Isle of Noss

2019 Wild & Ancient Britain with Ireland Field Report

Tom Sharpe|June 19, 2019|Field Report

Sunday, May 5, 2019
London, England / Portsmouth / Embark Ocean Adventurer

After meeting our fellow travelers last night at the Hilton London Paddington Hotel, we set out on this bright and sunny morning by coach for Portsmouth on the south coast of England. En route we were excited to be able to take in two of southern England’s most famous historic sites, Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral. At Stonehenge, we marveled at the huge stone slabs with their weighty lintels and at the complex of stone circles and earthworks all set within a wider landscape of ancient mounds and monuments.

Salisbury Cathedral with its tall, slender spire much admired by Russian assassins, stands across water-meadows, a scene captured by the artist John Constable two centuries ago. Around the Cathedral, the Close has old, attractive, mellow stone houses, one the former home of the British Prime Minister Edward Heath, while the Cathedral itself houses that most famous of historic documents at the foundation of democracy, Magna Carta.

Between these visits, lunch was taken in Salisbury at the White Harte, and in the afternoon, we continued on our way to Portsmouth where Ocean Adventurer awaited us. Once aboard and settled into our cabins, we sailed out into the Solent, enjoying views of this busy harbor with its local and cross-channel ferries, sailing yachts, and even warships as Portsmouth has been the main base of the Royal Navy for many centuries. The naval ships ranged from current destroyer class vessels to HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Monday, May 6
Falmouth, Cornwall

Overnight we had sailed along the coast of southwest England, and this morning our ship was alongside at Falmouth. From here we set out to drive south along the narrow lanes of the Cornish countryside to Trebah Garden on the Helford Estuary. Established in 1838, the garden is situated in a narrow, sheltered valley and is home to a wide range of exotic plants which can be grown at these northerly latitudes due to the influence of the Gulf Stream which brings warm water from the Caribbean. With our knowledgeable guides, we followed beautiful wooded trails through the garden to the small shingle beach. Here our historian Stephen Fisher described to us how this quiet beach had played a role in the D-Day landings as 7,500 men from the 29th US Infantry Division embarked here for Normandy in 1944.

Following lunch on board, this afternoon we headed north to St Austell and the Eden Project. This project from the late 1990s transformed an old industrial site, a china clay quarry, into a world-leading environmental educational center. Two huge greenhouses create covered ‘biomes’ housing plants from tropical rainforests and Mediterranean climates around the world.

Tuesday, May 7
Tresco, Isles of Scilly

Early this morning we found ourselves amongst a group of about 50 low islands off the southwest tip of England—the Isles of Scilly. Warmed by the Gulf Stream, the Isles of Scilly have the mildest climate in Britain. The beautiful Abbey Gardens on the tiny island of Tresco are a great example of the influence of the Gulf Stream here, with its wonderful array of plants from around the world. After a tour of the gardens we had the opportunity to wander on our own to explore this attractive and peaceful island further before returning to the ship.

Back on board, we lifted the anchor and set sail for Ireland. With an afternoon at sea, our lecture program was kicked off by our ornithologist Jim Wilson and his presentation on the backyard birds of the Irish and British Isles describing some of the many birds we are likely to see on this trip. Jim was followed later in the afternoon by our historian Stephen on Being British: A Unified Nation? which threw out the thorny question of what to call this northwest European archipelago through which we are sailing.

Come early evening, it was time to get ready for the captain’s welcome cocktail party and dinner, hosted by the Master of the Ocean Adventurer, Captain Yury Gorodnik.

Wednesday, May 8
Ballinskelligs, Ireland

Our first view of Ireland this morning was, appropriately, in a light shower of rain. But that soon eased and the morning dried up as we explored the shoreline at Ballinskelligs, in the southwest corner of the Emerald Isle. Local guides took us to the remains of Ballinskelligs Priory, established by monks when they abandoned their community atop Skellig Michael in the 12th century. Little of the original building remains and what is now still standing probably dates from the 15th century. Our walk continued to the square keep of Ballinskelligs Castle, a tower house dating, perhaps, from the 16th century, and finished, rather nicely at a little café where one of our guides regaled us with stories from this very Gaelic part of Ireland.

