Coast’s Neil Oliver on Scotland’s best seaside escapes

Take a tour of the Caledonian coastline with the BBC2 presenter

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We spend so much time jetting abroad for our holidays that it’s easy to forget about the wealth of breathtaking coastline we have right here in the British Isles. Scotland’s shores are hard to beat, and few know the treasures of the Caledonian coastline as well as Neil Oliver, presenter of Coast: the Great Guide, who here shares with us his favourite Scottish destinations. 

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Egypt of the North

Orkney Islands

Orkney is a place that is absolutely without equal. It’s just six miles off the northeastern coast of Scotland but, in fact, you couldn’t really say it’s Scottish – it’s a world apart. I’m an archaeologist, and I’m especially interested in prehistory and, with its Stone Age archaeology, I think of Orkney as an Egypt of the north.

For someone with even a casual interest in history, it’s an extraordinary place. The sights like Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, the new site at
the Ness of Brodgar, and the Tomb of the Eagles are just breathtaking. And there’s the Viking presence as well – Orkney, with Shetland, was a Scandinavian kingdom for 300 years or more.

Orkney is also a real foodie place – there’s fantastic seafood being caught right there. And, if you’re into the outdoorsy life, there’s sea kayaking, whale-watching, bird-watching… It’s a destination that can’t be bettered. 

Hogwarts Express

Fort William to Mallaig

A fantastic thing to do
 is to get yourself up to Fort
 William, and take the 
steam train down to
 Mallaig. It’s the Harry
Potter experience, an 
old-fashioned train
just like the Hogwarts
Express. You go across
the Glenfinnan Viaduct, 
which is seen in the
Harry Potter films, and it’s
 regarded as one of the top
railway journeys in the world
– the scenery is stunning. It takes
about two hours and you get off at Mallaig, a lovely atmospheric fishing port, where you can catch the boat to the Inner Hebrides.


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Beautiful Balamory haven

Isle of Mull, Inner Hebrides

Off the west coast of Scotland, Mull is gorgeous. Its “capital” is Tobermory, a fishing village full of brightly painted houses that was the inspiration or the children’s TV series Balamory. It’s so peaceful, and it’s easy to catch a boat from Mull to Iona, one of the Holy Isles. Iona’s tiny, you can walk around it in a day, and it has a magnificent priory. The atmosphere of the island transports you; you feel like you’ve gone into a blurred zone between the here and now and the ever after. There are boat tours from Mull to Staffa, too, where Mendelssohn composed The Hebrides Overture.

A deserted island

Mingulay, Outer Hebrides

You’d have to make your own plans for getting there, but a favourite island is Mingulay, one 
of the most southerly of the Outer Hebrides.
It was abandoned in 1912, but there will be someone who’ll take you over in a boat. There is an old village there, like Brigadoon.
 It’s gradually being swallowed up by the encroaching sand dunes, reclaimed by nature.


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A hidden gem

Galloway coastline

A bit of coast that is often overlooked is the southwest, around Galloway. It’s a beautiful
 run if you start in Dumfries and head west towards Newton Stewart and Stranraer.
That will take you through some stunning countryside. People tend to drive past Dumfries and Galloway because they’re on their way north or south, but it’s a bit of a hidden gem. There’s proper wilderness out there, and lots of culture, too, with the Wigtown Book Festival, and an artists’ colony in Kirkcudbright. It’s very quiet in comparison to the West Highlands, which can be pretty busy in high summer.

Cultured corner

Edinburgh and the East Coast

East Lothian is very small, and the coastline is really the estuary of the river Forth. It’s beautiful, and on the other side of the Forth, in Fife, there’s the East Neuk, which has a string of fishing villages going up towards St Andrews, like pearls on a necklace. St Andrews is a great place to spend the day; it’s a grand old university town, and as well as the famous golf course there’s a magnificent beach, where they filmed the opening credits of Chariots of Fire.

The islands in the Firth of Forth are full of First and Second World War history, and there’s a wonderful 12th-century priory on Inchcolm island nearby. For fans of architectural masterpieces, you’ve got the Forth Bridge, Scotland’s Eiffel Tower, and not too far away there’s everything that Edinburgh offers: culture, history, art.

Visiting Scotland is as wonderful as anywhere in Europe — and I always say there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes!

Coast: the Great Guide is on Wednesday 8pm BBC2


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