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Scottish Highlands and Islands (1 of 2)

Updated: Aug 19, 2023

This summer, my wife and I embarked on our biggest (and arguably best) vacation to date: a two-week tour of Scotland’s highlands and islands. This was my first trip overseas, and it exceeded my expectations. Wildlife was more abundant than I had anticipated; the scenery was breathtaking nearly every moment of every day; and the Scottish cities, towns, castles, and ruins all tickled my human interest more than anything similar in America. Perhaps the only thing less than perfect was the weather—we apparently experienced the full gamut of “traditional Scottish weather.” I much prefer the “traditional Scottish breakfast.” We packed a lot of adventure into our two weeks, so this blog is split into two parts. This first post chronicles our brief stay in Edinburgh, followed by our cross-country drive to the Isle of Skye, where we camped for three nights. After that, we headed south to the Isle of Eriska for two nights, followed by a night in Oban and a hike up Ben Nevis. The second blog post covers our week-long stay at Killiehuntly (in the Cairngorms National Park) and our departure out of Edinburgh. If you make it to the end of the second blog post, you’ll get my Summary by the Numbers, where I attempt to quantify a bunch of trip metrics. Preview: I saw 80 new life birds and took 3235 photos. Speaking of photos, you’ll probably notice more landscape photos than usual. This is largely due to a pre-trip upgrade to my phone. I never had to change lenses, and always had both a landscape camera (iPhone 14 Pro) and a wildlife camera (Nikon D500+300PF).

Introduction: Edinburgh



After a red-eye flight that cut short our Friday night and a long customs line, we finally got a cab into downtown Edinburgh just before noon. The weather was some of the best of the trip: temps in the 70s (Fahrenheit, of course; I never really learned Celsius), partly cloudy, and somewhat humid. It felt like May in North Carolina.

We spent the afternoon walking around the city. Stops included a below-street-level café, the Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh Castle, and various other historical landmarks. I’m generally not a big fan of cities, but Edinburgh won me over. It featured a fascinating mix of history, architecture, touches of modernism, a generally progressive and friendly culture, and lots of green space (some cultivated, some wilder)—more than any comparably-sized city I’ve visited. No surprise, but the abundant green space is probably what won me over!

We spent the late afternoon at Holyrood Park, a 700 acre preserve adjacent to downtown. The highlight was a hike up a former volcano to “Arthur’s Seat.” The peak offered unparalleled panoramic views of the city and the surrounding countryside and coastline.

The fauna within and around Edinburgh was predominantly Homo sapiens, but we encountered a variety of birds as well. That’s the charm of birds, after all: they’re everywhere, even in cities. On our afternoon journey, I managed 11 bird lifers: Common Chaffinch, Common Chiffchaff, Common Swift, Common Wood-Pigeon, Carrion Crow, Eurasian Blackbird, Eurasian Jackdaw, Eurasian Kestrel, Eurasian Magpie, Eurasian Moorhen, and Tufted Duck.

I listed the birds in alphabetical order intentionally. During the trip, approximately half of the new birds I saw had names beginning with “Common,” “European,” or “Eurasian.” Not very helpful, right? The remainder included more physiologically or behaviorally descriptive names.

Some birds weren’t new, but were the first I’d ever seen in their native habitat (e.g., Mute Swan). Others I’d seen before, but they’re far more common on this side of the pond (e.g., Lesser Black-backed Gull, Black-headed Gull). And a handful of birds were not new in any way—common both in America and Britain. To generalize across the entire trip, most of the small birds were new, and many of the larger seafaring birds (able to cross the Atlantic with relative ease) were not new.

The wildlife highlight of the afternoon was watching the aforementioned Kestrel successfully take a small rodent from a field, viewed at close range. We also saw one new butterfly: a Meadow Brown.

We eventually made it back downtown and had a nice French dinner. (We figured we’d be eating a lot of traditional Scottish food elsewhere, so we did the cultural thing while in the big city.) I also picked up a bottle of some nice Islay scotch… I mean whisky. “Scotch” is simply an adjective Americans apply to the product (Scotch whiskey = whisky from Scotland). Still sleep deprived, we called it a night well before the 10 PM sunset and slept in well past the 4:30 AM sunrise.

