MUST SEE SCOTLAND - Must See Scotland has all you need to know for your Scottish travel plans. With an independent viewpoint, it offers impartial advice in an entertaining style. It strips away ‘destination marketing hype’ to inform about what you really should see. (You could, for instance, give Loch Ness a miss!)


Favorite beaches and castles - and some scary Scottish cliffs

Some impressive castles make it to this list - Including Craigievar, a Scottish castle with a sinister World War II US connection in a story seldom told. Find out about some great beaches as well - but did we include our most favourite? And, while on the coast, we list a some scary and spectacular cliffs.

Favorite Beaches - and Castles

This is just to start off your own checklist of places to see in Scotland, a few of my favorite beaches and castles - and I got a bit whimsical and threw in a couple of scary cliffs too - just as a reminder that Scotland isn't all dazzling sandy coastline - no, it's pretty fearsome in quite a few places.

Coastal habitats - especially easy-to-walk-on sandy stretches are precious, vulnerable and easily disturbed. So I’m keeping some beaches off this list! Och, you’ll find them for yourself….

John Muir Country Park, East Lothian, low tide

John Muir Country Park, East Lothian, low tide

(Pictured here) Part of the John Muir Country Park, near Dunbar, East Lothian - Belhaven Beach.

 In the John Muir Country Park, in spite of the depredations and detritus of dog walkers and horse riders on the salt flats, there is a long sandy beach as well as an estuary and tidal flats.

They can give the illusion of a wild place, elsewhere described – actually on the Edinburgh East Lothian tour (link below) – as resembling a scene from ‘The Riddle of the Sands’. Wait, this might be deemed pretentious...

Sunnyside Beach between Portsoy and Cullen on the sunny Moray Firth

Sunnyside Beach between Portsoy and Cullen on the sunny Moray Firth

(Pictured here) A secret(?) beach on the Aberdeenshire/Moray border – Sunnyside Beach

The natural filtering that takes place when visitors actually have to walk a few minutes from their cars ensures that this beach - Sunnyside Beach, between Cullen and Portsoy on the Moray Firth - never gets too crowded.

This is a glimpse of it before the descent from the clifftop. (The easy path can just be seen, middle distance, on the left.) Combine with a visit to the bare and much reduced Findlater Castle, on a stretch of comparatively wild coastline between Cullen and Portsoy.

But if you do find yourself touring here, then Sunnyside is a must see in Scotland secret beach.

Fraserburgh Beach, near the turning point for the Moray Firth

Fraserburgh Beach, near the turning point for the Moray Firth

(Pictured here) Fraserburgh beach, at the tip of North-East Scotland

In Scottish terms, I’d controversially suggest that the colour of the sand here on the beach at Fraserburgh at the tip of North-East Scotland is a kind of yardstick for every other Scottish beach to match.

But that could be because my earliest childhood memories are from this beach. It's afflicted with dog walkers of course, but you can get away from them...

Dornoch, Highland

(Not pictured but) another classic east coast beach. And there’s a lot of it. You’d like it. And the handsome little village of Dornoch makes a good stopping off point if you’re touring in the Northern Highlands. Famous golf course as well, sometimes referred to as ‘The St Andrews of the North’.

Balnakeil Bay, near Durness, near the very top left hand side of Scotland

Balnakeil Bay, near Durness, near the very top left hand side of Scotland

(Pictured here) Balnakeil Bay, near Durness, North-West Highlands

Not at its most scenic when the forces of NATO peel out of the sky and bomb the crap out of Garvie Island offshore, though even then it’s entertaining enough, Balnakeil is just one of these northern beaches that give a sense of being a long way from anywhere.

(More on Garvie Island – where they use live ammunition – on the Vikings tour page, that describes the route round the north coast.)

Basically, Scotland does beaches rather well. The Outer Hebrides have lots. Islay is also good. These are just a few that sprang to mind….Fife, Angus Aberdeenshire and all the way round the Moray Firth have plenty of sandy stretches. The north coast, including Dunnet, Strathy and lots more are well worth tracking down, while even the rugged north-west has some gems.

Of course, if you want something a bit different, you could always explore the beaches of Connemara, in Ireland.

Beaches? We could fill pages about ’em. So here are some more...

More impressive coastline in Scotland – spectacular cliffs

Yes. You’re right. This is a short and fairly idiosyncratic favorite coastal features in Scotland list and definitely not for those prone to vertigo. I mean, can you really have a favorite cliff?

Kitchener Memorial, Marwick Head, an Orlkney must see

Kitchener Memorial, Marwick Head, an Orlkney must see

(Pictured here) Marwick Head, Orkney – the Kitchener Memorial

Austere winds off the Atlantic where the rolling fields of (mainland) Orkney are dramatically chopped off with a big sheer and dizziness-inducing cliff.

Lots of seabirds and a bleak monument to Lord Kitchener. En route to Russia aboard HMS Hampshire in June 1916, he was among the 600 or so lost when the cruiser sank after hitting a mine offshore. 

