The surprisingly warm spring lulled us into a false sense of optimism regarding the UK weather; with cries of “why go abroad when it’s so lovely here” we booked a July cruise around the Scottish Highlands and Islands.
All it took was a mere 50 minute flight from our oh-so-convenient Exeter Airport, followed by a 20 minute taxi ride to Rosyth over the Forth road bridge, running parallel to the magnificent Forth rail bridge - the newest member of the UNESCO world heritage site club. Our cosy cruise ship was docked right next to two enormous aircraft carriers, the largest ever built in the United Kingdom. With feelings of pride we gazed at HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Queen Elizabeth.
Setting sail, this time under the Forth Bridge, we headed north to the Orkney Islands. The capital Kirkwall has a Scandinavian feel, with its name, meaning ‘Church Bay’, coming from the Norse. The thickness of the walls of its buildings, particularly St Magnus Cathedral, pay testament to the harsh conditions experienced throughout much of the year. The church warden said “we have two seasons here, Winter and July – but this year God forgot July”.
One of the excellent things about these islands is that you are never far from a “wee dram” tasting session at a whisky distillery and after that it really doesn’t matter if it’s a bit cold!
A visit to Skara Brae was essential; a 5000 year old Neolithic village which had been covered by sand and wonderfully preserved, it was only revealed again during a fierce storm in 1850. A friend I was travelling with uses a wheelchair and was desperate to see Skara Brae; I was very impressed with the hard work that had gone in to make the site accessible.
Onwards we sailed to the Shetland Islands, with dramatic coastal scenery where seals bask on rocks and shaggy Shetland ponies munch on the lush green grass. As the sun came out the islands seemed to glisten, I expressed my delight to a shop keeper only to be told “Aye but the sun will bring out the midges and you canna beat the midges”. Fortunately I didn’t have to fight this battle as they did not materialise.
The ship sailed on to magical islands of St Ninians, inhabited only by sheep, rabbits and seabirds but with some of the most pristine golden beaches I have ever seen. Then, on to historic Stornoway and the Isle of Harris, home of the Harris Tweed, the ship was often escorted by pods of dolphins and comical puffins bobbing close by.
My favourite destination was probably Tobermory on the Isle of Mull – or as those of a certain tender age will know it ‘Balamory’ - the brightly coloured buildings and tree lined slopes were a great contrast to the previous islands and the bay provided a real sanctuary for wildlife. Here I had the chance to watch the seal families laze at the water’s edge and saw the illusive minke whale swimming in the distance.
We were also blessed with a fly-by performed by the white tailed fish eagle which has only recently been reintroduced to Mull. Tobermory had a real sense of community and I loved the fact that the little open boat that took us wildlife spotting was captained by a young man who not only took tours but ferried the children to school, took food to the salon farms and was also the coastguard!
All too soon it was time to fly back to Exeter; only a week away but I felt I had travelled back in time to a place where the beautiful often harsh landscape and weather ruled. I now want to return in the winter to sit in a high backed Orkney chair, in a thick-walled house in front of a blazing fire with a dram or two to keep me warm… bliss.
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