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Highlands and Islands tour. Miles and Miles of smiles.


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Chakra

@Galana I have to concur with previous comment that your skill with camera has improved remarkably from what I can remember from your previous offerings. Could this be due to the vaccine ?  In that case I expect it to improve even more after the anticipated booster dose in Autumn. It is really helpful for others who are unfamiliar with the area to learn about the logistics and local guides. If I may just mention one thing about Mull, Skye and other popular Hebrides islands ( I don't think Uist fits into that category) : in peak summer season these places used to be absolutely jam-packed with tourists, a large number of them driving motor-homes at a snail's pace. 
Driving in Skye and Mull was a proper pain in the rear. Harris and Lewis were much much better. I've not been to Uist yet but @xelasreported it wasn't bad at all. If you are not used to single lane roads ( most American friends are not) then it can be very demanding and it's impossible to relax when driving as you need to be super alert all the time and be aware of passing places. Local ferries between islands sometimes throw really pleasant surprises like a pod of Orcas and even a basking shark or a whale in feeding ( I could not capture that :(

I totally agree with your comment about Cal Mac ferries. Really nice fellas. 

The scenery and the beaches are absolutely stunning, a landscape photographer's heaven. Skye has one of the most dramatic landscapes in the world that I've ever seen and the Outer Hebrides beaches will fool you for Caribbean beaches with sugar white sand and turquoise water, till you dip your toe and quickly take it out before hypothermia sets in. 

Thanks very much for recommending the Stag Cottage to me. It was even available for the week I had taken leave. But the other members of the party voted against it when they realised they'd have to stay seven days without WiFi  and not even  mobile signal. But I'm hoping we two oldies would give it a go next year. 

Lastly, I feel instead of the Bonnie  Prince if Flora was in charge of the events leading to the battle of Culloden, outcome would have been different. 

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On we go. So as you can see our journey started from home in Ramsey, Isle of Man, at an ungodly hour to catch check in time for the 08.30 boat (or “The Packet” as we call it) to Heysham in Lancas

Oops. My editing skills (sic) went awry and I forgot to mention Mulls other wildlife attraction. Mull is getting a good reputation as a place to watch European Otter Lutra lutra. They can be seen

I am not sure if this is a valid Safari but I have been asked several questions in my “Birding Big Year 2021” regarding my latest trip to West Scotland and the Hebrides so perhaps some background deta

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Galana
4 hours ago, Kitsafari said:

that's a lovely shot of the sun glow on the sea/lake.

Thank you @KitsafariThat 'lake' is the Atlantic Ocean. Miss that rock at 57N and the next landfall is Labrador.

 

Thank you @Chakra.

Normally all the Outer Hebrides are much quieter and a pleasure to drive but after missing altogether last year they did appear much busier this trip. Something to do with "Europe" being closed off. Sometimes necessary freight could not get ferry space for Motorhomes.

Stag now has a landline connection.

 

For everyone: I have remembered a small booklet "Birdwatching on Mull and Iona" which will be of great help to first timers£4.95 when I bought it in  2012 or so. By well lknown guide Dave Sexton. ISBN 9781904353140 www.brown-whittaker.co.uk but most Tourist offices will have it. Illustrated with lovely line drawing by  local artist Philip Snow.

 

In these woke times I don't think I should comment on what influence Flora MacDonald may have had on the outcome of the '45.:P

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Dave Williams

Lots of useful information in the report Fred, I have wanted to visit the north of Scotland and the islands for many years and this year at least got to the north.The islands are next on the agenda although I might get to Mull in September when I stay at Stag Cottage for the week. " Birdwatching on Mull and Iona' is still available from Amazon and a new copy is still £4.95.Phillip Snow is the illustrator and actually lives, and has done most of his life, on the Isle of Anglesey off the North Wales coast. He lives in the same house as the renowned wildlife artist Charles Tunnicliffe OBE RA who died in 1979. He was best pals with author Ian Niall, real name John McNeillie, a Scotsman who moved with his family to North Wales in the 1940's and lived in the same cottage I moved in to 8 years after he left in 1979. I'm still there and he's now departed this world altogether. His son though went on to be an acclaimed poet and literary editor. He wrote a book about his experience living for 11 months on the largest of the Aran Islands,Inishmore. Titled "An Aran Keening" it's still available to buy too and I have a feeling it could be your kind of book Fred!

