Coasts and cliffs

The cliffs and sea stacks at places like St Kilda, Unst, Mingulay, Fair Isle, Canna, Staffa, Culzean and St Abb’s Head are renowned around the world. We care for these famous landscapes and play a vital role in the conservation of native and endangered wildlife at our coastal properties.

Almost all our coastlines and cliffs are breeding grounds for internationally important colonies of seabirds. At other places, like Rockcliffe on the Solway Firth and Montrose Basin Local Nature Reserve, there are expanses of mud flats perfect for waders and waterfowl. At Montrose, over 80,000 pink-footed geese stop over on their autumn migration, making the site crucial to their survival.

Coastal grasslands are as biologically diverse as they are beautiful. Spring squill and sea pink crown the cliff tops in many places, while the machair on Iona and Canna, based on drifting shell-sand, is a mass of colour in May and June. The rich grasslands full of common rock-rose at St Abb’s Head provide sustenance for rare populations of northern brown argus butterflies, while the bird’s-foot trefoil and thyme on the remote western coast of Mull at Burg give nourishment to the even rarer slender scotch burnet and transparent burnet moths. The short grasslands on Canna are also home to a rich assemblage of moths and butterflies, which fascinated the island’s previous owner, John Lorne Campbell.

Cliffs provide protection for nesting seabirds, but they also protect delicate plants from grazing. Staffa, St Kilda and Canna all have vegetated cliffs, while on Mingulay, which was once extensively populated by sheep, the plants that grew safely on the cliffs are now spreading out. A colony of aspen is springing up on the east coast, and creeping and eared willows are also on the rise.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen this happen – a similar trend was found at Staffa National Nature Reserve, from where sheep were removed in the 1990s. This demonstrates that careful management of grazing levels on grasslands is essential to the preservation and nurturing of vulnerable plants.

3 key properties

St Kilda

Those who make the long journey to St Kilda are rewarded with an abundance of things to see (and hear), from two of the highest sea stacs in Britain (Stac an Armin and Stac Lee) to a world-renowned colony of almost 1 million noisy seabirds. St Kilda is also home to its own sub-species of wren, its own sub-species of mouse (twice the size of a British fieldmouse) and a primitive breed of sheep.

A Soay lamb eating grass on Hirta, St Kilda
A Soay lamb eating grass on Hirta, St Kilda

Staffa

This is certainly one of the most spectacular places in our care. Staffa is names after the Norse word 'Stave' or ‘pillar island’ due to the great basalt columns protruding from the sea, flanking deep caves. If the weather allows, visitors can enter Fingal’s Cave, a 69m-long cavern described by Sir Walter Scott as ‘one of the most extraordinary places I have ever beheld’.

The entrance to Fingal’s Cave on Staffa
The entrance to Fingal’s Cave on Staffa

Iona

The fertile, herb-rich coastal grassland on Iona, known in Gaelic as machair, grows on the crushed shells of marine creatures, and in the springtime it’s home to countless wildflowers. Keep your ears peeled, too, for the abrasive ‘song’ of the corncrake, a shy bird that hides in the reed beds and irises.

The grassland and beaches of Iona
The grassland and beaches of Iona

Did you know?

After a visit to Staffa in 1829, the German composer Mendelssohn was inspired by the astonishing acoustics of Fingal’s Cave to compose his Hebrides Overture.