Phase 1: Camping on Skye



After breakfast downtown, we took a cab back to the airport to pick up our rental car. Delaying the car rental until Sunday was genius. It would’ve been disastrous to put me behind the wheel on the wrong (right) side of the car, driving on the wrong (left) side of the road, through the chaos of downtown Edinburgh (thousand-year-old cities don’t get along with cars), on ~2 hours of sleep (remember the red-eye flight). But by Sunday, I was ready.

We had to wait (in a “queue”) for about 45 minutes to pick up the car. This normally would have been frustrating, but I somehow managed to see 5 parking lot lifers while we waited. They were: Eurasian Oystercatcher, Rook, Common House-Martin, European Greenfinch, and Long-tailed Tit. Many types of tits reside in Great Britain, doubtless a source of great amusement for teenage bird nerds.

Back to the drive: It took about 5.5 hours to get from Edinburgh to Glenbrittle on Skye. The long drive was an effective—if not always pleasant—way to learn to drive on the wrong side of the road. The area around the airport was the worst, but I was able to follow other cars that seemed to know what they were doing. The divided highway that followed was more straightforward. We soon traded the highway for hours of curvy, 60 mph backroads. The scenery was terrific, and I would have thoroughly enjoyed this part if we’d been in, say, Germany. Alas, my eyes and hands were busy trying to keep the wheels on the road. Add rain, oncoming traffic, and occasional stretches of unmarked pavement, and this was a full-time job. It took me a couple days to shake the visceral panic when oncoming traffic approached at high speeds from the right (wrong) side.

We made two brief stops: once for lunch at a quaint inn at Port-na-Craig, and later for scenery at a huge dam along the River Spean (highlight: lifer Common Gull). By the late afternoon, we finally made it to the Isle of Skye in northwest Scotland. Skye presented my final driving challenge, with many miles of curvy single-track roads with periodic pulloffs for two-way passing. I actually got pretty good at the single-track system—better than many other obvious tourists we encountered on the road.

Skye’s most famous residents added an interesting variable to the driving experience. Sheep were literally (I’m using this word correctly) everywhere, including along and occasionally in the roads. Sheep outnumber people on the island 100,000 to 10,000. There is some unpleasant human history behind this, but this blog is focused on natural history. The sheep do their part to shape the landscape of Skye, which is dominated by heavily grazed grassland, generally thin soils, rocky cliffs, and lots of shoreline. The road to our campsite took us by and through the Cuillins, a truly impressive range of rocky “munros” (mountains over 3000 ft high) jutting out of the grasslands and moors.

The rain cleared up just in time for our arrival at the Glenbrittle Beach campsite—undoubtedly the most scenic campsite we’ve ever visited. My pictures do little to capture the beauty of this place. The beach (one half sandy, the other half rocky) is framed by headlands on both sides. The north beach is interrupted where the River Brittle empties into Loch Brittle, aka the sea. To the south, the Cuillins loom, descending into the Rubha an Dunain peninsula. It reminded me of Sand Beach at Acadia NP in Maine (but with fewer trees).

After setting up camp, we spent the evening walking Rubha an Dunain. This was one of my favorite “hillwalks” of the trip. (There is no such thing as hiking in Scotland; only walking and hillwalking.) The 8-mile trek started easy, but eventually the trails petered out and we had to improvise (something I enjoyed more than my wife). We crossed creeks and waterfalls; strolled rolling grasslands; traversed 150-foot cliffs; bushwhacked through ferns, foxgloves, and boggy heather moorland; circled Loch na h-Airde; and final arrived at the rocky end of the peninsula for a picnic dinner.

The headland is famously rich with human history. Although it’s been uninhabited (except for sheep, cows, and wildlife) since 1854, the stonework persists. Relics we saw included a Neolithic chambered burial cairn (4000–5000 years old), an Iron Age fortification (2000–3000 years ago), a stone-lined tidal canal from the Viking era ~1000 years ago, and more recent remains of the MacAskills’ tacksman’s house and other ruins of similar vintage.

The wildlife was also pretty spectacular. 13 more birds joined my life list (Graylag Goose, Northern Lapwing, Common Snipe, Common Sandpiper, European Shag, Hooded Crow, Eurasian Skylark, Eurasian Wren, Song Thrush, European Stonechat, Northern Wheatear, White Wagtail, and Meadow Pipit). Of these, the lapwing and snipe were the most interesting.

