All you need is a long weekend to see some of the most beautiful places and amazing wildlife in Scotland. I took a trip home for 3 days, staying in a small cottage in Grantown on Spey, a place directly linked with my family history with many still living in the surrounding area and where I’ve been coming two or three times a year for as long as I can remember. This time I decided to focus on the best places to find local wildlife if you are a first time visitor and here are my Highland hidden gems and highlights you should know about.

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Day One

The RSPB runs many reserves around the Speyside area and their team of rangers host events and guided walks throughout the year. Meeting with our guide Alison we took a long walk through what is left of the majestic Ancient Caledonian Pine Forests, only 1% of the original planting. Without a doubt this is one of the first things to do, Alison’s knowledge and love of the area lets you understand why the vast forest is so special and encourages all ages to take a closer look at what is beneath our feet. Pick berries to eat, go on a quest to find your own wildlife and take a closer look with bug boxes and ID charts, plus learn why all the animal droppings are turning blue in the summer.

We came across dung beetles, butterflies and lots of foxgloves encourage bees to feed. Spend some time at the bird feeders, lots of woodpeckers and native species to be found – binoculars are given at the start if you don’t have your own. We saw where the substantial logging industry used to be as great tree trunks would be floated out to sea, and heard of the decline of these beautiful forests through industry. I really got to understand the seasons of the forest, stopped to appreciate our landscapes – tall thistles, purple heather, bright yellow gorse, even taking a detour to ‘punch’ the soft bark of the largest trees in the world, the 200 year old sequoia. These giants of are home to nesting tree creepers throughout the year, if the time is right- keep your eyes peeled.

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We found ourselves in the middle of the infamous capercaillie lekking ground, now quiet for the season. An iconic symbol of Scotland, the largest member of the grouse family spends its time outwith the breeding season at the tops of the pines, feeding solidly on pine needles for months at a time before coming down to strut their famous dance. We spotted many pine marten shelters, bat and bird boxes high in the treetops – lots is being one to encourage and protect the local wildlife.

The walk takes around 2.5-3 hours, all questions answered and welcomed finishing with a stop to a small pebble beach alongside the River Nethy. Once finished you’re free to explore the sleepy village of Nethy Bridge, with parks, a small tennis court, and the restored and much respected village kirk, where you can chat with some locals volunteers who tend to the upkeep and even have a cup of tea and some homemade cake.

 What: Ancient Caledonian Forest Walk 

Cost: Free

Where: Outside Nethy Bridge Village Hall

When: Fridays 11.30-1.30pm

 Staying with the RSPB, take the afternoon to explore one of their reserves and the home of the Osprey at Loch Garten. The Centre is right in the middle of Abernethy National Nature Reserve and with the Cairngorms as a backdrop, it’s a truly breathtaking place to visit. From April to August their resident fish-eating birds of prey move in, to the home where they have been coming for 31 years. Buzzing with helpful staff, talks and volunteers who keep watch over the nests 24/7, the visitor centre is well worth paying for. Live CCTV and a room full of binoculars and telescopes let you see the secret world of these birds first hand, plus a talk with video footage throughout the day introduces you to the birds that have been coming back each year.

 

Come and meet resident mother EJ and her two chicks from this year, now in the tentative stages of taking their first flights. There are plenty of feed stations outside where crested tits, Scottish crossbills and sometimes even red squirrels are visible. You can browse the gift shop, or join in on some of the hands on activity sessions before heading back to wander around either Loch Garten itself or the smaller more secluded Loch Mallachie. The reserve boasts over 75 different bird species, see how many you can identify or take a picnic and sit by the still waters – listen for the distant Osprey calls as the family prepares for dinner, keep watch above as EJ takes flight to the nearby river to catch some fish.

