EXPLORING SCOTLAND’S OUTER ISLANDS WITH ADVENTURE CANADA
Cruise through windswept, barren archipelagos to discover a cornucopia of wonders.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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