The Big Five for Scotland

So synonymous is The Big Five with the African content that just saying the phrase one can hear the call of the bushbaby; the smell of the herded buffalo; the savannah grasses on the plains; the sun low and swollen on the horizon; perhaps even a pair of khaki shorts and a hint of factor 50.

Coined to describe the five toughest animals to hunt in Africa at a time when it was still socially acceptable to do so, it has now been espoused by safari guides as a shopping list for wildlife spotting. These days, when out for the hunt it’s binoculars over rifles, and well-timed selfies rather than horns as the most coveted prize. So desirable is it to spot The Big Five, that missing one renders the others unremarkable, with only the full package acceptable. And the phrase, popular in its simplicity and ability to sum up an entire continent in three words, transcended its African routes and headed our way, when in 2013 as part of the Year of Natural Scotland, Visit Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage joined forces to showcase some of Scotland’s best loved wildlife under the heading “Scotland’s Big Five”.

The Big Five Scotland, Otter

Photo by Rupert Kirkwood

Enter the red squirrel, red deer, golden eagle, otter and harbour seal – the five not to miss. All indigenous and iconic to Scotland, these famous five were chosen as they can be seen in many parts of Scotland at almost any time of year. Setting out to discover The Big Five creates an ideal opportunity to celebrate Scotland’s dramatic and rich natural environment, which in many places in wilderness Scotland is right outside the front door. Scotland has some of the world’s most outstanding wildlife, with the diverse range of animals and birds that populate our landscape being some of the most outstanding in the world, and are an integral component of what makes our nation unique and our natural heritage rich. And whilst spotting The Big Five may take some planning, it can be achieved by almost anyone with an enthusiasm for Scotland’s great outdoors, a light tread and a little patience!  So read on to find out a little more about Scotland’s Big Five and where you might find them….

All five species can be spotted in a number of locations across Scotland, including several of Scotland’s National Nature Reserves and the two national parks, Cairngorms National Park and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. In Taynish National Nature Reserve in Argyll there is the chance to spot all five in one place, if you’re lucky. Take your time and take a walk, because at walking pace you have a far greater chance of spotting wildlife that love a bit of peace and quiet!

The Red Squirrel

A flash of a rust-red tail – blink and you’ll miss it. The only squirrel native to the UK native squirrel, the charming and acrobatic red squirrel is a delight to spot in its natural habitat. And it’s not as tricky as you may think to see them in the wild in Scotland. Boasting around 120,000 red squirrels, Scotland hosts 80 percent of the entire UK population. They can be found in most rural locations, and walking quietly, carefully and slowly and you may be rewarded.

The Big Five Scotland, Red Squirrel

Red Squirrel by Karen Appleyard

Southern Scotland, the central Lowlands and the Highlands are great places for a potential spot: try Dalbeattie Forest in Dumfries and Galloway; Culbin Forest in Moray; Carnie Woods in Aberdeen; the trails at Drumlanrig Castle; the paths at Balloch Wood; or try Creetown or Eskrigg Nature Reserve near Lockerbie. If you are staying in a rural, quiet place, chances are you may see one on your doorstep! Bartaggart Farmhouse, set off a quiet road, in a very pretty rural part of Dumfries & Galloway, is a newly refurbished holiday house with a fresh and comfortable appeal providing a great holiday destination for a large family or for two families!

Balmaclellan, Castle Douglas | Sleeps 8 | Pet friendly |

In Aberdeenshire, with an impressive history of being a mill, coach house, a gamekeepers cottage and two gardeners cottages, you can find Druminnor Garden Cottage now a delightful holiday cottage. Set within a glorious garden complete with patio to enjoy the sun, this cottage boasts a wood burning stove for cosy evenings and a beautiful arched window that lets in lots of natural light!

Rhynie, Aberdeenshire | Sleeps 4 | Short breaks welcome |

The Golden Eagle

The majestic Golden Eagle disappeared from England and Wales in the 19th century due to severe persecution, but today in Scotland the numbers are increasing thanks to fantastic conservation efforts. Almost all of the golden eagle breeding pairs left in Britain are in Scotland, so inclusion in the Big Five was a given. With a wing span of over two meters, this raptor can fly at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour and mainly hunts rabbits and mountain hares, with the occasional grouse.

The Big Five Scotland, Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle by RSPB

Head to the Highlands and Islands for a chance to see them soar over remote glens in the north and west of Scotland. The Findhorn Valley, known as the ‘Valley of the Raptors” is a good place to spot golden eagles;  The Isle of Mull off Scotland’s west coast has its own dedicated eagle viewing hides; most of the Cairngorm mountains have been declared as areas of importance for the golden eagle, with conservation projects underway to encourage breeding; considered one of the UK’s golden eagle strongholds, Harris owns the distinction of having the highest breeding population of this eagle species in Europe.  Overlooking the Findhorn Bay, Monessie is a newly renovated property that sits in a spectacular position, with panoramic views across the bay. Modernised to a high standard throughout, Monessie contains many luxurious aspects that holidaymakers will love!

Findhorn, Highlands | Sleeps 7 | Short breaks |

Sitting high up above Braemar in the middle of the Cairngorm National Park, Downie’s Cottage takes a step back in time. A unique and fascinating Grade A listed cottage and now 5* grading with Visit Scotland it has been painstakingly restored with the support of Historic Scotland and retains all its original features – stone flagged floors, a box bed, hanging ‘lum’ and so much more!

