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Spring in the Scottish Isles

16th to 24th May 2019

 MS Hebridean Sky

 

 Thursday, 16th May 2019 – Embarkation in Fairlie

A beautiful sunny afternoon welcomes us to Scotland on this day of great anticipation and excitement at the prospect of joining MS Hebridean Sky on its exploration of the Western Scottish Islands. Most of us met our transfers from Glasgow train station and at the airport and we were then whisked away on a beautiful scenic coastal coach journey to meet the vessel alongside in Fairlie. The sea was flat calm with a gentle breeze and a very tropical 19 degrees with many sailing yachts at anchor. Having left our luggage to be delivered to our cabins we headed into the lounge for well deserved light refreshments, feet up with a beautiful fruit punch and nibbles, then off to get our bearings and to explore the ship and our cabins. A little later in the evening all passengers were required to don life jackets and assemble to take part in a mandatory safety and lifeboat drill. This was shortly followed by our welcome aboard briefing by the Noble Caledonia expedition team and a look ahead at the exciting itinerary for the cruise as well as a briefing on the procedures and safety protocols for the Zodiacs. And finally after a long day and travel weary we get underway at around 7pm for a lovely sunset cruise accompanied by a beautiful dinner en route to the Holy Loch.

 

Friday, 17th May 2019 – Holy Loch & Rothesay

After a very restful sleep we awoke to a chilly 10 degrees and slightly overcast morning on the Cowel Peninsula in the Firth of Clyde with a light North Easterly breeze but calm seas within the Holy Loch. Many of us are keen botanists and the prospect of visiting the famous Benmore gardens is absolutely thrilling, the Kew Gardens of Scotland ! We had a leisurely breakfast and then boarded the Zodiacs to be shuttled over to the marina to meet our coaches. After a short journey by road we arrived at Benmore before the scheduled public opening time and were met by the Curator who delivered a very informative brief history of the gardens and its highlights.  We set off and within moments we were met by an avenue of quite mind boggling proportions, an avenue of 50 Giant redwoods towering into the heavens. The gardens were a riot of colour with over 300 species of rhododendron in full flower in every colour of the rainbow, as well as the intoxicating scents of the Azalea and the wonderful vistas and viewpoints as you wandered around. The Bhutan glade and Victorian fernery were both really great.

Then it was back to the ship for a lovely lunch and the sun came out at around 1pm, it turned into a glorious afternoon to steam the short distance to the Isle of Bute. At 3pm we shuttled ashore to take a coach to the epic Mount Stuart House an absolutely jaw dropping example of a Victorian Gothic mansion. We explored the grounds and like the approach into the estate they were festooned with flowering rhododendron and mature trees of all types, with spectacular coastal views and carpets of bluebells and wildflowers. Mount Stuart house itself was quite a dizzying experience and many of us got a crook neck from looking up at all the wonders up high, Crystal stars and stained glass, with the most wonderful paintings, carvings and mirrors all combined to play tricks with the light and created a feast for the eyes, the quality of the furniture, fixtures and fittings within the house were quite bewildering and the imagination of the craftsman to deliver the owners vision quite beyond belief. Return to MS Hebridean Sky via the amazing Victorian gentleman's public lavatory at Rothesay harbour!

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Saturday, 18th May 2019 - Lunga & Iona

Overcast with drizzle and 10 knot winds this morning as we emerged from our slumber to be greeted by the Isle of Lunga, the largest of the Treshnish Isles. After a leisurely breakfast at 7.45am we boarded the Zodiacs to set off for an exploration of the island. The approach by sea to the landing point was fantastic, large rafts of puffins, razorbills and guillemots and the sky filled with kittiwakes as well as a few great skuas. The landing itself, into a narrow gully, was patrolled by two sentinels taking the form of two very curious Atlantic grey seals. We disembarked the Zodiacs for quite a scramble up the rocks onto level ground and then a lovely walk up to cliff edges to watch the nesting puffins at their precariously positioned burrows. The island was wonderful with many wild flowers, a sheen of bluebells intermingled with primrose, trefoil and tormentil. Traditional ‘Black Houses’ made of volcanic Basalt blocks occupied a commanding position atop the hill.

