Category Archives: Wildlife

Scotland’s First Snorkel Trail

Scotland is famous as a location for a wide range of active holidays, from golf and fishing to skiing, mountain biking, canoeing, and many more.

Now, thanks to the Scottish Wildlife Trust, it also boasts its first ever snorkel trail – a set of nine, self-led trails in the waters off the North West Highlands that allow both beginners and advanced snorkelers to dive down and see the impressive variety of Scotland’s marine life.

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Exploring the Waters

Many people might think it is too cold to snorkel in Scotland, but the British Sub Aqua Club disagrees, saying that the colours and life under the surface in places like the north west coast are up there with the coral reefs you can find abroad.

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Sunstar Starfish

So while you won’t be able to ‘Find Dory’, the Pacific Regal Blue Tang of the recent animated blockbuster, in Scottish waters you are likely to see lobsters and various species of crab as well as a surprising variety of starfish including common starfish, sunstars and brittlestars. Scotland’s living seas are also home to extensive beds of Maerl (an unusual red coralline algae) and colourful sea urchins that cling to rocks around the coast and harbours. Keep your eyes peeled too for sea squirts, sponges and anemones, as well as cuttlefish, dead man’s fingers, dogfish, butterfish, jellyfish and periwinkle. If you are lucky you might even manage to see dolphins or the impressive, but harmless, basking sharks.

The North West Highlands Snorkel Trail comprises of sites at beaches and bays along the coast near Gairloch, Ullapool and Lochinver. It is a stunning part of the world with truly majestic scenery and that, in addition to its rich marine life, is famous for other wildlife including ptarmigan, golden eagles and deer.

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Pebble Coast

We have several beautiful self catering properties in the area that would make a perfect base for exploring both on land and at sea. The Old Schoolhouse at Achiltibuie, north west of Ullapool is set just 200 yards from the sea with beautiful views across to the Dundonnell Mountains. The nearby Kirkaig Falls and Suilven Mountain are well worth visiting, as is the ruined and rumoured to be haunted Ardvreck Castle.

Other accommodation options in the area include the gorgeous Pebble Coast that is set in an amazing clifftop location near Gairloch with magnificent views out across The Minch to the Isle of Skye and the Outer Hebrides and direct access down to a lovely pebble beach.

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The First Officer’s Quarters

Also near Gairloch are The First Officer’s Quarters in the spectacular setting of Rua Reidh lighthouse, which comes complete with a private wildlife hide for the use of guests. It is known as a great spot for witnessing the beautiful natural light show of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.

If you do decide to go snorkeling, please read the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Snorkel Safety information on their website before you go. It contains lots of vital information to keep you safe and help you make the most of your watery adventure.

To discover more about our properties in the North West Highlands, click here or call us on 01835 822 277.

Monster-hunting Holidays!

Scotland is a land of legends, from kelpies (water-horses) to faeries and giants to selkies (seal-folk); there are no shortage of stories about supernatural creatures which thrived in the wild and untamed Scottish landscape in times gone by. Possibly the most famous of all these beings is Nessitera rhombopteryx who some believe still resides in the one of Scotland’s largest, deepest, fresh water lochs, right in the heart of the Highlands.

Famous? Then why haven’t you heard about this legendary entity?

Ah, but you have, possibly by one of her other, more common, names. For the creature of which I speak is the notorious Loch Ness Monster, more affectionately referred to as Nessie!
The first recorded sighting of a monster living in the area of Loch Ness was over 15 hundred years ago, when Irish monk St Columba was visiting the Pictish shores. After having sent one of his followers into the water to attract the ‘water beast’ he demonstrated the power of his God by commanding the creature to break off his attack and caused it to flee in terror!

The first ever picture of the Loch Ness Monster?Fast forwarding to the beginning of the 20th century, further interest was sparked when George Spicer and his wife saw what they described as ‘a most extraordinary animal’ cross the road in front of their car and disappear into the Loch. The sighting lead to numerous ‘hunting’ parties visiting the loch over the following few years determined to catch the monster ‘dead or alive’. It was at this time that the well known ‘Surgeons photograph’ was taken, which has now been exposed as a hoax. However in 1938 a South African tourist called G. E. Taylor made a 3 minute recording on 16mm colour film of the elusive creature, and although only a single frame was ever made publicly available, experts have said that it is ‘positive evidence’ of Nessie’s existence.

