Explore Rugged Coast, Ancient Forest & Wild Moors in One of Europe's Last Great Wildernesses
Day 1: Edinburgh, Scotland
Our Scotland adventure begins on arrival in Edinburgh, where we gather for a welcome dinner this evening. For those who arrive early, you may wish to join our Expedition Leader for an optional included private tour of Edinburgh Castle, conducted by a local specialist guide.
Day 2: Bass Rock
We travel a short distance by boat today to Bass Rock, a volcanic island in the Firth of Forth that hosts one of Europe's most impressive seabird colonies. This rock was once a retreat for St. Baldred, a fortress outpost for hundreds of soldiers in the 16th century to defend the entrance of the firth against the English, and the location for a picturesque lighthouse built in the 19th century. Today, on the isle's sheer cliffs that rise 350 feet out of the sea, we find one of the world’s largest gannet colonies—some 150,000 birds at the height of the season. With wingspans of more than six feet, gannets can travel up to 90 mph and dive to depths of 98 feet. The lower ledges of The Bass are home to shags, guillemots
and razorbills, with seals hauling out on the rocks below. Leaving the cacophony of so much birdlife behind, we return to Edinburgh late this afternoon for dinner and a second overnight.
Day 3: Oban / West Highlands
A scenic drive is in store this morning as we traverse the breadth of Scotland, winding our way from Edinburgh in
the east to the small coastal town of Oban, a colorful fishing port on the western edge of the Highlands. We pass tranquil lochs and glacier-carved glens as we crest the spine of the Highlands, stopping periodically to admire the vistas unfurling before us. En route we stop at the Argaty Red Kite Center to learn about the reintroduction of this native bird of prey. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Scottish Natural Heritage have established a program on this large sheep and cattle farm to bring back the red kite. On a ranger-guided walk, we'll hope to see the wild raptors from a hide, admiring their nearly 6-foot wingspan. We also learn how farming and wildlife conservation can work hand in hand. Other birds we might observe include peregrine, kestrel, buzzards, sparrowhawk and hen harriers, as well as a wide variety of smaller birds attracted by the land management practices in place. A recent survey recorded over a hundred species on the farm. This afternoon, we explore the surrounding West Highlands.
Day 4: The Isles of Mull & Staffa
Our day begins with a short ferry crossing to the peaceful Isle of Mull, second largest of the Inner Hebrides and home to more than 250 bird species including white-tailed sea eagles. Marine life is also abundant in these waters, and we keep an eye out for minke whales, pilot whales, porpoise, dolphins and gray seals. From Mull, we board an excursion boat for a cruise to Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa. Its name, bestowed by Viking explorers, means stave or pillar island in Old Norse, referencing the island's unique topography. Here, remarkable hexagonal basalt columns beneath a naturally arched roof create a symphony of echoes as waves crash through the cave’s entrance—some have described it as nature's cathedral. Staffa is also noted for its seabird populations, which include black-legged kittiwakes, common shags, gulls and everyone's favorite, whimsical puffins. A short hike may reveal nesting puffins before we return by boat to Mull.
Days 5–7: Outer Hebrides—Isle of Harris / Isle of Lewis Wildlife Cruise
We're bound for the Outer Hebrides where we'll spend three nights on the Isle of Harris, our base for exploring this evocative wild region. Harris is a remarkably diverse landscape of mountains and moorlands, crofts, lochs, meadows and sandy beaches. Its craggy coast of secret coves and rugged cliffs offer nesting habitat for myriad seabirds. On beach walks, discover the wildflower meadows on the machair, a sparse veneer of green over the sand in winter that bursts into color in the 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 holds one of the premier highlights of our trip: a private boat cruise along the west coast of the Isle of Lewis. A scenic drive takes us to the picturesque port of Miavaig where we board a comfortable motor launch and set off to discover the abundant marine life along this striking coastline. The clear turquoise waters of this large sheltered bay provide a rich feeding ground for marine mammals: seals (both gray and common), dolphins, porpoise, minke whales, pilot whales, orcas, basking sharks and even the elusive sunfish. Among the prolific birdlife
we find gannets, fulmars, terns, divers, guillemots, razorbills, shearwaters and eider duck, to mention just a few. We moor in a quiet spot for lunch on board, then perhaps step ashore onto Little Bernera to explore this lovely small island (a favorite of the Queen’s) with its sandy beaches and ruins before heading back to Miavaig and returning to Harris for the night.
Day 8: Callanish Standing Stones / Contin
This morning 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. They were erected in the late Neolithic era and 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 that the place was abandoned around 1000 BC and ultimately buried beneath a thick layer of peat turf, not unearthed until 1857. An early afternoon ferry crossing from Stronoway
to Ullapool returns us to the mainland. Driving on to the village of Contin, we reach our hotel, 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.
Day 9: Cromarty Firth
Traveling east to the Black Isle Peninsula, we board a small boat for a private excursion into the rich waters of Cromarty Firth. The firth is a narrow inlet that’s hemmed in by steep-walled 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. This afternoon we take a walk through a forest to a waterfall where we’ll watch for leaping salmon. This evening we have exclusive access to a wildlife hide at the nearby Aigas Field Center, where we’ll 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.
Day 10: Exploring the Central Highlands
Traveling slightly south, we spend today exploring the evocative landscapes and wildlife hotspots of the central Highlands. Traveling between 3,000-foot mountains to our west and the fertile coastal plains and estuaries of the Moray Firth just to our east, we have plenty of possibilities to look for species that may have evaded us thus far. Our Expedition Leaders, who are first-rate Scottish naturalists, know this terrain intimately and will be able to reveal whatever wildlife spectacles may be present, whether nesting golden eagles, red deer browsing in the lush glens, or a round-up of woodland or coastal birds. After a thorough immersion in these exhilarating landscapes, we return to Coul House where a crackling fire in the cozy bar lounge invites you to settle in with a fine Scotch before dinner.
Day 11: Aigas Field Center
A full day of exploring nature and searching for wildlife is in store at Aigas Field Center. In the morning, renowned Scottish author and naturalist Sir John Lister-Kaye, proprietor
and director of the center, will share a presentation on the natural and cultural history of the Scottish Highlands. He'll also discuss some of the conservation and wildland restoration work at Aigas, including the beaver and Scottish wildcat projects. We’ll take an easy hike to view the European beaver demonstration project, then savor a lavish buffet lunch in the Baronial Hall of the House of Aigas. Dating to 1760, the country house was later a Victorian sporting lodge. Abandoned in 1971, the house was meticulously restored by Sir John to serve as his own home and as the base for the first field study center in the Highlands. After lunch, we’ll drive to a lovely local glen where expert
interpretation of the landscape is provided by our Expedition Leader and an Aigas ranger, who helps us look for golden eagles, dippers
, red deer, pine marten and many more species native to the area. After a late afternoon cup of tea or coffee at the manor house, we depart once more for Coul House where we'll enjoy a festive farewell dinner.
Day 12: Edinburgh / Depart
After breakfast, we transfer back to Edinburgh for departing flights or to join the Orkney Isles extension.
Physical Rating: Moderate