Scottish ruins

Wild & Ancient Britain with Ireland

Rich Pagen|July 18, 2018|Field Report

Thursday, May 10, 2018 
London, UK

We arrived from all parts of the globe to meet at London's Paddington Station Hilton, a convenient hotel very near the famous Hyde Park and Kensington Palace. As travelers with Zegrahm Expeditions, Stanford Travel/Study, and Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, we have come together to explore and experience Wild & Ancient Britain with Ireland. We gathered for welcome cocktails, dinner, and conversation with our fellow travelers, then to bed as our adventures are to start first thing tomorrow.

Friday, May 11
London / Portsmouth / Embark Ocean Adventurer

Today we traveled from London to Portsmouth geographically, but we also traveled through time exploring ancient stones and the evolution of modern justice. Though familiar from photographs, the standing stones of Stonehenge hold their intrigue when experienced in person. To think over 5,000 years ago the ancients began to dig ditches and assemble the stones on this hilltop for reasons that are today unknown. That the main axis of the stones is aligned upon the axis of the summer and winter solstices suggests that the seasonal cycle was important to the people who built and used the site. We also stopped to tour magnificent Salisbury Cathedral and to view one of four remaining copies of the original Magna Carta issued in 1215. We proceeded to Portsmouth, where we boarded the Ocean Adventurer. As we sailed out of this historic harbor, pomarine and parasitic jaegers flew across our bow. Wonders everywhere.

Saturday, May 12

The air held its early morning freshness as we wandered the pathways of Trebah Garden, a short drive from Falmouth Harbor in Cornwall. One-hundred-year-old rhododendrons bursting with color competed for showiness with azaleas, bluebells, handkerchief trees, and giant rhubarb. With the beauty was drama, as the beach below the gardens was a staging area for Allied troops for the Normandy Invasion. In the afternoon, we explored different biomes under the geodesic domes of the Eden Project, an expansive environmental education theme park created on the grounds of a former china clay mining pit. In the evening, Captain Georgii Zelenin welcomed us aboard with cocktails and dinner.

Sunday, May 13
Tresco, Isles of Scilly

The Isles of Scilly are made up of five inhabited islands and about 50 rocky outcroppings of varying sizes according to the tides. Pollen studies show that at one time the islands were united, which gives credence to the long ago references to singular Isle of Scilly. Today the uninhabited islands are part of the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, which rents the land from the Duchy of Cornwall at the cost of one daffodil per year. The island’s subtropical climate makes it possible for virtually anything to grow in the Tresco Abbey Gardens; the 17-acre gardens were begun in 1834 on the grounds of the abandoned St. Nicolas Priory. The abbey functioned between 1120 and 1550 AD and within the grounds of the garden was a Roman alter stone, speaking to the island’s ancient inhabitants. Today, about 200 people live on Tresco, many of whom greeted us in a most friendly way as we strolled the path into the village.

Monday, May 14
Ballenskelligs, Ireland / Little Skellig

Our guides at Ballenskelligs in County Kerry in the Republic of Ireland greeted us in the traditional way, May God and Mary greet you and 10,000 welcomes—in Gaelic, of course. We divided into groups to visit the ruins of the Ballenskelligs Abbey founded by the Augustinian monks in the 12th century. There was an abbey at the site long before as it was the jumping off point for the Skellig monks and the site to which they returned after abandoning Skellig Michael in the mid-11th century. After poking through the graveyard, we took the beach trail to get a closer look at McCarthy’s Castle, built as a stronghold of the McCarthy Chieftains to guard against pirates in the 16th century. Later that morning we sailed eight miles off shore round Skellig Michael to view the well-preserved remains of the early medieval monastery. We could clearly see the beehive-shaped structures and the myriad walkways spidering around the island, created by thousands upon thousands of stones placed just so over a millennium ago. Gannets, puffins, kittiwakes, and other seabirds nesting on Little Skellig flew about the ship, capping the sightings for the day.

