Northern Scotland

The Flow Country

The Flow Country is the largest expanse of blanket bog in Europe, and covers about 4,000 square kilometres and although badly damaged in the 1970s and 80s through non-native conifer planting and drainage ditches, a conservation campaign mounted by the RSPB, managed to save what is arguably Britain’s last great wilderness.

James MacDonald Lovehart visited the Flows in search of merlins in his moving book Raptor: a journey through birds:

The Flows want to flow, to move. The land here is fluid, it quakes when you press yourself upon it. The Flows is the most sensitive, alert landscape I know. A human cannot move across it without marking – without hurting – the bog. The mire feels every footprint and stores your heavy spoor across its surface. But it is a wonder you can move across it at all. There are more solids found in milk than there are in the equivalent volume of peat. The bog is held in place only by a skin of vegetation (the acrotelm), predominantly sphagnum, which prevents the water-saturated lower layer of peat (the catotelm) from starting to flow. And, oh, how it wants to flow! Think of the bog as a great quivering mound of water held together like a jelly by its skin of vegetation and by the remarkably fibrous nature of the peat. Think of that great mound breathing like a sleeping whale. For that is what it does. The German word isMooratmung (mire-breathing). It is the process by which the bog swells and contracts through wet and dry periods. The bog must breathe to stop itself from flowing away.

Culbin: Britain’s desert

Until the early 20th Century, Culbin was sometimes described as Britain’s desert or “Scotland’s Sahara”, formed by the then-largest dune system in Britain, whose odd nature even attracted in 1888 and 1889 breeding pairs of Pallas’s sand grouse, a typical steppe bird of central Asia. It has since been planted with conifers owned by the Forestry Commission. More here and here

James MacDonald Lovehart visited Culbin Forest in search of ospreys in his fascinating Raptor: a journey through birds.

Britain’s last ospreys

The last year that ospreys bred successfully in Britain until their return in 1964 was probably on Loch Loyne, Glen Garry in 1916. Here

Robert Macfarlane at Cape Wrath

Robert Macfarlane described arriving at the most northerly point in mainland Britain in “Wild Places”. Read


Altnaharra holds the record for the coldest inhabited place in Britain Read

In February 1989, Fraserburgh in Aberdeenshire was hit by the strongest gust ever recorded by the Met Office: 123 knots (142mph). The town is also the biggest shellfish port in Europe, landing over 12,000 tonnes in 2008.

Loch Garten’s ospreys

Strathspey is one of the best places to watch wildlife in Britain. Tens of thousands come here every year to see the ospreys at Loch Garten, probably the most visited bird nest anywhere in the world.

Wildcats in Angus Glens

Angus Glens possibly has highest number Scottish wildcats. Scottish Wildcat Action have installed numerous camera traps here to monitor this elusive animal.

Highland Wildlife Park

The Highland Wildlife Park has a small number of captive Scottish wildcats aimed at maintaining a zoo population to act as a safety net for the species. Here

Knockan Crag Visitor Centre

Great base for exploring remarkable geology of Northern Scotland. Lovely café too.

Scottish reindeer

The Cairngorm mountains are home to Britain’s only free-ranging herd of reindeer. Some 130 animals have lived here since 1952 when the herd was formed by Mikel Utsi, who had visited the Cairngorms on his honeymoon back in 1947 and noted “Looking across Rothiemurchus Forest to the Cairngorms from the railway bridge at Aviemore on a cold morning in April 1947, I was instantly reminded of reindeer pastures in Lapland… species of ground, rock and tree lichens, which are elsewhere the chief food of reindeer, were plentiful and of little use to other animals”. Daily guided visits are organised to see the reindeer. Reindeer lived in Britain until 8,000 years ago when they became extinct because of climate change and / or hunting pressures.

Ptarmigan hotspot

The area around the Cairngorn top funicular station and the Ptarmigan restaurant (highest in Britain) is a top spot to see ptarmigan and snow buntings.

Tea, cakes and red squirrels

The Potting Shed Tearoom in Inshriach, Aviemore is a great place for tea and cakes while watching Red Squirrels, Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Crested Tits and other birds feed on their wildlife feeding station which RSPB members voted as the “Favourite Bird Feeding Station in Scotland” in 2007. Squirrels and birds can also be seen feeding at the nearby Glenmore Cafe.  Pine martins occasionally turn up at both cafés.

Squirrel killers

In 1903, the Highland Squirrel Club was set up to control red squirrels, which were reputably damaging large numbers of conifers by stripping their bark. By 1946, they had officially killed 102,900 squirrels and paid out £1,504 in bounties, (4d or 6d per tail) payment given on provison of a tail. A chart produced by the club here in 1941 shows here chillingly successful they were.

Ironically, although today the Highlands is a red squirrel stronghold in Britain, the squirrels here may well be descendants of animals reintroduced from England and Scandinavia by various reintroductions during the 19th century after the red squirrel had possibly become extinct in the Highlands.

Gentle Annis

From The Shipping Forecast: A Miscellany by Nic Compton

The Cromarty Firth is 15 miles (24km) long and about a mile (1.6 km ) wide along most of its length, apart from the bay at its entrance, which is 5 miles (8km) wide. High hills to the north and east shelter it from cold Arctic winds, but there’s a gap in the southwest where Gentle Annis creates mischief. The wind spirit is said to cause the sudden violent gusts that spring from the southwest and catch fishermen and yachtsmen unawares. Such behaviour has earned Gentle Annis a fearsome reputation which is anything but gentle.

Oldest rookery

From Mark Cocker”s wonderful Crow Country:

Roosts feature less often in the written records, and the oldest extant site I know about for which there is some documentation is Braal Castle near Thurso in Caithness. The rookery is said to date to 1775 and its roost may well be equally old.75 The problems of ageing roosts are perfectly illustrated by the massive congregation first studied by Scottish ecologist Adam Watson in the 1940s at Hatton Castle in Aberdeenshire. The roost is still there, the birds still swarming in as the sun sets, still turning in a great blurred gyre above a place known as ‘Craa Wid’. (On the cold clear February night that I visited, it was memorable not just for this sense of history, but also because at the point where the rooks drained into the woods, a full moon steadily arose; not the usual pale glassy lunar face of winter, but a heavily distorted orange-red globe which bulbed up out the Hatton landscape for five minutes before it finally sailed free of the Earth. My companion was so moved he later painted the scene and I have it now on my office wall.) It is inconceivable that the roost at Hatton Castle could have accumulated to 65,000 birds only a few years prior to Watson’s study. The house itself dates back to the fifteenth century and my guess is that the roost is also very ancient.