[Simon Thurgood Images] [Simon Thurgood Images]


Out and About - Scotland


Ben Nevis

[On Ben Nevis]Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the British Isles. It is located at the western end of the Grampian Mountains in the Lochaber area of Scotland, close to the town of Fort William. It attracts an estimated 100,000 ascents a year, around three-quarters of which are made using the well-constructed Pony Track from Glen Nevis on the south side of the mountain. I've been up this track and have found it totally boring because of the monotonous never-ending path. For climbers and mountaineers, the main attraction lies in the 700-metre-high cliffs of the north face: among the highest cliffs in Britain, they harbour some classic scrambles and rock climbs of all difficulties, and are one of the principal locations in the UK for ice climbing.This one of the more exciting bits if you have time to sit and watch this helps make the trip worth while.

The summit, at 1,344 metres (4,406 ft) above sea level, features the ruins of an observatory which was permanently staffed between 1883 and 1904. The meteorological data collected during this period is still important for an understanding of Scottish mountain weather.

The first recorded ascent of Ben Nevis was made on 17 August 1771 by James Robertson, an Edinburgh botanist, who was in the region to collect botanical specimens. Another early ascent was in 1774 by John Williams, who provided the first account of the mountain's geological structure. John Keats climbed the mountain in 1818, comparing the ascent to "mounting ten St Paul's without the convenience of a staircase". It was not until 1847 that Ben Nevis was confirmed by the Ordnance Survey as the highest mountain in Britain, ahead of its rival Ben Macdui.

The summit observatory was built in the summer of 1883, and would remain in operation for 21 years. The first path to the summit was built at the same time as the observatory and was designed to allow ponies to carry up supplies, with a maximum gradient of one in five. The opening of the path and the observatory made the ascent of the Ben increasingly popular, all the more so after the arrival of the West Highland Railway in Fort William in 1894.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Outdoor Leisure Map 38

Ascent routes

The 1883 Pony Track to the summit (also known as the Ben Path, the Mountain Path, or the Tourist Route) remains the simplest and most popular route of ascent. It begins at Achintee on the east side of Glen Nevis about 2 km (1.5 miles) from Fort William town centre, at around 20 metres above sea level. Bridges from the Visitor Centre and the youth hostel now allow access from the west side of Glen Nevis. The path climbs steeply to the saddle by Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe at 570 metres, then ascends the remaining 700 metres up the stony west flank of Ben Nevis in a series of zig-zags. It is well made and maintained throughout its length, and, thanks to the zig-zags, not unusually steep apart from in the initial stages. While its not steep for me the zig-zags make the walk manotinus, not like Snowdon or Sca Fell Pike where there is something different with every step.

A route popular with experienced hillwalkers which unfortunately I haven't tried yet starts at Torlundy, a few miles north-east of Fort William on the A82 road, and follows the path alongside the Allt a' Mhuilinn. It can also be reached from Glen Nevis by following the Pony Track as far as Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe, then descending slightly to the CIC Hut. The route then ascends Carn M&0grave;r Dearg and continues along the Carn Mòr Dearg Arête ("CMD Arête") before climbing steeply to the summit of Ben Nevis. This route involves a total of 1,500 metres of ascent and requires modest scrambling ability and a head for heights. In common with other approaches on this side of the mountain, it has the advantage of giving an extensive view of the cliffs of the north face, which are hidden from the Pony Track.

It is also possible to climb Ben Nevis from the Nevis Gorge car park at the head of the road up Glen Nevis, either by the south-east ridge or via the summit of Carn Dearg (south-west). These routes do not require scrambling, but are shorter and steeper, and tend to be used by experienced hill walkers.


The summit

The summit of Ben Nevis comprises a large stony plateau of around 40 hectares (100 acres). The highest point is marked with a large, solidly built cairn atop which sits an Ordnance Survey trig point.

The ruined walls of the observatory are a prominent feature on the summit. An emergency shelter has been built on top of the observatory tower for the benefit of those caught out by bad weather, and, although the base of the tower is slightly lower than the true summit of the mountain, the roof of the shelter overtops the trig point by several feet, making it the highest man-made structure in Britain. A war memorial to the dead of World War II is located next to the observatory. The view from Britain's highest point is extensive. In ideal conditions it can extend up to 120 miles (190 km), including such mountains as the Torridon Hills, Morven in Caithness, Lochnagar, Ben Lomond, Barra Head, and 123 miles (198 km) to Knocklayd in County Antrim, Northern Ireland.


Out and about on the mountain

Ben Nevis' popularity, climate and complex topography contribute to a high number of mountain rescue incidents. In 1999, for example, there were 41 rescues and four fatalities on the mountain. Some accidents arise over difficulties in navigating to or from the summit, especially in poor visibility. The problem stems from the fact that the summit plateau is roughly kidney-shaped, and surrounded by cliffs on three sides; the danger is particularly accentuated when the main path is obscured by snow. Two precise compass bearings taken in succession are necessary to navigate from the summit cairn to the west flank, from where a descent can be made on the Pony Track in relative safety.

As throughout these pages I hark on about safety, proper clothing and the ability to use a map and compass. Although Ben Nevis is a tourist trap it is still a mountain and treat it with due respect.


