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Hebridean Secrets

22nd to 30th May 2017

MS Serenissima


Monday, 22nd May 2017 - Oban


Travelling by buses from Glasgow Airport and Central Station, we arrived in Oban in the afternoon and were soon on board the Serenissima for some welcoming refreshment. After settling into our cabins, we assembled at our muster station in the Andrea Lounge for the Mandatory Safety Briefing and proceeded out on deck to try on our lifejackets and check the route to our respective lifeboats in an emergency. The ship safety drill was followed by a Welcome Aboard and Mandatory Zodiac Safety Briefing in the Andrea Lounge where we met the expedition team and received an introduction to the routine on board Serenissima and an outline of our plans for the following day. After some unpacking of suitcases, a buffet dinner was served in the Venice Restaurant and we began to get to know our fellow guests and expedition staff. As we sailed away from Oban we were able to view some of the beautiful west coast scenery.



Tuesday, 23rd May 2017  - Iona, Staffa and Lunga

In a fresh wind we landed by Zodiac on a concrete jetty on the small island of Iona just off the west coast of the larger island of Mull. The first group headed for on a walk, looking and listening and looking out for the elusive corncrakes. These birds, with their distinctive call, could be heard in the fields though they tended to remain in thick cover for most of the time. The Abbey Church is an impressive building which has been beautifully and carefully conserved. The Communion Table is made of the local Iona marble, white with green streaks. We were able to observe a small archaeological dig which was going on in the grounds and speak to the archaeologists about their work and finds. Having returned to the ship for lunch, we repositioned to Staffa and had an exciting Zodiac ride to land at the small jetty there. Following the path with handrails around to the cave, we entered the narrow path a few at a time and marvelled at the amazingly regular hexagonal columns of basalt. Moving on to Lunga, a well known location to see puffins, we sent a scout Zodiac to check on the landing conditions. Unfortunately, due to a very heavy sea swell, we were unable to land there but some of us set off on a Zodiac cruise to see the hundreds of puffins and guillemots on the water. Numerous grey seals were also swimming around the boats.



Wednesday, 24 May 2017 - Canna and Loch Scavaig, Skye

Having anchored overnight at Canna, we landed by Zodiac in misty conditions at the concrete slipway. There, we were met by guides from the National Trust for Scotland. who gave us an account of the human and natural history of the island. Afterwards, we set off on a walk to look at some of the interesting buildings and wildlife. Despite occasional light rain, which added to the atmosphere, our enthusiastic guides maintained our interest in this fascinating community and island. The beautifully carved Celtic cross was a reminder of the rich cultural heritage of the Hebrides while we also heard about the extensive Gaelic library built up in Canna House by the former owner John Lorne Campbell. Next, landing by Zodiac on a metal staircase, we set off on a nature walk along the glaciated valley of the River Scavaig beside the shores of Loch Coruisk. The clean rock surfaces allowed many geological features such as intrusive dykes, igneous layering in the gabbro and glaciated surfaces to be clearly seen. Some chose to take a short walk close to the landing site whilst others struck out on a long hike towards the end of the valley. For those of us who did not wish to walk, Zodiac cruises were offered on Loch Scavaig, where seals could be seen lying on the many small islands and swimming in the sea. After we had all returned to the ship, John Love gave a talk entitled 'A Saga of Sea Eagles' before we all met up in the Andrea Lounge for the Captain’s Welcome Cocktail Party and Dinner.



Thursday, 25th May 2017 - Lochmaddy, North Uist

Arriving at Lochmaddy on North Uist in good conditions, we landed by Zodiac and set off on three coaches to the Balranald Bird Reserve. This is located on the Machair, an extensive area of wind-blown shell sand deposited along the west coast of the Outer Hebrides. The carbonate content neutralises the otherwise peaty soil in the area creating fertile fields suitable for arable farming. The Balranald reserve is managed to retain many of the original wild flowers, which encourages the diverse insect and bird life. We were fortunate to hear (and some even see) the elusive corncrake in the areas of long grass at the Reserve Centre around the old farm buildings. After lunch on board, we returned to the pontoons at Lochmaddy for out bus tour of Benbecula, South Uist and Eriskay. We stopped at Kildonan Museum where we looked at the exhibits, had a coffee and examined the replica Birlinn, a typical wooden galley of the style formerly used extensively in the Western Isles. As we travelled, our guides gave us a fascinating account of the history and topography of the various islands as we crossed the causeways connecting them. Many of the people and places were associated with the events of the times of Bonnie Prince Charlie, The Young Pretender, in 1745-46. Our final stop was at Eriskay, where we saw the beautiful beaches on the west coast of the island. Eriskay is famous as the location of the wreck of the SS Politician in 1941, a cargo ship carrying 28,000 cases of whisky, much of which was salvaged by the locals. The well known book and film Whisky Galore was based on this incident.



