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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.