My selection of ten of the best birdwatching locations in Scotland.
As I’ve previously admitted on this blog, I’m an avid birdwatcher, and while I’m no expert at identifying different species and interpreting their behaviour, I think there’s something about the curiosity to look, listen and learn a little more about them that builds a deeper connection with your surroundings when you visit a new place.
Across Scotland there are some incredible opportunities to get close to nature, whether you’re an experienced birder, an enthusiastic amateur, or a complete beginner. From sprawling sea bird cities stacked onto coastal cliffs, and wide estuaries and wave-washed shorelines, through native forests and sparkling lochsides, to heather-clad hillsides and wild mountain plateau. I hope this list sparks some inspiration for including birdwatching on your next trip to Scotland, or to try something different next time you explore the outdoors.
So here’s my recommendations for the best places to go birdwatching in Scotland.
Autumn in the Cairngorms is sensational. Autumn is the season of transition, when days are honeygold and light, and nights are inky-dark, afternoons are sun-warmed, while mornings are crisp with frost. Autumn is when weather plays across the landscape, changing through the months and through the course of any one day.
The honey-scented, purple heather-clad hills of August fade to rust-brown as slowly the trees become the main attraction. Rowans extravagant with red berries. Birch and bracken glowing acid green and yellow against the dark of the pines, and the oak and beech woodlands blaze with a fire of reds, golds, and oranges.
“October is the coloured month here, far more brilliant than June, blazing more sharply than August. From the gold of the birches and bracken on the low slopes, the colour spurts upwards through all the creeping and inconspicuous growths that live among the heather roots – mosses that are lush green or oak-brown, or scarlet and the berried plants, blaeberry, cranberry, crowberry and the rest. “
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
The final day of September was a golden respite from the first of the autumn storms, which left the signs of winter etched on the mountains. I made the long stomp up to Ben Avon and Beinn a’Bhuird from the Quoich on a frosty morning, arriving early enough to find a skin of verglas over the granite tor of Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuide and tiny pockets of snow tucked behind tussucks, sheltering from the low autumn sun.
The first snows of winter dust the high plateau from early October, replenishing snow that lies year round in dark hollows on northern slopes, and draping a silver cloak across dark hills beneath bleached out skies. In this transitional time, overnight snowfalls cover mountain trails and reveal tracks, deer, ptarmigan, hares, melting away just as quick.
In the gloaming, as the dark draws in earlier every day, and on days that are dull and overcast, the colours glow on the hills. The radiant magic of the trees in fall. A last brief blaze of sunlight as they retreat before the winds of winter that whip the leaves from their branches. Cool, wet south-westerly winds that sweep in from the Atlantic, that lay damp orange carpets of larch needles on the forest floor.
Night falls after short days, wood smoke-scented and velvet-textured, filled with a full moon and a scattering of stars.
Have you visited the Cairngorms in autumn? Share your tips for things to see and places to go with me in the comments below.
The Caledonian Forest once covered much of the highlands of Scotland, spreading over the land as the last glaciers retreated and eventually disappeared. But over many thousands of years of human activity that manipulated the wildland, only around 1% of the original temperate rainforest coverage remains in Scotland.
Remnants of the Caledonian Forest are unique habitats, home to some of the rarest species in the British Isles, like the endemic Scottish crossbill, secretive pine martens and wildcats, and the majestic capercaillie. In fact, around 5,000 species have been recorded in areas of old-growth forest, ranging from the towering Scots pines to the tiny beetles living under the bark of the trees, with plants, lichens, fungi, and other wee beasties in-between.
Abernethy Forest National Nature Reserve on Speyside protects a huge area of Caledonian Forest, as well as rivers, lochs, moorland, and montane plateau. The nature reserve in Cairngorms National Park extends all the way to the summit of Ben Macdui, at 1,309m (4,295′), the second-highest summit in the British Isles.
Loch Garten and Loch Mallachie are beautiful forest lochs, fringed by granny pine trees on three sides, with views of Bynack More and the Cairngorm plateau in the southeast reflected in the dark water. In spring and summer, the lochs are excellent for watching ospreys fishing.
Abernethy Forest Two Lochs Walk from Boat of Garten
Route length: 10km (6 miles) circular route
Ascent: 118 metres (387′)
Approximate hiking time: 2.5 – 3 hours
A walk to Loch Mallachie and Loch Garten from Boat of Garten. You can find more details about the route, including a map, on my ViewRanger.
From the steam railway station in Boat of Garten follow signage for the Speyside Way trail towards Nethy Bridge, crossing Garten Bridge over the River Spey on the way out of the village. Across the junction of the road is a small carpark with interpretation panels and maps of waymarked routes into the forest.