Friday, 26th May 2017 - Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, and Shiant Islands

The programme for the morning consisted of a coach tour to see some of the well-known tourist sites on Lewis. The impressive Standing Stones of Callanish date back to around 3000BC and consist of a series of megaliths from 1m to 5m in height set upright in a circle 13m in diameter. Avenues of smaller stones are laid out to the four points of the compass across the site. Other smaller stone circles are located nearby. The next stop was at the Carloway Broch, a circular Iron Age stone defensive and domestic building dating from 1AD. The massive stone walls with internal space demonstrated the considerable skills possessed by the builders. This is the bestpreserved broch in Lewis, though there were once many others before they fell into disuse and were pillaged as a source of building stone. Our final venue was the Na Gearrannan Black House Village where a group of traditional style houses have been restored and conserved to show what life was like in the Hebrides only one or two generations ago. The great importance of the peat as a source of locally available fuel was emphasised and it is still used extensively on the island for this purpose. After lunch back on board, John Love gave a talk entitled 'A Natural and Human History of St Kilda' as we repositioned to the Shiant Islands some 22 nautical miles from Stornoway and anchored in the bay.

We then headed to the Shiant Islands and once there, the sea conditions were almost perfect as we launched the Zodiacs for cruises along the bird cliffs. These largely consisted of tall basaltic columns, some of which had broken off and tumbled down forming a rubble scree perfectly arranged for some of the seabirds to nest. The particularly calm sea conditions also allowed us to enter and transit some of the amazing sea caves which puncture the basalt cliffs of the archipelago. As we cruised below the towering sea cliffs, puffins razorbills and guillemots flew off in huge numbers and wheeled above our heads, while numerous seals could be seen swimming in the sea and popping their heads up to inspect us.

Saturday, 27 May 2017 - St Kilda

Despite the misty conditions and some light rain, today’s landing on St Kilda was the highlight of the cruise for many of us. We anchored in Village bay, Hirta and a Zodiac brought the St Kilda Ranger across to the Serenissima to give us a talk on the history of the island community and describe the conservation work being carried out on St Kilda by the National Trust for Scotland. Everyone then landed by Zodiac at the jetty and set off on either a long hike up to the gap in the hills behind the village led by Colin, James and Joselyn, or accompanied John Love on a more leisurely historical walk around the village. It was fascinating to hear about the hard life of the islanders and see the cottages where they had lived in the bleak landscape. The local Soay sheep wandered everywhere, completely ignoring our presence. Back on board for lunch, a Zodiac cruise along the east coast of Dun was offered to view the sea birds nesting there, before we sailed northwards along the west coast of the archipelago, accompanied by a commentary from John along the way. After passing Soay, we turned eastwards towards Berneray and the massive sea stacks of Stac Lee and Stac an Armin. The former is home to the second largest colony of gannets in the world and Captain Lukša Lale skilfully navigated the ship around Stac Lee and Berneray, giving us amazing views of the rocks and birds. We then set course for Castlebay, Barra, a distance of 75 nautical miles, where we planned to anchor overnight. During the transit, James gave a talk entitled 'Our Dynamic Earth—the story of Plate Tectonics'.


Sunday, 28th May 2017 - Barra and Mingulay

We anchored outside Castlebay on Barra and went ashore by Zodiac to a slipway opposite Kisimul Castle. A walk was offered to the old Herring Station while others took in the village and environs, though most places were closed due to it being a Sunday. The Zodiacs were then used to ferry us across to Kisimul Castle where the history was told in various explanation boards and exhibitions. The unusual interlocking iron gate of the castle is known as a ‘Yett’, a peculiarly Scottish defensive feature used in castles. We returned to the ship for lunch and repositioned the 15 nautical miles to Mingulay. The near-perfect sea conditions at Mingulay allowed us to make a good beach landing on the east side of the island near the old village. Colin, James and Joselyn led a long walk to the sea cliffs on the western coast to view the nesting seabirds while those of us who wanted a more gentle walk wandered around the beach or visited the deserted houses and schoolhouse. Zodiac cruises were also provided which gave an opportunity to view the rugged eastern coastline of the island and also observe some seals in the water. In the evening, the Captain’s Farewell Cocktail Party and Dinner was held in the evening as we prepared for our final day in the Hebrides tomorrow.


Monday, 29 May 2017 - Colonsay and Jura

Landing by Zodiac on a fine granite slipway several of us set off on brisk 50-minute walk to see the gardens at Colonsay House, some 3 miles from the jetty. Both house and gardens looked good despite the rain which started just as we arrived. Others elected to go on a shorter nature walk around the harbour. The light rain persisted throughout the morning but it did not detract from our enjoyment of the island. We returned to the ship by Zodiac for lunch and repositioning for our visit to Jura for the afternoon. Arriving at the island after lunch, Captain Lukša managed to find a sheltered spot to anchor and we disembarked by Zodiac onto a pontoon at Craighouse. Some of us set off on bus tours around the island while others made their way to a whisky tasting at the Jura Distillery. There, we were given 3 different Jura whiskies to taste, a 10 year old, a 16 year old, and a mildly peated undated malt named Superstition. Everyone of course had their own preference depending on their palate. Many of us also took advantage of a guided tour of the distillation plant. Afterwards, the expedition staff led a short nature walk along the beach looking for interesting birds, otters and other aspects of the natural history. In the evening we had the Cruise Slideshow produced by Colin and shown in the Andrea Lounge, before we retired to complete our packing ready for disembarkation at Fairlie the following morning.


 End of Voyage

For further inspiration, view slideshow of images taken during the voyage





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