Scotland in Style 1 May 20—28, 2008
During our six full days based in the charming ancient market town of Grantown-On-Spey, we enjoyed a varied and daily program of events. We always keep the program flexible to allow for notorious vagaries of the Scottish weather, but we needn't have worried this year, as it was "set fair" almost the entire week. Everyone enjoyed the Highlands scenery of high peaks, extensive moorlands, and Caledonian pine woodland; the stunning coastal scenery of cliffs, inlets, and offshore islands; and the fast-flowing rivers.
The good weather and fine scenery was a backdrop to some excellent birding, with just about all of the special birds found and seen well. The crossbills performed particularly well this year (they can be very elusive). Close scope views of some convincing Scottish Crossbills on the first morning were followed by equally fine and convincing looks at Parrot and Red crossbills later in the week. We found all four of the grouse—though, as is often the case, Capercaillie was hardest by far. Other classic northerly species popped up on cue: White-throated Dipper, Ring Ouzel, Crested Tit, Horned Grebe, Arctic Loon, Golden Eagle, Osprey, Red Kite, and more.
We thought our luck had run out on our day on the dramatic west coast in gorgeous hot, sunny weather, but with persistence we all celebrated the end of the day with distant, but clearly discernible looks at a huge adult White-tailed Eagle. Various "pleasant surprises" included summering Iceland Gull and Pink-footed Geese, while everyone was delighted with our day out to Troup Head on the north Aberdeenshire coast. Here was a wonderful mixed colony of classic North Atlantic seabirds: Northern Gannets, Common Murres (including those lovely "bridled" types), Razorbills, Northern Fulmars, European Shags, and Black-legged Kittiwakes, plus our much hoped for Atlantic Puffins—not many, but enough for all to enjoy.
Despite being a large group of 21 participants, I believe we got most people onto most of the important birds. Three leaders and three vehicles allowed great range for a flexible approach to individual interests. Optional pre-breakfast and post-supper birding (boy, it gets light early and dark late in Scotland in summer!) allowed the really keen to take every opportunity to maximize their birding chances and to wear out the tour leaders! Those wanting more history than birds hopefully got it, as we split up with minibuses going in all directions to castles and forests, whisky distilleries (Glenlivet makes a lovely wee dram), and the coast. We interspersed birding with fascinating visits to Culloden where Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Scots of the Jacobite Rising were finally defeated by the English forces in 1746. A short distance from our base was Cawdor Castle, a fairytale home of the Thanes of Cawdor since 1370, and a romantic and fascinating place to wander through with its intact towers and drawbridge, beautiful gardens, and superb collections of artifacts. Brodie Castle was an option for some, and the guided tour there highlighted an excellent example of a sixteenth century tower house with fine collections of art and ceramics belonging to the Brodie family. Others couldn't countenance visiting the Highlands without paying due respect to "Nessie," so off I went with one group to Urquhart Castle, a ruined medieval fortress set in a stunning position on the banks of Scotland's most famous loch (no monsters recorded that day!).
Grantown-On-Spey turned out to be as conveniently central as is possible in this large area, especially so for those early morning grouse hunts! The hotel was brilliant too—great food and wonderfully friendly accommodating staff for our six nights in residence, complete with historical lectures and bagpipes playing outside to greet us on our return in the evening.