Findhorn Valley

[findhornvalley]A trip up the 10 mile road along the Findhorn Valley is a memorable experience, the first half is mainly farmland mixed with pinewood areas which are worth stopping at to look for local specialities such as Crossbills and Crested Tits. The second half of this single track road leads you to its end at Coignafearn lodge where there is a car park.

This valley is also known as the "valley of the raptors" and up to ten species of raptor has been seen in one day, but on my visit I only saw a Golden Eagle! But that's Birdwatching for you ;o) I did see though plenty of Mountain Hare, Red Deer, Mountain Goats and a Scottish Crossbill.

The valley follows the River Findhorn and this habitat must be a great spot for Dippers etc.

If you are interested in Geography the Upper valley is a classic example of a valley cut out by a glacier, A U-shaped valley also known as a glacial trough is one formed by the process of "glaciation". It has a characteristic U-shape, with steep, straight sides, and a flat bottom. Glaciated valleys are formed when a glacier travels across and down a slope, carving the valley by the action of scouring. When the ice recedes or thaws, the valley remains, often littered with small boulders that were transported within the ice.

The Findhorn Valley is a truly wild beautiful place!

Recommended map:
OS Landranger Map 35

Handa Island

[road signs]This spectacular island just off the Sutherland coast is one of the largest seabird colonies in north-west Europe. The place is supposed to come alive each summer as some 100,000 seabirds gather here to breed, including guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and small numbers of puffins on the cliffs. But when I visited in 2013 numbers were down by a large amount.

Arctic and great skuas nest on the moor, some very close to the trail. Again numbers were down especially the Artic Skuas, but the ones you did see were very close and worth the trip.

Apart from the seabird colonies and breathtaking cliffs, Handa offers stunning views of the north-west coast of Scotland and its characteristic Torridonian sandstone mountains. The island has rich and varied plant life and also is an excellent location from which to spot cetaceans such as common dolphin which I did see but apparently you can also find,Risso's dolphin, minke whale and basking sharks.

Other points of interest on the island include the archaeological remains of an old village and graveyard, dating back to the last inhabitants of the island in 1847.

Handa is accessible by boat from Tarbet. On arrival to the island visitors will be met by SWT staff/volunteers and given a short introductory talk and a leaflet containing a map. This provides an opportunity to find out about recent sightings on the island and to ask the advice of the rangers. Most visitors spend at least three hours on the island but it can be a wait to get off the island, I spent 40 minutes waiting to get off the beach, luckly it wasn't raining as there is no cover and make sure you take a drink and snack as you could suffer if you don't.


Insh Marshes

[sighn1]Insh Marshes National Nature Reserve, located near Kingussie and Kincraig, is a very important wetland covering some 837ha. The River Spey runs right through the Insh Marshes which are part of a natural floodplain in the region. This biologically vital marshland was declared a National Nature Reserve in the year 2003.

The RSPB Scotland manages the wetland of Insh Marshes National Nature Reserve, situated in Inverness-shire and is the greatest river fen system still remaining in the United Kingdom.

The Spey River floods its banks into the wetland of Insh Marshes on several occasions each year. Both melting snow and heavy rains result in flood waters filling up the 10km marshland. This habitat is ideal for some 500 plant species including sedges, grasses and stunning orchids. These plants and waters provide homes for a variety of wildlife including microscopic aquatic creatures. Research has revealed that some 50% of the Goldeneye population in the United Kingdom use the Insh Marsh National Nature Reserve as a nesting ground. Actually, the area is a true birder's dream with an abundance of curlews, snipes, redshanks, wigeons, Icelandic whooper swans, pintails and spotted crakes. Without the wetland the bird species would not thrive as they do. As summer rolls in many birds leave and domestic livestock takes their place.

The Invertromie Trail which starts and finishes in the RSPB car park is a level 2 hour walk around the reserve. A lovely walk exploring the edge of the Insh Marshes RSPB nature reserve with good views and varied countryside. Bring binoculars for the three bird hides.

I had a great time here, but you need to allow yourself ample time and a good pair of binoculars or a scope to see the birds on the marsh.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 35

Island of Iona

[1]Iona is a beautiful island on the west coast of Scotland. While I go there to see the wildlife, it is a place of history and beauty. It is the symbolic centre of Scottish Christianity. Through 1400 years of history its fortunes have fluctuated, from its heights as one of the greatest centres of learning in Dark Age Europe, to its lows as a crumbling ruin. However, thanks to the fame of its monastic founder, St Columba, the island has always been revered as a holy place, and, over the centuries, Iona has continually been re-invented and reconstructed as a centre for pilgrimage. Iona's fame began in 563 AD when Columba, with thirteen followers, landed at the south end of the island, at St Columba's Bay, to establish a monastery.

Iona is about 1 mile from the coast of Mull. Visitors can reach Iona by the 10-minute ferry trip across the Sound of Iona from Fionnphort on Mull. The most common route is via Oban in Argyll and Bute. Regular ferries connect to Craignure on Mull, from where the scenic road runs 37 miles to Fionnphort.

There are very few cars on the island, as they are tightly regulated and vehicular access is not allowed for non-residents, who have to leave their car in Fionnphort. Bike hire is available at the pier, and on Mull.

