Wildlife of Argyll

I often discuss the beauty and history of Argyll but I don’t often touch upon the diverse wildlife that this part of Scotland has to offer which is why I specifically asked if I could have a wildlife tour while on the ‘Heart and Soul of Scotland’ campaign with Wild About Argyll. I do regularly see wildlife on my travels around Argyll and the rest of Scotland but I wanted a better insight on how to spot wildlife and to learn more about the species which we share the land with. If you have read my previous blog you’ll have seen the first thing I did on this trip was a wildlife tour of Mull with Wild about Mull. My guide, Bryan shared his vast amount of knowledge and offered tips which then helped me spot wildlife on the rest of my trip.

OTTERS

As a wee girl I read Otter in the Outhouse by Lucy Daniels and since then otters have been my favourite Scottish species. I just love how playful they are and I think their illusiveness just adds to their appeal. I’ve seen a couple over the years but usually from a distance so when Bryan asked what I wanted to see the most my answer was of course otters. We spent about two hours scanning the waters on both sides of Loch Scidain before Bryan finally spotted a mother and cub. Spending two hour of fruitless searching may sound frustrating and boring but it was anything but. I found it really exciting, I was constantly alert never knowing when something might appear and Bryan kept assuring me I would see something. He said he’s never had a disappointed customer so that kept me feeling optimistic. Listening to Bryan was also fascinating, he had so much knowledge and knew the name of every bird, butterfly and plant we passed or I asked about. He also shared tips on spotting otters which helped me and hopefully will help you too.

10 otter spotting tips!

  1. Be patient, they will appear at some point.

  2. It’s always worth looking, you often read they are best seen at dawn/dusk on a low tide but they can be seen at anytime.

  3. Look out for slimy green patches on rocks, this is a good indication that there are otters in the area. They mark there territory by spraying which leaves slime on the rocks.

  4. If you are driving along travel around 10mph, any faster and you will miss them. (just remember to be courteous to other road users and use passing places)

  5. If there are ducks, geese etc close to the shore line the chances are you won’t find otters around the immediate area as these birds view otters as a threat.

  6. Look out for fresh water burns running into the sea, otters need fresh water to wash their fur of salt to keep it as an effective insulator.

  7. If walking along the shore line look out for remains of crabs and other shells this will give an indication if otters are in the area as this is what they feed on.

  8. Stay down wind so the otters won’t smell you.

  9. Try to conceal yourself if possible, the otter will probably see you before you see them and if you’re standing tall on the beach you’re going to stand out like a sore thumb.

  10. Finally stay as quiet as possible and RESPECT THE OTTER. Don’t get too close or so anything that may frighten the animal.

Thanks to Bryan’s tips I spotted more otters as I travelled down towards Fionnphort, I quietly watched them for about 40 minutes. The mother was well aware I was there but because I was quiet, moved slowly and kept my distance she didn’t mind.

That otter experience was fantastic but last winter I also had an amazing otter experience on Mull, this time on the shores of Loch Na Keal. My boyfriend and I had been driving around the island for hours looking for otters and were about to give up when I spotted a family running along the shore. There is a video of that sighting below..


SEALS

Seals are probably the animal I see most often when travelling around Argyll and I probably just take them for granted but if you don’t live around the coast I can imagine seeing a seal is quite exciting. Seals are also connected with many Scottish myths and legends including that of the Selkies. Selkies look like seals when in the sea then undergo magical metamorphosis when leaving the water to become a beautiful human when on land or so the legend goes.

On my travels I saw both Common and Grey seals, Scotland holds such a large percentage of the UK’s population of seals with 83% and 90% respectively. You’ll often find them lounging about on rocks near the shoreline and bobbing about in the shallows. On my trip I spotted them in many places including Carsaig on Mull, the Craignure ferry terminal, the Kilberry loop between Tarbert and Lochgilphead, Southend in Kintyre and on Loch Fyne.

