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Wild Scottish Islands

18th to 27th May 2019

Ocean Nova

 


Saturday, 18th May 2019 – Embarkation in Oban


Everyone came on board in high spirits despite the drizzle, most guests arrived on the buses from Glasgow, but a few came aboard under their own steam. Just after all the passengers joined the Ocean Nova the luggage was whisked aboard. There was a chance for tea and coffee and getting lost on the ship before we gathered in the Lounge (deck 5) for Hannah’s introduction to the ship, a chance to meet Rene the hotel manager and the whole expedition team who will be driving, guiding and leading you around the wild Scottish isles. This was followed by a safety briefing about the ship and a Zodiac ‘how to’ briefing to get us ready for our upcoming adventures.


We had our muster station drill at Muster station B because the rain had made the outer decks slippery. It was attended by all, and we enjoyed the demonstration of putting on the immersion suit and the lifejacket. Safety drills complete we were ready to cast the lines and sail away. The rain cleared for those went out on the decks to watch Oban recede as we headed across the Firth of Lorn for the Sound of Mull. The clouds added a bit of drama to the landscape as we sailed past the Duart Castle with its restoration scaffolding up, and a lucky few caught a glimpse of our first harbour porpoises. Dinner was announced and we gathered in the dining room for our first meal at sea. The scenery lured several out on deck as the light began to slowly fade, but for many it was an early night after a long day of travel.


Sunday, 19th May 2019 – South Uist, Erisay and Mingulay 


Our first Zodiac excursion of the voyage was to the small village of Lochboisdale on South Uist. We landed in the mizzle and the mist with the smell of fish in the air as we came into the harbour. Boarding the buses, we first headed off to Howmore, a fragmentary group of two medieval chapels and one current protestant church, with a communion table, one of the most important religious sites in the Outer Hebrides. The clouds added a dramatic atmosphere to the mossy crosses and remains of the medieval chapels. Afterwards we drove north passing small abandoned primary schools as now there is one bigger school that serves the whole island and Eriskay! Our guides explained how important the army was on the island as it is the main employer with its missile testing range and stations. It did mean however, that after they arrived in the 1950s the speaking of Gaelic died out within 10 years.


There was a chance too to stop and view the statue of the Lady of the Isles built in 1957 to protect the islands given the change brought about by the war and the army. There are also several Virgin Mary statues dotted around from the same time so as to ‘remind’ the army that Uist is a 90% Catholic island in contrast to the mainland. The Kildonan museum was another stop with a fantastic series of displays on crofting, religion, housing, trades and Bonnie Prince Charlies escape route across the island. One of the buses even enjoyed being serenaded by the local guide who knew the old songs such as the Eriskay love lilt. We headed off across the causeway to Eriskay Island to visit the location where in 1941 the SS Politician went aground with its cargo of 240,000 bottles of whisky, inspiring Compton Mackenzie’s famous novel, Whisky Galore, stopping on the way for a photo opportunity at the beach Bonnie Prince Charlie landed on in 1745 in the sunshine! The sunshine sadly didn’t last however, as we made our way back to the harbour at Lochboisdale to return to the ship for lunch.


Mingulay was our next stop, it was amazing we managed a landing, for lots of the staff it was a first landing after previous failed attempts. Mist was hanging over the top of the island as we approached, to be welcomed by a greeting party of grey seals. It was a wet landing and a variety of wellies, crocs and bare feet were employed to deal with the surf and sand. Some chose to do the longer walk with Daniel, past the ruined Catholic church dating from 1898 and then continuing up through the heather and grasses to the cliffs at the top. Up in the clouds we could see the fulmars wheeling around their cliff nests with an occasional puffin or razorbill adding variety. Those on the shorter walk were able to enjoy Clive and Julia’s company over to see the puffins on the other side of the beach and watch their antics. Others opted for a Zodiac cruise and were treated to a display of bird life, that included a white-tailed eagle!


