Highland midge, which prefers human blood to all other forms of sustenance. A hat helps keep the little blighters out of your hair, but you’ll need to slather all exposed skin in repellent. Legend has it that Avon’s Skin So Soft moisturiser is the most effective (and that this fact was discovered by the Marines!) but there are plenty of others to choose from. You can check out the current ‘midge forecast’ here: https://www.smidgeup.com/midge-forecast/

Some basics

Iona

The Hebrides are a diverse set of islands off the west coast of Scotland, featuring rugged scenery and stunning beaches. Photo credit: James Stringer

The northern Outer Hebrides (Lewis, Harris and North Uist) are largely Protestant, and you will find most shops and pubs are shut on Sundays and ferries do not run on the Sabbath except on very rare occasions when the weather has caused sailing delays and small island shops are running out of food. The southern islands (Barra, South Uist and Benbecula) are largely Catholic and Sunday traditions are more relaxed here.

Gaelic is still spoken by many Hebridean islanders and road signs are in both Gaelic and English. It’s quite fun trying to work out how to pronounce Gaelic place names by reading the English and seeing how many letters are “left out”.

Most ferry terminals have black-water emptying facilities, toilets and showers, though you may have to hunt for them. Some also offer good long-term parking if you want to spend a day in town.

Wild camping is allowed but it’s always worth asking permission of the local crofter(s). And please don’t park on the machair: it’s both legally protected and easily damaged. Machair means a fertile low-lying grassy plain in Gaelic and it’s one of the rarest habitats in Europe, occurring in the Outer Hebrides and nowhere else. It is very rich in wildflowers, birds and insects and the locals are understandably protective of it.

Mull and the Inner Hebrides

The classic Hebrides trip starts at Oban, with the ferry to Craignure at the south-eastern tip of Mull, in the Inner Hebrides. If you have time, a drive round Mull is very rewarding. You can take the short ferry trip from Fionnphort at the south-western tip of the island across to the early Christian sites on Iona, which offers peaceful walking and biking. Don’t take your motorhome across: go as a foot passenger and return to your van on Mull in the evening.

If you travel up the west coast of Mull, you’ll see signs offering boat trips to Fingal’s Cave on Staffa, which inspired Mendelssohn. Its basalt columns are part of the same geological formation as the Devil’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and the acoustics are very distinctive.  The island, now owned by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its wildlife.

Starting on Barra

From the famously painted waterfront of Tobermory you sail to Castlebay on Barra, the most southerly of the Outer Hebrides. The bay takes its name from Kisimul Castle, home of the MacNeils since the 11th century. There’s also a community-run shop, Buth Bharraigh, which stocks local crafts as well as food and drink.

From Barra there’s a causeway to Vatersay, with its abandoned village of Eoradail and abundant wildflowers in the machair.

aeroplane at Barra airport

A plane on the sandy airstrip at Barra airport. Photo credit: James Stringer

Back on Barra, you’ll find seals at Seal Bay and, at Traigh Mhor at the northern tip of the island, the famous Barra airport. It’s the only airstrip in the world where scheduled flights land on the beach and are determined by the tide table. There’s an excellent airport café, open to non-flyers as well as passengers.

Nearby you’ll find the small Croft Number 2 Caravan and Camping site, which sits within 50m of the beach and has all modern conveniences for motorhomes, including a drying facility. It’s handily open all year.

South and North Uist, Benbecula and Berneray

From Ardmhor, near the airport, you catch the ferry to the small island of Eriskay, from which there’s a bridge to South Uist. There’s plenty to do here, whether you want to follow the Bonnie Prince Charlie trail, look out for golden and white-tailed sea eagles, grey and common seals and bottlenose dolphins, or check out the sweater-makers of Eriskay Jerseys. There are plenty of mapped walks and cycle routes to follow and, of course, there’s machair everywhere. If you prefer to see the sea, you can take a boat trip from Lochboisdale with Uist Sea Tours.

There are campsites at both Lochboisdale and South Lochboisdale that cater for campervans.  There’s nothing at the north of South Uist, but Benbecula offers the Shellbay Caravan and Camping Park at Liniclate.

North Uist has many monuments and ruins for lovers of ancient history. The Udal Peninsula is one of the most important archaeological sites in the UK, having been occupied from Neolithic times to the early 20th century. Eilean Domhnuill is an artificial island in Loch Olabhat that also dates back to Neolithic times; there’s another stronghold in the middle of the tidal loch of Sticir, connected by stone causeways to the mainland.

If history’s not your thing, follow the Bird of Prey Trail to see hen harriers, merlins and short-eared owls, which forage in daylight, or take a walk across to uninhabited Vallay Island at low tide – make sure you get back before the tide cuts you off! At Malacleit, at Traigh Bhalaigh (Vallay) on the north coast of North Uist, you’ll find a typically peaceful crofting village. You can also follow the Uist Sculpture Trail or sections of the Hebridean Way on foot or by bike.

From Lochmaddy you can take a CalMac ferry back to Uig on Skye and head home if you’ve run out of time. But there’s plenty more to see and do in the Western Isles first.

At the southern end of Berneray, for example, you’ll find the monument to Aonghas Mor MacAsgaill, better known in English as The Giant MacAskill, who spent most of his life in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and apparently topped out at 7’9” – the “world’s largest giant”. He was nearly as tall as the standing stone at Cladh Maolrithe, which is 8’ tall – at least the bit that you can see. The part underground is said to be just as big.

Harris

From Berneray you take the ferry across the Sound of Harris, with views over the Atlantic towards St Kilda, and land at Leverburgh at the south end of the Isle of Harris. It’s really the same island as Lewis, but there are geological and cultural differences between the two that make them feel completely different. The ancient rocks of the east coast of Harris, some of the oldest in the world, stood in for Jupiter in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001, A Space Odyssey”.

You can walk and cycle your way round Harris on several well-laid out mapped routes. Or you could take a day-trip to St Kilda or the Shiant Islands, weather permitting, or discover maritime history at the old whaling station at Bunavoneader and the first lighthouse in the Western Isles on Scalpay.  St Clements Church, at Rodel, is also worth a visit. Dating from the 1520s, it has a surprisingly large tower and a peaceful, if scattered, graveyard.

Wildlife you might see includes otters, seals, porpoises, red deer, golden and sea eagles, hen harriers, golden plover and even corncrakes (though you’re more likely to hear those than see them). If you go in June, look out for the golden flowers of bog asphodel on the moors.

Luskentyre beach

Luskentyre is one of the largest beaches on Harris. Photo credit: Bob the Lomond

But many people go to Harris for the beaches: Luskintyre, Horgabost, Huisinis (Hushinish) and the others all boast miles of pure white sand and sea that could be Caribbean … until you dip a toe in. Some hardy folk come to the Hebrides to surf – the waves roll in from America with nothing to stop them – but it’s not a place for the casual board-rider. The sea provides some challenging fishing, too.

Then, of course, there’s the world-famous Harris Tweed. You can watch it being made at the Harris Tweed Exhibition at Drinshader, or buy it from the official shop and warehouse in Tarbert. Tarbert is also home to the island’s first distillery, which also has a canteen serving local food.  The distillery produces both whisky and gin with a distinctly maritime flavour, and is very much a local and social enterprise.

Lewis

Callanish standing stones

Callanish Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis. Photo credit: G Macfayden

Without doubt, the most famous thing on Lewis is the Callanish (Calanais) standing stones, one of the most complete sets in Europe and, unlike Stonehenge, not fenced off. Dating back some 5,000 years, they’re also earlier than Stonehenge, and the rock they’re made from (Lewisian Gneiss) dates back some 3000 million years. They’re particularly atmospheric at or just after dawn and dusk. There are three other stone circles nearby, prosaically named Callanish 2 (Cnoc Ceann a’Gharraidh in Gaelic), Callanish 3 (Cnoc Fhillibhir Bheag) and Callanish 4 (Ceann Thulabhaig).

Dun Carloway Broch, one of the best preserved brochs in Scotland, is about 5 miles from Callanish. It’s a double-walled stronghold with a staircase between the two walls and dates from the early Iron Age. At Great Bernera (not to be confused with the island of Berneray), there’s a reconstructed Iron Age house, excavated from the sand after a storm. The beach here is worth the detour by itself.

