It’s that time of year again when the long nights of summer start to draw back in and a chill returns to the night air. It’s not a time for you to start to hibernate, though, as autumn is a brilliant season in Scotland to enjoy the country’s bountiful wildlife.
When the leaves start to turn burning reds, deep oranges and bright yellows for me it is a time when some of Scotland’s rich fauna are at their best. The mighty red deer – Britain’s largest land mammal – for example starts to move further down the slopes and they have less cover too so are much easier to spot. You will never forget the murderous roars of their autumnal rutting! Then there are the mighty bird migrations, when the nation’s skies fill with flapping wings, not least the thousands of Barnacle Geese that descend on the Hebrides in autumn.
Handily there are year round Scottish Youth Hostels in some great locations to help you enjoy the best of the autumnal action. So what are you waiting for? This is not the end of the year for enjoying Scotland’s wildlife, it’s really only the beginning, so join me now as we tour five youth hostels that make a great base for checking out autumnal wildlife…
1. Cairngorms – The Cairngorms National Park, Britain’s largest national park, is a real oasis for wildlife in autumn. Driving there on the A9, or taking the train, look out for red deer on the lower slopes as autumn unfolds. Up on the Cairngorm Mountain Plateau the high hills are home to Britain’s only herd of wild reindeer and the mountain hares will be starting to think about switching to their winter white, while at lower level the Rothiemurchus Estate is alive with deer (both red and roe). You can book a Speyside Wildlife Watching Experience. I’ve done this a couple of times and it’s brilliant – an expert guide leads you to a cosy heated hide where you can watch Great Spotted Woodpeckers and Tawny Owls through big glass picture windows.
Wildlife Hide Viewing In Cairngorms
Stay at Aviemore Youth Hostel – This is the ideal base for exploring the national park. The youth hostel itself is surrounded by wildlife rich woodland. I really like that in spring 2016 the youth hostel opened a Scottish Natural Heritage visitor centre complete with a Peregrine nestcam and information about Craigellachie National Nature Reserve, which visitors are welcome to visit at any time.
Robin in the Cairngorms National Park
2. Inverness – The Highland capital may sound like an unlikely base for checking out wildlife in autumn, but stick with me. The bucolic Ness Islands on the edge of the city centre are a little green oasis alive with squirrels and wildlife, with an explosion of autumn colours at this time of year. I’ve seen seals in the river right in the city centre, but you stand a better chance if you follow the river out to sea. When you hit the saltwater proper of the Moray Forth you will find it alive with wildlife. You can take a dolphin boat tour, but the playful local dolphins and porpoises can often be seen swimming close to the shore at Chanonry Point on the Black Isle and from the shoreline around Fort George.
Stay at Inverness Youth Hostel – This well equipped modern youth hostel offers a range of family, group and individual rooms, some of which come en-suite. There is a café, guest lounges and a helpful reception desk, all of which are great for picking up tips on wildlife viewing opportunities within range of the youth hostels.
3. Arran – Scotland’s seventh largest island is a real paradise for wildlife lovers. As the trees turn and the chill deepens the island’s large population of red deer will start coming down more and more from the hills. Indeed I’ve been here in autumn and was literally tripping over red deer coming back from the pub! I brought a friend from London to Lochranza in autumn and he was blown away, as within an hour of arriving we’d checked out a colony of seals, snapped photos of red deer against the spectacular backdrop of the landmark Lochranza Castle and then to top it all we spotted a basking shark cutting wide circles around the bay!
Autumnal Deer on Arran
Stay at Lochranza Youth Hostel - The youth hostel garden itself is a top spot for wildlife spotting, where you can look out for red deer, red squirrels, grey seals, otters and the mighty golden eagle. To get a feel for the island’s wildness I recommend if you’re well equipped taking a walk around the Cock of Arran from the youth hostel. From 31 October Lochranza is open Friday to Sunday only.
Basking Shark Off Lochranza
4. Skye – The largest of the Inner Hebrides is a real wildlife big hitter. The skies are alive with eagles (both golden and sea eagles) amidst myriad other birds, while red deer roam the hills and whales and dolphins patrol the waters. You can catch some good bird migration movement in and around Skye too. If you want an expert guide I’d recommend the services of the Skye Ghillie. He can take you on wildlife centric tours of grandly scenic spots like The Quiraing and the Old Man of Storr, or ‘Photo Stalking’ wildlife trips.
Autumnal sunset on Skye
Stay at Portree Youth Hostel – I’m a big fan of this well equipped new youth hostel. The location is ideal too at the heart of the island’s capital and the hub of the local bus routes. Skye is so full of wildlife that I recently walked out of the youth hostel and to the hills you can see just north of Portree and savoured sightings of dolphins below and sea eagles soaring above.
5. Glencoe – This most famous of glens is set amidst proper mountain territory, some of the most dramatic anywhere in the Highlands. There are few better places in Scotland to witness mighty stags set against hulking Highland massifs with a golden eagle soaring high above. Many well-equipped and experienced walkers staying at the hostel enjoy the Lost Valley or Britain's finest ridge walk, the Aonach Eagach, which actually ends at the youth hostel. Down at water level there is the heronry at Ballachulish and seals patrol the waters of Loch Leven. Look out for seal pups at this time of year.
Stay at Glencoe Youth Hostel – The youth hostel is very much a hub for walkers and before the snows arrive there is some great walking to enjoy before it gets very technical. The legendary Clachaig Inn lies nearby and is a great place to swap tales of autumnal wildlife and get tips of recent wildlife sightings.
Biography for Robin McKelvie
Robin McKelvie (www.robinmckelvie.com) is a Scottish travel writer, broadcaster and blogger who has been covering his native land since the 1990s. A member of the British Guild of Travel Writers, Robin is the author of a number of guidebooks, including National Geographic’s Scotland guide. He regularly contributes to a variety of newspapers and magazines across five continents, such as the Times and the Scotsman, as well as doing travel slots for BBC radio. Robin can be found on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robinmckelvie.