All safely back aboard we had a moment to prepare for dinner in the bay at Mingulay. We donned our finest to meet Captain Barrios at his Welcome Cocktails that got off to an exciting start when he delivered a basking shark (or two) straight off the bow of the ship! There was a toast to the journey and Caption Barrios outlined how it would be passengers that would be in charge of the weather on this trip…

 

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Monday, 20th May 2019 – St Kilda


Notoriously hard to land on, the St Kilda archipelago is a highlight of any cruise in this part of the world. We sailed through the night then dropped anchor in Village Bay opposite Hirta at 0700, having passed Levenish on the way in. Hannah went to collect Sue the resident National Trust warden, who gave an introduction to the islands and some pointers as to what was available on the island of Hirta. We were lucky with calm seas and patches of sunshine as headed ashore. Hannah and Daniel led guided walks through the main buildings and along The Street, walking and talking about various aspects of life up until 1930 when the remaining 36 islanders asked to be evacuated. These introductory walks went as far as the cemetery and the Bronze Age souterrain. Back in the village, many people managed to see and photograph the St Kilda wren, an endemic sub-species. Thereafter people wandered at will, many stopping in at the little museum in one of the old houses from the 1860s. Some guests went with Clive up to the quarry, some to the Gap that overlooks Boreray with Daniel and Justine to watch the fulmars play in the wind, while others went to the gift shop for a little retail therapy.


During lunch the Ocean Nova remained at anchor in Village Bay in beautiful flat calm. The conditions were perfect for our Zodiac cruise with blue skies and sunshine. We spent an hour and a half playing around the island of Dun in the Zodiacs, peering into sea caves, cruising under vast arches with crashing waves and being surrounded by birds. There were rafts of both puffins and fulmars in the water – and the air! Guillemots, razorbills and the occasional gannet and skua added to the veritable feast of bird life. The east side of Dun was a vivid example of an island untouched by sheep, lush green and full of puffin burrows. The west side however, facing the Atlantic had big soaring cliffs full of drama and clefts to explore. The sunshine meant that the water in the caves and the passages shone a brilliant, almost Caribbean blue. We picked our back along the west coast of Dun and under the sea arch again back to the ship. After our fantastic Zodiac cruise, the Ocean Nova first turned south around the bottom of Dun and then headed around Hirta and Soay towards Boreray and the Stacs which are home to the largest colony of Northern gannets. The sunshine stayed as we circumnavigated Stac Lee (twice!) and rounded Stac an Armin marvelling at the sheer quantity of gannets in the air and on the Stacs.


Steaming away from the magnificent gannet colonies we had a short recap before dinner, with presentations from Julia on grey seals and Clive on gannets as well as a briefing from Hannah about our potential attempt to visit Sula Sgeir and North Rona tomorrow. Then we headed east towards the Flannan Isles to see the lighthouse famous for the mysterious disappearance of its three keepers without a trace. We passed these infamous rocks at sunset and were treated to a beautiful pink sky.


Tuesday, 21st May – Sula Sgeir and North Rona


It was an overcast morning when we arrived at Sula Sgeir at around 0700 in somewhat bumpy seas. The air was thick with gannets circling as we dropped a scout boat to examine the conditions for a potential Zodiac cruise. Given we were essentially in the Atlantic Ocean there was quite a bit of swell, but Hannah gave the go ahead for a cruise to take advantage of the relative calm. Those that stayed on the ship were able to enjoy views of the gannet decorated rocks while those who braved the swells were treated to a fantastic cruise among guillemot rafts and wheeling kittiwakes, razorbills, gannets and the occasional puffin. There was even a chance to go through the island itself, expertly driven through the narrow tunnel by the Zodiac drivers to get a small taste of the choppy waves on the other side. A turnstone was even spotted on the shoreline by some of the Zodiacs. The kittiwakes called as we cruised back through the arch to return safely to the ship for a circumnavigation with the Ocean Nova of this spectacular spot of life in the Atlantic. Fortified with teas and coffee we headed east to North Rona.


Upon arrival to North Rona, a scouting Zodiac was dropped, and the expedition team headed over to have a look at potential landing sites under a grey sky. Despite the best optimism and keen searching from Hannah and the team, no viable spots were found that would allow safe access to this island. The rain moved in as we paused for lunch but that did not deter the many brave spirits who wrapped themselves up in waterproofs and joined us for a Zodiac cruise at the least visited national nature reserve in Britain. It was a damp cruise, but it did not detract from the vast amount of varied bird life that was seen from the Zodiacs along the shoreline. Along with the, now standard, puffins, guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes there were a couple of eider ducks, including males in their summer plumage, turncoats, oystercatchers, purple sandpipers and even a robin! We were able to catch glimpses of the remains of the early Christian Celtic church ashore supposed to date from the 8th century and one of the oldest in Britain. The story is that St. Ronan arrived at the island on the back of a whale becoming first inhabitant of Rona… The lazy beds, testament to successful centuries of human habitation were brilliantly visible from both the ship and the Zodiacs too.