Though not the most interesting, the Hooded Crow deserves a bit more discussion. Well, deserves might be a strong word, but here I go. Along with a Common Raven seen on this walk, that rounded out the crow showing for the trip. Scotland hosts an impressive 5 species of crows, each with its own distinct character. We have Common Ravens here in America, too, though they aren’t very common in the southeastern coastal plain. Carrion Crows are pretty basic, like American and Fish Crows here on the east coast. The remaining three were unique. Rooks are scary looking, with a pale fleshy face. Jackdaws are the opposite: small and cute with a nice gray nape. Hooded Crows are the most handsome, with a contrasting gray mantle (my wife called them “poop crows,” so maybe handsome isn’t the right word).

If the discussion of crows wasn’t interesting to you, how about pigeons? I saw several Rock Pigeons on the walk. You know, the cosmopolitan inhabitants of all major cities across the globe. The familiar free-flying city pigeons are descendants of domesticated pigeons. We’ve been domesticating pigeons for 5,000+ years. If you go back far enough, most domestic pigeons came from native Rock Pigeon stock. There are very few places left on earth where truly wild Rock Pigeons roam rocky cliffs, but the west coast of Scotland apparently has some. I can’t say with certainty the birds I saw contained no domestic DNA, but they seemed pretty wild, this scientific article indicates that Skye holds a decent population of nearly-pure wild Rock Pigeons (though I’ll have to venture to the Outer Hebrides for 100% purebloods). Anyway, I’m counting this sighting as a more legitimate version of a seen-before bird. Not quite a lifer, but interesting nonetheless.

Beyond birds, the walk yielded a host of other animals, including two new mammal species. We saw European Rabbits at the campsite, and a bunch of female Red Deer on the peninsula (the UK’s largest land mammal). I also saw a couple invertebrates, including a new dragonfly (Golden-ringed Dragonfly) and another Meadow Brown. My wife gets credit for the wildlife highlight, which I quite literally stepped over unnoticed as we hurried back towards the campsite. An adder (Scotland’s only snake, and a venomous one) was consuming an unidentified fledgling bird, right on the path!

Overall, the evening sunshine was some of the best weather we had all trip, and the scenery, wildlife, and (pre)history of Rubha an Dunain made for a unique experience. We didn’t get back to camp until after 10 PM—our latest hike of all time—but we technically beat the sunset. The whole sunrise/sunset concept was a bit amorphous at the 57th parallel (the same latitude of the Alaskan panhandle or the northern parts of Quebec). The sun disappeared behind the nearby mountains before 10, but it stayed pretty light until 11-something. It got darker, but never truly dark—technically, it never progressed past “nautical twilight.” It gradually got lighter as the 4:30 AM sunrise approached, but the sun didn’t climb over the other mountains until much later in the morning.

This was a long second day, both for us and my blog readers. I’ll keep the following summaries a bit more concise, I promise. No more crows and pigeons!


On our first full day on Skye, I woke up around 4:00 AM when nature called. By that, I mean birds vocalizing, not my own bodily functions. The first bird was a Common Cuckoo. I didn’t see it (this was one of two heard-only lifers for the trip), so I’m hoping it wasn’t another camper’s alarm clock. Shortly thereafter, I went for a 2-mile walk around the glen, covering a lot of habitats—beach, river, fields, and scattered trees and bushes.

Other than an unexpected downpour that stopped as quickly as it started, the morning birding was great. Of the 32 bird species present, 10 were lifers. The highlight was a trio of Common Greenshanks; other lifers included Eurasian Curlew, Eurasian Blue Tit, Great Tit, Willow Warbler, European Robin, Rock Pipit, Eurasian Linnet, Lesser Redpoll, and Eurasian Siskin. Nice non-lifer birds included Common Ringed Plover and Dunlin on the beach. It was also cool to see European Starlings and House Sparrows in their native range and habitat (as opposed to the local Lowe’s Home Improvement in NC).

Nonavian wildlife included at least 300 beached Common Moon Jellyfish, a large group of Red Deer, and another European Rabbit.

