Scottish Islands Cruise May 27—Jun 04, 2008
VENT's 2008 small ship charter around the Scottish Islands followed a very similar route to our successful 2007 cruise. We were blessed by mostly excellent weather and sea conditions after a rough start as soon as we left Aberdeen Harbour at the start of our journey. After the disappointment of being unable to land at Fair Isle the next day, things turned very much for the better during the rest of the week. That evening we made a Zodiac landing at the fine Pictish Broch on Mousa and experienced the eerie twilight world of European Storm-Petrels as they purred and chuckled in their nests within the broch.
The next day was sunny and fine as we landed at the very tip of Shetland for a heady mix of ancient history at the archaeological complex of Jarlshof (occupied since the Bronze Age until this whole western region of Scotland was a Viking domain), along with a fallout of rare migrants including Thrush Nightingale (found by Victor and photographed by participant Jessica Thayer). That afternoon was another VENT "first" which compensated for missing Fair Isle, as we landed on the very remote inhabited island of Foula. Here we walked and talked with the locals, learning about the island way of life, and finding further great birds from Great Skuas to vagrant Icterine Warblers.
We sailed overnight and were docked in Stromness, Orkney the next morning for a very full day ashore. Some of the best-preserved archaeological sites in Europe are found here: Maes Howe, the finest complete Neolithic tomb in existence; the Ring of Brodgar, largest Stone Circle in Scotland; and Skara Brae, a finely excavated Neolithic village. More recent delights included the fine city of Kirkwall with its Norse-influenced cathedral and the World War II Churchill Barriers. On a beautiful sunlit evening we sailed past spectacular 1,000-foot cliffs and pinnacles of Hoy where breeding Atlantic Puffins, Razorbills, and European Shags flew against a backdrop of Old Red Sandstone ably interpreted by Kitty Coley, our geologist lecturer.
Most of us were up early the next day with Andy Whittaker and me, searching in vain for Black-browed Albatross at the Northern Gannet colony on the tiny sea stack of Sula Sgeir. From here we cruised south to the Outer Hebridean island of Lewis for a sunny afternoon ashore at Gearrannan, discovering what life was like for native Gaelic people up to the nineteenth century in the rebuilt traditional low dwellings called Black Houses. A bonus later that day was a splendid Zodiac cruise around the uninhabited seabird reserve of the Flannan Isles before sailing west overnight to the remotest outpost of Britain at St. Kilda. Another bright, warm day with an easy Zodiac landing greeted us for this memorable adventure. The fascinating and remarkable human history centered on Village Bay combined wonderfully with optional time for strenuous hikes to the hilltops or meandering amid the old crofts and cleits, complete with St. Kilda Winter Wrens, to soak up the unique atmosphere of this double World Heritage Site.
For our last day we were back in the Inner Hebrides, immersed in early Christianity and Corn Crakes on Iona, followed by relaxed cruising along the beautiful coastline of Mull.
This was a very special voyage to remarkable places and remote islands, thanks to the expert guidance of our historian and Expedition Leader, John Harrison. Our quirky little ship with its able crew and compatible group of 38 traveling companions became a friendly and happy base for a truly memorable week: great birding typified by immense numbers of seabirds and an exciting "icing" of rare migrants and localized breeding birds, combined with phenomenal, world-class historical sites and a permanent backdrop of breathtaking scenery.