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00D5FOJRW/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

 

 

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xelas

Ahhh, Scotland! So beautiful! While many would think the mainland (Scottish Highlands) is The Place, I have changed my opinion after @Galanaintroduced the Outer Hebrides to us back in 2017! If weather is right (the showers and subsequent rainbows are integral part of the "fine weather") one can have a trip of a lifetime.

 

I have enjoyed both the storytelling and the photography, thank you for your effort, Fred! 

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Towlersonsafari

i think I must have about 4 copies of birdwatching on mull- keep losing them at home and deciding to buy a new one!   lovely report @Galanathe characters of Mull, and the Uists etc are wonderfully different so that must have been a splendid trip. for sheer wildlife watching  I don't think Mull can be beaten- for example Skye ( which Know has not been mentioned) you still can see the same type of things but it is much busier and you have to work harder1 Skye does have some really nice boat trips to Rum and Eigg though- the Uists usually have an even more report feel and of course hot and cold running SE Owls and Hen Harriers

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Galana
2 hours ago, Towlersonsafari said:

Skye ( which Know has not been mentioned

Thanks for the comments.

I first camped on Skye back in the fifties and sixties when you had the choice of three ferries or swimming it.

It rained and we spent a lot of time in the cinema in Portree. We went back once or twice but were never lucky with the weather and it was not until the VE Day Bank Holiday in 1995 that we got lucky. But that only made it worse as this was the first time I managed a glimpse of the Outer Hebrides. They were much closer than I had imagined and I was sold. We had also by then discovered Mull too, so Skye never got another look in. It is a lovely island but now very busy due to the bridge and so sadly I now tend to use the island as a means to get to Uig and the Uists although if time permits we love a few nights at The Stein Inn.

But I would never dissuade anyone from going to Skye. ;)

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Galana

Almost the final part of this odyssey.

We left our "Bird Hide" with heavy heart (but have booked next year) so we have that to look forward to.

Packed and ready so we left with plenty of time to catch the 7.30 Ferry to Uig on Skye. Once boarded  took up my favourite position at the front to look for wildlife on the voyage. A few Seals but no Cetaceans. Lots of Auks and a few Skua. Mainly Great but I missed a good shot of Arctic when I picked one up in my peripheral vision just wind surfing with the boat. Before I could get my camera it had lifted higher and was obscured by the cabin roof. Oh well.

Once ashore in Uig we missed bidding@Soukousfarewell so after filling up with 'cheap' fuel at the Coop in Broadford we headed over the bridge to Kyle of Lochalsh with our first stop at a pull off on the back of Loch Cluanie where, surprise surprise, we espied the by now familiar form of Martin at his Telescope. The promised Black-throated Divers were at home, albeit distant due to this being a popular stop.There is usually a Hot-dog stand but not this year.

So we enjoyed the Divers, had a sandwich lunch, bid farewell to Martin and carried on towards Loch Ness on our way to Speyside. On an impulse we turned off the main road to investigate a good site for nesting Common Scoter even though we had been forewarned that they had not been seen lately. This was confirmed when we got there but our disappointment was more than assuaged when I notice three large blobs upstream of the bridge. Black-throated Divers and much closer. And it got better as two of them were slowly coming my way as they fished. And they came right by me. If you want to see them look at my Big Year under 122.  I will only show a couple here.

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Truly beautiful birds.

