Wild & Ancient Britain 2015 Field Report

Colleen Batey|July 23, 2015|Blog Post

Monday, May 18, 2015 - London, England / Plymouth / Dartmoor / Embark Sea Adventurer: Our adventure began in the surroundings of the Hilton Hotel at London’s Paddington Station where we had gathered yesterday to meet our fellow travelers and some of the expedition team. This morning we were shepherded through the rush hour crowds to catch our train which took us through some lovely English countryside and along the beautiful Devon coast to Plymouth. On arrival we split into two groups, one for a natural history tour of Dartmoor, the other for a cultural tour of the city.

On the natural history tour, our bus took us north out of Plymouth and up onto the open granite moorland of Dartmoor, where we had our first views of the famous small and sturdy Dartmoor ponies. Our first stop was lunch at the historic Warren House Inn in its lonely situation atop the moor. We enjoyed some traditional ales and good food by the wood fire which has burned continuously in this atmospheric pub since 1845. After lunch we walked down into a small sheltered valley, where the hummocky ground betrayed its industrial past as a productive tin mine which operated from the 18th through early 20th centuries. This verdant valley is now home to many birds and we were treated to the sights and sounds of common cuckoos, as well as sightings of whinchats and stonechats, meadow pipets, willow warblers, and a female reed bunting.

Those of us on the city tour began with a delightful luncheon, after which we went out to Saltram House, a grand house on the outskirts of Plymouth, famous for its Joshua Reynolds portrait. Returning to the city, we went to see where the Pilgrim Fathers boarded their ship to the New World.

In the late afternoon, both groups returned to Plymouth where the Sea Adventurer awaited us. That evening, after introductions, briefings, and safety drills, we sailed out of the harbor, heading for the Isles of Scilly.

Tuesday, May 19 - Isles of Scilly: A bright, sunny but blustery morning greeted us as we awoke with the ship anchored in the lee of St. Mary’s, the largest island of the archipelago. The windy conditions meant a lengthy transfer from ship to Zodiac to tender to shore, but we were soon exploring the attractive little town and had wonderful views from the massive fortifications of the Garrison on the headland above.

Returning to the ship for lunch, we enjoyed the first of our lecture series. In his presentation, Saints and Scholars of the Sea Road: The History of the Irish Sea, Stanford representative Charlie Junkerman gave us five fascinating historical vignettes of the sea area where we will soon be traveling. After, Peter Harrison introduced us to the remarkable diversity and density of the bird populations in this region of the North Atlantic, Facts and Figures of Feathered Friends.

We concluded the day with the first recap of the cruise, with expedition staff reviewing some of the sights and scenes of our first two days.

Wednesday, May 20 - Skellig Islands, Ireland / Killarney: The windy weather was still with us this morning as we approached the Skellig Islands off the southwest tip of Ireland. These two jagged pinnacles, Skellig Michael and Little Skellig, rise steeply out of the sea to heights of over 500 feet! We gazed up in awe at the incredible constructions of the gray stone beehive cells of the 6th-century monastery and at the steep zigzag rock steps built to access the site. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Skellig Michael was home to perhaps a dozen monks seeking isolation and solitude.

Its rugged guano-covered neighbor, Little Skellig, is one of the most important seabird sites in Ireland, with over 28,000 pairs of northern gannets—the third largest gannet colony in the world—nesting on its sandstone ledges.

We viewed both islands from the ship, then set sail for Valentia Island and the Irish mainland. Landing at Knightstown, we boarded buses for a tour of this southwestern corner of Ireland, stopping first at the Skellig Visitor Center to learn more about the islands and the monastery. We continued on to part of the Ring of Kerry, with views of McGillycuddy’s Reeks, to Killarney and its national park, where we enjoyed a walk through the gardens of Muckross House. We returned to our ship by Zodiac from the little town of Sneem, set on an attractive reedy estuary.

Thursday, May 21 - Dunmore East / Waterford / Saltee Islands: Several activities were on offer today, as we arrived by Zodiac at the port of Dunmore East near Waterford. A group of us drove off to visit Mount Congreve on the banks of the River Suir just outside Waterford. This estate of 700 acres of which a hundred are devoted to spectacular gardens, was created by owner Ambrose Congreve who spent sixty of his 104 years on this project. We were treated to a colorful display of rhododendrons and beautiful trees on a walk led by one of the garden’s knowledgeable volunteer guides.