Once on board, we sailed for a closer look at the spectacular craggy islets of the Skelligs, from whence the monks of Ballinskelligs Priory had come. Little Skellig is home to a large colony of gannets while Skellig Michael is famed for the survival of the round beehive buildings of an 8th-century monastery high on the summit of the island and is now a World Heritage Site. Our captain circumnavigated Skellig Michael to give us the best possible view of the surviving buildings and the precipitous staircases built by the monks to reach the site.

Later in the afternoon as we sailed east along the south Irish coast, our Stanford lecturer Linda Paulson gave us a talk on World War I and the sinking of the Lusitania in these very waters and our geologist, Tom Sharpe, described the geological building blocks of the British Isles.

Thursday, May 9
Dunmore East, Waterford / Saltee Islands

When we arrived at the small harbor of Dunmore East on the southeast coast of Ireland, we dispersed in several directions on a variety of tours. Some went off to Waterford where we heard about the town’s not inconsiderable significance in Viking times and visited its modern and world-famous crystal factory for a demonstration of glass-blowing and crystal engraving. We explored the company’s history and handled significant pieces from the company’s physical archives such as the US College football AFCA National Championship/Coaches’ Trophy, and observed the many stages required to create striking works from the company’s core ranges.

Others headed to Mount Congreve, a large estate to the west of Waterford and wandered the attractive garden, created in the 18th century, with its many varieties of plants and trees, and thousands of rhododendrons. Both groups came together for lunch at the Granville Hotel, a typical Irish hostelry in the center of Waterford.

Meanwhile, Ocean Adventurer repositioned farther along the coast to Kilmore Quay. There, our birders and those of a natural historical bent transferred to a local boat for a visit to Great Saltee, a privately-owned island a few miles offshore. This granite island affords great views of nesting seabirds, especially the northern gannet along with razorbills and guillemots which nest on rock stacks, headlands, and granite cliffs around the coast of Great Saltee.

After dinner, Stephen gave us a fascinating talk on his work locating shipwrecks from World War I in the English Channel.

Friday, May 10
Isle of Man

On a cold, damp morning we were piped ashore from our Zodiacs at Port Erin on the southwest corner of the Isle of Man. There, we boarded our buses to the living history museum of the village of Creagneash, preserved as it was in the late 19th century. The thatched stone cottages seemed cozy with their warm and aromatic peat fires, and a tailless Manx cat curled in the hearth, but life here was hard.

In Castletown on the island’s opposite coast, the rain set in heavily as we explored the grim medieval fortress of Castle Rushden, but our spirits were far from dampened as we tucked into ice cream before boarding the quaint little narrow-gauge Isle of Man Steam Railway. The inspiration for the Reverend W. Awdray’s Thomas the Tank Engine stories, the line with its 19th-century locomotives continues to serve communities south of the island’s capital, Douglas. Locomotive No. 15, Caledonia, built in Glasgow in 1885, transported us back to Port Erin where we boarded Ocean Adventurer in time for lunch.

What a contrast this afternoon! Gone were the gray skies, cold, and rain and in their place was warm sunshine and blue sky as we landed on the Calf of Man, a rocky island off the southwest tip of the Isle of Man. This is an important site for migrating birds and the island has a bird observatory whose staff led us around on our walks. While the birders searched for migrants, spotting birds such as choughs, others took hikes around parts of the Calf, taking in the island’s lighthouses, several constructed by Robert Stevenson in the early 19th century. From our vantage point high on the Calf we could see the distant Mountains of Mourne in Northern Ireland on our western horizon.

