Wild Scotland 2012. Written by Ian Nowak.

There is always a touch of anxiety about going away on any trip, even a local drive of a few hundred kilometres. But when you have booked a couple of pretty expensive weeks on a ship, several nights of accommodation in different countries and an interlocking network of flights there and back, the last thing you need is uncertainty about whether your plane will be able to land when it gets to Glasgow. And thus it was, in early June, with many ‘experts’ predicting further eruptions of the unpronounceable Ejafjalla volcano in Iceland, whose earlier spewings had shut down most of Europe’s air traffic.

Although years of bushwork and cricket watching have taught me that weather and acts of God are beyond man’s control, and that worry is interest paid on trouble not yet fallen due, there is still a sense of nervous hope (if you like) that circumstance may in the end not fall, this time, on the debit side of the statistical ledger. That’s not unreasonable — only too human, I’d say.

In the event, we were lucky — and so was our travel insurance company. My sense of relief was unaffected by the worst landing ever (major slewing), and the later news that the rail line from Glasgow to Oban had been ripped apart by a landslide mattered to us not at all. They put us in a bus which drove through Glencoe — last visited by my wife and me in 1967. Looked much the same; wild and beautiful with the odd shaggy highland sheep dotted about the U-shaped valleys of a glaciated landscape.

Oban is both attractive and interesting (what else can one ask for from anyone or anything?). A couple of days there were well spent, if for no other reason than adjusting to local time and season, visiting the distillery (every town and village has one) to stock up for the voyage, and taking a ferry to the island of Mull. Legend has it that some centuries ago, the Laird took his wife out to a tiny island off his bailiwick and chained her to a rock to be drowned by the rising tide. However, a passing fisherman realised she was in deep trouble and saved her in the nick of time. At her request, he then delivered her to her brother who lived on a neighbouring island. Some weeks later, the Laird informed this brother-in-law of his sister’s passing (from natural causes) and sent his condolences. Upon receipt of this barefaced lie, the brother invited his ruthless in-law to dinner, at which occasion the Laird was more than surprised to see his ‘dead’ wife, large as life, at the table!

Embarkation onto the ‘Polar Pioneer’ late in the afternoon was a joyful occasion catching up with renowned ornithologist Gary (expedition leader) and his life partner and deputy, Robin (amongst other skills, a writer). My wife and I had sailed with them in the same vessel to the Antarctic three years earlier and we knew their ways and competencies. Thirty-six other folk made a cosy number (the Pioneer is not a cruise liner!), soon to be cut by two when medical evacuation became necessary for two sisters (one cannot pitch and toss over the ocean waves with a broken ankle). Our first night of sailing was benign, protected as we were from the open Atlantic by the Hebrides. The next day was the start of ten days of one of the most sustainedly exciting periods of my life — geology, ornithology, wildflowers, and bouncing about in zodiacs in sea caverns were the science and adventure, but beyond this was the sheer beauty and emotional saturation of ‘being here’, amongst the Scottish islands and Faeroes, immersed in human history spanning the Stone Ages to our own times. These are cold, windswept, green and treeless blobs of hard tough rock, mostly volcanic, upon which centuries of hardy folk have, for reasons which defy my logic, persisted in eking out their existence running hairy sheep and cattle, plundering the eggs and oils of more than enough gannets, puffins, petrels, gulls and fulmars, digging peat to provide basic warmth, breeding to their own strict codes, and singing songs and dancing in defiance of a number of saints who presumed to know what was good for their spirits and afterlife. These islands and their settlers constitute a crucible of human history. The world is that much the better for their Spartan endeavours.

Our first landing, on Iona (Inner Hebrides), forever associated with Saint Columba and his monastery and a nunnery of slate, pink granite and grey granite (every saint needs a nunnery), appealed immediately to my sombre side. I left the group early and headed for Dun I, the highest point of the island, from the top of which I could survey to the sea in all directions. My own sense of ancient times kicked in and I imagined myself up there in a hairy, Stone Age calfskin, half freezing to death (which I was). On the way back to the landing, I spied a woman inside one of the few shops — I tapped on the window and grinned inanely. She was curious and opened the door, and the fact that I was Australian seemed to make her day. She was able to sell me a British–to-European electric plug adaptor to piggyback onto my Australian-to-British adaptor, thus solving the horrendous problem of my having brought an American adaptor in error. Fancy being able to solve a modern problem like this on a sleepy Sunday morning on Iona. For mine, Columba was truly deserving of his sainthood!

