Luskentyre, Harris: Breath-taking coastal landforms

Luskentyre is an outstanding example of highly dynamic and spectacular beach, dune and machair landforms that support a rich variety of habitats

Aerial view of coastal landscape at Luskentyre and Taransay, Harris, Western Isles Area. ©P&A Macdonald/SNH May 1994 0301-D-35. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library.

This area of western Harris contains a superb suite of depositional coastal landforms developed across a drowned inlet on a coastline that has been inundated by the sea due to rising postglacial sea-levels. The landforms extend from Luskentyre in the north to the spit of Corran Seilebost in the south and include the vast intertidal sandflats of Tràigh Luskentyre that occupy the inlet.

The pale, shell-rich sands, aquamarine waters and the summer flowers of the machair, which is unique to the north-western coasts of Scotland and Ireland, form a remarkable visual and colourful contrast with the rocky, heavily ice-scoured landscapes of much of Harris. Not surprisingly, Luskentyre has featured in lists of best beaches in the UK and worldwide.

The foreland of Luskentyre comprises a sand beach backed inland by sand dunes that rise to over 35 metres above sea level, then machair further inland that is a blaze of colour in early summer. The dunes include a range of active and inactive ‘blowthroughs’ – corridors cut through the dunes by the wind. The former are particularly spectacular, with both elongate and cauldron-shaped forms surrounded by steep, bare sandy slopes. At the apex of the promontory the dune face is steeply undercut, but to the southeast the coastal edge is fronted by low, growing dunes. Inland, hill machair covers the lower ice-scoured rocky hillslopes. To the south, across the sandflats of Tràigh Luskentyre, the spit of Corran Seilebost extends northwards and supports a fine west-facing sandy beach and a variety of dune ridges and machair. There is also a small area of saltmarsh to the southeast.

The evolution of the coastal system is particularly interesting but not yet fully understood. It is possible that the present landforms are the remnants of a former, more extensive beach-dune-machair system that extended across the drowned tidal inlet. The general pattern of machair evolution in the Western Isles involved extensive beach and dune development during the mid-Holocene associated with the input of large volumes of sediment from offshore as postglacial sea-level rise slowed. The low-gradient offshore zone and the shelter from the west provided by Taransay offered a favourable environment for sand accumulation in the drowned inlet and the formation of a more continuous beach-dune -machair system extending across the mouth of the inlet. Further submergence associated with continued rising sea level and reduced sediment supply may then have allowed the erosion and fragmentation of the system. If this explanation is correct, then the Luskentyre-Corran Seilebost landforms represent an important stage in the cycle of machair evolution in the Western Isles and may be a pointer to changes that may arise elsewhere in the region in the face of future sea-level rise.

The geodiversity of Luskentyre supports a range of habitats and one of the best transitional sequences in the Western Isles (and possibly western Scotland) from shell sand beach and intertidal sandflats, through areas of saltmarsh or sand dunes and dry machair with calcareous grassland, to acid moorland on adjacent hillsides. The site is also important for feeding, breeding, wintering and migrating birds, notably waders and wildfowl.

Text contributed by John Gordon.

Find out more
Hansom, J.D. (2003). Luskentyre and Corran Seilebost, Harris, Western Isles. In: May, V.J. & Hansom, J.D. Coastal Geomorphology of Great Britain. Geological Conservation Review Series No. 28. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough, 499-503.
Ritchie, W. & Mather, A.S. (1970). The Beaches of Lewis and Harris. Department of Geography, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen.

Sand dunes and blowthrough at Luskentyre.
Image: John Gordon

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