Isle of Lewis, Scotland

Wildlife of the Scottish Islands

Alison Steel
By Alison Steel
Operations Manager and Tour Leader
March 2024
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Scotland has over 790 islands around its coast, which can be divided into four main groups: Shetland, Orkney, the Inner Hebrides and the Outer Hebrides, so there are plenty to choose from! Quite a few of these are uninhabited, but those that are inhabited tend to have a rich history and a strong local culture. Many of these also have stunning scenery and a sense of remoteness or wildness to them that can’t be found anywhere else. Once visited, they are often returned to again and again, with each island having its own unique sense of place and range of wildlife.


Shetland is the most northerly of the islands and has a strong Norse influence, with a number of traditions that date back to Viking times. Around 16 of the 100 islands that make up the archipelago are inhabited, the largest of which is known as The Mainland, although even here you are never more than a few miles away from the sea. The islands are a recognised UNESCO Geopark due to the diverse and ancient geology of the landscape. To the north of The Mainland lie Yell, Fetlar and Unst, where our spring and summer groups will visit the seabird breeding sites at Hermaness and search out breeding waders such as Redshank, Golden Plover and Snipe. Some tours visit the broch at Mousa to look and listen for Storm Petrel. Autumn is the time of year when all sorts of unusual birds can turn up, depending on how the weather patterns affect the migration routes for southbound birds. It’s not uncommon for North American species to turn up here, along with many birds that breed in northern Europe. There are also opportunities for cetacean-watching and pods of Orca are seen around Shetland on a fairly regular basis.

Our Shetland tours include Shetland in StyleShetland's WildlifeSummer on Shetland – Seabirds & Cetaceans and Shetland: Autumn Bird Migration 


Orca, Shetland


Mousa Broch, Shetland


Orkney lies only a short distance from the Scottish mainland but feels a world away. It has a long and interesting history, with the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae and Maeshowe chambered cairn being examples of an ancient way of life, while the Italian Chapel and Marwick Head Memorial reflect its more recent past. There are many coastal habitats with unusual flora, such as Scottish Primrose and Oyster Plant. Cliffs hold seabird colonies that engage multiple senses, with sight, sound and smell adding to the atmosphere. Moorland areas may have breeding waders, Hen Harriers and Short-eared Owl, while inland lochans or sheltered bays could yield Red-throated Diver, and sheltered bays could hide a Great Northern Diver. We typically visit in the summer, when the day length is longer and the weather is warming, to allow for the largest diversity of wildlife.


Red-throated Diver

The Hebrides

The Outer and Inner Hebrides lie off the west coast of Scotland. The outer islands are made up of a chain of five larger islands and numerous smaller ones, plus the outlying islands of St. Kilda. The Inner Hebrides lie closer to the mainland, wrapping around the west coast to the north and south of Ardnamurchan. Skye is the most northerly and Islay the most southerly. Naturetrek runs a variety of tours to the Hebrides throughout the year, and as a guide to some of the different islands, a summary of the main ones is below.

One of the best ways to see some of these islands is by boat and we have two different cruise itineraries St Kilda & the Hebrides – Islands on the Edge of the Atlantic and The Hebrides – A Wildlife Cruise that visit the Hebridean Islands. A cruise is a great way to see a variety of locations without having to pack up each day, and it often means that you can access areas where other people rarely go. With plenty of landings to allow you to look for land-based wildlife too, these are an excellent option for those who like variety. Operated during the summer months, the earlier departures coincide with the seabird breeding season, when the cliff faces resound with the cries of returning birds looking to locate their partner or chick. Gannet, Guillemot, Razorbill, Kittiwake and Fulmar, as well as Puffin, all breed in Scotland’s west coast colonies. All departures have excellent opportunities for spotting marine mammals, with Common and Grey Seals, Common Dolphin, Minke Whale and a variety of other cetaceans all being possible. During the summer, the water warms, so later departures may find the UK’s largest fish species, the Basking Shark, as it swims through the water in search of plankton.