Saturday, May 11
Portrush & Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland / Islay, Scotland

A chilly breeze gave us a choppy and splashy Zodiac ride into the small harbor at Portrush on the north coast of Northern Ireland this morning where we disembarked for a visit to the Giant’s Causeway. Despite the wind, it was a clear, sunny day and as we drove along the Antrim coast, we had a fine view northwest to Donegal in the Republic of Ireland and northeast to the coast of Scotland. We passed the Royal Portrush Golf Club where preparations were well underway for hosting the British Open golf championships later this summer and made a photo stop at Dunluce Castle which perches precipitously on the clifftop.

We arrived the Giant’s Causeway— a World Heritage Site—of ahead of the crowds and walked down from the visitor center to the shoreline to view the many thousands of hexagonal basalt lava columns which form the Causeway. Formed by the shrinkage and contraction of a lava flow as it poured into a valley and slowly cooled after an eruption some sixty million years ago, the Giant’s Causeway has attracted visitors for several centuries. Legend links it with the columns of Fingal’s Cave on the Scottish island of Staffa, but the geological evidence for this is, sadly, lacking. 

Back on board for lunch, we were transported from Northern Ireland to Scotland and the Island of Islay, a distance of only 30 miles or so. There we took our Zodiacs straight into the small jetty serving one of the many whisky distilleries on Islay, Ardbeg. Distillery staff lead us around and explained the magical process of turning the island’s water into uisge beatha, the water of life, after which we were generously allowed to sample four of the Ardbeg whiskies, from the ten-year-old to the cask strength Corrievreckan. It was therefore a somewhat tipsy bunch who returned to the ship; fortunately, most were sober enough to enjoy Linda’s lecture on Iona as an island of monastic Catholicism and Celtic art.

Sunday, May 12
Staffa & Iona, Inner Hebrides

Today we awoke to a rare, stunningly beautiful morning of remarkable clarity in the Inner Hebrides. The peninsulas and hills of the Isle of Mull lay to our east while off to the west we could see the islands of Tiree, Coll, and the distant mountains of Rum to the north and Jura to the south, each some 30 miles away. In these conditions, we had an easy landing on the tiny, uninhabited island of Staffa, famous for its tall basalt columns, some eroded to form sea caves, the most famous of which is Fingal’s Cave. Here we traveled in the footsteps of the likes of Joseph Banks, Walter Scott, J.M.W. Turner, Jules Verne, David Livingstone, Robert Louis Stevenson and, of course, Felix Mendelssohn who, in 1829, was inspired to write his Hebrides Overture. By Zodiac, we cruised along the shore, admiring the remarkably geometric and regular rock columns and hearing the echoes of the sea in the caves. Onshore, we went in search of puffins which nest in the grassy slopes on the east side of the island.

Over lunch on board Ocean Adventurer, we repositioned a short distance to the south and in the afternoon traveled by Zodiac to visit the island of Iona, a cradle of Scottish Christianity. The Irish monk Columba preceded us in 563 AD and established a monastery here from which Christianity was spread across Scotland. Here, too, was written the famous Book of Kells, now in Dublin. Today Iona continues to be a place of pilgrimage and retreat.

We toured the medieval nunnery on our way to the island’s 12th-century abbey, the route marked by ancient Celtic stone crosses, and walked on the Street of the Dead, a granite-paved road over a thousand years old. The abbey, sympathetically restored in the 1930s, sits tranquilly amongst grassy fields grazed by shaggy Highland cattle and houses many medieval gravestones. The nearby cemetery is said to be the resting place of many Scottish kings, including that of Macbeth, while the surrounding fields are the nesting place of the elusive corncrake, much heard but not seen.

Monday, May 13
St. Kilda, Outer Hebrides

We spent this morning at sea, sailing out into the North Atlantic, en route to the remote island group of St Kilda. In preparation for our afternoon ashore, archaeologist Amanda Charland described the history of the human occupation of St Kilda. She was followed by Terence Christian who told us of the role of this part of Britain in the two world wars. 