The day had only just begun. After lunch, we sailed our little zodiacs into Fingals Cave on the tiny (33 hectares) island of Staffa. When I was about seven or eight in England, I recall my great-aunt Clara showing me photos of Fingals Cave on her 3-D contraption. The great hexagonal columns (the name Staffa derives from the Norse for ‘staves’) of basalt fascinated me even then, as in 1829 they did Felix Mendelssohn. He was inspired to compose his Hebrides Overture — I became a geologist of somewhat lesser fame. Oh well. Staffa is composed of many layers of fine-grained, black, volcanic basalt erupted during a series of episodes in the Tertiary era (later than 65 million years ago). After one of these episodes, the basalt cooled a little more slowly and a hexagonal structure is the result. Geologists refer to them fondly as ‘organ pipes’. I was not surprised, decades ago, when my son, as an eight-year-old and given to droll malapropism and related solecisms, totally confused his grandmother by referring excitedly to a similar effect he’d seen on Mount Wellington in Tasmania as ‘foghorns’. 

This was one of the few days we had three zodiac excursions. Around seven o’clock that evening we anchored off the little town of Tobermory on northern Mull. Lovingly painted in bright hues and with its own distillery (of course), the main attraction was that the pub would be open till ten. As I breasted the bar, I was fronted by an Englishman who wished to point out (smugly) that, on the TV, Australia was trailing Germany 0-4 in their World Cup encounter. I, in turn, maintained (a tad untruthfully) that soccer was meaningless to Australians and that the sooner we lost our matches and came home, the sooner we could get on with rugby and Aussie Rules etc., the real footballs. For my peroration, I gave him the view of the legendary Australian coach, Kevin Sheedy, who once maintained that if you wish to play ninety minutes of football, plus extra time, for a nil-all scoreline, and then produce a winner with a process that is analogous to the toss of a coin, then soccer is your game. My Englishman soon decided I was an unreconstructable antipodean idiot and began searching for a more amenable companion.

There were two other experts accompanying the expedition: Carol, an archaeologist/historian from the Isle of Lewis, and Jenny, a botanist. Both of these women had a robust grip on their fields and added incomparable value to our understanding. The fact that I and another guy from Perth were both geologists helped in the deciphering of nature’s mysteries. Asked to sum up, I’d say lots and lots of volcanic basaltic flows, a fair bit of granite and gneiss, some slate, and unrelieved red sandstone if you are an Orcadian. All these competencies came into sharp focus at Rubn’ (or Rubha) an Dunain, a picturesque peninsula in the southwest of Skye. I was disappointed to learn that Skye is officially no longer considered an island now that there is a connecting bridge to the mainland. Seems all wrong — like me being judged somewhat less than human were it known that I have a titanium screw in my shoulder.

We landed by an ancient canal used in Viking times as a shipyard, and circumambulated the associated loch, all the time having Carol point out signs of habitation, fortification and agriculture. This was the first of many occasions when Carol explained what it was that informed her that a certain strewing of stones would once have been a house. Towards the end of the expedition, I found myself looking at many piles of rocks and asking myself why should I not be regarding what I was seeing as a dwelling rather than some random distribution of geological bric-a-brac. I had been brainwashed — I would never be able to work in my field again! One rather delightful aside at this site was discovering that when someone of any status died, after a decent interval his remains were paraded as revered relics on special occasions. I recall thinking that Oscar Wilde’s notorious bon mot about someone, “He left behind nothing of value save his absence”, was not applicable to these folk. The almost infinite and colourful diversity of wildflowers on Skye added so much to the unusual feeling of warmth on a rare, sunny morning.

That afternoon saw us on Canna, a larger basaltic island of dishevelled history spanning Benedictine monks, Norwegian suzerainty, piracy (partially curbed by threatened Papal excommunication), rule from the Kingdom of Scotland under The Lord of the Isles, before passing to the Macdonalds, only to be set alight and plundered in 1588 by the mercenaries of Sir Lachlan Maclean. In more recent times, Canna has been bought by and sold to a series of private owners, before ending up with the National Trust in 1981. It was off the nearby island of Sanday that we saw our first ‘stacks’, tall, pointed remnants of rock rising individually from the sea just off the land. These are truly beautiful and also seething with bird life. I had already decided that the gannet is one of our planet’s most graceful birds. But it was here that I became aware of puffins, lined up on grassy ledges and indeed one of the Lord’s most loveable and risible birds. They would time and again take off as a job lot, swoop over us and return to their positions all within thirty seconds. As Gary, our ornithologist, remarked of their frantic style of flying: ‘Maximum speed of 50; stalling speed of 49!”

