Year of Coasts and Waters Travel Guide

In light of COVID-19, everyone's health and safety is the most important thing. This means despite the love and desire to share our friendly, passionate and unique country and its amazing coasts and waters, we must ask everyone at this time not to travel to or around Scotland. Please stay safe.

Experience Stunning Scottish Landscapes

Water is the life-blood that flows through and around Scotland. It's what makes our beloved landscape so special, our whisky so tasty and our watersports so much fun.

Sculpted by volcanoes, glaciers and the weather, some of Scotland's landscape is over 3 billion years old - you really have to see it to believe it. Glaciers in particular, have carved out beautiful lochs in Scotland, some deeper than our inshore seas, which are home to welcoming communities and the odd monster!

Through the centuries, our lochs and rivers have helped provide shelter from raiders and fearsome wildlife, travel routes to friendly neighbours, and food. Today our lochs and landscape are treasured by Scots and visitors alike, though thankfully we worry a wee bit less about clan rivals and wild beasties!

World-Class Beaches: Is it Scotland or the Caribbean?

Along Scotland's 18,672 km coastline, you'll find some of the world's best beaches. That might seem a bold claim, but the beautiful sight of sweeping pristine white sands against clear azure blue waters is a vision you'll never forget. Embrace the beauty of the Outer Hebrides, the Shetland Islands and the north Highlands, and dip a toe in!

These quiet strands may not offer Caribbean heat (though there are palm trees in some places along the west coast!), but they more than make up for this with stunning views and are ideal for family fun, romantic coastal walks, beach barbecues and adventures.

These are very special places and working with Keep Scotland Beautiful, we've developed some tips and advice to help keep them pristine so you can continue to enjoy them for many years to come.

Explore Scotland's Enchanting Islands

There are over 800 islands dotted around the coast of Scotland, 117 of which are inhabited. Steeped in history and culture, a visit to these magical places is very special indeed.

Step aboard a CalMac ferry and explore the lovely Isle of Arran or some of the Inner Hebrides. Stretching from Gigha and Islay in the south, to Skye in the north, these islands are as enchanting and welcoming as they are diverse.

Venture further west to uncover the mysteries of the Outer Hebrides - an amazing and equally welcoming archipelago stretching over 130 miles (208 km) on the very edge of Europe. You can even land on Traigh Mhòr (big beach) on the Isle of Barra, the only beach runway in the world to handle scheduled airline services.

Or take a Northlink ferry or Loganair flight to Orkney or Shetland, where ancient history and island innovation are always in vogue. Shetland recently featured in the top 10 of Lonely Planet's 2019 Best in Europe destinations to visit.

If you're drawn to Scotland's islands, why not try 'islandeering' and see how many you can 'bag'? This involves circumnavigating your chosen island on foot, by bike, swimming, coasteering, kayaking, or any combination of these you prefer! WalkHighlands Scottish Island Bagging guidebook may also inspire you to visit these extraordinary havens.

If islandeering isn't for you but you're still looking for a challenge, head for the Isle of Colonsay and try the MacPhie's Challenge. This involves climbing the island's 22 peaks above 300 ft on one connected walk. It's about 20 miles in length and an amazing way to explore this hidden gem.

Northern Lights at Portencross Castle, Ayrshire © Christopher Marr

Explore Scotland's Historic Landmarks & Attractions

Early history

Us Scots have deep-rooted links with our coasts and waters. They were an important means of travel and helped provide an abundant larder for early settlers. You'll find many important Neolithic, Iron Age and Bronze Age sites near the coasts of Orkney and Shetland, with mysteries of Orkney's early loch-side dwellers still being uncovered at the Ness of Brodgar excavations today.

A reconstructed Iron Age crannog at the Scottish Crannog Centre on Loch Tay in Perthshire provides a fascinating insight into how our ancestors lived life on lochs. These remarkable dwellings kept inhabitants safe (mostly!) from rival clans and, now-extinct-in-Scotland wild animals, such as bears, lynx and wolves. There is evidence of crannogs all over Scotland, but in particular in Loch Tay and Loch Awe further west.

