It’s 4.30am and I’m brewing coffee. We’re about to set off from Cambridge for a long bank holiday weekend on Islay. The stag party of three (not the most raucous of stag-dos) are packed and ready for wildlife watching, distillery tours and wild camping, and for all of us it would be a completely new experience of Scotland.

The view from the ferry (actually the way back, and of Jura, but you get the idea).

I volunteered in the Cairngorms last year so was well aware of at least some of the beautiful landscape Scotland had on offer, but for the groom it was a first. The less said about the 10 hour drive the better, but once we approached Loch Lomond the excitement started to build. The ferry ride from Kennacraig to Port Ellen flew by as we stood at the bow feeling the refreshing Scottish air.

It was a very short drive to our accommodation once we docked – just a stone’s throw from the Lagavulin distillery. The whiskey tour would come later, and sitting on the deck of our shack all I could think about was the little bay in front of me and its potential for otters.

A l-otter potential.

With not a hangover in sight we rose early and packed a lunch. The Mull of Oa was the destination for a good long walk and some wildlife. But before we could even really get going we pulled up in a layby. My friend had spotted something big.

“Is that an eagle?” he asked.

“…Yes!” I said. “Four of them!”

Yep, four golden eagles, just taking flight and calling like they were in a spaghetti western. Nice start.

The Mull of Oa is great little RSPB reserve, with clear signage of where’s best to spot specific things. The circular walk is quite short but we managed to make it last over four hours, taking in the views, the couple of ravens and the few gannets. Sadly we didn’t manage to get sight of the choughs on the cliffs or any marine mammals, but there was plenty of time left in the weekend. 

Back to base just didn’t feel right after a long walk, so we headed for the lighthouse near Port Ellen hopeful of there being a beach. And what a beach! Pristine sands, crystal clear calm water, and not another person in sight. We had a chilly swim with the jellyfish and a bit of rock pooling, then headed back for a BBQ.

Plenty of jellyfish, but not a whale in sight.

We’d booked a whiskey tour for Sunday morning after the swim, and the very friendly tour guide gave us a tip-off on some nearby otters. I’d guessed right, and just along from our cabin would be our stake-out for the night.

Clambering in the dark, accompanied by me keen-on-wildlife friend and noisy-not-too-interested friend, we settled in on a rocky crag.

Nothing. And I’m blaming the noisy friend for it!

Port Ellen at sunset.

Peat infused whiskey makes for an interesting breakfast, but overall the tour was very interesting and well worth a visit even if you can only manage the 11am booking. The ferry back was booked for 3pm, so that gave me about an hour to look for the number one thing I had on my list. Hen harriers.

My friend had booked the ferry from Port Askaig – clever, since we’d have the opportunity on the way back to drive through the north of the Island. We’d be going past Loch Gruinart, which is the other RSPB reserve on Islay. A quick look at the map table and I clocked the recent hen harrier sighting, visible from the edge of the visitor centre car park. I had half an hour left to scan.

Success! I think. It was unbearably far away and I can’t be 100% certain it was what I wanted it to be, but it was grey and quartering a field. I’ve decided I’m having it since we didn’t see whales, dolphins, choughs or otters.

We made the ferry in time, and all decided we’d have to come back soon, but for much longer. Perhaps a different island though – something to Mull over at least…

Jack