Sitting off the northwest coast of mainland Scotland, the Isle of Lewis and Harris is the largest island in the Outer Hebrides. The island is divided into two – with the ‘Isle of Harris’ referring to the southern third of the island, and the ‘Isle of Lewis’ referring to the larger northern area. Harris is known for its brutal mountain ranges, fjord-like lochs, white sand beaches, and rugged coastline. While most of the big mountain ranges are present in Harris, Lewis has incredible coastlines and barren moorland wildernesses.
The islands provide the perfect wilderness for some of Britain’s most iconic mammals including otters and red deer. Their eclectic range of habitats are also home to some of Scotland’s best populations of golden and white-tailed eagles. And it doesn’t stop there. Offshore there are fewer places around the UK that can boast such a fascinating array of marine life including bottlenose and common dolphins, grey and harbour seals, and even minke whales.
Average rating: 4.8 (very good)
Average cost: getting to the island by ferry can be costly – a return trip with a car can cost more than $100. While this is expensive, the ferry offers an excellent chance to spot dolphins, whales, and seabirds along the way. Once on the island, there are countless locations to go wildlife watching, all of which are free to visit.
Best time to visit: the best time for weather and wildlife is May to September, although the island’s eagles, otters, and red deer can be seen year-round.
How to get there: Lewis and Harris can be accessed by plane or ferry from mainland Scotland. The ferry to Harris runs directly from Skye. There’s also a ferry to Stornoway in Lewis from Ullapool in the Western Highlands. Once you’re there, driving is the only real way of getting around the island.
Typical activities: bird watching, hiking, mountain climbing, whale watching
Number of reports: 5
Last update: 2021
WILDLIFE IN Lewis and Harris
According to reports submitted to WildSide, the most popular species that can be seen here are:
Bottlenose dolphin – 60% OF WILDSIDE USERS (3/5) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
With a quarter of the world’s dolphin population visiting Scottish waters, the seas around the Outer Hebrides offer some of the best locations in the UK for spotting bottlenose dolphins. The Hebridean Whale trail – which has mapped the best locations for spotting whales and dolphins – lists several locations in Lewis and Harris where whales and dolphins are routinely seen from land. Bottlenose dolphins frequently swim beside ferries. So if you’re travelling from the mainland by boat, make sure you get a window seat! Alternatively, you can take a dedicated dolphin watching trip by boat. There are a number of companies offering cruises, Stornoway Seafari and Hebridean Adventures offer an up-to-date list and good opportunities to spot bottlenose dolphins. The boats aren’t allowed to disturb the dolphins so take some binoculars.
Common dolphin – 60% OF WILDSIDE USERS (3/5) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
With its mountainous coastline, north Harris offers excellent vantage points to look out to sea in the hope of spotting marine mammals. The best place on Harris for spotting common dolphins is Huisinis, where they are frequently seen out at sea from the shore. While Lewis is not as mountainous, you still have the chance to see them from land. The best place is Tiumpun Head. As they are likely to be quite far away, make sure you bring a pair of binoculars.
Common dolphins are easily recognised from other dolphins by their unusual colouring. Their backs are typically dark with white stomachs, and on each side, they have an hourglass pattern that is coloured light grey, yellow, or gold. As with bottlenose dolphins, you can also look out for these amazing creatures on the ferry or on dedicated dolphin watching boats.
Minke whale – 20% OF WILDSIDE USERS (1/5) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Minke whales are relatively common in Hebridean waters between May and October. They are most likely to be seen breaching the water with their dorsal fin. While they may appear dolphin-like from a distance, they are much larger, growing up to 10m in length. The Hebridean Whale trail provides some good locations for spotting minke whales. The Butt of Lewis and Tiumpan Head are two excellent spots. The tiny Isle of Scalpay, just off the east coast of Harris, also offers great views of minke whales from the coast. You can reach Scalpay from Harris by car, accessing via a bridge. There’s also a chance you can spot minke whales on the ferry from the Scottish mainland. Alternatively, you can do a whale watching trip by boat.
