Last updated on September 25th, 2020
Puffins are part of the bird genus Fratercula which belong to the auk family. Their favourite food is sand eels, herring and capelin (a sprat-like North Atlantic fish). Favourite nesting site can be found at; Bass Rock, St. Abbs Head, Duncansby Head, Faraid Head, Lunga, St. Kilda and Sumburgh Head.
Everybody loves puffins. There’s something about their oversized heads, brightly-coloured stripy beaks and dumpy wee bodies that makes them impossibly endearing, and if you’ve ever watched them slapping their large orange feet around Scotland’s coastlines you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
I saw my first puffin years ago on a visit to Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth and I’ve been a big fan ever since. Bass Rock, if you’re unaware of it, is a huge outcrop lying a mile or so off the shoreline of North Berwick in East Lothian which has frequent sightseeing tours around it courtesy of the Scottish Seabird Centre.
Home to one of the largest gannet colonies in the world it soars above the pummeling waves of the Forth with cliffs that rise in excess of three hundred feet, and having seen it on frequent occasions while visiting that part of Scotland I was excited to see the birds that live there in such vast numbers they turn the black rock into a seething mass of white feathers.
What took me by surprise as I sat on the edge of the tour boat wasn’t the number of gannets rather than the acrobatics of the puffins. These birds effortlessly zip through the air at speeds that seem impossible with their stubby wings and they’re able to dive into the sea at a breakneck velocity.
The Atlantic puffins we have here in Scotland are a sub-species of auk which counts guillemots and penguins amongst their family, but all are notable for their incredible ability to ‘fly’ underwater.
If you’ve ever seen penguins at the zoo you’ll know just how clumsy they appear on land, but get them in the water and they transform instantly into graceful fast-moving animals that seem as well-suited to swimming as the fish they hunt.
Puffins are no exception to this family trait and watching their silent dives from 30 feet above the waves I was amazed at how skilful they are underwater as they hunt for their favourite meals of herring and sandeels.
On the wing these wee birds (they’re only around a foot in length with a less than two-foot wingspan) are surprisingly agile – despite how stocky their bodies are – but they have to flap their wings at near-hummingbird speeds to stay aloft.
According to the Scottish Seabird Centre, puffins beat their wings up to four hundred times per minute which means they need to eat lots of fish for energy, so luckily for them their over-sized bills can hold up to a dozen at a time.
As an added bonus those large crescent-shaped bills also make a great tool for attracting mates, although their vibrant bright-orange colour disappears once the breeding season is over.
Unlike many bird species, a pair of puffins will stay together for life with one staying at home to look after their young and the other out at sea looking for food but they work together to build the nests which they return to year after year.
After experiencing their silent hunt at sea I was surprised at how noisy they are in their clifftop burrows and it seems apt that the collective noun for a group of puffins is a ‘circus’. The combination of airborne acrobatics and amusing land-based waddling about fits that term perfectly.
If you’d like to see them up close for yourself your best bet is to visit one of the offshore island colonies (though there are plenty of mainland coastal colonies as well) that have regular tours or head 27 miles east of Edinburgh to see them in the Firth of Forth like I did.
I’ll cover a few of Scotland’s best puffin-viewing locations in the following sections.
Facts about Scottish puffins
- Puffins are part of the bird genus Fratercula which belong to the auk family.
- Their favourite food is sand eels, herring and capelin. The capelin is a sprat-like North Atlantic fish.
- Adult puffins eat in excess of forty fish every day.
- The birds often fly two hours to get to their hunting grounds.
- The name ‘puffin’ is an old-English word originally used to describe the unrelated Manx shearwater.
- Baby puffins are called pufflings. Awh!
- They’re highly intelligent birds. Researchers have discovered that puffins use sticks to scratch body parts their bills won’t reach.
- Horned puffins dig burrows up to three feet underground.
- Breeding pairs only raise one chick at a time. The egg (which weighs one-fifth of the adult’s body weight when laid) is incubated for around forty days.
- Puffins can live for up to thirty years.
- Males and females look identical except the males are slightly larger.
- During the breeding season the males grow a bright orange coating over their bills but it flakes off once the season ends.
- The Firth of Forth has more than fifty thousand occupied puffin burrows.
- Although Scotland is famed for its puffin colonies the largest in the world is in Iceland which contains over four million birds.
- The islands of St. Kilda which lie around one hundred miles west of the Scottish mainland were once a prime puffin hunting ground as the fatty meat was a prized source of food. They are still hunted in Iceland.
