In the Wake of the Vikings: Scotland, Iceland & the Faroes

Published on Wednesday, August 31, 2011

  • Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland

  • Clipper Odyssey

  • Aberdeen, Scotland

  • Aberdeen, Scotland

  • Aberdeen, Scotland

  • Invergordon, Scotland

  • Invergordon, Scotland

  • Invergordon, Scotland

  • Invergordon, Scotland

  • Invergordon, Scotland

  • Dunrobin Castle

  • Dunrobin Castle

  • Dunrobin Castle

  • Dunrobin Castle

  • Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland

  • Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland

  • Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland

  • Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland

  • Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland

  • Tórshavn, Faroe Islands, Denmark

  • Tórshavn, Faroe Islands, Denmark

  • Tórshavn, Faroe Islands, Denmark

  • Tórshavn, Faroe Islands, Denmark

  • Mykines / Vestmanna

  • Mykines / Vestmanna

  • Mykines / Vestmanna

  • Mykines / Vestmanna

  • Mykines / Vestmanna

  • Vestmanna

  • Vestmanna

  • Höfn, Iceland

  • Höfn, Iceland

  • Höfn, Iceland

  • Höfn, Iceland

  • Höfn, Iceland

  • Heimay Island, Iceland

  • Heimay Island, Iceland

  • Reykjavík, Iceland

  • Reykjavík, Iceland

  • Reykjavík, Iceland

  • Reykjavík, Iceland

  • Reykjavík, Iceland

Thursday, July 14, 2011 - Edinburgh, Scotland: Following our independent arrival, we transferred to the Radisson Blu in downtown Edinburgh. There, we gathered with our fellow Zegrahm, Harvard Museum of Natural History, World Wildlife Fund, and Catalina Island Conservancy travelers for a welcome dinner hosted by Lynda Murphy and Ragnar Hauksson.

Friday, July 15 - Edinburgh / Embark Clipper Odyssey: With a full day to explore Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital, we took in the contrasting architecture of the old and new parts of town (the first of several World Heritage Sites we visited during our voyage) and visited splendid Edinburgh Castle, first referred to historically as Dun Eidyn—a fortress on the rock—in about 600a.d. We then ventured out of the city to see the famous rail and road bridges over the Firth of Forth. In the late afternoon we embarked the Clipper Odyssey and met up with our expedition leader, Mike Messick, and our team of lecturers. We were briefed concerning life and safety on board the ship and prepared for our initial wildlife spectacle, which immediately followed dinner on board. We sailed past the impressive 351-foot-high dome-topped stack of Bass Rock. We poured onto the decks to listen to the sounds, absorb the aroma, and revel in the sights of approximately 150,000 northern gannets at one of the largest colonies in Europe. These elegant black, white, and gold birds, the largest seabirds in the North Atlantic, were all around us, busily commuting to and from their nests where large young, or guga, were clamoring for evermore food. The lighthouse, built in 1902 on a terrace above the ruins of Sir Robert Lauder’s Castle, added to the historic scene before us as we continued sailing out of the Firth of Forth bound, overnight, for Aberdeen.

Saturday, July 16 - Aberdeen: Rain greeted us in the granite city of Aberdeen, which made the streets glisten as we toured the town. We visited the cathedral, the quaint streets of the fishing quarter—with  its terraced houses, photogenic tiny back gardens, and net sheds—and the glassed-in “Winter Gardens,” with its flora of tropical and desert regions being in considerable contrast to the weather outside. Fortunately, the weather began improving during our early lunch back on board and was quite pleasant for our afternoon excursion. The drive inland took us through the rolling countryside towards the Scottish highlands, and on the higher hills we could make out purpling heather moors in this land of the Red Grouse (both the bird and the whisky). At the Royal Lochnagar Distillery, we learned about the distillation process involved in producing the local whisky, and learned that in Scotland there is no “e,” that being reserved for Irish whiskey. We went into the grounds of Balmoral Castle, the summer residence of the British Royal family, a particular favorite of the late Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and still popular with the younger members of the family. While some of us were shown parts of the house, others took the opportunity for a nature walk beside the river with naturalists Mark Brazil and Rich Pagen, and were lucky to encounter a white-throated dipper foraging in areas of whitewater and two Eurasian red squirrels, a rather rare species in Britain these days, in the riverside woodland. Following our day’s excursion, we were welcomed back to the ship with cocktails and Captain Peter  Fielding’s welcome aboard party.