Golden eagle – 40% OF WILDSIDE USERS (2/5) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The Outer Hebrides is home to 20% of the UK’s golden eagles, supporting an estimated 90 pairs. Up to 40 of these spend their time in and around Harris and southern Lewis. With 22 found mostly around Lewis. The breeding season runs from May to July and there are a number of wildlife tours that offer the chance to see them. Alternatively, a visit to the Eagle Observatory offers one of the best opportunities to witness a pair of golden eagles in the wild. You can find it around 3 miles north of the Eagle Observatory Car Park on the B887. You can also check out the Eagle Walk led by the North Harris Trust which gets rave reviews from WildSide users.
Lewis and Harris are also home to white-tailed eagles. Unlike golden eagles, they are less likely to be found inland away from the coast or lochs. White-tailed eagles are bigger, have broader wings, and wedge-shaped tails. Their heads are a pale colour and their tails are white. Golden eagles, on the other hand, have smaller heads and longer tails. Their heads are golden and their tails dark. It can be trickier to tell juveniles apart as they can have a broad white band on their tails. Check out this helpful video to recognise them.
Eurasian otter – 0% OF WILDSIDE USERS (0/5) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Eurasian otters can be encountered along much of Lewis and Harris’ coastline and lochs. Wherever seaweed is draped on rocks, otters are likely to be close by. They rest in the seaweed and catch their food in and around it too. Otters can be difficult to spot as their dark brown coats mean they’re expertly camouflaged. It’s sometimes easier to spot them swimming or diving with a flick of their long tails.
With many of the roads hugging the coastline, otters can sometimes be spotted from your car. What’s more, a car can serve as a mobile hide. If looking for otters on foot, however, be very quiet and blend into your surroundings as much as possible. Wear dark clothing and move slowly, so your silhouette doesn’t break the horizon. Coastal otters such as those on Lewis and Harris can be observed at any time of day, although typically rest at high tide. There are quite a few sightings of otters from various B&Bs on Tripadvisor – such as Flodabay Farm who have a resident otter.
Grey seal – 20% OF WILDSIDE USERS (1/5) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The UK is home to around 40% of the world’s Atlantic grey seals, with the Hebrides supporting the largest colony in the British Isles. They can be seen on Lewis and Harris year-round. During high tide, they are most likely to be spotted swimming and bobbing around the islands looking for food or playing. During low tide, it’ll be hard to miss them lounging and basking on the island’s rocky shores. The best chance of seeing them is on one of the many wildlife watching boat trips – or alternatively, you could take a kayaking trip to get up close and personal with these amazing creatures.
Harbour seal – 20% OF WILDSIDE USERS (1/5) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Alongside the greys, Lewis and Harris are also home to harbour seals. Again, the best way to see these creatures is to hop aboard one of the wildlife-watching boats or do a kayaking trip. Alternatively, you can take a trip to Loch Fhionnsabhaigh where you can often find them in sheltered water close to the shore or hauled out on the rocks. They can be distinguished from grey seals by the unique V-shape of their nostrils. They are also much smaller than the larger greys. There’s a nice guide to help you tell them apart here.
Red deer – 20% OF WILDSIDE USERS (1/5) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
There are plenty of red deer on Lewis and Harris – but finding them in this vast, mountainous area of land can be difficult. Red deer are mostly restricted to the mountainous north Harris. You may well have some luck hiking through the mountains or moorlands. During the rutting season, good spots to look out for stags include Cravadale, Glen Meavaig, and Langadail. In the winter they are routinely found on nearby roads. If you want to give yourself the best chance of seeing them a guide is a good idea.
White-tailed eagle – 0% OF WILDSIDE USERS (0/5) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
White-tailed eagles became extinct in the UK in 1918 due to hunting and habitat loss. In 1975 they were reintroduced to the Isle of Rum in Scotland. Over time the population grew and they spread to Lewis and Harris. Since their arrival, the Outer Hebrides has become an eagle watching destination. Today there is an estimated 25 pairs breeding across the islands.
Loch Seaforth and Ravenspoint are two of many locations across the island which offer good opportunities to see white-tailed eagles. Although they can also be seen on the walking trail to the Eagle Observatory in Autumn and Winter. They tend to be most active during late Winter and early Spring, as they get ready for the breeding season. The Aline Community Woodland is one of the best locations to see white-tailed eagles in Lewis. Alternatively, there are several tours that offer the chance to see these fantastic birds up close – Seatrek and Hebrides Fish ‘n’ Trips both get great reviews on TripAdvisor.
Photo credit: WildSide team member Ash Welch