Favourite Beaches and Castles – and some scary cliffs!

Among our favourite beaches and castles are some impressive buildings such as 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 some scary and spectacular cliffs.

This is just to start off your own checklist of places to see in Scotland: a few of my favorite beaches and castles.

Then 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….

Tynighame beach and the Bass Rock
Tynighame beach and the Bass Rock

Belhaven Beach, Dunbar, East Lothian

Belhaven Beach, in the John Muir Country Park,is a long sandy beach as well as an estuary and tidal flats.

It’s one of those places where the sea seems to come in for miles, varying the character, depending on the tide.

In spite of the depredations and detritus of dog walkers and horse riders on the salt flats, it’s well worth discovering its breezy open spaces.

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. Among my favourite beaches and castles, it's up there near the top.
Sunnyside Beach between Portsoy and Cullen on the sunny Moray Firth.

Favourite beaches and castles: Sunnyside, Aberdeenshire (just)

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
This is a very high tide at the beach at Fraserburgh, so that the characteristic orange hue in the sand is not very visible.

Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire

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
Balnakeil Bay near Durness, in the far North-West

Balnakeil Bay, near Durness

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 one of these northern beaches that give a sense of being a long way from anywhere. 

This comes about also because, well, it is actually quite a long way from anywhere, in Scottish terms!

(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. They match any beach in Scotland.

More impressive coastline in Scotland – spectacular cliffs

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

Marwick Head, Orkney
Marwick Head and its seabird colonies. Plenty of scary verticals here. Take care.

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 Cliffs, North-West Highlands

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.)

Pictured here, the ‘west end’ of the range, with Kearvaig Bay just out of picture, left, and Cape Wrath, distant right.

West end of Clo Mor cliffs, looking to Cape Wrath
West end of Clo Mor cliffs, looking to Cape Wrath

These massive cliffs 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.

Pictured here, the Sea-stack called Stac Clo Kearvaig can just be made out below the cliffs, dwarfed by their bulk.

(This difficulty in appreciating scale applies to Marwick Head, too – and plenty other places with a lot of vertical rock!)


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 (of the neoprene rather than ornithological variety). No, wait, actually, both.

(Pictured here:) Looking back towards St Abbs Head. Lighthouse barely visible as minute dot high on leftmost headland.

Looking towards St Abb's Head, Berwickshire
Troup Head, Aberdeenshire, distant, right.
Looking west to a distant Troup Head, right horizon. November swell.

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.

So, for that matter, does Ireland. But no cliffs in Scotland get a million and a half visitors a year like Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher. How it all works makes for a fascinating visit.

The Stacks of Duncansby
The stacks of Duncansby, in the far north of mainland Scotland and an easy walk from the lighthouse at Duncansby Head. (Good place for puffins too.)

Finally, in this cliff list, just a couple more places where the coastal scenery is spectacular or significant. First of all, the Stacks of Duncansby are well worth the wee walk from the carpark at Duncansby Head and probably a lot more interesting than nearby John o’ Groats.

Then there is the most famous cliff in perhaps the whole world of geology. This is at Siccar Point, in the Scottish Borders: the place where the concept of ‘deep time’ was first thought of by the ‘father of modern geology’ James Hutton.

He saw the ‘unconformity’ of the layers of rock and realised that only an unknowable amount of time could have created the conditions. 

This was back in 1788 and Hutton’s discovery of the age of the Earth flew in the face of biblical orthodoxy. 

Today, the site is still a place of pilgrimage for geologists. It’s also a place where old trousers or jeans are thoroughly recommended – it’s usually a very muddy climb down the steep grassy cliff. 

Siccar Point, Berwickshire
The unconformity can be clearly seen in the angle of the strata at the foot of the cliff. Meanwhile a Brazilian geologist struggles up the slippery slope. (Before I rushed her off, wet and muddy, to catch the train back south at Berwick-upon-Tweed!)

Favourite beaches and castles – especially 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 collections of art, china or silverware (or whatever), while trying to make a bit of cash to keep the estate going? Scotland has a good choice of both sorts.

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

Craigievar Castle, Aberdeenshire
‘Fairytale’ (ho-hum) Craigievar Castle, 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.

Being a little apart from the sometimes violent mainstream of Scotland’s story, quite a lot of castles hereabouts in the North-East managed to avoid being knocked about by wars.

Consequently several survived to the present pretty much as the masons left them – but none more so than Criagievar.

Sometimes you come across in print the notion that Craigievar was the inspiration for the Walt Disney castle logo. Honestly, these pesky guidebook writers – though I can’t blame the old Victorians for that nonsense. 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.

Craigievar and Pearl Harbor

The castle 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 especially on aero engine and aircraft carrier developments n Britain.

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 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.

The Baronet was also a buddy of Churchill. MI5 knew about his Japanese connections but the then Prime Minister preferred not to go public, probably because of the potential damage to his own reputation.

You can see why it’s less controversial just to 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.

If you are an incurable castle buff you could see Craigievar and Crathes Castle on the same day. Crathes (not pictured!) 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 distant
Tantallon Castle, guarding a headland in East Lothian, as seen from the top of the Berwick Law.

Then there’s Tantallon Castle. 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, south of Stonehaven
Dunnottar Castle, south of Stonehaven.

Dunnottar Castle, south of Aberdeen, is 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 Castle, with its Monty Python and the Holy Grail connections now overtaken by its Outlander connections, then…wait a minute…what we need is a whole Scottish castles page…so there it is on that link.

Off you go to stride the battlements..