Our first sighting of the St Kilda archipelago was of the rugged islet Stac Lee and adjacent Boreray with a colony of perhaps 70,000 pairs of northern gannets nesting here. Our captain skillfully navigated Ocean Adventurer between the islands, giving us some wonderful views of the rocks and the seabirds.

Arriving at Hirta, the largest island of the St Kilda group, we anchored in Village Bay and went ashore by Zodiac to explore this World Heritage Site, listed for both its natural and cultural heritage. A single, long street of stone houses from the 1830s and 1860s stretches along the hillside, their poignant ruins testimony to the story of the voluntary evacuation of the settlement in 1930 when the islanders realized that their way of life here was no longer sustainable. All around are the many stone walls of sheep fanks and cleits, the stone storage structures where the islanders kept their peat and food which consisted largely of northern gannet. Wandering amongst the ruins were the small, hardy native Soay sheep, now with their new-born lambs.

Although now in the care of the National Trust of Scotland, St Kilda does have a modern role as a military base which sits rather incongruously below the ruined street. Our long hikers climbed to Hirta’s highest point, Mullach Mòr, where, at 1,184 feet above sea level, the wind was gusting strongly around the radar domes. Meanwhile our birders searched for the endemic St Kilda wren around the village.

Back on board, after dinner, Terence gave us a talk on the history of whisky and led us through a tasting of a range of whiskies from Highland to Lowland and from Islay to Speyside. As his talk was concluding, we headed outside with our final drams as we sailed past the craggy Flannan Isles, scene of the mysterious disappearance of its three lighthouse keepers in December 1900. With its light flashing in the dusk of the setting sun, one could well imagine strange goings-on here.

Tuesday, May 14
Kirkwall, Orkney Islands

With bright sunshine and flat calm seas this morning, it was hard to believe that we were in the Pentland Firth, often some of the roughest waters around Britain where the North Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. During our passage we met in the lounge for Linda’s presentation on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Kidnapped.

As we sailed along the north coast of the Scottish mainland, off our port side were the cliffs of the Orkney Islands, today’s destination. An archipelago of over 70 islands, Orkney became part of Scotland only in 1468. Before this, it was a Viking territory and the Orkneyinga Saga of 1046 tells us of events from that period. 

We docked close to the center of Orkney’s capital, Kirkwall, for a tour of some of the archaeological treasures of these islands. At Skara Brae on the west coast of Mainland on a beautiful sandy bay is preserved a remarkable Stone Age village, one of the best-preserved Neolithic settlements in Europe, its houses complete with stone furniture such as beds and shelving. Nearby, Skaill House is a fine example of a seventeenth-century Orkney mansion.

Between Kirkwall and Skara Brae is a concentration of ancient sites at Stenness, one of which is the Ring of Brodgar. Huge slabs of Old Red Sandstone from various parts of Orkney have been set up on end in a huge circle. Around it are Bronze Age burial mounds, indicating that this was a significant site for thousands of years.

In Kirkwall itself, the main street is dominated by St Magnus Cathedral. Built of warm red and yellow sandstone, the cathedral was founded in 1137 by the Viking Earl Rognvald in honor of his uncle Magnus Erlendsson. Magnus’s bones lie within one of the cathedral’s pillars. The cathedral is also home to a marble memorial to a famous Arctic explorer,  Orkneyman John Rae who not only discovered the final piece of the Northwest Passage but was also the first to bring back news of the likely fate of the lost Franklin Expedition. 

After dinner, we were entertained on board by a family of local musicians who treated us to a range of both traditional tunes and their original compositions, their lively music getting many of us up for some impromptu (and somewhat uncoordinated) dancing in true Scottish ceilidh tradition.

Wednesday, May 15
Isle of Noss, Mousa & Lerwick, Shetland Islands

This morning, our early risers enjoyed spectacular views as we sailed along the bird cliffs of the Isle of Noss, illuminated by the golden rays of the rising sun. Gannets flew carrying seaweed back to the cliffs for their nests or bathed in the seas around us which teemed with tens of thousands of seabirds. Noss is one of over a hundred islands that make up the Shetland Islands; only twelve are inhabited. Like Orkney, these were once Viking lands, known to them as Hjaltland.

