Scot­land’s outer lim­its

A grand ex­pe­di­tion cruise ex­plores sites

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - DESTINATIONS - BY JOHN AND SAN­DRA NOWLAN

“Scot­land Slowly.”

The per­fect name for a leisurely Ad­ven­ture Canada 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 savour dif­fi­cult-to-reach com­mu­ni­ties in the In­ner and Outer He­brides, the Orkneys and The Shet­lands.

Ad­ven­ture Canada, with more than 30 years ex­pe­ri­ence ex­plor­ing by ship some of the more re­mote places on the planet, be­gan this ex­pe­di­tion cruise with an overnight in Glas­gow fol­lowed by a bus ride to the coastal town of Oban where we boarded the Ocean En­deav­our. This com­fort­able, 35-year-old Pol­ish-built ves­sel is ice-re­in­forced for Arc­tic and Antarc­tic pas­sages 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. The qual­ity of these re­source peo­ple (most have a PH.D. or spe­cial tal­ents) is re­mark­able. The ship uses 20, 10-pas­sen­ger Zo­di­acs to ex­plore coast­lines and to trans­port guests to land­ing spots on

the var­i­ous is­lands we vis­ited. Ev­ery guest was is­sued a com­pli­men­tary, blue Ad­ven­ture Canada wa­ter­proof jacket. They proved to be very use­ful.

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 so 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 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 Abby near where St. Columba built a Celtic church in 563 AD and where monks pro­duced the ex­quis­ite Book of Kells start­ing in 800 AD.

Wind con­tin­ued but the skies cleared for our visit to the Isle of Lewis (it’s also the Isle of Har­ris on the south­ern end), fa­mous for its Har­ris Tweed. We en­joyed the cap­i­tal, Stornoway, 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, the most stun­ning spec­ta­cle is the ring of stand­ing stones called Cal­lan­ish. Erected 5000 years ago, they are the most dra­matic of sev­eral nearby stone cir­cles built for un­known rea­sons in the Ne­olithic age. They were a fo­cus for rit­ual ac­tiv­ity dur­ing the bronze age and are re­mark­ably in­tact. Be­cause vis­i­tors can still walk among them, we found them to be more fas­ci­nat­ing and per­sonal than Stone­henge.

In Kirk­wall, Orkney, we vis­ited an­other his­toric gem, 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 com­pete 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 an Ad­ven­ture Canada sched­uled tour (but it should be) so sev­eral of us took a taxi to the dis­tillery and en­joyed a full tour (with tast­ing) of the whisky mak­ing process.

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 hon­oured gusts as the lo­cals opened up the school for tea and com­pli­men­tary pas­tries and of­fered lo­cal crafts for sale.

Aberdeen 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. 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, we’re read­ing them now as they take us back to this most ex­tra­or­di­nary area of the UK and our ex­cel­lent “Scot­land Slowly” ex­pe­di­tion.

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.

PHOTO BY JOHN NOWLAN

The Cal­lan­ish Stone Cir­cle was erected 5000 years ago.

PHOTO BY JOHN NOWLAN

The High­land Park Whisky Stills.

PHOTO BY JOHN NOWLAN

12th cen­tury St. Mag­nus Cathe­dral. Kirk­wall, Orkney.

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