Oban is a cheerful Scottish town, full of shops and cafés, pubs and hotels. Walking along the busy promenade, I leaned over the rail to take a closer look at a pair of black guillemots, bobbing in the shallows. Sleek and dapper as penguins, they circled each other in a comical courtship dance, twittering like songbirds.
It seemed odd to find them here. To my mind these were birds of storm-lashed, remote island coasts – but then Oban is the sea-route gateway to the Hebrides and Western Isles.
Looking south, I saw the bright blue-and-white Polar Pioneer resting at anchor on the far side of the bay, beyond the ferry port. In a few hours’ time, I’d be boarding that vessel and leaving town for the wildest, loneliest islands of all, with Aurora Expeditions on the Wild Scotland cruise.
That afternoon I joined about 50 fellow passengers, waiting to board. Introductions and safety briefing complete, we lined the deck as the ship began to chug westwards, heading for the far side of Mull. The lights of Oban faded away and drifts of kittiwakes lifted off the slowly darkening water. For the next 10 days, this boat was my home and these people my community – most of the islands we would visit were uninhabited. We would reach them by Zodiac, and sometimes we’d be landing on beaches and wading ashore.
The next morning we made our first landing, on Iona, a small island at the far corner of Mull. A smooth, short Zodiac ride carried us to the shore, where we stepped easily onto a real jetty – a gentle start on a beautiful sunny day.
Iona is well set up for visitors. Nearly 200 people live here and many more visit, including Christians on pilgrimage to the beautiful and historically important abbey.There is also a summer pilgrimage of birdwatchers in search of the rare corncrake. This noisy but pathologically shy bird croaks from every clump of ferns but seldom shows its handsome face to its admirers. I wandered slowly south, away from the crowds, along pretty, quiet lanes.
Eventually I did catch a glimpse of a corncrake, slinking from one patch of bracken to another, while skylarks sang ceaselessly overhead. Others in our group explored the abbey and surrounding streets, paddled in rockpools, or relaxed on the sandy beach.
Four hours fled by, then it was back on board for lunch, while the ship headed north to Staffa, a pinprick of an island on the map, famous for its geology. By mid-afternoon we were aboard the Zodiacs and exploring the astonishing Fingal’s Cave at the island’s southern tip, its sheer sides lined with geometrically perfect hexagonal pillars of basalt. Those able to climb the steep stairway to the top of the island enjoyed close views of puffins waddling in and out of their clifftop burrows. The less mobile folk stayed aboard the Zodiacs and sailed among puffin flocks on the sea.
Exploring & expertise
Evenings offered the chance to chat to the expedition staff who came with us to each island. They were an impressively knowledgeable and capable bunch. As well as the leader and deputy leader, we had two naturalists, an archaeologist and a doctor, all skilled at piloting the Zodiacs. As we moved further out into the Atlantic over the next days, on our way past the Western Isles and visits to Skye and Lewis, the seas grew rougher, the swell more difficult, and the skill of our team all the more evident. For many of us, the visit to St Kilda on day five was a real highlight. This little archipelago lies 64km west from the Western Isles, and its largest island, Hirta, held a tiny human population (never more than 200) for a couple of thousand years. Finally, in 1930, after several crop failures, the remaining
36 inhabitants asked to be evacuated to the mainland. The lives they led must have been punishingly tough and isolated, but there was free food to be had in the form of the nesting seabirds. St Kildans risked their necks to harvest eggs and chicks from the precipitous cliffs. As we neared Boreray and its two towering sea-stacks, we could make out the old rope pegs the islanders had used, now abandoned and surrounded by nesting pairs of gannets.
The ship made a slow circuit of Boreray and we stood on deck, transfixed by the spectacle of a sky dense with gannets – huge, Concorde-shaped white birds with fearsome daggers for bills. Further off, more gannets were plunge-diving for fish, dropping headfirst into the violent water like javelins. Once in a while, a surfacing gannet was pounced upon by a great skua. Though smaller than its victim, the skua attacked so fiercely that the frightened gannet regurgitated the fish it had just caught.
In the afternoon we landed on Hirta, first taking a slow Zodiac cruise along the calm south side of the island to enjoy eye-to-eye views of guillemots and razorbills on the water, and beautiful, enormous grey seals reclining on the low rocks, staring at us and snorting anxiously.
We nosed in and out of sea caves, ducking when the swell lifted us close to their jagged rock ceilings, and finally traversed a narrow pass of churning whitewater – our wildest ride yet – to reach the landing site on the gently sloping north shore. As we approached we could see the island’s single street, a row of simple stone houses set back from the beach. Beyond, green hills rose steeply. They were dotted with cleits – drystone structures once used to dry and store the dead seabirds that would be the islanders’ food through winter. One house is now a museum, and here we learned what life was like for the islanders, and understood why it could not be sustained.