Rounding the northern tip, or Butt, of the Isle of Lewis meant heading into the less-protected waters of the Atlantic and sailing down the west, Outer Hebridean coast until we nudged into East Loch Roag as it narrowed towards the famous Standing Stones of Callanish. Over fifty years ago, the surrounding peat was excavated to reveal the many two-metre (and higher) sentinels of metamorphosed Lewisian Gneiss forming a huge circle second in fame only to Stonehenge. I fact, the Callanish circle, at some 5000 years old, predates both the Pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge. Certainly, these stones are more friendly than the latter — we were allowed to wander about unrestricted. Once again I imagined myself cold and clothed in a shaggy brown animal hide. Not difficult — I was freezing anyway. Later, I read somewhere that local legend has it that the Stones of Callanish were originally giants, who were petrified by St Kieran for refusing to be christened. I felt sorry for them — religion often has far too much to answer for.

On a small island not too far north from here, stands Bostadh House, a reconstructed Iron-Age residence with a thickly thatched roof held down in the face of fierce winds and storms by a system of large cobbles attached to the ends of ropes. I found this most interesting from a design viewpoint, as I am familiar with the present-day analogue of steel cabling which keeps both roofs and their houses attached to the planet during the cyclone season in the Northwest of Australia. Carol, our archaeologist, was not quite sure what to make of me when I pointed to some chicken wire binding the thatching as evidence for an Iron-Age provenance! The thatching is apparently very efficient at keeping the rain out, and a hole in the centre of the roof permits the drawing of smoke from the continuous peat fire. A local islander spoke to all of us who crowded into her house, and although the cadence of her speech was charmingly rhythmical, I doubt I understood a word. Somehow, this did not matter. One can be assailed by too much information. Being here was magic enough 

Whilst on the subject of magic, the next phase of our voyage had been anticipated by me more than any other — the so-called Atlantic Outliers, and in particular, the island of St Kilda. Many years ago, a friend had lent me a book , ‘The Life and Death of St Kilda’ by Tom Steel. Some reading experiences you never forget, and this was such a one. St Kilda has been etched onto my mind as a place of lonely, dark and windswept mystery, landing onto which is in the lap of the sea gods and the weather. Never in the years since have I ever dared to imagine I might one day be here. Just sailing around this little group of outliers would have been reward enough, but I was luckier than that. Louring cloud certainly, but benign seas and high, thin mists only.

Like experienced lovers, we were kept waiting whilst the Russian captain sailed around the minor islands of Soay and Boreray (what lovely names!) before clambering out of our zodiacs onto the largest island of Hirta. Still igneous, but somewhat less volcanic than the Hebrides, these outcrops are composed of coarser grained light granite and a darker gabbro. How often the rock suits the mood — or perhaps mood is decided by the rock. Topographically, the islands of St Kilda and the high-pinnacled offshore stacks (Stac Lee, Stac an Armin) present a jagged skyline, for the last Ice Age failed to reach as far southwest and the rocks of the archipelago remain (for now!) unworn.

Hirta is known to have been continuously inhabited for 2,000 years (perhaps for as many as 3,500) , until the last residents were evacuated (‘for their own good’ — always an arguable proposition) in 1930. Exports of fulmar oil, for lamps, and tweed declined and the authorities in Scotland decided the dwindling population was no longer viable. Their food consisted largely of seabirds, but into the twentieth century the youngsters were seeking work (and play) on the mainland and the older folk were unable to scale the heights to reach the fulmars and gannets and their eggs. Not that the birds were in any way endangered as species. Steel’s book tells of life after evacuation, and it makes sad and thoughtful reading. The people had trouble understanding the nature and use of money, their new diet was totally foreign to body and spirit alike, water now emanated from something called ‘pipes’ and, the final nail, they were put to work mainly for the Forestry Commission. St Kildans had never in all the centuries seen a tree.

