Island Hopping along the Western Coast
June 2, 2014

Angela Harvey  here – When I wrote the scripts for the children’s pack “Explore the Seashore”  I imagined we were in a small ship sailing round the coast of Britain.  As I wrote about different locations I wished I could see them myself – now I have, or at least some of them.  Our little ship (only 60 plus passengers) took us from the Isles of Scilly up to Handa Island at the north west corner of Scotland.

We set sail from Plymouth heading for Tresco and arrived there in time for breakfast.  Landing in the Zodiacs (inflatable boats) we explored the beautiful Abbey Gardens and surrounding coast then sailed off to St. Agnes.  From there we could watch the international Pilots Gig Race with 140 boats taking part.  These gigs used to race to reach a ship coming in to shore.  The first one there got the job.  Quite a sight.

From The Isles of Scilly (we mustn’t call them the Scilly Isles) we headed for Lundy in the Bristol Channel.  Landing again in the Zodiacs there was a very steep climb up to the “town”.  We decided to take the Land Rover shuttle to the top but that was a terrifying journey. Having explored at the top we thought walking back down would be slightly less heart-stopping and we were glad to look at the lovely wildflowers and fascinating rocks, well back from the edge!

Next we watched the seabirds (this cruise is called Birdquest) on Skomer and Grassholm islands just off the Pembrokeshire coast.    We saw thousands of birds – puffins, guillemots, razorbills, shags, shearwaters and when we got to Grassholm it was covered with white gannet’s nests, all neatly spaced just pecking distance away from one another.  It was wonderful to watch them but better upwind!

Tactile Puffin

Sailing through rather choppy seas we reached Holyhead in the morning ready for a visit to RSPB’s South Stack reserve, famous again for the thousands of seabirds nesting there and the rare choughs.  The guillemots were crammed along the rock ledges, backs to the rather strong wind.  We were lucky enough to see the choughs with their striking red bills and legs.  They loved playing in the wind.

The crew had prepared a barbecue on deck for us back on board – not easy muffled up in scarves and gloves!  But the food was still good.

The wind had dropped by the time we reached Portrush on the north coast of Ireland.  Here we travelled by coach to a place I had longed to visit – the Giant’s Causeway.  It was all I expected – magnificent.  I even remembered the legend of Finn Mc Cool and Benandonner – and saw Finn’s huge stone boot.  The new visitor centre was splendid too with columns all round replicating the natural stones.

Next stop Rathlin Island, again important for nesting seabirds but also famous for it’s upside down lighthouse.  This isn’t a mistake but to get the light closer to sea level!

Heading for Scotland our first visit is to the iconic island of Iona in the Hebrides where, in the 6th century, Saint Columba was exiled from Ireland.  He founded a monastery which became a centre of learning. The island is known as the cradle of Christianity.  His missionary work spread into Scotland and northern England before the Pope sent missionaries to convert the pagan British.

On our way to the beautiful Abbey we heard the unmistakable call of a corncrake.  This bird, about the size of a partridge, is very rare and elusive.  It’s crek-crek call, like running your finger along a comb, drew us to a field where some other passengers had already spotted the bird.  Soon we found it too and managed to take a few pictures – or our friends would never believe us!

Our next visit in the Hebrides was to the island of Staffa – the other end of Finn’s Causeway.  The seas were dashing against the rocks, white foam filling Fingal’s cave, while Mendelssohn’s overture playing in the ship’s lounge added to the drama.

Sailing overnight again, with the sea swell rocking us to sleep, we arrived at St. Kilda.  This is another iconic island, full of history and the farthest point west of the continent of Europe.  The island is uninhabited now but the stone houses or cleits still remain, providing shelter for the Soay sheep.  We managed to spot the St. Kilda wren, only found here.

We sailed all round the little islands enjoying the seabirds and at one point spotting two dolphins skimming through the water.  We haven’t been too lucky with life in the sea, though some people saw an orca.  I have been keeping my eyes peeled for basking sharks but without luck.  We were luckier aboard the Living Paintings “Treasure Seeker”!

Orca

Stornaway on the Isle of Lewis was our next landing point.  Here we visited the ancient stone circles and a blackhouse village.  These houses are constructed of dry stone walls (called dykes here) with thatch secured with ropes and heavy stones, to withstand the strong winds that blow across the island.  The origin of the name is unclear but may have been purely to distinguish them from newer “white” houses.

Cruising round the Shiant islands nearby we saw about 40 Atlantic Grey Seals as well as the usual huge numbers of seabirds.  The puffins were being harassed by gulls so, to protect the colony, hundreds of puffins took to the sky and wheeled around hoping to prevent the gulls landing.  I don’t know how their little wings kept going so long, whirring like bumble bees.  We watched for a good while but didn’t see any changing of the guard – perhaps those on the ground or on the sea took a turn at some point.  We also saw six sea eagles circling above us in our zodiacs – what a treat!  They were juveniles so no white tails to be seen but still exciting.

Our next stop was our most northerly – the Island of Handa.  The rock formations here were breathtaking.  We enjoyed sailing through the rock arches in the zodiacs. The guillemots were in residence and this time they were facing outwards, their white breasts lined up neatly along the ledges.

On our last full day we visited North Uist and another RSPB reserve – Balranald.  The island was full of little lochs – lochans – and lovely gently rolling hills covered with heather.  The bird reserve was lovely too, right on the shore.  There were plenty of waders around and we heard the corncrake again but couldn’t find it.  The beach area with its many types of seaweed and rock pools reminded me once more of our Seashore pack.

Our last island was the Isle of Skye and here we visited Dunvegan Castle with its lovely gardens – the three w’s:  woodland, water and walled.  The Castle was full of interest too.

We sailed overnight to Oban – our point of departure.  We had a three hour bus journey to Glasgow airport – a rather daunting thought.  In fact the journey was anything but daunting – full of interest and beautiful scenery.   We travelled through bluebell woodlands, the Trossachs National Park, past Loch Etive, Lock Awe and Loch Lomond, in view of Ben Cruachan and finally across the Clyde to the airport.

We didn’t sail quite as far as “Treasure Seeker” nor did our captain find quite as many treasures as Captain Timothy Spall.  We managed to tick off puffin, orca, dolphin, seals, seaweed and rock pools at least and we had thousands of seabirds.  Make sure you take a trip on the Treasure Seeker in our pack “Explore the Seashore” and tick off the rest of the treasures. You’ll be able to sail down the eastern side of Britain too.  All aboard!


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