Shimmering rivulets of water dance under our feet. When viewed from below, these hills appeared brown and lifeless, still shrouded in a desiccated, tatty winter cloak. But following the stream up the Gleann Easan Biorach valley, we now see a different picture. Insects and spiders – stirred into life by the warm spring sunshine – scuttle in our wake, a herd of red deer graze peacefully on the lower slopes, and alarm calls from birds warn others of the two interlopers trudging their way up the glen.
A black dot appears against the blue sky, just above a craggy peak. Soaring, surveying… our hearts beat faster and we quickly track its flight with our binoculars. Could it be? Already?? No. The rush of optimism subsides to disappointment; the wings are too rounded, the neck too short. Perspective is difficult amidst these massive hills but, even so, even to our relatively untrained eyes, it is quite obviously too small.
It’s a buzzard, nothing more.
But the sighting fills us with fresh hope. Now we’re dancing too, dancing onwards, upwards around the rivulets and over the rocks. Occasionally we glance hopefully back at the crag, but the sky remains blue and the ground brown, and our search goes on.
Arran is an eye-pleasingly oval island in the sheltered seas of south-west Scotland, tucked neatly in the Firth of Clyde between the Kintyre peninsula and the Glasgow metropolitan area. It is often called “Scotland in Miniature“, and for once the nickname is apt: ruptured abruptly into two halves by the Highland Boundary Fault, its mountainous north is geologically part of the mainland Scottish highlands whilst the low-lying arable land to the south “belongs” to the southern Scottish lowlands.
It is also – impressively – home to every member of Scottish wildlife’s “Big Five”: the red squirrel, the harbour seal, the red deer, the otter, and the golden eagle. Red squirrels are abundant in the forests of our native Luxembourg, but the other four, um… rather less so… Spotting these four creatures in the wild was therefore a natural – but optimistic – objective for our three-day visit to the island.
We were delighted to discover that finding the first three was rather straightforward. In particular, seals are everywhere around the coastline of Arran; it is difficult to go more than a few kilometres without seeing at least one playfully splashing in the water or lounging languidly on smooth rocks.
Red deer were also no problem to track down. Herds of them were roaming freely in surprisingly large numbers around our youth hostel in Lochranza, although Child #3 occasionally found them challenging to spot.
Even the normally secretive otter made an appearance for us, Child #1’s keen eyes spotting a ripple in the water uncharacteristic of the much more common seal. That boy has clearly watched far too many episodes of “Deadly 60″…
But the golden eagle remained elusive, and it was now our final day on the island. Our last chance. Using a local topographic map, I had identified some remote rocky outcrops in the mountains looming over Lochranza. The eagles would be incubating their eggs at this time of year, so I reckoned that if we could get within sight of potential nesting sites* then we would have a decent chance of seeing the birds themselves.
This was clearly not a job for the little ones; despite some protests, only Child #1 (8 years old at the time) was permitted to accompany me on this very special mission.
We reached the highest point of our hike – a plateau between the peaks of Beinn Bhiorach and Beinn Bhreac – without spotting even another buzzard, and began our descent towards the valleys of Gleann Diomhan and Glen Catacol. Flanked on both sides by high buttressed mountains and far from any human interference, we considered these glens to be our best chance of glimpsing an eagle.
And, sure enough, just after leaving Gleann Diomhan we spotted another bird of prey gliding high on the the thermals. My son was more optimistic this time, but not totally confident.
“I think it’s a golden eagle! Do you think it’s an eagle, Dad? Do you?”
I didn’t want to answer him; I didn’t want to disappoint him. I was almost certain it was another buzzard; those rounded wings again. What should I do? Acknowledge the possibility of it being an eagle so that he felt that our crazy mission was a success? Or be honest, and admit that it was all in vain?
Fortunately, I didn’t have to give an answer, for at that very moment another dark shape appeared silently over the mountain. Ominous, majestic, square-winged and HUGE, the golden eagle soared purposefully towards the buzzard, who immediately recognised its inferiority and sulked off down the glen. The contrast in size between the two was startling: there is no surer way of identifying a golden eagle (wingspan of over 2 metres) than seeing it utterly dwarfing the usually impressive buzzard (wingspan of 1.2 metres).
We stood there transfixed, watching this magnificent creature survey its lonely kingdom. Time melted away; the breeze stilled; everything was silent. The eagle skirted the buttressed rocks high up the mountain and then, satisfied that the buzzard had fled and that the two humans in the valley were no threat, disappeared again behind the crags. I’m guessing it was visible to us for twenty seconds, thirty at most**, but even now, three years later, my son still recounts this mission as “the best hike ever”, and the mere mention of our encounter with the golden eagle will raise a dreamy smile and thoughts racing back to the hills of Arran.
I didn’t take a photo, and even if I had the eagle would have been nothing more than an unsatisfying dot. Photos are but captured moments, and one simply cannot encapsulate a moment like this. It is too rich, too full of emotion to capture in words, pictures or any other form of expression. You have to be there, to feel the immensity of the glen, the light glinting playfully off the stream, the sudden realisation of sweat cooling on your skin, the silence of the valley, the majesty of the golden eagle… the magic of the encounter.
Daisy the bus visited the Isle of Arran in April 2014 (and will be returning soon!)
(c) 2017 Jonathan Orr
* Note that the golden eagle is afforded the highest degree of legal protection under the UK’s Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Among other things, it is a criminal offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb the birds close to their nest during the breeding season (Source: RSPB). For the purposes of this hike, we used the Ordnance Survey Explorer map of Arran (1:25,000) to ensure that we did not approach any rocky outcrops that could be potential nesting sites.
** We are fairly confident that we spotted another golden eagle a little later in the hike. But without a buzzard to compare it in size to, we are not 100% sure.