Scotland's Wild Highlands & Islands
9 days with Natural Habitat Adventures Rating:
Day 1: Inverness, Scotland
Our Scotland adventure begins in Inverness on the northeast coast, where the River Ness meets the Moray Firth. With a population of nearly 50,000 people, Inverness is the largest city and the cultural capital of the Scottish Highlands. Gather for a welcome dinner with our Expedition Leader this evening.
Day 2: Black Isle / Cromarty Firth Boat Cruise
While the Black Isle is neither an island nor black—it’s actually a small peninsula jutting out into the North Sea—it is an inviting, little-known corner of Scotland that awaits our discovery today. From the village of Cromarty, we board a small boat for a private excursion into the rich waters of Cromarty Firth. The firth is a narrow inlet hemmed in by steep cliffs on both sides, making our voyage especially scenic. This protected marine area is home to Scotland's best-known pod of bottlenose dolphins, the most northerly such colony in the world. Famously friendly and inquisitive, they sometimes swim right alongside our boat. Keep an eye out, too, for harbor porpoises, common and gray seals, and the occasional minke whale.
Day 3: Across the Highlands to the West Coast
A scenic drive is in store as we traverse the rugged Highlands to Scotland's wild west coast. These rocky heights, cresting above 4,000 feet, divide Scotland's crenellated Atlantic coast, with its maze of islands, from the fertile coastal plains and estuaries on the east. We'll pass tranquil lochs and glacier-carved glens as we wind our way westward through mountains cloaked in forest and heather, stopping periodically to admire the vistas unfurling before us. There are plenty of possibilities to look for resident wildlife as our Expedition Leader, who is a first-rate Scottish naturalist, knows this terrain intimately and will help us spot whatever species may be present, whether nesting golden eagles, red deer browsing in the lush meadows, or a roundup of woodland or coastal birds.
Day 4: Handa Island, Inner Hebrides
A short crossing by boat brings us to the Inner Hebridean island of Handa, managed as a nature reserve by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Torridonian sandstone cliffs rise in tall vertical walls from the Atlantic Ocean on the island’s northwest coast, providing some of Europe’s most important seabird breeding grounds. Each summer, some 100,000 seabirds come here to nest, including internationally significant populations of guillemots, razorbills and great skuas. There are also several families of red grouse and common snipe on the island, all of which are remarkably approachable.
These dramatic cliffs provide expansive coastal panoramas, and we spend the day walking atop them, observing the flurry of life in the cacophonous bird colonies. We’ll watch the birds’ daily activities, from nest building to feeding chicks and defending broods from marauding predators such as the great skua. Kittiwakes and fulmars nest on the cliff ledges, and a small number of puffins breed in burrows that line the edges of the clifftops. The sea cliffs also offer a vantage point for whale watching, and we’ll hope for glimpses of frequently seen cetaceans such as common dolphin, Risso's dolphin and minke whale, as well as basking shark. Returning to the mainland and our hotel, we stop to walk to a viewpoint overlooking the "Old Man of Stoer," a 200-foot-high sandstone sea stack.
Please note: September departures will not visit Handa Island, since seabirds will not be present at this time of year. An alternate activity will be provided.
Day 5: Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides—Callanish Standing Stones / Isle of Harris
Drive to Ullapool this morning to catch the ferry for Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Here we visit one of Scotland's most intriguing archaeological sites, the Callanish Standing Stones. This 5,000-year-old ring of 13 gneiss pillars is arranged in a cruciform pattern around a 14-foot central monolith. Erected on the west coast of Lewis in the late Neolithic era, the stones were a focus for ritual activity during the Bronze Age. Several other stone circles, arcs, alignments and single stones are also visible from the main site. Historians estimate the place was abandoned around 1,000 B.C. and ultimately buried beneath a thick layer of peat turf, not unearthed until 1857. We also visit Dun Carloway broch, an Iron Age drystone structure featuring a round, hollow interior, which was likely built in the 1st century.
Our ultimate destination is the Isle of Harris, our base for further discovery of this evocative region—a remarkably diverse landscape of mountains and moorlands, crofts, lochs, meadows and sandy beaches. Its craggy coast, defined by rugged cliffs and secret coves, offers nesting habitat for myriad seabirds. On beach walks, discover the wildflower meadows on the machair, a sparse veneer of green covering the winter sand, which bursts into color in summertime. The single-track “Golden Road” twists along the east coast of Harris, winding among miniature fjords and tiny hamlets with Viking and Gaelic names. Along the way, we visit historic rural settlements and stop at a weaving shop to see world-famous Harris tweed produced.