Further up the coast you’ll find the Arnol Blackhouse, a traditional straw-thatched house with no chimney (so the fire’s smoke blackened everything inside, where both humans and livestock lived. The walls are made of mortarless stone and the floor is just bare earth. Houses like this one were in use right up ‘til the end of the 19th century. Between Great Bernera and Arnol are the Norse Mill and Kiln, reflecting the Viking influence on the region.

Two places on Lewis are particularly good for spotting basking sharks: the Port of Ness and Mangersta Head. The best time to see these huge plankton-feeders is July and August as they trundle through the water, mouths agape for their tiny prey.

Also in July, you’ll find the Hebridean Celtic Festival in the Western Isles’ capital, Stornoway. It’s a family-friendly event showcasing all types of Celtic music in large and small concerts and free events all over town. Stornoway also produces famously good black pudding and is the ferry port from which you return to the mainland, landing at Ullapool.

You’ll find Celtic traditions celebrated all over the islands all year by the craft-makers who live there, selling their work either from their studios or through shops. Their works reflect the light and colours of the islands, their peacefulness and storms, and make unique souvenirs of your trip to Scotland’s Wild West, the Outer Hebrides.

Driving your motorhome on Scotland’s single-track roads

Many visitors to Scotland are surprised by how narrow some of the roads are, especially if they’re not used to driving a large vehicle like a motorhome. Even passing other vehicles on normal A and B roads can feel very tight. But some roads are even narrower: single-track roads with passing places are something of a feature of driving in rural Scotland, particularly in the Highlands.

Scotland's Highlands and Islands often use singletrack roads with frequent passing places. Photo credit: John M.

Scotland’s Highlands and Islands often use single track roads with frequent passing places. These roads are less manicured than larger roads, but often have the most spectacular views! Photo credit: John M.

Visitors from elsewhere in Britain may have come across such roads. They certainly exist in rural parts of England and Wales. But they are very rare elsewhere in the developed world, and can cause worry and confusion. So here are our best tips for safe driving on single-track roads.

Look out for passing places!

Passing places are usually marked, normally with a black-and-white pole, with or without a white sign and the words “Passing Place”. However, not all passing places are marked, so you have to keep your eyes open for them. They can be on either side of the road.  It is important to remember that in Scotland we drive on the left of the road (it’s easy to forget when there’s no other traffic to remind you). If the passing place is on the left pull into it; if it’s on the right, stop opposite it. Don’t try to pull into a passing place on your right – it’s one of the best ways to cause an accident.

Drive slowly and be patient

Not just for other drivers’s sakes but because single-track roads often lack fences and you may meet cattle, sheep, deer, horse-riders, cyclists and walkers. These roads are often so quiet that you have a good chance of seeing unusual wildlife, like pine martens. You may also meet hard hazards such as low bridges and tight bends, which can come up without warning. Should you meet a herd of animals, the safest thing to do is to pull in and switch off your engine until they have all passed. Horse-riders and cyclists should be allowed to pass you at their own pace; horses may be nervous of your large vehicle and cyclists are working much harder than you are! Think of your wait as a good opportunity to see the countryside, which can be difficult to do if you’re concentrating on the road ahead.

Anticipate when to stop

The general rule is that whoever reaches a passing place first stops. Look ahead as far as you can, and pull in to the passing place in good time – it will save you having to reverse. Use your indicators to show the other vehicle that you’re pulling in.  If they stop at the same time as you and flash their headlights twice, it usually means that they’re inviting you to drive on – but this is not a hard-and-fast rule, so don’t rely on it.  If they only flash once, it is usually a “thank you” and means they know you’ve stopped and they are driving on; you may also get a cheery wave as they pass you. They’ll expect to be thanked if they give way to you, too.

Passing places aren’t just for oncoming traffic

Keep an eye on your rear-view mirrors and use passing places to let any vehicles behind you overtake. The countryside may look as though nothing ever happens but a lot of people work there and they get very frustrated if they can’t pass you and get on with whatever they’re doing.  Very often drivers who have overtaken will thank you by using their indicators or hazard warning lights for a few seconds – it doesn’t mean anything’s wrong.

Passing places are required to keep the flow of traffic moving along single track roads. So however tempting it is, you shouldn't park up in passing places to take a photo of the admittedly often beautiful views! Photo credit: Tom Parnell

Passing places are required to keep the flow of traffic moving along single track roads. So however tempting it is, you shouldn’t park up in passing places to take a photo of the admittedly often beautiful views! Photo credit: Tom Parnell

Remember that passing places are not parking spaces

Passing places aren’t for stopping to take photos, have a picnic or park for the night; the clue is in the name! Nor are gateways, cattle-grid gates or other apparently-unused entries.  You never know when a farmer or home-owner may need to use them – just because you can’t see a house doesn’t mean there isn’t one along the track, just over the hill.  So only park in places where other vehicles can get past you.  This applies overnight, too, since a home-owner may be coming home after dark or a farmer may be making an early start.  Make sure anywhere you stop for any length of time is hard ground too!

Be prepared to reverse to a passing place

If an oncoming vehicle is bigger or harder to manoeuvre than yours (for example, a tractor with a trailer), then it is usually a good idea to kindly reverse to the nearest passing place. Always use a passing place, even if it’s quite a long way back, rather than trying to climb up on the verge.  Road edges are often soft and narrow and can hide roadside drains, and you don’t want to get stuck. All our motorhomes are fitted with reversing cameras; make sure you’re familiar with using your camera and reading the screen before you need it.

It’s generally considered good manners to give way to vehicles coming up a hill towards you, particularly large and/or heavy ones. It is much easier for you to move off downhill than it would be for them to start moving uphill again.

Single-track roads with passing places are not everyone’s cup of tea but if you want to travel in the Highlands you will certainly meet them. The trick is to be relaxed but very focussed: think ahead, take it gently and don’t worry. The chances are that most of the vehicles you’ll meet will be smaller than yours and will wait for you to pass them. There’s no point in letting a quirk of British road-building keep you away from some of the most beautiful parts of the country.

(Having said that, some roads are simply not suitable for large vehicles. The Bealach na Ba’ pass to Applecross is one, as it is steep, narrow and very twisty. It is worth spending time poring over maps and deciding where you’ll feel comfortable driving – maps are half the fun of a road-trip anyway.)

Hopefully these tips will have put your mind at ease about driving on Scotland’s smaller roads.  As long as you relax, take care and drive courteously, you’ll have a great time. What’s more, you’ll see the full beauty of Scotland’s lochs, mountains and coast. What better motorhome holiday could there be?

Over the Sea to Skye on a Motorhome Adventure

“Speed bonnie boat like a bird on the wing, over the sea to Skye”, as the old Jacobite song goes – and if you’re going to spend time on an island, a ferry is for many people the best way to approach.  Others dislike boats and would rather stay on terra firma. One of the great things about Skye is that you can do either – or both.

Probably the best approach is to drive from Fort William along the Road to the Isles, take the ferry from Mallaig to Armadale, tour Skye, and head home across the bridge from Kyleakin to Kyle of Lochalsh, past Eilean Donan Castle. The Skye Bridge also offers a way on and off the island if the weather’s too bad for the ferry to run.

What to do on the Isle of Skye

Skye, nicknamed “the misty isle”, is a very popular destination for visitors to Scotland, despite the midges and the weather (it’s famous for both). Walkers love it for its mountains, drinkers for its whisky and craft beer, Jacobite sympathisers for its connection to Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Views at the Quairaing, Isle of Skye

Views at the Quairaing, Isle of Skye

It offers Dunvegan and Armadale Castles to visit, fishing villages and seascapes to admire, lochs and coves to explore and birds to watch, not to mention one world-famous restaurant and several less well-known ones.  And place names like Snizort, Culnacnoc, Trumpan, Luib and Elgol that sound as though they belong in fantasy fiction.

There’s one main road up the east side of the island, a smaller one up part of the west coast, and many single-track roads with passing places. These are used by farm vehicles and trucks as well as smaller vehicles, so you have to be confident about reversing if you want to travel them (reversing mirrors are fitted to all our motorhomes). Use the passing places on your left, and don’t park in them.

The other hazard is deer and sheep, which roam freely and have no traffic sense; it’s up to you to avoid them. If you hit them they can do a great deal of damage and may even cause a fatal accident so ca’ canny (be careful)!

In the middle of summer parking at some of the more popular spots can be difficult, especially in a large motorhome. The best time to visit them is early or late, if you can manage it.