Braemar | Sleeps 2 | Pet friendly |

The Red Deer

The Red Deer is the UK’s largest mammal, and one of the biggest deer in the world. The iconic Monarch of the Glen, and his fantastic pronged antlers, is synonymous with all things Scottish, from shortbread to whisky. During the autumnal breeding season, known as the ‘rut’, males bellow to proclaim their territory and will fight over the females, sometimes injuring each other with their sharp antlers. Their bark can be heard for miles over the moorland and mountainsides.

The Big Five Scotland, Red Deer

Young Red Deer, Glen Etive by Karen Appleyard

Winter is the best time to try and see red deer as they come down off the remote hills in search of food. The hill ranges and peaks in Perthshire, such as Ben Lawers, Ben Vorlich and Stuc a’Chroin, Glen Lyon hills, Rannoch area, Beinn a Ghlo, near Blair Atholl, are all places to spot red deer between spring and autumn. In autumn, follow the sound of the rutting activity in many Perthshire glens, including  upper Glen Lyon, Glen Tilt and Glen Ample. Larachmhor, near Dunkled in Perthshire, has recently undergone a complete renovation that has transformed this modest bungalow into a stylish and extremely comfortable holiday house, complete with delightful conservatory! 

Dunkeld, Perthshire | Sleeps 8 | Short breaks welcome |

Pine Forest Lodge, near Blair Atholl, is an outstanding holiday house surrounded by some of Perthshire’s most beautiful scenery. Recently built, it has been thoughtfully designed and tastefully furnished with guests’ comfort paramount. 

Pitlochry, Perthshire | Sleeps 10 | Pet friendly |

The Otter

Secretive and sleekit, sighting an otter is a truly wonderful experience. Found in rivers, lochs and along the shores across Scotland, they are most likely to be seen on the west coast and islands. Suffering a decline between 1950s and 1970s due to pesticide pollution in waterways, the now protected species is flourishing across Scotland, with a population of around 8000.

The Big Five Scotland, Otter

Photo by Rupert Kirkwood

The coastal otters around the West coast, the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland, are a little less jumpy than their inland counterparts, which makes them easier to spot, so head to the west for a sighting. Dawn and dusk are the best times for otter sightings, and the quieter you are the better. On Shetland, there’s a strong population and many are active at day and night. The Kylerhea Otter Haven on the Isle of Skye is another fantastic otter spotting location; and on the wooded shores of Loch Sunart, the beautifully located Garbh Eilean wildlife hide is another good otter spotting place. On Skye, check out the fantastic Taobh an Uillt,  an architect designed house styled on the traditional Scottish long-house which fits beautifully into the landscape of this unusual and dramatic glen. Taking the outside inside, the ground floor rooms have windows to the side and front with views of the glen, whilst the first floor rooms have Velux roof and glen facing windows, allowing for breathtaking views.

Uig, Isle of Skye | Sleeps 9 | Pet friendly |

For the west coast, try Camisky Lodge, fully renovated to a very high standard with great attention to detail and sleeping 14. Beautifully decorated and elegantly furnished, the large bay windows not only give fabulous views but allows natural light to flow through and fill the house. Here, it is wonderfully secluded and peaceful, and just 7 miles from Fort William.

Fort William, Highlands | Sleeps 14 | Pet friendly |

The Harbour Seal

There are roughly 29,000 harbour seals in British waters, and 83% of these are found in Scottish waters, and can be spotted easily in estuarine waters around the Scottish coast. There are colonies in the Firth of Forth, the Firth of Tay, and the Moray Firth, and to see that little grey head bobbing in the shallows is such an excitement! Harbour seals prefer more sheltered waters and have a more restricted range than the larger grey seals. They tend to travel 40 to 50km from their haul-out site to forage for food – they get around these seals!

The Big Five Scotland, Harbour Seal

Photo by Rupert Kirkwood

Rather awkward and ungainly on land, these super selkies are incredibly graceful and elegant, and quite nosey, when in the water. Tenstmuir, in Fife, is renowned as a superb place for spotting seals. Other top breeding places for seals in Scotland include the Orkney Isles, the Hebrides, including the remote North Rona, and the westerly Monach Isles, which is the second largest breeding colony of grey seals in the world. Seals are also born at some sites on the Scottish mainland each year, for example at the sea caves around Helmsdale and at Loch Eriboll. For a stay in Fife, check out  Fulmar House, a luxurious coastal holiday house that combines immaculate stylish interiors with charm and sits just a few metres from the seashore. Go to sleep in wonderfully comfortable beds with crisp white linens whilst listening to the sea crash on the shoreline!

Anstruther, Fife | Sleeps 6 | Pet friendly |


For northern Scotland, try Estuary View in Brora ,furnished and equipped with the holiday maker in mind. Ideally located, walk one way and you have the quiet sandy beach on the doorstep, walk the other way and you are in the village where there is a range of shops and places to eat!  

Brora, Highlands | Sleeps 8 | Short breaks accepted |

Spotting wildlife provides hours of entertainment and joy for all the family, and there is something enthralling about being able to enjoy these wonderful animals in their natural habitat. So pack the binoculars and walking boots and come and admire Scotland’s natural beauty, stunning landscapes, intriguing heritage and wonderful wildlife on a treasure hunt for the Big Five of Scotland – and if you catch the glimpse of a rust red tail; or a 2m wingspan, or a 12 pronged silhouette, or the paw prints on the shores; or a bobbing grey head then well, you know they are there.

Let us know if you have seen The Big Five in Scotland by commenting below. For all self-catering accommodation options make sure you check out our website and view the best in Scotland.


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2 Responses

  1. rupertkirkwood says:

    great journalism, Mims, and some top photos (especially the otters)

  2. The pics are so beautiful!
    I like the one in Dunkeld.
    Animals and nature are fascinating!

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