Originally submitted on Fri, 18/05/2012 - 22:56
Back on the road again. Or to be more accurate, rail, ship and rail. And "ship" might be a little ambitious. See what you think from the picture of our 3-masted craft, theRembrandt van Rijn, a newly-refurbished ex-herring boat.
I took the train up to Aberdeen, a familiar city as I read for my degree there, and having met the rest of our party, boarded the Rembrandt van Rijn in mixed weather. It had snowed in Aberdeen earlier in the day, although none was lying, and as we made our way out of one of the busiest harbours in the UK to the North Sea, the storm clouds were gathering in from the west again.
It was a very choppy overnight trip up to the Orkneys; one by one, the dining room emptied as the passengers succumbed to seasickness as the boat pitched her way up the coast. It was with some relief that we dropped anchor off Copinsay the next morning and we were able to land in relatively sunny conditions. A short walk up to the lighthouse perched atop the sea cliffs enabled us to spot hundreds of nesting guillemots, migrating greylag geese and resident meadow pipits. By the time we were ready to reboard the boat, the heavens had opened and the waterproofs were very welcome against the elements.
Unfortunately, although the sickness abated, my insides were still unhappy and thus began a pattern which was to last during the trip, meaning that I only achieved four of the seven landings. I missed the afternoon landing on Mainland Orkney, and that of the following afternoon at Papa Westray, but was able to spend a glorious morning on Fair Isle, a beautiful little Shetland island where there is a large modern bird observatory and where we saw seals in the bay, starlings, meadow pipits, wheatear, oystercatchers and various other birds. I didn't find time to get to the shop as I decided to walk over to a bluff where there were great views over the island, but the people were very friendly and with regular flights coming and going, I could easily be tempted back.
Between the Shetlands and the Isle of Lewis, we hit the first of two predicted Force 9 gales. Some who have already seen the pictures marvel at all the good weather. It should be pointed out that we weren't allowed on deck in the stormy swell for obvious reasons, and consequently, the cameras stayed untouched as it was enough to keep upright at times! The storm meant that we merely waved at Rona and Sula Sgeir as we passed, rather than landing. The latter is the last island on which gannets are killed for their meat by men who sail up from Lewis annually.
It was a shame to miss the Callanish Stones on Lewis as I have long wanted to visit these, but I can always return by car some time. The sun decided to reappear as we sailed on to the Flannan Isles and for the first time, the sails were raised. The swell abated enough for us to take a zodiac cruise where we spotted more seals, lots of nesting guillemots, kittiwakes and shags, as well as a few bobbing puffins and in a cavernous inlet, a small flock of purple sandpipers. Once back on board, up went the sails again as we literally sailed into the sunset, towards the faint outline of St Kilda on the horizon.
Mention St Kilda and everyone seems to adopt a rather nostalgic expression. Everyone has heard of it and most people would love to visit. Some lucky people already have visited and it really is a question of luck as to whether conditions allow for a landing. As we sat on the deck the following morning in bright sunshine, it seemed nonsensical that we couldn't land, but the swell was far too great to attempt a landing there and then. Perhaps it was because we had a passenger with St Kildan connections or perhaps it was due to another passenger who had tried and failed to land on three previous attempts, and who, in her early 80s might not have felt she had too many other chances, but the Weather Gods finally decided to smile with a turn of the tide and change of wind direction.
It has been a very long-held dream to visit St Kilda and it fulfilled all the expectations. It is a hauntingly-beautiful place, steeped in 3,000 years of history, of which we often only think of recent times when in August 1930, the final residents requested to leave the island. We marvel at how resilient these people must have been to weather all that the elements threw at them; how their main diet of seabirds was achieved - barefoot - by climbing the steepest, most slippery cliffs one can imagine. How isolated they were from everyone else. And yet until their recent history, they may not have known that much about life beyond their own realms, so what we compare with our own situation today could not have been such a consideration then.
The Soay sheep were literally everywhere, with lots of curious bright-eyed lambs skipping around. Birdlife was also abundant with sightings of pied wagtail, starlings, wheatear, redstart, redwing, merlin, snipe and even a goldfinch. And off the coast, minke whales were spotted. No-one wanted to leave, but the journey had to continue.
Sailing down the coast towards Mingulay, we spotted a school of white-sided dolphins who weaved alongside the boat for a few minutes. No pictures as although I took good shots, I later discovered that I'd got the setting wrong! It was decided that we wouldn't be able to land at Mingulay as the swell was against us again, so took the "bad weather" option of landing at Canna, a simply stunning little island. Having seen a sea eagle from afar whilst sailing, I had hopes that we might see one here, or perhaps a golden eagle, but they remained elusive and instead, I enjoyed spotting a white wagtail along the track up to the Celtic cross and Punishment stone, a pagan monolith towards the centre of the island. It was the warmest of afternoons and again, no-one wanted to leave. Another place to return to some day.
After sailing along the coast overnight, we finally moored at Oban where the sun arose over a millpond-calm harbour. It was easier to say our goodbyes in such a glorious setting, and make our way back through stunning West Coast scenery to the madding crowds again. There are many more photographs than I can put in the "Scottish Islands" folder, but click to enlarge the pictures and immerse yourself into our adventures: http://www.alexinthewild.com/p580920295