Follow the red route for approximately 1km, then take the right-hand track at the fork, heading south for a further kilometre. At the next junction, take the narrow left-hand fork, and head in an easterly direction. The path undulates and sweeps round to the southeast through the trees, towards Loch Mallachie. Ignore the myriad paths along the lochside, turning sharply north when you reach the last one, to lead to Loch Garten, the bigger of the two lochs.
From the carpark alongside Loch Garten, it’s possible to make a diversion along the road at the top of the loch for around 700m to the RSPB Osprey Centre. It’s a must-do in spring, while the birds are sitting on their nest. Otherwise, follow the blue waymarking northwest alongside the road for a couple of kilometres to meet up with the Speyside Way.
Cross the road to follow a wooden walkway for just over 150m. This was constructed on the edge of a small forest lochan, to give a closer view of the habitat. Look out for spawning frogs and tadpoles in the spring and darting dragon and damselflies in summer.
From here you have two options: continue to follow the Speyside Way alongside the road back to the forest carpark, or pick up the forest trail with red waymarking just as you reach the first cottage on the road. The red route is just under 2km through the trees, and returns to the carpark where you entered the forest.
Retrace your route back over Garten Bridge and into Boat of Garten. There are a few cafes and coffee shops in the village where you can find refreshments, such as the Gashouse Café and Cairngorm Leaf & Bean, though some will close for the winter. There’s also the Boat Country Inn if you need something stronger after your walk.
Getting to Boat of Garten:
The village of Boat of Garten is connected by a scenic stream railway to Aviemore (nearest mainline railway station) and Grantown on Spey. Trains run between the Easter and October school holidays.
The bus service between Aviemore and Grantown on Spey will stop in the village, and on the roadside approximately 2.5km (1.5 miles) from the RSPB Osprey Centre.
Route 7 of the National Cycle Network connects Boat of Garten to Aviemore or Carrbridge, with options for on-road or largely off-road cycling.
What to look out for in Abernethy Forest:
Spring: Red squirrels; crested tits, siskins and endemic Scottish crossbills; frogs and frogspawn in pools and puddles; and the arrival of the first ospreys in mid-March.
Summer: Ospreys fishing on the lochs; great spotted woodpeckers, tree pipits, and redstarts; tree-nesting goldeneye ducks; woodland wildflowers; and dazzling dragonflies and damselflies.
Autumn: The roar of rutting red and roe deer; wild greylag and pink-footed geese coming in to roost at dusk; wildfowl like teal, wigeon, and whooper swans; and incredible fungi formations.
Winter: Gnarled, lichen-encrusted ancient pine forest, with views of the sub-Arctic tundra plateau of the Cairngorm Mountains across the iced-over lochs.
Tips for Responsible Watching Wildlife in Abernethy Forest:
The Two Lochs walk is a popular route in Abernethy Forest, especially during the osprey season, so to help protect the forest and wildlife you should follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and the advice of the Cairngorms National Park Authority and RSPB on any signs.
If you’re hoping to see capercaillie, the best way is to walk on the forest trails in the early morning as they will often come to the paths to gather grit. Bear in mind that for this part of Scotland that will be between 4am and 5am in May, June and July. Avoid leaving the paths in the forest as you could be disturbing ground-nesting birds.
In drier areas of the forest, you’ll see big mounds of pine needles, which are the nests of wood ants. These can grow up to a metre high, and can be home to well over 100,000 individual ants. Standing deadwood is as valuable to wildlife as living trees, especially the invertebrate life of the forest, and a good indication of the quality of the habitat.
Wildlife refuge areas should be given a wide berth if you choose to go wild swimming in either of the lochs; these are the sheltered bays, particularly at the southern and eastern sides of the lochs, especially in the autumn when the lochs are important roosts for migratory birds.
Want to try this walking route for yourself? Why not pin this post for later?
At 1,038 metres (3,547′) Schiehallion isn’t especially close to Ben Nevis in height, but it is certainly one of the most iconic Munros. The distinctive, near-symmetrical profile of the mountain attracts hikers from both home and away looking to experience the great outdoors, and it’s a great choice for first time Munro baggers.
In the heart of Highland Perthshire, close to the very centre of Scotland, Schiehallion has the reputation of being both one of the most mysterious of Scotland’s mountains, and the most measured. The name Sidh Chailleann translates from Scots Gaelic as “the fairy hill of the Caledonians”, and it’s not difficult to find traces of folklore and superstition on the slopes of Shiehallion. Continue reading “Traversing Schiehallion: Scotland’s Magical Mountain”
The archipelago of the British and Irish Isles, on the Atlantic fringe of Europe, is home to a wealth of vibrant communities, historic landmarks, and inspiring locations. Not to mention the breath-taking views and the incredible diversity of landscapes over such a small geographical area. There really is just so much to see in and around these islands.