Castles, Whisky & Seall Festival upon arrival on Skye

When you disembark at Armadale, make the time to visit Armadale Castle, spiritual home of Clan Donald, and the nearby Museum of the Isles. The castle, now a ruin, has 20,000 acres of grounds to explore, so it’s a great place to stretch your legs after the journey.

Armadale Castle on the Isle of Skye

Armadale Castle on the Isle of Skye

The road from Armadale runs roughly north along the coast to join the main road.  At the village of Isleornsay (Eilean Iarmain) you’ll find one of Skye’s two whisky distilleries, Praban na Linne, which can be visited Monday-Friday all year plus weekends in summer.  You can take a free tasting and buy their whiskies, as well as tweeds and woollen goods, in the shop there.

In July and August the Seall Skye festival, Fèis an Eilein, takes place all around Isleornsay and the Sleat peninsula. With film, theatre, traditional and jazz music, dance, poetry, art exhibitions, ceilidhs and even a circus school, it’s worth investigating if you’re going to be near Sleat at the right time.

Continuing up the Armadale road, turn left at Harrapool and then left again in Broadford to reach the Tolkien-sounding village of Elgol. From here you can take a boat-trip to see the famous Cuillin Mountains from the water (much easier and safer than climbing them, though you can do that too).  You may also see dolphins, minke whales, basking sharks, eagles and puffins, depending on the time of year. When you come back, try the café in the community centre – it’s highly recommended.

View of Black Cuilin Mountains across Loch Scavaig from Elgol

View of Black Cuilin Mountains across Loch Scavaig from Elgol

There’s a good mountain bike route here, from the beach around the “cleared” village of Boreraig and Loch Cill Chriosd and back along the cliffs to the start (see MBR website for full details). A similar route is classed as one of the Top 10 Skye walks by the IsleOfSkye.com website.

To continue your journey you have to retrace your steps from Elgol to Broadford and take the main road up the coast. You follow the banks of Loch na Cairidh, Loch Ainort and Loch Sligachan – you’re never far from the sea on Skye.

The Famous Fairy Pools of South-east Skye (after a micro-brewery and distillery!)

Once you’ve crossed the River Sligachan, stop for the night at the Sligachan Camp Site; it doesn’t take reservations, so it’s wise to get there early at busy times of year. It has 80 pitches and spectacular views of the hills and is only five minutes from the Sligachan Hotel if you don’t feel like cooking. The hotel also houses the Cuillin micro-brewery, producing four beers.

In the morning, go back to the Sligachan River crossing and take the A863 to the west coast, along the valley of the River Drynoch with hills rising on both sides. At the head of Loch Harport the road divides: take the left fork towards Carbost to find the Talisker Distillery, Skye’s oldest whisky-producer. They advise booking in advance, which you can do on their website.

Sky's Oldest Whisky Distillery, Talisker

Sky’s Oldest Whisky Distillery, Talisker

South of Carbost, on the road to Glen Brittle, lie the Fairy Pools, multiple cascading blue and green waterfalls where you can swim (the pools are very cold: a wetsuit is advisable).  The falls themselves aren’t particularly spectacular, but the surroundings are, with odd little hillocks, and there’s a way-marked walking route to follow.  You can park in the Forestry Commission car park signposted Glumagan Na Sithichean, about 5½ miles from Carbost.

Fairy Pools near Glen Brittle on Isle of Skye

Fairy Pools near Glen Brittle on the Isle of Skye – keep an eye out for the black van of the Cuilin Coffee Company!

The campsite at Glen Brittle was voted No. 1 in Britain by The Daily Telegraph newspaper.  It lies between the Black Cuillins and Loch Brittle beach and offers the feel of wild camping but with full facilities.  It’s an ideal base if you enjoy hill-walking and climbing or sea-kayaking. Like the site at Sligachan, they don’t take advance bookings.

Either here, at the Fairy Pools or at Dunvegan you may meet the tiny black van of the Cuillin Coffee Company, who serve proper coffee, tea, hot chocolate and snacks: as welcome on a blustery day as it’s unexpected.

Visit the Must-See Dunvegan Castle then swing North for the Famous Neist Point

Take the road back towards Carbost and turn north at Drynoch along Lochs Harport, Bracadale and Caroy to reach Dunvegan Castle, home of Clan MacLeod. Despite looking Victorian, parts of the castle date back to the 1200s. As well as touring the castle and wandering around the gardens you can take a boat trip out to the seal colony all through the summer, weather permitting.

Dunvegan Castle, Isle of Skye

Dunvegan Castle, over in the West of the Isle of Skye

At the north end of Loch Dunvegan, up the road from the castle at Claigan, you’ll find the Coral Beaches. You have to park in the car park and take the cow-pat-splattered track up to the beach (not the first, sandy, beach: the coral one is further on, through a gap in the wall). The “coral” is in fact desiccated algae, but it gives the beach and water that tropical look. There’s an island offshore which can be reached at low tide; be careful to get back to the mainland before the tide rises again or you’ll be swimming (and the water’s definitely not tropical).

Around the corner of the loch from Claigan, at Stein, you’ll find scuba diving facilities at Dive and Sea the Hebrides. There are also mountain biking trails through the forestry on the hill between Fasach and Geary at the north-eastern tip of the Waternish peninsula.

Around the other side of Loch Dunvegan, at Colbost, you’ll find the multi-award-winning restaurant The Three Chimneys, which serves the very best Scottish produce. It’s open for lunch through the summer and for dinner almost all year round. “Vaut le détour”, as the Guide Michelin would say.

The unmanned Neist Point Lighthouse is on a promontory along the road from Colbost. There’s a bit of a walk to reach it but the views are spectacular once you get there. You can see the foghorn and the aerial cableway that was used to transfer supplies to the cottages and lighthouse.

Dusk at Neist Point on the Isle of Skye

Dusk at the famous Neist Point on the Isle of Skye

Handily placed for all these activities, just outside the village of Dunvegan, is the Kinloch Camspite. You can pre-book at this site and you’re well-advised to do so at busy periods: the views are fabulous, there’s a lot to do in the area and the site is deservedly popular.

Trotternish and the East Coast; Pay a Visit to the Old Man of Storr

From Dunvegan village the road crosses the neck of the Waternish peninsula to Edinbane then down Loch Snizort to meet the A87 at Carbost. You follow this road up the other side of the loch to Uig, where the Tarbert ferry docks. On the Pier at Uig you’ll find the Skye Brewery, which welcomes visitors every day to try (and buy) their range of ales.

Port of Uig in Northern Skye

Port of Uig in Northern Skye

You’re now on the Trotternish peninsula, the northernmost part of Skye. This is golden eagle territory and there are also amazing rock formations, many of which have names.

There’s a look-out bothy at Rubha Hunish, the very tip of the Trotternish peninsula. It’s a stiff walk that will take 3-5 hours in all, but it’s worth it for the seabirds and marine mammals you’ll probably see. The very last section, the scramble down to the headland, can be difficult if the weather’s bad – it’s rough at the best of times – but you don’t have to get right to the edge. The bothy has large windows so you can wildlife-watch in comfort whatever the weather.

Coming down the north-east coast, the Old Man of Storr provides a challenging Munro for climbers and a good photo opportunity for everyone else. Portree, with its pretty painted harbour houses, is the largest town on Skye and home of the local council and the only secondary school on the island. It’s also the home of the Isle of Skye Gin Distillery. Sadly it’s not open to the public but you can enjoy the product in the bars in town.

Old Man of Storr, Walks on Skye

The Old Man of Storr is a popular spot for tourists to visit in the North of Skye. There’s a longer, challenging walk that goes on out past it as well.

Whether you’ve always wanted to learn sea-kayaking skills or are already an accomplished paddler, Skyak at Lower Breakish can give you a day at sea in water clear enough to see what’s growing on the sea-bed. You may also see seals, otters and sea-eagles. At Breakish you’ll find the Ashaig Camping and Caravanning Club Certified site, a quiet site with views across to the island of Raasay and Applecross on the mainland, and only 4 miles from the Skye Bridge.

But just before you take the road home, why not stop off for a different view of the sea? Scotland’s only glass-bottomed boat, the Atlantis, is based on the mainland side of the Skye Bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh (their website says they’re currently sailing from Kyleakin, on the Skye side of the bridge, so check before crossing). It allows you to get a diver’s-eye view of underwater life and local shipwrecks without getting wet. It’s a fitting end to your tour of Scotland’s largest and most scenic island, a place where the water’s never far away.

