by Tessa Palmer
Imagine a white sand beach - stretching for miles on either side - the turquoise waves crashing steadily in front of you and sea birds calling in the air. Seals periodically pop their inquisitive heads out the water to say hello from afar and perhaps once or twice, a pod of dolphins splash and play in the distance. A similar beach in the Mediterranean would be 5 people deep, yet here? All to yourself! Never would you imagine such a beautiful place completely alone, teaming with wildlife and such dramatic scenery in every direction... it is almost a dream.
The Hebrides in Scotland is the location for just such a beach and the coastline of these magical islands is covered with miles and miles of peaceful, sandy beaches. Wandering down a single-lane road, you will find a secluded beach with not a soul around, where the only sounds are the soft crash of the waves, the gush of the wind and the gentle whirr of the Marram grass blowing in the breeze. The Atlantic ocean laps the edges of your feet and every deep breath you take is filled with the freshest air. Even the most popular beaches in the area have but one or two other people on them, and it is usually only a local taking the dog for a walk.
In some areas, such as the “Traigh Iar” meaning “West Beach” on the isle of North Uist, a maze of sand dunes towers behind the beach, the giant heaps of sand making the land even more secluded and remote. In other areas, such as “Luskentyre” on the south of the Isle of Harris, the beach sprawls magnificently around a peninsula, surrounded by impressive mountains in the distance. The opposite hills are sprinkled with sheep and the occasional house, adding to the unspoilt beauty.
Although you may think you have the area to yourself, the beaches here are certainly not empty of life. This far north-west area of Scotland is known as a haven for bird-watchers and after a couple of minutes spent gazing you can understand why. The black and white Oystercatcher makes a delightful 'peep' noise and uses its orange beak to prod in the sand for cockles. The Gannet is a white sea bird with a yellow head and black-tipped wings. With a wing span of over 6ft, it is quite a spectacle to see it flying: Gannets frequently drop from a height of over 90ft in the sky and dive into the sea as they skilfully search for fish. And if you're really lucky, you may get a glimpse of the impressive Sea Eagle, silently riding the wind. Even the sea seems to stand still as it glides overhead.
On one particular beach, upon closer inspection, the sand was made of millions of tiny pieces of calcified seaweed, as well as thousands of delicate sea shells. It was aptly named Coral Beach on the Isle of Skye, as the 'sand' looked like tiny pieces of coral, and together with the turquoise waters, made the scene look like a secret, tropical haven. Yet, as fantastic as these seemingly gentle beaches are, you never quite forget the relentless power of the sea in a place like this and how it has shaped the land and the lives of those living on it. Lighthouses, such as Neist Point on Skye, serve as a regular reminder of the perils of the striking coastline. The lighthouse at the Butt of Lewis is the most Northerly point of the Hebrides, and is buffeted by strong Atlantic winds even on the most summery of days.
Surrounding the magnificent coastline is a landscape steeped in tradition, which makes the whole experience so much more unique. The rhythms of the land are cared for and tended by the local crofting families, who have lived here for generations, often speaking in the local dialect of Gaelic. It is from these local residents that I gained my greatest appreciation of the land, and most of all their ability to live with it, not against it.
As I head back through cities and airports, the contrast suddenly becomes stark. How far away these lands seem! Yet as remote as the islands were, what a treat it was to live there momentarily, to be invited to enjoy and appreciate the land and those that live in it. And for all the beaches I go to in the world, sandy or rocky, flat or mountainous, warm or icy, none will compare to those secret beaches found in the Hebrides.
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