Natural Scotland – where ‘unspoilt’ is a relative term

Natural Scotland as tourist bait is promoted heavily with all that ‘last wilderness’ stuff. Read here about some of the least spoilt habitats in Scotland.  And be assured, in spite of golf course building, there are still some fine pieces of countryside around: natural pinewood, machair, seacliffs, tundra, moorland and empty beaches. 

Ironically, I remember writing the original version of this page, all about unspoilt habitat and wildlife in Scotland, immediately after watching the simultaneously breathtaking and unsettling documentary film ‘You’ve Been Trumped’.

How embarrassing for us Scots that such an individual as Donald Trump has Scottish roots.

You might have seen the movie. A mature dune system in Aberdeenshire, a wild place, a precious and rare habitat and a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest, was destroyed because Trump with an apparently limitless cheque-book wanted a golf course in Scotland.

There is a sequel to this first Trump horror movie ‘You’ve been Trumped Too’, though you may get sued, apparently, if you watch it.

While on this hobby horse, you won’t be surprised to know that this yahoo’s golf course project, originally part of a resort development which Trump said would deliver 6000 jobs, has delivered, uhmm, 77 as of autumn 2019.

And 2018 saw a loss of over £1 million, the seventh successive annual failure to even turn a profit on this bleakly beautiful coastal site north of the city of Aberdeen.

The tourism folk went along with it

Anyway, ‘way back when the development first was mooted, many spineless councillors in Aberdeenshire, also the Scottish Government, as well as – get this – VisitScotland, the main body responsible for promoting wildlife tourism in natural Scotland, went along with it.

And all this in spite of the vociferous opposition of every conservation body in Scotland.

Still, we got a nice golf course, in a country with more golf courses per head of population than anywhere else in the world, as well as, overall, a falling-off in the take-up of golf as a leisure pursuit. 

(And, since I wrote that, obviously the role of Donald Trump has gone far beyond throwing money from his father at a piece of Scotland. Still, we somehow avoided global destruction on his watch though, as I revise this page it looks like the good ol’ USA has some way to go to regain some dignity and stature. The deranged orange thing is still high profile.) 

So, back in this little place, anything your read on this site about natural Scotland, about Scotland’s habitats and environment, should be seen in the context of its vulnerability.

Wildlife is fine, unspoilt environment is good – but now we have had the precedent of a designated ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’ – colloquially often called a ‘triple S-I’ – destroyed for commercial gain.

Scotland has many areas set aside for the protection of nature. But what was allowed to happen at Trump’s Menie Estate, in Aberdeenshire, is a reminder of the vulnerable aspects of natural Scotland. 

So, here are some habitat photos, of places that are still good for wildlife and bio-diversity in Scotland.

East coast dunes
East coast dunes

(Pictured here) A classic, mature, though eroded, dune system, Aberdeenshire. Och, I’m not going to say exactly where in case yon orange oaf needs another golf course. (This picture title wins the ‘Grumpiest Caption on the Website’ award.)

Now, where was I? Well, about to recommend places in natural Scotland where you can see wildlife and enjoy fine landscapes. Here are some of my favourite places that, so far, haven’t had golf courses built on them yet.

West Highland seaboard, early spring
West Highland seaboard, early spring. Cuillin Hills of Skye on horizon.

Natural Scotland – the islands

Scots primrose, Orkney
Scots primrose Primula scotica photographed ‘somewhere on Orkney’. And if you see it, take care a) you don’t stand on it, as it’s very small, and b) if you are taking pictures, don’t kneel on it. The focusing is tricky as well!

Orkney- Marwick Head – follow the link for more information, as it’s on another must see list! Not for the vertigo prone. (I think Vertigo should be the name of a small fishing port in Caithness.)

North Ronaldsay – when bird migration sat-navs go wrong, some very exotic birds end up on this wacky island. Follow the link for far too much information.

Shetland – Island of Noss. Take a boat trip from Lerwick. Gannets galore.

Hermaness, Shetland – wild, wild, wild – keep an eye on those fierce bonxies – and it’s at the very end of Scotland.