Now, conservation workers live here in summer, and visitors land on the calmer days, but all depart in winter. Some of our group climbed to the hilltop to enjoy the view from the highest cliffs in the UK. I explored the cleits and finally found among them the unique St Kilda wren, a tiny songbird found only here. On day six, we cruised past the hulking rock of Sula Sgeir, painted white by its 5000 nesting pairs of gannets. That afternoon, some of our group made a particularly adventurous landing on North Rona, a tiny lone island far north of the mainland, even more remote than St Kilda.
They scrambled up slippery rocks to explore the green summit with its automated lighthouse and the ruins of St Ronan’s Chapel. I took the second option of a slow cruise around the island, to explore deep booming sea caves with their red granite walls and their slanting light that turned the resting seals within from grey to marbled silver. Seabirds were flying all around – kittiwakes, fulmars, shags and auks, often too close for my camera. That evening, under sun and blue sky, some of us stripped down to swimming costumes to take a brief, chilly swim off the side of the boat.
Later we were presented with certificates honouring our bravery (or idiocy). A shout from naturalist Stuart summoned us to the deck early the next morning, to watch an immense bull orca hunting around the ship, its tall dorsal fin breaking surface several times before it dived deep and moved on.
Shetland is the best place in Britain to see these cetaceans. We were anchored off Foula, a remote island well west of the main Shetland archipelago, and landed there after breakfast. This was a wild place of windswept boggy grassland leading to high, sheer cliffs, reminiscent of St Kilda. Foula is not quite as unforgivingly isolated as St Kilda and some 30 tough individuals live here.
A small group of locals were there to meet our Zodiacs and give us the island tour. I walked with Lynn, a skilled botanist who was soon pointing out some of the unique flora lining the lanes. We tramped out onto the moorland, watched by great skuas (or “bonxies” as they are locally known) flying overhead. Foula has 2000 nesting bonxies – about 50 for each person living here. We looked out over cliffs teeming with seabirds, then returned via fields of tiny Shetland ponies and the distinctive piebald Foula sheep, to the island school.
Here we met more islanders including 10-year-old Jack, Foula’s only schoolchild. This precocious entrepreneur had set up stalls selling various Foula souvenirs. We then cruised on to the main archipelago, for a gentle exploration of the loveliest sea caves of all, at the diminutive island of Papa Stour.
The next morning a heavy fog had descended for our walk across the high moors of Hermaness, on Unst, the most rugged and northerly Shetland island. With each step, more bonxies seemed to materialise through the mist. Bonxies are notorious for violently dive-bombing intruders near their nests, and a bonxie had already knocked one of our group onto his backside at the summit of Hirta.
Later, the fog lifted and it was a sunny evening that saw us landing on tiny, uninhabited Mousa to explore its well-preserved Iron Age broch – a sturdy, conical tower of stone. Inside was cool and candlelit, and we sat and sipped single malt as Carol, our onboard archaeologist, took us through the broch’s fascinating history.
The penultimate day of the voyage brought a landing on the wonderful Fair Isle, famous for gorgeous knitwear and a world-class bird observatory. It lies on its own halfway between the Shetlands and the Orkneys, and is first landfall for many a lost migrant bird. It is a summer home for seabirds galore, and a permanent home to nearly 100 people. Here I photographed several Arctic skuas, then it was back towards the jetty, for a look around the bird observatory.
The cruise ended as it had begun – with a gentle landing on a busy island, in this case Orkney mainland. A local guide introduced us to a few of Orkney’s many archaeological marvels – Skara Brae, the remains of a Neolithic village; and the Ring of Brodgar, a spectacular stone circle that dates back to around 2500 BC. In the afternoon, we were let loose in pretty Kirkwall, to visit its superb cathedral, and investigate its quirky shops and pubs. I found myself checking property prices in estate agent windows, daydreaming of a Scottish island retirement. Maybe one day. Until then, 10 days of wonderful memories would sustain me.
Polar Pioneer & The Wild Scotland expedition
Polar Pioneer is an expedition cruise ship, operated by Aurora Expeditions. Thanks to her strength, manoeuvrability and size, she can sail up close to landing sites and venture where larger ships cannot. She carries 54 passengers, 10–12 Aurora staff, and a crew of 23. Polar Pioneer has 26 cabins, and suites with en-suite facilities, lounge bar and two dining rooms, a presentation room, sauna and a medical clinic. There are three viewing decks. There are two Wild Scotland expeditions in summer 2017. The first departs from Oban on June 2, ending at Aberdeen on June 12. The second departs from Oban on June 13, ending at Aberdeen on June 23. Cabins cost from $7500 per person. Visit the Aurora Expeditions website here for more details.