Iona is about 1 mile wide and 4 miles long with a resident population of 125. The geology of the island consists mainly of Precambrian Lewisian gneiss with Torridonian sedimentary rocks on the eastern side and small outcrops of pink granite on the eastern beaches. Like other places swept by ocean breezes, there are few trees; most of them are near the parish church.

Iona's highest point is Dùn Ì, (331 feet), an Iron Age hill fort dating from 100 BC - AD 200. Iona's geographical features include the Bay at the Back of the Ocean and Càrn Cùl ri Éirinn, said to be adjacent to the beach where St. Columba first landed.

The main settlement, located at St. Ronan's Bay on the eastern side of the island, is called Baile Mòr and is also known locally as "The Village". The primary school, post office, the island's two hotels, the Bishop's House and the ruins of the Nunnery are here. The Abbey and MacLeod Centre is a short walk to the north. Port Bààn (white port) beach on the west side of the island.

Iona and its surrounds have an abundance of thriving wildlife due to a number of important reasons. The air and water quality is very high as there is little if no pollution or development making for the ideal wildlife environment.

Being a west coast island, Iona is a haven for birds, sea birds in particular. The shoreline and beaches provide the chance to spot oyster catchers, sandpipers, redshanks, plovers, curlews and grey lag geese. The endangered corncrake also inhabits the iris beds near the machair. Raptors such as white tailed sea eagles, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, merlin and owls are also seen but less frequently.

Otters are sometimes spotted in the north of Iona, and down at the ferry on the Sound of Iona, dolphins, porpoises and seals can be seen rising above the surface. Even the occasional whale and basking shark have been seen swimming by.


Isle of Mull

[The Isle of Mull]From Oban, the Isle of Mull is just a 40 minute ride on the ferry. I found it easy to book and the staff very helpful, go to the Caledonian MacBrayne Hebridean & Clyde Ferries website for times and fares, not only to Mull but to the many other Islands around the west coast of Scotland.

The island itself reminds me of New Zealand with its wild beauty, the mountains, the wildlife and the sheep! It's a birdwatcher's paradise with every kind of bird with a hook bill you could think of! Apart from birds there is plenty of other things to see, red and fallow deer, otters and seals. Many butterflies such as the Marsh Fritillary and Green Hairstreak and dragonflies such as the Four-spotted Chaser and Azure Damselfly.

There are boat trips to other islands and whale watching trips, which unfortunately I didn't do as I ran out of time which I plan to do next visit. A trip to the Island of Iona is a good idea. I went over to see the Corncrake, but although I heard loads they were just too crafty for me and didn't get a view!

Also on the island are the two largest birds in the UK the Golden and White Tailed Eagle. The latter is heavily protected as they have been a target for egg thieves. They are a fantastic sight to see them soaring in the sky. I don't think you realise how big they are until you see them with a crow or buzzard.

If you are there just for a day, there are plenty of guided wildlife tours around the island. Although I didn't go one any the trips, the people on the trips I saw all looked happy enough with their experience.

A great web site is Mullbirds Online run by Alan Spellman, which has lots of great information on and for those going bird watching. Get the bird report for the island which also has lots of great information about the birds and where to see them. While the birds don't read the book and don't turn up on queue the information is pretty accurate!

I met lots of great people on the island such as the only 'Geordie Scotsman' I've ever met - Bryan Rains from Pennyghael stores who also runs Wild About Mull Wildlife Tours who was very helpful. (I recommend the steak pies from the stores :o) kept me going all week!) Scott from Scoor House was incredibly helpful. Mike Story and his family made my stay just wonderful, I stayed in their self catering at Achnadrish House which is close to Dervaig in the north of the island for the week and was just great value for money! I certainly will be making a visit back, just brilliant.

One moan is some of the driving that goes on. There are many single track roads with passing places and the trouble is some people don't know how to reverse and the other which really winds me up is how rude some people are. It takes no time at all to put your hand up to say thank you, but some people are just ignorant! Apart from that I thought the place was just heaven especially as the sun goes down over the sea, just magical.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Explorer Maps 373, 374 and 375 will cover the Island

Isle of Skye

[Old man of Storr, Loch Leathan. Isle of Skye]What a special place! I can't recommend it enough.

The Isle of Skye is quite easy to get too with several options, the Skye bridge and ferries operated by Skyeferrys and Caledonian Macbrayne. Love it or hate it, the Skye Bridge, spanning from Kyle of Lochalsh to Kyleakin, is here to stay and for most people it will be your gateway to Skye. Though originally a toll bridge, there is now no toll so access to the Island across the bridge is free.

There is a unique six car turntable ferry that operates across the narrows through the summer months (April to October). The Kylerhea ferry now has its own website at www.skyeferry.co.uk. Caledondian MacBrayne operate ferry services to and from the island on routes from Armadale to Mallaig and from Uig to The Western Isles. In addition, there are CalMac ferries serving Raasay from Sconser and The Small Isles (Canna, Rům, Eigg and Muck) from Mallaig. Go to the Caledonian MacBrayne website for current details of the routes and timings.

