skip to main content

Coasts and seas

Scotland's coasts and seas are dramatic, varied and highly productive. Most of us live within only a few kilometres of the coast and wherever you are in Scotland, you are never more than 65 km from the sea.

You can enjoy towering cliffs in Orkney and St Kilda, the broad machair plains of the Uists, and the shifting dunes of Sutherland and Aberdeenshire. In the west, sheltered sea lochs provide a stark contrast to the exposed rocky shores of the open coast. In the east, the predominantly low-lying coastline is dominated by dune-fringed sandy beaches. Glacial activity has created the highly indented coastline, about 11,800 km in length, with some 800 islands mostly off the west and north coasts.

Why are our coasts and seas so special?

Scotland lies on the edge of the European continental shelf - with the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the North Sea to the east. Warm-water currents, driven along the edge of the shelf by the Gulf Stream, keep the west coast climate warmer and wetter than that of the east coast. Waters travelling down from the Arctic keep the north and east cooler.

Vast ice-sheets covered Scotland during the last ice-age. As the ice-sheets moved, they eroded the land and created a highly indented coastline with about 800 islands, lying to the west and north. As a result, Scotland's coastline is now some 11,800 km long. If the coastline was stretched out into a straight line it would reach all the way from Scotland to Australia

Being part of an island, Scotland is almost entirely surrounded by the sea. Scotland's territorial seas (from the coast to 12 nautical miles) cover an area greater than the Scottish mainland and islands added together. Our inshore and offshore waters combined make up 13% of all European seas.

Our position at the edge of the continental shelf, the long coastline, large area of sea and the mixing of warm and cold-water currents combine to make the waters around Scotland a special place for marine wildlife and habitats. Scotland's seas are estimated to contain at least 8,000 different species.

Diver exploring the sea bed. ©Rohan Holt/SNH. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or


Scotland's complex coastline shapes life beneath the waves. The variety of habitats includes rocky reefs and deep mud.

Traigh Sheileboist (Seilebost), view north to Luskentyre, Isle of Harris, Western Isles area. © Lorne Gill/SNH. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or

Coastal habitats

Settlements, agriculture, harbours, roads and railways, industry and, more recently, recreation exert pressure on our coastline.

Last updated on Wednesday 2nd December 2009 at 15:08 PM. Click here to comment on this page