DEER

Like seals deer are as common as muck throughout Argyll and the rest of Scotland with 4 species found here, the mighty Red Deer, Roe Deer, Sika Deer and Fallow Deer. There are thought to be up to 750,000 of them. So as you can imagine spotting them is not difficult. While travelling around I spotted them on the shores of Loch Scridain while out with Bryan, and on the hills of Mull. I also see them regularly close to the road in Kilmartin Glen which can be a little worrying at times. I also spotted ones when driving around Kintyre and on The Rest and be Thankful. The photographs below were taken on Mull and I didn't even have to get out the car to take the pictures. Deer are quite a good animal to go looking for if you are not very adventurous but want to see wildlife or if you have mobility issues and can’t walk far as you often see them close to the road.

But please DO NOT EVER FEED THE DEER CHOCOLATE BISCUITS, CRISPS OR ANY OTHER HUMAN FOOD! This type of food is so bad for the deer. Feeding deer the wrong food can cause a condition called acute Acidosis which is like IBS in humans but this condition can be fatal. Deer can’t digest high carb food leading to heart breaking stories of deer dying because they cannot digest the food. They effectively starve to death even though their stomachs are full. So please, if you are lucky enough for deer to come close to you and you feel the needs to feed them just pick up some grass and heather, their natural sources of nutrition.

RED SQUIRRELS

Argyll is one of the last remaining places in Britain that is purely dominated by red squirrels, there is not a single grey in the whole county which is great as grey squirrels are a serious threat to their smaller red cousins. Argyll has a really healthy population of these cheeky wee characters but unlike the deer they are a little more tricky to spot. I have seen them when wandering through the forests but it is a rarity. For this reason if I want to photograph red squirrels I often head to gardens like Crarae, Arduaine and Benmore as they all have feeding areas which the squirrels frequent plus squirrels living in these gardens are much more used to humans. I just love watching them scurrying around and nibbling at their food, they are probably the cutest of Scotland’s animals. The pictures below were taken in Benmore Garden’s near Dunoon. The one on the right obviously had a bad itch and the one on the left was a fierce wee beggar, no one was allowed anywhere near his spot or his collection of nuts.

BIRDS

Argyll has such a diverse variety of birds, you’ll find everything from Herons to Oyster Catchers, Jays to Blue Tits and even Kingfishers and Owls but my favourites have to be the big birds of prey, especially Eagles! I often see Buzzards flying around from my window but I’m not lucky enough to see eagles from my house. For Eagles the best place to head is Mull, I’ve never been to Mull and not seen an eagle. You get both White Tailed and Golden on the island and when I visited I saw both in Glen More but unfortunately they were a bit far away for decent pictures. Below is a picture of a White Tailed Eagle from a previous trip and a photo from the location I saw the Golden Eagle, at this point it had just disappeared into the cloud. When I spotted the eagle it was sitting high on a mountain ridge over looking its nest before taking off and soaring high into the clouds.

On my trip I also saw Buzzards, Ravens and Oysters Catchers pictured below.And hundreds of Herons which I never actually look any pictures of as they are so common.

Looking back now I was really fortunate to see all that wildlife, especially since I was moving around quite a bit and wildlife watching often requires a lot of waiting around and patience, This is only a small selection of wildlife you can see around the land and sea of Argyll. Over the years I’ve also seen foxes, badgers, snakes, stoats and even a sighting of a rare Wildcat. While crossing on the ferries to the islands I’ve been lucky enough to see Dolphins, Porpoises, Basking Sharks and even Killer Whales!

International Women's Day

Now I’d like to start out by saying that I am a feminist in the original sense of the word. The Oxford dictionary defines feminism as ‘The advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.’ I am 100% in support of this, equality between men and women is of paramount importance to me and I believe women are capable of doing anything they set their minds too. However, I class International Women’s Day the way I class Valentines Day; an absolute load of cac! Why do we need a special day to celebrate women? Shouldn’t we be celebrating women’s achievements everyday and show support to the amazing women in our life? Social media is awash with people gushing about the women in their lives and although I have seen some truly inspirational posts the majority of posts are simply people jumping on the bandwagon with gimmicky posts which I personally believe does nothing for feminism, like a lot of modern, feminism it demeans the cause.

