CRUISING WITH THE CELTS
For those with a FASCINATION for wildlife, SECLUSION and wilderness, a cruise along the western fringes of SCOTLAND and IRELAND should be on your bucket list, as Claire Pitcher discovers
For discovery, wildlife and wilderness, take a cruise along the rugged coasts of Scotland and Ireland.
WHAT BETTER WAY to uncover the hidden treasures of Scotland than on the ocean wave? There’s a good chance not many people reading this even realise that National Trust Scotland offers cruises? Their ‘Colours of the Celts’ cruise takes you aboard the luxurious Pearl II on a 12-day tour of the coastlines of Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. The Pearl II is a four-star ship; famed for its delicious cuisine and small enough to navigate the waters of small ports or drop anchor off tiny remote islands.
AMONG THE CELTS
Setting sail from Greenock, the voyage begins with a visit to one of the six remaining Celtic nations, where communities have long stamped their unique mark on the land: the Isle of Man. The Manx language, folklore, ancient monuments and parliament have kept alive a strong sense of identity here. Docking at its capital, Douglas, you can take a challenging hike in one of the island’s 22 nature reserves, or opt for a gentle ramble through its legendary glens, nourished by waterfalls and deep rock pools. Laxey, on the east of the island, is always popular as many flock to see its 19th-century waterwheel and pretty harbour. If steam trains are more your thing however, then you must catch the Victorian steam train and if you’ve a head for heights (and views), the Snaefell Mountain Railway traverses extraordinary scenery to reach the summit, 620m above sea level.
After crossing the Irish Sea, the next call is Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city. Founded in AD 914 by Vikings, for over a millennium the city has been a hub for maritime trade. In the 18th century the town became synonymous with beautifully crafted crystal. Take in the Waterford Garden Trail, where you will discover a wealth of stately gardens including those at Mount Congreve and Lismore Castle Gardens, a 17th-century walled garden set alongside the Yew Tree Walk. Edmund Spenser is said to have written The Faerie Queene here.
INTO THE WILDS
Of course, Waterford’s not the only part of Ireland to explore. There is the southern tip, or as many refer to it, the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’. Following the footsteps of Ireland’s Neolithic immigrants, trace a path to Bantry Bay, said to be the first inhabited place in Ireland. Then on to Galway Bay to visit Inishmore (Inis Mór), the largest of the Aran Islands. It’s a green and rocky patchwork of stonewalls and archaeological sites, including the prehistoric Dun Aengus, where concentric stone rings form the remains of a fort that perched 100m above the crashing Atlantic waves. Twitchers will want to visit the wetlands of Kilmurvey beach to see a plethora of wildfowl and rare birds. There could also be a chance of seeing a Golden Eagle or Peregrine Falcon in Glenveagh National Park, wild moorland that’s also home to Glenveagh Castle and Pleasure Gardens. There’s more opportunity to see wildlife if you head back out onto the water on the waterbus into Donegal Bay, where you can spot a huge seal colony
KING OF CASTLES
Returning to Scottish waters after an Irish adventure, the next stop is Tobermory. This lively village, the heart of Mull’s fishing industry, is unmissable from the sea with its string of gem-coloured cottages lining the shore. Mull’s valleys and high mountains are Golden Eagle territory, an amazing sight to see during a drive inland. Mull was once land of the Maclean clan, who were part of a loose coalition of families that supported the Lords of the Isles in medieval times. Their stronghold, Duart Castle, is a formidable fortress atop the craggy cliffs and in part dates from the 13th century. It’s well worth taking the tour to find out its fascinating history and view the family portraits, dungeons and wooded grounds.
GANNETS, GARDENS ANDA GORGE
Leaving Mull it’s back into the open Atlantic towards the high cliffs of St Kilda, the archipelago renowned for its isolation, unique wildlife and formidable geological structures. St Kilda is made up of four main islands – Hirta, Soay, Dun and Boreray – and is the only dual UNESCO World Heritage Site in the UK, recognised for both its natural and cultural significance. Almost a quarter of the world’s population of gannets live here, a real spectacle to witness. After a stop ashore at Lochmaddy, a port popular with pirates in the 17th century, it’s time to sail back towards the mainland, and more extraordinary gardens belonging to Osgood Mackenzie in Inverewe. The Trust’s Corrieshalloch Gorge is a short scenic drive away too; a plunging box canyon, cleaving through the forest, spanned by a Victorian suspension bridge that was built by John Fowler, joint designer of the iconic Forth Bridge.
Sailing south, the next port of call is the largest of the Small Isles, which lie south of Skye. Rum’s diamond shape and volcanic hills cast a striking silhouette on approach. Inhabited since Mesolithic times, the island is now a National Nature Reserve managed by Scottish Natural Heritage, and a Special Protection Area for birds. Rum is also known for its slice of eccentric British history: the Victorian-edwardian sporting estate of Kinloch Castle. The castle boasted legendary extravagance in its heyday with hummingbirds flitting through air vents, a Jacuzzi and scandalous balls, from which servants were barred. In September, the rutting season will be underway and you may catch sight of stags strutting across the moorland or hear their distinctive primal roar. Possibly saving the best until the last full day, there’s plenty of time to explore ‘Britain’s last wilderness’, the Knoydart peninsula. Known traditionally as the ‘Rough Bounds’ and accessible only by sea or via a 16-mile hike over mountainous terrain, the peninsula is renowned for its stunning beauty, rugged grandeur and blissful tranquility. Much of it today is owned by the Knoydart Foundation – a partnership of local residents, the Highland Council, John Muir Trust and Chris Brasher Trust. There’s a population of just 100, but its four Munros, broad glens, rivers and lochs make it an appealing, if challenging, place to visit. Exploring the small village of Inverie, you can find a small visitor centre, pottery, tearoom, shop, post office and pub. The Old Forge is classified as the most remote pub in mainland Britain by Guinness World Records – what better excuse for a pint? Knoydart is great for walking, be it a coastal stroll, a woodland ramble or more challenging hike.
The Callanish Standing Stones on the Isle of Lewis
Glimpse the wonderful seals in Donegal Bay
Below: Garinish Island is located in the sheltered harbour of Glengarriff in Bantry Bay, in Southwest Ireland. Garnish is world renowned for its gardens, which are laid out in beautiful walks and it has some stunning rare specimen plants
Sunset over Loch Ewe, Highlands of Scotland