Explore Rugged Coast, Ancient Forest & Wild Moors in One of Europe's Last Great Wildernesses
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 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.
Day 3: Across the Highlands to the Western Isles
A scenic drive is in store as we traverse the rugged Highlands to the west coast. Their 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 the mountains cloaked in forest and heather, stopping periodically to admire the vistas unfurled 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
We make a short crossing by boat to 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 important numbers 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 cliff edges. 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, minke whale and basking shark. Returning to the mainland and our hotel, we stop on the way to walk to a viewpoint overlooking the "Old Man of Stoer," a 200-foot-high sandstone sea stack.
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 far-flung Outer Hebrides. After lunch in town, 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 that 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 A.D.
Our ultimate destination is the Isle of Harris, where we’ll spend the next two nights. Harris is our base for further discovery of this evocative wild region, a remarkably diverse landscape of mountains and moorlands, crofts, lochs, meadows and sandy beaches. Its craggy coast of secret coves and rugged cliffs offers 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: Isle of Lewis Wildlife Cruise
Today holds one of the premier highlights of our trip: a private boat cruise along the west coast 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 Queen Elizabeth’s) with its sandy beaches and ruins before heading back to Miavaig.
Day 7: Isle of Skye / Contin
Returning by ferry from Tarbert to Uig, we drive down the Isle of Skye to reach the mainland. Our hotel awaits in the village of Contin, 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 we walk through a forest to a waterfall 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 dram of fine Scotch before dinner.
Day 8: 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 9: Inverness / Depart
After breakfast, return to Inverness this morning to meet departing flights.
Physical Rating: Moderate