EX­PLOR­ING SCOT­LAND’S OUTER ISLANDS WITH AD­VEN­TURE CANADA

Cruise through windswept, bar­ren ar­chi­pel­a­gos to discover a cor­nu­copia of won­ders.

Dreamscapes Travel & Lifestyle Magazine - - Table Of Contents - BY JOHN & SANDRA NOWLAN

Reach­ing the iso­lated, his­toric and pic­turesque ar­chi­pel­a­gos along the west and north coasts of Scot­land is a ma­jor lo­gis­ti­cal chal­lenge if one plans to visit by lo­cal ferry or air­plane. How­ever, Ad­ven­ture Canada, the On­tario-based fam­ily com­pany with more than 30 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence ex­plor­ing some of the more remote places on the planet by ship, has solved the prob­lem by of­fer­ing an 11-day ex­pe­di­tion cruise that vis­its the In­ner and Outer He­brides, the Orkneys and the Shet­lands. It’s the per­fect way to ex­pe­ri­ence the unique, windswept and of­ten bar­ren land­scapes, meet the re­mark­able in­hab­i­tants, en­joy a wee dram or two at the fa­mous dis­til­leries, im­merse your­self in Gaelic cul­ture and ap­pre­ci­ate the re­mark­able hu­man his­tory, some dat­ing as far back as 5,000 years.

The ad­ven­ture is called “Scot­land Slowly” and it’s an ideal name for an ex­cur­sion that takes its time so 200 guests can fully ab­sorb and ap­pre­ci­ate the iso­lated islands and their many won­ders.

Our home for 11 days was the Ocean En­deav­our, a com­fort­able, 35-year-old Pol­ish­built ves­sel, ice-re­in­forced for Arc­tic and Antarc­tic pas­sages. The ship in­cluded welle­quipped state­rooms (no bal­conies) and sev­eral spa­cious lounges for re­lax­ing and daily de­brief­ings by ex­pe­ri­enced team lead­ers and spe­cial­ists in science, an­thro­pol­ogy, ge­og­ra­phy and his­tory. The qual­ity of th­ese re­source peo­ple (most had a PHD or spe­cial tal­ents) was re­mark­able. The com­pany used twenty 10-pas­sen­ger Zo­di­acs to ex­plore coast­lines and trans­port guests to land­ing spots on the var­i­ous islands we vis­ited. Ev­ery guest was is­sued a com­pli­men­tary blue Ad­ven­ture Canada wa­ter­proof jacket, which proved to be very use­ful.

ISLAY

Af­ter leav­ing the coastal town of Oban, our first Zo­diac trans­fer was on 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 flavours. John took ad­van­tage of a Bow­more tour while Sandra took the in­cluded Ad­ven­ture Canada tour to Fin­lag­gan, an an­cient Ne­olithic and Vik­ing ruin that was the seat of the Macdon­ald clan for 400 years. Both tours were fas­ci­nat­ing.

IONA

The next morn­ing, af­ter a bone-rat­tling ride in a buck­ing Zo­diac, slashed by sheets of North At­lantic spray and driving rain, we came upon the Isle of Iona, a place of Chris­tian pil­grim­age for cen­turies. In spite of the rain and wind, ev­ery­one seemed to love the visit to the re­stored Iona Abbey near where St. Columba built a Celtic church in AD 563 and where monks pro­duced the exquisite Book of Kells start­ing in AD 800. An eighth-cen­tury Celtic cross still stands out­side the abbey.

AT SEA

As of­ten hap­pens with ex­pe­di­tion cruising, weather con­di­tions in remote ar­eas dic­tate daily plans so in­stead of land­ing the next day at Skye, 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 din­ner. It was su­perb.