 A warming drink and tables groaning with food awaited us on board the MS Hebridean Sky and then it was off for another short Zodiac cruise to visit the famous Fingals cave on the island of Staffa as we passed by. Fingals cave is the largest sea cave in the world to be formed completely of volcanic Basalt columns. An otherworldly place with a real sense of magic, myth & legend. We were so lucky with the calm seas to be able to visit this cave. Well rested after a siesta and at 2.45pm we headed in to visit the small island of Iona. It was an exciting if choppy approach from the anchorage into Iona by Zodiac but our Zodiac skippers did their very best to make the ride as comfortable as possible and kept all the passengers relatively dry. Iona is a lovely place steeped in religious history, a place of Christian worship and pilgrimage stretching back centuries and the island has in fact been occupied for thousands of years. We explored the abbey and the expedition team birder showed us how to identify the call of the corncrake which sounds very much like running a finger nail down the teeth of a hair comb, some guests were lucky enough to spot one hiding amongst the irises.

 

 Sunday, 19th May 2019 - Loch Skavaig & Canna

An early breakfast today at 7am with low lying cloud and mist, light winds with some drizzle, guests spotted Harbour porpoise from the stern Lido. At around 8.30am we set off in the Zodiacs to head ashore for a walking exploration of Loch Skavaig and the fresh water Loch Corruisk on the Island of Skye. Thankfully the fog lifted revealing the breathtaking mountainous scenery, brighter skies and crystal clear waters in the bay. Groups of walkers set off to head further inland through the valley following the path along the edge of the Loch, an interesting variety of wildflowers were spotted including orchids at the landing point and further along in the boggy area two types of small carnivorous plant, the butterwort with its beautiful blue flower disguising its violent nature and the sundew. A few red deer were seen very high up on a ridge line and Arctic turns were numerous in Loch Corriusk, some lucky guests apparently spotted red throated divers too.

 During lunch we headed across to Canna and as we left Skye some Minke whales appeared astern of the ship and quite far off in the distance. Canna was a delightful island, very peaceful with a beautiful sheltered harbour and some interesting stone churches and spring lambs skipping in the fields. We had a nice walk about and some took refreshments outside the little cafe and shop.  On the Zodiac ride back to Hebridean Sky harbour porpoises and a minke whale were spotted by some, however a little later in the evening an enormous pod of common dolphin filled the seas almost to the horizon and everyone had a wonderful time watching them through the binoculars. Tonight was the Captain’s dinner and a very glamorous affair it was too. We all dressed in our finery and had a lovely introduction to the ship’s Captain and his officers in the lounge accompanied by cocktails, then it was down to the restaurant for a fine meal. Some of the tables were hosted by the Noble Caledonia expedition staff and the Captain himself, it was a really special evening and everyone looked like they had a super time, with much merriment.

 

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Monday, 20th May 2019 - Inverewe & Isle Martin

This morning arrived with mist, drizzle and a light breeze however it was dead calm and the waters glassy. Lots of jellyfish around with both Moon and Lions Mane jellyfish pulsating through the sea in large numbers. After breakfast we headed into the Inverewe gardens, at the landing point were a few large grey herons nesting in the trees and lots of Highland Midges which were irritating to say the least. The gardens were wonderful with many exotic trees and shrubs sheltered by windbreaks of the native pines. It was with some relief to be back on board MS Hebridean Sky for a hearty lunch and to put the midges behind us, the ship then repositioned around to the lovely Isle Martin, an uninhabited Island in Loch broom looked after by volunteers under community ownership. The soil fertility has been improved by reforestation initiatives so the community on the island can now grow some organic crops and everything else imported is fair-trade. A delightful little cafe served up delicious cakes and tea on a donation basis and the expedition team birder led a wildlife walk as well as an Isle Martin community member leading a tour of the island’s buildings and interesting heritage.

 

Tuesday, 21st May 2019 - Shiant Islands & Stornoway

Today is a very exciting day as we prepare to explore the spectacular towering basalt cliffs of the Shiant Islands by Zodiac. As we set off on a sunny and calm morning we see huge rafts of sea birds, puffins, razorbills and guillemots. Atlantic and Common seals drape themselves over the rocks with the beautiful oyster catchers tip toeing around them. The expedition team Zodiac skippers expertly guide us into the alluring sea caves and through the arches festooned with tapestries of lichen, mosses and colourful algae growth. 