Map of popular locations to see puffins in Scotland
- Bass Rock
- St. Abbs Head
- Duncansby Head
- Faraid head
- Isle of Lunga
- Islands of St. Kilda
- Sumburgh Head on the Shetland Islands
Where to see puffins on Scotland’s mainland
While the majority of Scotland’s puffin population are found offshore on remote islands there are several areas on the mainland where you’ll be able to see them. Although they like to make underground burrows on these islands they prefer the safer environment of sheer cliff-faces on the mainland due to the protection these inaccessible locations give them.
These puffinries (yep, a collection of puffin homes is actually called a puffinry!) are usually found in remote areas of Scotland which are difficult to get close to, so if you’re hoping to see them you might like to think about taking a decent pair of binoculars with you – unless you visit the Scottish Seabird Centre which I’ll cover next.
Puffins at the Scottish Seabird Centre and Bass Rock
The quaint East Lothian coastal town of North Berwick has a lot going for it. In addition to the cute shops and cafes of the old fishing port there’s Tantallon Castle and Berwick Law (two of the counties top attractions) in the immediate area as well as pristine stretches of golden beach to the east and west.
There’s also the Bass Rock – described as one of the wildlife wonders of the world – a short distance offshore and the Scottish Seabird Centre which runs frequent boat tours to it.
One of the great things about the seabird centre is they’ve installed interactive cameras on the Bass Rock and a couple of other islands in the Firth of Forth so you can watch the puffins go about their business without disturbing them in any way.
These solar-powered cameras let you zoom in close on the wildlife from the comfort of the centre which means the birds are free of human contact and it’s the only place (that I know of) where you can watch puffins in this way.
The centre also has a viewing platform with high-powered binoculars if you feel watching a TV screen is a bit too hands-off, but for the ultimate puffin-viewing experience you need to get out into the water which is where the tour boats come in.
Tours can be booked online or at the centre and there are a few options varying in price and duration. You can take a three island seabird safari which departs from North Berwick and visits the Lamb, Craigleith and Bass Rock islands, you can take a private charter on a rigid inflatable, or you can book yourself onto a Bass Rock landing experience.
The inflatable tour will get you to the Bass Rock in double-quick time but prepare to get wet if the sea’s a bit choppy. The three-island tour takes a catamaran which is much gentler (my preferred option) but only sails around the islands.
The landing experience, meanwhile, lets you walk around the Bass Rock’s designated walkways to view the seabirds and native seals from just a few feet away, but it’s quite an expensive experience (£130+ per person).
If you want to find out more about the Scottish Seabird Centre, the Bass Rock and other attractions in this part of the country check out my guide to The Best Places to Visit in East Lothian.
Puffins at St. Abb’s Head
St. Abb’s Head National Nature Reserve lies on the Berwickshire coast five miles north of Eyemouth between Dunbar and Berwick-Upon-Tweed. This part of Scotland’s coastline is wild and rugged, formed an age ago by active volcanos which left behind a magnificent stretch of sheer cliffs and offshore sea stacks.
It’s an incredibly atmospheric place that really comes alive in the summer months thanks to the unusual mix of both Atlantic and Arctic animal species that thrive in the dense forests of seaweed growing close to the shoreline. And thanks to the huge shoals of fish that live there it’s also a haven for puffins.
The cliff faces and deep gullies of St. Abbs Head act as the perfect home for seabirds and you’ll usually see kittiwakes, razorbills and guillemots crowded into every available space, but it’s the puffins that are the biggest draw to the site.
Unlike the other birds which nest on grassy ledges and flat rocks, puffins prefer deep crevices in the cliffs which they hide their eggs in so they’re quite difficult to see from the tops of the cliffs, but you can at least get a good view of them when they fly back to their nests after a day of hunting.
If you visit keep that thought in mind as you’ll get the best views in the early morning when they set off and the early evening when they return but don’t worry too much if you miss them as you’ll see thousands of other birds throughout the day.
There are a couple of National Trust for Scotland designated paths in the nature reserve which run close to the cliff edge and others which circle a nearby loch, but please note that the NTS make a point of asking you not to explore the rest of the site as you could upset the breeding pairs.
This is explained in detail in the St. Abbs Head visitor centre which shows how human disturbance stresses the birds and causes them to leave their nests, but the three-mile circular walk through the reserve is so nice you shouldn’t feel the need to go anywhere else anyway.
