When I was first asked to work on Aurora's 'Wild Islands of Scotland' voyages, I confess to being a tad dubious about how its 'wildness' would rate. But this high-octane voyage (the action begins on day 1) has proven to be one of my personal favourites.
Picture zodiacing beneath towering cliffs and imposing stacks that rise vertically from the water, zooming through archways, and venturing into a maze of the most incredible caves (Britain's best, I'm told) carved from the sea since Devonian times.
Encounters with wildlife are as good as anything I've experienced in the Arctic—puffins nesting metres away, flocks of guillemots bobbing on the water, basking sharks, grey seals popping up beside the kayaks and zodiacs, and at Sula Sgeir, the unforgettable sight (and sound) of tens of thousands of gannets filling the air.
Then there are the islands themselves. Foula, for instance, whose population of Shetland ponies and foals outnumbers the 25 friendly folk who live there. Or the remote, storm-ravaged St Kilda, continuously inhabited for 2,000 years, where flocks of Soay—a neolithic species of sheep that look more like mountain goats—take their chances along impossibly narrow ledges of windswept cliffs.
The Iron Age architecture of the Scottish Isles is something to behold, and our archaeologist Carol Knott (in my opinion, one of Scotland's living treasures) brings history to life in the most captivating way. Inside Mousa Broch, a 2,000-year-old Iron Age Tower, we sit on ancient stone blocks while Carol regales us with tales of eloping lovers, family feuds, and territorial invasion. Throughout the islands we explore chambered cairns and stone rings that date back to neolithic times, while bothys—the homes of men who collected gannet chicks—and turf-roofed cleits, speak of a traditional way of life from recent times.
Summer days stretch forever in Scotland, with opportunities on the Isle of Skye for an early morning hike along the foothills. After dinner, the midsummer sun streams in through the windows of the bridge as we motor to our next destination, the long hours of light providing evening opportunities to zodiac or kayak across crystal clear waters, visit uninhabited islands, and tramp over heathland dotted with thyme, sea pinks, campion and heath-spotted orchids.
Fingal's Cave on the Island of Staffa is a special place that has inspired famous composers, painters and poets. When we venture in the zodiacs beneath an imposing structure of columnar basalt (conditions permitting!), I fancy I can hear the upwelling of Mendelssohn's 'Fingal's Cave' in concert with the rush of water.
The islanders are so warm and lovely—and chatty. I for one can't resist that lilting Scottish accent. At Fair Isle, renowned for its natural and cultural wonders, we have a chance, over tea and scones, to meet the small community of women who create and sell their classic Fair Isle woollen garments.
In my book, the islands of Scotland are a hidden jewel: wild, glorious places often inaccessible than by ship, a bounty of wildlife, remarkable archaeology—all combined with the charm of island life, and of course, the occasional dram of locally stilled whisky to help keep the toes warm!
The new 2010 voyage includes extra days to venture up to the Faroes and across to Bergen in Norway. I can't wait!