Scotland’s National Nature Reserves

Photo courtesy of Graham Niven – www.nivenphotography.com

There are 43 National Nature Reserves (NNRs) in Scotland, stretching from the Shetland Islands in the north to the shores of the Solway Firth in the south.

Managed by a partnership that includes the National Trust for Scotland, Scottish Wildlife Trust and NatureScot, the majority are also Sites of Scientific Interest and Special Areas of Conservation.

Together these very special places showcase the wonderful diversity of Scotland’s most important species and habitats.

Scotland’s Nature Reserves stretch across the length & breadth of the country.

Scotland’s glorious scenery

Scotland’s National Nature Reserves are endowed with the most glorious scenery.

In the far north west the big skies stretch as far as the eye can see, the machair runs towards the ocean and the only thing to disturb the peace is the rustling of the grass. There are few more beautiful places to get close to nature.

With the brooding presence of Scotland’s mountains, the towering cliffs and the intimidating river gorges, there’s plenty of drama to be found – what a story they could tell.

Native woodland trails provide a tranquil but occasionally eerie setting when the sun goes down. When winter turns to spring, an intricately woven carpet of seasonal wildflowers delivers a splash of contrasting colour against the forest hues.

The wetlands and marshes of some reserves, where wellington boots are de rigueur, are home, during the winter months, to vast numbers of birds, some of which arrive from the Arctic to spend the winters in Scotland.

Add, to all the above, a substantial dash of history, a little folklore, a pinch of witchcraft, some secret ingredients, a dram of whisky – of course – stir gently and you have… Scotland’s National Nature Reserves in all their glory.

But given such an epicurean selection, which reserves should you visit? Undoubtedly you should see them all but given the constraints of modern life, the ones listed below will give you a flavour of what you might discover. 


Loch Maree

Beinn Eighe and Loch Maree Islands

The reserve, dominated by the Beinn Eighe ridge and its cluster of peaks, is Britain’s oldest National Nature Reserve and sits within the UNESCO Wester Ross Biosphere Reserve.

Established in 1951 to protect the remnants of an ancient Caledonian pine wood forest, the Loch Maree Islands, more than 40 of them, became part of the reserve in 2014.

For geological sleuths and fossil hunters, Beinn Eighe, part of the Torridon Mountains, offers a window on Scotland’s distant past. In an area once covered with glaciers from the last Ice Age, the oldest rocks are over one billion years old.

For walkers, the challenging mountain trail begins at the foot of Coille na Glas-Leitir (wood of the grey slope). After a gentle start the trail steepens as height is gained. Follow the marker cairns to the finish at Conservation Cairn at around 1,800 feet. 

The view at this point, to the ridges of Beinn Eighe, Meall a’Ghiubhais and the imposing bulk of Slioch, makes it all worthwhile.

This historic landscape, mountains and woodland, is home to a diverse range of wildlife, while buzzards, golden eagles and white-tailed eagles, Britain’s largest bird of prey, regularly patrol the loch.

Loch Maree Islands

Some of the islands are but pinpricks but a few have a tale to tell. The Isle Maree is one of them.

Although there are no visible remains, the Isle Maree was once the site of a small chapel founded by St Maelrubha between 671 and 722.

There are still a few tantalising reminders of a much earlier time on this diminutive yet wonderfully evocative site. But it’s a place where legends, superstitions and folklore clash with archaeology and historical analysis. Perhaps it’s this that makes it such a fascinating place to visit. 

St Kilda National Nature Reserve

St Kilda is a volcanic archipelago comprising the islands of Boreray, Dun, Soay, and the main island of Hirta. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Scotland’s remotest National Nature Reserve.

This spectacular NNR – ‘the islands at the edge of the world’ – lies around 50 miles west of the Hebridean Isle of Harris.

St Kilda’s cliffs, some of the highest in Europe, and sea stacks –Stac Lee, Stac an Armin and others – are home to an estimated one million seabirds at the height of the breeding season. 

Among this vast flock, all with just one thing on their mind, are fulmars, gannets, storm petrels, kittiwakes, the very occasional snowy owl and everybody’s favourite the puffin. 

Just imagine the cacophony as noisy neighbours squabble and jostle for territory. 

St Kilda

Seabird sanctuary without parallel in Europe

UNESCO says, “St Kilda supports the largest seabird colony in the north-east Atlantic, its size and diversity is of global significance making it a seabird sanctuary without parallel in Europe.”

The sea caves in the waters around the archipelago are filled with marine life and are a magnet for divers from around the world.

St Kilda, an ornithologist’s dream or a lesson in social history?

A visit to this remote reserve is not just about its wildlife, it is also about discovering its unique social history. 