The ancient kingdom of Dál Riata stretched from the Antrim Coast in Ireland, over the sea and part of the Inner Hebrides into Kilmartin Glen and beyond in Argyll. Spanning 5,000 years of settlement, you'll find over 350 historic sites in the glen, which has the greatest concentration of Neolithic and Bronze Age remains in Scotland. A visit to Dunadd, a once powerful seat of Gaelic kings, provides majestic views over this ancient land.

The Middle Ages

Between the 8th and 15th centuries, the formidable Vikings and the mighty Lords of the Isles used the sea and their grand fleets to control the islands of Orkney and Shetland and the Inner and Outer Hebrides. Norse heritage and culture are plain to see today around Orkney and Shetland in particular, but also along the Firth of Clyde.

Here are some places where you can learn more:

In the Middle Ages, nobles were quick to realise the importance of siting castles on the coast or on loch islands, to improve their fortification.

Scotland has a wide array of impressive coastal fortresses for you to explore. From Dunnottar by Stonehaven, and Tantallon in East Lothian, to Sinclair-Girnigoe near Wick. Dunnottar withstood several assaults by Vikings and an eight-month siege by Oliver Cromwell's forces.

Striking island strongholds are not hard to come across in Scotland. Here are just some of the many you can visit:

More recent times

Coasts and waters played an important role during the Napoleonic and World Wars in more recent times. The vast, natural harbour of Scapa Flow in Orkney was an important deep-water wartime anchorage for the Royal Navy throughout these conflicts as well as, surprisingly, the American War of Independence.

Loch Striven, a long sea-loch on the Cowal Peninsula was important for training midget submarine crews and testing bouncing bombs in WWII. Whilst Holy Loch near Dunoon, also on the Cowal Peninsula, was and remains an important naval base today.

Zip lining at Laggan Outdoors © South West Coastal 300/Damian Shields

Splash into Scotland's Great Outdoors

Our seas, shores, lochs and rivers are an amazing playground for those that thrive in the great outdoors. Whether you're surfing Atlantic swells, fishing some of Europe's finest rivers, sea-kayaking along the west coast, or enjoying a refreshing coastal walk, there's plenty to take your breath away!

Wonderful Watersports

If you prefer some H2O excitement, then Scotland's gorges, rivers and lochs are perfect for a huge range of thrilling watersports.

With your wetsuit, helmet, buoyancy aid and 'can-do' attitude, try canyoning in Highland Perthshire or Lochaber. Or grab some friends and go whitewater rafting on the rivers Findhorn, Moriston, Orchy, Tay or Tummel.

Perhaps you'd prefer a spot of wakeboarding at Foxlake in Dundee and Dunbar or on Port Dundas Canal at Glasgow Wakepark? Maybe you want to immerse yourself in urban adventures at Pinkston Waterports Centre in Glasgow?

If these sound exciting, here are some more outdoor watersports to try when you visit:

Stand-up Paddle boarding (SUP)

This is the trendiest watersport of the moment and can be enjoyed, alongside other watersports, in various locations across Scotland. Some of the many venues available include:

Surfing

You'll find some of Europe's finest surfing spots in Scotland. If you're new to this thrilling watersport, some great places to get started include Dunbar, where Coast To Coast Surf School will get you surfing, or the Isle of Lewis where Surf Lewis or Hebridean Surf will have you standing up in no time. Experienced surfers should not miss Thurso, on the North Coast 500.

Sea-kayaking

Sea-kayaking is an amazing way to see our coast in a new way. If you're starting out, join a group paddling amongst the Arisaig Skerries. The sea here is often calm and you might see basking seals pulled up on the white sandy beaches - an incredibe experience.

