The encounter on the island

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.

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Arran is an eye-pleasingly oval island in the sheltered seas of south-west Scotland, tucked neatly into 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.

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Source: Google Maps

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.

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Beautiful Lochranza

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.

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Many thanks to the Captain of the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry for adding a bit of colour and perspective to my photo.

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 Poppy (3) occasionally found them challenging to spot.

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Even the normally secretive otter made an appearance for us, Ash’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″…

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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 Ash (8 years old at the time) was permitted to accompany me on this very special mission.

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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.

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Up on the plateau

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, Ash 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.

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One last look back

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.

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106 thoughts on “The encounter on the island

  1. That shot of child #3 peering through binoculars is adorable! Although I also rather like the seal in the picture before, so you might want to take my compliments with a grain of salt. Scotland is just such a natural beauty that I never even thought about visiting the islands. Thanks for the tips! #wanderfulwednesday

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    • Thanks. It’s a funny photo that we cherish dearly. We love the way that the stag is looking directly at her; still makes me laugh 😀 Scotland is wonderful, and gaining an insight into the culture and heritage of island life is fascinating. The wildlife isn’t too bad either!

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  2. I did not know there is a Scotland Big 5! I’ll have to add that to my bucket list. The isle looks so beautiful. There are so many hidden gems in Scotland. We plan on doing the North 500 Route in May. #wanderfulwednesday

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    • Glad I could teach you something new 🙂 Being a relatively small island, I doubt if there is a better place to search for the “Big 5” than Arran – we certainly had a lot of fun trying to spot them. Thanks for reading, and enjoy the “North 500” (we’ve never been up that far!)

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  3. What a truly amazing experience, and I’m so glad that you got to see a Golden Eagle on your last day on the island! Scotland really does look extraordinarily beautiful and I can’t wait to visit later this year!

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  4. Well done on spotting all five and some great photos to go with it but it was the right call with the Golden Eagle to enjoy seeing it rather than try to photograph it and just see a dot in the air.

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  5. You have written this so beautifully – I loved to read it. It has also made me smile thinking of our road trip of beautiful Scotland. We are hopefully visiting the east coast this year . I loved reading it and will continue to follow your adventures xx

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  6. Oh this has stirred up lots of Scotland-loving thoughts. My husband is Scottish and I’m from the north-east of England so have an affinity with the country. Next time we visit we will have to look out for the Big Five. We saw ospreys in their nests on our last trip there but never golden eagles.
    I’m still laughing at the photo of your little one and the binoculars. ‘He’s behind you!’

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  7. I have heard good things about Arran but I didn’t know there were golden eagles. I’m even more tempted to visit now but even if we didn’t see one it’s still going to be a lovely place #ThePlacesWeWillGoLinky

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    • Arran is superb – hope you make there some day. As (I think) our experience proved, it is definitely not easy to spot a Golden Eagle, but the mere fact that it is possible is, even by itself, an enormous thrill.

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  8. What a beautiful description of this encounter. I can completely see why a phot would have been unsatisfactory – but your despription really does the eagle justice. And the landscape shots are powerful enough. We might be heading to Arran this summer – thanks for spurring me on to arrange it! #fearlessfamtrav

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    • Thanks for the kind words. Arran is a fantastic destination; I thoroughly recommend that you try to make it there this summer. I hope to write another post on family activities in Arran sometime before then, probably in May. Watch this space!

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    • Thanks! It was fun to do the interview, the first time we have been involved in something like that. Frankly I’m not sure if driving to Portugal with a six-week old baby was really such a good idea… But what can you do when you have baby pride, your family is over 2,000km away and you have a fear of flying? 😉

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    • Thanks for the kind words. Arran remains one of our all-time favourite destinations, and we are excited to say that we’ll be returning there later this year. Can’t wait to explore more of this incredible island!

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  9. Fantastic photos (I nearly wish they were bigger), and beautiful writing, so detailed and packed with emotion! It sounds like it was an amazing experience, truly inspirational. Now I’m off to add Arran to my ever-growing list of places to visit with my acorns 🙂 x
    #CountryKids

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    • Thank you for your lovely words (and for sharing). Arran is simply gorgeous, and it left a very big impression on us. So big, in fact, that we will be returning with our four acorns later this year. We sincerely hope that you make it someday there too!

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  10. Gorgeous photos. I’m very jealous – I already wanted to go to Arran for the geology, but the prospect of wildlife spotting is adding even more to the appeal (especially this time of year when presumably the midges are not out in force yet!) #countrykids

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    • Yes, the geology is also fascinating on Arran. In fact, the photo entitled “beautiful Lochranza” is us on the way back from a walk / short hike to see Hutton’s Unconformity. And you are correct – spring is too early for the midges; with the luck we had with the weather I think we caught Arran at its most beautiful! Thanks for reading.

