A HIGHLAND loch in the foot-hills of the Cairngorms has become the first stretch of fresh water in Scotland to gain a coveted quality award for its beaches.
Loch Morlich, surrounded by forests and the stunning backdrop of the peaks of the northern Cairngorms, was used as a main training base for the Commandos and members of the top-secret Special Operations Executive during the Second World War.
But today it is home to a watersports centre, popular with kayaking, sailing and windsurfing enthusiasts, and a magnet for thousands of tourists drawn to the sandy beaches which form long stretches of its shoreline.
Now it has been revealed that Loch Morlich's golden beaches will be the country's first fresh- water strandsto fly the prestigious Seaside Award flag this summer. They are among 60 Scottish beaches which have been awarded the accolade by the awarding body, Keep Scotland Beautiful (KSB) this year.
Six Scottish beaches – the same number as last year – and one marina have gained a Blue Flag, the top international benchmark for water quality and cleanliness.
A total of 11 special recommendations have also been made this summer for beaches achieving Seaside Award status for more than ten years in a row. They include St Andrews' West Sands which has achieved award status since the scheme began in Scotland in 1993.
Only last month one of the wettest summers for decades was blamed for a rise in the number of Scottish beaches that failed the water quality benchmark set by the European Commission.
A total of 17 beaches from the Borders to the Highlands fell short of the minimum legal standard in the annual survey by the Marine Conservation Society.
But the Blue Flag and Seaside Award accolades are based on a detailed assessment of the beaches as a whole, including their facilities, safety record, cleanliness and water quality.
John Summers, the chief executive of KSB, welcomed the boost for Scotland's beaches as the official bathing season got under way along Scotland's coastline.
He said: "Recognising continually improving standards and sustainable management the beach awards are becoming increasingly difficult to hold on to, particularly following two such wet summers which have caused water quality problems.
"So I am particularly delighted to see more beaches joining the award schemes, especially Loch Morlich, which is not only our first fresh water Seaside Award winner, it will also be the highest award beach in the country at 300metres above sea level."
Mr Summers added: "I would like to pay tribute to all the hard work that goes in to achieving these awards by local authorities and communities and urge people, particularly in this economic climate, to get out this summer to visit – because we really do have fantastic beaches to be proud of."
Scotland's Minister for Tour-ism Jim Mather also praised the award-winning beaches. He said: "Scotland's magnificent beaches and stunning coastline make an enormous contribution to the distinctive Scottish experience for visitors and residents alike.
"It is encouraging to see more and more of our beaches surpassing international standards for quality and cleanliness and, as more and more visitors from home and abroad take part in our Homecoming celebrations, there is no better time to enjoy our seaside for themselves.
The six beaches awarded the Blue Flag this year are Montrose in Angus; four beaches in Fife – Aberdour Silver Sands, Burntisland, Elie Harbour, Elie Ruby Bay, and St Andrews West Sands; and Broughty Ferry near Dundee. The seventh Blue Flag was awarded to Kirkcudbright Marina.