The Clo Mor, North-West Highlands

(Not pictured.) Not far from the bombing range near Durness mentioned above, the Clo Mor cliffs are the highest mainland cliffs in Scotland (actually, on the British mainland, come to think of it.)

They lie between the Kyle of Durness and Cape Wrath, right at the north-west tip of Scotland. So big, from the top 920ft, 281m above the sea, it’s hard to get a sense of scale.

(You could say the same about Marwick Head, too - and plenty other places with a lot of vertical rock!)

Spectacular cliffs both at and beyond St Abb's Head, Berwickshire

Spectacular cliffs both at and beyond St Abb's Head, Berwickshire

(Pictured here) The spectacular coast above St Abb’s Head, Berwickshire. 

West (though it feels north) of St Abbs, there are spectacular rock formations, and easily viewed seabird colonies by the lighthouse on St Abb’s Head. Guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and so on in big numbers – the usual seabird suspects – this wild spot also has a voluntary marine reserve and so is also very popular with divers.

On the way to Troup Head, Aberdeenshire

On the way to Troup Head, Aberdeenshire

(Pictured here) Looking east from the path to Troup Head, Aberdeenshire. 

Scotland’s biggest mainland gannet colony is here, as a bonus. It’s an RSPB reserve these days. (In my youth it was merely a bike ride from home – though I never told my folks where I was going. Sheer cliffs and anxious parents are never a good mix.)

A high point on the bare but spectacular Buchan coast, overlooking the Moray Firth.

Lots more cliffs to see: Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides, the Noup of Noss in Shetland are just a couple of other island ones. Oh, yes, Scotland does big scary cliffs very well.

Favorite Castles

Now, what is your taste in castles? Ruined, roofless, ancient and time worn, inhabited only by tartan-trewed Historic Scotland staff?

Or do you prefer your castle with toffs still in residence, flaunting their wealth or trying to make a bit of cash to keep the estate going? Scotland has a good choice of both sorts.

Then there is the other category: castles where the old family has moved out or died off, leaving the maintenance bill for the National Trust for Scotland.

Craigievar, deep in rural Aberdeenshire

Craigievar, deep in rural Aberdeenshire

(Pictured here) Craigievar Castle -sometimes called 'the finest of the castles of Mar (a part of Aberdeenshire) - is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.

Quite a lot of castles hereabouts in the North-East managed to avoid being knocked about by wars, and survived pretty much as the masons left them.

But was Craigievar really the inspiration for the Walt Disney castle logo? Honestly, these pesky guidebook writers. Still, it’s a place you must see in Scotland.

More interestingly, more should be made of Craigievar Castle’s extraordinary connection to world events.

It was given to the NTS by the family of William Forbes-Sempill, (d. 1965) who was actively pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic, and passed military secrets to the Japanese.

The Japanese used them to perfect attack techniques used on the Pearl Harbor raid that brought the USA into World War II.

Basically, the ‘Baronet of Criagievar’ was probaby a spy.

However, he was part of the English Establishment and friendly with England’s royal family (his father had been aide-de-camp to King George V) and this may have saved him from prosecution. Hmm.

You can see why it’s less controversial just to witter (or blether) on about fairytale castles and the Walt Disney logo…

Nonetheless, thanks to this unscrupulous toff, this pretty little castle in rural Aberdeenshire had a link to major events in 20th-century world history.

Crathes Castle

(Not pictured!) This one is also looked after by the NTS. Go in summer to see the gardens. Lovely. Well worth the trip – it’s in lower Deeside, west of Aberdeen.

Tantallon Castle, near North Berwick

Stride the battlements, adjust the aim of the small cannon, look landward and shake your fist at the besieging forces. Then get a grip.

This is a great place to let your imagination run riot though. Built by the Douglases, they defended a narrow rocky neck of land on the Firth of Forth with a huge red sandstone curtain wall.

Six-storey towers at either end of the fortification were destroyed by artillery in 1651, but the centre tower, stairways and high-level walkways can still be explored. Visit Tantallon as part of an East Lothian tour

Dunnottar Castle on its dramatic cliff setting near Aberdeen

Dunnottar Castle on its dramatic cliff setting near Aberdeen

Dunnottar Castle, south of Aberdeen

Another atmospheric east-coast castle with the sound of gulls, assuming your ears haven’t been blown off by the sea-winds.

Very dramatic setting – a sea-girt plateau reached through a high curtain-wall facing the land. Beyond this on the exposed grassy top are a variety of structures, including a 14th-century L-plan tower-house built by Sir William Keith, Great Marischal of Scotland.

There are of course lots more: Stirling Castle, formerly the guardian castle of the routes leading into the Highlands, with a lot to see here. Great views from the ramparts.

Kilchurn Castle on the road to Oban, an old Clan Campbell stronghold; or Doune, with its Monty Python and the Holy Grail connections now overtaken by its Outlander connections, then...wait a minute...just take a look at the Scottish castles it is...