Skilled paddlers can choose a section of the 500 km Scottish Sea Kayak Trail, which runs from the Isle of Gigha to the Summer Isles. Or paddle your canoe and combine this with your love of pedalling and delicious food in Morvern.

Diving

Maybe you prefer to explore life beneath the waves? Diving amongst the scuttled wrecks in Scapa Flow on Orkney is both moving and rewarding. Or explore our fascinating living seas up close on the Berwickshire, North Harris and North West Highlands Snorkel Trails.

Underwater exploration is fascinating and exciting, but diving can be dangerous, so stay safe and heed the advice from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Tips for Watersport Beginners

Check out watersports for beginners, if you're planning to dip your toe into our coasts and waters, but are not sure how to get started. Just remember to read the water safety advice from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Sail in Scotland

If you've ever dreamed of navigating a yacht around idyllic islands or gliding gracefully across a misty loch, there can be no better time than Scotland's Year of Coasts and Waters to plan a sailing trip. Whether you're a landlubber keen to learn the secrets of the sea, or an experienced skipper looking for a 'bareboat' charter - Scotland offers some of the finest sailing experiences in the world.

Here are a couple of ways you can achieve the perfect sailing experience in Scotland:

The Sail Scotland website provides loads of information for novice and experienced sailors alike. A number of Scottish centres cater for experienced and aspiring disabled sailors and there's more information about where to sail, sailing courses and events on the Sailability Scotland website.

Fishing in Scotland

There are few better ways to immerse yourself, sometimes literally, in Scotland's peaceful surroundings than with a spot of fishing. Whether you want to learn to fish as part of a break or are a seasoned angler looking for your next fishing holiday in Scotland, you'll find so many options available here.

Salmon-fishing, in particular, is very popular, although we ask that you return any salmon you catch to the river so they can continue on to their spawning grounds, and play your part in ensuring that this iconic species is sustained for the future. 

Go to Fishing in Scotland to learn more and plan your next fishing break here.

Scotland's Coastal, River & Canal Walks

As a natural playground, Scotland's lochs and coastline are great for watersports thrillseekers. But if you prefer to keep your feet firmly on dry land, exploring Scotland's coasts, loch-sides, riversides and canal towpaths is equally rewarding.

Walking

One of the best ways to enjoy our coasts and waters is on foot, at a pace that gives you time to absorb your surroundings. There are so many coastal, river, and loch side walks to choose from that it's hard to pick just one! Here are a few to get you started:

  • The Lomond Hills near Kinross provide a theatre-style backdrop for a 13-mile (21 km) circuit of lovely Loch Leven - the largest in lowland Scotland
  • Try out the staggeringly beautiful Loch Ness 360. At 80 miles (130 km) long, this multi-day circuit, either by two feet or two wheels, is sure to delight
  • If you'd rather explore our stunning coastline, head for the lovely Isle of Arran and walk the 65-mile (104 km) Isle of Arran Coastal Way
  • Why not wander to a wonderful waterfall? There's something quite hypnotic about these tumbling cascades and many have good trails leading to them
  • Check out some of our spectacular coastal walks - the options are almost endless

If you're looking for other walking route ideas across Scotland, then head for Walkhighlands.

Hike or Bike Along Scotland's Canals

Scotland's canals are just as perfect for an adventure as our lochs, rivers and coasts. Pull your boots on or pump up your tyres, pack a picnic and discover the sights and sounds along miles and miles of towpaths. There are plenty of options to choose from and the below are just a few suggestions: 

  • Bike or walk 79 miles from Fort William to Inverness along the mighty Caledonian Canal (part of the Caledonia Way)
  • Cycle or stroll along the more modest, but no less rewarding 9-mile towpath running beside the beautiful Crinan Canal in Argyll
  • Try out National Cycle Network route 754 along the Forth & Clyde and Union canals. Don't miss the Falkirk Wheel and the Helix Park, along the way
A red squirrel, Cairngorms National Park

Scotland's Coastal Wildlife

Whatever the season, Scotland's coasts and waters are the ideal place for a natural high and a wildlife experience should be part of any trip here, no matter where you go!