Wildlife abounds on the island, with birds from the tiny Goldcrest to magnificent Golden Eagle, mammals from Pygmy Shrew to Red Deer and fish from Saithe to Salmon. If you are lucky you might catch sight of the elusive Otter playing on the shore. The wide range of geology and topography provides habitats for many wild flowers. To get more information go to Skye Birds website.

At 1,656 km² (639 square miles), Skye is the second-largest island in Scotland after Lewis and Harris. It is the largest and most northerly island in the Inner Hebrides. The coastline of Skye is a series of peninsulas which are great for sea watching both for birds and sea mammals such as whales and porpoises, bays radiating out from a centre dominated by the Cuillin Hills, which is a great place to see Golden Eagles. (I saw my first here which was a great experience.) The main peninsulas include Trotternish in the north, Waternish, Duirinish, Minginish and Strathaird to the west and Sleat in the south. Surrounding islands include Isay, Longay, Pabay, Raasay, Rona, Scalpay, Soay and Wiay. You should be able to get to these by ferry.

The Black Cuillin, which are mainly composed of basalt and gabbro, include 12 Munros and provide some of the most dramatic and challenging mountain terrain in Scotland. The ascent of Sgurr a' Ghreadaidh is one of the longest rock climbs in Britain and the Inaccessible Pinnacle is the only peak in Scotland that requires technical climbing skills to reach the summit. A full traverse of the Cuillin ridge may take 15-20 hours to complete. The Red Hills to the south are sometimes also known as the Red Cuillin. They are mainly composed of granite that has weathered into more rounded hills with many long screes slopes on their flanks. The highest point of these hills is Glamaig, one of only two Corbetts on Skye.

Trotternish is underlain by basalt, which provides relatively rich soils and a variety of unusual rock features. The Kilt Rock is named for the tartan-like patterns in the 105 metre (350 ft) cliffs. The Quirang is a spectacular series of rock pinnacles on the eastern side of the main spine of the peninsula and further south is the rock pillar of the Old Man of Storr.

Beyond Loch Snizort to the west of Trotternish is the Waternish peninsula, which ends in Ardmore Point's double rock arch. Duirinish is separated from Waternish by Loch Dunvegan. It is ringed by sea cliffs which reach 295 metres (967 ft) at Waterstein Head. Lochs Bracadale and Harport lie between Duirinish and Minginish which includes the narrow valleys of Talisker and Glen Brittle and whose beaches are formed from black basaltic sands. Strathaird is a relatively small peninsula close to the Cuillin hills with several small crofting communities. The bedrock of Sleat is Torridonian sandstone which produces poor soils and boggy ground, although its lower elevations and relatively sheltered eastern shores produces a lush growth of hedgerows and crops.

As I've already said there is plenty to see if you have the patience to look and to be honest when you go to Skye why wouldn't you? Corncrake, Red-throated Diver, Rock Dove, Kittiwake, Atlantic Puffin, Goldeneye, Golden Eagle and White-tailed Sea Eagle can be found with a little effort, Mountain Hare and Rabbit are now abundant and predated on by Wild Cat and Pine Marten. The rich fresh water streams contain Brown Trout, Atlantic Salmon and Water Shrew. Offshore the Edible Crab and Oyster are also found, the latter especially in the Sound of Scalpay. There are also nationally important Horse Mussel and Brittlestar beds in the sea lochs. Heather moor containing Ling, Bell Heather, Cross-leaved Heath, Bog Myrtle and Fescues is everywhere abundant.

It's worthwhile if you are on the Isle of Skye to visit Portree Harbour where there are boat trips to see the White tailed Sea Eagles which are a regular site around the "Sound of Raasay" these are Brigadoon Boat Trips and MV Stardust Boat Trips.

I recommend you spend time on this wonderful island. There is plenty of accommodation, when I've gone I've camped by the coast. The age-old problem of midges can be irritating, but I just love the place as you probably noticed. :o)

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Explorer Maps 407, 408, 409, 410, 411 and 412 will cover the Island

Loch Garten and Abernethy Forest

[sign]Loch Garten is a large Highland freshwater loch near Boat of Garten, in the Strathspey area of the Cairngorms National Park, in Scotland. It is surrounded by the tall pine trees of the Abernethy Forest, a large area (adjacent to the loch) of which is an RSPB nature reserve. The loch is renowned for its breeding population of ospreys, which lend Boat of Garten its nickname "The Osprey Village".

Careless behaviour towards the osprey in Britain throughout the 19th century meant that it became extinct as a breeding bird by the early 20th. However, in 1954 two Scandinavian breeding birds came to Garten completely of their own accord and set up a nest in the forest by the loch. Slowly the species recolonised Scotland, and the RSPB and other organisations helped them along the way. The reserve was purchased by the charity and since then the nest has always been closely monitored. Recently a viewing hide was built relatively near to the nest so that visitors may come and see these birds of prey easily. The hide has telescopes and other optical devices inside, as well as television screens showing close-up views of the fledglings and their parents.

Ospreys are not the only creatures to be found at Loch Garten. Capercaillies, though difficult to see, do inhabit the remoter parts of the reserve and can be seen performing their annual lek via the spring "Caperwatch". Red squirrels can be seen very easily around the hide, especially on the feeders put out for them. Smaller birds such as the siskin, chaffinch (in very large numbers) and great spotted woodpecker are also present and easy to spot on the feeders. The Crested Tit and Scottish crossbill are more reserved in their behaviour and more difficult to find. Wigeon live by and swim on the loch.