We dragged ourselves away and continued to Invergarry where we joined the busy A82 down the side of Loch Ness. The famous "Commando Monument" north of Spean Bridge marked our turn off towards Newtonmore on Speyside. A bit of a dreary road with little interest and quite busy.

And so we arrived on Speyside with its famous Whisky Industry and or chalet just outside the pretty village of Insch where we found a man selling fresh Strawberries. One of Scotlands secrets is the acid soil grows the finest Strawberries, Raspberries and Loganberries I have ever tasted. So money changed hands and we had the fresh cream in the cooler so guess what was for tea?   Wimbledon without the need to watch the tennis.

Our Chalet was set back in an old beech woodland with distant views over the Insch marshes and jumping with birds.The RSPB Reserve is about ten minutes drive away and there are a resident pair of Ospreys nearby.
I know how to pick my spots.:lol:

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The chalet was very comfortable with an outside balcony. Inside we had two bedrooms,  comfortable lounge and well equipped kitchen. I think there was a TV.

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More follows but the tale is nearly done.

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Towlersonsafari

Its funny how different islands appeal and have there own charm. My bruvver and i went to skye as our second ever holiday-i had just passed by driving test- a decision based largely on the fact that Ian Anderson of the best band ever-Jethro tull- had  a home there- and Jane and I got married there 21 years ago- it has splendid scenery, nd as i said wonderful wildlife if you know where to look, but the last time we went- several years ago, it was very busy. then of course there are the Orkney isles.......

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AfricIan
39 minutes ago, Towlersonsafari said:

Ian Anderson of the best band ever-Jethro tull

 

Now there's a (very welcome) blast from the past @Towlersonsafari

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Dave Williams
30 minutes ago, AfricIan said:

 

Now there's a (very welcome) blast from the past @Towlersonsafari

 

 Living in the Past !!!!!

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Galana

The final chapter.

We are on Speyside and that area is so well known that many tips from me would be superfluous.

The word is synonymous with what is probably the most famous Whisky Distilling region in the world and home to many well known brands.  It is also home to the Cairngorm range of mountains which have rapidly become overdeveloped as a mecca for year round 'outdoor' adventure although there are still hidden pockets where those seeing wild places can find peace.

Communications are the best with both the main railway line north-south and the A9 trunk road running through the valley. Sadly its very popularity has been its undoing as its uncrowned capital, Aviemore, is hugely busy summer and winter for people seeking to 'get away from it all' and finding that they have brought it with them.

To sum up. There are no shortages of accommodation from grand traditional Hotels to a humble pasture to camp in.

But the popularity is coming at a price of ruined infrastructure such as churned up road verges where selfish drivers, saving the very legs they purport to have come to exercise, park as close to where they want to be rather than pay a modest fee despite all the signs saying not to. And of course the beauty and isolation also pays a price with Lochs being used for bathing and water sports and the forest trails for biking, sledding and walking the doggy. Loch Morlich anyone?

Places that I can still recommend are the RSPB Centre at Loch Garten which became famous for the first nesting Ospreys returning from extinction in the sixties. A great place for Great Spotted Woodpeckers too. Rothiemurcus Forest for Red Squirrels, Crested Tits, Crossbills etc.,  The Cairngorm Railway is currently being repaired and returned from bankruptcy but a walk to the summit brings great views and a good chance of seeing Dotterel, Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting in breeding dress. Ring Ouzels are very visible too. Mountains Hares and their predator the Golden Eagle should also be possible. RSPB Insch Marshes is a splendid place for nesting waders with three hides giving good views over the valley.

Further north on the Moray coast are two good RSPB reserves and there is a resident and increasingly famous pod of Bottle-nosed Dolphins that perform on most tides as they come in to fish.

They even have their own website.

https://www.moraydolphins.co.uk/

 

For our part we did seek out some remote places such as...

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This tranquil valley but even here the landowner tells me the situation is deteriorating and he will have to employ a Wildlife Ranger next year to control the abusers. Such a shame.

