An Island Race – Shetland to Scilly
Circumnavigating the British Isles on a Noble Caledonia expedition ship is described as an exhilarating voyage by Laurence Mitchell.
‘Welcome on deck, ladies and gentlemen,’ announced Louis, our tour leader. ‘I am happy to inform you that on this cruise you will be seeing over half of the world’s population of gannets.’ Looking up at the swirling mass of white and yellow birds filling the sky above us, and catching a strong whiff of ammonia that emanated from the basalt monolith that was their home, it was easy enough to believe.
We had joined MS Clipper Odyssey earlier that afternoon at Rosyth docks on the Firth of Forth, Scotland, embarking on a nine-day expedition cruise around the western edge of the British Isles. Passing under the massive steel road and rail bridges that link Edinburgh with the north of Scotland we had had barely time to unpack before being cheerfully chivvied to come to the deck to see the gannets at Bass Rock.
Sailing past the towering stack of the Old Man of Hoy next morning, we entered Scapa Flow to arrive at Stromness on Orkney’s main island. We had already been well briefed on what Orkney had to offer, having had an after-breakfast lecture on island archaeology by Callum Johnson, one of our onboard experts. The excursion to Orkney’s archaeological star turns – Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar and Stones of Stenness – did not disappoint, although why Neolithic people should have adopted such a windswept spot to settle tested the credulity of some of us.
We arrived at Lerwick, Shetland’s capital, the following morning, a pilot boat guiding us safely into harbour. Buses were already waiting to transport us to Jarlshof, a prehistoric site that has seen 5,000 years of continuous settlement but is now home to noisy nesting fulmars. Rejoining the ship we sailed around the Point of Noss, the most northerly point of our cruise, where guillemots and puffins huddled closely on the cliffs and gannets swarmed like mosquitoes. Then it was south once more, back through Scapa Flow and around Cape Wrath on the Scottish mainland for visits to Loch Ewe and Loch Torridon the following day.
By this stage we had already fallen into the easy going rhythm of life on board. With around 100 passengers and a crew of 70 the Clipper Odyssey was small and personable enough to get to know quickly. Breakfast and lunch were served buffet-style in the lido lounge, while the excellent five-course dinners were a little more formal but still relaxed affairs. Afternoon tea was an indulgent bonus. Spare cruise time was usually filled with a lecture by one of our on-board experts, and daily pre-dinner briefings by Louis gave us a flavour of what to expect the following day.
The almost mythical islands that make up St Kilda lie 50 miles west of the Outer Hebrides. The archipelago is notoriously difficult to reach but luckily for us the sea was calm all the way. All of the islands have an eerie beauty but it was Hirta, the main island, which left the strongest impression with its almost tangible presence of the once-thriving community that used to live here.
For centuries an isolated population of around 200 scraped an existence here: collecting eggs, catching seabirds and raising the primitive Soay sheep that still run feral on the island. But 19th-century migration and the ‘eight-day sickness’ that killed most newborn babies ensured that Hirta’s population would dwindle to just 36 by 1930 when the remaining islanders requested evacuation to the mainland. Now a strong sense of loss seems to permeate the island and what was once the village high street was now just a sad parade of roofless cottages. Dotting the hillside behind stand dozens of the dry-stone cleits used for storing the fulmars that were once a major part of the St Kildan diet.
The Zodiacs housed on the aft deck had hitherto only been used once to make a landing at Inverewe Gardens but at St Kilda they really came into their own. Loading onto the inflatable boats in groups of ten we took a shoreline tour of the cliffs of Dun, the adjoining island. Rafts of puffins, comical but feisty, splashed by close to us and through clefts in the rock we were able to peer nervously at the rougher waters of the open Atlantic that lay beyond the shelter of bay. The defining moment of an already memorable day came when another Zodiac pulled alongside and Louis and a couple of helpers served us hot chocolate with rum – somehow, it seemed impossible to imagine greater luxury.