Abernethy Forest is a remnant of the Caledonian Forest near Aviemore, Badenoch and Strathspey, Highland, Scotland. It is an RSPB reserve, close to Loch Garten Osprey Centre, which is also owned by the RSPB. There is approximately 4,000 hectares of forest within the reserve, and just under half of this is native Caledonian pine forest.

Abernethy Forest is the largest remaining remnant of the Ancient Caledonian Forest in Scotland. The Caledonian Forest is the name of a type of woodland that once covered vast areas of Scotland. Today, however, only 1% of the original forest survives, covering 180 square kilometres (44,000 acres) in 84 locations. The forests are home to a wide variety of wildlife, much of which is not found elsewhere in the British Isles.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Landranger 36

Loch Shiel

[the loch]Loch Shiel is a 19.3 km2 freshwater loch, 120 m deep, situated 20 km west of Fort William in Lochaber, Highland, Scotland. Its nature changes considerably along its length, being deep and enclosed by mountains in the north east and shallow surrounded by Bog and rough pasture in the south west, from which end the 4 km River Shiel drains to the sea in Loch Moidart near Castle Tioram.

I went on a cruise up the Loch and would recommend it, go to Loch Shiel Cruises for more information. I went on the full Loch cruise and we saw Black and Red Throated Divers, both Golden and Sea Eagles, Red Deer and plenty more. The Captain, as you would expect has plenty knowledge about the history of the area.

You get on the boat at Glenfinnan which will interest all you Harry Potter fans as the railway bridge is used in many of the films and you can find out more about it at the visitor centre at the top of the Loch. Also here you will find the Glenfinnan Monument which was erected in 1815 to mark the place where Prince Charles Edward Stuart ("Bonnie Prince Charlie") raised his standard, at the beginning of the 1745 Jacobite Rising.

There is a lot to see here and well worth the trip.


Moine Mhor

[1]While traveling in Scotland visiting the Crinan Canal I came across this fantastic reserve called Moine Mhor National Nature Reserve which is a bog showpiece. Covering over 500 hectares this 'Great Moss' forms the wild heartland of Kilmartin Glen, 10 kilometres north of Lochgilphead on the west coast of Scotland. Raised bogs are one of Europe's rarest and most threatened natural wildlife habitats, its home to plants and animals specially adapted to survive in the water-logged conditions.

Moine Mhor is one of Scotland's oldest landscapes, with 5000 years of history locked in its layers of peat. It is one of the few wild spaces in Britain which takes in saltmarsh, peat bog, woodland and hillside.

The best views of this reserve are from the Crinan Canal, near Bellanoch, or the ancient hill fort of Dunadd. From here you can see the waterlogged system of pools and bogs alongside the gentle twists and turns of the River Add. Down at bog level look out for hen harriers and curlews, as well as a fantastic range of dragonflies.

This is a fantastic area to walk around, especially alongside the Crinan Canal. There is a day's walk here amongst beautiful scenery.


The Black Isle, the Cromarty and Moray Firths

[the blackisle]Despite its name, the Black Isle is not an island, but a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water – the Cromarty Firth to the north, the Beauly Firth to the south, and the Moray Firth to the east. On its fourth, western side, its boundary is delineated by rivers. Chanonry Point lies at the end of Chanonry Ness, a spit of land extending into the Moray Firth between Fortrose and Rosemarkie on the Black Isle, Scotland.

Chanonry Point is one of the best spots in the UK to view Bottlenose dolphin`s from the land. The dolphins are often visible off Chanonry point, particularly on an incoming tide when they play and fish in the strong currents. Other wildlife, including porpoises and grey seals, can also regularly be spotted. European otters are occasional visitors.

Due to the popularity of the dolphins at Chanonry point, the parking area and roads leading up to the beach have become more and more congested during the Summer months, causing concerns amongst local residents.

While bottlenose dolphins can be seen off the point throughout the year, the chances of seeing them increase when their food supply increases, the peak times being when salmon are returning towards the two main rivers (the Ness and Beauly) which feed into the Moray Firth. The salmon come in with the tidal current which, once the tide starts to come in, can be extreme. If planning a trip, find tide details and pick days with midday low tides with the largest difference between low and high tide (spring tides, avoid the neap tides). The University of Aberdeen operates a more formal range of surveys throughout the year from their field station based just along the coast at Cromarty, supported by funds from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. While the point is without doubt the best place to watch the dolphins, licensed boat trips do run from Cromarty and Avoch. The nearby Dolphin and Seal Centre at North Kessock also offers good dolphin watching opportunities during the summer months.

On the north coast of the Black Isle on the Cromarty Firth is the RSPB Reserve Udale Bay. From late summer to April you can see thousands of wildfowl and wading birds here. Come an hour or two either side of high tide to be rewarded with spectacular views of flocks of flying birds. In autumn up to 5,000 wigeons feed here, while if you want to see an osprey fishing in the water, late summer is the time to come.

The Cromarty Firth; literally 'Kyles (Straits) of Cromarty') is an arm of the North Sea in Scotland. It is the middle of the three sea lochs at the head of the Moray Firth: to the north lies the Dornoch Firth, and to the south the Beauly Firth.