Tuesday, May 15
Congreve Gardens / Waterford / Saltee Islands

Today's options ranged from the elegant to the wild. Some chose to tour the Waterford Crystal factory to learn of the craftsmanship that goes into each piece of the famous Waterford Crystal. The nearby Congreve Gardens offered others the chance to stroll the placid paths lined with blooming rhododendrons and bluebells. Still others took a ride on a local boat out to the Saltee Islands for views of puffins coming and going from their burrows. Those seeking puffin sightings were not disappointed, as the “little clowns of the sea” were found in droves. We all came together at the end of the day in Kilmore Quay, a small community renowned for its numerous homes with exquisitely thatched roofs.

Wednesday, May 16
Calf of Man, Isle of Man

Just off the Isle of Man is a smaller island, known as the Calf of Man. We made an unscheduled morning stop at the Calf’s South Harbor for a good leg stretch on the small island, which is a wildlife sanctuary managed by the Manx National Trust. Part of the Trust’s flock of Manx Loghtan sheep lives on the island. This hearty species, whose name in Manx means “mouse brown,” is one of the rarest sheep breeds on the British Isles; the adults sport shaggy coats and one to three sets of horns. We walked to the two onshore lighthouses and marveled at the lighthouse tower built on the wave lashed Chicken Rocks just off shore. Just how did they build that? Many made it to the island’s bird observatory where volunteers capture and ring migrating birds. Through ongoing efforts to rid the island of “longtails” (rats), the island’s population of Manx shearwaters is slowly rising. Later on the main Isle of Man we sampled the wonders of the place visiting the ruins of an abbey, maritime museum, and a traditional craft village. We had our choice of flavors of the Isle’s best ice cream before we hopped aboard the historic Isle of Man Railway for a short ride through the countryside.

Thursday, May 17
Giant's Causeway, Ireland / Islay, Scotland

A large swell made our disembarkation at Portrush tricky. But with patience and almost constant ship repositioning we all made it ashore to visit the Giant’s Causeway. Standing among the stones it was easy to see why early peoples thought they were either man-made or, as the name implies, made by giants. The six- to eight-sided basalt columns fit perfectly with one another, the result of slow cooling of the volcanic rock. Mid-day we sailed for Scotland to begin our adventures in the land of kilts with a tour and whisky tasting at the Lagavulin Distillery. Scottish whisky is distilled only twice (as opposed to three times for the Irish and once for Americans). It also requires no “e” in the name. A warm afternoon sun smiled on the bay where we went ashore; shelducks and a large gray heron poked along the rocky shore. 

Friday, May 18
Isles of Staffa & Iona, Inner Hebrides

Legend has it when German composer Felix Mendelssohn visited Fingal's Cave on the Isle of Staffa in 1829, he was so inspired that the opening theme for what would become the Hebredian Overture came to him on the spot. Despite the swell and winds, we managed to go by Zodiac into the cave to see its basalt walls and roof, and to hear the ocean slap against the back wall. The small island is home to nesting fulmars, European shags, various ducks, and puffins, which rafted up on the water at the base of their nesting cliffs. The weather cleared for our afternoon visit to Iona where we strolled through the small settlement to visit the ancient abbey begun by St. Colomba around 563 AD. Birders were quite pleased to see the very rare corncrake not far from the jetty.

Saturday, May 19
St. Kilda, Outer Hebrides

Few make it to St Kilda. Indeed, the swell and winds almost prevented our landing. This settlement in the Outer Hebrides was abandoned in 1930, when locals determined life on the island unlivable. Early history of the island is ill defined; however, archeological evidence suggests the island was continuously inhabited from the Bronze Age until the 20th century. More recent residents lived in stone dwellings and constructed over 1,200 stone structures—called “cleits”—across the island. With a stiff wind and occasional rain coming down, it was easy to sense the hardships of such a life on this remote place. Today, researchers and military personnel live seasonally on the island. Its only permanent residents are Soay sheep, a breed of brown sheep dating back to the Neolithic Period that by all appearances seems to thrive in isolation.