The weather fi­nally cleared for our visit to the west­ern­most is­land group in Scot­land, St. Kilda (a World Her­itage Site and a Na­tional Na­ture Re­serve 65 kilo­me­tres west of the Outer He­brides). Birds rule here with abun­dant colonies of puffins, ful­mars and, par­tic­u­larly, gan­nets. Our cap­tain ma­noeu­vred the ship close to one sea stack jut­ting dra­mat­i­cally out of the sea where tens of thou­sands of north­ern gan­nets clung to ev­ery avail­able square cen­time­tre.

ISLE OF LEWIS

The Isle of Lewis (also the Isle of Har­ris on the south­ern end) is fa­mous for its Har­ris Tweed. The cap­i­tal, Stornoway, has the largest Gaelic-speak­ing com­mu­nity in Scot­land. We loved the town and its Gaelic

her­itage, par­tic­u­larly the Vic­to­rian cas­tle land­mark with 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 well worth the climb to the cas­tle.

Out­side Stornoway, the most stun­ning spec­ta­cle is the 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. Once a fo­cus for rit­ual ac­tiv­ity dur­ing the Bronze Age, they are re­mark­ably in­tact. Be­cause visitors can still walk among them, we found them to be more fas­ci­nat­ing and per­sonal than Stone­henge.

ORKNEY

Our fas­ci­na­tion with an­cient his­tory con­tin­ued when we docked in Kirk­wall, Orkney, and vis­ited the Ring of Brodgar, thought to have been erected around 2500 BC. The stones form a huge cir­cle mea­sur­ing more than 100 me­tres in di­am­e­ter, greater than Stone­henge. More bad weather kept us in Kirk­wall overnight but gave Ad­ven­ture Canada the op­por­tu­nity to take us to Skara Brae, the an­cient re­mains of a Ne­olithic vil­lage oc­cu­pied from about 3180 BC to 2500 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. Of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in the church is the tomb of John Rae, the Orkney-born sur­geon and Arc­tic ex­plorer who dis­cov­ered the fi­nal link (The Rae Strait) to Canada’s elu­sive North­west Pas­sage and solved the mys­tery of Sir John Franklin and his ill-fated search for the pas­sage. More Kirk­well his­tory is ev­i­dent at the nearby High­land Park Dis­tillery, founded in 1798. It’s not yet an Ad­ven­ture Canada sched­uled tour so sev­eral of us took a taxi to the dis­tillery to en­joy a full tast­ing tour of the whisky-mak­ing process.

FOULA

On our last day aboard the Ocean En­deav­our the un­pre­dictable Scot­tish weather cleared again for a visit to Foula in the Shet­land Islands, the most remote per­ma­nently in­hab­ited is­land in the U.K. 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 hon­oured guests as the lo­cals opened up the school for tea and com­pli­men­tary pas­tries and of­fered lo­cal crafts for sale.

ABERDEEN

Ad­ven­ture Canada han­dled nec­es­sary sched­ule changes very well and we ar­rived in our dis­em­barka­tion port, Aberdeen, right on time. The com­pany ar­ranged train trans­fers to Glas­gow or, in our case, pro­vided an overnight ho­tel so we could fly back to Canada from Lon­don the fol­low­ing day. We en­joyed Aberdeen, a his­toric city with a main thor­ough­fare that looked very much like a smaller ver­sion of Ed­in­burgh’s Royal Mile.

At a lo­cal book­store, we had a chance to pick up 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. Read­ing them brings back the unique at­mos­phere and his­tory of this most re­mark­able corner of the world.

LEFT: The re­stored Iona Abbey is one of the old­est Chris­tian re­li­gious cen­tres in Western Europe. BE­LOW: The Isle of Lewis is fa­mous for its Har­ris Tweed. Dennis Minty

LEFT: St. Kilda is sit­u­ated 65 kilo­me­tres west of the Outer He­brides. Dennis Minty BE­LOW LEFT: Aberdeen. Mike Beedell BE­LOW RIGHT: The UNESCO World Her­itage Site, Skara Brae, is the most com­plete Stone Age vil­lage in Bri­tain. Dennis Minty

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