Over breakfast we returned south along the coast of Shetland’s mainland to the small uninhabited island of Mousa. Straddling the 60°N parallel, Mousa sits at the same latitude as Seward, Alaska. We transferred to a local boat which took us ashore so that we could visit an Iron Age broch, a two 2000-year-old stone tower peculiar to north and west Scotland. At 42 feet in height, this is the best preserved example in the world. We climbed the narrow staircase contained in the wall to see that from the top, the inhabitants would have had a clear view over the surrounding land and seaway.

Heading north, Ocean Adventurer soon came alongside in the busy port of Lerwick and we disembarked to explore the southern peninsula of Shetland’s Mainland by bus. Our route took us across the runway of Shetland’s main airport to the island’s most southerly point, the bird reserve of Sumburgh Head and its early nineteenth-century lighthouse built by Robert Stevenson. Visible to the south was tiny Fair Isle, tomorrow’s destination, while to the north we looked down on the historic site of Jarlshof. Inhabited for over five thousand years, Jarlsfhof’s buildings range from Neolithic houses, a Bronze Age village, Iron Age brochs, Norse longhouses, a medieval farmhouse, and a 16th-century mansion, all superimposed one upon the other.

En route, we detoured to Hoswick (Old Norse ‘husvik’) for some refreshments and the opportunity to stroll on the beach or shop for Shetland sweaters, the knitwear for which Shetland is known. While we were on tour, our hotel department on board had been busy preparing a BBQ dinner on the back deck. Although chilly when the sun dropped behind the surrounding hills, we had some great food and chat enlivened by the music of the Scottish band, Runrig, a favorite of the hotel manager.

Thursday, May 16
Fair Isle

We could hardly believe our good fortune when the fine weather continued today as we approached Fair Isle. However, despite the blue skies and sunshine, a large swell made for a long and challenging Zodiac ride into the little jetty at the south end of the island. Our skilled Zodiac drivers got us in safe and dry (for the most part!) and we set off on hikes around the island’s high cliffs and through the scattered settlement, taking in the fine little museum. Our birders went in search of the migrating birds for which Fair Isle is famous, and were saddened to see how little remains of the island’s renowned bird observatory which was destroyed by fire in March this year.

Fair Isle is the most remote inhabited island in Britain and has long been known world-wide for the distinctive and intricate patterns of its knitwear. At the conclusion of our walks we gathered at the community hall to meet some of the locals and view and purchase examples of their knitwear. We also enjoyed a welcome cup of tea and their home-baked scones, shortbread, and pancakes.

Back on board for lunch, we set sail south for Aberdeen and this afternoon we had the final lecture of our voyage when Tom Sharpe described how Scotland’s scenery was shaped before we heard from all of our expedition team members in their final recap.

Soon, it was time to change into our gladrags and head to the captain’s farewell cocktail party and dinner, hosted by Captain Yury Gorodnik, after which we gathered in the lounge for one of the highlights of our trip, Jim’s entertaining slideshow which beautifully summarized our voyage around these islands.

Friday, May 17
Aberdeen / Disembark / Edinburgh

We docked in Aberdeen’s busy port this morning, a place bustling with ships servicing the production platforms of the North Sea oilfields, and said farewell to Ocean Adventurer and her fine crew as we boarded our coaches for the journey south to Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh. En route we enjoyed views of the rural landscape of eastern Scotland before stopping for a tour of the city of St Andrews and its university, and lunch at the Old Course Hotel on the world-famous golf course. In the afternoon we visited Scone Palace, where many Scottish kings, including Robert the Bruce and Macbeth were crowned, and then continued on our way to the Waldorf Astoria Caledonian Hotel in the center of Edinburgh. 

Our Wild and Ancient Britain and Ireland adventure was at an end. And what a trip! We were blessed with remarkably fine weather for much of our voyage and return home with many wonderful memories of these islands.

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