If you’re ready to set out on your Skye adventure, get in touch. We’re waiting to hear from you!

Northern Scotland’s best beaches for kids (and motorhomes)

If you’ve plenty of time for your Scottish motorhome holiday, the beaches of northern Scotland have lots to offer: clean white sand, spectacular views, whale-watching opportunities, great surf and very few people. You do have to be a bit dedicated to get there, but it’s worth it.

One thing you need to be prepared for is how narrow many of the roads are. Often they’re single-track with passing places, and you will have to reverse if you meet another vehicle coming towards you. Our motorhomes are fitted with rear view cameras to make the job easier for you.

It’s also good manners to pull over when it’s safe and let faster vehicles overtake you: you wouldn’t want to be the person who stopped the doctor reaching a patient in need. And please bear in mind that passing places are exactly that. They’re not there for admiring the scenery or making a leisurely cup of tea (yes, people do…!).

Another thing to bear in mind is that you’ll be following much of the North Coast 500 route so it would be wise to book campsites in advance, especially during school holidays.

Beach Durness

The north coast of Scotland has some of its finest beaches. They’re a long drive away, but very much worth the journey. Photo credit: Dwilkinson

Motorhome Route along the North East coast

OK, now the “housekeeping” is out of the way, it’s time to enjoy your beach holiday! We’ll start at Inverness, gateway to the Highlands.

Once you’ve crossed the Moray Firth on the Kessock Bridge, follow signs for the Black Isle.  There’s nothing nasty about the place: it’s far more green than black. The name apparently comes from the fact that this peninsula is so warm that the snow doesn’t lie, so it looked black against the snowy Highland mountains to people viewing it from the south.

Your first port of call is Fortrose, which has beaches either side of a spit of land that reaches out into the Moray Firth. The sand and shingle beaches are very popular with walkers and whale- and dolphin-watchers – this is one of the best places in the UK to spot them. At the end of the land-spit there’s a lighthouse, now privately owned, and you can see Fort George easily across the narrow neck of the Firth.

There’s a campsite at Fortrose, which is probably the best place to park while you explore the beach and the small but pleasant town. If you want to see more of the Black Isle (and it’s worth a look), continue your journey to Cromarty, a friendly town with another long sandy beach and plenty of shops and museums to explore.

Whether you’re coming from Fortrose or Cromarty, you get back onto the A9 at the Culbokie Bridge. Turn off it after Kildary to Portmahomack, a small sheltered harbour and beach on the west side of Tarbat Ness. It’s a great place for sunsets, walking and water-sports, and there’s a small, friendly caravan site right on the shore of the Dornoch Firth. This area was important to both the Picts and the Vikings; find out more at the Tarbat Discovery Centre.

North of the Dornoch Firth

To reach the other side of the Dornoch Firth you pass through Glenmorangie (of whisky fame).  You can stay at Dornoch Caravan Park, or a bit further up the coast there’s another, rejoicing in the name of Grannie’s Hielan’ Hame Holiday Park, near Embo Beach.

The sands here are white and run for miles – plenty of space for dogs, sandcastles, kites and beach cricket. There’s good sea-fishing and wind-surfing, too, and it’s a great place for kayaking. Dornoch Beach has toilets and disabled facilities.

dornoch beach

The area around Dornoch boasts miles of beautiful golden white sandy beaches. Photo credit: scorpion1985x

As you drive on up the coast, you’ll pass Dunrobin Castle, which is open to the public. As well as the castle itself, Dunrobin has wonderful gardens and hosts falconry displays.

A hidden gem of a beach can be found behind the golf course at Brora, another great surfing centre – the surf gets so high here sometimes that it closes the harbour. The beach is wild, mainly sandy and a good place to watch out for otters, dolphins, heron and Arctic tern. Fossils of older wildlife have been found at the mouth of the river and seals bask on the rocks at the southern end of the beach. You can park at the golf club, where you’ll also find toilets and a café.

Brora Beach

Brora Beach is a hidden gem of a rural beach, great for wildlife watching. Photo credit: Ingolf

And now for something rather different: Crakaig Beach, mainland Scotland’s only official nudist beach. Only the western part of the beach is for naturists; you can keep your clothes on elsewhere and may prefer to, given the normal temperatures up here! Behind the beach is a campsite which may be reserved for naturists a few weeks of the year but is open to everyone the rest of the time.

Discover the cliffs and stacks

From Helmsdale northwards there’s little in the way of beaches until you reach Sinclair’s Bay, just north of Wick. There are very fine cliffs and small fishing villages, but not much sand, though there is an outdoor swimming pool among the rocks at Wick. Sinclair’s Bay bucks the trend, with about 5 miles of sand between Noss Head and Tang Head.

The southerly, more sheltered, part of the bay is known as Reiss beach and the northern part as Keiss beach, and both are listed in almost every compilation of Scotland’s best beaches. You may see surfers and kite-surfers here but swimming is not recommended as the water’s too cold.

At Reiss beach there’s a car park opposite the golf course and you can walk south along the white sand to Ackergill Tower (now a hotel), the ruins of Sinclair Castle and a former lighthouse.

Keiss has a small harbour as well as its wildly beautiful strand. It’s rockier than Reiss beach and less popular, which makes it a great wildlife-watching spot. Orca have been spotted but you’re more likely to see seals and a range of sea-birds. At the northern end of the beach are the ruins of Keiss Castle; you can also see the remains of Second World War defences dotted about.

The north-east point of Scotland is, again, rocky and high – this is not a good place for vertigo sufferers. Just off the headland you’ll see the Stacks of Duncansby, which used to be attached to the mainland.  The sea batters against them and will one day overpower them, but for the moment they provide a spectacular photo opportunity.

The furthest north of the Scottish mainland

Just round the point is John o’ Groats, with views across to the Orkneys but no beaches. You have to wait until Dunnet Bay and Thurso Bay to find them again (you’ll also find caravan sites at both places).

Dunnet Bay

Backed by rolling sand dunes, Dunnet Bay stretches out for over 2 miles, and is a lovely sheltered spot for paddling and other beach activities. Photo credit: Adrienne Reid

At Thurso, sand is mixed with rock and underwater reefs stretch out sea, creating some of the best surfing in Britain, if not the world – and very little competition for the hardy souls who ride it. There’s plenty of parking in Thurso, plus pubs, toilets and shops. From Scrabster, a mile further on, you can take a day-trip across to Stromness on Orkney’s Mainland.

Heading west, Strathy Bay is a wide sandy beach enclosed by cliffs and hills and has plenty of caves for kids – and adults – to explore. Another good surfing beach, it’s also popular with walkers, but dogs are banned during the summer. At Strathy East there are toilets, an information point and a car park, from which you walk over a small hill to reach the beach.   The local pub, the Strathy Inn, does food (including a children’s menu).

If there’s one campsite you really have to visit on this trip, it’s Sango Sands at Durness; it has an indefinable quality that draws people back time after time. Maybe it’s the fact that in June you can watch the sand set and rise within about half an hour and in almost the same place.

Sango Bay

Sango Bay is a lovely beach, easily accessible from various car parks and only a short distance from the famous Smoo Cave. Photo credit: Gary Henderson

The campsite stands above Sango Bay, a stretch of golden sands separated into three parts by rocky outcrops. There are also sea-stacks, skerries (small rocky islands) and cliffs, and patches of dune and machair (low-lying grassland with wildflowers).

In the next bay to the east of Sango you’ll find Smoo Cave. It’s not a beach but it’s definitely on the “50 things to see in Scotland” list. Not only does Smoo have the largest sea-cave entrance in Britain, it’s also the only cave complex formed by both fresh and sea water. You can walk down into it from the car park and wander round by yourselves for free, or take a guided tour (£5/adult, £2/child). Part of the tour is by boat, the rest is on foot and you’ll need sturdy footwear; they don’t run if it’s raining hard as the cave can flood.

Slightly harder to reach than Sango, and therefore less popular, is Balnakiel Bay, where you may well meet cattle grazing. From Durness you can reach it by walking round Faraid Head, with views all the way to Iceland (and, often, a wind to match). If you’re feeling less energetic, you can follow the track from Durness to Balnakiel. It’s a beautiful sandy beach, protected from the north and east by low-lying headlands.

Westward ho!