In 1943 the monster was seen again by C. B. Farrel of the Royal Observer Corps as he carried out his duties on the Loch. He described a finned creature with large eyes and a neck that protruded 4-5 feet out of the waters. 11 years later, the crew of a fishing boat called the Rival III reported sonar readings of a large object at a depth of 480 feet keeping pace with them for approximately half a mile as they sailed across the loch.

What lies beneath the tranquil waters of Loch Ness? (photo courtesy of conner395)In 1960 the monster was again caught on film by Tim Dinsdale, which, when digitally enhanced in 1993, showed a creature with rear flippers and a plesiosaur-like body (plesiosaurs were carnivorous aquatic reptiles which lived at the end of the Triassic Period). Sceptics have said that due to the poor quality of the film, these features could have been created by tricks of the light as it reflected on the water, but no one really knows.

Just 4 years ago the monster appeared on film again, when Gordon Holmes videoed a jet black ‘thing’, about 45 feet long, moving quickly through the loch waters, but because the footage did not include anything which could be used as a scale comparison, once again it can not be classed as definitive proof.

A visit to the Loch Ness Monster Visitor Centre in Drumnadrochit ensures you a sighting of the beast! (photo courtesy of n.hewson)So, the legend remains just that!  There is no undisputed verification of the existence of a monster living in the waters of Loch Ness, but then again, there is no sure proof that there is not! Perhaps, sometime soon, someone will get the evidence that Nessie isn’t just a myth or tale, but rather another example of how the unique, unspoilt landscape of Scotland supports species that have been long extinct elsewhere.

If you fancy taking on the challenge and take part in a bit of Nessie spotting then Unique Cottages has a selection of cottages close to Loch Ness, including two where you can actually see a great length of the loch from the window!

See cottages near Loch Ness >

Horses for Coarses

It is the time of year that the necessary chore of cutting the grass of any green space that you are responsible for begins. Indeed, here at Unique Cottages, the office Flymo was dragged out of hibernation in the garage and put to work in the garden this morning! However, with much of Scotland’s fine landscape covered in greenery, some of it very remote and hard to access for even the most robust of mowers, a more imaginative approach has been required for one particular east coast beauty spot. Many horses this weekend will be traveling great distances in order to race in the English Grand National (there is a Scottish Grand National, but not until next weekend). But none have probably travelled quite so far as the newest residents of the Loch of Strathbeg nature reserve in Aberdeenshire. Rare wild Konik horses have been brought all the way from Holland to help with the battle against the coarse grasses of the area taking over. The last descendants of the truly wild horse, which last ran free in Scotland approximately 6000 years ago, these remarkable animals love nothing more than eating their way through the coarse grasses, which, if left uncontrolled begin to impact on the more delicate habitats of the area. Reducing the need for vegetation to be artificially stripped away by mechanical devices, this tiny herd will help to ensure that many of the other wild inhabitants of the nature reserve continue to enjoy the unique environment that Loch Strathbeg provides. Loch Strathbeg, a designated Special Protection Conservation Area, is the largest dune loch in Britain. There are hides where visitors can watch the natural residents as well as an information centre where you can find out more about what you spied. The loch is looked after by the RSPB and more details about the variety of wildlife that lives here can be found on their website. Aside from the reserve itself there is much to be enjoyed in this attractive part of the country, to the east is the Cairngorm National Park, to the north and west is an inviting stretch of Scottish coastline which boasts the title of ‘sunniest corner of Scotland’! Unique Cottages has two fabulous properties not far from Loch Strathbeg, Cairness Lodge and Beach Retreat both ideal bases to explore this charming region.

Safeguarding the Sparling!

It is easy to write about the cute, cuddly, cretins and beautiful, bodacious, birds that make up Scotland’s abundant wildlife.  However this week I feel I should give mention to a rather unusual fish that has been in the news this week.  The Sparling, a fish indigenous to Scotland, was once very common in Scottish rivers but now its numbers have seriously declined and it has to be said not many people even know about its existence, let alone the challanges it faces.

If you put the word ‘Sparling’ in Google, you will find that the top listings have absolutely nothing to do with this small silver fish – but perhaps that is because they are better known as European Smelt (Sparling being the Scottish name for this uncommon aquatic vertebrate).  They spend their most of their lives in the coastal waters around Western Europe, but in March (infact right about now) they take advantage of the high spring tides and these courageous little fish make their way upstream to spawn.

The River Cree

Despite their ability to withstand the changes from salt water to fresh water, Sparling are actually pretty poor swimmers (not something I ever thought I’d find myself saying about a type of fish) and this has played a part in its elusiveness in British rivers.  As the water quality in our inland waters has decreased, so the number of rivers in which Sparling can be found has reduced vastly, and now they are only found in three rivers in Scotland – the Forth, the Tay and the Cree.