After a nap, my wife and I began the day’s adventure, exploring the western half of the island by car, boat, and foot. Throughout the day we experienced “traditional Scottish weather,” with rapidly changing periods of sun, clouds, and rain. My experience was diminished somewhat by a head cold (which I suspect I picked up in the customs line), but I powered through.

We first headed an hour north to Dunvegan Castle, the longtime (now former) seat of the Chief of Clan MacLeod, with parts dating back to the 13th century. The outside was rugged and castle-like, but the inside was more modern, like what you’d expect from a nice historic house. The grounds were spectacular, particularly the extensive cultivated gardens (fairly uncommon in the Highlands). The castle also offered great views of the natural scenery from its perch along the saltwater Loch Dunvegan.

During lunch at the castle café, we were joined by some hungry Common Chaffinches. It’s always nice when a country’s most common human-habituated species is strikingly handsome.

After lunch, we made an impulse decision to book a “seal tour” on one of the castle’s small wooden boats. The trip lived up to its name! We got up-close views at a dozen Atlantic Harbor Seals, including some juveniles.

We also made several passes by a small island colony of breeding birds. We saw chicks of Common Gulls, Common Terns, and Eurasian Oystercatchers. Something about baby seabirds and shorebirds really tugs at the heartstrings. I also added one more lifer, a Gray Heron (very similar to our Great Blue Heron). Our captain was a like-minded wildlife photographer, and I’m pretty sure he hooked us up with an extra-long and extra-awesome trip.

Our next stop after Dunvegan was Neist Point, the westernmost land on Skye. The walk featured staggeringly steep cliffs, lots of tourists, and an interesting lighthouse at the end. Although the scenery had me a bit distracted, I took a few moments to watch seabirds nesting on (or feeding near) the cliffs, including Northern Fulmar, Northern Gannet, European Shag, Common Murre, and Razorbill. Watching fulmars jump from the vertical cliff face was dizzying.

Our plans to visit the Talisker distillery were scuttled by its 4 PM closing time. Instead, we enjoyed a warm meal at a restaurant at the base of the Cuillins. We called it an early night, which I needed, as my headcold got progressively worse throughout the day.

Overall, the day’s adventures gave us an opportunity to see a lot of Skye. By that, I mean a lot of sheep and curvy single-track roads. Although the hilly upland scenery was pleasant, the coastal areas were the real highlight. The island’s numerous tidal bays were unavoidable, appearing around every turn. The Skye scenery crown was ultimately split between the seacliffs on the northwestern shore and our campsite beneath the Cuillins.


Our second full day on Skye was a wash. Heavy rain and wind kept us in our tent until 10:30 AM, after which we spent most of the day relaxing inside the Glenbrittle café. Although the weather forced us to skip our hike into the Cuillins, this was probably for the best. I was not feeling good, and I used the downtime to get a head start on photo-processing and blog-outlining (a more arduous task than you might expect). The rain finally stopped around 4:30 PM. After a short walk on the beach, I called it another early night. My wife managed a bit more exploring than I did.

This was one of only two days where I didn’t see any new birds, but I did see my first native Eurasian Collared-Dove. The day wasn’t a total loss for lifers, as I managed one new animal species: a White-lipped Snail.


Both the weather and my infirmity improved by Wednesday morning, though neither were perfect. It was mild and overcast, with a few sprinkles, and that’s about how my head felt too.

I inadvertently woke up around 3:30 AM to the sound of curlew and snipe, so I went ahead and took a stroll around the glen. In addition to the usual suspects, I added one more lifer to the list: Sedge Warbler. I also saw some Red Deer and an unidentifiable bat.

After a nap, we prepared to depart for the next phase of our trip, only to be delayed by a dead car battery. Neither I nor any other manly men at the campsite were able to jump it, so we called in professional reinforcements. They got it up and running in no time. This was a bit embarrassing, but I’ll chalk it up to my unfamiliarity with this particular plug-in hybrid. We left Skye by mid-morning and headed south to the next phase of the trip.

The delay wasn’t all bad, as it afforded me an exciting lifer: a White-tailed Eagle that flew over as we waited for the jump. This species was extirpated from Scotland in the early 1900s due to persecution from humans. British people apparently like killing raptors—it was (and is) a real problem. Anyway, white-tails were reintroduced in the ‘70s from a population in Norway, and the population is now doing pretty well, especially around the western Scottish seacliffs.