 

On a brighter note I have shown my capture of birds but thought you may appreciate this shot of three recently fledged Spotted Flycatcher chicks at my cabin garden.

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Cute.

And so that is our trip over..

We returned home in a single day with a drive of 290 miles out of the Highlands via household names like Blairgowrie, Perth, Stirling, Gleneagles and through the Central Industrial belt to Glasgow and the M74 south over the border from where we made the Port of Heysham and our Ferry to the Isle of Man. A nice surprise on docking in Douglas was being told that new border rules meant that we did not have to quarantine and self isolate as we had planned to do.

I hope this may encourage some of you to visit this area and enjoy the wonderful scenery and wildlife it contains.

 

We are already planning for 2022 and will include Lewis and Harris when our itinerary will look something like this.

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TonyQ

@GalanaThank you for an excellent report with lots of useful information. I really enjoyed your photos.

We will also be going to Scotland again next year - North Uist (already decided before this report!) and to Stag Cottage (inspired by you!). (I will PM you for a few bits of information:))

 

I recognise the points you make about the Highlands but there are still some places where you see very few people (as you show).

Your trip for next year looks like a good one - I look forward to hearing about Harris and Lewis. I just checked the place you are staying on Mull - that looks really nice!

Thank you again for an inspiring trip report

 

 

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Galana

Thanks @TonyQ

I fear that you may be disappointed to learn that Stag Cottage may not be available next year. I think the owners are intending to live there full time but I may be wrong. If I am not then ask, as I know of other places , there are now a growing number, where Pine Martens are regular visitors.

Re Highlands. My comments were of course for Cairngorm and Speyside only. There are still lots of really beautiful places away from the main honey traps.

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Towlersonsafari

@TonyQ if stag cottage is unavailable then you could do worse than kingairloch with golden Eagles and pine martens on hand!

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TonyQ

@GalanaInteresting about Stag Cottage (and thank you for the heads up) - they confirmed our booking, gave their bank details and accepted our deposit (booked direct with them)  a few days ago so I presume they are still intending to let it. I will be disappointed if they change their mind!

@Towlersonsafarithank you for that information

 

Edited by TonyQ
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Dave Williams

Not sure where Fred got his info from, I'm due there in the middle of September and he was worried they might be there then. In my opinion no problem with your booking @TonyQI was told the owners do eventually intend moving there full time but from what I can gather it will be a good while yet, maybe a year or so.They haven't owned it for long and currently live in Strontian and if I were them I'd stay there and continue renting out the cottage and using it themselves when there are no bookings. Nice little earner. 

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Galana

Well apologies if I am more confused than usual but when I am told "we look forward to moving there next September" I tend to take it literally.

 

On another matter does anybody know anything about Kinloch Hourn?

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NSY

Thanks for the great report and photos on Scottish islands etc. i have visited the island and islands lots over the last 30 years. Scotland is one of the most scenic country’s in the world. 

on last visit down the very narrow road to Kinloch hourn there was a field a farmer charged a pound to park in.

We walked the coast path to barrisdale seeing otters on the way. it was about 10years ago so may have changed.

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Pictus Safaris

Thanks @Galanafor a really enjoyable report. Many familiar places and wonderful memories. I took my partner to Skye, probably just a week or so before you started your trip, for her first visit. Needless to say, we'll be heading back soon.

 

Tom

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Galana
14 hours ago, NSY said:

it was about 10years ago so may have changed.

The farmer probably charges a fiver now.:P

But it is good to see efforts to prevent the influx of selfish cars blocking passing places and destroying the eco system.

Pleased to learn that the effort was worthwhile.

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Dave Williams

It seems that quite a few ST members based in the UK ended up in Scotland recently, particularly those who enjoy our birdlife and chose the prime birding time to visit too. Well, we didn't have that many choices of where to take a trip this year did we, not earlier in the year anyway. Thankfully the restrictions are starting to ease and hopefully it bodes well for the future too.