Others visited the world-famous Waterford Glass Factory where we were shown how Waterford crystal is produced.

Both groups called at the historic Granville Hotel for a warming glass of Irish coffee and a demonstration of how to make it (the secret, apparently, is instant coffee!). Return to the ship was from the small port of Kilmore Quay where some of us took the opportunity while ashore to sample the local seafood.

Meanwhile, the birders landed on the island of Great Saltee just offshore. This is one of the largest bird sanctuaries in Europe with over 50,000 pairs of seabirds. After a pleasant walk across the island, they had wonderful views of the gannets and other seabirds nesting on the cliffs.

Friday, May 22 - Port St. Mary, Isle of Man: The Isle of Man sits at the heart of the Irish Sea, almost equidistant from the UK and Ireland. Arriving in Port St. Mary on a gray overcast morning, we set off first for the southwest corner of the island for a view of the folded slate rocks of the coast and of the Calf of Man just offshore, before heading for the railway station to catch our train to Castletown. This was no ordinary commuter train—antique wooden railway carriages pulled by a little narrow-gauge steam locomotive with gleaming red paintwork, slowly snaked its way through the countryside to Castletown where we toured the imposing  gray limestone battlements of Castle Rushen.

After lunch on board, we landed, watched by Atlantic gray seals, on the Calf of Man, where there is an important bird observatory. As our walk gained height we had a wonderful view of a basking shark in the waters just offshore. Tidal currents in the channel between the Calf and the Isle of Man bring in plankton and fish, food for the sharks and seals. We ended the day with a Zodiac cruise, enjoying great views of the seals, birds, and rocks.

Saturday, May 23 - Portush, Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland / Islay, Scotland: We awoke this morning off the coast of Northern Ireland and took the Zodiacs in to the little harbor at Portrush. Once a prosperous holiday center, Portrush is now the gateway to the spectacular coastline of Antrim, as well as home to a world-class golf course. We paused at the dramatic ruins of Dunluce Castle, atop an exposed clifftop, and viewed the impressive sandy bays along this coast of white chalk cliffs and basalt. Arriving at the Giant’s Causeway, another World Heritage Site, we marveled at the regularity of the hexagonal columns of the 60-million-year-old basalt lava flow, and once back on board, discussed their formation in a presentation by our geologist, Tom Sharpe. During lunch, we left Ireland behind and sailed for Scotland, just a short distance away.

Bright sunshine greeted our arrival in Scotland as we cruised in Zodiacs to the dock of the Ardbeg Whisky Distillery on the south coast of the Hebridean island of Islay. The magical process of turning barley into whisky was explained to us as we toured the distillery before having an opportunity to taste several different editions of this single malt, including one to mark the bicentenary of Ardbeg whisky, being celebrated this year.

Despite passing showers, the birders enjoyed a fine birding walk with such species seen as graylag goose, wheatear, and redpoll. A spotted flycatcher, the first of the trip, was identified, as was a Eurasian sparrowhawk. The highlight, however, were two roe deer which leapt over a stone wall to land, just feet from the startled birders!

Our return to our ship was marked by a change in the weather, as low cloud and drizzle moved in, lending atmosphere to our evening sail through the narrow Sound of Islay.

Sunday, May 24 - Treshnish / Staffa / Iona, Inner Hebrides: Our expedition leader, Russ Evans, woke us at 5:30am for a pre-breakfast Zodiac cruise among the northernmost Treshnish Isles which lie off the west coast of the Isle of Mull. The gray seals did not seem to appreciate an early morning rise as they slipped off their rocks and splashed into the water. Clusters of shags hung out on the black basalt lava cliffs, oystercatchers hurried across the rocks, and black guillemots and puffins bobbed in the sea in front of us or flew across ahead of us.

Returning to our ship for breakfast, our next stop was the remarkable little island of Staffa whose basalt lava columns are even more spectacular than those of the Giant’s Causeway. We viewed the dark towering columns guarding the entrance to the island’s most famous feature, Fingal’s Cave, by Zodiac and by hiking around the coast from our landing site. The more adventurous among us followed the narrow trail deep into the cave to fully appreciate how the crashing waves in and around the cave so inspired the composer Felix Mendelssohn.