Happily back on board out of the heavy rain, we enjoyed a rest before Daniel gathered those interested in the lounge for a talk on ‘St. Kilda: Living, Surviving and Leaving’ that fascinated and raised lots of valuable points to further enhance our understanding of the fantastic island we had visited yesterday and the remote islands we were going to. This was followed by a recap with Hannah outlining tomorrow’s plans for our first day in the Shetlands at Papa Stour and Foula with small talks from Conrad on botany and Justine with a brief history of the island of North Rona. The evening was capped off with a screening of the thrilling Whiskey Galore as we steamed even further north towards the Shetlands.

 

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Wednesday, 22nd May – Papa Stour, Foula and St Ninian’s Island


Grey skies and a classic Scottish drizzle met us for our first excursion in the Shetland Islands. We arrived at Papa Stour (big island of the priests in Old Norse) around 0730 that allowed for a small sleep in. Several passengers chose to stay in the warm and dry on the ship to appreciate the dramatic, misty scenery of Papa Stour and the Shetland mainland across the way. Those that dared to brave the rain and wind were rewarded with a series of exciting cave networks and sea arches that had been carved out of the sandstone cliffs by the waves. The Zodiacs were perfect for exploring the stacs and caves around Brei Holm, the site of an early Norse monastic community and supposed leper colony from the 1700s. There was a longer cruise option that also picked its way along the southern edge of the island, marvelling at the vast caves and red sea cliffs and seeing the occasional sheep and highland cow munching away in the rain. It was another very damp and soggy cruise and the hot chocolate (and bailey’s!) back on the ship was an excellent way to start the re-warming process!


Over lunch we transferred towards Foula one of the outlying islands of the Shetlands group. When we arrived however, the swells were crashing against the island and the wind had picked up. The staff assessed conditions at the gangway but unfortunately the call was made that it wouldn’t be safe, the Foula islanders were sad to miss us but told Hannah that we should all come visit next time! Luckily there was a Plan B. We had our recap early today as we steamed towards the Shetland mainland – Hannah briefed us on about our early day at Mousa and big day in Lerwick tomorrow and Daniel gave us an overview of place names and what that means for history.


We arrived at St. Ninian’s Isle to find much calmer seas and a very tranquil easy beach landing along the spit that connects the Isle to the mainland. Some guests joined Clive for a bird walk along the sand spotting arctic terns and arctic skuas among other winged regulars. Others joined Daniel and Justine for a walk up to the ruins of the 12th century church dedicated to St. Ninian where the Pictish silver was found in 1958. With the sheep for company, many also wandered over the grassy hills looking out over the small cliffs on the other side, home to fulmars and wild flowers. It was a fittingly misty evening with fog rolling in to watch The Vanishing; the new Hollywood film about the Flannan Island lighthouse keeper disappearances. It seemed artistic liberties may have been taken in this very tense film about murder and gold!


Thursday, 23rd May – Mousa and Lerwick


The 0530 wakeup call made gave us some soft grey light with which to explore the famous Iron Age broch at Mousa. The impressive stone tower (13m) was definitely worth the early start with its fantastic intramural staircase and impressive un-mortared stonework. This is the best-preserved broch in Scotland and it raised more questions than answers about its purpose, roofing and design. Believed to be built around 100 BC by the Celts when there was a wave of broch building around Scotland. There was also fantastic bird life for those that accompanied Clive and Julia on the walk over towards the other side with some grey lag geese among others. Breakfast was eagerly greeted however, when we got back on board, already a full morning and it was only 8 o’clock! We headed over to Lerwick afterwards, picking up a pilot at 0930 to guide us into the harbour. It was a free morning in the town although Daniel led a walk towards the fantastic Shetland Museum and Archives at the north of the city. This was a museum that is full to bursting with the complex human history of the Shetlands from the Stone Age through the Norse to the modern era. Despite the drizzle the streets of Lerwick sill offered several nice shops and cafes to wander past. Lunch aboard the (dry) Ocean Nova was a welcome respite from the Shetland rain.


