The Highlands are about far more than geography: they’re a state of mind. The name speaks of wildness and wilderness, mountains, deep glens and fast-flowing rivers and, above all, of some of Britain’s most extraordinary and spectacular plants and animals.
Not that Highland wildlife is always easy to see. The place gives up its secrets unwillingly at times, and hard work and a fair amount of luck are needed to see some of the more elusive wild creatures. Midsummer and early autumn are the best times to spot the splendid marine mammals off the rocky coast: the bottlenose dolphin, the common seal and the killer whale.
Every day at low tide, a crowd gathers at Chanonry Point, on the northern side of the Moray Firth. They come to see the resident pod of bottlenose dolphins doing what it does best: hunting salmon. As the tide goes out, so the salmon returning to the river start to gather offshore. To hunt them, the dolphins work as a team, concentrating their quarry into a tight shoal before chasing it down and grabbing it.
Bottlenose dolphins at Chanonry Point; picture by L.Campbell
This is the most reliable place to watch these mighty cetaceans anywhere in Britain. Scotland’s bottlenose dolphins are the biggest of their species in the world, some reaching a length of 4m and weighing as much as 650kg. They can be told apart from other marine mammals such as the harbour porpoise by their larger size, long, curved dorsal fin and sociable habits – they’re usually seen in pods of up to 50 individuals, whereas the porpoises are more often solitary or in pairs or smaller groups.
If you’re really lucky, you’ll see the dolphins leaping right out of the water, then landing with a huge splash. Look closely and you may also see smaller animals – newborn calves – swimming close alongside their mothers. Baby dolphins are born in late spring, summer or early autumn, and are dependent on their mother’s milk for up to 20 months afterwards.
Further north, in the waters around Orkney, an even bigger creature is also searching for its prey. The killer whale (or orca) is the largest marine predator on the planet. A male can reach a length of almost 10m and tip the scales at five tonnes – roughly seven times the weight of the largest bottlenose dolphin.
Seeing a killer whale in British waters is never easy, but a visit to the seas around Orkney during the middle of summer gives you a good chance. This mighty animal is unmistakable: a huge, bulbous, black head emerges from the water, revealing a white patch behind the eye and another, larger white area beneath its mouth. Often the first sign that a pod of killer whales is cruising in the shallow waters is a long, sickle-shaped object protruding momentarily above the waves: the animal’s huge dorsal fin. Rip tides, when water rushes rapidly away from the shore, are good places to look for them, as this also concentrates the fish into a single area.
Elsewhere on Orkney, on the tiny island of Eynhallow, another mammal comes ashore to breed. Up to 900 common (or harbour) seals visit every summer, squeezing onto an island less than a third of a square mile in area. Once they would have shared this place with a score of hardy humans, but the people who used to live here left the island more than 150 years ago. Today, seabirds are the most abundant creatures found here, with both species of skua (arctic and great), fulmar, puffin, arctic terns and a few black guillemots (known locally as “tysties”) all nesting.
Common seals give birth in summer; picture by L.Campbell
Each June, the common seals arrive here en masse, hauling themselves out on the sandy beaches beneath the 20m-high cliffs. Despite their name, they’re the rarer of our two resident seal species, with 40,000–50,000 individuals in the British Isles, compared with about 200,000 Atlantic grey seals.
For the next two or three weeks the beaches of Eynhallow resound to the grunts and groans of female common seals giving birth. They do so in the area below the high-tide mark, and once the single pup is born, it’s able to swim and dive almost immediately – unlike grey seal pups, which stay on land for several weeks before venturing into the sea. The mother is able to feed during the suckling period – again, unlike the female grey seal.
Seals have become deeply rooted in our folklore and popular culture. The best known story is that of the “selkie” (a mythical creature supposed to be half-seal, half-human), which is well known around the coasts of the Highlands and Islands. The story goes that once the selkie leaves the sea, it sheds its skin on the shore and becomes human. But when it tries to return, if the skin has been lost or stolen, the selkie must remain on land, trapped as a human being for ever.
This is an edited extract from Highlands: Scotland’s Wild Heart, published by Bloomsbury. Highlands: Scotland’s Wild Heart is on Fridays at 9pm on BBC2.