THE otter (from the Old English word otor or oter) is far from uniquely Scottish but is frequently described as iconically so.

After centuries of persecution, they’re said to be “flourishing” here, with a population of around 8,000, but that’s sod all in the great scheme of things. 

Everywhere you go now, in the wildest places, you encounter nothing.

As with tours promising whales, dolphins and the Northern Lights, your chances of seeing an otter are nil. 

That said, there are a few where I live and, once, I was relaxing with my back against a vertical slab of rock near the seashore when one came blundering along.

On clocking me he stopped in surprise (“WTF. It’s a weird dude leaning on a rock”), but I didn’t move, so we stood staring at each for a bit. 

When eventually I flinched, he lolloped awkwardly away towards the sea on his wee, short legs with me shouting after him: “Coward! Come back and stare like a man!”

Like most creatures in the evil system of nature created by a sadistic deity, they are vicious. 
As, of course, are humans. 

In terms of literature, the first thing that springs to mind is Ring Of Bright Water, where the author’s pet otter was beaned by one of the local intellectuals.

I should point out the otter we’re talking aboot is the Eurasian or European otter (Lutra lutra). Half of Scotland’s otter population are coastal dwellers, feeding almost exclusively in the sea. 

But that doesn’t make them “sea otters”, which strictly speaking refers to beasties hingin’ aboot yonder Pacific. It’s confusing, but the basic fact to keep in your heid is that the European otter is happy in fresh or salt water. 

More technical malarkey: our otter is a semi-aquatic carnivore belonging to the subfamily Lutrinae, a branch of the Mustelidae clan, which also includes weasels, badgers, mink, and wolverines.

It’s found along the waterways and coasts of Europe, many parts of Asia, and parts of northern Africa. The species is 22.5 to 37.5in long, not counting a tail of 14 to 17.5in. 

The female is shorter than the male. The otter’s average body weight is 15 to 26lb, although occasionally a fat old bloke might reach 37lb.

Rolling stones
Otters like to play, not chess or jigsaws, but slidin’ aboot and rolling wee stanes. Sad gits. They’ve right sharp claws and powerful webbed feet for the swimming and, like seals, can hold their breath underwater until the cows come home (which, in the sea, isn’t very often).

Their soft, insulated underfur is protected by an outer layer of long hairs which traps a layer of air to keep them dry, warm, and buoyant. 

Them wot swim in the sea have to rinse themselves in fresh water.

Lined with moss and grass, an otter’s den is called a holt, and is built under tree roots or rocky cairns. 

Male otters are called dogs or boars, females bitches or sows, and their offspring pups or cubs. 

They like a wee bevy or romp, which are collective nouns for the beasties (also family or lodge).

You say: “What about their poop? What’s that called, like?” Good question, madam. Sorry, sir. Their poops are called spraints. 

They contain fish bones, and have a distinctive aroma, variously described as like freshly-mown hay or putrefied fish. 

The Scottish Wildlife Trust compares it to Jasmine tea, but they’re getting into the realms of fantasy there.

Not heaven scent
ACCORDING to the trust, “otters leave spraints in prominent places, such as fallen trees, weirs and bridges, as ‘scented messages’, helping them to find mates and defend territories”. 

So basically, to attract a mate, you just leave a jobby in a tree. Might give it a try.

Although mostly living alone, like anyone else otters like a bit of nookie from time to time – and they can have it any time, unlike these poor creatures that must be “in season”.

The Herald:

Sh*****g takes place in water, and the gestation period is 60 to 64 days. One to four pups are born and remain dependent on the mother for 13 months. The male does eff all.

After one month, the pup can leave the holt and, after 10 weeks, is able to swim. It lives with its family for a year. Otters live to around 10 years, though sometimes 16, on a diet mainly of fish but sometimes also frogs, crustaceans, insects, birds and small mammals. 

Last week, an otter made the news for stealing £100,000 worth of koi carp from ponds in the grounds of a Chester hotel.

They are active hunters, chasing prey hither and yon. 

But live by the sword and all that. Earlier this month, video footage showed an otter jumping into a boat off Alaska to escape an orca or sea psycho.

Humans were aye the main enemy, though, hunting them for their pelts and using unfair methods including darts, arrows, nets, snares, traps and guns.

Otter pelts were once worn unashamedly, with the tails made into men’s hats, which had the advantage of making the wearer look a right plonker. Even bairns’ mittens were sometimes made from otter fur, though the weans would have cried if they’d known.

Ruff justice
OTTERS have also been hunted using dogs, the Vichy French of the animal world. From 1958 to 1963, the 11 otter hunts in England and Wales killed 1,065 otters. The nutters involved notched their poles after every kill, and the most prized trophy was the otter’s penis, which would be worn as a tie pin. 


Humans are better now, and otters are recovering in many parts of Europe. From the 1950s to the 1970, while it survived in the cleaner waters of Scotland’s north and west, it was lost from most of England and Wales.

However, in 2011, the Environment Agency announced that otters had returned to every county in England. Recovery was attributed to various factors: a ban on harmful pesticides; improvements in water quality; and legal protection.

In abroadshire, the Eurasian otter is listed as endangered in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Mongolia, and South Korea.

Korean mythology holds that people who see an otter attract rain clouds for the rest of their lives. I can confirm that this is correct.