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What: Osprey Centre

Cost: £5 adults £2 U16s £10 family (the rest of the reserve is free)

Where: RSPB Loch Garten, Boat of Garten

When: April – End of Aug for Ospreys

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Finish off stopping by Loch Insh Watersports Centre and surrounding woodlands. Take out a canoe or kayak on the water, go paddle-boarding or windsurfing if you fancy hiring a wetsuit and taking the full plunge. Meeting with the mouth of the river the Loch is easy to navigate even for beginners and crystal clear water with the evening sun beating down make for a perfect end to your day. Working up an appetite the Boathouse restaurant serves a delicious 3 course meal with views over the Loch and Cairngorms, which you’ll never tire of admiring. Woodland walks, kids play areas, games, a pool table, and a quaint gift shop are all here to explore if you have more time

What: Watersports

Cost: £15 for 2 person kayak

Where: Loch Insh

When: All year

 

Day Two

 After a home cooked breakfast (you have everything you need at the long-standing Cairngorm Butchers on the High Street, award winning square sausage, bacon, black pudding, haggis, fresh morning rolls, tattie scones and more!) head out early this morning. We had brought our mountain bikes and decided to take a trail through the woodlands surrounding Grantown itself, before ending up cycling along the roaring River Spey. Just off the bottom of the High Street you’ll lose yourself in a vast expanse of silent, golden forests, with newly designed mountain bike trails to explore. For the good, the not so good, and the really not so good, you can choose your path, over rock, steep drop offs, jumps, and a playground of bumps and ruts.

Bike Hire: Basecamp Bikes, Grantown on Spey

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Added to the back of their cosy tearoom they’ve added a long conservatory for a close-up view of fantastic woodland creatures while you delve into a HUGE slice of their award-winning, press worthy cakes. Billed as one of Britain’s Best Cake Shops, just about every magazine has reviewed the food however what makes it so special is the constant to-ing and fro-ing of the animals. Around the ancient trees are blue tits, woodpeckers, coal tits, chaffinches, robins, woodpeckers, blackbirds and more. Two gorgeous red squirrels were perched metres away nibbling on their feeders and twitching their magnificent tails.

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What: Bird and Red Squirrel spotting

Cost: Free, Cake around £3

Where: Inshriach Nursery and Award Winning Potting Shed Tearoom

When: March-Oct, Weds-Sun 10am-5pm

 After your pit stop, a few minutes’ drive will see you at Loch an Eilien, part of the wonderful Rothiemurchus Estate. Time to get the bikes back out for a 3 mile circle of the famous 15th century castle standing proud in the middle of the loch. For a longer stroll on a family day out take the walking route around, with plenty of stunning stop off view points along the way. From the Loch path you can explore parts of the Lairig Ghru, the most famous mountain pass in Scotland, through the central Cairngorms. It a serious, exposed route which will take all day but for misty, classic postcard views and remote wildlife, switch from the Loch path to do a small part of the route then turn back around when you feel yourself tiring!

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Where: Loch an Eilien, Rothiemurchus

What: Loch Walk/Cycle

Cost: Free

When: All year

A meal back in Grantown at one of the best Indian restaurants I’ve ever eaten in, Sylhet Brasseire, will set you up nicely for a real highlight of the weekend. Through the Rothiemurchus estate, Speyside Wildlife run amazing Dusk Watches – it was a chance for me to finally spot a wild Pine Marten for the first time. Meeting at 9pm every night of the week, these wildlife watches are worth their price of £20per person for the whole evening. We met our guide John on a dirt road and made the short walk as the sunlight was fading to a newly built hide South of Aviemore. Expecting a tin shelter we’d dressed for the worst but were surprised to find windows and lots of seats. It makes a change from the original hide seen here, an old railway carriage.

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The next 3 hours or so passed quickly, before darkness had settled a curious badger appeared from the hillside seeking the peanut butter John had spread out. Soon joined by five more, I had never been so close to so many at once. They stayed for well over an hour, the alpha male and female, and some of the new cubs. A badger climbing up a tree is something I didn’t think I would get to see, but the power of the peanut butter proved too much. Wild wood mice flitted in and out among their usual predator’s feet, stealing peanuts here and there.