After lunch Hannah, Daniel and Justine joined those who wanted to go to Jarlshof and the coaches set off from the pier to explore the Shetland mainland. We passed Shetland ponies, sheep, churches and peat scars in the mist. Our first stop was the Sumburgh lighthouse with excellent wildflowers down the cliffs and part of a sperm whale skull (sperm whale tonnage equivalent to 10 million cream buns). Back on the buses we quickly arrived at our main stop, the mind-blowing archaeological site of Jarsholf. A storm in the 1890s revealed prehistoric remains at this site that spans thousands of years of human history. Settlement first began c. 2500 BC and there were stone age house remains and metalworking from the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age. There was also part of a broch and the wheelhouses (c. 1-500 AD) that towered above even Daniel and allowed a chance to imagine life lived in these stone houses. Norse longhouses, medieval farms and a 17th century laird’s house completed the tableau of history at Jarlshof, although the Shetland ponies may have been the most memorable.
Before dinner we had our standard recap where Hannah outlined our plans for tomorrow at the northern end of the Shetlands at Unst and Fetlar. Daniel and Hannah also added pieces about the Shetland Bus and barnacles espectively. The best treat after dinner, apart from the sunset, were the local musicians who came aboard to entertains us with local Shetland music encouraging some to dance and sing along and adding a lot of energy and fun.

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Friday, 24th May – Unst and Fetlar


Another (not quite as) early start this morning as we rounded the northernmost point of the British Isles. We got to see Muckle Flugga lighthouse in the brilliant morning sunshine with cliffs and wheeling birds. After breakfast the sun held as we boarded the coaches in Unst and set off for a tour of the northernmost Shetland island. The Unst Boat Haven was a particular gem on this tour showcasing a collection of Shetland boats from the 19th century to more modern times that highlighted their proficiency and ties to the sea. These small craft were the backbone of the fishing wealth that boomed across the islands and the clinker-built replica Far Haaf outside underscored this.

We were also able to enjoy a brief walk on the occasionally boggy moor next to the old radar station and listening post. This allowed us to enjoy a land view of Muckle Flugga lighthouse far below surrounded by bonxies (skua). Shetland ponies and their foals were a particular highlight of this tour too. The northernmost inhabited house in Britain and the northernmost bus stop (no longer in use) were key spots when we visited the geologically fascinating beach. The Viking long ship Skidbladner demonstrated the ancestry of the sea-worthy Shetland ships with its clinker-built hull. Next to it was the surprisingly roomy and spacious Viking longhouse, in the same Norse style but built out of local stone not wood given the scarcity of trees. The highlight of the tour might, however, have been the eccentric bus stop with its puffin statue celebrating a centenary of votes from women.


Lunch was enjoyed by all as we steamed out of Unst and headed south towards Fetlar. Hannah gave us a brief briefing on what to expect from Fair Isle tomorrow and offered everyone the chance for a quick nap! But then it was off to explore the beautiful island of Fetlar in the sunshine! Plans changed a couple times as we tried to pin down the elusive Phalarope and establish the best walking route. Some therefore, enjoyed a ramble with Clive and Conrad, fun, despite the lack of Phalaropes while others chose the option of delicious tea and overflowing cake table in the community centre, entertained by Martha, a local woman, on the fiddle with the option to buy some of the knitwear and goodies done on the island. As the sun began to be overwhelmed by the gathering clouds a couple of the Zodiacs went for a pootle around the coastline, spied on by seals and arctic terns and enjoying the rock formations and mini waterfall, and, for one, very lucky Zodiac, a Phalarope sighting… The fun was not over however, as we got back to the ship we were greeted by Adrian in Hawaiian shirt and wig with tunes ready for the barbecue! A veritable feast of meat and occasional vegetarian option was accompanied by mulled wine, beers and dancing tunes. A series of interesting hats were also on display, the staff displayed their loyalty with their Noble Caledonia bag hats and there were Ocean Nova slippers, Canadian flags and reminders about plastic on the hats too!


