By Matteo Preabianca
When people visit Scotland, they are more interested in whiskey, haggis, and Edinburgh castle than anything else. But few foreigners know that the Highlands and the Western isles are packed with wildlife. My trip is about exploring some of those islands, in search of puffins and basking sharks.
My trip starts on the Isle of Lewis and Isle of Harris: the main island of the Outer Hebrides. The name is misleading because it is only one island, but since there is a mountain range that divides Harris, the southern and smaller part, from the northern and more extensive Lewis – the range of high mountains prevented land access in the past between Lewis and Harris, turning them into virtually separate islands for the people who lived there. The territory of the island is harsh and desolate, but it is an excellent base for excursions to the surrounding smaller islands.
How to get to Lewis and Harris
If you start from one of Scotland’s main cities, Glasgow or Edinburgh, the best way is to take a bus or train to Inverness (about 3 hours), then another bus to Ullapool (1 hour and a half) and finally the ferry (2 hours and a half) to Stornoway, the capital of the Outer Hebrides.
As soon as I get off the ferry, I have my first encounter with the local tradition. It’s Sunday and usually nothing happens here because an important part of the population is religiously conservative Presbyterian. It is the Sabbath, a church day. In fact, there is an old man at the pier, with a sign written both in English and Gaelic, in which he strongly expresses his opposition to the Sunday ferry.
A small example of how this place is so different from mainland Scotland.
Lewis is mostly flat, with miles of soggy ground all along the centre of the island. Similar to an Icelandic moon-like landscape. But around the coast, plenty of sandy beaches, rocky cliffs and the deep waters of Loch Suaineabhal.
Going down to Harris, the landscape changes again, panoramic views down to lochs, more sandy beaches and coastal inlets.
Historical places and Gaelic language
One of the main attraction are the Neolithic standing stones at Callanish. They are older and better kept than Stonehenge. Other places worthy to visit are: Dun Carloway Broch (Iron Age era) and the traditional 19th-century blackhouse villages at Arnol and Gearrannan.
The islands hold their traditions close, like the Gaelic language which is still alive and spoken. You can also see it on signs around the Outer Hebrides. If you are interested in learning more about its tradition but also local modern art, film and photography on show, An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway is the place to go. It is here I have my second encounter with Gaelic speakers.
Two old ladies chatting using their native language. I decide to try my luck and using my one year of Gaelic study, I can say few words to them. The ladies are amused by my effort, not because my Gaelic skills are amazing (I am pretty terrible at it) but because an Italian guy who speaks a bit of Gaelic does not happen that often around here.
Not only seals
The local wildlife sounds promising: in a full day, I see red deer, plus seals, dolphins, porpoises and one whale. The day after I go to the North Harris Eagle Observatory, at the end of the Bird of Prey Trail in Harris, to spot eagles. I sit there for three hours, honestly a bit bored because there is nothing else to entertain myself, but no eagles come.
I’m here looking for basking sharks. This second-largest shark in the world has its biggest hotspot right here, among the Scottish Western Isles. Till 1994, these sharks were hunted in Scotland. Their large livers contain a vast amount of oil. This oil was used in lamps, cosmetics, and perfumes.
This kind of shark are not dangerous at all. They do not attack humans or big mammals because their teeth are relatively small, just for eating plankton. It is not very easy to see them. In fact, I didn’t see them at all in the Isle of Lewis. So I decided to move South to the Isle of Skye.
A wild and dramatically beautiful island, Skye can be reached from Lewis and Harris from the town of Tarbert by a 40 minutes ferry to the small town of Uig on Skye. The island is known in Gaelic as Eilean a’ Cheò – the “Misty Isle” – because rainfall is generally high.
Compared to the previous island, Skye is busier with tourists. In every corner there are camper vans and tents because it is hard to find an ugly place on Skye. It is worth mentioning too that there are a lot of ‘glamping’ pods available on the island, if you do not want to spend a lot of money on basic accommodation. It is not a cheap place.
After a quick tour in Portree, the main town and hub of the island, I rent a car to go to Elgol, a little fishing and crofting village. It is a bit of a challenge to reach the village because the streets are narrow, not always well paved and full of sheep.
Elgol: will I see some sharks?
