As Scotland celebrates its Year of Coasts and Waters 2021, a seaside staycation – or island-hopping adventure – seems an obvious choice. There’s more than 11,500 miles of coastline and more than 800 islands to explore for a start. The west coast is a stunning squiggle of fjord-like sea lochs, and the three main archipelagos, meanwhile (the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland islands), are fringed by wild, often deserted beaches. Inland, there are a jaw-dropping 30,000 freshwater lochs and lochans (mini lochs) to dip a toe in, canoe across or fish.
Seafood is part of most seaside holidays and Scotland’s waters dish up some of the best – with one or two local specialities on the menu. As well as hand-dived scallops, rope-grown mussels, loch-harvested oysters and artisan smoked salmon, tuck into a steaming bowl of cullen skink, a creamy smoked haddock, potato and onion soup from the little town of Cullen on the north-east coast, or head to Angus for an Arbroath Smokie, a traditional takeaway of moreishly sweet smoked haddock. Just watch out for the seagulls.
Gourmet grazing along the Fife Coastal Path
The Fife Coastal Path is a long-distance walking trail meandering for 117 bucolic miles from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Tay, through postcard-pretty fishing villages which tumble down to quaint harbours, past cliff-top castle ruins and along arcs of golden sand. The route, curving round the coast, can be split into manageable chunks and there’s no shortage of seafood grazing opportunities along the way.
In the seaside village of Elie, bed down in waterfront gastropub The Ship Inn, famous for its beach cricket in the summer and swing by the rustic Harbour Café for a half-pint of prawns. In Pittenweem, you can still see jaunty fishing vessels chugging out of the harbour. Book a table on the rooftop of the East Pier Smokehouse in St Monan’s for fish tacos and hot smoked sea bass with apple, peppercorn and smoked apricot relish or tuck into award-winning fish and chips from the Anstruther Fish Bar. In Crail, you can buy lobster from a shack on the harbour, while in the medieval university town of St Andrews, The Seafood Ristorante, a contemporary glass structure teetering above West Sands beach, dishes up Pittenweem day boat halibut with tartare butter sauce, oyster fritters and sea vegetables. Continuing on past Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve to the mouth of the River Tay, you’ll find MasterChef winner Jamie Scott’s restaurant, The Newport, and, opening this spring, his new seafood shack overlooking the water.
Coasteering on the Isle of Skye
Clambering around the wave-battered cliffs, exploring secret caves, rock-pooling and bobbing about in the swell, Skye Highland Adventure’s coasteering excursions are wet-suit and helmet-clad nature and wild swimming adventures for adrenaline junkies. The Isle of Skye’s 400 miles of craggy coastline makes for the perfect outdoor playground, the cliffs dotted with fulmars, oystercatchers, shags and cormorants, the water home to grey seals and bottlenose dolphins.
After building up an appetite, make a beeline for The Oyster Shed in Carbost near the Talisker Distillery. It’s an oyster farm with rustic farm shop and seafood van, where you can eat pan-fried scallops and slurp cups of warming fish bisque along with freshly shucked oysters at picnic tables with jaw-dropping sea views. There’s a strong tide-to-table and loch-to-larder ethos on the Isle of Skye, from the legendary croft house-turned-gourmet bolthole, the Three Chimneys, to Michael Smith’s tiny waterfront restaurant Loch Bay on the Waternish peninsula.
Hit the beach in Edinburgh
Just a pebble’s throw from Edinburgh’s Georgian crescents and medieval quarter is its ‘city beach’, Portobello. A short bus ride south-east from the centre, Portobello, with its two-mile stretch of sand, was a fashionable seaside resort in the 19th century. Sean Connery once worked as a lifeguard at the Portobello Baths in the 1950s, and the Victorian pool on the seafront with its Turkish baths has recently been refurbished. Today, it’s popular again with wild swimmers, dog-walkers, volleyball players and paddleboarders as well as the bucket and spade brigade. And now foodies are flocking here.
