When it comes to Scottish wildlife, there’s one creature in particular that attracts more tourists than any other. ‘Nessie,’ as she’s known, is an enormous marine ‘monster’ that many believe resides in the cavernous waters of Loch Ness, an over 800-foot-deep lake tucked within the country’s Highlands. Often described as “long-necked, scaly, and with a snake-like head,” Nessie has been stirring imaginations as far back as the sixth century A.D. But while there have been more than 1,000 eyewitness accounts of this legendary sea beast, no one knows if she really exists. Some say she’s just a massive eel, mistaken for a monster. Others believe she’s a simple case of people seeing what they want to see. Either way, Nessie remains a worldwide phenomenon. However, she’s not alone in these parts. Approximately 3,000 species call greater Loch Ness home, including Atlantic salmon, wild boar and a bevy of microorganisms.
The Scottish Highlands, a rugged and spectacular place of deep pine forests, glacier-carved summits and heathers-clothed slopes, is home to an array of diverse wildlife, as is the country as a whole. We’re talking humpback whales that feed in Atlantic waters off Scotland’s coastline and golden eagles circling the vast southern skies. Seabirds like petrels, cormorants, gannets, and shearwaters breed on the western islands, while mountain hares and ptarmigans make their homes in the mainland’s upper reaches.
Nat Hab’s 9-day Scotland’s Wild Highlands & Islands explores Britain’s ‘last great wilderness’ in search of much of this wildlife, vying for a possible Nessie sighting in Loch Ness while also seeking out bottlenose dolphins frolicking in the cliff-lined inlet waters of the east coast’s Cromarty Firth, and majestic red deer perusing the shores of Loch Cluanie in the country’s remote north-west. From adorable Atlantic puffins to fur-covered pine martens, Nat Hab’s small-group adventure scours the local landscape for all the unique creatures that call Scotland home.
Animals to See on a Scotland Adventure
While Scotland is home to tens of thousands of wildlife species, there are some that (in addition to Nessie) you’ll especially want to keep an eye out for. Here are six of our favorites.
Puffins and other Seabirds
Puffins have earned the nicknames ‘clowns of the sea’ and ‘sea parrots’ for their unique physical features, which include brightly colored triangular beaks, red-and-black eye markings, and short, stocky builds (most puffins average about 10 inches tall).
Of the four puffin species, Atlantic puffins are the ones you’ll see proliferating along Scotland’s grassy cliff-tops when they’re not out at sea. These pelagic birds spend the bulk of their lives on the open ocean, diving for meals of herring, hake, and other small fish, though they return to land annually to mate and breed. You’ll most likely spot them in bulk along the country’s coastal crags, including the archipelagos of St Kilda, Orkney, and Shetland, from late March/early April to mid-August. Warning: prepare for a cuteness overload!
Other area seabirds include the Slavonian or horned grebe, a stunning diving bird recognizable by its long and golden earlike tufts adorning either side of its face. Look for them around Loch Ruthven and other large lakes and reservoirs. Shags, oystercatchers, and gannets, yellowish-headed white birds that happen to be the largest seabirds in the North Atlantic, are also par for the course in these parts.
The Scottish wildcat, also known as the Highland tiger, is the United Kingdom’s only native feline. Similar in appearance to a tabby cat, though larger in size and sporting longer legs, they were once prevalent throughout Great Britain. However, their numbers have greatly diminished over the years due to issues like habitat loss and hybridization (cross breeding) with feral domestic cats. These days, Scottish wildcats are limited to the northern and eastern parts of the country—mainly on the edges of woodlands and on the perimeters of moorlands and mountains.
Scottish wildcats are a European Protected Species and elusive carnivores that are wholly untamable. It’s thought that only about 100 or so pure Scottish wildcats are remaining in the wild, and the best times to spot them are around dusk and dawn. Nat Hab’s Scotland small group tour also pays a visit to the Scottish Wildcat Breeding Conservation Program at the Aigas Field Center, which is working toward bringing this endangered animal back from the edge of extinction.
As one of the country’s most legendary creatures, Scottish wildcats are thought to be the inspiration for the mythological Celtic creature Cat Sìth, a black cat with a small white spot on its chest that’s known to haunt the Scottish Highlands. Some people believe it’s actually a witch that has the ability to transform.
Scottish Red Deer
Slightly smaller than other Western European deer, Scottish red deer are prevalent throughout the country’s forests, especially within the Highlands. They are Scotland’s largest wild land mammal, with males sporting impressive branching antlers that continue to grow throughout their lives. Your best chance of spotting these deer in large numbers is on Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, a.k.a. the Western Isles, most notably its main islands of Lewis and Harris.
Scotland’s waters are home to the world’s most northerly colony of bottlenose dolphins. These playful and inquisitive marine mammals are recognizable by their darker gray backside and lighter gray front, short beak, and curved dorsal fin. Look for them in the Minch, a strait between the Scottish mainland and the Outer Hebrides islands, as well as the outer Moray Firth—where the resident bottlenose total nearly 200. They’re most active between May and October when food is flourishing.
Seals and other Marine Life
Two kinds of seals make their home along Scotland’s coast and within its waters: common, a.k.a ‘harbor’ seals, and gray seals. The former are the smaller of the two and like to cozy up on sheltered beaches, especially on the Hebrides and other northern isles, as well as the mainland’s west coast. They’re known for their short snouts. Gray seals prefer Scotland’s more exposed waters and rocky shores, and are much larger mammals, sometimes weighing more than 750 pounds (while common seals tend to tap out at 350 pounds). Their snouts are much longer than their counterparts, and their nostrils sit further apart.
Other marine life includes harbor porpoises, the smallest cetacean in UK waters, which tend to frolic around tidal channels, open coastline, and sea lochs, especially along the west of Scotland (including the Inner Hebrides and the Minches SAC, a Special Area of Conservation purposely created to protect them). Minke whales are often visible off Scotland’s coast between July and September, but keep an eye out for them from May through October.
Small, with chestnut brown coloring, a pale-yellow ‘bib’ marking their throats, and long bushy tails, pine martens are an impressive sight. But while the country is home to about 3,700 of them, they’re notoriously tricky to spot. Most pine martens reside in the woodlands of central and northern Scotland, tucked away in tree holes and old bird’s nests during the day and mostly foraging at night. Although these slender, mink-like carnivores love to climb, they do most of their hunting on the ground. For the best chance of seeing one, head to the remains of the country’s once-vast Caledonian forest during the summer months.