Scotland’s west coast is the place to visit of you want to see the country’s Big Five – red deer, golden eagles, otters, harbour seals and those elusive red squirrels
Scotland is a country of vast contrasts, from the grandeur and elegance of Edinburgh to the grit and buzz of Glasgow, the gentle hills of the Lowlands to the dramatic munros of the Highlands.
In this land of wide open spaces and few modern interferences, outside the main cities wildlife thrives. For a mix of beautiful landscapes, traditional communities, deep-rooted history and a good dose of that other Scottish favourite, whisky, you can’t beat the west coast and its isles.
Though it can be daunting planning a trip to Scotland’s Inner Hebrides – a string of islands sprinkled down the west coast from Skye in the north to Islay in the south – for your efforts you’ll be rewarded with spectacular scenery and a way of life that you may have thought had been resigned to the history books.
Islay, the most southerly of the Inner Hebrides isles, may be best known for its peaty, smoky whiskies – there are eight distilleries on the island and more planned – but the Queen of the Hebrides is also one of the best places to spot Scottish wildlife. It is home to some of Scotland’s friendliest people, too, with locals (known as Ileach) never too busy to stop for a ‘blether’ (a chat about nothing in particular – what the English might call ‘small talk’).
Most visitors arrive into Port Ellen on Islay’s south coast, from where you can access the three southerly distilleries of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg, that hug the pretty Kildalton coastline, where the warehouses proudly shout their names out to sea.
Head north from Port Ellen to the centre of the isle and you will reach the town of Bowmore – built-up by Islay’s standards – which is home to the oldest distillery on the isle (handily also called Bowmore), which began legal operation in 1779.
Tours at each of the island’s eight distilleries – Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila lie on the northeast coast and will soon be joined by Ardnahoe, while Bruichladdich and the farmyard distillery of Kilchoman (it’s the only distillery to use barley that it grows itself) lie on the west of the isle – are available year-round. However, to really get a avour of Islay’s whiskies and camaraderie, you should visit during the annual Islay Whisky Festival (Feis Ile), held each May.
But Islay is so much more than its whisky. The Oa Peninusla, a stout chunk of land that juts out into the sea to the southwest of the isle from Port Ellen, is one of the island’s wildest regions.
There’s one road up, a single track that twists and climbs through fertile countryside – all the way to the RSPB car park for the American Monument. To reach the striking monolith that looms on a precarious cliff top with views to the Antrim coastline, follow the well-marked (though muddy at times) path from the car park through a eld full of sheep – there’s a good chance you’ll see some nosey Highland cattle too – and up onto the headland (about 20-30 minutes each way).
The monument commemorates the large number of Americans who lost their lives in two separate maritime disasters nearby – the sinking of HMS Tuscania, which was torpedoed on 5 February 1918 just seven miles off the coast of Islay, in which 230 lives were lost, and the sinking of HMS Otranto just a few miles away eight months later, in which over 400 US and British servicemen lost their lives.
This area, all sleepy farmsteads, where the skies seem busier than the road, wasn’t always this quiet. As many as 800 people once lived on the peninsula, many of Norse descent, as evidenced in place names – suf xes such as –bus or –bost come from the Old Norse for farm (‘Bolstadr’). A Neolithic chambered cairn across from one of those farms, Cragabus, shows that people were here long before the Norse settled here in AD 800-1150.
However, mass emigrations from here and other parts of the isles, as a result of the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, saw a huge fall in population and the diaspora of Scottish people, many of whom must have longed for their homeland. Throughout the peninsula you can see reminders of these abandoned lives, such as the Thomas Telford church in Risabus, which stands in ruin.
While on the Oa, stay in one of the two luxurious Coillabus eco lodges – turf-roofed properties sensitively designed so that they are camou aged against the landscape – about half-way up the Port Ellen road. Each lodge comes with wood burner, its own sauna and an outdoor (heated) bathtub, perfect for enjoying the incredible stargazing afforded by next-to-zero light pollution. One of the lodges, A’Mhoine Bheag, has a curved wall of oor-to-ceiling windows that looks out over the rugged Oa towards the Atlantic and is a great place to sit and watch for golden eagles, which grace the skies here year-round. Look out too for large buzzards and red deer.
If it’s deer you’re after, there really is no better place to see them than on Islay’s island neighbour of Jura – its Norse name translates as ‘Deer Island’ – where they outnumber the people by around 30 to 1.
You can reach Jura by taking the ferry from Port Askaig on the northeast coast of Islay. En route to the ferry, stop off at Finlaggan. These two islands in a peaceful loch location were once the administrative seat of the powerful Lords of the Isles, which ruled much of western Scotland for centuries before having their power stripped off them in the 15th century when their head conspired with the English King Edward IV behind the back of King James IV of Scotland. Walking amid the ruins of the former buildings and homes, which James had burned down, is an emotive experience.
Once on Jura, follow the island’s only road from the ferry slipway at Feolin, which goes all the way to the road end at Barnhill at the north of the isle. It was at this cottage that Eric Blair, or George Orwell to give him his pen name, came to write his seminal novel, 1984.
As you drive, look out for deer on the hillsides and in the elds all around you: with an estimated 6,000- 7,000 deer on the isle and not much else (aside from two good distilleries: one whisky and one gin), they are pretty hard to miss. Look out too for the three distinct peaks known as the Paps of Jura, that dominate the skyline as you travel around. From Islay it’s possible to catch a ferry from Port Askaig to Oban, where there’s a good chance of nding some red squirrels, which for some reason don’t like the islands. Take a stroll to the ruins of Dunollie Castle on the outskirts of town, which dates from at least the 15th century (though there was probably a fort here as early as the 7th century), and you may spot one amid its gardens.
Make time too to visit Oban’s distillery or stop for a wee dram in the cosy and traditional Oban Inn by the harbour, where there’s often a musician or two happy to play as you drink.
Oban is also a launchpad for many of the islands, including Mull, where white-tailed eagles (or sea eagles) were reintroduced from the 1980s on, having been driven to extinction in the early 20th century.
From Mull you can take a ferry out to Staffa Island, home to similar basalt rocks to those found on the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, and where you are pretty much guaranteed to see nesting puffins up close in breeding season, from April to August.
If you still want to see more wildlife, take the ferry from Tobermory on Mull to Kilchoan on the remote Ardnamurchan peninsula on the Scottish mainland, one of the best places to see pine martens in the whole of Scotland.
In addition, wherever you go on the west coast, there is a good chance of seeing harbour seals and otters (early morning is best). And from April to October, basking sharks, minke and orca whales, porpoises and dolphins are also regularly sighted. This area is one big playground for wildlife, so make sure you bring your camera.