Last summer, one of the hottest – and tiniest – restaurants in town, the Little Chartroom, launched a pop-up on the promenade – the Little Chartroom on the Prom. The street-food pod dished up barbecue takeaways such as smoked cod roe, flatbread, cockles, seaweed and fennel along with smoked mackerel tacos with green pepper salsa and seaweed – and was such a success it’s become a permanent fixture. Due to open this spring, meanwhile, is an upmarket seafood bar and takeaway, Joppa Rocks – in the old public toilets on the promenade. And a branch of Edinburgh pizza empire Civerinos is also set to open in April. The new Slice Bar will dish up a seafood special, the ‘24hourportypeople’ topped with breaded anchovy, buttermilk fried chicken, pickled garlic caesar, parmesan and lettuce.
Wild swimming and oyster shucking on Loch Fyne
At legendary seafood joint, The Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, at the top of the 40-mile long, west coast sea loch, you can tuck into freshly shucked oysters with shallot vinegar, garlic and herb breadcrumb, chilli and smoked cheese grilled oysters or crispy panko-coated grilled oysters with horseradish mayo. Loch Fyne Oysters Ltd has been growing and nurturing oysters in their hatcheries here for more than 40 years. Also on the menu is local Tarbert-landed lobster and chips, whole brown crab or splash out on a seafood platter overflowing with langoustine, oysters, mussels, hand-dived scallops, lobster and crab.
With pools and lidos closed for much of the pandemic, wild swimming has never been so popular. You can swim from the shore in Loch Fyne (be careful of the currents) or follow the track along the river which runs up Glen Fyne to a waterfall a few miles up the glen – a perfect wild swimming spot. Please see wild swimming safety advice from Countryfile before you visit.
Shellfish safari on the north-west coast
Chugging across Badachro Bay in a traditional fishing boat, helping to haul in the langoustine creels and lobster pots while breathing in the salt-laced sea air gives you a taste of the life of a west coast fisherman. Skipper Ian McWhinney’s family has lived here since the 15th century, and today they own a tiny private island glamping retreat, Dry Island, attached to the mainland by a floating footbridge, and offer shellfish safaris from the jetty.
You can catch and cook your own seafood supper – langoustine, squat lobster or crab – and wash it down with the neighbours’ gin (there’s an artisan distillery next door – badachrodistillery.com) or head to the Badachro Inn in the village for a plate of pan-fried scallops or Gairloch creel-caught langoustines with a crusty roll. Then relax in the wood-fired hot tub overlooking the tidal bay, keeping your eyes peeled for otters and seals – and the Northern Lights. Bunk down on the island in the Old Curing Station, an apartment in the old 19th-century house (sleeps two); a rustic bothy, Otter Cabin, on the water’s edge; and the Captain’s Cabin and sleeping barrel pod in fairy-light-strung woodland with leaf-dappled sea views.
Glasgow: crab lunch and paddle-boarding
Glasgow’s Crabshakk restaurant in cutting-edge neighbourhood Finnieston has been showcasing the best Scottish seafood for more than a decade. With daily changing specials, the menu is packed with everything from oysters on ice to pan-seared scallops with anchovies, home-cured gravadlax, deep-fried whitebait and the signature Crabshakk bisque.
Just a mile from the city centre, the old clay quarry used to build Glasgow’s Forth and Clyde Canal in the 18th century has been turned into an award-winning, inner-city nature reserve, Claypits. Thanks to an urban regeneration project, this 25-acre woodland and wetland reserve is home to an array of wildlife from warblers to roe deer and comes networked with cycle and walking trails.
For adrenaline junkies, a Glasgow 2014 Legacy Project created another inner-city outdoor activity centre. Pinkston Watersports in the north of the city offers a range of activities, from kayaking and canoeing to paddle-boarding. It also lays claim to Scotland’s only artificial white-water course and is home to Glasgow Wake Park. Wakeboarding – think snowboarding on water – is one of the fastest growing water sports.
Fly fishing in the Outer Hebrides
The far-flung islands of South Uist and Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides, peppered with around 800 lochs and lochans (mini lochs), have some of the best wild brown trout fishing in Scotland. The best, according to Wegg Kimbell, fly-fisherman-turned-guesthouse owner, is in the shallow lochs on the flat, machair-sewn west coast.