Spring

Thousands of seabirds, including guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes and razorbills, return to their craggy sea-cliff 'cities' to nest and raise young after a winter at sea. Other notable species to look out for include:

Puffins

These clown-faced favourites are a must-see during your spring coastal break in Scotland. See them in many different locations across the country including:

Gannets

Another unbeatable group of seabirds are the amazing, and noisy, gannet colonies. They can easily be spotted at:

Summer

As the days lengthen, more wildlife heads for Scotland and its rich seas, lochs and rivers from far-flung destinations across the globe.

Ospreys

These iconic raptors are a welcome visitor in late spring and depart in late summer. They fly thousands of miles from west Africa to raise their chicks in places such as:

Bottlenose Dolphins

There are several resident bottlenose dolphin pods around Scotland. Some of the best places to see these amazing marine mammals are:

Whales

Staying with marine mammals, summer is also a great time to see whales especially around Shetland and also in the Pentland Firth between Orkney and the mainland. Other places you could expect to spot these amazing creatures are:

Basking Sharks

This, the world's second largest fish, is a regular summer visitor to the west coast, attracted by huge blooms of plankton, which they consume through their enormous filter-feeding mouths. Basking Shark Scotland run regular trips to the islands of Coll, Tiree and Canna to see these leviathans of the deep!

Autumn

The vivid golds, ochres, reds and coppers of autumn, coupled with shorter days and colder nights usher out the lazy, hazy days of summer, heralding the arrival of over-wintering wildlife and some amazing natural spectacles. 

Swans & Geese

Autumn also signals the arrival of thousands of migrant geese, in their familiar 'v' shaped squadrons and swans from Iceland, Greenland and Siberia. Some fantastic places to witness the vast flocks of these over-wintering visitors are:

Atlantic Salmon

Each year these powerful fish swim for thousands of miles to return to their original spawning rivers, overcoming predators and scaling waterfalls and other natural obstacles to get there. There are many great spots all over Scotland where you can witness leaping salmon - their strength and determination is quite staggering:

Seals

Between late September and late November, seals pull up along our shores to give birth to adorable and furry pups. Key hotspots to see these remarkable creatures include:

The Red Deer Stag Rut

Quite possibly the grandest and most haunting spectacle in Scotland's wildlife calendar is the red deer stag rut. Each autumn, impressively antlered males contest their superiority in order to mate with the hinds.

There's something quite elemental about the bellow of a rutting red deer stag. Witness this spectacle for yourself at Kilmory Bay on the Isle of Rum National Nature Reserve - which regularly features in BBC's Autumnwatch; the hills above Glen Etive near Glen Coe or Galloway Red Deer Range in south-west Scotland.

Winter

Winter is often the best time to see our wildlife. As the leaves disappear, there's less tree cover and as food is scarcer at this time of year, our beasties are out more through the day, hunting and scavenging for whatever they can find.

Beavers

These timid creatures are often difficult to spot as they move about after dark, however they're sometimes easier to spot in winter, when the trees have no leaves. Go quietly at dawn or dusk and you might see them:

White-tailed sea eagles & golden eagles

It's possible to spot enormous white-tailed sea eagles soaring above the isles of Mull and Skye, the Small Isles and along the east coast all year, but winter, when food is scarcer is arguably the best time to see them. Golden eagles circling the lochs and mountains of the Cairngorms National Park and Queen Elizabeth Forest Park further south, are also easier to spot in winter.

Plan your next wildlife encounter using the Scottish Wildlife Calendar and our Scottish Wildlife e-book.