Phase 2: Eriska/Oban/Fort William


We spent the next three days and nights cruising around coastal towns and islands on the west coast, near the “Great Glen”—a rift valley that bisects northern Scotland.

Wednesday (Fort William, Eriska)

After a couple hours of rainy driving, the weather cleared up just in time for a lunch stop in Fort William. This was our first “charming small town” of the trip. Although it was clogged with tourists and tourist-focused businesses (due to its proximity to Ben Nevis, discussed later), I guess that’s not always a bad thing. Lots of good food options!

The afternoon brought us to our new home base­—the Isle of Eriska—where we joined my wife’s family for a couple days. At the private island’s epicenter is an 1884 estate house that now serves as a luxury hotel. The island is the perfect size for exploring: 360 acres, with five miles of shoreline and many more miles of interior trails. The west side is dominated by meadows and shrubs, including a recently rewilded golf course. The east side is blanketed in a lush forest, climbing a 150-foot ridgeline and descending right down to the rocky shoreline that encircles the island. The trees were a stark contrast to our nearly treeless experience on Skye. Many of the trees on the wilder areas of the island are native to the area. The inhabited areas featured more exotic plantings, including vast stretches of an Asian variety of rhododendron, quick to colonize the peaty soils of western Scotland.

I sampled the northern part of the island in the late afternoon before joining my wife for a walk on the beach. The rocky shoreline made me wish I knew more geology. It was littered with colorful pebbles, boulders of varying composition, and undulating bedrock. Notable wildlife encounters included one new bird (Goldcrest) and a couple Common Ringed Plovers.

After a nice dinner with my in-laws, we called it an early night.

Thursday (Eriska)

I awoke early Thursday morning feeling better, but still not perfect. Perceiving fair weather on the radar, I went for an early morning bird walk. 20 minutes later, I was hunkered under a large tree waiting for the rain to pass. It wasn’t a total loss, as I saw some Eurasian Bullfinches, another lifer.

After a nap—yes, this was my third day with an early morning nap—and a filling breakfast, my wife and I explored the open areas and rocky coast on the west side of the island. We flushed a Roe Deer (lifer), I added two more birds to my list (Coal Tit and Dunnock), and I saw other interesting birds, including Black Guillemot, Gray Heron, Shag, and Sedge Warbler.

Low tide exposed even more sea life than the previous night’s visit. Patterns were everywhere, formed from mosaics of seaweeds, barnacles, and limpets. It was a feast for the eyes, especially for someone attuned to (if still somewhat ignorant of) the diversity of the natural world.

We spent the afternoon with my in-laws on a 32-mile boat tour of the waters and lands near Eriska (waters: Firth of Lorn and Loch Linnhe; lands: Eriska, Lismore, Mull, and the mainland). This was one of the highlights the trip for me. Exploring by water offered us an unparalleled perspective on the region’s land, human history, and wildlife. We also had a great guide, and pretty good weather by Scotland standards (mostly cloudy but very little rain).

The Argyll landscape was spectacular. Rugged coastlines and rock formations gave way to pastures; granite outcrops emerged from shallow soil; waterfalls coursed through lush forests set in steep slopes; and rocky islands, coves, and beaches were everywhere. We had views up the Great Glen, and although we couldn’t see all the way to Inverness, we did see a large boulder from Inverness deposited by a glacier.

The area, as with all of Scotland, was brimming with human history. We passed near iron age forts, ruined castles, occupied castles, functional lighthouses, a large-scale gravel quarry, and the infamous Lady’s Rock. From what I can gather, some of my MacMillan forebears emigrated from this area (maybe the Isle of Mull, maybe Port Appin) to America in the late 1700s.

Wildlife was abundant. The boat afforded us close looks at dozens of Harbor Seals, including several that were very pale.

The most notable birds were two adult White-tailed Eagles (flying pretty close to the boat), a few Black Guillimots, at least one Arctic Tern, and a Eurasian Curlew. We also saw a large group of Canada Geese, the first non-native species of the trip! It seems we traded geese for starlings, sparrows, doves, and swans; I’m not sure which side of the pond got the better deal.