Puffins at Duncansby Head
Duncansby Head is located in the far north of Scotland a few miles around the coastline from John O’ Groats. This is one of the remotest parts of the Scottish mainland but it gets quite busy due to the tourist trap attractions at the John O’ Groat’s visitor centre, although the picture-postcard scenery more than makes up for it.
The cliffs in this part of Scotland are steep and crumbling due to the different types of rock formations and they’ve become a bit of a tourist attraction in their own right due to the number of seabirds that call the monumental sea stacks their home.
You can walk there from either John O’ Groat’s car park or from the nearer makeshift car park at the Duncansby Head lighthouse, but if the weather’s nice I suggest you take the longer path as the coastline really is stunning and you’ll find great flocks of birds circling overhead all along the water’s edge.
Although the Duncansby Stacks are the highlight of a visit (they’re absolutely enormous) if you’ve gone there to look for puffins you might want to have a good look at the deep gorge called the Geo of Sclaites that lies between the stacks and the lighthouse.
The gorge sits in the middle of an area that’s designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and it’s an incredibly impressive place with sheer cliff-faces that plummet hundreds of feet down to the crashing waves below.
There are fences all around but I’d definitely keep children and dogs under control, especially if there’s a chance they’ll try to get closer to the nesting birds.
The puffins at this site like to hide away in the most inaccessible cracks and ledges they can find so it’s often difficult to see them but there are a few nesting sites at the innermost part of the gorge near the path so if you’re lucky you might get a good close-up view. I suggest you take binoculars if you want a good look at these puffins though.
Walking further east for half an hour will take you to the three Duncansby Stacks which you’ll be able to see reasonably closely at several viewing points but as the cliffs are so steep it’s basically impossible to see them from ground level unless you take a boat ride in from a seaward approach.
Even so, from the tops of the surrounding cliffs you’ll get amazing views of the hundreds of seabirds that call the coastline their home and you’ll frequently see puffins amongst the guillemots and gulls noisily screeching overhead.
Puffins at Faraid Head
This is another gorgeous part of north Scotland that’s wild, windswept and only lightly inhabited by humans, making it a perfect nesting site for the small colony of puffins that call the cliffs and sand dunes their home.
To be honest I’d probably recommend Faraid Head for a visit even if there weren’t any puffins as the view across Balnakeil Bay is spectacular. Vast stretches of golden sand and an azure-blue sea are the order of the day and it’s remote enough that you’ll frequently find you’re the only person there no matter the time of year.
To get there follow the A838 in Sutherland towards Durness and then continue towards the village of Balnakeil which ends abruptly at the start of a beach with a partially sand-covered road winding its way towards the remnants of a 1950s radar station.
Follow the water’s edge north and you’ll eventually arrive at an impressively steep cliff edge which is the puffins favourite nesting area and the location of gorgeous views across the Pentland Firth.
As with elsewhere in Sutherland, the puffins come ashore to breed in late April and usually stay till late August so if you’ve come to this part of the country to do a summer tour of the North Coast 500 you might as well take the short detour to Faraid Head to say hello to them.
As a top-tip, no visit to this corner of Scotland would be complete without a visit to Smoo Cave which is only two miles east of Balnakeil. Smoo Cave is one of the biggest sea caves in the UK and it sits at the end of a long, steep-sided gorge.
You can take a tour deep inside the cave (for a small fee) and there’s a lovely walk around the peninsula that surrounds it which is another favourite spot for seabirds to bob about in the sheltered waters.
Take a look at these links for tours around this remarkable part of Scotland.
Where to see puffins on Scotland’s islands
While it’s almost impossible to name every cliff face on the mainland that puffins like to call home there are a few islands that are famed for their puffin colonies.
These islands generally have the same geology (steep cliff faces) and location (remote and largely uninhabited) which explains why the birds choose to live there, although islands like Lunga are seeing increasing numbers of tourist groups.
Some of the other islands are so difficult to get to they’ve escaped the disturbances of Scotland’s tourism industry, although even St. Kilda – the UK’s remotest island – now has regular tour boats offloading people for day trips.
Let’s take a look at some of Scotland’s most popular island puffin-spotting locations.
Puffins on the Isle of Lunga
This is a small volcanic plug of rock that has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest thanks to its abundant plant life – some of which are endangered – as well as the surprising amount of wildlife that calls the island their home including grey seals, guillemots, storm-petrels and of course, puffins.
Approximately 47 different bird species can be spotted at various times of the year on Lunga but if you want to see the puffins the best time to visit is from mid-April to early August when they land to raise their chicks.
Later in the year the puffins move further out to sea though other birds like barnacle geese move in from the freezing conditions of Canada and Greenland so you’re pretty much guaranteed to see wildlife whenever you visit.
