Wildlife, Birdwatching Holidays - Northern Highlands of Scotland
Roads are few; people thin on the ground in the Northern Highlands. So enjoy the sense of space and wildness, whether on sweeps of beach and dunes, among some of the best bogs in the world or on ancient rocks of the distinctively shaped mountains. Beautiful coastal plants such as Scots primrose, herds of red deer and throngs of guillemots, puffins and other seabirds are just a few of the wildlife highlights that can reward you in the Scottish mainland’s spectacular northern fringe.
- Pentland puffins
- Limestone lochs and flowers
- Guillemots and great skuas
- Blanket bogs
- Ospreys and eider ducks
- Red squirrels and crossbill
- Lime-loving plants
- Black-throated divers
- Caledonian pinewoods
John o’ Groats gets the limelight as the northernmost village on the British mainland. But Dunnet Head, to the west, pokes even farther into the wild waters of the Pentland Firth. You can see puffins and other seabirds in a colony below the lighthouse and look for flowers of spring squill in the clifftop turf. Ranger-guided walks to the headland and to the dunes at Dunnet Links (Scots primrose and orchids in the dune grassland) start at a small visitor centre beside Dunnet Links caravan site.
If you like walking on a huge sweep of beach at low tide, then Durness will tickle your toes and your fancy. The strand at Balnakeil Bay can be a start area for a longish hike across beach, dunes and coastal grassland out to Faraid Head, where puffins and other seabirds breed. Boat trips (June-Sept) run to the Head from beside Smoo Cave. Near both the craft village (interesting café/bookshop) and the main village (stores and tourist information) some beautiful flowers, including Scots primrose, grow in the limestone-enriched soil. You can find mountain avens beside tracks near the amazingly clear ‘marl’ lochs around the village. These trout-rich waters are popular with both ducks and anglers.
There’s no finer place for guillemots in Britain and Ireland than Handa, just north of Scourie. Take a short trip on the ferry (Apr-Sept) that runs from Tarbet to land on a shell-sand beach. Then use the boardwalk that crosses to the cliffs (looking out for great skuas - or ‘bonxies’ - arctic skuas and lizards on the way). Row upon row of guillemots and razorbills line the narrow Torridonian sandstone ledges, topped with a sprinkling of puffins on the awesome Great Stack. Scan the sea in case a minke whale or dolphin (several species possible) are passing offshore.
Look closely at a good blanket and you’ll appreciate its weave and its colour. That’s how it is with blanket bog. Some of the biggest blanket bogs in the world are in the peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland. At Forsinard (reachable by train from Inverness or from the A897 Helmsdale to Melvich road), you can explore some bog dry-shod on a boardwalk. Find out in the visitor centre about the special plants (such as sundews) that live here, then look for rich colours of sphagnum mosses outside and listen for bogland breeders such as black-throated diver, greenshank, golden plover, dunlin and common scoter. Watch for red deer from the road.
Where Loch Fleet meets the North Sea close to Littleferry, beside Golspie, you can get close views of eider ducks year round and see long-tailed ducks in winter. The coastal grassland is good for butterflies and plants such as autumn gentian. Walk Balblair Wood (west of the minor road between Littleferry and Golspie golf course) to see St Olav’s candlesticks - a special pinewood plant - at its best British location. Park at the Mound causeway, where the A9 crosses the River Fleet, to overlook a pool much used by waders such as redshank and fished by osprey in summer.
The woodlands that cloak the low hills between Spinningdale and Bonar Bridge have a glorious mix of Scots pine, birch, oak, aspen and other native trees. Easiest access is from the minor road west of Spinningdale, running through what is known locally as the ‘Fairy Glen’. A gentle track runs up through the birchwoods north of the road. South, take the main trail (signed from the road) to Loch Migdale to look for red squirrel, crossbills and signs of pine marten and get some good views into the burn gorge. Or branch off before the loch to go alongside Spinningdale bog, beside the northernmost large oakwood in Britain.
Knockan Cliff, by the A835 between Ullapool and Elphin, is part of a world-famous geological site. But beyond the lively displays about the ‘Moine Thrust’ and other rocky topics in the visitor centre, look for lime-loving plants such as mountain avens, alpine lady’s mantle and yellow saxifrage near the path and get good views west across the peaks of Inverpolly.
With its bevy of wooded islands at its western end, Loch Maree is worth a close look just to appreciate the views. There’s a traditional angler’s hotel (good for refreshments) halfway along it, beside the A832 and several car parks. Listen for black-throated divers and common sandpipers at the loch in summer and for the roar of red deer in the hills in autumn.
Beinn Eighe sits like a spectacular confection beside Kinlochewe, the mountain sides and summits sprinkled with white quartz. Get information at a small visitor centre off the A832 just west of Kinlochewe, then try a trail (short, longer or all-abilities) through the adjacent Caledonian pinewoods to look for crossbills and pine marten. Take the mountain trail to see dwarf juniper, unusual lichens, ptarmigan and ‘pipe rock’ fossils of some of the world’s oldest complex marine creatures. See the listing for Nature Reserves in the Northern Highlands