I could attempt a trip report but I'm sure Fred won't mind if I just add a few of my experiences to his.

Wife Claire and I chose to dust off our much underused and reasonably ancient ( 18 year old) touring caravan. I had held a long term desire to take it to Scotland but when other alternative were available they seemed far more attractive but when needs must you have to adapt. I do enjoy caravan holidays but taking to the Scottish Islands is very expensive, particularly for a short stay. We stuck to the mainland!

We stopped in Fortrose near Channory Point, the Dolphin watching place Fred mentions and in fact a caravan is as good as it gets for location there.The point itself was an enjoyable experience even if the Dolphins were not quite as energetic as I'd hoped.The peak viewing times are governed by the tides which were a little anti social ! Kept the numbers down most of the time we were there so that was a major benefit.

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During the day we made visits to Speyside although not to Aviemore and didn't as such witness too many people anywhere. From a wildlife experience it proved disappointing. The old Caladonian forest was indeed enchanting but almost totally bereft of all wildlife including the Ospreys at Loch Garten which had decided not to nest there this year.

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The Scottish Tourist Board has pushed the reputation of the NC (North Coast) 500 and it seems a huge number of visitors stick to that circular route. It's very clever marketing in some respects as it takes you to places you might not otherwise consider. We skipped most of the east coast , instead heading straight up the middle heading to Tongue on the north coast. The single track road via Lairg was virtually deserted so having to watch out for oncoming traffic and be prepared to use passing places wasn't a problem....particularly of concern if towing a caravan and with rusty reversing skills!

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From Tongue we did head east along the main road over to John O'Groats but the majority is flat and fairly uninspiring. John O'Groats itself has little of merit. A nearby visit to Duncansby Head however was to give the best birding experience to date with excellent views of nesting seabirds. Sadly though, the recently spotted Orca pod was nowhere to be seen. I was surprised just how close the Orkney Islands appeared to be too although not seen in this view!IMG_5229.JPG.83e853494f7a83e5c9028d347bd8dfba.JPG

 

On the return journey to Tonge we called in at Dunnet Head, an RSPB reserve and similar in some respects to Duncansby but the viewing more distant and in my opinion not worth the round trip of 10 miles to get there . Well not when we went anyway!

Your impression of anywhere is usually dictated by the weather and so far it hadn't been the best. Largely overcast and often quite windy it meant that birds were not showing as well as they might otherwise be doing. I had been recommended to visit Handa Island off the west coast and it was feasible even if it entailed a 90 minute drive each way to get there. Problem was the rib boat ferry wasn't running due to the wind, and probably down to lack of demand too. There are not that many birders amongst those who slavishly stick to the NC500, a high proportion have little interest other than to complete the route and literally buy the T-shirt. Anyway I had one last throw of the di on the finally day of our stay and up came a six!

Handa Island is a birding paradise! Not only that we got lucky with the weather and I was over dressed for the occasion.Handa has both some steep cliffs

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and a large area of moorland

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A boardwalk follows the allowed route that covers half of the island. For me the attraction was the breeding Skuas, both Great and Arctic species. There were plenty of nesting seabird species on the cliffs and I even managed views of Red-throated Diver and Red Grouse. The latter of course is a popular target for the shooting set and vast acreages of Scotland are given over to this pursuit. This was the only place I spotted any though!

 

The weather on our visit was blissful and sitting on a near deserted beach waiting for the return ferry reminded me of a stay we had in Thailand on a deserted island a few years ago.Well the sea and the sand did anyway!

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Moving further south along the west coast the scenery is indeed fabulous, more the Scottish highlands you expect from having seen the promotional images.

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Away from the roads the place is virtually deserted but you always have to be prepared for the worst too although strangely we had little rain in the four weeks we were there.