Sandwood Sands, down the west coast from Cape Wrath, requires real dedication to reach: it’s a 4-mile walk from the nearest road. It’s worth the effort, though: some people think it’s Britain’s finest beach.

Sandwood Bay

Britain’s finest beach? You’ll have to walk the four miles to Sandwood Bay to find out for yourself… Photo credit: Davide Bedin

To reach it from Durness, take the A838 south to Rhiconich and turn right along the north side of Loch Inchard. Park at Blairmore and follow the signs. You arrive, via a track across moorland, at a scene of golden sand, dunes, cliffs and a huge sea-stack (known as Am Buachaille, the herdsman). There’s hardly another visitor to be seen, and plenty of space to avoid any. There’s also a fresh-water loch just behind the beach.

Head back to Rhiconish, down to Laxford Bridge, and turn right onto the A894 to reach Scourie, a beautifully protected bay and village. There’s a campsite with spectacular views of the sunset, long beach, blue sea and plentiful wildlife. You could take a boat from nearby Tarbet out to Handa, an island nature reserve famous for its seabird colonies, relax at the pub, or just take a gentle stroll along the sand.

South of Scourie, on the Ullapool road, you’ll find the North West Highlands Geocentre, which explains the extraordinary geology of this part of Scotland – the rocks around here are some of the oldest in the world.

Beaches of the wild west

Don’t be tempted to reach your next destination by the coast road. The route via Drumbeg and Clashnessie may be spectacular but it’s dodgy enough in a car; it’s definitely not designed for motorhomes. Follow the main road from Unapool (not to be confused with Ullapool) to Skiag Bridge and turn right towards Lochinver, then right again and over the hill to Rhicarn, before turning left to Achmelvich.

Achmelvich beach

Achmelvich Beach, Lochinver is a popular white sandy beach with camping and caravan sites nearby. Photo credit: Steve Bittinger

Achmelvich Bay is a beach that many people rave about and, unlike the north coast beaches, that means they go there in quite large numbers. There’s a beach-side campsite that’s very popular with families, so it does get booked up during school holidays; no dogs are allowed.  There are no fixed pitches, so you can choose where you park up. The bay is used for all sorts of water-sports, including snorkelling – the water is crystal-clear and the rocky headlands harbour plenty of underwater wildlife.

By water it’s only a few miles to your next stop; by road it’s a good deal further. Go back to Skiag Bridge, down to Ledmore and then right on the A835 to Drumrunie, where you turn right on a tiny road, past Lochs Lurgainn, Bad a’ Ghaill and Osgaig, to Achnahaird Bay.

Achnahaird Bay

Lying north of Ullapool, Achnahaird Bay has wonderful views of Stac Polly and its neighbouring mountains of Wester Ross. Photo credit: Tom

At Achnahaird you’re well and truly in the wilderness, a fitting finale to your tour of Scotland’s best northern beaches. It’s a grand place to build a driftwood fire and have a last-night picnic dinner on the sand (make the fire good and smoky to deter the midges!). You can wild-camp here – there’s no official camp-site and it’s unlikely the few local residents will object, as long as you clean up behind yourselves.

To end your tour, go back to Drumrunie and turn right to Armair and Ullapool, where you pick up the A835 and follow it back to Inverness. If you want more sand and sea before you return your motorhome, see our posts on the west coast and east coast beaches to take you south from here. If you’re heading straight back south, the A9 will take you there via Perth.

Western Scotland’s best beaches for kids (and motorhomes)

Our last blog discussed east coast beaches; this one looks west, at beaches with white sand, Caribbean-blue seas, fabulous sunsets and the warmth of the Gulf Stream to take the edge off the chilly water. They may not encourage bikini-wearing but the beaches on the west coast of Scotland are some of the most beautiful in the world; and, unlike beautiful beaches elsewhere, you’ll have many of them to yourself.

The north-west of Scotland is also known for its midges – but one advantage of being at the coast is that there’s usually a breeze, which blows the little horrors away. It’s still sensible to wear both midge repellent and sunscreen – one day, someone will invent a combined formulation!

From the top

There are some fabulous beaches on Scotland’s north coast, but we’re assuming you only have a couple of weeks and don’t want just to rush from place to place or struggle along one-track roads. So the best place to start your western beach holiday is Big Sand Beach, near Gairloch on the A832.

It’s quite a long drive to get there, so you’ll be pleased to know that there’s an excellent campsite on the dunes called, naturally, Sands Caravan and Camping Park. You can choose a pitch with a view or one sheltered from the wind by the dunes.

Big Sand lives up to its name, with miles of sand and shingle protected from the prevailing wind by Longa Island. Nearby is Redpoint beach, which featured in the film “What We Did On Our Holiday” – perhaps you’d like to make your own version? Gairloch has its own beach, too, which you reach via a boardwalk from the car park near the golf course.

Your main route turns south at this point, but we’d like to suggest a wee diversion northwards first, through Poolewe  and up to Mellon Udrigle beach, which sounds as though it comes out of an Arthurian legend. You follow a single-track road off the A832 at Laide. There’s a car park just outside the hamlet of Mellon Udrigle and your route to the beach is over boardwalks.

Mellon Udrigle beach

Mellon Udrigle beach offers pristine white sands and stunning views of the mountains of Wester Ross. Photo credit: Jeheme

The sand is silver, the views are stunning, the sea is crystal clear, the wildlife in the rock-pools is plentiful – and there’s even a resident flock of sheep grazing the shoreline (dog owners, please take precautions). There is a small wild camping site but no toilets or other facilities – but in a fully-equipped motorhome you can live without them, especially on long summer evenings.

The Road to the Isles

There are two ways to continue your road south. For the first you go inland to Achnasheen, then head south west. Although this is a very picturesque road, it’s mainly single-track until you join the A87 near Kyle of Lochalsh and turn left towards Invergarry and Fort William, so it’s not very restful for the driver.

The easier, more relaxing road goes through Achnasheen and continues to Garve, where you join the A835 to Inverness. This road takes you to Fort William along the Great Glen, home of Loch Ness – keep your eyes open for its legendary occupant and for sea-going boats along the Caledonian Canal.

Whichever road you choose, turn west in Fort William along the famous Road to the Isles towards Arisaig and Mallaig. The coast between the two is some of the finest in Scotland – actually the whole road is very fine, but do watch out for awkward bends under the railway bridges. The railway is the route followed by the famous Jacobite Express steam train, which featured in the Harry Potter films, and you pass that marvel of engineering, the Glenfinnan viaduct, on your right.

Glenfinnan Viaduct

Stop off at the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct, where there are some lovely walking trails nearby. Photo credit: Michael Ebner

This is also Bonnie Prince Charlie country: he landed here at the start of the 1745 Rising and the clans mustered where the Glenfinnan Monument now stands. You can visit the monument and the nearby Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Cave on your route to Arisaig, too.

There’s another great campsite, Camusdarach, on the road between Arisaig and Mallaig, with views out to Eigg, Rum and Skye and a good selection of both grass and hard-standing pitches for caravans and motorhomes.

Camusdarach

Camusdarach is a beautiful spot, between Arisaig and Mallaig on the Road to the Isles. Photo credit: Neil Roger

The site is protected from the wind by dunes and trees, has a small shop and café and is easy to launch kayaks and small boats from. The beach is safe for children, and the site is deservedly popular – you’d be wise to book in advance during the school summer holidays. Both the site and the beach feature in practically every Top 10 list for Scotland, and the beach starred in the film Local Hero.

Once you’ve “done” Camusdarach beach, walk on round the point to the silver sand beach where the River Morar reaches the sea from Loch Morar (a fresh-water loch that’s also worth a visit).

Oban and Kintyre

You have to go back to Fort William to continue your route southwards, then follow the A828 down Loch Linnhe to Oban. A couple of miles north of Oban, at Ganavan, you’ll find two secluded sandy beaches, with wonderful views across the foot of the loch to the islands of Lismore and Mull.

The long but scenic drive down the length of the Mull of Kintyre will be repaid when you reach Machrihanish beach: three miles of sand with views all the way to Northern Ireland on a good day. This is a favourite beach for surfers and walkers (not so good for swimming as there are strong currents) and there’s a golf course next door.

Machrihanish beach

Machrihanish beach, Mull of Kintyre. Photo credit: Gary Henderson

There are also caravan pitches at the Machrihanish Holiday Park, which has full facilities and also offers visitors discounted rates on food at the local hotel.

