On my first trip to Scotland I camped by a beach on Mull and woke to find an otter staring me down from the rocks. In the 25 years since, I have seen minke whales from a CalMac ferry, stags from mountain bothies and puffins only inches from my perch on a cliff in the Firth of Forth. Scotland is a wildlife watcher’s dream: from the Highlands and islands to the waters of the Moray Firth, we round up the best places to catch the country’s big ten.
Nothing says autumn in the Highlands like a stag’s roar in a misty glen. On the Ardnamurchan peninsula west of Fort William, you can go — sans guns — on a photo-stalking hike with the wildlife manager Niall Rowantree. You’ll need to be fit, as you’ll be yomping and crawling commando-style for up to four hours, but it’s worth every drop of sweat once you’re hunkered in the heather 50 yards from Britain’s largest land mammal (£350 per couple; wildhighlandtours.co.uk).
Best time to come End of September to November.
Make a weekend of it Rowantree’s eight-bedroom bunkhouse stands in a forest clearing above Loch Sunart. Room-only doubles from £70 (theardnamurchanbunkhouse.co.uk)
Spot nesting gannets on the Bass Rock
2. Gawp at gannets in East Lothian
Rising out of the North Sea like some guano-splattered Oz, the Bass Rock is home to the largest colony of northern gannets on the planet. It’s only a couple of miles off North Berwick, so even a one-hour boat trip from the Scottish Seabird Centre (seabird.org) is enough for whites-of-the-eyes encounters with the 150,000 individuals nesting on the 350ft cliffs (£26 adult, £10 child); on special photography trips, gannets dive right next to the boat after herring bait (£95, over-16s only).
Best time to come April to June for puffins, gannets until September.
Make a weekend of it Reopened last year after a megabucks refurb, Marine North Berwick stands right by the 16th green at West Links, staring toward the Bass Rock. B&B doubles from £189 (marineandlawn.com)
Snorkel with basking sharks in the Inner Hebrides
3. Bask with the sharks in the Inner Hebrides
You can snorkel with five-tonne, 23ft-long basking sharks (don’t worry, they’re gentle giants) in the Inner Hebrides in summer, but the only operator running three and four-day trips is fully booked for 2022 (week-long trips still available; baskingsharkscotland.co.uk). Can’t wait until next summer? Head out from Seil Island with the marine biologist David Ainsley. His trips to the dramatic Gulf of Corryvreckan — site of one of the largest whirlpools on the planet — occasionally encounter basking sharks. White-tailed eagles, seals and porpoises are regularly spotted all year round; minke whales and puffins are often seen in summer (adult, £69, child £56; sealife-adventures.com).
Best time to come June to August, before the sharks leave for the Azores.
Make a weekend of it The Sheiling is a pretty two-bedroom B&B just across the 18th-century Clachan bridge at the entrance to Seil Island. B&B doubles from £200 for a minimum two-night stay (seilislandbnb.com)
Puffins on the Isle of May
4. Spot puffins in the Firth of Forth
Anchored five miles off the East Neuk of Fife, the Isle of May is less than one mile long and 300 yards wide, but home in summer to a riot of 200,000 seabirds, including 40,000 pairs of puffins and their young. Sit still on the cliffs and the adults will land almost within touching distance, bills filled with sand eels for their chicks. Boat trips from Anstruther spend about three hours on the island, time aplenty for puffin sightings, as well as to take in the remains of 6th and 12th-century monasteries, and the oldest lighthouse in Scotland (adult £45, child £35; isleofmayboattrips.co.uk).
Best time to come Adults are feeding chicks from now until mid-August.
Make a weekend of it The Waterfront has simple, stylish rooms overlooking Anstruther harbour, plus cracking seafood. B&B doubles from £80 (anstruther-waterfront.co.uk)
5. Marvel at minke whales in Mull
The waters off Mull are a minke’s all-you-can-eat-buffet of plankton and herring, sandeel and whiting. Measuring up to about 30ft in length, Hebridean minkes can be inquisitive around boats, and will sometimes “spy-hop”, lifting their heads out of the water for a better look. Lucky visitors may even see them breaching clear of the surface. Several whale-watching trips depart Oban and Mull, including this four-hour excursion from Tobermory, which regularly features minke whale, dolphin, seal and eagle sightings (adult £60, child £30; sealifemull.co.uk).
Best time to come April to October.
