The Big Strand lives up to its name, it is the longest uninterrupted stretch of beach on Islay, 5 miles to be precise. Quite a hike from one end to the other and with a few obstacles, mainly in the southern stretch. The Big Strand can be found roughly to the south-west, between Port Ellen and Bowmore and to be more precise, between Kintra Farm & The Oa in the south and the River Laggan in the north.
Now let me describe accessing this beach first as it can be a bit of a puzzle. It’s not as straight forward as you would think. There are four possible places where you can access the Big Strand and they all have their pros and cons. I’ll go over them one by one:
How to Get to the Big Strand
The first possible access is on the Laggan Estate. If you drive out of Bowmore for a mile towards Port Ellen you’ll pass a wee bit of pine forest on your right with a tin roofed cottage on your left. Opposite this cottage is a track leading west. I won’t promote this as a “Car Park” simply because there isn’t one, but we did park here. Very cautiously though, as we didn’t want to block the track for farm and estate vehicles. You can see the track going west for quite a bit. Just follow it until you reach the dunes at the end and then cross the dunes to have access to the beach. Here you’ll get one of the most rewarding views of the Big Strand and Laggan Bay when you’re standing on the high dunes. There are several steep tracks leading down to the beach.
The second option to access the beach is directly north of Islay Airport. Again, if you come from Bowmore take a right directly before the wee parking space at Islay Airport, and I don’t mean the main parking space but the one a few hundred yards before that one. You’re now driving on some of the older runways and taxiways with Islay airport on your left. This is rough terrain and needs to be either negotiated carefully for another half mile or you can leave your car here and walk. At the end of this “track” you can head left to the Big Strand right after the fence which surrounds the airport.
The third option to access the Big Strand is through the dunes at the newly built Machrie Hotel. They have a large parking area and you can combine your beach walk with a meal or drinks in the hotel. If I remember correctly you’ll find a wee sign pointing to the path from where you’ll have beach access. You’re not supposed to access or wander over the golf links. If you’re unsure just go inside the hotel and ask at reception.
The fourth option requires a bit of driving as you’ll have to drive to Kintra Farm first and park your car there. Kintra Farm can be found on the Oa Peninsula, around 4 miles from Port Ellen. Access to the Big Strand is easy from here, it’s only a hundred yards through the dunes to access the beach. There is however a catch if you do this, as I will explain below.
The Big Strand from one End to the Other
Now you would think that it’s easy to walk from one end to the other but that’s not always the case. It’s therefore smart to plan your visit to the Big Strand somewhat. Are you looking for that exhilarating refreshing beach walk on a cool windy day, outside the summer season, and want to make some miles? Then better not park at Kintra. As soon as you walk north from Kintra you have to cross the Kintra River. Depending on the rainfall in the previous weeks, and the tide, crossing this river can be a challenge and can lead to soaked feet. And if you managed to cross this river you’ll soon have to cross another one, the Machrie River. More or less the same story here, although this one is usually somewhat shallower. Your best chance for that long beach walk is when you either park at Islay Airport, option two above, or at Laggan Estate, the first option. There is one other interruption, that’s the rocky outcrop west of Islay Airport but that can be easily avoided as there is a path through the dunes to the other side.
Big Strand in Summer or Off Season
We made some of our most beautiful walks on the Big Strand off season, in the Autumn or winter, after a few very windy days. The wave action can be stunning at times and it’s just great to do some beach-combing, enjoying the fresh salty breeze on your face and watch the waves rolling in slowly. You can easily spend hours here and not see anybody else on the beach.
If you’re on the beach with kids and are more interested in sunbathing, flying kites or building sand castles than you’ve picked the perfect beach for it. It might not be the most sheltered beach on Islay but with a cool easterly wind it’s great. And the dunes, especially nearer the north end, are the perfect playground for kids as well. This is also a great beach for surfing. It’s also a perfect place to enjoy those stunning Islay sunsets.
Machrie Hotel and Golf Links
The dunes South of Islay Airport are home to one of Scotland’s finest golf courses, the 18 holes Machrie Golf Links and the newly built Machrie Hotel. This golf course has some history as it was first designed on this very spot in 1891 by Willie Campbell, and what a location they picked back then. The views from this golf course over Laggan Bay are truly stunning. In recent years the course has been fully modernised and together with the opening of the renewed Machrie Hotel it’s become one of Scotland’s major Golf destinations.
View from Laggan Estate
I should mention one last tip. North from the River Laggan is a rocky outcrop which you can climb and from where you have the most stunning views possible of the Big Strand. However, you cannot access this hill from the Big Strand itself as it’s on the other bank of the river, which is too deep and fast flowing to cross. There used to be a bridge further upstream to cross the river but to my knowledge it is no longer there. To access the north-side of the Laggan River you need to walk from the main road between Bowmore and Port Ellen onto a track leading up to Laggan Bay. There is a parking space inside the pine trees wood. Go right onto the farm track right before the pine trees wood, which is exactly 1.6 miles outside Bowmore before Corrary Cottage. After 20 metres there is a wee parking space on your left. The track to Laggan Bay is 1.6 miles long and takes you over Laggan Estate, it’s a lovely walk.