Repositioning a few miles to the south, we spent the afternoon on the beautiful island of Iona, the cradle of Scottish Christianity where St. Columba established a monastery in 563ad and which has been a place of pilgrimage since his death in 597. We walked through the ruins of the nunnery, one of the best preserved medieval structures in the British Isles, to the beautifully restored and peaceful abbey. For the birders, excellent sighting of a corncrake was a great highlight.

Monday, May 25 - St. Kilda, Outer Hebrides: Today found us in the sheltered Village Bay on Hirta, the main island of St. Kilda, a far-flung outpost of the British Isles in the North Atlantic Ocean. Now a World Heritage Site for its cultural and natural treasures, St. Kilda is home to the largest collection of seabirds anywhere in the North Atlantic, with perhaps three million birds, including the second largest colony of gannets in the world. The cultural heritage here includes 4,000 years of human occupation, which came to an end in 1930, when the islanders asked to be removed due to the difficulty of living here. A chilly, windy, overcast day brought home to us the bleakness of life for the people here—their homes, a curved row of single-story blackhouses, now lay roofless and abandoned, and within each house a slate, painted with the names of those who had last occupied them, was a moving reminder of the lives spent here. All around are many storage buildings, cleits, where the islanders kept their food supply of fulmars.

The birders took a long walk through the village and up to a col at over a thousand feet above sea level for views of the high cliffs on the side of the island, while others walked part of the way or explored the village houses and museum, ranged in an arc around Village Bay.

We returned to the Sea Adventurer for a barbeque lunch, and sailed out for a closer look at the packed gannet cliffs on the neighboring islands and sea stacks before setting course towards the Flannan Isles. During the journey, Rich Pagen entertained us with his presentation, Wildcats to Sea Eagles: Modern Wildlife Conservation in an Ancient Landscape.

Late afternoon, we arrived at the rugged Flannan Isles, an important nesting site for seabirds. Formed of Lewisian gneiss, at three billion years old they are the oldest rocks in the British Isles, a remnant of Greenland left behind during the opening of the North Atlantic Ocean. As we sailed close to the main island of the group, Eilean Mor with its lighthouse, we heard the tale of the mysterious disappearance in December 1900 of all three lighthouse keepers.

We rounded off the afternoon with Charlie Junkerman’s presentation, Married to the Massive Mysticism of Stone.

Tuesday, May 26 - Kirkwall, Orkney Islands: Our lecture series continued this morning with a riveting talk by historian T.H. Baughman on the life of Winston Churchill before we docked in Kirkwall, capital of the Orkney Islands.

From our berth, a tour of the verdant landscape began with a journey to the west coast of the mainland, and the World Heritage Site of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. The Neolithic village of Skara Brae, spanning the years of 3100-2500bc was a highlight, introducing the building skills and details of dwellings nestled today among sand dunes on a wide sweeping bay. Appearing semi-subterranean, all the buildings had been insulated with a backing of rich midden material, enabling some degree of wind protection. Interiors showed beds which would have been covered with animal skins and perhaps bedding of heather and straw, a large fireplace at the heart of the home and the substantial stone dresser or sideboard to keep precious possessions off the floor and in sight.

Away from Skara Brae, a visit to the striking standing stones of Brodgar is always a highlight, located as it is between two inland lochs and dominating the skyline with its more than 60 stones reaching to the skies. Nearby, new discoveries will be excavated more fully in the coming summer and are already providing information about the beliefs and rituals undertaken by Bronze Age man, the same people who set up the stones of Brodgar.

The next visit was to Maes Howe, a massive Neolithic chambered tomb, used for multiple burials and broken into by the Vikings who left behind the largest collection of runic inscriptions known in the British Isles. The long and low access was not for everyone, but the lofty chamber was a welcome surprise.

Once back onboard following dinner, we were treated to some local entertainment, Orkney style, by Hullion, a small group of fiddle players and singers.

Wednesday, May 27 - Lerwick, Shetland Islands / Isle of Noss / Mousa: An early and damp start brought us to the south Shetland mainland for a morning exploration of both archaeology and local culture. The multi-period site of Jarlshof gave an introduction to the fascinating stone remains of houses from the Neolithic period, where high status items such as weapons were made using elaborate clay molds. The eroded cliffside buildings enabled a section-view of massive Iron Age structures which had been sliced in two. Beyond the immediate cliff face lay extensive Viking and Late Norse houses which spanned some 600 years of farming occupation and clearly showed where man and animal had shared the shelter of the same roof! Continuing into the Medieval period, a farmstead with corn kiln could be seen towering over the earlier buildings; this had inspired the naming of the site by Sir Walter Scott, as Jarlshof.