St. Kilda


European Otters

Islay & Jura

The most southerly Hebridean Island and referred to as the ‘Queen of the Hebrides’, Islay, along with neighbouring Jura, is an excellent place to visit throughout the year. Lush grass growth makes Islay an attractive destination for wintering geese, which arrive in their thousands during the autumn months. Jura is more mountainous than Islay, making it a good place for eagles to nest. Both islands have respectable populations of Otter, which can often be seen along the shorelines at any time of year. In the autumn months, Red Deer can be more obvious as the rutting season commences. The summer months are more colourful as the machair comes into full bloom, and a selection of orchid species can be found amongst the grasses. Butterflies are also evident during the summer, and Islay is one of the places where Marsh Fritillary can be found. Choughs are another year-round resident, and time can fly by while watching these aerial acrobats.


Red-billed Chough


Red Deer


Slavonian Grebe

Mull, Iona & the Treshnish Isles

This popular destination is justifiably known for Otter and eagle sightings, with both Golden and White-tailed Eagles breeding here, but it is also a great place to look for the stunning Hen Harrier. There is plenty to be seen on Mull all year round. Its miles of coastline provide excellent feeding for Otter, and it’s not unusual to find a family of these charismatic mammals at some point during a visit. It’s also great habitat for waders, including Greenshank, Ringed Plover, Curlew, Whimbrel and Oystercatcher. A number of birds are summer visitors, such as Cuckoo, Spotted Flycatcher, Wheatear and a variety of warblers, which add to the bird chorus during the warmer months. Off the west coast of Mull lie the Treshnish Islands, which hold large seabird colonies during the summer months and are especially good for close views of Puffin, and Iona, sitting off the south-west, can be a great place to find Corncrake. Other tours focused on these islands include Autumn on Mull and Mull in Winter.


White-tailed Eagle © Paul Nicholson




Puffins, Treshnish Isles © Josh Phangurha

Lewis & Harris

The most northerly of the Outer Hebrides, this island is among the largest and home to some fantastic wildlife. There is a strong Gaelic influence as well as Norse connections, giving the island a rich history; from the Callanish Standing Stones to the more recent Lewes Castle, it has a diverse cultural background. Added to this are the miles of coastline, with beautiful sandy beaches, and plenty of moorland, where both Golden and White-tailed Eagles can be found, along with Merlin and Hen Harrier. Inland lochans can hold breeding pairs of Red- or Black-throated Divers, and plenty of cliff space is available for breeding seabirds, especially on the Shiant Islands. The waters surrounding the islands are rich in sea-life, and at least seven species of whales and dolphins can be seen, sometimes from the shore. Spring is a great time to visit when summer visiting birds arrive and resident birds stake their claim on territories. This is best experienced on our 'The Scottish Hebrides by Land & Sea' tour. 


Isle of Harris

North & South Uist

North and South Uist are also part of the Outer Hebrides, with Benbecula situated in between. This chain of six islands in total is connected by causeways that are often inaccessible at high tide, so a well-planned day is essential. These rugged islands fronting the Atlantic have a magical quality to them, perhaps created by the vast expanse of sky that can be seen from almost any point. Along the shorelines we’ll find seals, Otter and large flocks of feeding waders, while breeding waders and pure-bred Red Deer can be found on the moorlands, as well as the possibility of Merlin and Short-eared Owl. A boat trip may allow us to witness White-tailed Eagle coming in to grab a fish, and some of the shallow lochs are ideal for Red-necked Phalarope, as well as the three diver species – Red-throated, Black-throated and Great Northern – while around the crofts, the wet areas are perfect for Corncrake.



Short-beaked Common Dolphin

These are just some of the wonderful islands and wildlife that you can discover during our Scottish tours. For further details, please visit the Naturetrek website or contact the Naturetrek office on 01962 733051 or email Alison Steel: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.