After fishing and holidaying here for years, he bought a guesthouse. He’s not a qualified instructor but hires out tackle, arranges local ghillies (guides) and takes guests to his secret fishing spots before breakfast or after dinner. Mornings at the guesthouse might start with smoked haddock or Loch Fyne kippers, while supper could feature cullen skink, crab cakes, hot smoked salmon, scallops or monkfish tail. It’s good home cooking with local ingredients. If the weather’s good, he’ll fire up the barbecue and cook wild brown trout from Loch Druidibeg at the bottom of the garden. He smokes his own trout and mackerel, grows veg in his kitchen garden and has his own free-range hens.
Wildlife-watching boat trips and a seafood shack in North Berwick
The ‘Biarritz of the North’ was the nickname once coined for this little seaside town just half an hour east of Edinburgh by train. It has quaint narrow streets, two sandy bucket-and-spade beaches and a state-of-the-art Scottish Seabird Centre with live webcams onto Bass Rock, home to the world’s largest gannet colony. For those who want to get a little closer, boat trips leave from the harbour from Easter to autumn. With more than 100,000 nesting birds, David Attenborough dubbed it one of the wildlife wonders of the world.
Back on land, another harbourside pitstop is the Lobster Shack, a rustic takeaway with a bit of polish and eco-friendly ethos. The mackerel is line-caught straight from the boats in the harbour, the packaging and cutlery is biodegradable and the lobster and double-dipped chips washed down with prosecco. Also on the menu is salt and pepper squid, Shetland rope-grown mussels marinière and creamy smoked haddock chowder. If you’re making a holiday of it, bed down in one of Gone to the Beach‘s cute waterfront cottages.
Designer chippie and design museum: Dundee’s revamped waterfront
The regeneration of Dundee’s waterfront is breathing new life into the city. During the 19th century, ships for whaling were built in this bustling port on the River Tay. Today, the centre of the city’s startling transformation is the V&A Dundee, Scotland’s first design museum, which opened in 2018. Designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, the curved concrete walls are clad in 2,500 pieces of stone to represent the east coast’s cliffs. The floor-to-ceiling windows of the restaurant (tuck into a kiln-smoked salmon open sourdough sandwich with horseradish crème fraîche) frame views of the river and the seafaring attraction next door, the RRS Discovery, the ship built for Captain Scott’s Antarctic expedition in 1901.
Around the corner there’s another eye-catching makeover. Fish merchants G & A Spink have created Tailend, a gourmet fish and chip restaurant and takeaway. As well as traditional fish ‘n’ chips – the haddock battered, breadcrumbed or grilled – the menu features hot-smoked salmon with spiced beetroot relish, house fish cakes and their signature Arbroath Smokies. Awarded PGI status in 2004, this local speciality from the small fishing village of Auchmithie in Angus is a traditionally smoked haddock, creamy, flaky and sweetly smoky.
Sea kayaking and coastal foraging
The west coast wiggles north, scissored with fjord-like inlets and dramatic sea lochs, sprinkled with uninhabited islands, secret coves and deserted beaches – perfect sea kayaking territory. Kayaking adventure companies peppered along the coast offer day trips or longer adventures. For foodies, Arisaig Kayak Centre has a three-day kayaking wilderness camping expedition and foraging trip with wild food expert Mark Williams of Galloway Wild Foods.
Paddling across the Sound of Arisaig landing on a remote beach, you’ll forage for wild ingredients to cook over the campfire, harvesting seaweed and scouring the sand for shellfish, coastal succulents and maritime herbs; all the produce for an evening feast back at camp. As the sun sets, you’ll learn how to whip up a foraged cocktail or sip a glass of elderflower champagne.
If you don’t fancy camping, you can base yourself at the waterfront Glenuig Inn in the Arisaig Sound, which also offers sea kayaking excursions, along with a seafood-rich menu – and local kippers for breakfast.
Please check the latest government guidelines before travelling.