My wife and I and most others hiked up to a half saddle from which we could overlook the ocean towards the northeast. At the top of our cliff, between episodes of swirling mist, were nesting birds aplenty and a plethora of hardy pink, violet, yellow and white wildflowers. Such beauty. On the way down, we scrambled around piles of stones first assembled by the hand of man in the Bronze age, and on to Hirta’s ‘High Street’, a desolate row of almost still-habitable cottages abandoned in 1930. Some bear signs or plaques of poignant text. There is still a post office operating on Hirta (from1899) and I sent off four cards — one each to our grandchildren, one to my friend who lent me the book, and the last to myself, in case I should ever, in my dotage, be tempted to believe this special day existed only in my imagination.

I have read, in ‘The Scottish Islands’ by H. Haswell-Smith, that a significant contribution to the eventual collapse of St Kildan society was insensitive interference by hellfire and damnation style Christian ministers in the later 1800s. Apparently, the islanders were browbeaten into so much church attendance every day of the week that little time remained for growing and gathering food. Their later history was indeed a complete disaster. A second aside concerns the very name, St Kilda. There never was a saint by the name of Kilda. Various explanations have arisen for the name, but the one that appeals to me is that the archipelago, in some pictorial way, represented the shape of a shield — for which the Norse word was ‘skildir’. A nice story, although, like astronomers who see hunters and crustaceans etc. in the arrangement of constellations of stars, the Norsemen would have had to have been ‘on something’ to be so fanciful.

North Rona is considered the most remote of all the Scottish Isles (probably, the Atlantic Outliers excepted). In the 1950s, this island was declared a nature reserve, primarily for its importance as a seabird breeding ground. And indeed, just about every species of bird seen on this excursion is concentrated here in big mobs. The skuas are especially territorial and seemed to enjoy discomforting us with their dive-bombing as we trudged carefully across their nesting grounds and the ever-present carpet of wildflowers to the ruins of St Ronan’s chapel. This chapel is considered to be possibly the oldest Christian building in Britain, dating as it does back to 700 AD. A pair of nesting fulmars with a fine sense of history had set up home within. Carol was able to tell us that St Ronan apparently arrived here from the Hebrides on the back of a whale. Legend further has it that this journey had been catalysed by his need to get away from the ‘chattering, scolding women of the islands’. Anyhow, the fact is that he found enough relief and happiness here to make it worth his while to stay and minister to the tiny population that he found. As we left the tiny, slippery landing of Geodh’a’Stoth to return to the Pioneer, we were farewelled by a number of bobbing grey seals, a few of the estimated 8,000 or so in these waters that makes Rona also a mecca for research pinnipedologists.

Not ten nautical miles to the southwest of North Rona, the weather had now cleared around the small rock of Sula Sgier, which translates as ‘gannet skerry’. We spent two hours in a zodiac pushing around and about this island observing the immoderate abundance of nesting gannets. When disturbed by us, or more frequently by other birds, a cloud of these beautiful birds would take briefly to the air in such number that the sky would perceptibly darken until they again landed. We could find no landing place on Sula Sgeir and spent our time drifting into calm inlets where we would be within metres of gannets and fulmars, who seemed happily to accept us as folk like them, or rollicking precariously around the roiling waters of the less-protected Atlantic-exposed headlands. All excellent fun, even if we were a little anxious at times. And an unspoken unease was probably felt by all when our mother-ship disappeared for an hour while (we learned later) the captain searched for an area of diminished swell that would make picking us up from the zodiacs a little less hazardous.

As a postscript to my notes on Sula Sgeir, I learned that it was to here that the aforementioned St Ronan banished his sister when he discovered that the sight of her well-turned ankle and shapely calf threatened to overwhelm his notions of spiritual purity. It seems the good saint must have found a landing place on this island when he really needed one. These days you can see an occasional rope, hanging from a protuberance of rock. These are used by the few young men of Lewis who are licensed to continue the traditional custom of harvesting young gannets (‘guga’) for their oil and as a culinary delicacy.

