Top 10 wildlife vacations in Scotland

Forget Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park – the best wildlife tours in Scotland take you out to view animals roaming free in their native habitat. The wildlife won’t be as hard to track as the Scotland’s national animal, the elusive unicorn, either. You can hop on a whale watching cruise to the Outer Hebrides or Small Isles, delve deep into the deer forests and eagle mountains of the Cairngorms, or take your camera on a wildlife photography tour in the long, clear hours of midsummer.

Keep reading to discover our best wildlife experiences in Scotland.

1. Giant seabird colonies in the Shetland Islands

Hop aboard a boat to Noss Nature Reserve – home to the biggest (and noisiest) seabird spectacle in Scotland. The 180m-high cliffs and moorland of this Shetland Island host nearly 60,000 nesting birds in spring and summer. Watch out for puffins, kittiwakes, great skua and guillemots, as well as sunbathing seals. Expert guides will translate the commotion, sail you to the base of the towering cliffs, and walk you around the island-top footpaths.
When to go: April to August for seabirds; May to August for the chance to see orca
Our top trip: Orkney and Shetland self drive vacation
See all our trips: Orkney vacations and Shetland Islands vacations
Read more: Orkney travel guide and Shetland Islands travel guide

2. Birds of prey & whales in the Sound of Mull

Small ship cruises orbit the Isle of Mull, where the waters are filled with wildlife. On-board conservationists are your best chance at spotting minke whales, basking sharks and dolphins. They’ll also take you onto land, guiding you through marshlands hunted by hen harriers, country lanes trilling with skylark song, otter-friendly lochs, and sandy coves frequented by white-tailed eagles. Your trip will directly support conservation projects monitoring and protecting these hardy creatures that are also some of the most vulnerable animals in the UK.

When to go: end of May to September for whales; year-round for eagles
Our top trip: Wildlife vacation in the Isle of Mull
See all our trips: Scotland small ship cruises
Read more: Scotland wildlife cruise guide

3. Pair Scottish wildlife with whisky

… and we don’t mean as a tasty starter. Small ship cruises sail between distilleries on the Scottish “malt whisky islands” of Islay, Jura and Mull. Your best wildlife sightings are often from the deck – perhaps the huff of a minke whale breaching or the call of a sea eagle. Choose between cruising aboard a wooden tall ship, an ex-Norwegian ferry or a retired lifeboat sleeping up to 11 passengers.

When to go: end of May to September for whales
Our top trip: Whisky and wildlife sailing vacation
See all our trips: Scotland small ship cruises
Read more: Scotland wildlife cruise guide

4. Endemic oddities in the Outer Hebrides

St. Kilda marks the far reaches of the Outer Hebrides. Small ships quietly cruise this archipelago, as well as the Monach Isles (via the enormous grey seal colony) and Small Isles (watch out for otters and eagles). Some curious critters have evolved on these remote islands, including the St Kilda wren and an ancient species of feral sheep. The dramatic sea cliffs of Hirta are a highlight. They’re the highest in the UK and the breeding grounds of flurries of fulmars and puffins.
When to go: May to August for calmer seas
Our top trip: St Kilda and Outer Hebrides cruise
See all our trips: Scotland small ship cruises
Read more: Scotland wildlife cruise guide

5. Awesome autumn wildlife on Islay

The creak of wings commands you to look up – there, in the sky, barnacle geese coming to land. Every autumn they come from Greenland, and you’ve got an invite to their 20,000-strong gathering on a wildlife watching vacation around the island of Islay’s rare grassland habitats. Like your birds a bit bigger? Golden eagles are found here too. Plus, the surrounding sea is a great place for seal-spotting.

When to go: October and November
Our top trip: Inner Hebrides autumn wildlife tour
See all our trips: Scottish Highlands vacations
Read more: Scotland wildlife travel guide
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Scotland wildlife or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

6. Take the family to sea

Explore the wildlife-rich seas along the west coast of Scotland on a family small ship cruise. Activities are tweaked for kids, so you’ll get the chance to speed off on sea eagle watching tours, swim in lochs where otters play along the shore, and wait with bated breath for minke whales and basking sharks while picnicking on-deck. Your family will be in the safe hands of a friendly, knowledgeable skipper and guides who know these seas (and how to cater to short attention spans) well.

When to go: April to October
Our top trip: Scotland family cruise
See all our trips: Family vacations to Scotland
Read more: Scotland family travel guide

7. Winter wildlife wonders in the Cairngorms

Based in a cosy cottage deep in Scotland’s magnificent Cairngorms National Park, this wildlife-watching trip explores some of the Highlands’ richest habitats, from ancient pine forest to frozen lochs and dark night skies. Learn about the many rewilding programs going on in the area while tracking some of Scotland’s most elusive creatures including red squirrels and pine martens through often snowy landscapes.

When to go: February or March
Our top trip: Cairngorms winter wildlife adventure
See all our trips: Wildlife vacations in Scotland
Read more: Winter vacations travel guide

8. Puffins & otters in South Argyll

The wriggling coastline of South Argyll carves out lochs and islands that shelter a variety of wildlife. Sliding peacefully through the waters on a small ship, and the expertise of your skipper, give you the ideal chances of sighting seals and otters. Highlights include a raucous colony of puffins and gannets on Ailsa Craig and the beautiful Isle of Arran, with its roaming deer herds.
When to go: May to October
Our top trip: South Argyll wildlife cruise
See all our trips: Scotland wildlife vacations
Read more: How to see otters, seals and birds in Scotland

9. Amazing cetaceans in the Moray Firth

Passionate naturalists are your guides around the Moray Firth near Inverness. With their expertise in zoology and conservation, they’ll reveal why the North Sea is the realm of hardy animals like Risso’s dolphins, basking sharks and rarer species such as orca, Atlantic white-sided dolphins and white-tailed eagles. You’ll also explore on land – the pine martens, red squirrels and deer of Cairngorms National Park are just a 40-minute train ride south.

When to go: May to mid-August
Our top trip: Whale and wildlife vacation
See all our trips: Scotland wildlife vacations
Read more: How to see dolphins, whales and basking sharks in Scotland

10. Track wildlife in the Scottish Highlands

Led by expert guides that always have their eyes and ears alert to the movement of animals in the undergrowth, you'll traverse Scotland’s magnificent Highlands hiking, on boat trips, and even in sea kayaks, at an easygoing pace. Expect to see everything from dolphins and porpoises to sea eagles, pine martens capercaillies and red squirrel as Scotland's abundant wildlife scurries, swims and soars all around you.

When to go: May
Our top trip: Scottish Highlands wildlife vacation
See all our trips: Scotland wildlife vacations
Read more: Scotland wildlife guide
Photo credits: [Page banner: Nevit Dilmen] [Giant seabird colonies: Rab Lawrence] [Endemic oddities (Soay sheep): gailhampshire] [Otter: caroline legg]