Places to Visit in Scotland
- Voyage to the Hebrides and St Kilda

"There is something in the very name of St. Kilda, which excites expectation. Remote and solitary, the spirit of romance appears still to dwell in the clouds and storms that separate this narrow spot from the world."
From "The Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland" in letters to Sir Walter Scott by John MacCulloch (1824).

Travel writer Vivien Devlin recently joined around 40 guests for an enchanting and exhilarating Scottish islands cruise on board the "Hebridean Princess." Here is her account of the trip.

St Kilda
Shortly after dawn on 24th June, 2009, the Hebridean Princess is approaching the isolated archipelago of St. Kilda, 110 miles west off mainland Scotland in the North Atlantic. A few dozen guests gather on the Bridge deck to view in utter amazement the surreal Sea Stacs and majestic mountain peaks towering above the ocean; overhead the whirl and clamour of thousands of gannets nesting high on the rocky cliffs.

These islands may not be on the wish list of the majority of holidaymakers, who prefer jetting off to the Canaries or Caribbean. However more people do wish to experience adventurous trips to the back of beyond, with Antarctica, Arctic and Alaska as popular destinations for serious travellers. The lure of the ultimate get -away, unspoilt, natural places on the planet is today the attraction, far from the madding crowd of tourists. The Outer Hebrides is listed in Patricia Schulz's book, "1,000 Places to See Before You Die" and Bill Bryson selects The Isle of Harris as offering the best beaches in the world, in his new book, "The Road Less Travelled."

St. Kilda too is now firmly on the map for that getaway experience, with 5,000 people estimated to visit the island in 2009 through day trips and Scottish island cruises.

This 7 night "Hebridean Outposts" itinerary also visits Skye, Ullapool, Lewis, Muck and Mull with private tours to gardens and historic sites escorted by Ted, our shore excursion guide. This is a special wildlife themed cruise with guest lecturer, Tim Earl, a pioneering, world- traveller naturalist, who will lead bird watching trips.

The first cruise steamer, the "elegantly furnished" Glen Albyn, sailed from Glasgow to St. Kilda in 1834, the start of popular Pleasure Excursions around the Hebrides. One intrepid Victorian tourist described the scene as they sailed through the Stacs, when the ship's cannon was fired and they took pot shots at the gannets with rifles! Today, as ecologically-friendly travellers, we are armed only with cameras and binoculars. But just like those early explorers who ventured out to this bleak, barren landscape, it still truly feels like we are at the edge of the world.

Life On Board Hebridean Princess
The Hebridean Princess was purpose built as the Scottish island hopping Caledonian McBrayne ferry, MS Columba, (which coincidentally visited St. Kilda in 1979). Converted in 1989 into a luxury Expedition ship, the accommodation, furnishings, facilities and lifestyle on board are that of a 5 star country house hotel. With just 30 cabins (maximum 49 guests), this is intimate, yacht-style, slow, slow cruising at just 12 knots per hour.

The choice of double, twin, single bedrooms and balcony suites, with en-suite shower/ bathrooms suit couples, friends and solo travellers. You will appreciate ample wardrobe space, Molton Brown toiletries, soft towels, TV/ VCR, tea tray, fridge (water, soft drinks) and twice daily (invisible!) maid service, as well as a restful sleep while the ship anchors in a sheltered bay overnight.

Throughout this floating hotel are comfortable lounges, conservatory, library and sun decks with sofas, wing armchairs and loungers to relax, read or watch the spectacular seascape and silhouette of distant misty islands. In between shore excursions, life on board is very sociable: Afternoon tea (homemade scones, fruit cake) in the Tiree Lounge, pre-lunch Pimms served al fresco on the sun deck, later gathering at the bar for a G&T or champagne before dinner. On Gala Dinner nights, we mix and mingle at formal, fun cocktail parties hosted by Captain Ian Stevenson and his Officers. David Indge, the ever-present Purser - who describes himself as the Ship's Mine Host - ensures that hospitality and personal service is all meticulously organised in ship shape and Bristol fashion.