In the height of summer you can get a ferry from Claonaig on the Mull of Kintyre to Lochranza on the Isle of Arran, drive down the island to Brodick and take another ferry to Ardrossan. If the ferry’s not running you have to drive up Loch Fyne, down Loch Lomond and around Glasgow before you can continue your coastal route.

If you do that there’s a good campsite at the foot of Loch Lomond and you can take a walk on the “bonnie banks”, a boat ride or even a swim; the fresh water will make a pleasant change from the sea.

Strathclyde and Ayrshire

Just south of Ardrossan you’ll find Saltcoats beach. This is a town beach, so it lack some of the charm of other beaches we’ve visited on this tour, but it has one big advantage for parents of small children. The water is shallow for hundreds of metres so it’s very safe for paddling and splashing about and it warms up quite fast.

Saltcoats Beach

Saltcoats Beach is in the town, but still has lovely views over towards Arran. Photo credit: Oliver Clarke

Troon South Beach is right in the town, but you wouldn’t think so as you gaze across the sea to Arran. A pleasant town, Troon has much to offer holiday-makers. Ayr too has been a holiday destination for discerning Scots for a couple of centuries, and has the beaches and child-friendly facilities to match. There are plenty of campsites within easy reach of both.

South of Ayr Culzean Castle perches on a cliff-top, with its own Camping and Caravanning Club site in the grounds. Below is the stunning Croy beach, over a mile long and with views across to Ailsa Craig and the Mull of Kintyre. Croy Brae is also known as Electric Brae; an optical illusion makes freewheeling vehicles appear to run up the hill (brae) here.

Culzean Castle is run by the National Trust for Scotland, which has a reciprocal agreement with its English counterpart, and is well worth a visit.

Dumfries and Galloway

Around the coast from Stranraer lie Luce Sands (which start at Sandhead). Aside from having three miles of sand at low tide, the beach is a designated Special Area of Conservation for its dune, seashore and seabed habitats, so the wildlife is worth more than a passing glance. Dogs are allowed on the beach but obviously shouldn’t be permitted to disturb the wild residents.  The nearby Sands of Luce Holiday Park is a great place to stop for the night.

Mossyard, between Carrick Bay and Knockbrex, where the Big Water of Fleet flows into the Solway Firth, has been voted Favourite Beach in Dumfries and Galloway. A pleasant rural beach with sand, rocks and grassy areas, it offers plenty to keep children occupied.

Southerness is another wide sandy beach. Lying within the Solway Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), it has mud flats and rock pools for wildlife watching at low tide plus miles of sand for castle building and running. Southerness lighthouse was built in 1749, making it the second oldest in Scotland; it is sometimes open to visitors.

Powillimount Beach

Powillimount beach, nearby Southerness, is another sandy beach with rocky formations for kids to explore. Photo credit: James Johnstone

There’s a campsite at Southerness Point as well as a hotel, public toilets and a fish and chip shop – everything you could need for a good evening. You may even spot seals and dolphins in the Solway Firth as you sip your sundowner.

The area from Southerness to Gretna all forms part of the Solway Coast AONB but the beaches further up the Firth are muddy and marshy at low tide. They’re dog-friendly but you may have a lot of rinsing to do before you can let your two- and four-legged charges back into the motorhome!

From silvery Caribbean-style sandy beaches with breathtaking vistas of far-off islands to mud-flats inhabited by wading birds – maybe you’d rather do the tour the other way round!  Whichever way you go, we hope you enjoy your motorhome tour of the west-coast Scottish beaches.

Eastern Scotland’s best beaches for families (and motorhomes)

Scotland has hundreds of miles of coastline, so it’s not surprising the country boasts some of Britain’s best beaches. They range from tiny unspoilt coves with no facilities to family-friendly beaches with parking, toilets and life-guards. Here we’ve put together a tour of the best family-orientated beaches on the east coast, that would be some fantastic stop-off points on your motorhome tour of Scotland. We’ll have another post covering the beaches along the west coast coming soon!

South of Edinburgh: Coldingham Sands

Starting almost in England, our first recommendation is near St Abb’s, at Coldingham Sands. Most of this coast is rocky, with spectacular cliffs, but Coldingham has plenty of sand with rocks only at each end. It’s in a quiet, rural area, sheltered from the wind by headlands to north and south, and lifeguards are on duty through the day during the summer months.

Coldingham sands

Coldingham sands is a beautiful sheltered beach near the village of St Abbs. Photo credit: Henry Burrows

One attraction of Coldingham Sands is the beach huts, some of which are very old and add a touch of the picturesque to the scene. It also offers parking, toilets, a café and disabled access, and has been awarded the Blue Flag, the Marine Conservation Society’s top award for cleanliness and the Seaside Award!

Heading north from St Abb’s, it’s an easy journey (mainly on the A1) to North Berwick, at the tip of the Firth of Forth. Here you’ll find the Scottish Seabird Centre, where you can discover all about gannets, gulls and guillemots – and there’s a good beach too. The Seabird Centre has live video cameras on the Bass Rock and Isle of May, just out in the Firth, so you can watch the birds in real time.

It’s not just about birds: they have displays on underwater marine creatures like turtles, rays, starfish and anemones. There’s a café too, as well as free parking and a gift shop, making it a great rainy day destination. You can also take a catamaran ferry across the Firth of Forth to Anstruther and back and experience these waters for yourself.

Fife: Aberdour Silversands, Roome Bay (Crail), and Tentsmuir

Heading north from Edinburgh, your next stop is at the southern edge of the ancient Kingdom of Fife. Aberdour Silversands lives up to its name, with a white beach flanked by woodland and a view across the water to the islands of Inchmickery and Incolm.

Silver Sands, Aberdour

Aberdour Silver Sands is a popular beach resort with families. Photo credit: Iain MacKenzie

This family-friendly beach has beach patrols, first aid facilities, lifeguards in the summer and award-winning toilets. It has also won a Keep Scotland Beautiful Beach Award. Managed by Fife Coast and Countryside Trust, it’s also great for wildlife spotting.

Fife Coast and Countryside Trust also run Crail’s Roome Bay, another Keep Scotland Beautiful Beach Award winner.  There are both sand and rocks to explore here, with a disused swimming pool at one end of the beach that’s popular with wildlife. There’s also a children’s playground at this small beach.

You have to park in the village and walk down – and it’s worth taking the time to look round the village too. It’s one of the prettiest harbours in the East Neuk of Fife, and has starred as a location in several films and myriad paintings.

On up the coast, past St. Andrews, is Tentsmuir, the forest on the dunes. It offers miles of trails through the woods for walking or biking, and plenty of wildlife – look out for bats, red squirrels and seals. The huge sandy/muddy beach is also great to walk along but don’t be tempted to swim – the tides move fast and there’s quicksand.

Tentsmuir would be a great place to camp but sadly it’s not allowed because of the risk of fire. Lighting fires is also banned, naturally, though you can use barbeques in the designated picnic areas. Be warned: the £2 car park is locked every night (8.30pm April-September) and if your vehicle is still there at the time, you’re stuck.

Angus: Carnoustie and Arbroath

Carnoustie is known world-wide as a golfing destination. What many people, even locals, don’t know is that it also has two beaches. The first one is right near the Golf Hotel, and is a fine if small sandy beach. There’s a children’s play area and paddling pool nearby, and free parking.

If the tide’s out, though, head to the north end of town. You’ll have to park on the road and walk down to the beach past the fishermen’s cottages: the street’s too narrow for motorhomes. On this shore you’ll find some of the best rock-pools in the county.

It’s also a great place to find pieces of sea-glass, the sharp corners and glossy finish worn off by the water and sand, to make your own souvenir jewellery. No-one will mind if you build a drift-wood fire here and watch the eider ducks and sandpipers as the sun sinks behind you.

Nearby Arbroath is a well-known holiday centre. The road enters town past two static caravan parks and under a low railway bridge (14’ 3”/ 4.34 m), then you turn right into the West Links area. Here you’ll find a terrific kids’ playground, a paddling pool, crazy golf, mini go-karts, and a miniature railway, not to mention a huge expanse of sandy beach and free parking.