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No, I highly recommend a visit and Fred's report has me desperately wanting to visit the islands on the west coast. I'm not sure how or when I'll go about doing it, we'll have to see.

The one place you might have gathered we will be visiting is Stag Cottage but not until mid September when I'm going with a wildlife photography obsessed pal of mine. A visit to catch up with Fred gave me an opportunity of a preview!  It's an idyllic location but rather remote. I think Fred has rather indicated it's a one trick pony really. Pine Martens being the trick, but in September perhaps not quite so easy to see? Claire immediately decided she would not want to stay there a week, she'd be bored, especially if the weather turns grim. Of course the other thing to consider is when the Pine Martens are active too. During the summer they are more likely to come out during the day as they have young to feed, on the other hand there is a much higher likely hood of huge numbers of midges around and they can be as bad as having bad weather!

Stag Cottage has some lovely views surround it but the caravan can boast a better one from the loo! 

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We stayed on the other side of Loch Linne very close to where you catch the ferry over to the Ardamurchan peninsula where Stag Cottage is situated. Just a few miles apart but a world of difference in terms of people density. Our drive south through Fort William prompted me not to return due to traffic and roadworks, and a visit to Oban further south also demonstrated and increased traffic flow as the Scottish schools had broken up for the summer. The rest of the UK would soon follow and consequently we were glad to have booked our trip when we did even if the weather wasn't as favourable as it turned out to be after we left.

You pays your money and you take your chances as they say!

Edited by Dave Williams
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NSY

Pine Martins on the rampage

We spend a good few weeks every year at a cottage in the highlands normally 6-12weeks. This year only 2 weeks so far

This year have unable to visit for 6months due to covid restrictions.

In normal times there are Pine Martins around and we see them occasionally & most mornings find signs of visit round a large pond in garden. Also quite often hear them squabbling outside in the night. Other quests report them feeding on wood store. Some quests say they favour jam butties others say eggs.

One our visit in April as lockdown eased we found Pine Martins had got into the downstairs bedroom and had fun. Ripped up the pillow cases, Chewed through duvet & cover. Ripped open bottom sheet & dug a hole in mattress. Then they used bed as a loo.  

Ripped up carpet by window they came in through & then did same by door to try & get into rest of house. Also scrapped wallpaper off wall by door.

As guest leave there are instructions to leave windows open to clear the air before cleaner comes in. Somehow the window had been left ajar after guest & cleaner left. The next guests had to cancel so window open for a week.  

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Towlersonsafari

thanks @Dave WilliamsI have always wondered about Handa Island looks like a good place to visit

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Galana

Thanks @Dave Williamsfor covering the parts that  I did not reach. I am done with the trip so no problem if others chip in to add something to the information. Like you I am a Highlander by choice and now shun the beauties of tourist honey spots including Royal Deeside. I have been north to Dunnet Head once or twice but as you have found the birding and general wildlife (other than Wick on a saturday night) somewhat quiet. I aim to put right my omissions in the far North West above Ullapool including Handa but the islands are the very dab for me.

@NSYA great cautionary tale of the Pine Martens. Churchill once said of the Soviets that "they will feel all around your house or quarters testing all walls and windows until they find a loose fitting where they can enter and then promptly invite themselves to Tea."  I think Pine Martins have much the same idea and even have the fur coats but there the similarity ends. They can and do cause enormous damage. My Aunt's neighbour left  a ladder leaning against this wall when he stopped work for a week. The blighters chewed all his electric wires and wrecked his attic. Health wise one should not feed sweet jam as it rots their teeth but Peanut Butter works well but not too much bread. As an aside our local Wildcat at one place we stay favours tinned sardines or Pilchards spread on bread with lots of oil.

6-12 weeks is greedy. I can manage four or five weeks at a time but that's all.

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TonyQ

Thanks @Dave Williamsfor the extra info, all very useful.

I think the trip report from @Galanaand Dave’s info will encourage more visitors to Scotland next year!

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