The Polar Pioneer has an ‘open-bridge’ policy, devised and endorsed by company and crew — and this facility, as much as anything, makes sailing on this ship the delight it is. As during the voyage to the Antarctic, I spent as much time as I could on the bridge — it is from this elevated position one gains context and sees to infinity. Being of scientific persuasion, I am fascinated by instruments and what they tell us. I learned to read depths in metres and speed in knots, interpret radar sweeps, real and apparent windspeeds and directions, get a grip on the recondite subtleties of the Beaufort Wind scale, the difference between height of waves and swell, and how SOG and COG give information on the strength of currents. I recall discovering that a ‘cable’ is a tenth of a nautical mile, feeling that this is rather metric for seafaring folk until I calculated that the length actually is 608 feet, a figure comfortably Imperial in its absurdity. Mind you, the nautical mile itself is soundly based, being one-sixtieth of a degree (i.e. one minute) of latitude which, unlike its counterpart, longitude, varies virtually not at all with position on our globe.

Amongst my shipmates was Jim, who had spent most of his naval days as a practising navigator, followed by a period of instructing youngsters in his craft. From Jim I discovered that the position and behaviour of a ship at any one moment is determined by six parameters, or degrees of freedom. Three of these are pivoting motions (pitch, roll, yaw), and three are bodily shifts of the entire ship (heave, surge, sway). Another passenger, a landlubber like me, summed all these up under the one term: wallowing. When asked about sinking, Jim described this as “terminal absence of buoyancy”. Perhaps he should have been a politician, or at least a writer of wine-tasting notes.

My introduction to the Orkneys was most appropriate. What geologist has never heard of The Old Man of Hoy, a 137-metre vertical stack or pedestal of Old Red Sandstone separated from the main island of Hoy by many eons of erosion and wave beating. We sailed past this wonder at first light. The sandstone characterises much of the Orkneys and is largely responsible for these islands having a much richer soil that most of the others. Hence, these islanders have relied far more on agriculture over the centuries than upon catching fish and birds. The particular sandstone unit here is massive, hard and orange coloured and is confined to Hoy itself. This sandstone rests on a layer of basaltic lava, which can be seen in calm weather at the base of the Old Man. One of my shipmates who was standing at the rail with me watching it all go past turned to me and, with a wistful glint in his 70-year-old eye, remarked, “Cor . . . something like that really should be called The Young Man of Hoy.” I smiled; I was on his wavelength!

In the principal town of Kirkwall, on what is rather disappointingly known only as the Mainland of the Orkneys, I was struck by the similarity of the various local island flags to that of Norway — an outlined cross defining four squares at the four corners. Hardly surprising, really, as this whole group of islands was for many years under Norse rule, as were the more-northerly Shetland islands. Kirkwall was a moment of pause for this landlubber, with cups of coffee, a bag of chips, and buying a few gifts for the ‘old focus at home’, as the comedy routine of my youth had it. Popped into St Magnus’ Cathedral and was amused to find a plaque at the last resting place of one Robert Rendell (1898-1967). On the plaque, his life was briefly summed up as ‘Poet and Conchologist’ — a man of at least two talents!

The renowned, excavated and partially reconstructed prehistoric village of Skara Brae (dating from 3100 BC) sits on the west coast of the Mainland, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Why it was all built just here I’ll never understand — I have never been so miserably cold in all my life, and I was wearing a full wardrobe of modern anti-freeze clothing. Things improved slightly as we wound our way to Skaill House, the local Laird’s mansion of old, to begin thawing amongst the usual collection of antique firearms and furniture, Gainsborough-style portraits of ancestors, and servants quarters. My favourite item was the artfully penned and decorated family tree in one room, which set out to prove that the King of Scotland was directly descended from Adam and Eve. Spin doctoring is not as modern a profession as one might have thought.

Papa Westray is one of the most northerly islands of the Orkneys. It lies just to the northeast of the much larger Westray and they are ‘connected’ by the shortest scheduled flight in the world. Two minutes is the time allotted, but I understand one pilot has a PB of 58 seconds. The entire flight is shorter than the longest runway at Heathrow. I sometimes wonder how it is that my brain absorbs such facts with ease whilst important stuff can elude my ‘hard disk’ for ever. Getting here at all was tough owing to the heaving swell as we boarded the zodiacs at the bottom of the gangway. This time, I ended up on the floor of the dinghy and struggled to regain both posture and dignity.