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    • Well, not quite all five… I don’t think we spotted a red squirrel. The truth is that we weren’t even looking for them because we very often see them in the forests and even often in our garden in Luxembourg. In fact, before our trip to Arran we didn’t realise just how rare red squirrels are in the UK. Thanks for reading

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    • It’s true – we were very lucky with the weather during our visit to Arran. But this is, after all, Scotland: it isn’t always as calm and sunny as my photos may suggest! 😉 However, Arran’s location does give it a bit of shelter from the worst of the westerly storms. Thanks for reading!

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  11. What a beautiful part of Scotland you were visiting and wow to the great 5! We used to have Red deer here on the farm years ago but have had Fallow deer now for about 10 years. The Red Deer are much bigger and very impressive. In Scotland as a child was my last sighting of a Red Squirrel, I still remember now how excited I got seeing them on my Aunt and Uncle’s woodland estate. I think they were caretakers to one of the Forestry Commission sites. The exploration with your 8 year old to find the Golden Eagle sounds like one of those special times you will both hold dear. I’m so pleased you spotted one.

    Thank you for sharing with me on #CountryKids

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  12. This looks like such a wonderful place to visit. We’re heading up to Scotland soon and can’t wait to look out for the ‘big five’, I’d also really love to be able to spot some dolphins up there too.

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    • Wildlife spotting is such an engaging and stimulating activity to do with kids. Can’t wait to see what beautiful photos you will take if and when you do manage to track down the “big five”! Thanks for reading and greetings from Luxembourg.

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  13. Wow what an amazing experience on the Isle of Arran! I loved your comment about how easy the deer were to spot, but your daughter is totally looking the wrong way. And seeing a golden eagle would be just incredible. I was married at Culzean Castle in Ayrshire, and as I stood in the castle during the wedding ceremony my eyes were gazing out over the Firth of Clyde towards the Isle of Arran. I remember looking at the water and trying to calm myself down. It is a place that’s forever imprinted in my memory, although I have never ventured to the island yet. Maybe our next visit from Australia we will spend more time in Scotland, and explore that place too. I would love to see all of that wildlife – I never realised they were called ‘the big five’ for Scotland!

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    • Thanks for your lovely comment. And what a spectacular place for your wedding! The view of Arran from the mainland is one of my all-time favourite sights – those mountains across the water seem so huge, so forbidding, so ripe for adventure. Taking the ferry over and watching these mountains grow during the crossing is also an amazing experience. We love the island so much that we’ll be going back later this year; hope that you can make it there some day too. Greetings from Luxembourg!

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  14. Certainly sounds like the best hike ever! I do love the idea of looking for Arran’s big five – even a red squirrel would be a huge thrill for us although we see loads of deer (although not red ones) where we live in the UK. We’re extremely keen to see some of the Scottish islands this year. Arran is definitely on the list thanks to your fantastic post for #FarawayFiles

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    • Arran is a wonderful introduction to the Scottish islands. For starters, it is very accessible – near Glasgow and just a short ferry crossing away from the mainland. It also packs an amazing variety of wildlife and landscape into a relatively small area, meaning that it is easily explored, even with children in tow. Thanks for reading!

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    • Our kids have a bit of a thing for birds of prey. Living as we do on the edge of a forest in central Europe, we often see buzzards, kestrels and – the kids’ favourite – the red kite. But eagles? Never, making this adventure a huge thrill and privilege for us. Next mission for my son – the legendary peregrine falcon. Watch this space! 😉

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  15. My kids and I love spotting raptors as well – have never seen a Golden Eagle in the wild, but always delight when we can point out their cousin the Bald Eagle when home visiting family in Oregon! So very cool. Lovely images AND lovely story. Thanks for sharing with #FarawayFiles, Erin

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    • Exactly: nothing quite prepares you for the size of a golden eagle – it is absolutely enormous! We’re lucky enough to have plenty of red kites here in Luxembourg (look out for the distinctive forked tail) but I have never knowingly spotted an osprey. Perhaps another mission is in order? 😉 Thanks for reading.

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  16. Its 30 years since I went to Arran but your beautiful photos brought back a lot of happy memories of a beautiful island. We saw a lot of sea otters when we were there. How awesome that you saw the golden eagle – worth the trip for that alone. Thanks for sharing with #faraway files.

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    • Delighted to have brought back happy memories for you! Otters are tricky – you did very well to spot quite a few of them! We only saw that one otter (and, as you can see from the photo, it was quite far away, although in full view) so when we return to Arran later this year we are going to try to track down some more. Thanks for reading!

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