Cruising the Outer Islands of Scotland
Story and Images by John and Sandra Nowlan
“Scotland Slowly.” The perfect name for a leisurely voyage among the historic, wind-swept and picturesque islands along the west and north coasts of Scotland. These sparsely inhabited islands are famous for their geologic wonders, Viking and Neolithic monuments, abundant bird life and world-class whisky distilleries. Passage on a 200-passenger expedition ship gave us a unique chance, like sipping a good Scotch, to slowly savor difficult-to-reach communities in the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the Orkneys and The Shetlands.
With more than 30 years of experience exploring by ship some of the more remote places on the planet, Adventure Canada, www.adventurecanada.com, began this expedition cruise with an overnight in Glasgow followed by a bus ride to the coastal town of Oban. There we boarded the Ocean Endeavour. Our comfortable, 35-year-old, Polish-built vessel is ice-reinforced for Arctic and Antarctic passages. It includes well-equipped staterooms (no balconies) and several spacious lounges for relaxing and daily debriefings by the experienced team leaders and specialists in science, anthropology, geography and history who are traveling with this voyage. The quality of these resource people (most have a Ph.D. or special talents) is remarkable.
The ship uses twenty Zodiacs to explore coastlines and to transport guests to landing spots on the various islands we visited. Every guest is issued a complimentary, blue Adventure Canada waterproof jacket. On this journey, they proved very useful.
Our first Zodiac transfer was to Islay, the southernmost island in the Inner Hebrides. We landed on a sandy beach adjacent to Bowmore, one of eight renowned distilleries on this small island. With an abundance of peat, Islay whisky makers are known for their smoky, heavily-peated flavors so John took advantage of a Bowmore tour (not included) while Sandra took the included tour to Finlaggan, an ancient Neolithic and Viking ruin that was the seat of the MacDonald clan for 400 years. Both tours were fascinating.
The next morning, after a bone rattling ride in a bucking Zodiac slashed by sheets of North Atlantic spray and driving rain, we landed on the Isle of Iona, a place of Christian pilgrimage for centuries. In spite of the rain and wind, we loved our visit to the restored Iona Abbey near where St. Columba built a Celtic church in 563 AD and where monks produced the exquisite Book of Kells starting in 800 AD. An 8th century Celtic cross stands outside the abbey.
The stormy, very windy conditions continued the next day so changes had to be made to our itinerary, not uncommon with expeditions to remote areas. We stayed on board and enjoyed the Compass Club lounge and its outstanding collection of history and geography books. For dinner that evening many guests, including us, chose the traditional Scottish haggis, tatties and neeps (potatoes and turnips) dinner. We’d had the dish before but this version was excellent with the haggis reminding us of a rich meatloaf.
The weather finally cleared for our visit to the westernmost island group in Scotland, St. Kilda (65 kilometers west of the Outer Hebrides, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Birds rule the roost with abundant colonies of puffins, fulmars and, particularly, gannets. The captain of the Ocean Endeavour brought us close to one sea stack jutting dramatically out of the sea with hundreds of thousands of Northern Gannets clinging to every available square centimeter.
The Isle of Lewis is also the Isle of Harris on the southern end, famous for its Harris Tweed cloth. The capital, Stornoway, has the largest Gaelic speaking community in Scotland. We loved the town and its Gaelic heritage, particularly the Victorian castle landmark, and its museum display of several Lewis Chessmen. These 12th Century, intricately carved walrus tusk chess pieces were discovered on Lewis in 1831. Most are now in the British Museum in London but several remain in Lewis and are worth the climb to the castle.
Outside Stornoway, there is a spectacular ring of standing stones called Callanish. Erected 5,000 years ago, they are the most dramatic of several nearby stone circles built for unknown reasons in the Neolithic age (evidenced across Scotland from about 3,900 BC to 2,000 BC). They were a focus for ritual activity during the later Bronze Age and are remarkably intact. Because visitors can still walk among them, we found them more fascinating and personal than Stonehenge in southern England.
Ancient history lessons continued the next day as we docked in Kirkwall, Orkney, and visited the Ring of Brodgar, thought to have been erected around 2,500 BC. The stones form a huge circle of more than 100 meters in diameter, greater than Stonehenge. More bad weather kept us in Kirkwall overnight but gave us the opportunity to visit Skara Brae, the ancient remains of a Neolithic village occupied from about 3,180 BC to 2,500 BC. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the most complete Stone Age village ever found in Britain.
Kirkwall is also the home of the magnificent 12th Century St. Magnus Cathedral that took 100 years to complete and named after a sainted Viking ruler. Of particular interest in the church is the tomb of John Rae (1813 – 1893), the Orkney-born surgeon and Arctic explorer who discovered the final link (named the Rae Strait) to Canada’s elusive Northwest Passage. His reports were also instrumental in solving the mystery of Sir John Franklin and his ill-fated search for the passage.
More Kirkwall history is evident at the nearby Highland Park Distillery founded in 1798. It is very proud of its Viking heritage, including bloodlines of a number of people who work there today. The Vikings ruled the Orkney Islands for over 600 years and current descendants like to boast that the Vikings didn’t leave Orkney: they became part of it, a fascinating story you can explore on the distillery website. A visit is not an Adventure Canada scheduled tour (though it should be) so several of us joined forces to take a taxi there and enjoyed a full tour of the whisky making process, including the massive barley drying room. And a tasting, of course!
On our last day aboard the Ocean Endeavour the unpredictable Scottish weather cleared again for a visit to Foula, Shetland Islands, the most remote permanently inhabited island in the UK. The stark, treeless island covered with peat bogs has many Shetland ponies and sheep but only a couple of dozen residents to tend them. We felt like honored guests as the locals opened up the school for tea and complimentary pastries and offered local crafts for sale.
Aberdeen on Scotland’s east coast was an ideal city in which to end our Adventure Canada expedition. The city struck us as a smaller, but equally interesting version of Edinburgh. Its main street had the character and variety of shops and historic buildings found along Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. At a local bookstore we found copies of the Lewis Trilogy, a wonderful series of mystery novels by Peter May about a detective who investigates and solves crimes in Lewis and other remote islands in the Hebrides. Atmospheric and beautifully written, they take us back to this most extraordinary area of the UK and our excellent “Scotland Slowly” expedition.
Follow Up FactsAdventure Canada, www.adventurecanada.com, is a family-run travel company with thirty years’ experience in small-ship cruises to the world’s more remote coastlines. Its pioneering approach to expedition cruises and small-group experiences emphasizes wildlife, culture, learning, and fun. It is next offering the “Scotland Slowly” cruise from June 21 to July 1, 2019. For comprehensive travel information, see the Visit Scotland website, www.visitscotland.com.
In our Travel Article Library, we invite you to read about another expedition cruise adventure by the Nowlans: check out “Arctic Expedition Cruising Through Canada’s Northwest Passage.” Also in our collection, you will enjoy a more detailed land-based visit to Scotland’s Orkney Islands, entitled “Standing in the Stone Age.”
John and Sandra Nowlan are veteran travel and food writers based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Both have graduate degrees (Sandra a Master of Science and John an MBA) and started travel writing and photography after retirement. They have traveled to and written about all seven continents and about 120 countries. They particularly love expedition cruising to fascinating places (the Galapagos Islands, Up the Amazon, the Arctic and Antarctic). Visit their website: www.nowtravel.ca