Sunday, July 17 - Invergordon / Inverness: Overnight, we traveled from Aberdeen up the Scottish coast and disembarked in Invergordon. Early rain gave way to overcast conditions, which cleared to fine sunshine. Our tour today took us across the scenic Dornoch Firth to the town of Dornoch with its museum and 13th-century cathedral. Further away at Helmsdale, we stopped to visit the Timespan Heritage Center where we enjoyed tea and coffee accompanied by scones, cream, and cakes—a fine Scottish tradition. We also admired the bridge dating back to 1808-09, built by the famous engineer Thomas Telford. Additional highlights included our visit to Carn Liath, an Iron Age broch where archaeologist Colleen Batey explained the history of the site and introduced us to the concepts of iron age tribes in Scotland. Colleen also went over the impacts of the raiding Vikings and Norse peoples, while explaining the significance of the size and style of construction of this striking dry-stone-walled edifice. Our day continued with a visit to the impressive Dunrobin Castle, home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland since the 13th century. The superb interior of the house provided an in-depth view into the lives of the Scottish nobility. Outside, the formal, geometric gardens, based on plantings of contrasting foliage first laid out in the 1850s and inspired by the gardens at Versailles, were the setting for an extremely exciting and informative falconry display. During the demonstration, hawks, falcons, owls, and even a vulture, were flown over our heads and shown off with great skill by the resident falconer. The small family museum—a true Cabinet of Curiosities—housed an unexpected collection of the taxidermist’s art, as well as a substantial collection of Pictish carved stones dating from the period 450-800a.d. Our visit to the castle was rounded out by a rousing musical performance by a local pipe band. After an hour’s journey back to the ship at Invergordon, we were piped aboard by another band on the quay and entertained by dancers and musicians in the main lounge before dinner.

Monday, July 18 - Kirkwall, Orkney Islands: Early this morning we arrived in Kirkwall, the capital of the Orkneys. The islands lie off the northern shore of Scotland where the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea meet. Soon after arrival, Mark took a small group of birders off to search for birds around the bay, and later the remainder of our lecture team led walks around the small town of Kirkwall.

After an early brunch we embarked our buses to visit the historical highlights of the island, focusing on the fine structure of St. Magnus’ Cathedral, founded in 1137 and built of local red sandstone and yellow Eday stone over a period of some 300 years. Onwards to the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney” World Heritage Sites, which includes the dramatic ancient stone circle of the Ring of Brodgar and the Neolithic burial mound of Maes Howe, with its fine collection of Norse runic graffiti. The ancient settlement at Skara Brae, some of the remains dating back 5,000 years and situated overlooking a beautiful, sweeping bay, was astonishing in the extent of its preservation and detail. Returning to Kirkwall by way of Scapa Flow, we learned of the significance of this body of water for fleets plying the North Atlantic and its role in World War II.

Tuesday, July 19 - At Sea / Tórshavn, Faroe Islands, Denmark: Bound for the Faroe Islands, we endured a rough night and morning, though the swells began to die down as we neared the islands to the north. During our day at sea our lecture team laid on a ‘university-at-sea’ program and gave us a series of lectures. In the morning, Colleen outlined The Norse Colonization of the North Atlantic, and Rich described Local and Global Marine Mammals: Their Conservation Issues and Solutions. In the afternoon, Mark introduced Why Puffins Can’t Soar and Albatrosses Don’t Dive: Seabirds of the North Atlantic, and geologist Tom Sharpe explained the origins of the Atlantic in his lecture, The Birth of an Ocean.

As we sailed in to pretty Tórshavn, capital city of the Faroes, we admired the colorful buildings, some roofed traditionally with turf, and the teams of rowers plying the harbor in their Norse-style wooden boats. Some 15,000 people live in the city, while approximately 47,000 people call the islands their home. Independently governed since 1948, the islands remain under the protectorate of the Danish crown. The delights of the town and the opportunity to stroll on solid ground tempted many of us ashore after the evening’s recap, and the turf-roofed government buildings and narrow streets lined with old houses on the headland across the bay were a popular destination.

