If you’ve grown up thinking the only animal worth photographing in Scotland is the Loch Ness Monster, think again. This Northern U.K. nation is an ecotourist and wildlife enthusiast’s dream, with many decades and even centuries of conservation efforts still coming to fruition. Perhaps all this energy towards animals and the environment will even bring back Scotland’s national animal, the unicorn, one day!
In all seriousness, Scotland truly is a magical land, filled with fairy tale castles and fairy glens and exotic pixie-like birds called puffins. (We’ll get back to those little charmers in a moment.) If you’re considering a European tour or road trip this summer, we highly recommend this under-the-radar destination. Sure, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August gets a ton of hype, but have you heard about the Highlands? Or Cairngorms National Park? How about Isle of Skye and Oban, or the Hebrides and Treshnish islands? If your answer is no, then carve out 7 to 10 days, book a cheap flight, and hold on tight to your camera phone because there’s so much beauty to see and so many animal adventures to be had in Scotland, you’ll want to document every location for your friends back home to ooh and ahh about on your social media platform of choice.
Just remember, you don’t have to take a selfie with every awesome creature you encounter. In many cases it is neither safe for the animal or yourself. So let your ego take a backseat during this travel experience and try to honor Mother Nature with photos and filming from afar unless you’re working with a professional under very specific conditions.
And now, without further ado, here are ten of the most outstandingly special interspecies meet and greets to expect from your Scottish travels. Be sure to check out the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions for more itinerary ideas and information.
The Loch Ness Monster
“Sail the Loch, live the Legend!” Jacobite cruises and tours operating out of Inverness, in Northern Scotland, is the go-to for all mythical monster hunters. While we personally did not see Nessie (or her family members Charlie and Jess…) on our own cruise, sightings have been recorded since 565 AD and have traveled as far as Georgia, in the U.S., which was once home to many Scottish settlers. Even if you don’t catch a glimpse of the legendary beast, the cruise is still entertaining, the songs are silly, the sights along the Inverness River and Loch Ness are beautiful, and there’s no better place to down a pint of Nessie’s Monster Mash beer. And if all monster-spotting efforts fail, be sure to check out “Nessie Hunter” Steve Feltham’s van down by the loch for a fun photo opp.
OK, so they’re not as exciting as mythical monsters, but dogs are still a BIG deal in Scotland. With pups welcome in many bars, restaurants, tourist attractions and outdoor parks, Scotland may be the most dog friendly country we’ve ever visited. Aside from their famous Scottish and Cairn Terriers, Skye Terriers are also popular — you’ll see a beloved memorial to one named Greyfriars Bobby in the cemetery during the City of Edinburgh Famous Ghost Tour. We met and fell in love with a local coffee shop mascot named Nala who is the prettiest, most petite dachshund we’ve ever met. Small dog lovers can also check out Edinburgh’s Chihuahua Cafe, or “hunt” for the Queen’s favorite corgis aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia. Most impressively, you can take in an extra-talented dog demonstration at Leault Working Sheepdogs within Cairngorms National Park.
Highland Cows (a.k.a. “Coos”)
If the unicorn didn’t already hold the title, we’d guess these “coos” would be Scotland’s national animal. Once you’re outside the city, cows graze in fields throughout the countryside with the hairy Highland variety holding court in the north. We snapped these gentle giants on the holy Isle of Iona during our Westcoast Tour of the Inner Hebrides, but we were also charmed by a group chilling alongside Loch Ness, as well as a mixed herd who loved listening to music outside Craigivar castle.
Sheep (and Lambs!)
If you’re excited about cows inundating the hills and fields of the Scottish landscape, wait until you get a load of all the sheep. These fluffy, sometimes sheered beauties dot the countryside like mirror images of the clouds in the sky. They make a road trip all the more enjoyable, as there’s always an adorable local to look at or have a chat with. Not only will you see the typical white sheep, but one of the oldest breeds, the dark brown and black Hebridean sheep, also abound. The colorful cutie above is part of an Isle of Iona flock, identified by different colored dye marks which make for delightful wool rainbows everywhere you turn. Not baaaaaaahd.
