Sitting off the north-west coast of mainland Scotland, the Isle of Lewis and Harris is the largest island in the Outer Hebrides. The island is actually divided into two – with the ‘Isle of Lewis’ referring to the northern two-thirds of the island. While most of the big mountain ranges are present in Harris, Lewis has incredible coastlines and barren moorland wildernesses which support some of Britain’s most iconic wildlife. Lewis’ coastline provides some of the best locations to spot minke whales, bottlenose and common dolphins in Scotland, as well as a range of seabirds. Beyond the marine life, golden and white-tailed eagles can routinely be spotted soaring above Lewis’ mountainous fringes and coastal areas.
Average rating: 4.0 (very good)
Average cost: getting to the island by ferry can be costly – a return trip can cost more than $100 with a car. 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 and otters can be seen year-round.
How to get there: the island can be accessed by plane or ferry from mainland Scotland. The ferry to Lewis is direct from Ullapool in the Western Highlands, although can also be taken to Harris from the Isle of Skye. Once you’re there, driving is the only feasible way of getting around.
Typical activities: bird watching, hiking, mountain climbing, whale watching
Number of reports: 1
WILDLIFE IN ISLE OF Lewis
According to reports submitted to WildSide, the most popular species that can be seen here are:
bottlenose dolphin – 100% OF WILDSIDE USERS (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
With a quarter of the world’s dolphin population residing or moving through Scottish waters, the seas around the Outer Hebrides offer some of the best locations in the UK for spotting bottlenose dolphins. To help find them, the Hebridean Whale trail has mapped the best locations for spotting whales and dolphins in the area. It lists several locations in Lewis where whales and dolphins are routinely seen from land – such as the Butt of Lewis and Tiumpan Head Lighthouse.
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 also do a dolphin watching trip by boat. There are a number of companies offering cruises, Stornoway Seafari and Hebridean Adventures both offer good opportunities to spot bottlenose dolphins. The boats aren’t allowed to disturb the dolphins so take some binoculars!
Common dolphin – 100% OF WILDSIDE USERS (1/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
With its mountainous coastline, north Harris offers excellent vantage points to look out to sea in the hope of spotting marine mammals. While Lewis is not as mountainous you still have the chance to see them from land. The best place on Lewis for spotting common dolphins is Tiumpun Head, where they are frequently seen out at sea from the shore. 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 for bottlenose dolphins and minke whales, you can also look out for these inquisitive mammals on the ferry to Lewis or on dedicated dolphin watching tours.
eurasian otter – 0% OF WILDSIDE USERS (0/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Eurasian otters can be encountered along much of Lewis’ 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 Lewis’ 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 can be observed at any time of day, although typically rest at high tide.
golden eagle – 0% OF WILDSIDE USERS (0/1) 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. Golden eagles are rare in northern Lewis due to the less mountainous landscape. The breeding season runs from May to July and there are a number of wildlife tours which offer the chance to see them. Or you can head to the Eagle Observatory on Harris.
While Lewis is also home to white-tailed eagles, they are more likely to be found along 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.
minke whale – 0% OF WILDSIDE USERS (0/1) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Minke whales are relatively common in Hebridean waters between April and October. They are most likely seen breaching the water with their dorsal fins. They may appear dolphin-like from a distance. However, they are much larger and can grow up to 10 m in length! The Hebridean Whale trail provides some good locations for spotting minke whales from Lewis – the Butt of Lewis and Tiumpan Head are two excellent spots. Alternatively, you can do a whale watching trip by boat. Or you can look out for them on the ferry over to the island.
white-tailed eagle – 0% OF WILDSIDE USERS (0/1) 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. With an estimated 25 pairs breeding across the islands. The Aline Community Woodland is one of the best locations to see white-tailed eagles in Lewis. They tend to be most active during late winter and early spring, as they get ready for the breeding season. Alternatively, there are several tours which 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