As a female landscape photographer I’m in the minority in my field, reports suggest that as little as 15% of professional photographers are women. I’ve seen so many people (of both sexes) up in arms about this but maybe it could simply be that more men want to be photographers than women? Or heaven forbidden the thought that men are taking better photos than their female counterparts! I can hear the gasps of Nazi feminists everywhere! In all seriousness I don’t believe that men are better photographers than women but I do believe there are simply more men interested in photography, particularly landscape photography, than women and that’s ok. I cannot comment on the industry as a whole but I have a pretty good insight into the ‘gender gap’ of photographers on Instagram. Yes, the majority of the big players in landscape photography and the outdoors in general are male on Instagram. Men totally outnumber women, no one can deny that but I do genuinely believe it’s because there are simply more men pursuing a career/ focusing their Instagram account on landscape photography and the outdoors. On the whole women dominate the beauty industry and the majority of young girls create Instagram accounts focusing on hair, beauty, clothes skincare etc, not photography and the outdoors. And there is nothing wrong with that, it’s fantastic to see young girls creating incredible make up looks and I am so grateful to the women who research the science of skin care to share it with us all. Feminism is all about doing whatever you want to do and women creating success for themselves though their passion, whatever that passion may be is both inspiring and empowering.

Now there are of course still sexist morons out there who belittle women and believe there are the weaker sex. Last year I was out on my own taking photographs , I bumped into a group of men who told me I shouldn’t be out in the wilds on my own and that I should have a man to look after me. I was absolutely fuming, how dare they suggest that I needed someone to look after me simply because I was a woman when in the likelihood I could navigate and ascend the surrounding mountains a hell of a lot quicker than they could. But thankfully men like this are in the smallest of minorities in the western world. There are women who utter equally ridiculous and belittling statements. Sticking with landscape photography I’ve seen numerous women complain about not enough women in photography and get their knickers in a twist because there’s more men are hiredas photographic ambassadors, cameras are advertised my male models or social media has the audacity to have more gifs with men holding a camera than women! As I mentioned before more men a pursuing landscape photography careers on Instagram and why does it matter if more men are seen holding cameras? Are these women trying to say that this will prevent women getting into photography? If this is true I find this a total contradiction and implies women will only have the urge to pick up a camera if they see other women doing it, as a woman I find this totally insulting. All in all I actually find it quite beneficial to be in the minority of landscape photographer as it makes me stand out which can only be a good thing.

Many of you may disagree with what I’ve written and thats fine, I’d actually like to hear your thoughts. Do you think IWD is a gimmick or do you genuinely feel empowered today? Equality and women’s rights have come a long way since our grandmothers generation and if we compare Scotland to other places in the world women in the UK live in paradise. However there is still a long way to go in some areas. I truly believe it’s far more important to concentrate on real issues rather than having gimmicky days and getting in an uproar over fickle things like a larger amount of men in photography adverts.

Legends of Argyll

It’s the landscape of Argyll that is the main inspiration for my photography but the myths and legends are also hugely influential. I often say that I want my pictures to look magical, like a land from a fairytale. Part of that comes from Argyll’s physical beauty but I also want to capture the spirit I believe this land has in my photographs. I grew up hearing stories of many local myths and legends and was always so intrigued and fascinated by them, particularly when I could visit the places connected with the legends. When I photograph places connected with old stories I like to take a moment and recount the story and think about all the people who may have stood in that place hundreds, if not thousands of years before me. So I thought I would share some of my favourite tales from Argyll with you.

Dunadd Hill

Many people will be familiar with the legend of Dunadd fort in Kilmartin Glen. The story goes that this was the birth place of Scotland, and the place where the first Kings of Scotland were crowned. At the top of the fort lies a rock with an impression of a footprint, it is said that this is where the Kings placed their foot when they were inaugurated. There is a lot of evidence that backs up this legend but there are also whispers that this unassuming hill also has connections with the Stone of Destiny as well as King Arthur which may be a wee bit more imaginative.