The entrance to the Cromarty Firth is guarded by two precipitous rocks called "The Sutors" from a fancied resemblance to a couple of shoemakers, bent over their lasts. From the Sutors the Firth extends inland in a westerly and then south-westerly direction for a distance of 19 miles . Excepting between Nigg Bay and Cromarty Bay where it is about 5 miles wide, and Alness Bay where it is 2 miles wide, it has an average width of 1 mile. The southern shore of the Firth is the Black Isle. The best view of the whole Firth is from the top of Fyrish.

The firth is a designated as a Special Protection Area for wildlife conservation purposes.

The settlement of Nigg is an important North Sea oil centre. Former Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root owns the 170-acre fabrication yard south of the settlement of Nigg. This is an important North Sea oil centre with a dry dock for repairing and fabricating oil platforms. When I was there, the Firth was full of platforms and was quite a sight!

The Moray Firth is a roughly triangular inlet (or firth) of the North Sea, north and east of Inverness. The firth has more than about 500 miles of coastline, much of which is cliff.

A number of rivers flow into the Moray Firth, including the River Ness, the River Findhorn and the River Spey. Various smaller firths and bays are inlets of the firth, including the Cromarty Firth and the Dornoch Firth. The Pentland Firth has its eastern mouth at the Moray Firth's northern boundary.

The Moray Firth is effectively two firths, the Inner Moray Firth 57°33'N 04°09'W / 57.55°N 4.15°W / 57.55; -4.15, which was traditionally known as the Firth of Inverness, and the Outer Moray Firth which is more open North Sea water. The name "Firth of Inverness" is rarely found on modern maps, but extended from the Beauly Firth in the west, to Chanonry Point in the east.

As all ready has been said the Moray Firth is one of the most important places on the U.K. coast for observing dolphins and whales. The most common species are the Bottlenose Dolphin and the Harbour Porpoise. With occasional sightings of Common dolphin and Minke Whale. The popular wildlife viewing area located at Chanonry Point host some spectacular displays of dolphins within the inner Moray Firth. There are also visitor centres at Spey Bay and North Kessock run by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society where dolphins and other wildlife can often be seen. The old jetty at the Fort George Point is the location of the Dolphin Research Centre.

The Inner Moray Firth is designated as a Special Protection Area for wildlife conservation purposes. The Moray Firth contains a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) designated under the EU Habitats Directive, which is one of the largest Marine Protection Areas in Europe. The SAC protects the inner waters of the Moray Firth, from a line between Lossiemouth (on the south coast) and Helmsdale (on the north coast) westwards.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Explorer map 432

The Cairngorms

[sign1]Although The Cairngorms are within the Cairngorms National Park, they are only a part of it.

The approximate southern-boundary of the range runs from slightly east of Braemar, west along Glen Dee to White Bridge, through Glen Geldie to the head of Glen Feshie. The western-boundary runs down Glen Feshie (northward) and the River Spey to Aviemore. The northern-boundary runs roughly eastward from Aviemore through Glen More to Glen Avon. The eastern-boundary then runs (southward) up Glen Avon, and over Am Bealach Dearg to slightly east of Braemar.

The Cairngorms national park is known for its wildlife. The area also features an ancient woodland, one of the last major ones of its kind in the British Isles, known as the Caledonian Forest. Much of the remains of this forest are found within the national park.

The Cairngorms provide a unique alpine semi-tundra moorland habitat, home to many rare plants, birds and animals. Speciality bird species on the plateaux include breeding Ptarmigan, Dotterel, Snow Bunting, Golden Eagle, Ring Ouzel, and Red Grouse, with Snowy Owl, Twite, Purple Sandpiper and Lapland Bunting seen on occasion. In the forests, Capercaillie, Black Grouse, Scottish Crossbill, Parrot Crossbill, Crested Tit are found.

Of particular fame is the RSPB reserve at Abernethy Forest and Loch Garten. A famous pair of Ospreys are present in the summer months, and they often attract large crowds to see them. The forest is home to the endangered Capercaillie and endemic Scottish Crossbill.

Red Deer, Roe Deer, Mountain Hare, Pine Marten, Red Squirrel, Wild Cat and Otter are all present, as well as the only herd of Reindeer in the British Isles. They now roam the high Cairngorms, after being re-introduced in the 1950s by a Swedish herdsman. The herd is now stable at around 50 individuals, all born in Scotland.

A great place to stay is the Grant Arms Hotel in Grantown-on-Spey. It has its own Birdwatching and wildlife club with dedicated staff and club room where there is plenty of information and latest sightings. Go to the Bird Watching and Wildlife Club website for more information.

The hotel also has quite a few contacts who act as guides and run wildlife safaris, for me teaming up with a local who knows his way around was a real timesaver, especially on my first trip to the Cairngorms. While I am sure there are many able guides I can recommend Steve Reddick who certainly knew how to find the wildlife, being on a "one to one" I could spend more time in places I wanted to, if I was in a group (which would have been cheaper), I don't think I would have the luxury to spend time taking photos! Go to the Highland Wildlife & Birdwatch Sarafis website to find out more.

