5 places to spot winter wildlife on the islands
It is all too easy to succumb to the temptation to hunker down and hibernate through the cold dark winter months. The longer nights and the bright flowers of spring may seem a long way off, but winter really is no time for you to hide away in despair, not when many of Scotland's animals are actually coming out to play!
Winter sees Scotland's bountiful wildlife come alive as the red deer slip down from the higher slopes in search of food and shelter, exotic birds swoop in search for warmer climes and some of our ingenious indigenes, like the mountain hare, even manage to change colour to fit in with the snow swept landscape!
Handily CalMac routes open up some of the best wildlife in Scotland. I love exploring Scotland's coastline and isles in winter. So grab your binoculars and hop on a ferry with me now as we set sail in search of a thrilling taste of Scotland's impressive sweep of winter wildlife...
1. Magic Mull
Mull really is Scotland's island wildlife hub these days with myriad options to view all things wild on land, in the air and in the water. Winter sees the red deer - the largest land mammal in the British Isles - break cover as the weather worsens. From the Oban to Mull ferry terminal at Craignure a hike up Dun Da Ghaoithe will reveal hordes of our majestic mammal cousins. In the air it is also a good time for spotting golden eagles in the glens and sea eagles (the white tailed ones) around the coast. The basking sharks may be gone now, but even on the ferry over from Oban keep a keen eye out for porpoises and dolphins.
Islay may be famed as Scotland's whisky isle - it is with no fewer than 8 distilleries! - but it is also heaven for keen birdwatchers. Autumn sees a swathe of seasonal visitors flood in from colder climes with the arrival of thousands of geese particularly impressive. What some people don't realise is that they hang around all winter, with Loch Gruinart the best place for spotting the highest density of them. Around sunset wherever you are on the island you cannot miss them as huge flocks swirl around locust-like, stunning set against the big winter Hebridean skies. There is a RSPB wildlife reserve at Loch Gruinart complete with free to use hides.
3. Active Arran
Arran can be very busy with holidaymakers and day-trippers in summer. In winter it is totally different with far fewer people around, which means you get to just concentrate on the animals. For red deer head up Glen Rosa as the highest peak of Goatfell might be off limits with the weather. If there is snow you won't find it hard in Glen Rosa to spot the deer! Or golden eagles too. Look at the top of the crags where the snowy ridges meet the skyline for these majestic birds of prey. Lochranza is also great for red deer as they come right down into the village in winter and hang around by rugged Lochranza Castle. If you are very lucky you might even catch sight of the elusive 'white stag'. It is, of course, much harder to spot at this time of year!
4. Simply Skye
The largest of the Inner Hebrides is a glorious island at any time of year. In winter the summer crowds clear and it's a good time to cycle on the much quieter roads. Pop your bike on the ferry at Mallaig and soon the mainland world will be left far behind and you will be on an island with clearly more animals than people in winter. The hills and mountains here can be a tough environment for people, but if you're suitably experienced and equipped you can revel amongst strutting stags, soaring eagles and those impossibly cute puffed up starkly white mountain hares.
5. Outer Hebrides
You can call this sweeping 130-mile long archipelago the Outer Hebrides, the Western Isles, the Long Island or even the Islands of the Strangers. Whatever you call it, the archipelago is a world-class oasis for myriad wildlife. In winter you can have whole swathes of the isles to yourself. I recommend taking a campervan out as a handy base. For a real adventure hire one in Inverness and then enjoy a scenic drive to link up with the CalMac ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway. Wildlife abounds throughout a landscape pretty much devoid of trees, which means you can see for miles. I thoroughly recommend one of my favourite bird reserves in the world at Balranald . Here you can seek out the chirps of little birds in the sand dunes and enjoy a bracing stroll on an impossibly pretty white sand beach as you look out for larger seabirds.
I've written a few more blogs for CalMac that may help you plan your day trip adventures so feel free to check these out.
Robin McKelvie has been travelling on Scottish ferries ever since he was a wee boy and writing about them and the places they serve since he became a travel writer in 1997. Robin has travelled to over 100 countries, but still rates Scotland 'as easily my favourite destination in the world'. These days, as well as penning travel articles for newspapers and magazines across five continents, Robin also writes guidebooks, does a lot of social media and also talks travel for the BBC. He also blogs about Scotland for multiple websites.