Newton Stewart

It was the fight to save the future of these fish in the river Cree that caught my attention this week as volunteers braved the river during the night to carry out important conservation work – I have to say, rather them than me!  The river Cree, in the west of the country, flows from Loch Moan in the heights of the Glentrool Forest to exit into the North Channel not far from the bustling market town of Newton Stewart.  It is the only river on the West Coast that still attracts Sparling to its waters, although the conservation work that is being undertaken includes an attempt to establish the nearby river Fleet as another place that they will spawn.  This is great news, as Sparling were, for so long, an important part of the eco-system for many Scottish rivers and their visits support the survival of many other animals such as seals, goosanders and otters in the waters that they manage to continue to journey through.

It seems odd, even to me, that the plight of this wee fish has caught my imagination, especially as I was not aware of it until this week – but I will definitely hold out hope for the survival of Sparling in the Cree and the success of its re-introduction to other rivers in Scotland!

A Scottish Safari

A trip out of the office this week taught me that you don’t need to go to Africa to embark on an expedition which surrounds you with fascinatingly diverse habitats and puts you in to close proximity with an assortment of rare and fascinating wildlife!

Just as the game reserves of Kenya and the Serengeti aim to protect and conserve the area’s indigenous species in their natural habitats, increasingly Scottish farmers are endeavouring to ensure that the land they tend promotes the prosperity of our native ecosystems. One particular estate in the heart of the Scottish Borders has demonstrated its commitment to the conservation of local wildlife by ensuring all its land is used with the benefit of nature as a primary concern.

Whitmuir Estate, not far from the town of Selkirk, illustrates definitively that modern farming methods need not infringe on the resident plants and animals with which it shares it soil. In fact, over 170 different species of animal have been found on Whitmuir Estate in the last 10 years! Large areas of the lands are now scattered with wild flowers where numerous varieties of butterflies, moths and ladybirds are clearly in seventh heaven!

Among the exceptional provisions which have been made are special ‘beetle banks’ created in the estate’s arable fields, ensuring that when the ground is ploughed insects have a safe and undisturbed sanctuary close by in to which they can scuttle. There are quite a few ponds, wooded areas, hedges and fields which have been specifically set aside for native fauna and flora to thrive. And although the word ‘safari’ is actually Swahili, it literally means ‘journey’ –

Whitmuir Estate offers you the opportunity for a journey which takes you through a hidden wonderland of Scottish natural treasures, one that even most locals are unaware exists! Because of the need to preserve the delicate plant life that makes up the rare habitats as well as protect its inhabitants from too much human interference, Whitmuir Estate is not open to the public, but Unique Cottages clients who choose to book one of the 3 properties on the estate will find themselves right in the middle of this wildlife haven.

Place to stay on the Whitmuir Estate:

Small Cat, Big Attitude.

When I was at school (not so long ago – honest!) there was a period of time when sightings of unidentified big cats in places such as Cornwall and Dartmoor were common place in the tabloid newspapers.  As a teenager I found these stories rather intriguing.  Perhaps it was the allure of the unknown that fed my imagination, or the idea that these predators were surviving against all odds out with their preferred environment and eluding humans in the process.

Rarer animals that avoid human contact and lurk far from civilisation often do have that bit more appeal than the common, every-day species of animals that share our lives and lands.  I think it’s the air of mystery which they create, through the privacy they crave and their almost secretive nature, which sparks our imagination.  One such example, which has quickly become a favourite of mine, is the Scottish Wildcat.

Wildcat at the Highland Wildlife Park, Inverness-shire

I share my home with two gorgeous (although I recognise that I am slightly biased) Siamese cats and I am incredibly fond of them.  They’re cuddly, affectionate, comical, cute and amazingly human-like, but the thought of them surviving without the comforts with which I provide them is almost not worth considering.   Their breeding and the way I have raised them has resulted on them being almost entirely dependent on me.  A good example of this was provided during the period of heavy snow at the end of last year.  As I trudged in and out of the house collecting wood from the shed for the fire I left the back door of the cottage open.  Isis, the more inquisitive of my two cats, decided to venture out on to the door step, putting her front paws into the snow that had gathered.  Next thing I heard was an almighty cry (more like that of a baby than a cat) and a flash of black fur as she shot past me back into the warmth of the house – she hasn’t attempted to venture out since!