Today, Papa Westray was an island of unrelieved bleakness, and entering the little stone kirk of St Boniface was a pleasure to both body and soul. This is known as a ‘priest’ island (the ‘Papa’ being derived from early association with Christian fathers). Inside the church were wooden pews, and, for the local gentry, family enclosures. Opposite the pulpit, set into the wall was the ‘sinner’s hole’, into which the latest thief, fornicator or scarlet woman was placed and obliged to hear out a thunderous sermon from the closest of quarters. So much sin-seeking by men of the cloth in so many of the Scottish Isles over the centuries that presbyterianism has surely deserved its dour reputation. One kilometre south along this western coast is the Knapp of Howar, dated around 3700 BC. These are two solidly built stone houses thought to be the oldest preserved domestic dwellings in Europe. We were regaled with local history by Jim, an elderly islander, whose ancestry (he admitted) was clearly Spanish, this dating from the chaotic disintegration of the defeated Armada in 1588. Shipwrecked sailors had made the most of a poor outcome with the help of local lassies. A brisk four kilometre walk took us back to the landing via a small museum at a dairy farm. So much there from my childhood; gramophones, irons, drills and braces and planes, urns and churns, stoves and scooters.

Chop and swell are two very different moods and motions of the sea. Chop is superficial, confined to the water’s surface and largely wind driven. Swell has depth and is a sure sign that the gods are restless. Poseidon suffering from indigestion, perhaps. Chop agitates and irritates — swell, though, compels the sailor to consider his own puny magnitude. It was swell that drove us, in all senses, as we circled and eventually landed upon the western Shetland island of Papa Stour. From the moment my wife and six others collapsed into our heaving zodiac at the base of the gangway the excitement was non-stop. Gary was our helmsman as we puttered towards the island, peaking and troughing with the aquatic topography of the Atlantic.

The coastline of Papa Stour is characterised by an impressive network of caves and narrow, steep-sided inlets, where the sea has eroded deeply into the volcanic lava via the softer layers and columns of ash. Semi-submerged skerries and high, jagged stacks give Gary plenty to think about as we draw closer to this island of sinister beauty. Without warning we find ourselves hurtling eastward on a swale of ocean and almost surfing into a tight inlet as the wave starts to break. We’re all hanging onto the sideropes as the dinghy seems to prop before being hit in the stern by a following wave which wants to swamp us. These zodiacs are so stable that there’s hardly time or need to panic as we are lifted almost to the roof of the cavern we have just entered and I let out an expletive for which I am momentarily embarrassed but immediately forgiven. Suddenly, we are floating more gently on the quieter waters of the inner cave and subsequent stretches of inlet, from where we can observe the local cormorants, shearwaters and fulmars before managing at last to turn around in preparation for finding the split-second opportunity that will take us back out to the roiling coastline. As we must. After a few more similar experiences (Christie’s Hole — see! this surging cauldron of froth even has its own name — was the savagest of all), Gary takes pity on his charges and we push off into a larger bay where we can clamber onto terra firma. A therapeutic 3 km walk up a spongy, rock-strewn hill and down to another protected bay is just the trick. Tiny, slightly pinkish Shetland ponies regard us with intelligent interest.

Overnight we sailed west-northwest to the Faeroe Islands. There are 18, 19 or 22 islands in the group (according to three different sources!), all but one of which are inhabited (if, as in one instance, by only about ten people). As with St Kilda, I never imagined I would ever be here. But there are differences. Tórshavn, the thriving capital city on the main island of Streymoy, bustles with a population of 20,000. The Faeroe Islands are a self-governing dependency of Denmark (as is Greenland) and, although the official language is Danish, the nearly 50,000 inhabitants speak the local Faeroese amongst themselves. And their flag is also a variant of Norway’s in the sense I described earlier. Faeroese is an ancient Norse dialect with touches of Icelandic, I was told. Hardly surprising, since the Faeroes were first settled by Norsemen in the seventh century and are sufficiently isolated not ever to have been in extensive contact with the rest of the world. Certainly, when I later came across a wordy sign in this language at a helicopter pad, I was astounded to find absolutely nothing in the local text that bore the faintest resemblance to anything in the English translation below.