Outer Hebrides – Loch Druidibeg. Habitats? This magnificent place ticks all the natural Scotland boxes. Otters a near-certainty. Oh, all right, a distinct possibility.

Colonsay – yup, just Colonsay. Oh, and add in Islay and Jura, plus Rum and Mull for sea eagles. You’re not expecting me to choose just one from the Scottish islands, are you? They are all great.

(Skye, Skye, yes, I almost forgot Skye, though its reputation for being over-crowded makes me hesitate.)

Harris for beaches
Harris for beaches
Orkney for seascapes
Orkney for seascapes

Natural Scotland – Mainland

Where do I start? Uhmm, roughly in the north and work south. The first three places are all in the north-west Highlands.

Handa – this little island is brilliant for birds again. A fine excursion on the rugged north-west seaboard.

Beinn Eighe – Scotland’s first national nature reserve, long before environmental conservation and respect became a concept widely understood – though obviously, if you’re Donald Trump’s henchmen, it still isn’t.

Norwegian mugwort - Artemesia norvegica
Norwegian mugwort – Artemesia norvegica. Just coming into flower – an insignificant wee thing. On two hilltop sites only in the north-west. Still, nice to have it…

Inverpolly – for deer, eagles and all the big names, oh, and Norwegian mugwort, if you know where to look. (Well, I’ve seen it.  Artemesia norvegica if you are being formal with it – insignificant wee thing but nice to have it.)

North-west landscape
North-west landscape
Evening in the Torridons
Evening in the Torridons

it isn’t all rugged northlands though…for instance there’s

Troup Head, Aberdeenshire – round the corner into the Moray Firth – Scotland’s largest mainland gannet colony. 

Loch of Strathbeg – an excellent autumn and winter visit to this bare coastal strip in Aberdeenshire. Flighting pink-footed geese always worth seeing.

Corrie Fee – the Angus Glens, with their u-profile glacial valleys dissecting the granite massif (ooh, get him and his geology) are sometimes overlooked, but this place is great for alpine plants.

One of Scotland’s very rarest alpines grows somewhere here. (Possibly. At least it did the last time I looked.) More on Scotland’s flowers here.

St Cyrus – also in Angus, another good botanical spot, with an overlap of southern things at their most northerly and northerly things at their…well you get the picture. Super beach as well.

Loch Garten, Speyside, Highland – original focus of the return of the osprey success story. Now you’ll find ospreys widely distributed far beyond this loch with its excellent viewing facilities from the visitor centre.

(Though I know of at least one main road in Scotland from where you can see an osprey nest from your car.)

Ben Lawers, spring
Ben Lawers, spring
St Abb's Head guillemots
The wild rocks and cliffs preferred by the St Abb’s Head seabird colonies

Ben Lawers , Perthshire (pictured here) – another good hill for alpine flowers, though it’s a big hill. Neighbouring Meall nan Tarmachan is good as well. 

Ariundle oakwood, near Strontian, Argyll -the Caledonian pine forests at places like Rothiemurchus on Speyside get a lot of attention – but these old western broad-leaved woodlands are just as much part of Scotland’s tree heritage, and sometimes as ancient as the pinewoods.

Moist, mossy and very green. Visit as part of an Ardnamurchan trip.

St Abbs, Berwickshire – back in the east – actually Scottish Borders – fairly close to the A1 road en route to Edinburgh, an easy to reach seabird city experience. (And on another must see Scotland list on this site.) This is what the National Trust for Scotland say about this nature reserve.

Wood of Cree, Galloway – there are lots of good and wild bits in Galloway, if you ignore the squared-off bits of conifer plantings, and the Wood of Cree is the largest chunk of ancient woodland in the South of Scotland – bluebells, warblers, pied flycatchers etc. Great in late spring.

Caerlaverock, Galloway – another winter wetland, notable for views of overwintering barnacle geese and other wildfowl.

These are just a few of the relatively unspoilt (least spoilt?) places in natural Scotland where habitat and wildlife are in reasonable health. 

Talking of which, here are some suggestions for the ten best places to see wildlife in Scotland .