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.
Egypt of the North
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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