Heading up the kitchen team are Paul Simms and Jes Paskins, who create first class cuisine which celebrates quality, locally sourced produce - West Coast salmon and scallops, Colonsay oysters, Ullapool crab, Scottish beef, lamb, cheese. In the elegant Columba Restaurant, all meals are served by a young team of friendly, efficient waiters with a healthy breakfast buffet, eggs and kippers, a three course lunch and four course dinner. The fresh sea air and long walks each day give us a hearty appetite to consume (amongst a great deal more) 2,000 eggs, 8 sides of smoked salmon and 16 lobsters accompanied by several bottles of wine!

Shore Excursions
Anchored off shore, most ports of call are only accessible by the Hardy boats and Zodiac speedboat. Health and safety of guests is paramount: wearing life-vests and with the firm grip of two boatmen, everyone (including the infirm and elderly) is helped on board the Tenders with ease as well as a Normandy D-Day style Beach Landing on the Shiant Islands. We enjoy a coach trip around the Isle of Lewis to see the prehistoric Standing Stones at Callanish (3400 BC) created for astronomical observation and as a sacred temple. Arriving here in the late afternoon, the sun is still warm and tints the stone circle a golden glow; it's a magical atmosphere as we wander around. Nearby, above a curving sandy bay, we also tour the old village of Arnol, now a Historic Scotland visitor attraction. Here an old thatched black house cottages, the former residence of Hebridean crofters and their animals, is preserved just as the family left it in 1966, a unique relic of a way of life long gone.

The black houses got their names from smoke from the open peat fires which eventually turned the inside walls and ceilings black. On visits to Loch Coruisk (Skye), Isle Martin, Muck and Gairloch we have the opportunity for a short stroll or longer trek either independently or guided by Ted and Tim. Isle Martin is an extraordinary, almost-desert island a few miles off shore from Ullapool, still featuring the ruins of a thriving herring fishery community. Formerly gifted to the RSPB, today it is owned by a private Trust and inhabited by one young lady, Cat, who is a volunteer and lives here on her own with her hens, dog and cats.

The attention to detail to ensure guests' comfort is amazing: Insect repellent, sun block and bottles of water are supplied and after a walk ashore on Skye and St. Kilda, a wicker hamper magically appears to offer a welcome cup of coffee or a dram of the ship's own brand whisky! All shore excursions are optional and guests may be as active or lazy as they wish.

Wildlife At Sea
For the amateur twitchers amongst us, having the enthusiastic ornithologist Tim on board offers an invaluable introduction to spotting seabirds, eagles, mammals, fish, butterflies, orchids and wild deer. His daily 7am to 8am Wildlife Watch session attracts more guests as the week goes on. Also very popular were Tim's bird watching boat trips at the Shiant Islands - "Seabird City"- home to fulmars, puffins, guillemots and razorbills. With eight guests at a time on the RIB boat, we cruised slowly as near as possible to the high rugged cliffs of Garbh Eilean and the rocks at Roimh Point. Suddenly a rare Arctic Skua chasing a puffin is spotted, as well as huge black ravens and a buzzard. Another day, en route back to the ship on Loch Scavaig, the boatman takes us by Zodiac boat close up to the basking seals on the rocks.

Several exciting wildlife moments happen unexpectedly while on board ship. Over lunch one day, a pod of a dozen dolphins, jumping, leaping, diving, is suddenly seen as we cruise near the Sound of Sleat; one evening, heading up the east coast of Lewis, one guest spots a couple of Minke Whales which is indeed a magical chance encounter; during the last night Gala Dinner, two Sea Eagles swoop low, starboard side of the ship. We all jump up to watch as my partner Ken manages to snap a photo!

St Kilda

"The day was yet in its prime, a lustrous summer day which might have gilded the palm-crowned glories of an Indian isle. The sky was bright above, and the great ocean heaved around us with a motion so subdued and gentle, that our hearts might have filled with joy and gladness."
From "A Voyage Round the Coasts of Scotland and the Isles," James Wilson, 1842

This is exactly the painterly landscape which we also experience as we arrive in St. Kilda in the early morning, when the sky is clear and blue with streaks of cotton wool clouds, the sun is already warm with a light breeze. The sea is calm as the Princess sails at a gentle pace between the jagged giant shapes of Boreray and Stac an Armin (643 ft) to anchor in Village Bay off Hirta, the main island. We are so fortunate the fine weather allows the tender boats ashore, as wild wind and sea can often prevent a safe landing. A Spanish Trawler, Spinningdale, crashed on the rocks in February 2008 and, while the crew was rescued, the ship is now a rusting wreck, currently being salvaged.