Loch Ken from Parton, Dumfries & Galloway
Loch Ken from Parton, Dumfries & Galloway

Pet-Friendly Breaks & Days Out

Scotland is the ideal place for a 'pawesome' pet-friendly holiday, on, in and around our coasts and waters.

Let's face it, em'bark'ing on a holiday without your favourite four-legged friend, just isn't the same. They are, after all, part of the family. So here in Scotland, you'll find plenty of options to keep those tails wagging!

Pet-Friendly Activities & Attractions

There are plenty of dog and horse-friendly beaches to play on or gallop along. Why not try wild swimming or stand-up paddleboarding with your pooch in and on one of our beautiful lochs? Take your horse trekking up into the hills for dramatic views, climb a mighty Munro with man's best friend or explore our wonderful woodlands on a relaxing walk.

There's also a wide range of attractions that very much welcome dogs and there are lots of doggy days out options on offer.

Pet-Friendly Accommodation

After a busy day exploring, you and your favourite friend will need somewhere special to recharge, with something tasty to eat and rest for the night.

Dive Into Scotland's Delicious Food & Drink

When it comes to feeding the nation and many of our European and global friends, Scotland's coasts and waters are vitally important.

Mouth-watering Scottish Seafood

For instance, did you know that Scotland lands over two-thirds of the world's langoustines and that we're the largest fish producer in Europe and third largest in the world? We export a lot of our seafood to our friends in France, Spain and other countries and Scottish farmed salmon is our biggest food export.

Thankfully however, much of this delicious seafood, regarded by many as amongst the best in the world, stays here. You'll find it in a number of fine seafood shacks and fish and chip shops around the coast as well as on a number of restaurant menus across the country. 

The Water of Life: Whisky

The quality of our water is also important when it comes to our other major export - whisky - uisge beatha - the water of life. Water from natural springs, rivers and lochs, combined with malted barley and aged in oak casks, have a clear influence on the taste - this can differ between whisky regions and the 120, and growing, whisky distilleries that you'll find here.

  • Speyside whiskies are rich and sweet.
  • Lowland whiskies are gentle and light.
  • Islay and Campbeltown whiskies are distinct and robust with a tang of sea air.
  • Highland whiskies can often encompass some, or all, of these flavours!

Other Drinks From Scotland

Gin

Staying with spirits, Scotland's water and other local botanicals are also important in the production of Scottish gin. Over 70% of 'mother's ruin' is produced here and it's the quality of the water and natural ingredients that makes it so special. Did you know, for instance, that Isle of Harris Gin is infused with locally dived sugar kelp. Find more information in Scotland's Gin Map.

Craft Beer

The Scottish craft beer sector continues to grow each year and the range of brews on offer is both perplexing and satisfying. Scotland's Craft Beer Map provides lots of information about many of the breweries spread across the country and the beers they produce.

Many of our whisky and gin distilleries and breweries offer visitor experiences and it's well worth calling in for a wee dram, a refreshing G & T or some amber ale.

Places to Stay by Our Coasts & Waters

Once you've enjoyed your exploits along our coasts and in our waters, you're going to want somewhere relaxing to rest your weary head for the night. Thankfully there are plenty of options to choose from, with something to suit all budgets.

As it's the Year of Coasts & Waters though, why not carry the watery theme on and stay in a sea-view hotel by the beach and enjoy coastal scenery?

Perhaps you're looking for a calming escape by the water or a secluded self-catering coastal cottage with fabulous views? Or something that's uniquely Scottish?

Stay somewhere quirky!

Maybe you prefer something more quirky such as staying on a boat or in a boathouse or in an impressive Scottish lighthouse?

Glamping

Lots of glamping options and unusual sleeps - wigwams, teepees, yurts and more - are located by water and ideal for re-connecting with nature. Some even have hot tubs!

Wild Camping

If you really want to get back to nature, then our fantastic responsible access code allows for wild camping on the beach, just remember to follow Scottish Natural Heritage's wild camping guidelines.

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