Highlands of Scotland – Where eagles dare

by Garry Cook

You want eagles? He’s got them. It’s a brave man who promises you a sighting of one of the rarest and most graceful of birds in the world. But Jim Michie delivers at his word.

Signposted by the stunning Glenfinnan tower, Loch Shiel is one of the most outstanding stretches of water in Scotland, situated along the Road To The Isles in Inverness-shire.

This long and twisting road takes you some 50-odd miles from Fort William to Mallaig, the port which acts as a gateway to Skye, Rum, Eigg, Canna and Muck.

And halfway along is Glenfinnan, the historical meeting place of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite rebellion in 1745. Now it is home to Sileas, Jim’s 66-year-old boat which is able to take the traveller on a magical journey in search of the Golden Eagle.

Sileas was a rusting wreck when Jim got his hands on it a decade ago. A painstaking restoration has transformed the vessel into a delightful cruiser.

Despite the stunning panorama of Shiel, Jim soon realised that visitors were more interested in the Golden Eagles nesting high on the loch’s mountainside.

I thought I had enjoyed my quota of wildlife for the day as I had lunch in the nearby Glenfinnan House Hotel. While devouring my delicious butter beans on toast I gazed out of the huge bay window only to have my view blocked by two wandering deer who had decided to use the hotel grounds as a snack stop.

But it was the eagles I’d come for and as I was handed a pair of binoculars I was nervous. I expected the law of averages to leave me eagle-eyed-less.

The weather was warm during my Scottish saute, but on the loch it was freezing. Jim warned me that the cloud, which was clinging to the top of the mountains, would make a sighting more difficult. But he had seen three eagles the day before.

I held my breath as we approached Eagle Cliff. Jim slowed the boat. There, he said, was an eagle sitting on the rock. “I think I can see it,” I said. I re-focused the binoculars. Turns out I was looking at a rock. I was the only one who didn’t see the eagle. I was gutted.

We carried on down the loch. Jim pointed out areas of interest as we motored along. Over an hour and a coffee later we were heading back towards Glenfinnan. Second time lucky? You bet.

My first sighting was of a pair of huge soaring feathered wings gliding out over the moutainside, slowly floating out of view within seconds. It was a heart-stopping moment.

Then, to my joy, the majestic creature came back for more. It swirled above us and then settled on craggy rock edge. As we drifted to a halt, the eagle looked down as if waiting for us to move on. But we weren’t going to budge, not for an opportunity like this. It was a five-minute stand-off. It was amazing.

Then, effortlessly, away he flew. Soaring again, curving off over the mountain. Jim was as delighted as we were. We floated back to Glenfinnan. Literally.

Nature can be stunning, but just 24 hours later I was reminded that the work of humans can be equally breathtaking.

At the end of the Road To The Isles is the fishing port of Mallaig, gateway to the Small Isles. And it is to remote Rum, via the CalMac ferry, that my interest has been drawn.

Rum is a sizeable, largely unspoiled island, a walkers paradise and a wildlife haven of puffins, deer, otters and seals. There is no tarmac on the island, just some bumpy tracks and a handful of houses – only one a Bed and Breakfast. Rum’s population is 20.

However there is a very good reason to visit Rum – Kinloch Castle. The story behind this 100-year-old marvel is surpassed only by its splendour.

I have never seen a castle so complete, so extravagant and so perfect.

Built by playboy George Burrough in 1901, the castle’s interior remains almost entirely unchanged since its 1920s heyday.

Burrough, who’s father made his money in the Lancashire cotton mills, built the castle from scratch, sparing no expense. He would hold parties – some say orgies – on the island. The ‘wow’ factor you get upon entering the main hall is exactly how past guests would have seen it in the 20th century.

The working Imhof & Mukle Orchestrion organ was built for Queen Victoria. Burrough bought it instead. He had electricity via hydro-electric machinery installed at a time when just one city in the world – Glasgow – had electricity. The decoration is stunning, the huge ornaments collected from around the world, many from Japan are jaw-dropping.

It is the best castle I have ever visited, the Golden Eagle of castles.