Saturday, 29 July 2006

Nudist beaches of the Outer Hebrides

That got your attention.

This is a question (or several questions) that is asked increasingly by visitors. Are there official nudist beaches here? Would people mind if nude bathing took place on a nearby beach? Is it safe/cold/discrete enough?  

Bearing (ahem) in mind that 1 in 4 Brits have "skinny dipped", it would come as a surprise if people weren't plunging into the sea in the buff on a regular basis. I've done it myself, in Norway and Sweden, and more locally off a beach on Barra and off the west beach of Berneray. Not frequently here, for temperature-related reasons (37 year old flesh is even worse when it's your own and it's turning blue).

The Naturist UK Factfile advises, for the Western Isles: "Many coves, bays and beaches among the Western isles are deserted and could be used by naturists". The legal situation is not clear; there aren't any official (or unofficial) signs up saying "No nudity" - and Berneray is a place where people like putting up signs -  but the few residents I've asked don't know. There's possibly an idea in there for next years Berneray week?

How frequently does nudism occur on Outer Hebrides beaches - difficult to tell; many of the beaches out here are seriously remote. Which is a good thing if you are apparently the more discrete type of nude bather, as opposed to the exhibitionist type. In fact, the latter would be disappointed; beaches here are usually too deserted for that. My (non-legal) advice is to check the weather forecast, get the map out, have a look for a remote beach or cove, check it's absolutely deserted, then go for it.

No picture today, as I was unable to find a picture online of an Outer Hebrides nudist beach. A quick google search draws up the article below:

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Nudism: is it time to grin and bare it?
Scottish beaches get rave reviews in a new book on naturism. A fully clothed Adrian Turpin investigates: 
Scotland and nudism — an unlikely mix? You might think so but Nick Mayhew, the author of the naturist guidebook Bare Britain, is out to correct a few misconceptions. "Up until 100 years ago, when people went swimming in Scotland they would have stripped off," he says. "Look at Rob Roy. Remember Liam Neeson famously swimming in the nude?" It may come as a shock to discover that Rob Roy MacGregor was a proto-naturist, skinny-dipping between skirmishes, sunning himself in the altogether, hands on hips by the banks of Loch Voil. But the rest of what Mayhew, a 36-year-old London-based travel writer, had to say this week was even more surprising. Scotland’s beaches are apparently a naturist’s paradise. "As someone who has written a naturist guide to Europe, I can say that Scotland is the most beautiful place in it," says Mayhew. "For me, it’s a wilderness thing. It’s nice having your own bit of wilderness."

There is, in fact, only one official nudist beach in Scotland: Cleat's Shore, in the south of Arran. "I suspect it’s probably the least visited nudist beach in the known universe," says Mayhew. The other sites mentioned in the guide — including Glenaladale by Loch Shiel, Glengarrisdale Bay in north Jura and Loch Arienas in Morvern — have been chosen for their mixture of remoteness and beauty but are offered with a warning: "If you do decide to enjoy a spot of unofficial skinny-dipping, do so with care and respect for others. If in doubt, cover up rather than risk offending."

As for the small matter of the climate: "I was swimming in Sanna Bay near Ardnamurchan Point earlier this month," says Mayhew. "Not for very long, but some of the word's most famous bare-bathers are Swedish. Compared to Scotland, that’s a lot colder. In the far north of the country, there’s a naturist beach inside the Arctic Circle. In midsummer, you get 24-hour sunlight." And has he found an answer to intimate midge bites? "Isn’t that what everyone wants to know? I'll sell you that for a million quid," he says.

But as the Bare Britain guide admits: "It’s not only the midges that can make life unbearable for bare bathers." Naturists may be ready for the west coast, but are the locals ready for naturists? One of the beaches also singled out by Bare Britain is Glasnacardoch on the Ardnish peninsula, locally known as the "singing sands" because of the noise made as you walk over it. Are the locals aware that they are living near a nudist hot (or should that be cold) spot? "I can honestly say I've never seen anyone nude round here. It wouldn't go down very well at all. It’s a place for families," says Jilly Jones, who runs the Old Library Lodge hotel in Arisaig. Maybe that’s a sign of how discreet they are? "I don’t think there’s an awful lot to hide behind down there to be honest," says Jones. You’re sure you’re not missing out on a niche market? "I'm not missing out on anything."

Wouldn’t coachloads of Danes and Germans, not deterred by the weather but eager to be buffed to a high gloss by the Atlantic gales, provide just the shot in the arm which the Highland economy needs? Wouldn’t you be tempted, I ask Jones, if VisitScotland offered to pay for a free advert in Health and Efficiency magazine? "I don’t think so," she says. "I’d rather people just kept their clothes on. Normally nudists are just old people who tend to let it all hang out."

The writer and Highland historian John MacLeod, a native of Harris, adds: "It is difficult to think of a nudist invasion without an awful lot of hilarity. The horizontal rain. The icy chill of the Atlantic. Bumpy, wobbly flesh. Unspeakable." As the son of a minister and an occasional outspoken commentator on public morality, however, MacLeod’s objections go beyond the aesthetic. "The fact is we are meant to be clothed," he says. "The English language suggests that. 'Stripped', 'naked', 'nude' are all synonyms for diminished. The whole point of clothing is that it’s a social discipline. To put it crudely, it's there to cover signs of sexual arousal. Men and women, boys and girls, naked together is an affront on many levels. The naturist thing is an assault on decency. There is something very aggressive about it."

What would be the reaction of the typical minister to a nudist invasion of the west coast? "Horror, pity and disgust I should imagine," says MacLeod plainly. "After the Fall of Man, one of the very first things in the new order was clothing. First fig leaves, then animal skins."

Rebranding the Western Isles as a nudist riviera from Butt to Barra may have to wait a while yet.

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(Entertainingly, the last person interviewed in that article is a local celebrity. A few years ago, we went to view his house on Harris which was up for sale (we didn't bite). Found him to be a pleasant chap, but (a) he was trying to sell his house and (b) it's probably a good thing we didn't get onto subjects such as politics. Before and since then, he's had a colourful career (never a dull moment), culminating in a truly spectacular start to his current job as the press officer of the local health board. As an example of (a) some of the politics here and (b) how two different news organisations report the same story, see these BBC news and West Highland Free Press articles.)


  1. Nudism? Not a clue on the legal status, I would play it sensibly and stay out of sight.

  2. Lawrence Washington8 August 2006 at 01:36

    Ah yes, I've done it - I once went skinny dipping in the sea on the magnificent west beach of Berneray. Even in high summer you're lucky (or unlucky!)to see more than a handful of people there all day. It was fun, and as I wandered back across the beach to my clothes I turned around to see an otter had followed me out of the sea. I don't know what he thought he was fishing for!!

  3. Morning swim off the west beach of Berneray at Silversprite24 August 2008 at 23:02

    [...] wrote in 2006 about nude swimming off the beaches of the Outer Hebrides and Berneray. The practical, as opposed to the theoretical, [...]