Bird-watching In The Scottish Wilderness

November 11, 1990|By Candace Leslie

The day begins with bird song. The cuckoo's humorous call and the chaffinch's cheerful descending trill serve better than any alarm clock to awaken you to day at Borrobol Lodge, deep in the county of Sutherland, in far northern Scotland.

Not many tourists visit this wild and beautiful land where red deer roam the barren moors in great restless herds and where villages are few and far between. But birds come in abundance. From Europe, from North Africa and beyond, they begin arriving in May and settle down to nest, to lay their eggs and raise their young.

Many of the tourists who do make it to this remote area are bird-watchers, and some end up at the turn-of-the-century estate of Michael Wigan, a journalist and bird lover. His weeklong program welcomes visitors to his Edwardian sporting lodge and provides them with a knowledgeable guide who leads them on daily expeditions through thewoods and moorlands, above the cliffs and along the beaches and lochs (lakes) and burns (streams) of Britain's last remaining wilderness.

Borrobol Birding was begun in 1986 and attracts weekend birders or hobbyists who enjoy exploring a variety of habitats in search of even the shyest birds. At first glance, Sutherland seems a barren place, but it is this vast openness that makes it so ideal for bird-watchers. Except for an occasional newly planted forest or tangled burnside thicket, nothing stands in the way of the long view through telescope or binoculars.

The variety of species rewards even the most seasoned birder; accessibility and visibility appeal to the greenest of beginners. Programs at Borrobol run a week, with an optional second week available. Days are long, and filled with comfortable drives and treks through Sutherland and Caithness. Because the lodge is only 15 miles from the Atlantic and the North Sea coasts, and only 30 from the Minch to the west, visitors can visit a surprising array of habitats in a day.

Under the skillful and entertaining guidance of Minette Macdonald, formerly of the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds, visitors roam the high cliffs of the northern coastline, hike the heather-clad rolling moorland, explore the freshwater lochans (small lakes) and sparkling burns, and scout the loch shores and seashores of northernmost Britain. Thirty or 40 species of birds may be sighted in one outing, from kittiwakes and skuas and puffins on Handa Island to oyster catchers and lapwings in Borrobol itself.

Borrobol Lodge surrounds its guests with comfort. xTC Accommodating only about six visitors at a time, it provides an atmosphere of handsome hominess with a touch of old-fashioned Scottish sporting life. A fire in the fireplace and a generous glass of sherry or local malt greet lodgers after a day out of doors. Hunting trophies, and fine wildlife and landscape paintings, enhance every room. Dinners are late and relaxed, featuring cuisine appropriate to the estate -- roast lamb with mint sauce, venison with rowan jelly, salmon from a nearby river, rhubarb from just outside the kitchen door. Wine from the selectively stocked cellar accompany the evening menu.

Best of all is the conversation. Mr. Wigan's knowledge of the history and culture of Sutherland and of Scotland is impressive. He tells of the early settlers in this wild land, those unknown folk who built the curious drystone brochs (tower-shaped dwellings)

along the coastline and beside the rivers several thousand years ago. (Perhaps visitors had hiked to one of the ruins and had a picnic lunch there earlier in the week.)

He tells the sad story of the Clearances, and of the people who roamed the world after being displaced by sheep at the hands of the notorious Duke of Sutherland. (Guests might have seen the foundations of their ruined houses and villages as they roamed the countryside.) He talks about the wildlife and the threat of too much forestation. He describes the Scottish style of hunting and fishing, and the role of gillies -- traditional outdoor guides for sportsmen.

"Tomorrow you will visit the Crofters' Museum," he promises, describing how Scottish people lived on small rented farms after the government tried to set things right following the Clearances. Or, "tomorrow you will see Dunrobin Castle," or "tomorrow you will explore the neolithic cairns at Camster," or "tomorrow, perhaps, you will see a golden eagle." First, though, visitors fall gratefully into bed, snuggle down under the cozy duvet and sleep well, unbothered by the late and lingering twilight (the sun sets very late this far north in late spring) or the owl hooting in the estate's backdoor woods.

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