Angus: Lunan Bay and Montrose Seafront & Splash

Between Arbroath and Montrose sits Lunan Bay, one of the most beautiful beaches in Scotland. A tiny village nestles at the southern end, a very ruined castle sits on the hill in the middle, and an old lime-burning kiln perches on the cliff at the north. In between there’s a 2-mile curve of white sand and tall dunes, some of which are steep enough to “sledge” down if you have a tin tray handy.

Boddin Point

Lunan Bay is famous for its sandy dunes, but it’s also a great area for exploring local history, such as the ruins at Boddin Point. Photo credit: Stu Smith

There’s a free car park, and toilets are available in the Diner, which also sells locally-reared meat. The family that own the farm and stables behind the beach have just built a caravan and camping site with toilets, showers and electric hook-up. The beach wins Blue Flag status every year, and it’s popular with surfers and kite-surfers as well as sand-castle builders of all ages.

Where Lunan Bay is natural, Montrose Seafront and Splash is built for holiday-makers. There’s a play area, a paddling pool, an amusement centre and café, and a pitch-and-putt golf course, as well as picnic and car parking areas. You can reach the sandy beach ether via steps from the promenade or by the wheelchair-friendly ramp near the north end of the Seafront.

Aberdeen: Aberdeen Ballroom Beach, Balmedie, and Peterhead

The Granite City, famous for its oil and gas industry, might not be top of your list as a holiday destination but it offers two very different award-winning beaches. The rather oddly-named Aberdeen Ballroom Beach is just outside the city centre. It has protection from the harbour wall at the south; towards the north, where there is a nature reserve, it is more exposed. This can be a great place for dolphin and whale spotting, so keep your eyes peeled.

On the esplanade you’ll find toilets, cafés and restaurants and – yes – a ballroom! There’s also an ice rink, if you want to escape a rainy day.  The esplanade is popular with walkers, cyclists and runners, and the water with kayakers, surfers and sailors, so there’s plenty to watch.

Eight miles north of the city lies Balmedie beach, which couldn’t be more different. Left almost entirely to nature, it runs for miles, so it’s easy to get away from any crowds. The only concession to visitors is the board walks from the paid car park through the dunes. Balmedie is part of a country park owned by Aberdeenshire Council and is a haven for wildlife as well as people.

The road from Aberdeen to Peterhead hugs the coast, with spectacular views across the dunes and the North Sea; next stop Denmark. Peterhead, Scotland’s most easterly point, has an unusual beach: it’s set within the outer harbour, next to the marina and the 23-pitch Lido caravan park. Water sports, including dinghy sailing and scuba diving, are very popular in this old fishing town.

The Moray Firth and dolphins

Around the coast at Macduff there’s a chance to swim in a historic outdoor pool. Officially closed and in the care of Historic Environment Scotland, Tarlair Outdoor Swimming Pool is an evocative, art deco ‘20s construction still fed by the waters of the Moray Firth. You take the High Shore/Tarlair road out of Macduff, past the golf club, and it’s right at the end.

East Beach, Nairn

Nairn boasts a number of fabulous beaches of pure white sands stretching out for miles. Photo credit: Paul Oldham

The area around Nairn, west along the Moray Firth from Macduff, has a reputation as Scotland’s “banana belt” because of its mild climate, which might tempt you into the water. The beach has a small group of beach huts and miles of sand for walking, paddling and castle-building. There’s a Camping and Caravanning Club site tucked into woodland nearby, and this is another excellent place for dolphin watching.

An even better place is near the pinch-point at Fort George/Chanonry Point, where the Moray Firth narrows to about a quarter of a mile across. Dolphins and whales are often seen in the water seaward of Fort George, and you can take dolphin watching boat trips from several places in the area.

…And now for something completely different

Our final family-friendly sandy beach suggestion is unusual: it’s miles from the sea! Loch Morlich, just outside Aviemore at the foot of the Cairngorm Mountains, is a fresh-water loch big enough to have its own sailing club and water sports centre. Whether the loch water is any warmer than the sea is something you’ll just have to find out for yourself. Lying in woodland at the edge of the loch is a beautiful campsite with plenty of pitches, managed by the Forestry Commission.

Beach Loch Morlich

The fresh water sandy beach of Loch Morlich. Photo credit: Carron Brown

The other attraction here is the Cairngorm Mountain Railway, Scotland’s only funicular. The journey offers breathtaking views across what feels like half of northern Scotland, taking you up to 3,500 feet (1067 m). There you’ll find a restaurant, viewing platform, shop and Britain’s highest post box. You can take a guided walk, too (book at the office at the foot of the railway) to learn about the flora and fauna that survive in this extreme terrain.

From paddling pools and golf to dolphins and mountains: there’s plenty of variety for a family beach themed motorhome holiday in Scotland!

Scottish National Tourist Routes: Clyde Valley

When people think of a motorhome tour of Scotland, they often have the romantic Scottish highlands and west coast in mind. However, with Scotland being a relatively small country, there are plenty of short detours available… The Clyde Valley Scottish National Tourist is a short but scenic route which starts, rather bizarrely, at the Elvanfoot/Crawford interchange on the A74M (junction 14). The junction is somewhat unusual, too: the entry and exit are 4.5 km (2.8 miles) apart, but it’s still considered one interchange.

If you’re heading south on the motorway, you come off at Crawford and turn back on yourself; if you’re heading north or coming from Galloway you go under the motorway from Elvanfoot towards Crawford. Either way, you want the A702, heading northwards.

The official route takes you through the middle of Crawford, on the old Carlisle Road, while the A702 detours it. The village is worth a stop, though. Crawford Castle was originally a Roman fort and has later associations with William Wallace. The ghosts of Roman soldiers are sometimes seen – but only from the knees up, as they walk at the level of the Roman road, not the modern one. Crawford was also one of the staging posts on the Edinburgh to London coaching route, although the inn (also allegedly haunted) is now closed.

The A702 hugs the motorway all the way to Abington, where there’s a service station; you could come off the motorway here (junction 13) instead of at Crawford, if you’re joining the route from the north. From Abington, the route follows the River Clyde north-eastwards on the old Roman road towards Biggar, along a very pretty valley. If you associate the Clyde with Glasgow and industrialism, this road will come as a pleasant surprise.

Just south of Biggar the route turns onto the A72 and sharp back on itself – the roads join at a 45° angle, which requires a certain amount of finesse from the driver.  If you’d rather take it more gently, head into Biggar, which is worth a visit anyway. It’s an ancient town, dating from 1451, with a 16th century kirk (church) and a Gasworks Museum, the only one of its kind in Scotland. It’s also a great place to buy treats, with famous ice-cream, chocolate and fish-and-chip shops. From Biggar you can head back to the A72 facing in a much more comfortable direction.

The A72 crosses the Clyde and joins the A73 at St John’s Kirk; the two roads share the route as far as Lanark, which can be confusing when you’re trying to read the road signs. You cross the Clyde again at Hyndford Bridge, a handsome Grade A-listed 5-arched bridge dating from the late 18th century. It’s narrow, so you may have to wait to cross it.

Your next stop is Lanark, which was granted its Royal Charter in the 12th century, making it one of Scotland’s oldest Royal burghs. In the 10th century is was the site of the first Scottish Parliament and its church bell is believed to be one of the oldest in the world. This is a town with a proud history. It also has good independent shops, restaurants and so on. The route diverts from the A73 via the B7017 and A743 past the station, avoiding the town-centre’s one-way system.

New Lanark

New Lanark, a UNESCO World Heritage site, provides fascinating insight into how people worked and lived during Britain’s Industrial Revolution. Photo credit: 4652 Paces

Nearby is New Lanark, which is a must-see if you’re interested in the Industrial Revolution. It’s so important that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The original owner provided good housing, free health care, education and even a nursery school at a time when it was not unusual for children as young as five to work all day and never get an education at all. The Annie McLeod Experience will show you what life was like for a worker there in 1820.

Nearby, and utterly different, is the Falls of Clyde Scottish Wildlife Trust Visitor Centre, where you can see the waterfalls and woods and learn about the badgers, bats and other wildlife in the area. There’s an honesty-box for your entry money and the original Victorian self-guided trail to follow around the Falls of Clyde.

The A72 splits away from the A73 again just north of Lanark, heading through Crossford and Milton Lockhart. Milton Lockhart House used to be the big property here, but in 1988 it was taken down and moved, brick by brick, via the Trans-Siberian Railway to Japan. It now houses the World Santa and Christmas Museum, with over 1100 Santas, one of which does an Elvis impression. The recently-restored lodge, which stayed behind, can be seen across a bend in the river.