A brief visit to Sumburgh Head and its distinctive lighthouse, brought sightings of puffins on the ledges, the patios of their burrows. Moving away from the southern point of Shetland, a gradual progression brought sightings of St. Ninian’s Isle on the West Coast, the location of the recovery of a massive Pictish treasure in 1958, thought to have been buried for safe-keeping in the face of Viking arrivals. Next stop was Hoswick, a mecca for knitwear of both traditional and non-traditional forms. Returning to the ship berthed in Lerwick, we pulled away to our next destination within the archipelago, a Zodiac cruise to view the bird cliffs of the Isle of Noss, home to many thousand pairs of gannets, kittiwakes, and puffins.

An evening visit to the island of Mousa provided a chance for a rather damp leg-stretch and an opportunity to hear about the magnificent almost complete Iron Age broch tower of Mousa. Built approximately 2,000 years ago, this structure is shaped like a cooling tower and had a stairway running through the full height. Built as a defensive structure, perhaps as a community endeavor, this tower is paired with a less well-preserved example across Mousa Sound.

Thursday, May 28 - Fair Isle: A sunny morning with quite calm seas saw us anchored off Fair Isle, a small island which lies between Orkney and Shetland. The whole community was on standby for our arrival, with refreshments and home-baked goods available in the Community Center, and cars made available to facilitate movement from the landing to the heart of the island for those not wishing to walk the two miles each way. Fair Isle is world-renowned for its knitwear, and there was indeed a fine collection of the highly patterned sweaters and hats on display. The island’s school had a stall of pens and notebooks for sale for school funds. A wonderfully happy atmosphere prevailed.

Visits to the Bird Observatory and to the craggy cliffs were rewarded by sightings of endlessly comic puffins. With the spring migration having now ended, the birders concentrated on sightings of Atlantic puffins, great skuas, and parasitic jaegers. Passerines to be seen included twites, wheatears, and the colorful stonechats.

The small local museum provided insight into life on the island through many generations, and the custodian was a wealth of anecdotal information. Nearby, the small church had fine and brightly colored stained glass windows.

Once back on board, we had two lectures for the afternoon. Rick Price spoke on the topic of Why Don’t Whales Get the Bends? This was followed by Colleen Batey on The Vikings in Scotland and brought us up to the captain’s farewell cocktails and dinner. The end of a great day!

Friday, May 29 - Isle of May / Bass Rock / Leith: Another calm and even sunny morning saw us anchored off the Isle of May in the entrance to the Firth of Forth. This small island is a paradise for birds, with nesting terns vying for attention with their testy cries and shrieks! Nesting eiders hid amongst the grass and some early eider chicks were to be seen in crèches near the landing. Puffins fussed above the cliffs all around.

The site of a Benedictine Monastery was located conveniently near the path from the landing site, and earlier remains beneath this represented the earliest Christian missionary activity in the area, at the hands of St. Ethernan. A significant center of pilgrimage for several hundred years, this island is on the pilgrimage route south from St. Andrews. A magnificent visitor center with a live roof covering of Sedum was an unexpected bonus, providing a generous viewing platform for nearby nesting terns and good sightings of their eggs.

Following lunch, we continued within the Firth of Forth towards a landing at Bass Rock, the grand finale of the voyage and the largest northern gannet colony in the world. For those who scaled the rocky ramparts, it was, perhaps, one of the great highlights of the trip. In total, 75,259 pairs are thought to breed there. Most birds were incubating their single egg but the sharp-eyed among the birders saw at least a few newly-hatched chicks, the first of the season.

Once we were all back onboard, we made our way towards our final port, Leith. The ancient port of Edinburgh, Leith has received a gentrification in recent years and its waterfront is home to the former royal yacht Britannia.

Saturday, May 30 - Leith / Edinburgh / USA: An early start for some brought our odyssey to a close. As the group dispersed, a frantic flurry of email contact details being exchanged between new friends was coupled with promises to meet up again on another cruise—a Zegrahm one, of course! With shared experiences, happy memories, and fully-used waterproofs, now the task was to arrive home with all of our luggage and with hopes that perhaps someone at home might be persuaded to view all our photographs.



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