When we booked the Westcoast Tour of the Isles of Mull, Iona and Staffa, we heard their might be puffins … but never in our wildest dreams did we expect to see so many and to have such an up close and personal experience with these truly magical and rare little beauties. Upon arriving by ferry to Mull, we drove across the island and then boarded a smaller boat to Staffa, which is a national protected nature reserve. You’ll view the incredible Fingal’s Cave as the boat approaches the island, but the most famous residents — a summer colony of Atlantic puffins — live on the cliffs at the opposite end of the island. We were absolutely entranced, watching them mill around, dive into the water, flutter through the tall grasses and burrow into their underground nests. The best time to see these rare arctic seabirds is during the breeding season, from early May to the beginning of August, when their distinctive beaks are at their colorful peak. Reminder: Though the puffins of Staffa are not afraid of humans (we scare away their natural predators, the seagulls), please do not feed or touch them. They are, however, extremely amenable to portrait and action photo shoots.
If your puffin adventure leaves you longing for a more in-depth avian experience, we highly recommend meeting the birds of prey at Finn Falconry, located in Inverawe Park, just east of Oban. Our professional falconer, Paul, introduced us to an intriguing cast of characters: Egor the Golden/Steppe Eagle, Tak a Bengal Eagle Owl, Stanley a Great Horned Owl, Zach the Harris Hawk, Khalifa a Barbary tiercel, Gale the Kestrel, and Freya an 11-week-old Gyr/Saker falcon. Interested parties can sign up for flying displays, hawk walks along a nature trail or a full 3-hour falconry experience where you’ll be introduced to these magnificent birds, learn basic safety, hawk handling, falconry methods and equipment, how to make a falconer’s knot and go on a hawk walk. We handled, flew and fed nearly all of the raptors (including the owls!) except for Egor, whom we met, but did not personally fly (he can get moody in the rain). Paul is a delightful, extremely knowledgeable and passionate teacher and guide. A morning (or afternoon) is a truly unforgettable activity for the whole family. Be sure to head to the world famous Oban whisky distillery for a tour after you handle the birds!
Located just a stone’s throw away from the aforementioned working sheepdogs, the Cairngorm Reindeer Center in Aviemore, within Cairngorms National Park, is home to a spectacular herd of reindeer. (When we said Scotland was magical, we meant it!) Though it’s doubtful you’ll see them fly, these gorgeous pack animals are welcoming of visitors nearly year round. Schedule a short hike up the mountainside to meet the herd, or visit the paddocks where a smaller group of animals are cared for. The treks take place during all kinds of weather aside from massive blizzard conditions, so wear your wellies and a waterproof jacket. Children will love the reindeer, but dogs are not allowed (the deer are scared of them). If you’ve never pet a reindeer’s soft velvet nose before, you’re in for a treat, as visitors are allowed to hand-feed these endearing, friendly and unforgettable animals.
It’s only fitting that the ruins of a castle originally built in the 1200s would be home to bats, but we still never expected to see one napping — during the daytime! — and out in the open on the ledge of a bridge just above the Kildrummy castle grounds’ bountiful garden ravine. Possibly a Daubenton’s bat, there are a handful of bat species that live in Scotland. We also saw a couple of them fluttering in the moonlight surrounding the grand Edinburgh Castle at night. Bats and castles, they just go together, right?
While dogs definitely seem to be the preferred domestic pets, Edinburgh’s Maison De Moggy cat cafe rivals any such establishment in the U.S. or Asia with its sheer breed diversity. And don’t leave Edinburgh without a visit to Summerhall for Pickering’s Gin distillery tour; the spirit is distilled within the walls of a former veterinary hospital and the gin is specifically made inside the former cat kennels (which doesn’t explain it’s peacock mascot, but we’re not complaining). Plus, keep an eye out for the kitchen cat inside Eilean Donan castle, and the Lion’s Den at Dunnottar Castle.
Sea Life: Otters, Seals, Whales, Dolphins, Basking Sharks and More!
We had to group this category together because there are just so many amazing sea-dwelling species to be seen in Scotland, particularly on the Isle of Mull, that we’d need to make this a Top 20 (or more) list if we included them all. First of all, there are “Otter Crossing” signs all over the island, so if that isn’t reason enough to go, we don’t know what is. OK, maybe the possibility of seeing basking sharks in shallow waters just off the beach, as well as dolphins, porpoises, minke whales, humpback whales, killer whales, grey seals, sea eagles and 260 other species of birds. Chanonry Point, just north of Inverness, is another popular spot for frequent sea mammal sightings. And Plockton, an adorable village just before the bridge that connects the mainland to the Isle of Skye, offers seal and dolphin tours. In general, all of Scotland’s coastline and islands are a marine life wonderland. You really can’t go wrong. Conservation tourism is big business in this beautiful country and it’s clear why.