Sunday, May 20
Kirkwall, Orkney Islands

Five thousand years ago people started living at Skara Brae, on the coast of the windswept Orkney Islands. They grew primitive barley, made Stone Age beer, caught codfish and deer (which no longer live in the region), and raised cattle and sheep. They traveled to other islands to trade in willow and animal skin boats. But over time the site was abandoned, covered with drifting sands and forgotten until 1851, when a storm revealed part of the ruins. The site was fully excavated in the 1930s, and today we can admire the stone structures of this Neolithic village as we try to envision what life was like. The Orkney’s have many reminders of ancient life, from the standing stones known as the Ring of Brodgar to the cremation mounds that dot the countryside. In comparison, St. Magnus Cathedral, founded in 1137 AD, seems positively modern, though weather has eaten away at its outer features for centuries. From the cathedral located in the heart of Kirkwall, many walked back to the ship along the city’s quiet streets. Local musicians came aboard after dinner to play until it was time to sail.

Monday, May 21
Lerwick, Shetland Islands

To see the Mousa Broch in the morning mists added drama to this already magnificent structure, very well preserved since its construction around 100 BC. We were able to go inside the round tower, its extra thick walls constructed of carefully laid stones sans masonry. Unseen storm-petrels nesting in the walls cooed. Our exploration of the ancient continued in the afternoon when, among other Shetland wonders, we visited Jarlsof with dwellings dating to 2500 BC. Like the Orkneys, the Shetland Islands are more Nordic than Scottish, as they were raided, then settled by the Norse in 800 AD. In 1469 the islands were offered to Mary Queen of Scots as a wedding dowry for the daughter of the King of Norway who was to marry James III of Scotland. Many of the local names have Norse origins. Back on board the ship in Lerwick, musicians offered a sample of local music in the lounge after dinner, a perfect capper to our day in these misty islands.

Tuesday, May 22
Fair Isle, Shetland Islands

Fair Isle is almost smack dab in the middle between the Shetlands and the Orkneys. It’s about three square miles in size with a population of 55 people. The “fair” in the name could refer to the weather or could be Norse for “peaceful.” It certainly was both during our visit. We walked from the landing site along the two main roads that looped through the only settlement on the town. Birders caught rides in various island vehicles to the island’s famous bird observatory. In the middle of nowhere, the island is renowned for rare bird sightings of species that get blown off course while migrating through. The islanders are famous for their knitted goods, which involve intricate patterns and many colors of yarn. At the community center we talked with locals, admired (and purchased) their crafts, sipped tea, and nibbled cookies. Local school children sold their own design of tea towel as a fundraiser; their interactions with visitors was part of their school lesson. It was a morning to stroll along savoring the fresh sea air, post final postcards, and to contemplate our location on a tiny island dot on the planet.

Wednesday, May 23
Aberdeen, Scotland / Disembark / Edinburgh

We disembarked the Ocean Adventurer in Aberdeen, Scotland, on a misty gray morning. The night previously, our captain had bid us farewell and we had gathered after dinner in the lounge to watch a slide show of our trip. But the adventure was not over. En route to Edinburgh we stopped in historic St. Andrews, renowned for its cathedral ruins, castle, and as the birthplace of golf. We lunched at the clubhouse adjacent to the famous golf course. After lunch we made a side trip to the Scone Palace, the crowning place of many Scottish kings. Peacocks wandered the palace grounds. By late afternoon we arrived in Edinburgh for our farewell cocktails and dinner at the Balmoral Hotel. In the morning some would continue on a post-extension to the Faroe Islands, and the rest of us would head off in our own directions. It has been said that all good things must come to an end to make way for new adventures. Onward.

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