Make a weekend of it Linndhu House is an elegant Victorian dower house five minutes’ drive from Tobermory. B&B doubles from £310 for a minimum two-night stay (linndhuhouse.com)
A bottlenose dolphin in the Moray Firth
6. Coo over dolphins in Moray Firth
Best place to see the biggest bottlenose dolphins on the planet? Not Baja California or Maui but the Moray Firth — and you don’t need a boat to see them. Measuring up to 13ft in length, the Moray Firth’s 200 resident dolphins are a common sight right from Chanonry Point, drawn to the salmon that channel through the narrows an hour after low tide (check tides.willyweather.co.uk). Further down the firth, a pod of eight killer whales (the UK’s only residents) were regularly spotted last month off Fraserburgh.
Best time to come Resident year-round, but most active in summer.
Make a weekend of it You can spot dolphins from the sea-view rooms at Tigh Na Mara guesthouse, where tide times are listed on a chalkboard. Room-only doubles from £90 (tighnamararosemarkie.co.uk)
About 300 pairs of ospreys breed in the UK each spring
7. Ogle ospreys in Perthshire
Hunted to extinction in Britain by 1916, ospreys are now a common but exhilarating sight in Scotland, with nearly 300 pairs returning to the UK from west Africa each spring to breed. One of the best places to see them is Loch of the Lowes, two miles from Dunkeld, where pairs have nested almost continuously since ospreys recolonised Scotland in 1954. The visitor centre has an HD webcam streaming from the nest across the loch, home to three chicks born only a couple of weeks ago. Come at dusk or dawn for red squirrels, fallow deer and beavers (adult £4.50, child free; scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk).
Best time to come Adults are busy fishing until chicks fledge in August.
Make a weekend of it The Taybank in Dunkeld is a fab five-bedroom boutique hotel with great food and a buzzing beer garden on the banks of the Tay. B&B doubles from £170 (thetaybank.co.uk)
Observe beavers in Knapdale
8. Beautiful beavers in Argyll & Bute
The Knapdale forest is a magical stretch of lochs and larch, ponds and pines one hour’s drive south of Oban. Here 11 Norwegian beavers were released in 2009 — the first in Britain for more than 400 years. Today that 11 have become more than 1,000, found as far as 100 miles away in Dundee. Knapdale is still the best place for them, though, especially on the three-mile loop round Loch Coilie-Bhar, where you’ll see dams and chiselled trees, and maybe even Bjornar and Millie, two of the original settlers (free; argyllbeavercentre.co.uk).
Best time to come Dawn and dusk, April to September.
Make a weekend of it Dusk vigils are a chilly business, so book yourself somewhere special, such as Kilmartin Castle, a beautifully refurbished 16th-century pile in a glen chock-full of neolithic remains. B&B doubles from £220 (kilmartincastle.com)
Find a pine marten in the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park above Aberfoyle
9. See parading pine martens in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs
There are nearly 4,000 adult pine martens in Scotland, but they’re pretty elusive and hard to spot in the wild without help. And by help, we mean peanuts. In the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park above Aberfoyle, the peanut feeders at the wildlife hide by the visitor centre are meant for red squirrels and birds, but also regularly draw pine martens, especially if you’re here about 7am (before the nearby Go Ape gets going). Even if you don’t see them, the hide sits at the start of a network of beautiful forest trails, and is only a short walk from the dramatic Little Fawn waterfall.
Best time to come Spring and summer, when adults have extra mouths to feed.
Make a weekend of it Four miles from Aberfoyle, high in the Menteith Hills, Nether Glenny Farm is a magical spot with red squirrels, black grouse and cosy cottages sleeping two to four. One night’s B&B for two from £90 (netherglenny.com)
Golden eagles can be seen over the Cairngorms
10. Spirit-soaring eagles in the Cairngorms
Britain’s second-largest eagle ranges widely over the Cairngorms, which makes an e-bike tour one of your best bets of spotting one — even a half-day tour covers up to 20 miles of the eastern Cairngorms. Led by the naturalists Dan and Rachael Brown, the e-bike safaris regularly encounter eagles and goshawks, black grouse and ptarmigans, as well as red and roe deer plus the Scottish crossbill, Britain’s only endemic bird (half-day tours for two from £185pp, including equipment; wild-discovery.com).
Best time to come April to July for eagles, January to June for crossbills.
Make a weekend of it The Fife Arms is worth the splurge for its incredible art, including work by Freud and Picasso. B&B doubles from £210 (thefifearms.com)