Day 6: Shiant Isles Private Cruise
Today holds one of the premier highlights of our trip: a private cruise on a twin-keel yacht to the Shiant Isles, home to one of the world's most famous seabird colonies. Located between Skye and Lewis, these columnar basalt islands are known in Gaelic as Na h-Eileanan Seunta, or the "Enchanted Isles." Though this small island group is uninhabited by humans, it is home to hundreds of thousands of seabirds, including a quarter of a million puffins—2 percent of the entire global population! Some 7 percent of all razorbills in the U.K. also breed here, along with colonies of guillemots, cormorants, shags and great skuas. We often see seals lounging on the rocks, too. If the weather is fair, the option exists to extend our 5-hour voyage to include the southern Bays of Harris coastline, visiting some deserted villages along the way. On the return cruise, we stop at the abandoned crofting community of Bhalamus, once the heart of a 19th-century sheep farm on the coast of Lewis. Continuing into Loch Seaforth, forming the boundary between Lewis and Harris, view several more old settlements and look for white-tailed eagles and golden eagles on the cliffs before returning to Tarbert for tea time.
Please note: September departures will not visit the Shiant Islands, since the seabirds will have departed by this time. The boat cruise will explore the coast of Harris instead.
Day 7: Isle of Skye / Contin
Returning by ferry from Tarbert to Uig, we drive down the Isle of Skye to reach the mainland. In the village of Contin our hotel awaits, a genteel 19th-century country manor house on the River Blackwater. Surrounded by forest, lochs and salmon streams, this family-run inn offers a serene base from which to explore the Highlands. This afternoon, a walk through the forest to a waterfall offers a chance to look for leaping salmon. Later this evening, we have exclusive access to a wildlife hide at the nearby Aigas Field Center, where we hope to spy badgers and the elusive pine marten. Flanked by remnants of ancient Caledonian pine forest to the west and marine firths to the east, the center is an important educational site in the northern Highlands dedicated to sharing Scotland’s wild natural heritage. After a thorough immersion in these exhilarating landscapes, return to our cozy inn where a crackling fire in the lounge invites you to settle in with a wee dram of Scotch before dinner.
Day 8: Scottish Wildcat Breeding Project / Canoeing
This morning we visit the Scottish Wildcat Breeding Conservation Program at Aigas Field Center to learn about efforts to conserve the United Kingdom's only native feline and most endangered mammal. Since 2011, the center has participated in a crucial national program to bring this small, muscular tabby cat back from the brink of extinction. Then we head deeper into the glen on a canoeing excursion, for an intimate perspective on the rugged beauty of the Highlands. Depending on weather conditions and the group's composition, we'll either paddle the gentle Beauly River into steep-walled Aigas Gorge, watching for osprey overhead, or canoe on Loch Beinn a' Mheadhoin, a tranquil sea inlet with small islands and intimate coves that beckon exploration while we scout for wildlife on the shoreline. The region is home to red deer, pine marten, golden eagles and many more species native to the area. After an afternoon of adventure on the water, depart once more for Coul House where we'll enjoy a festive farewell dinner.
Day 9: Inverness / Depart
After breakfast, return to Inverness this morning to meet departing flights.
All This Included
Scotland has always held a wild allure when it comes to Britain. Its northerly location, heather-clad highlands and far-flung western isles have drawn adventurous travelers for centuries. At the height of summer, days stretch toward nearly perpetual light, nurturing a flurry of life in the islands off Scotland’s northwest coast. Whales, seals and dolphins feed in clear Atlantic waters warmed by the Gulf Stream while millions of seabirds nest in some of the largest rookeries in the world. Exploring the coves and cliffs of the Outer Hebrides, we also find remnants of ancient human presence, from Iron Age stone forts to embellished Celtic crosses. Inland, search for wildlife in the boreal forest and open moors of the Highlands, hoping to see red deer, badger, pine marten, and maybe a glimpse of the elusive Scottish wildcat. Discover mystical Scotland, where the wild still reigns in Europe!
Contin: Coul House Hotel
Lochinyer: Inver Lodge Hotel
Isle of Harris: Hotel Hebrides
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