Wednesday, July 20 - Tórshavn: Despite being overcast for most of the day, the weather remained mostly dry, allowing us to appreciate wonderful views of these impressive islands. Our morning excursion took us to the picturesque village of Kirkjubøur where we stepped inside a Faroese-style farmhouse, visited the 12th-century Lutheran church, and saw the restoration work being undertaken at the ruins of the 13th-century St Magnus’ Cathedral. On our way back to the ship we stopped in Hoyvík to view the National Historical Museum and learned about the traditional way of life of the islanders, and the independence and resilience of this small population. Housed in the museum among many interesting artifacts, were two early and unusual versions of the national flag, which displayed the ram on one, and the oystercatcher (the national bird), on the other.

After lunch on board we divided and went in different directions. One group set off to hike to Streymoy Sill with the leadership of Tom, who explained the various features of the land including how the molten rock of the Streymoy Sill had pushed through and between some of the lava flows. The other group, with the guidance of Colleen, visited the coastal villages of Kvívík and Sandavágur, by way of one of the impressive undersea tunnels that now link several of the Faroe Islands together, to view the Viking remains and the Rune Stone.

Thursday, July 21 - Mykines / Vestmanna: Remote and beautiful, the island of Mykines proved to be inspirational for many of us. Shrouded in Atlantic puffins as we approached, it was indeed a puffin paradise for walkers, photographers, and birders alike. Many of us encountered an extraordinary rarity on the island in the form of an out of range rose-colored starling male, who was feeding on the short grass of the trail above the landing site. While some took the long walk out to the lighthouse, and some, entranced by puffins, barely moved from the island’s grassy ridge, others explored the tiny village nestled into the lush green valley above the landing site. A Zodiac cruise along the shore in calm seas added the final icing to the splendid cake of Mykines, with visits to see the gannetry at the end of the island and encounters with gray and harbor seals along the way.

During lunch we sailed around to Vestmanna and drove off to Saksun for our afternoon excursions. This austere settlement is hemmed in by walls of rock and steep-sided, craggy hills overlooking the Dalsá River. Some visited the village church and farmhouse, while others walked through the village and along the Pollurin Lagoon. The most adventurous (and willing to get their feet wet!) hiked high into the hills across flower-studded meadows, over rocks, and through mossy bogs to reach a high tarn amidst the nesting grounds of great skuas. The hikers were entertained by the sight of these menacing birds mobbing and attacking our local farmer and guide Magnus—clearly he had been near them before!

Friday, July 22 - Vestmanna / At Sea: Boarding local boats this morning, we traveled along the base of towering sea cliffs exploring caves, rock arches, and tunnels, seeing slopes covered with Northern Fulmars and, here and there, ledges crowded with guillemots—a journey through truly spectacular, dramatic scenery. We returned to the Clipper Odyssey and set sail, bound now for another country—Iceland.

In the afternoon native Icelander Ragnar introduced us to his country with a lecture entitled History of Iceland, and Colleen brought us up-to-date with her details of Recent Excavations in Iceland. After dinner, Ragnar entertained us with Icelandic stories of elves and trolls.

Saturday, July 23 - Höfn, Iceland: Our first day in Iceland, Europe’s second largest island, dawned bright and sunny with high clouds, and remained ideal for our full day ashore. From the harbor itself we could make out the glacial fingers of Vatnajökull reaching down towards the coast from its massive ice cap, the third largest volume of ice in the world. While driving westwards from Höfn we admired the lush coastal meadows, the small sheep farms, and the occasional herds of Icelandic horses. At Smyrlabjörg we divided, breaking the excursions with some heading to the glacier first and others to the glacial lagoon first. At Glacier Hut Jöklasel, those of us preparing to ride snowmobiles donned heavy overalls and helmets while others climbed into balloon-tired 4x4 vehicles. Whatever the form of transport, our destination was the same—an adventure up the broad glacial spur known as Skálafellsjökull towards the ice cap, driving across hummocks of crushed ice up to a high point from where we admired the nunataks rising above the ice field and the view back to the coastal plain. Our Icelandic lunch at Jakasel included an Icelandic specialty, pickled herring, and a local Vatnajökull beer. The other adventure of the day was to continue further west to a lagoon into which the nearest spur of the glacier calves icebergs. We boarded amphibious vehicles and drove out into the lake surrounded by icebergs, with the glacier in the distance, some of it glistening, but much of it gray with the ash of the recent eruptions.