In Tórshavn (known to the locals as Havn and pronounced Houn), we all boarded a bus like any other anonymous package of comfort-seeking tourists who wish to believe they are travelling. With guide and all — a fine young man named Otto, who spoke at least Faeroese, Danish and English fluently, and quite possibly more besides. He took us to the locality of Kirkubour, where we swarmed through a ruined church and a 900-year-old farmstead and had our heads filled briefly with the kind of facts that are seldom retained beyond the next stop. Some stuck, however. The great storm of Christmas 1988 blew cars up onto the roofs of houses. A million or more fulmars and puffins inhabit these islands and, according to Otto, they both taste great. There are eighteen soccer clubs here. And there is a laudable sense of unity amongst the folk of the various islands (c.f. the West Indies). The Nazis maintained a major (strategic) presence here in WWII. At one point, Otto decided to sing a couple of stanzas of the national anthem of the Faeroes — he had a magnificent voice and did his hymn due justice. Finally, we had a couple of hours to walk around the ‘city’ before re-embarking to sail West to the island of Mykines. One thing is certain, the Faeroes are not at this stage geared up for tourism — the town is desultory and seems to serve the needs of the locals more than adequately. The few foreigners are neither obsequiously welcomed nor regarded with distaste.

Mykines is the westernmost of all the Faeroes and an early evening landing here was facilitated by an uncommon pattern of calm, sunny weather. The folk here were most hospitable and invited us into their homes for coffee, followed by a serendipitously impromptu tour of the village. I missed out on all this as my wife and I chose to clamber up the lush slopes chasing puffins. Saw not a one, as it turned out, but the ‘aerial’ view of the coastline and the village nestled into the valley below was well worth our effort. Today was Midsummer. The chefs put on a superb barbecue in the evening on the afterdeck, made all the more enjoyable with plenty of free beer and the peaceable sea. However, the price I paid for such fine weather was to feel far colder than I recall being at a similar event in the Antarctic when we crossed the polar circle.

Next day we sailed north along the Vestmanna Cliffs, fascinating for the way the geology has controlled the geomorphology (or landform). Mind you, I expect this must be so anywhere. The western face presented to the Atlantic here is a solid wall of towering cliffs (the world’s highest, over 500 m) exposing a thin seam of coal and part of the 3,000 m of basic volcanic rock that is the stuff of which the entire Faeroes is made. All this dips, or tilts, to the east, and so the western coastline constitutes what in Australia would be colloquially known as a breakaway. This coastline is breathtaking and, as at Papa Stour, laced with chasms and caves, although the sea here was far more benign on the day. So we zodiaced calmly into several of these chasms and farther on into networks of caves and caverns. Some were pitch dark, but if we kept putting along we always seemed to end up in a broader piece of water that would lead us eventually back to the ocean. Various episodes of volcanism were distinguished by their blockiness, glassy fracturing or rude attempts at hexagonal columns. Old gas holes (amygdales) are often filled with a white secondary mineral (zeolite). The kittiwakes, guillemots, gulls, puffins and fulmars were concerned not so much with the geology as with decent nesting ledges and crannies.

Several more hours of motoring took us over the northern parts of the Faeroes, sailing by the twin sea stacks of Risin and Kellingin. Legend has it that these two stacks (70+ m high) are all that remains of an attempt by an Icelandic giant and his wife (a troll!) to tow the Faeroes back to Iceland. It seems things went well enough as they tied a rope around the northern end of Eysturoy (Easter Island) for the job, but then they quarrelled for so long that they were caught by the rising sun and turned to stone. Not altogether unlike our Cinderella, really.

The last Faeroes landing was mid-afternoon on the island of Fugloy at the tiny village of Hattarvik. They were not expecting us and so Gary and Carol left the ship first to establish friendly contact prior to invasion. We could see through binoculars that this pair were having no luck at all knocking on the doors of the few permanent residents, and I was beginning to have fantasies about lobbing a six-pounder on a desolate part of the landscape and following this up with a loudhailer demanding immediate emergence of the locals with their hands in the air . . . or else. Eventually, Casper, a young teenager visiting his great-uncle, was spied and prevailed upon to prise the natives out of their dwellings. All went well, and our fleet of black dinghies set out in a spirit of goodwill. Casper had reasonable English and a laudable readiness to impart information. Great-uncle sucked on his pipe and beamed.

But returning to the ship was, for me, one of the most rewarding exercises of the entire two weeks. Mostly because all went well. As soon as we had landed, a thick fog descended and there it remained. “More Fug than Loy”, as one wit put it. Range of vision was about twenty metres at best. The Polar Pioneer was anchored well off shore, and we set out with our very existence totally dependent on GPS and compass. Pretty lonely, actually — my fantasies now were somewhat less bombastic and involved poignant notices in the paper back in Australia. Although our zodiac’s helmsman was doing a most efficient job with GPS and two-way, I was emotionally and intellectually with Dave, an old salt sitting up the front with a traditional and trusty compass. Dave had taken a bearing from the ship to the landing site earlier and was now monitoring proceedings in the reverse direction. A man of few words, Dave said it all in simple terms: “No bloody batteries to run out!”