The Treshinish Isles are a real wildlife-lovers paradise and in addition to the puffins you’ll frequently see porpoises, dolphins and basking sharks as well as the occasional minke whale.
The only way to get to Lunga is via one of the organised tours and you’ll have to stick to their strict time limits as the time spent on the island is kept to a minimum in order to cause as little disruption to the birds as possible. Expect a full-day tour to include a maximum of two hours on Lunga depending on the weather conditions.
Because these wee islands are so remote the birds there are remarkably tolerant of people and you’ll find yourself able to creep up surprisingly close to them. You might get a disinterested stare or two but they’re generally not scared of people which makes a visit to Lunga one of the highlights of any wildlife expedition in Scotland.
Other than the puffins, the highlights of the Treshinish Isles are Staffa and Fingals Cave which is an incredible sea cave formed entirely by hexagonal columns of lava.
The acoustics in Fingals Cave are so astonishing it inspired Felix Mendelssohn to write an overture about it and Jules Verne to include it in several of his books. It was even said to be one of Queen Victoria’s favourite places in the whole of Scotland.
If you’d like to take a tour there click the below advert and search for ‘staffa’ to find the best Treshinish Island tour companies.
Puffins on St. Kilda
The UNESCO world heritage site of St. Kilda is by far the remotest puffin spotting location in this list but it’s one that really does need to be experienced by anyone who loves Scotland.
This tiny archipelago is situated about 40 miles north-west of North Uist (itself a remote Outer Hebridean island) and it’s the most westerly point of land in the UK. Uninhabited by humans for more than ninety years, St. Kilda has returned to nature with just a few ruined buildings on the main island of Hirta left to tell the tale of the people who lived there before they were evacuated in 1930.
Getting to these islands is a bit of (make that a lot of) a trek and you’ll need to catch a ferry either from the mainland town of Oban to North Uist or the island village of Stein on Skye.
From there it’s a four-hour boat ride to Hirta across unpredictable seas but once at the enclosed village bay you’ll find yourself protected from the howling weather by a crescent of towering hills that encircle the old settlement on all sides.
The low-lying bay rises gently towards the hills behind it which are the reason why the St. Kildans built their houses there – the hills would have offered at least a little protection from the elements that batter the rest of the island.
Even so, life must have been terribly difficult as the rough seas made fishing almost impossible and their only other source of protein was the seabirds that nested on the cliffs – most notably puffins which were easily caught with long poles and nets.
Although each islander consumed around ten puffins every day the birds managed to cling to survival on the perilous cliff-faces and today their numbers are larger than ever, which is just one of the reasons why UNESCO has granted St. Kilda the dual status of a Natural and Cultural World Heritage Site – one of the few places in the world to have the honour.
There are now an estimated one million seabirds living on the islands which is a wonderful achievement, but the downside for tourists is that it’s really smelly in the areas where they nest because there are so many of them. Still, at least you can escape the pong if you take powerful binoculars with you.
Puffins on the Shetland Islands
The Shetland Island’s aren’t quite as inaccessible as St. Kilda but they’re still fairly remote and visiting them requires either a choppy ferry ride from Aberdeen or a flight from Glasgow.
There are other departure points in Scotland but those are the two most-used, although to be honest I recommend you fly as the last thing you want to be doing on a holiday is dealing with seasickness in the North Sea.
You can find flights to the Shetland Islands on Skyscanner.
The Shetland Islands lie 190 miles north of the Scottish mainland so they’re quite close to Scandanavia, and many of the islanders claim to have as much in common with Norway as they do with Scotland.
That might be because there’s a massive Viking influence in the Shetland Islands and you’ll find loads of Norse influences like the magical Up Helly Aa fire festival held annually in January, Mousa Broch (one of the largest ancient forts in the world), and Jarlshof which is the site of a 9th-century Viking settlement.
Other than its fascinating history, Shetland boasts one of the most diverse wildlife areas in the British Isles and it’s especially popular with seabirds, no doubt due to the fact that no spot on the islands is more than three miles from the sea.
Around most of the coastline rugged cliffs act as home to thousands of pairs of birds and in the summer months there are fantastic seabird-spotting opportunities with over a million of them (one-tenth of Britain’s total seabird population) swooping across the islands.
Popular sites for wildlife tours include Foula, Noss and Hermaness where you can see vast flocks of gannets, arctic terns and skuas and Sumburgh Head which is the site of one of the world’s biggest puffin colonies.