Pampered Pets!

As much as I love my cats (I even got rid of my husband because my cats were allergic), I found myself even more greatly charmed by their native cousins when I visited the Highland Wildlife Park this weekend.  Just as beautiful as my domestic felines, these cats are truly enthralling creatures – in their natural environment they are extraordinarily illusive and extremely wary of humans, keeping well away from populated areas.  It is thought that there are as few as 400 of them left in the wild, hiding out in the remotest, most isolated parts of the Scottish Highlands – so seeing them in their natural habitat is a very special treat for those lucky enough to do so.

Seeing these untamed, independent and self-sufficient wild animals, with their perfectly honed instincts, determined nature and resilient attitude it was difficult to believe that the delicate, indulged, wimpy wee ‘scaredy’ cats that I live with are related to them at all!  In my eyes Scottish Wildcats resemble larger cats such as tigers, lions and pumas, more than they do our domesticated pet moggys and I think it is the inherent unpredictability and enigmatic attitude that they share with larger predators which makes them so enchanting and fascinating.  If you have the opportunity to visit one of the centres which is supporting the survival of this scarce, and often underappreciated, native prowler I wholeheartedly recommend you do so.

If you want to get £2 off per person, per ticket, to visit the Highland Wildlife Park , Scottish Holiday company ‘Unique Cottages’ are running a discount promotion, just sign up to their free E-magazine or join them on Facebook to gain access to the offer.

My ‘seal’ of approval…

The news at the beginning of this week reporting the introduction of new laws to protect Scottish seals brought to mind an old Scottish legend told me as a child by my dear old, if not a little superstitious, grandmother.

The story went like this:

A seal hunter is woken one night by a stranger who states that his master requests the presence of the seal hunter and asks the hunter to go with him to his master’s abode. The seal hunter agrees and is taken, on the back a large black horse, many miles through the Scottish countryside to the edge of a cliff. On arrival at the cliff’s edge the seal hunter questions his escort as to where his master’s home is, at which point the stranger grabs the hunter and they both plummet downwards into the sea. The hunter wakes in a beautiful underwater kingdom, surrounded by the same animals that he has dedicated his life to killing and is approached by a large boar seal.

The boar seal leads him through the kingdom to a room where another seal lies dying with a huge knife wound to its belly. It turns out that this injured seal is the father of the large boar seal who invited the hunter to his realm, and the hunter recalls how earlier in the day, while hunting, he had stabbed a seal but not having killed it, only wounded it, the seal had managed to swim away with his knife blade still buried within it.

The hunter is told by the boar seal that he, as the one who inflicted the wound, is the only one who can save his father and requests that the hunter does so. The hunter removes the knife blade and magically the wound heals. The boar then tells the hunter that they will allow him to leave the underwater kingdom and return home only if he promises to surrender his job and vow never to harm a seal again. The hunter, feeling rather overwhelmed and more than a little homesick, agrees – worrying all the way home (on the back of that black horse again) how he will make ends meet now he cannot do what he has always done to make a living for himself. But when he returns home, before the stranger bids him farewell, he is handed a purse full of gold coins, enough to ensure that he will be comfortable for the rest of his life.

I’m sure the moral to this story is meant to be something along the lines of – if you do the right thing, and don’t harm others, you will be richly rewarded, but as a child the message I took from it was don’t hurt a seal or you might end up being taken to the bottom of the sea!

It would seem that seals now have more than just bedtime stories to discourage people from killing or harming them without good reason, as the new law makes it an offence to kill or injure a seal except under licence, with a potential penalty of a hefty fine or even 6 months in prison. Although seals can and do cause problems for the fishing industry, they are long standing residents of our seas and shores and I personally believe that more regulation of the way in which they are culled has to be a good thing – so the new law gets my seal of approval (excuse the pun, I couldn’t help myself!)

Seals in the Sound of Jura

Fortunately it still remains legal to shoot seals as much as your heart desires – as long as it’s with a camera! So, for those who fancy spending some time admiring these intriguing animals below is a list of my favourite places to spot them around Scotland:

The Moray Firth Coastline

The shores of Loch Linnhe

The Orkney Islands

The Sound of Jura

The shoreline at Fast Castle, near Coldingham

Fast Castle Seals

And just a wee bit of advice -please remember that even the cutest of seals with the biggest, most appealing eyes are still wild animals and if you do get too close and make them feel threatened they may bite in defence. Keeping a safe distance ensures seal watching is an enjoyable experience for both you and the seal!