More fanciful yet is the ancient story that tells the imprint on the rock was made by Oisín, son of the giant Fingal. The Irish Warrior had been hunting on the hills above Loch Fyne when he was attacked by some wild animal, to get away he took a giant leap to Rhudle Hill and then landed heavily on Dunadd Hill creating the indent.

Another slightly more modern legend tells that this is where fairy people lived and the footprint is the fairies footprint, These fairies were called Daoine Síth in Gaelic. Scotland was once a very superstitious land and people believed that these fairies would steal human babies and replace the human baby with one of their own, these ‘replacement’ babies were known as changelings. Daoine Síth were given the blame when a child was mentally disabled, the parents believed that the Daoine Síth had stolen their baby and left a changeling in the babies place. This is where the phrase ‘away with the fairies’ comes from.

The footprint of the Kings.

The Ballymeanoch Feast

This next legend comes from another area of Kilmartin Glen around two miles north of Dunadd hill. Ballymeanoch is probably best known for the impressive standing stones which have stood for over 4000 years. They are thought to be connected with the mid winter solstice but there is a much darker tale connected with Ballymeanoch.

The tale tells of Lady Ballymeanoch, a frightfully unpleasant women who was always causing problems and fighting with her neighbours. One day, very uncharacteristically she invited all her neighbours to a giant banquet in her barn as an act of peace supposedly to reconcile their differences. At the feast all her guest were sat in-between her family members and close friends. A giant haggis was brought to the table, as she went to cut open the haggis with her dirk she uttered the words ‘let my friends do as I do’ at that moment all her followers pulled out their dirks and stabbed to death the guest beside them. Forty of her enemies were killed in the barn, only one managed to escape and he ran across the fields shouting ‘Och on Och, Och on Och.’ He was eventually caught and the place where he is said to have fallen is to this day called Killinochonoch.

Ballymeanoch Stones.

The Mull Witches

I love Mull and its absolutely full of legends, the one about the Spanish Galleon that is said to lie covered in the mud at the bottom of Tobermory bay is a good one. There are a few variations of this legend but I think this one is the best.

During the 16th century the King of Spains daughter, Princess Viola had a dream one night about the most handsome man she had ever seen. When she awakened the next morning she told her father she had to find this man. The King granted her request and prepared her a ship to travel the world to find this handsome man. After years of searching and with faith she would find this man slowly vanishing she landed in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. On arrival she finally found the man from her dream. He was a man of nobility, a MacLean from Duart and gladly ‘entertained’ this beautiful Spanish Princess. They say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and this was certainly the case when MacLean’s wife found out about his encounter with the Spanish Princess. She hired a lowlander called Smollett to kill the Princess, as instructed he blew up the Spanish ship with the Princess on board. On hearing about the death of his daughter the King of Spain set about planning his revenge, he sent a galleon off to Mull laden with a crew who were ordered to cut the right breast off every woman on the island. Lady Duart got wind of this and called upon Doideag, the Mull witch for help. Doideag then called on her sisters, Ladhrag Thiristeach and Ghlaisrig Ileach to help her. Together the brewed a terrible storm with the intention that it would destroy the Spanish Galleon but by this time the Galleon had reached the sheltered waters of Tobermory bay and escaped unscathed. The witches next step to save the women of Mull was to call upon Gormshúil Mhór a Lochaber, an incredibly power woman for help. On her arrival Gormshúil Mhór gathered all the cats she could find on the island and ordered them to attack and kill the men on the Spanish Galleon. She did this by chanting a secret spell. The army of cats carried out her commands by mauled the crew of the Galleon to death and then clawed through the hull of the ship to sink it to the bottom of Tobermory Bay.

Tobermory

The Scandinavian Prince and the Corryvreckan

The Corryvreckan whirlpool which lies between Jura and Scrarba is the third largest whirlpool in the world so it’s only natural a few legends are connected with this place.

