Occasionally there are days of shimmering heat across Scotland’s West Highlands when the sunlight seems to be brilliantly luminous. On such days the countryside appears to radiate colour.
There are countless shades of green, of grass and leaves. The blue of the sky is mirrored in sparkling lochs while the gold of gorse and yellow on the broom looks to be lit from within.
Gleaming white patches of snow still linger in distant mountain corries.
For some wild creatures, this may be the perfect time to relax, to doze in the warmth, out of sight of potential predators.
For wild life spotters, the chances of spotting this same wild life may be thought to be less. However, should they join knowledgeable guide Ian MacLeod on one of his Wild West Safaris, they are guaranteed, whatever the weather, to catch sight of the Big Five – Scotland’s iconic wild life species - and all in the one day!
Ian’s safari tours start from Fort William. After collecting participants from various points he drives his smart mini-bus out of town along the A830, the road to Mallaig, to the jetty on Loch Shiel.
On the way, we learn a little about the geology of the area, of the unimaginably powerful forces within the earth’s crust which formed the surrounding mountains. Millions of years of weathering and the weight of enormous glaciers reduced the height of these mountains and scraped out Scotland’s lochs and glens.
At the jetty on Loch Shiel we leave the mini-bus and board the cruise boat the MV Sileas and are now in the capable hands of Jim Michie. Some passengers opt to sit in a covered area while others choose to sit in the open, at the prow or along the sides of the boat. After a last look back to the head of Loch Shiel and the Glenfinnan Viaduct made famous in the Harry Potter film, ‘The Chamber of Secrets’, we are sailing, awed by the surrounding beauty.
Loch Shiel is relatively narrow and hemmed in at the north end by high mountains. As the boat chugs along, Jim uses a microphone to tell us about people who had lived along this loch.
Small parties of hunter gatherers arrived here some 8000 years ago. The hillsides were heavily wooded then with oak, Scots pine and birch trees. There are still fragments of the ancient Caledonian forest but large coverings of Forestry Commission conifers dominate the lower hillsides. Higher up, sheep and deer have left the slopes bare.
Our first wild life sightings are not too exciting. Common gulls, though they’re not so common nowadays despite the name, crowd on to a small island of rock.
But then, all eyes and binoculars are trained on a black speck in the blue sky above a mountain ridge. A golden eagle it’s agreed! All aboard are wishing this dot in the sky would come much closer, be more convincing, show its impressive wingspan and curved beak – but it doesn’t happen.
However, further along the loch, there is a definite sighting – this pair of birds are arguably even more magnificent. Jim stops the boat. There are two White Tailed Eagles in a nest near the top of a tree. The male flies off, doesn’t reappear but is probably still close by, perched on another tree. The female looks to be hunched over. Is she sheltering chicks?
The birds are relatively safe here as the loch sides are almost empty of people. There’s only one full time resident now. One other cottage belongs to author Mike Tomkies who left a very different life behind to come here to study the wildlife, particularly wildcats.
We leave the boat at the southern end of the loch at Acharacle, a small village that manages to support a bakery and a general store.
When we are seated in the mini-bus again we are driven the few miles to Loch Sunart, a fiord - like sea loch with numerous bays which otters are known to inhabit.
We look for signs of these elusive creatures - but here on this beautiful day, for us, there’s no show!
Our next stop is the Forestry Commission Garbh Eilean Wildlife Hide. It’s a well - appointed wooden building with an approach ramp suitable for wheelchair users, wall mounted benches, information boards and windows overlooking an island in Loch Sunart . Here the wild life watchers talk in whispers.
Some way below us seals are easily spotted. There’s much splashing in the water as pairs rise and cavort before disappearing into the depths.
As we continue motoring along Loch Sunart, passing trees that may be three hundred years old, our guide draws our attention to the striking rock falls and formations, the birdlife and two small herds of red deer.
One grouping is moving slowly, mere specks of dark brown on the hillside. Another group of stags and hinds is closer to the single track road. They appear unperturbed by the sight of humans. They watch us watching them – then carry on grazing.
At each stop, as well as pointing out the wildlife including dragonflies, Ian tells us about the importance of some of the flowers at our feet. These plants may now be dismissed as weeds, but were important to local people who could make use of them.
Silverweed is a hairy, silvery creeping perennial with yellow flowers which is plentiful, common and was cultivated from late prehistoric times. The roots were boiled, baked or even eaten raw. During the famine in these parts, Silverweed was used as a substitute for potatoes.
Our last stop is at another wildlife hide. It’s really a high, sturdy wooden fence with holes cut out to accommodate viewers’ different eye levels. We look through into the forest. On a tree not far away, a red squirrel is safely ensconced in a little wooden shelter attached to a feeder with a plentiful supply of food.
Here’s another definite sighting.
Ian leaves us with details of where we might still spot otters on the shore in Fort William.
On this safari we’ve not managed to see all of Scotland’s Big Five. But the searching has been splendid on a glorious day and there’s still time.