If you are in the Cairngorms, it's worth going to Glenlivet Wildlife - David Newland who is the guide is full of local knowledge. I arranged through him to sit and watch a Black Grouse "Lek" which was just amazing!

The Ordnance survey has 35 publications of maps and guides for the Cairngorm National park.


The Coast between Nairn and Burghead

[burghead]The Coast between Nairn and Burghead on the Moray Firth is a wonderfully wild place full of wildlife and history. This area will take a good day to enjoy.

Culbin Forest and Findhorn Bay is a huge area of coast and countryside and an SSSI in Moray, Scotland, stretching from just east of the town of Nairn eastwards to the village of Findhorn and its bay. Formerly the area which is now the Culbin Forest was loose blowing sand dunes, called the Culbin Sands. The area had been fertile farmland, but was gradually covered in loose sand, particularly during a windstorm in 1694. The area remained largely dune desert for two centuries, sometimes referred to as "Scotland's Sahara". In the 20th century the Forestry Commission planted the area with forest.

It is split by several large paths and smaller tracks in between. The densely covered areas off these paths are difficult to traverse. Most walks are taken beginning at the south of the forest at Wellhill Car Park and ending at the beach.

Although mostly made up of tall pines and coarse ground cover, Culbin also has many more open, sandy patches in the forest, where small younger trees have recently been planted. The grassland areas are very suitable for butterflies. There are several ponds which act as oases to the local animals. Hill 99, a towering wooden structure which blends in subtly with the canopy, provides an excellent viewpoint. The wildlife amongst the trees is very discreet although birds can clearly be heard singing everywhere.

Nowadays the name "Culbin Sands" means a beach, but formerly the name meant a large area of loose dune sand desert which is now the Culbin Forest.

This long strip of pristine beach is owned by the RSPB, due to its excellent bird habitat, home to Oystercatchers, Curlews, Common Redshanks and other birds. It is made up of a curious mixture of sand and long grass, but gets muddier further westwards. A lot of natural driftwood such as logs and shells ends up on the sands. The bank of dunes separates the forest quite suddenly from the flat beach.

The forest meets the bay at a very steep dune and this bay is home on the east side to the village of Findhorn. Findhorn Beach is much stonier right by the coast and further out to sea a strip of sand, often separated from the mainland by the Moray Firth, is home to a colony of Grey Seals and Common Eiders often come and sit by them.

Findhorn Bay is a great place to watch waders, I arrived here just as the tide was going out and the place was alive with birds and well worth spending some time here. In the summer months this is a good place to watch Ospreys.

From Findhorn to go via the dunes and Burghead bay to Burghead follow the "Moray Coast Trail"

In calm weather from autumn to spring this is an excellent area to watch winter ducks and divers. Also close to Burghead lots of waders feed on the exposed mud and the harbour at Burghead is a great place to see wintering ducks as I found out when I found Long-tailed Ducks, Golden eye and Eiders all in the harbour. Also look for Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers on the sea wall, early morning is the best time to visit here before it gets busy.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Explorer map 432

The Outer Hebrides

[The Butt of lewis on the Outer Hebrides]The Outer Hebrides, comprise an island chain off the west coast of Scotland. The islands form part of the Hebrides, separated from the Scottish mainland and from the Inner Hebrides by the stormy waters of the Minch, the Little Minch and the Sea of the Hebrides. Formerly the dominant language of the Islands, Scottish Gaelic remains widely spoken even though it has now been largely supplanted by English in some parts.

The main islands form an archipelago with their smaller surrounding islands; these are sometimes known poetically as the Long Isle. The major islands include Lewis and Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra. Much of the western coastline of the islands is machair, a fertile low-lying dune pastureland. Much of the islands is protected habitat, and this includes both the islands and the surrounding waters. There are numerous rare species, including the golden eagle, basking shark, whale, dolphin, otter and corncrake.

There is a total of 70 islands which make up the Outer Hebrides. 14 are populated islands and 56 are unpopulated, although some have part-time wardens and a military presence at times such as St Kilda. Small islands and island groups pepper the North Atlantic surrounding the main island group. To the west lie the Monach Islands, Flannan Isles, St Kilda, and Rockall, in increasing order of distance. The status of Rockall as part of the United Kingdom remains a matter of international dispute. About halfway between St Kilda and Rockall is Anton Dohrn Seamount, a large submerged volcano. To the north lie North Rona and Sula Sgeir, two small and remote islands. Not often included as part of the Outer Hebrides, they nevertheless come under the administration of the Western Isles district.

I have been privileged to be on five of these islands and will be talking about these. Getting yourself there is relatively easy with ferries from the mainland and the Isle of Skye, go to the Caledonian MacBrayne website. Flights out of Glasgow can be found on the Scotia Travel website which goes to several destinations on the islands. A good web site for accommodation is Visit Hebrides, which has plenty of information on where to stay. If you want information about climbing, sea kayaking, canoeing and hill walking Adventure Hebrides is a great site. I camped around the islands with my son and found it to be a friendly and hospitable place to be. There is plenty to see and do.


Lewis and Harris

Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides make up the largest island in Scotland. Indeed, this island is easily the largest of the British Isles after Great Britain and Ireland. It has an area of 841 square miles (2,180 km²) - slightly under one per cent of the area of Great Britain. It is 24 miles (39 km) from the nearest point of the mainland, from which it is separated by the Minch.