The road continues through the hamlet of Rosebank; shortly after it you briefly join the A71 at a roundabout on the Clyde before turning off again onto the A72, following the river north-west. The road goes under the M74 at junction 7, so you can join the motorway here if you want.  But you haven’t quite finished with the tourist route yet.

It continues past Chatelherault Country Park, originally a hunting lodge and summer residence for the Dukes of Hamilton and now open to the public. Set in a curve of the River Avon, Chatelherault has miles of woodland, gorge and river walks, an exhibition gallery, and parts of the original mansion to view. There’s also an adventure playground, café, gift shop and all the usual mod cons.

Chatelherault Country Park - Hunting Lodge

Chatelherault Country Park is centred on The Duke of Hamilton’s 18th century hunting lodge. Photo credit: Harry McGregor

The route officially ends just north of Chatelherault, at junction 6 of the M74, handily close to the Hamilton services. However, there’s another attraction worth visiting just the other side of the motorway. The easiest way to reach it is to go under the motorway at junction 6, on the A723, and turn left after you’ve crossed the Clyde.

Strathclyde Country Park offers a variety of watersports on the loch, and also Scotland’s Theme Park, with excellent rides for those who enjoy a good scream. At the other end of the road into the country park you’ll find yourself at junction 5 of the M74, so it’s very easy to get on to your next port of call, wherever that may be.

From Hamilton the road takes you just as easily to Glasgow and the mouth of the Clyde, Edinburgh, Stirling, Perth – in fact pretty much anywhere in Scotland. Wherever you choose to go on your motorhome tour next, we hope you’ll enjoy this off-motorway excursion for real one day soon.

Scottish National Tourist Routes: Galloway

This Scottish National Tourist Route may call itself after the county of Galloway, but it covers a lot of ground in neighbouring counties as it makes its scenic way from Gretna to Ayr. The Galloway Tourist Route (GTR on the road-signs) starts at Gretna Green, where the expression “marry in haste, repent at leisure” might have been coined. You won’t have cause to repent travelling this route but there’s no point trying to do it in haste, either.

In fact, if you’re a savvy shopper, don’t head off straight away; there’s a huge outlet “village” at Gretna that’s worth spending an hour or two in first. There’s everything from bedding through watches to waterproofs.

Gretna Green Old Smithy Marriage Anvil

A popular tourist attraction, the Grenta Green Famous Blacksmiths Shop has been around since 1712. This wedding venue is complete with symbolic anvil, exhibitions and plenty of shopping opportunities. Photo credit: Math

When you’ve finished, you leave Gretna on the B721 towards Annan. You could take the A75 if you’ve spent too much time shopping and need to get a move on, but the smaller road is prettier, with views down to the Solway Firth and across to England on your left.

Annan is a good place to stop, especially if you’re a keen cyclist: there are miles of marked cycle routes around here. Annan itself is worth a wander, too. It’s a fine old market town, situated near the mouth of the River Annan, with a lighthouse on the point to guide shipping on its way up the often foggy Solway.

You cross the river out of Annan, turning left onto the B724 and heading for Dumfries.  Alternatively, if you’re ready to stop for the night, take the A75 out of town and then head almost due north up the B723 to Hoddom Castle Caravan Park, where you can spend the night in the shadow of a 16th century Border keep. You can pick up the A75 again the following morning at Carrutherstown to reach Dumfries.

Dumfries is the biggest town in the area and boasts one of Scotland’s oldest bridges, dating from the 12th century. Greyfriars Church is built on the site of a crime-scene: the monastery where Robert the Bruce murdered John Balliol to improve his own chances of becoming King of Scots. There’s also the Robert Burns Centre (not to be confused with the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, which you have the chance to visit later en route) and you can raise a toast to him at one of his favourite pubs, the Globe Inn. More recent past residents include “Peter Pan” author JM Barrie and racing driver David Coulthard.

Just south of Dumfries is the Mabie 7stanes mountain bike trail centre which caters for all levels of expertise from beginners up, with a skills area and woodland trails.

From Dumfries you take the A711 to Dalbeattie and Castle Douglas. An alternative route, avoiding Dalbeattie, is the Old Military Road, which branches off the A711 just outside Cargenbridge and goes to Castle Douglas via Lochfoot and Haugh of Urr. It’s one of many military roads built across Scotland by General Wade after the 1745 Jacobite Rising.

However, if you’re a keen mountain-biker, you’ll probably want to go via Dalbeattie, as it’s home to another of the 7stanes mountain biking centres. It’s famous for its technical trails and terrific coastal views.

There’s now a bypass round Castle Douglas if you don’t fancy driving through the middle of it, but it would be a shame to use it. This 18th century market town is a designated “food town”, with plenty of delicious local produce available, so it’s definitely worth a visit.

Carlingwark Loch on the outskirts of town is a great place for both walking and (free) fishing for pike and perch. Despite the name, you won’t find a castle in the town: there were two successive Roman forts but they were abandoned around the year 160 AD. But there is a proper one nearby, at Threave.

Threave Castle

Threave Castle is situated on an island and can only be reached by boat. Photo credit: Paul Stevenson

Threave Castle was built for Archibald the Grim in 1369, on an island in the middle of the River Dee. To visit it you take a boat across the river. Nearby Threave House and Gardens, a later and rather more comfortable property run by the National Trust for Scotland, is also Scotland’s only bat reserve. Both are worth taking a short detour to visit.

From Castle Douglas your route heads north-west on the A713 up Loch Ken to New Galloway.  It’s a very pretty road with helpfully wide straight stretches where other vehicles can overtake you. Along the way, you can stop and enjoy the woodland and moorland walks on the right of the road.

On the left, at Parton, you’ll find Loch Ken Holiday Park, which has hard-standing pitches for motorhomes. Situated right on the loch edge, it has boats, kayaks and pedalos for hire, as well as two children’s play-parks and loch-side fishing. It also boasts its own herb garden, making it a great stop for both outdoor and food enthusiasts. Every August the village of Parton hosts the Scottish Alternative Games, which includes events as diverse as tractor pulling and snail racing.

Tiny New Galloway is Scotland’s smallest Royal Burgh. It was – and still is – an important crossroads and market town: roads from the whole south-west of Scotland meet there. Nowadays it’s a centre for cycling, golf, fishing and water sports. Kenmure Castle, nearby, has been burnt down not once but three times!

Heading on up the Water of Ken, your next port of call has a name almost as big as the village: St John’s Town of Dalry. Not surprisingly, it’s often shortened to plain Dalry (not to be confused with Dalry in Ayrshire). This pretty and ancient pilgrim town is popular with walkers on the Southern Upland Way long-distance footpath. Nearby is the site of Lochinvar Castle, immortalised by Walter Scott in “The Young Lochinvar”. Sadly you can’t visit it, as it’s now at the bottom of a reservoir.

From St John’s Town you have two options: the official route along the west of Earlstoun Loch on the A713 or the higher and narrower B7000, which is less suitable for motorhomes. They meet again at Carsphairn, up on the moors. This part of the country is more like the Highlands than the rest of the south-west, bleakly beautiful.

It ends with a sudden, unheralded plunge as the road tumbles down Glen Muck, back into softer country. Dalmellington is a former mining town, in a fabulous setting but not very tourist-orientated. The road bypasses it, following the River Doon north-west towards Ayr, and you should probably do the same: you’re near your destination now.

Ayr is a popular seaside resort with a reputation for being “genteel”. The town dates back to the 1200s and was a busy port for centuries. Its main attractions include a racecourse, which dates back to the 16th century, the esplanade and sandy beach, and the Citadel with its cannon. It also has the great (and increasingly rare) advantage of plentiful free parking.

Culzean Castle and grounds

Culzean Castle & Country Park is a fantastic day out for families, with woods, beaches, a play park, and of course a magnificent castle to explore. Photo credit: Muhammad Younas

Further out of town you’ll find the award-winning Burns Birthplace Museum at Alloway, Donald Trump’s Turnberry golf course, and at least three motorhome-accommodating campsites within easy reach. Culzean Castle and Gardens is a short drive south along the coast and Ardrossan, where the ferries leave for Arran, a little further northwards.

Ayr’s a good place to end your journey on the Galloway Tourist Route, looking across the water towards the sunset, the Isle of Arran and the Mull of Kintyre.