A Scandinavian Prince called Breakan visited the shores of Argyll during the reign of the Lord of Isles, here he fell in love with the Lords daughter and asked for her hand in marriage. Her father said he would give his permission for the marriage but only once the Prince had proved his worth and bravery. The task was to spend three nights anchored on the mighty whirlpool. The Prince bravely accepted this task and set sail back to Norway to find the wisemen who would prepare him for this challenge. The wisemen said he should have three different ropes; one was to be made of hemp, one to be made of wool and one to be made from hair of fair maidens. In order for the maidens hair to hold it had to be from a pure maiden, their purity was the key to keeping the rope strong. The Prince did as instructed by the wise men and returned to the Lord of the Isles to carry out his task. On the first night the hemp rope broke but they stayed afloat, on the second night the woollen rope broke but they managed to survive the seas however on the third night disaster struck, the rope of hair broke in a wild gale and the boat was swamped by massive waves and dragged to the depth of the whirlpool. The Prince was drowned along with his crew but his dog survived and dragged Breakan’s body to shore. The Prince is said to be buried in cave on the island of Jura. The tragedy struck because one of the maidens who donated her hair was not pure!

The Gulf of Corryvreckan

The Duntrune Piper

Dunturne castle is one of my favourite places to photograph and is widely accepted to be the oldest inhabited castles in Scotland. It also has a reputation of being haunted by the a handless piper. This tale is slightly more eerie as during excavations of the castle a handless skeleton was found..

The protagonists in this legend are the Campbells and MacDonalds and it set during The War of the Three Kingdoms where the Campbells and MacDonalds were on opposing sides. One night the the leader of the MacDonalds, a fearsome 6ft 6inch warrior called Sir Alistair MacDonald launched a surprise raid on Duntrune Castle which was held by the Campbell clan. The MacDonalds successfully defeated the Campbells and took the castle as their own. Sir Alistair then left the castle in the hands of a few of his men along with his piper while he attended Royalist meetings. Soon after Sir Alistair’s departure the Campbells launched a counter attack claiming the castle as their own once more. They killed all the MacDonald men apart from the piper who was ordered to play to amuse the Campbell garrison. The Campbells waited patiently for Sir Alistair to return so they could seek their revenge and eventually he did. One day his ship was spotted entering Loch Crinan and the Campbells prepared for their surprise attack. This attack was however thwarted by the MacDonalds piper, he realised the danger his chief was in and took to the castle ramparts to play the warning tune ‘Píobaireachd-dhum-Naomhaid. On hearing this tune the MacDonald chief realised there was danger and turned the ship around heading back to the safety of the Sound of Jura. When the Campbells realised what the piper had done, they cut off his hands and let him bleed to death. It is said that the piper haunts the grounds of the castle, playing his pipes to this very day. Thankfully I haven’t encountered him.. yet!

Storm approaching Duntrune Castle.

The Cailleach Bheur

Some of my favourite Argyll legends are about the Cailleach (an old giant woman who lives in the mountains) so I thought I would end with a couple of stories about her.

She was said to bath in a Loch on Mull to rejuvenate herself, wash her clothes in the Corryvreckan whirlpool and she is even credited with creating the Hebrides, Apparently she returned from Norway with a sack full of rock, this sack split and the rocks came tumbling out landing to create the Western Isles. But I think my favourite legend about the Cailleach is the one about how she accidentally created Loch Awe. The Cailleach kept cattle on the slopes of Ben Cruachan and let them drink from a magical spring on the mountain but this spring could only be uncovered between sunrise and sunset, if left uncovered at night something dreadful would happen. The Cailleach was alway very careful to cover the spring before bed each night but one night she was so tired she fell asleep before recovering the spring. She was awakened during the night to a torrent of water thundering down the mountain flooding the glen below. The flood water from the spring stayed in the glen and Loch Awe was formed, The legend goes that she was in such despair at what had happened she turned to stone, a stone that still sits among the other boulders in the Pass of Brander.

Misty morning on Loch Awe

I hope you’ve enjoyed these mystical stories of Argyll, there are so many to choose from but I think these are my favourites. I’d love to hear if you have any legends, not only of Argyll but the whole of Scotland.