The northern part of the island is called Lewis, the southern is Harris and both are frequently referred to as if they were separate islands. The boundary between Lewis and Harris is formed by a line with Loch Resort on the west and Loch Seaforth on the east. The island does not actually have a common name in either English or Scots Gaelic. Rarely, the collective name of the Long Island is used.

Most of Harris is mountainous, with more than thirty peaks above 1,000 ft (300 m) high. Lewis is comparatively flat, save in the south-east, where Ben More reaches 1,874 ft (571 m), and in the south-west, where Mealasbhal (1885 ft) is the highest point.

There is plenty to see such as the most northerly point the "Butt of Lewis" and the truly magnificent "Calanais Standing stones" - awesome! As with all the beaches, such as Uig Sands, the sand is white and the beaches wild and windy with the next stop America. The water was clear and warm, which was a bit of a shock.


North Uist

North Uist is the ninth largest Scottish island and the thirteenth largest island surrounding Great Britain. It has an area of 117 square miles (303.05 km²), slightly smaller than South Uist. North Uist is connected by causeways to Benbecula via Grimsay, to Berneray, and to Baleshare. With the exception of the south east, the island is very flat, and covered with a patchwork of peat bogs, low hills and lochans, with more than half the land being covered by water. Some of the lochs contain a mixture of fresh and tidal salt water, giving rise to some complex and unusual habitats.

North Uist has many prehistoric structures, including the Barpa Langass chambered cairn, the Pobull Fhinn stone circle, the Fir Bhreige standing stones, the islet of Eilean Dòmhnuill (which may be the earliest crannog site in Scotland), and the Baile Sear roundhouses, which were exposed by storms in January, 2005.

The island is also known for its birdlife, including corncrakes, arctic terns, gannets, corn buntings and Manx shearwaters. The RSPB has a nature reserve at Balranald which is well worth a visit, but I would say that if you keep your eyes open there is loads to see all over the island.


Benbecula

The island lies between the islands of North Uist and South Uist, to which it is connected by road causeways. Travel to any of the other main Hebridean islands, or to the Scottish mainland, must be done by air or sea. Benbecula's main settlement is Balivanich in the northwest. Other villages include Craigstrome, which lies on the eastern half of Benbecula. In contrast to the cultivated west coast of the island, the eastern half is a mixture of freshwater lochs, moorland, bog and deeply indenting sea lochs. Craigstrome is near Ruabhal, Benbecula's highest hill at 124 metres (407 ft).

There is a military presence in the form of the RAF radar station RRH Benbecula, which monitors the northern Atlantic.


South Uist

One of my overriding memories of South Uist is the long white beach - we walked along it and it felt no one had been here for years. The sand was white and clean except for the flotsam and jetsam of the North Atlantic, if the temperature was warmer you could have been on a Pacific island.

South Uist has a nature reserve and a number of sites of archaeological interest. This includes the archaeological site of Cladh Hallan, which is the only location in Great Britain where prehistoric mummies have been found. The island, in common with the rest of the Hebrides, is one of the last remaining strongholds of the Gaelic language in Scotland. In the north west there is a military presence in the form of a missile testing range so keep your head down. :o)

The west is machair (fertile low-lying coastal plain) with a continuous sandy beach whilst the east coast is mountainous with the peaks of Beinn Mhòr 620 m (2,033 ft) and Hecla 606 m (1,988 ft). The main village on the island is Lochboisdale, from which ferries sail to Oban on the mainland and to Castlebay on Barra. The island is also linked to Eriskay and Benbecula by causeways. Smaller settlements include Daliburgh, Howmore and Ludag.

Loch Druidibeg in the north of the island is a National Nature Reserve owned and managed by Scottish Natural Heritage. The reserve covers 1,677 hectares of machair, bog, freshwater lochs, estuary heather moorland and hill. Over 200 species of flowering plants have been recorded on the reserve, some of which are nationally scarce. South Uist is considered the best place in the UK for the aquatic plant Slender Naiad (Najas flexilis) which is a European Protected Species. Nationally important populations of breeding waders are also present, including redshank, dunlin, lapwing and ringed plover. The reserve is also home to greylag geese on the loch and in summer corncrakes on the machair. Otters and hen harriers are also seen.


Barra

The Isle of Barra apart from the adjacent island of Vatersay is the southernmost inhabited island of the Outer Hebrides. The area of Barra is 23 square miles, the main village being Castlebay. Barra is now linked by a man-made causeway to the neighbouring island of Vatersay.

The west of the island has white sandy beaches backed by shell-sand machair and the east has numerous rocky inlets. Barra is abundant with stunning scenery, rare flowers and wildlife, which can be appreciated by coastal or hill walks, drives or cycle rides along the various small roads. Car and bicycle hire are available locally.

Kisimul Castle at Castlebay is located on an island in the bay, so giving the village its name.

Places of interest on the island include a ruined church and museum at Cille Bharra, a number of Iron Age brochs such as those at Dùn Chuidhir and An Dùn Bàn and a whole range of other Iron Age and later structures which have recently been excavated and recorded.


© Simon Thurgood 2017
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