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The wilds of Scotland


I was on the bridge of the Grigoriy Mikheev, holding on to a brass rail for dear life. Even the Russian captain steadied himself.  (But with only one hand, and rather casually compared to my death grip.) He grinned. "Is like washing machine," he said. It was a good description.

We were in the North Atlantic, more than 100 miles from the mainland.  Our mission was to visit the most remote and pristine of Scotland's islands to see Europe's largest rookeries of seabirds and explore prehistoric and Norse ruins, some more than 5,000 years old.  Not incidentally, we would see some of the most dramatic coastal scenery imaginable, and close up, in Zodiacs launched from the main ship.  So, a day or two of rough seas was a small price to pay for this unique experience.

There were 35 adventurers on the Grigoriy Mikheev, a ship originally built as an icebreaker, later converted for passenger use.  The ship's crew numbered 19, all highly experienced in Arctic and North Atlantic waters.  Also on board were a Ph.D. ornithologist from Scotland and an historian/writer from the U.K. to help us understand what we would see.

Our expedition leader (unlike typical cruises, there was no 'cruise director') was from the Scottish island of Orkney who so loved the volcanic islands of Scotland that he had named his son Ronin for the island of Rona.  So, his enthusiasm came naturally and quickly became contagious. However, one would have to be made of wood not to be caught up in the excitement.  For example, in Zodiacs (inflatable boats used for landings and rescue) with a crew member at the tiller, groups of eight would motor in close to the sea cliffs to see thousands of sea birds nesting and diving deep into the ocean for food. Highly maneuverable Zodiacs could go into caves in the cliff wall to see Disney-like formations on walls of unlikely colors (one a light pink).  Also, you can get so close to sea lions that you can look them in the eye.

 In one Zodiac outing, we motored between rock outcroppings to enter a protected area above which thousands of guillemots nested.  Perhaps the birds were guarding their eggs when we visited.  (Guillemot eggs are pointed so that they roll in a circle rather than fall off the ledges.)  For whatever reason, the guillemots decided they did not want us that close.  So, first one, then seven, and now a dozen, dive-bombed us.  Scores followed as we ducked and full-throttled into open sea. 

The Zodiacs also were the way we were able to land on shore to explore.  Almost all landings were "wet",  meaning that we would come as close to shore as possible and then jump out of the Zodiac and wade ashore. This minor exertion was richly rewarded on every island we visited.  For example, on Mousa, we entered a 2,000-year-old broch, a round stone fort and the only one of thousands built in Scotland that has survived almost intact.  On Jarlshof, we saw levels of civilization ranging from an Iron Age hut, perhaps 4,000 years old, to a Viking village and medieval farm.  On Orkney, we saw the tomb of Maeshowe, considered one of the best architectural achievements of prehistoric Europe, and the nearby Stones of Stenness, placed sometime between 2500 and 3000 B.C.

Because these islands are so remote, we always were the only visitors to these unique sites, a rare privilege considering today's generally over-crowded tourist destinations. If this expedition, aptly titled "Wild Scotland" by Natural Habitat Adventures (nathab.com; 800-543-8917), sounds physically challenging, consider that 75 percent of passengers were 50 or over.  At least one was 80 and many were in their 70s. Also, regarding the ship, it should be noted that it was built for a small number of passengers. So, it lacked the over-the-top features of huge cruise ships. But the Grigoriy Mikheev cabins had private baths, excellent storage, desk, couch and beds that felt great at the end of an active day.

The crew was scrupulous about cleaning cabins and the entire vessel; restaurant/bar service was fast and friendly.  Crew members were thoroughly professional. But the point of the expedition was not at all the ship's amenities.  The point was to see remote natural habitats for sea birds and other wildlife that few others ever will see and to walk the same sea cliffs that Iron Age people and, later, the Vikings walked. In short, "Wild Scotland" became a true adventure and increasingly rare in today's tourism that is geared to the masses, an absolutely unique experience.  The memories are well worth a day or two of rough seas.
(Wild Scotland: Safari in the North Atlantic, by Arthur Hoffman - courtesy of www.adventurecollection.com).

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