Atop the towering Basalt cliffs and columns we see many huge white tailed eagles majestically soaring above us, it was quite a show and as we drank hot chocolate in the Zodiacs we were all mesmerised by their absolute grandeur. Towards the end of the cruise the sky began to bruise and as we were preparing to head back a heavy rain squall barrelled in. In the afternoon MS Hebridean Sky came alongside in Stornoway on the Island of Lewis. Coaches met us and whisked us all away for an afternoon of ancient history and culture. The tour itinerary included the amazing Callanish standing stones dating from 3000 BC, 32 upright stones with amazing views and quite a mysterious atmosphere. Followed by an ancient Pictish Broch castle and a village of Gearrannan black houses, here we learnt all about the amazing art of Harris Tweed weaving complete with a demonstration of the loom which looks very complicated as well as being very hard work. Lots of guests bought beautiful Harris Tweed handbags and hats from the gift shop. Tonight after dinner we head out around the Butt of Lewis into the Atlantic steaming across to the very remote Island archipelago of St Kilda. The open ocean crossing tonight could be quite lumpy.

 

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Wednesday, 22nd May 2019 - St Kilda & Stac Lee

This bright morning brought with it a stiff breeze but blue skies as we approached the enormous sea cliffs and stacks of St Kilda, the most remote archipelago in the British Isles 50 miles beyond the Outer Hebrides and is a dual status UNESCO World Heritage site. Full of breakfast (and for some the delicious Stornoway black pudding) we embarked in the Zodiacs to head into shore through the crystal clear waters of Village Bay for a walk and exploration of the main island of Hirta. The long walkers set off first to scale the summit of the largest hill of Conachair, a strenuous and almost vertical climb up to 1300 ft all the while being dive bombed by nesting and protective Great skuas, the views were definitely worth it looking down over the highest sea cliffs in the British Isles and wandering through the old stone storage roundhouses of the last inhabitants of the Island. Many wildflowers and sheep along the route kept all very entertained. Meanwhile others explored the old village area and the long abandoned homes of the last occupants, who had inhabited St Kilda for around 2000 years living primarily off sea birds before finally being evacuated in 1930. After lunch the MS Hebridean Sky circumnavigated Hirta and the towering sea stacs around Stac Lee in blustery conditions and with moderate seas. Stac Lee is home to 60,000 breeding pairs of Northern Gannet.

 

Thursday, 23rd May 2019 - Mingulay & Castle Bay, Barra

 

A light breeze with scotch mist and overcast skies welcomed the morning today anchored off Mingulay Bay. During breakfast the unmistakable form of a huge dorsal fin sliced through the water astern of our ship. This was our first sighting of the mighty basking shark, as the morning progressed three more huge sharks were sighted feeding in the shallow waters of the bay. The walkers and shore party headed into the white sand beaches with around 600 grey seals hauled out on the larger beach. A lovely walk guided by the expedition staff produced sea eagles and the twite. The magnificent sea cliffs were a sight to behold with a layer of black tar lichen and may sea birds of all descriptions. We pottered about enjoying the interesting and now derelict buildings of the past inhabitants of the island. Some guests chose to take a Zodiac cruise and were lucky enough to spend much time in the company of the enormous 6-8 metre basking sharks, a close encounter and a thrilling experience for all concerned. After a BBQ lunch on the Lido we steamed into Castle Bay on Barra to visit the 15th Century castle of Kisimul by local ferry and have a walkabout around the town, then it was back on board for some and a chocaholics afternoon tea. This evening we were treated to a slide show with photos of the whole voyage, so many wonderful memories have been made.

 

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Friday, 24th May 2019 – Disembarkation in Oban

 

This early dawn morning we cruise into Oban through the Sound of Mull, a really picturesque landscape. After a very good breakfast and steeled for a day of travel we finally disembark MS Hebridean Sky with strong sea legs to all head off in different directions making our way homeward bound……until the next time.

 

 

 End of Voyage

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

 

  

 

 

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