From stark mountain summits and bleakly beautiful moors, to sweeping silver sand beaches and spectacular rocky coasts, from cityscapes that blend the futuristic and the historic, to picturesque villages and towns that tell our industrial story; I’m sharing this list of my 30 favourite places to visit in Britain, Ireland, and the Isle of Man.
As with all lists of favourite places, it’s highly subjective, influenced by the places I’ve visited over the years, often again and again, and the memories I’ve made there. It’s very also much a list of current favourites, as there are so many places around these islands that I have yet to visit. But I hope you enjoy my choices, and perhaps you’ll be inspired to visit some for yourselves. Who’s for a road trip? Or a sailing voyage?
I’ve been fortunate to spend a few years living and working on the Isle of Wight, and covering some of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the south of England as a Wildlife Ranger. As days grow shorter and temperatures grow colder, the island’s beaches, creeks, and estuaries seem to look even more beautiful, whatever the weather, and become havens for thousands of overwintering birds. Without the numbers of tourists that visit in summer, exploring the Isle of Wight in winter often means have beautiful coastal walks all to yourself.
I finished working on Irene in early September, after a beautiful few days sailing around Falmouth, visiting Charlestown, St. Mawes and the Helford River, and headed up to Cambridge for a week of training with theUK Antarctic Heritage Trust. It was an intense week, with a lot of information to take in, but an exhilarating experience as we covered a lot of the practical and theoretical stuff necessary for living and working in Antarctica.
The training week was followed up by a lot of online courses and independent research. I’ll write more about the training and preparation I’ve undertaken for my role at the Penguin Post Office in Port Lockroy soon, but I think nothing will actually come close to the experience of arriving and setting foot on the island for the first time.
At the end of September I headed to the Brecon Beacons, to meet a group of fantastic women and do something a bit unusual; hike up Pen y Fan wearing a corset, bloomers and full tweed skirts. You can read more about our Great Corset Caper here, and the good cause that inspired us, My Great Escape here.
A beautiful walk in the Cotswolds with a rich history and folklore.
Legend claims that these enigmatic standing stones on the edge of the Cotswolds are a local chieftain and his band of warriors, petrified by a powerful witch and fated to forever stand watch from their lofty location. However, this megalithic complex, which spans more than 2,000 years of Neolithic and Bronze Age development, has yet more mysterious stories to discover.
Natural chunks of golden Cotswold limestone, the characteristic stone used in local buildings, the great age of the Rollright Stones is evident in their pitted, weathered, and lichen-spattered surfaces. The standing stones known as the Whispering Knights are earliest, dating from between 3,800 and 3,500 BCE, the early Neolithic period. The King’s Men stone circle is late Neolithic, from around 2,500 BCE, and the single King Stone is from the Bronze Age, raised in approximately 1,500 BCE. Continue reading “A mysterious walk to the Rollright Stones”
The island of Coll is breathtakingly beautiful. The sort of place where you leave a little piece of your heart behind when you finally bring yourself to leave.
The turquoise waters of the Sea of the Hebrides wash up on sweeping silver-white beaches backed by lofty, marram-clad dunes, reaching over 50 metres high behind the strand at Feall. Between the coastal bents and the bogs and bare rock inland, is a rare place; machair, a habitat unique to the Hebrides, the fringes of northwestern Scotland, and western coast of Ireland. Continue reading “Photo Journal: Machair Wildflowers on the Isle of Coll”
Few countries can match Scotland for a landscape so wildly beautiful and dramatic; sweeping glens, rugged peaks, historic castles, and ancient forests make it an irresistible draw for hikers. And even the notoriously fickle Scottish weather can’t detract from the hauntingly bleak splendour of the landscape.
The most mountainous terrain in the British and Irish Isles, Scotland has 282 Munros, mountains over the magic 914 metres (3000′), named for Sir Hugh Munro, compiler of the first list, inspiring many hikers to “bag” the full set. The best rank among some of the best mountains in the world. The highest is Ben Nevis at 1345 metres (4412′).
But it isn’t essential to claim the highest summit to reap the rewards of hiking in Scotland. With thousands of kilometres of coastline, hundreds of islands, lochs, and hills only lesser in height, not character or challenge. Whichever routes you chose, you’ll be treated to fresh air life, spectacular views, and that feeling of freedom that comes with hiking in wild places.
And the best part is that this is so very accessible here in Scotland, and less than a couple of hours from the biggest cities and towns, it’s possible to feel a sense of remote wilderness. So get your boots ready for these eight great day hikes, for whichever part of the country you’re visiting. Or include them in your plans for a Scottish road trip.