When writer Martin Martin (in Gaelic, Màrtainn MacGilleMhàrtainn) visited in 1697, he observed, “The inhabitants of St Kilda, are much happier than the generality of mankind, as being almost the only people in the world who feel the sweetness of true liberty.”

More than two centuries later things had changed. An ageing population, challenging living conditions and the vicious winter storms of 1929, forced the islanders to relocate to the mainland. The final 36 hardy souls left Hirta forever in August 1930. 

Today some of the typically Hebridean blackhouses remain. There’s also a restored schoolroom, church and a museum that tells St Kilda’s fascinating story.

Corrieshalloch Gorge

Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve

Corrieshalloch Gorge, carved by the meltwater of the retreating Ice Age and almost 200 feet in depth at some points, lies a short distance from the pretty village of Ullapool. It’s the smallest of Scotland’s National Nature Reserves.

The River Droma, en route to Loch Broom, surges through the gorge descending as it goes through a series of waterfalls including the spectacular Falls of Measach.

A Victorian bridge crosses the gorge. Designed to take only six people at a time it will sway, just a little, as you cross, so you do need a head for heights. It’s not unusual to see visitors clutching the arm of a fellow traveller as they edge gingerly across.

The rising mist and spray add to the atmosphere.

A nearby cantilevered viewing platform offers both spectacular views, best after heavy rain, and another challenge for vertigo sufferers.

The dark and sheltered conditions give the gorge its own microclimate allowing a range of flora and fauna to flourish. 

In the late spring, for example, the pretty blue Germander speedwell flowers, considered to bring good luck to travellers will bloom.

The surrounding woodland walks, with their display of ferns and mosses, have views towards the distant Loch Broom where Russian factory ships once gathered to process the mackerel catch. 

Ben Lawers

Ben Lawers National Nature Reserve

Situated less than 50 miles from Stirling in central Scotland the reserve has at its heart the mountain from which it takes its name. 

At 3983 feet, Ben Lawers is one of Scotland’s highest Munros (mountains over 3,000 feet). For Munro baggers

there are another six within the reserve to whet their appetite.

With good visibility, the views stretch to Ben Lomond and Glencoe in the west and to the Cairngorms in the east.

Managed by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), the reserve is amply endowed with Arctic-alpine plants, the most extensive collection in Britain. Found on the upper reaches of the Ben, some are considered nationally rare. The delightful, blue alpine gentian is only one among many.

On the lower slopes, lichens and mosses, many of them rare, grow freely.

The keen-eyed visitor will spot all manner of wildlife. There are red deer, and ptarmigan, which change their plumage to white in winter as does the now protected mountain hare. Another winter resident is the snow bunting which arrives from the Arctic.

Buzzard sightings are relatively common and you might, just might, spot a golden eagle too.

There are several trails to explore including the Edramucky Caterpillar Trail, perfect for children, and the Kiltyrie Hidden History Trail which NTS says, “reveals patterns of survival and adaption in the landscape and its people.”

Caerlaverock Castle

Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve

Caerlaverock National Nature Reserve lies on the northern shore of the Solway Firth in the south west of Scotland.

It sits at the centre of Caerlaverock Estate where Caerlaverock Castle has been part of the landscape since the 13th century. 

Unlike the terrain of Highland Scotland, the Solway Firth has a landscape of sandbanks, mudflats and saltmarshes or ‘merse’ as it’s known in Scotland.

The rasping call of the natterjack toad, Britain’s rarest amphibian, in search of a mate will welcome you to the reserve. 

The Natterjack Toad

It’s a haven for all types of wildfowl and as the seasons change so do Caerlaverock’s residents. During the year skylarks, barnacle geese, whooper swans, ducks, waders and many other species will come to this part of Scotland. 

For sheer spectacle, winter is the best time for birdwatching. 

Sweet smelling holy grass, marsh orchids and fuchsias are among the many varieties of flora and fauna on display.

Swans at Caerlaverock Nature Reserve

More information 

Much more information on all Scotland’s National Nature Trails and their visitor facilities is available on the NatureScot website. 

Although we digress slightly here, it is well worth mentioning that the Wester Ross Biosphere and the St Kilda archipelago are both included in the UNESCO National Trail in Scotland. This new and very exciting digital trail connects 13 UNESCO designations in Scotland. 

Visit Scotland’s National Nature Reserves with MacLean and Bruce

Working with influential and knowledgeable local partners, MacLean and Bruce will create an individually crafted tour of the nature reserves of your choice.

You could, for example, take a tour in conjunction with a wildlife photography masterclass, an off-road driving adventure, a private luxury whisky distillery tour or as part of another of our tailored experiences.

Get in touch to plan your luxury trip to Scotland.


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