Saturday, 25th May – Fair Isle


Overnight we had sailed to Fair Isle, part of the Shetlands but adrift halfway between Orkney and the Shetlands. We headed ashore into the protected bay of North Haven where we were met by some local guides. Everyone scattered across the island some to the cliffs up to the left of the landing site to look for puffins with Clive, others for the short walk to the community centre, the medium walk or the longer walk along the island. The teas, coffees and cakes were a particular hit in the community hall, especially after a windy walk. The famous fair isle knitwear was on sale around the room ranging from ‘The Fair Isle Jumper’ to headpieces, purses and little pillows. The school children were also excellent salespeople with their tea towels and tote bags.

After lunch on the ship two choices were offered; either another chance to go for a free walk on the island or a Zodiac cruise around this magical isle. Those who went ashore were able to enjoy the calm weather and lack of rain despite the forecast calling for showers and get a chance to really soak up the spirit of the place. The Zodiac cruise started for all with a 45 minute ‘pootle’ around the bay that the Nova was anchored in. We explored sea caves, threaded our way through arches and enjoyed the curious seals who were just as curious about us it seemed. As always, the air throbbed with bird life and there were fulmars, guillemots, razorbills and puffins all around. There was then the option to be dropped off at the ship or continue round into open seas to visit a gannetry. There were bigger swells to contend with, but we were able to see throngs of guillemots launching themselves chaotically at the water and see them swimming underneath the surface, more shags, fantastic rock formations and big wheels of puffins overhead. As we got closer to the headland, we started to see the flashes of white of the gannets. The cliffs rose up fantastically high out of the water and were seething with gannets (and guillemots). It was a special experience to watch these elegant birds flying in with seals all around peering at us over the water. The fun was then increased as the zodiacs threaded their way along sea caves that cut through across the headland with dramatic swells. Back aboard we received a briefing from Hannah about our last day at Papa Westray. There was also a flower overview from Conrad and a fantastic Norse versus Celt history through boat discussion from Daniel before it was time for dinner in the bay flooded with evening sunshine. After dinner entertainment was The Local Hero to wrap up a magical day here at Fair Isle.


Sunday, 26th May – Papa Westray


Our last excursion day dawned with overcast skies and a light wind but no rain! After breakfast we made our way ashore at Papa Westray where we split into two groups. The archaeological/history walk set off first along one of the two main roads towards the Knap of Hower that was just past the Holland Farm. We came over a little lane to an innocuous small mound where our guide outlined just how ancient this site was; Neolithic – believed to be about 5,000 years old and recent carbon dating has placed the houses at 3,500-3,200 BC. Excavations in 1933 revealed the remarkably complete structure built out of sandstone that would have once been a free-standing structure but was now in the earth. It raised lots of questions but with buildings this ancient clear answers are almost impossible! Some then headed back towards the main road while others continued along the shoreline towards the 12th century church of St. Boniface. It was a simple church with an eclectic graveyard that included a typical Norse longhouse grave from the 1100s. The bird walk enjoyed a meander along the shore with a special sighting of a corncrake! There were various routes back towards the Zodiacs, along the shoreline, the main road or by car. And then, it was over. Last Zodiacs back to the ship in time for lunch on board as we picked our way through the Orkney islands heading towards Aberdeen.


Our final afternoon at sea was made epic by a sighting of killer whales. At first, they were elusive, and we thought it would only be a brief sighting of a fin but as our captain spun the Nova around and we headed back northwards the killer whales reappeared. This time quite close to the boat that had people switching quickly from starboard to port and back again to view the pod of three that included a big male with an enormous dorsal fin. The rest of the rainy afternoon was enlivened by Scott’s talk on his time in the Commandos and Clive’s discussion on bird illustration and art. We then had our final recap and briefing that outlined the plans for tomorrow’s disembarkation. There was a general recap, the highlight being Julia’s talk on orca as a result of our sighting today! All the expedition team scrubbed up nicely as our briefing was followed by Captain’s Farewell Cocktails with Captain Barrios where we raise a toast to our journey. Our final farewell dinner was a fancy affair and the fresh crabs picked up from the Shetlands were the star of the night! Dinner was followed by a chance to relive our fantastic trip through the voyage slideshow, put together by Conrad.


Monday, 27th May – Disembarkation in Aberdeen


We finally made it alongside early in the morning. After a final breakfast everyone said their fond farewells after a superb voyage on Ocean Nova and headed homeward, for the railway terminus or elsewhere.

 

 

 End of Voyage

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

   

 

 

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