After 4,000 years of human survival, in 1930 the last 36 residents of this crofting community were willingly evacuated to the mainland. Today, the National Trust of Scotland painstakingly preserves the architectural history and with Scottish Natural Heritage protects the largest seabird colony in Northern Europe. Groups of NTS volunteers visit the island between May and August, rebuilding dry stane dykes, and working on restoration and archaeology projects A two-week camp with full board in the restored cottages costs from 450. Places are in great demand and volunteers are accepted on the basis of an application.

We are taken on a tour by Ian, the resident Warden, to see roofless old homes, renovated cottages, church, ancient cleit store houses, black houses, cemetery and museum. One million birds breed on the precipitous high cliffs - impressively large and important colonies of guillemots, puffins, fulmars and gannets - while dolphins and porpoises shelter in Village Bay. Indigenous to the island are the St. Kilda wren, St. Kilda mouse and the primitive breed of brown Soay sheep.

We learn about the islanders' way of life, the fact that they never fished for food, with seabirds as their main diet, eating 115 fulmars a year, and boiled puffin with porridge was a delicacy. For centuries they lived a self sufficient lifestyle, scaling cliffs with their legendary long toes to catch the birds for food, feathers and to make shoes. A religious, democratic community, with a church and school, they held a parliament meeting every morning in the village street. The St Kilda mail boat was an ingenious method to communicate, sending letters or messages of distress, sealed in a cocoa tin and with a sheep's bladder float, they were thrown out to sea. Carried by the Gulf Stream they usually reached mainland Scotland within a few days.

Ironically it was the continuing arrival of Victorian and Edwardian tourists which began the slow decline and destruction of this Utopian island life: disease was brought in from visitors and it also gave younger residents an aspiration for a better life elsewhere. In February 1930 the heavily pregnant Mary Gillies became seriously ill but due to bad weather could not reach a Glasgow hospital until it was too late. Her death was the final catalyst which persuaded reluctant islanders that it was in their best interests to leave St Kilda. In August the same year, the last islanders, their sheep and cows were taken on board the SS Dunara Castle, setting sail for a new home in Morvern, Argyll. Norman Gillies, then aged 5 years old, has recently written in his memoirs, "We waved to the land until it was out of sight."

For its exceptional Natural and Cultural Heritage, St. Kilda has been awarded Dual Unesco World Heritage Status, sharing the honour with only a few historic sites, such as Machu Picchu, which, inevitably, attracts thousands of tourists. But here, as a privileged small group, we are able to experience, in quiet solitude, the lingering ghosts of the past on this remote, wilderness island which time forgot.

The Hebridean Princess - 20 years On
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Hebridean Island Cruises has recently joined the All Leisure Group which owns Swan Hellenic and Voyages of Discovery. While the sister ship Hebridean Spirit has been sold to a private buyer, all voyages on the Princess will continue as before on an even keel. Roger Allard, Chairman All Leisure Group commented on the new partnership said, "We recognise that the Captain, officers and crew of Hebridean Princess provide a unique cruising experience, which is cherished by her loyal following."

This inspiring cruise, a colourful blend of stunning scenery, warm sunshine, golden sunsets, wildlife encounters, exemplary hospitality and lively house party atmosphere, has been unforgettable. The great value, fully inclusive fare (including all drinks and excursions) is worth every pound, euro or dollar. During 2009 there's a diverse range of cruises exploring the islands, inlets, beaches and bays around West Coast Scotland and Norwegian Fjords. The 2010 programme of itineraries will visit no less than 30 Scottish islands from Barra, (Outer Hebrides) to Westray, (Queen of the North Isles, Orkney). Specialist Footloose cruises feature professionally led walks for strollers and serious trekkers. The "Hebridean Outposts" cruise itinerary visiting St. Kilda, is scheduled for 11th and 25th June 2010.

It's a fact: 60 - 70% of former guests come back on board, year after year, many because they simply love the Princess like a favourite hotel. Wherever she sails, you are sure to enjoy a real seafaring adventure on this truly unique and enchanting wee ship.

Vivien Devlin. British Guild of Travel Writers
July 2009

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