The conditions at Sumburgh Head are perfect for puffins and in the summer it’s one of the few places where you can get up close to them without scaring them away. Winter is a bit of a different story as the puffins like to move elsewhere when the temperature drops but you’ll still see fulmars, shags, gulls and guillemots in the area.
The steep cliffs of Sumburgh Head provide lots of protective nooks and crannies for a multitude of birds to nest in and each species has their own favourite area but the puffins seem to like burrowing into the soft soil at the very top of the cliffs.
This spot is quite near the car park so you don’t even need to walk that far to see them which has to make Sumburgh Head one of the most accessible puffin colonies in Britain.
This entire area has been designated an RSPB nature reserve and the facilities are quite good for such a remote place with plenty of parking spaces, toilets, a visitor centre at Sumburgh Head lighthouse, a cafe and a wee shop. It’s even close to an airport so you could take a flight in just to see the puffins before heading elsewhere.
Another great location to see puffins is at Noss island which is regarded as one of the most spectacular wildlife sites in Europe. Noss is a short boat ride from the Shetland capital of Lerwick and it’s well worth the journey if you’ve any interest in wildlife.
There are over 23,000 gannets, 24,000 guillemots and 10,000 fulmars on this small outcrop and in the breeding season the chorus of more than 150,000 chicks and adults is unforgettable. The steep cliffs are ringed by tracks offering stunning walks and you’ll be blown away by the close-up bird encounters and the stunning views of Shetland.
The best puffin tours
The Scottish Seabird Centre for the Firth of Forth: Enjoy an hour-long cruise around the island of Craigleith and the Bass Rock, the world’s largest colony of Northern gannets. See puffins in their natural habitats on the Firth of Forth. Telephone 01620 890202.
Staffa Tours for the Treshinish Isles: At Treshnish, spend time ashore with the huge colonies of Puffins and other sea birds, and then explore the geological splendour of Staffa’s hexagonal pillars and caves. Telephone 07831 885985 or 07732912370.
Basking Shark Scotland for the Treshinish Isles: Visit the Treshnish Isles Special Area of Conservation, a highly important area for seabirds. There can be up to 3000 puffins on the island in addition to other seabirds such as razorbills, guillemots and fulmars. Telephone 07975 723140.
West Coast Tours for the Treshinish Isles: Over two hours will be spent on Lunga where you can visit the puffin colony, then time on Staffa and two hours on Iona to explore and seek out the rare corncrake. Telephone 01586 552319.
Shetland Explorer Tours for the Shetland Islands: Head to Sumburgh, the southernmost point of Shetland to see the Puffins which are guaranteed to be seen in May, June and July. Telephone 01950 477384.
Shetland Seabird Tours for the Shetland Islands: The ultimate Shetland wildlife experience and an unrivalled wildlife spectacle offering close seabird & seal encounters with the awesome Noss ‘seabird city’ backdrop. Telephone 07767 872260.
Seabirds and Seals for Shetland Island tours: Photographic opportunities with the awesome Noss cliffs in the background. View 25,000 gannets, thousands of guillemots and hundreds of puffins, razorbills, black guillemots, gulls, shags and skuas. Telephone 07595 540 224.
Go to St. Kilda for St. Kilda tours: See north-west Europe’s largest seabird colony including the UK’s largest colony of Atlantic puffin, northern fulmar and one of the world’s largest gannetaries. Telephone 07789 914144.
Sea Harris for St. Kilda tours: Sail past the highest sea cliffs in the UK, teeming with seabirds, and walk along the deserted street of Village Bay, abandoned in 1930 after 2000 years of continuous habitation. Telephone 01859 502007.
Kilda Cruises for St. Kilda tours: Visit one of the most important seabird colonies in Europe. The spectacular cliffs and sea stacks are a dream destination for ornithologists with puffin, fulmar, guillemot and one of the world’s largest populations of gannets. Telephone 01859 502060.
Buy exclusive not-available-in-the-shops puffin gifts from the Out About Scotland Etsy Shop.
Frequently Asked Questions
The Bass Rock in East Lothian. St. Abbs Head in Berwickshire. Duncansby Head near John O’ Groats. Faraid Head in Sutherland. The Isle of Lunga. The Isles of St. Kilda. The Shetland Islands.
Their favourite food are sand eels, herring and capelin. Capelin are a sprat-like North Atlantic fish.
Puffins come ashore to breed in late spring. After the breeding period they spend the rest of the year in the North and Atlantic Oceans in large flocks known as ‘rafts’.