Back onboard the Clipper Odyssey we made a leisurely tour of the entire St Kilda archipelago. Sailing west around the soaring cliffs of Soay, the near vertical rocks of Stac Lee and Stac an Armin, five miles to the north, suddenly came into view. Seen from a distance they seemed alien and menacing as if they were the very edge of the world itself. In a way, they were. Stac an Armin, in particular, looked quite unreal – its white-streaked cliffs glowing almost supernaturally against a brooding sky. The stack was even more spectacular viewed close up. With waves crashing against its base and the sky darkened with countless wheeling gannets overhead it seemed unimaginable that St Kildan men used to climb this rock to collect birds and eggs.
An overnight sail on calm waters took us southeast to Barra, the most southerly inhabited island of the Outer Hebrides, an effortlessly charming place with pristine white beaches. To the south lay uninhabited Mingulay. Once again, we used Zodiacs to tour the shoreline and enjoyed close-up views of inquisitive grey seals, nesting guillemots and even a pair of white-tailed eagles. Like St Kilda, Mingulay was finally abandoned in the early 20th century, in this case in 1910. All that remains today are the shells of abandoned crofts and a roofless chapel. Mingulay may have looked idyllic on a sunny day like this but, like St Kilda, life had undoubtedly been very tough here.
Our cruise continued along the west coast of Ireland, putting ashore at the fishing port of Killybegs in Donegal and, later, Glengarriff in County Cork after passing the dramatic rocks of the Skelligs just off the Kerry coast. Along the way we saw dolphins, seals and even a basking shark, a gentle giant that feeds on nothing larger than plankton. Leaving Glengarriff behind, we sailed through almost unnaturally becalmed waters towards the Cornish coast. As our captain confirmed, ‘You get conditions like this maybe just a dozen times a year.’
The Isles of Scilly – never call them ‘the Scilly Isles’ – were bathed in Mediterranean-like sunshine when we arrived next morning. Anchored in the sound off St Marys, the main island, Zodiacs took us the short distance to Tresco where we given a guided tour of the island’s subtropical Abbey Gardens. A sunny lunch on deck followed before the local tender arrived to ferry us across to St Agnes and neighbouring Gugh where prehistoric barrows littered the landscape like supersized molehills.
On our last night aboard the Clipper Odyssey we cruised through more glass-like waters. The industrial buildings of Plymouth came almost as a shock next morning after so much serene maritime beauty. It had been a cruise true to its name: an exhilarating voyage through ten degrees of latitude from Shetland in the north to the Isles of Scilly in the south; a journey that confirmed what an island race, we, the inhabitants of the British Isles, truly were.
The Ship – MS Clipper Odyssey: length 338 feet, beam 51 feet, five decks, 64 staterooms (max 128 guests), 70 crew
Journey description – An Island Race: an expedition cruise between Edinburgh, Scotland and Plymouth, England visiting remote island communities at the edge of the British Isles – Orkney, Shetland, Inverewe, Loch Torridon, St Kilda, Barra, Mingulay, Killybegs (Ireland), Bantry (Ireland), Isles of Scilly
Duration – Nine nights
Guest profile – Mostly British, predominantly 40+, single guests welcome
Facilities – Restaurant, bar, lounge, library, gym, pool, lift, email access, gift shop, hairdresser, clinic. Fleet of Zodiac landing craft. Daily lectures by onboard experts. Staterooms are 175 – 230 sq. ft in size; all have an ocean view and feature lower beds, private bathroom with shower and half-size bathtub, sitting area with sofa, individual temperature control, in-room music system and television for film viewing. Staterooms on A Deck have portholes, all others have windows; eight Bridge Deck staterooms have a veranda.
When to Go – Summer
Special Considerations – Pack walking shoes, Wellington boots for beach landings, waterproof and wind layers, sun cream, woolly hat, gloves, small backpack, camera, binoculars. Evening wear is informal – smart but casual
What to buy – Woollen craft items, St Kilda souvenirs
Unique selling point – Gently adventurous with a flexible itinerary, visiting hard-to-reach Scottish islands. Lecturers on board have expertise in natural history, geology, history and archaeology. Zodiac landing craft on board facilitate remote landings on shore
Cruise-line – Noble Caledonia, tel: 020 7752 0000, website: www.noble-caledonia.co.uk