Another night of sailing eastward (now) and we were back in the Shetlands. The landing on Foula (derived from the Norse, Fugloy, and therefore the Scots equivalent of ‘bird island’) was also a foggy one with GPS and compass geared for the return. But we were anchored only 40 m out, so we were fairly sure to run aground somewhere on the way in. There is so much peat on Foula that no one there need ever be cold again. A long walk north took us past a huge bank of solar cells which, the long hours of summer daylight notwithstanding, a brief glance at the relentlessly grey sky suggested that this system had been installed as much in hope as anything. A local islander picked up several of us at the northern end and drove east to some of the most sensational coastline. Arches, stacks and eroded remnants had me recalling Tintagel on the Cornish coast. I expect the mists had a lot to do with this. We chatted to an elderly woman who had arrived on the island as a young girl for a couple of months relief teaching. She married a local swain and never left. Happiness ever after was not all plain sailing, though — she lost a son at sea, and the stone seat we were sitting on admiring the view had been built by her husband in his memory. She was happy to see it being used. Hiking back over the grassy fields my wife and I were once again dive-bombed by ‘bonxies’, the local argot for the great skua. Apparently, egg collectors had reduced the bonxie population to three pairs in 1920, but with protection, they have since thrived. And we were the recipients of the skuas’ way of showing gratitude.

If Foula is the most westerly of the Shetlands (also called Uttrie — the outer isle), then Fair Isle is due south and almost midway to the Orkneys. The name derives from the Norse ‘feoer-oy’, the far-off isle. Known by all over the ages for their style of knitted jumpers — who among the women of my generation has not attempted a ‘fair isle’ pattern in her youth — this is no longer so. Another little loss in the mounting toll of such casualties of technology and continuing island depopulation. Fair Isle is now a major bird sanctuary and research facility. We listened with interest to a young ornithologist (who was completing her PhD on puffins) giving us a rundown on the 345 species of local birdlife — listen to some of the less common names! Pipit, wheatear, brambling, siskin and fieldfare, whimbrel, dunlin, twite and barred warbler. Geology was never this much fun!

And so, finally, on to Norway. What an exquisite trip this had been. We were pretty sad to come to the end of it all, but by this time I think most of us needed to step back and reflect on the events of the last couple of weeks. A few of the passengers were staying aboard for the next voyage — to Spitzbergen, Greenland and Iceland. We would love to do this one day, but to continue on now would have in some way diluted the pleasures and memories of what we had just been through. One of the problems of inordinate personal wealth must be to be able to do and have everything you want at the very moment the notion is conceived. This runs counter to the prospect of ever having a treat, and treats are the spikes on the locus of life. As with the Antarctic, the moods of the landscape, the weather, the wildlife, and in these islands at least, the people, stirred my soul in a way not so many Australians have been lucky enough to experience. But, as always, I return feeling hugely blessed to be living in the country I do, and for having had the opportunity in years past to work in hot, sandy deserts — my own staple soulfood.

We disembarked at Bergen for a few nights of personal reacquaintance with a country we had so loved in our ramblings there in 1967 and 68. We had never made it to Bergen and so were anticipating our visit with pleasure. Ahh well, ‘progress’ has wrought its ‘magic’ here too, of course. The people are still lovely, but the city is geared to the supply and sales of endless touristy trash. And this country is now so horrendously expensive, I cannot begin to see how the locals manage. Fish and chips for two and a couple of simple beers will set you back close to AUD$100. But we made the very best of our stay — helped by unexpectedly running into a couple of close friends from home. (They bought the next two beers, for one thing).

But probably, most charming of all endings for me were the few words from one of our shipmates as we disembarked, “First thing tomorrow”, he declared, “I’m gonna get the vernacular railway to the top.” Life doesn’t get much better for this editor and pedant!

Related Expeditions

  • Wild Scotland

    11 DAYS from AU$7,500 per person

    Join us on one of our wildest adventures: walk in the Vikings’ footsteps, explore fantastic sea caves, land on World-heritage listed St Kilda and observe the world’s largest seabird colonies!

    View Expedition Details