On our coastal drives back to Höfn, we encountered flocks of shorebirds including European golden plovers and black-tailed godwit, foraging across newly mown hayfields. We also saw a party of barnacle geese and encountered several families of whooper swans with their delightful half-grown cygnets.

Sunday, July 24 - Heimay Island / Surtsey Island: We woke this morning to a freshening wind from the east and to heavy seas. The narrow entrance into the harbor of Heimay involves a zigzag approach at the best of times, but with the strong wind whipping willywaws around the entrance, it was a nail-biting challenge. Thanks to the skill of our captain we came safely alongside, but by then the weather had worsened to heavy rain and it became clear that the option of a Zodiac cruise outside the harbor was not in the cards. We shifted into educational mode with two impromptu lectures, the first by Rich talking about Whiskers, Blubber, and General Lounging Around: The Seals of the North Atlantic, the second by Mark describing Islands of Isolation: Understanding Island Biodiversity.

The weather worsened during lunch, but unperturbed we set off for our afternoon excursion around the island, visiting the stone footprint of a Norse house, the volcano that nearly destroyed the harbor completely with its 1973 lava flow, the remains of a housing quarter inundated with lava, and a herd of Icelandic horses. The wind did not abate during our tour and we were able to play on the wind, leaning into its supportive strength and emulating the seabirds riding the gusts high above.

Thankfully, by late afternoon the wind began to die down. Our captain spun the ship on its axis, and headed us out through the narrow zigzag channel to the open sea. That was not to be the last excitement of the voyage though, as later in the evening, after the captain’s farewell cocktails and dinner, we made a  circumnavigation of Surtsey, the youngest island in the world.

This volcanic island arose from the sea in 1963 and continued to erupt until 1967. Despite having declined from its maximum area it has been the subject of intensive research, not merely geological, but also biological—studying the colonization of this new land by pioneer species and the entire process of ecological succession in action. The island is a specially protected sanctuary where landings are not permitted; nevertheless seeing this island at close range from the ship provided us with a dramatic example of geology and biological colonization in action.

Monday, July 25 - Reykjavík: An overcast morning cleared to another day of splendid Icelandic weather, with mild temperatures and sunshine making our journey round the famed Golden Circle of Iceland a particularly pleasant one. Our tour included the ancient parliament site of Þingvellir, arguably the oldest in Europe, dating back to 930a.d. We walked down the gorge to the broad valley between worlds, with the Eurasian Plate of the “Old World” to the east, and the North American Plate of the “New World” to the west. We continued to dramatic Gullfoss, the golden waterfall, where the massive cascade of glacial gray silt water drove its way from a broad river down into a gorge and turned 90 degrees on itself. From there we drove on to Geysir, pronounced gay-seer, the location of the eponymous water spout often mistakenly called gee-zer or guy-zer in English. The original spout is now dormant, but nearby Strokkur entertained us with regular eruptions of water and steam to a height of nearly 60 feet, while we walked round the site and even from our lunch venue as we dined at Hotel Geysir. Back on our tour we continued to Hellisheiði to visit the geothermal power plant and finished with a view over Reykjavík, Iceland’s attractive capital city, from the silvery dome of “The Pearl.”

We concluded the day with our final recap and briefing from Mike and the team, our final dinner on board the comfortable Clipper Odyssey, and a slideshow of our voyage by Brent Stephenson.

Tuesday, July 26 - Reykjavík / Disembark Clipper Odyssey: All too soon the final morning of our journey came around. After breakfast aboard, we commenced our disembarkation with some of us leaving for the airport at Keflavík and flights home, while others set off to explore Iceland by land, or remained onboard for the continuing voyage.