The tiny pier faces a small bay not too swallow, not too deep. An ideal place for basking sharks. I stare at the water for an afternoon. No sharks. The day after I joined a boat trip around the bay. A lot of seals, some porpoises but, again, no sharks. I decide to give up, but I have the feeling that I need to apply my usual “rule of three”: trying something three times, regardless of the result.
I wake up early on the third day, taking a private boat, asking the owner to drive very gently, so reducing the engine noise as much as possible. Four hours back and forth, doing the same circle over and over. Finally I see a fin, an enormous 1 metre fin. We are getting closer and closer, aware that the shark can swim away quickly, but another shark appears. I lean out from the boat, stupid, reckless.
I can see all the body shape of the shark on the verge of the water surface. It is a massive fish. A bit scary, but it moves so smoothly I do not even have the time to realize that. A few seconds well impressed unto my mind, like hours of watching. See the sharks? Done!
I can leave the island now, but I take the advantage of seeing the most iconic places in Skye: the large pinnacle of The Old Manof Storr, a 75 minute walk up and back down; the fairy pools, where I dare to swim a bit before my body gets frozen and Dunvegan Castle where they do not serve vegan food, as an American tourist asked me. If you like drinking alcohol, the Skye Distillery produces its own gin, and Talisker distiilley on the west coast produces great whisky. Time to move to my next destination.
To reach my third and last destination from Skye, I have to wake up early and take the 7:30 am bus which takes me to Fort William first and then Oban, a resort town in the Argyll area. Apart from Dunollie Castle and its lovely surrounding walk and McCaig’s Tower, whose nickname is The Little Colosseum, the town is not very interesting, but it is another good base for trips around the nearby isles.
The day after I take a 45 minutes ferry to Craignure on the Isle of Mull (probably the only worthwhile wild place to visit here is Ben More, the only island Munro outside Skye) and a short ride bus to Tobermory, where I book a day trip with Staffa Tours company. A 6 hours tour in Treshnish and Staffa islands. A fun fact: I usually find a Chinese, Indian and Italian restaurant in each Scottish city and town I have visited, but there are no Italian meals here in Tobermory!
Lunga Island: where the puffins welcome people
The first island is called Lunga, part of the small archipelago of Treshnish Isles. It’s about an hour away from Tobermory by boat, and it is guaranteed I will see puffins there. “How is it 100% possible that I can see puffins?” I ask myself. The answer is fantastic: here, puffins do not mind the human presence, because we scare away other birds, especially seagulls, and these little and cute birds can pop up and fish peacefully.
And it is really true. Once I am there, it is only a matter of minutes before the first shy puffin comes out from its burrow and stares at me. Not the other way round. I sit on the grass, about one meter away from their burrow, in order not to bother their eggs and pufflings, and the show starts: a fleet of puffins fly and hop around. I manage to take several photos of them without much effort. This clever bird does not make its own nest on Lunga, it just kicks rabbits out from their burrows.
Not only puffins are around here. For birds lovers, I spot shags, Manx shearwaters, razorbills, and thousands of guillemots. I see a shearwater nesting beneath a rock, it looks quite aggressive, so I need to divert my walk.
Staffa Island: puffins, music, poems.
The second island I visit, Staffa, has puffins but not as many as on Lunga. The main attraction is Fingal’s Cave, a sea cave. It became famous thanks to the poet James Macpherson who wrote a cycle of poems in which the protagonist is called Fingal. Mendelssohn, the German musician, also composed The Hebrides Overture inspired by his trip to the cave. In fact, before getting off the boat, the tour guide plays this overture while we are standing right in front of this magnificent cave. It seems silly but it does give us an impressive feeling.
It is possible to visit the cave via a short walk. A row of fractured columns forms a walkway permitting exploration on foot. There is a safe handrail planted in the rock. What strikes me most about this place is the so-called rock conglomerate: it looks like it was designed by an architect. So precise and rectangular.
Time to leave the island. On the way back, beside the “usual” encounter with seals and porpoises, thanks to my guide who decided to approach another island, the Isle of Coll, I can see a white-tailed eagle, relaxing on a tree branch. I can not see it clearly, but better than nothing. Once again Mother Nature does not fail to amaze me in Scotland.
Matteo Preabianca has been traveling for more than 10 years, living in several countries, including Italy, UK, Switzerland, Russia, India, USA, Australia, Mali, Mexico, and now, China, where he works as a University Lecturer.