Birds called and as the night closed in we waited for the Martens. Just after 11.30pm, watching on the infra-red camera two blazing eyes appeared and a young female, sleek and as beautiful as anything I’ve ever seen came bounding along and up onto a post to claim her prize. One whole egg which she quickly ran to plant in the undergrowth for safekeeping, then returned to feed on the peanuts and butter. Brown fur and a cream coloured bib around her throat, she was one of the daughters of the regular adult Martens which John usually has to the hide. Very unusually they have a completely unique breeding system, after mating any time between July and Sept, pregnancy does not develop until the following January. Kits are born in late March or April ensuring they have the best chance of survival to store up on food before the harsh Highland winters. Highly elusive, it was a privilege to see this animal in its natural surroundings, hopefully now free from any illegal poaching for fur and protected in its habitat. Fragmentation, poaching, poisoning and predation have caused the population to fall to around 3,300, mainly concentrated in the Scottish Highlands. Hopefully the future looks better for these elegant, mysterious creatures.

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Have fun trekking down the path after midnight back to the meeting point, don’t reach for your iPhone torch, let your eyes settle in the complete darkness as you walk past a sleeping field of horses and bats swoop into view – enjoy being out in the open after dark. Oh, and remember to bring a sandwich and keep voices to a whisper

What: Dusk Wildlife Watch

Where: Via Speyside Wildlife, booing online

Cost: £20pp online

When: All year 9pm-11.3pm/12am in Summer. Meeting around 6pm in Winter.

 

Day Three

Time to get away from Speyside for the day into the big smoke. Inverness is a 40 minute drive away and a little further you’ll reach Drumnadrochit, home of Nessie. Not strictly real-life wildlife (or is she), the visitor centre at Loch Ness provides a great Cludeo-style experience and introduction to the myth of Scotland’s finest, the Loch Ness Monster. After sorting fact from fiction, learn about the creatures that do inhabit the largest body of freshwater in the country. If you were to scoop out all of the water from Loch Ness you could fit the world population inside, three times over. Many cruises are offered around the area, I’d recommend the Nessie Hunter, a one hour, open deck cruise with live commentary and beautiful views of the Glen, from Fort George to Fort Augustus and the fortress of Urquhart Castle. Stop for food in the village itself, there’s a beautiful farmyard courtyard tucked away to be explored, with tearoom, farm shop and all sorts of other oddities.

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What: Loch Ness Cruise/Visitor Centre

Cost: £15 per person / £7.50 per person

Where: Loch Ness, Drumnadrochit

When: Cruises Daily on houry basis/ Centre 9.30am-6.45pm Summer

On your route home be sure to drive via the historic landscape of Culloden Battlefield. You can walk for free among the moor all year, although there is a visitor centre and usual audio guide if you have more time. The locations of the different battalions are marked with flags and memorials stand tall along the field. The beautiful wildflower expanse of flat land is now eerily quiet but the tales of the rivers running red with blood serve as a reminder of that final night of the Jacobite rising in 1745. You’ll also find Cumberland’s Stone toward one corner, a staggering large rock where the Duke observed the aftermath of the Battle, there’s a small ladder to climb to the top.

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From here you can walk to the Clava Cairns as the sun begins to set, a druid cemetery of impressive domes to bury the dead, surrounded by rings of standing stones and boulders. Scotland’s Stonehenge goes against the usual Summer Solstice tradition and was built in line with the setting of the red sun on Midwinters day every year. The three ancient tombs still stand, dating back to the Bronze Age – it’s hard to image how many hand have stood beside these ruins before you, but peaceful and almost mythical it’s a great place to end your trip listening to the lazy calls of the evening birds.

Acommodation: Craigview Cottage via Sykes Holiday Cottages

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Published by Kirsty Grant