As thousands of gannets swirl above us, it feels like we’re in a snow globe. Circling specks of white birds shake up the sky, swooping to snatch fish and returning to clifftop nests. It’s the height of breeding season and the gannets’ guttural gargling is overlaid with the growls of guillemots and the ecstatic cries of kittiwakes. All is accompanied by the fishy odour of a guano-streaked colony.

Aurora Expeditions’ ship Greg Mortimer sails remarkably close to these steep cliffs in the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. This lively chunk of rock is an Atlantic Ocean secret that few people see because the water and weather are usually too wild. Taking advantage of the smooth conditions, the ship’s crew deploy a few Zodiacs for a scenic ride around North Rona, where we are greeted by dozens of curious grey seals. Two minke whales swim around our boats for half an hour, defying the belief that they are shy and solitary. The richness of wildlife in this region is extraordinary.

Every day of our cruise to the Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney Islands, expedition leader David Berg consults the “windy map” to check if we can visit an ambitious list of destinations, and every day he is shocked to announce that a landing will be possible. Scotland is a new adventure for him, too. After several seasons in the Arctic, he thought he saw a polar bear on approach to the Isle of Skye. “I was worried we would not be able to land, but then I realised it was a sheep,” he confesses.

Fingal's Cave on the island of Staffa, Scotland.
Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa, Scotland.

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Local archaeologist Carol Knott and biologist and author John Love join our journey to these isles, which bear little resemblance to mainland Scotland. Gaelic language and culture prevail, and lifestyles are dominated by the forces of weather, ferry timetables and religion (Presbyterian in the north, Catholic in the south). Landscapes vary from sandy beaches and coastal mountains to peat-covered moorlands and meadows blooming with wildflowers. Lochs break up the largely treeless terrain, reflecting light on the bleakest days.

The sun is shining from a brilliant blue sky upon Iona, our first port of call in the Inner Hebrides. Described as the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland, when St Columba arrived from Ireland in AD563, this holy place is home to the remains of his monastery, an abbey, a nunnery, shrine and huge, intricately carved, 8th-century Celtic crosses. Along with 48 Scottish kings, eight Norwegian, four Irish and two French kings, the real Macbeth is buried on Iona. “We don’t know where,” says Knott. “If you could roll back the grass, you’d find astonishing things.”

Knott delves into the centuries of Norse occupation after Vikings started raiding the islands in AD795. Remnants of longboats have recently been discovered, finally proving the existence of these indomitable navigators, although little is known about their interaction with the Celtic community.

Swirling gannets in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland. Picture: Aurora Expeditions
Swirling gannets in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland. Picture: Aurora Expeditions

At Staffa, we discover Fingal’s Cave, created 60 million years ago by the same lava flow that formed the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. Perched on Zodiacs, we enter this geometric wonder, one of the world’s best examples of hexagonal basalt columns. The acoustics of the cave, when the waves crash into the symmetrical pillars, inspired composer Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. A short hike leads to a clifftop where hundreds of puffins have gathered. For hours, we watch and photograph these adorable birds with their clownish faces as they soar from the sea to the grass in front of us.

Sailing to the Isle of Lewis, we spot the Calanais (aka Callanish) Standing Stones in the same way that pilgrims or Vikings might have sighted them from their boats throughout the ages. Older than Stonehenge, this circle of 13 megaliths is one of the region’s great mysteries. Legend has it they are giants or heathens turned to stone, while less fanciful theories have suggested the site was an astronomical observatory or a temple for Druids.

Our arrival at St Kilda, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is glorious. Temperamental weather means the volcanic archipelago is rarely able to welcome cruise ships, but the national nature reserve is breathtakingly beautiful and has a rich history. Hirta, the largest of the isolated islands, is used by the Ministry of Defence as a radar tracking station for the rocket range on South Uist. The modern buildings contrast with the turf-topped blackhouses and the underground House of the Fairies, circa 500 BC, used as a granary or a place of refuge.

In summer it is home to nearly one million seabirds, including the St Kilda wren, while year-round it supports a flock of primitive Soay sheep. Based on pottery found here, it’s believed people first arrived about 5000 years ago and survived on birds, eggs, fish and farming. This traditional but difficult way of life came to an end in 1930 when the last few residents were evacuated. St Kilda is of particular interest to Greg Mortimer’s Australian passengers, for whom the name is more readily associated with the Melbourne suburb to which some islanders migrated in the 1850s.

Ponies on Shetland, Scotland. Picture: Aurora Expeditions
Ponies on Shetland, Scotland. Picture: Aurora Expeditions

The 70 guests (the ship can accommodate 132) are a mix of Aussies, Brits, Americans, Canadians and New Zealanders. Impressively, we are joined by 69 crew, from Australia, Sweden, Poland, Brazil, the Philippines and Britain. Launched in 2019, the comfortable ship is good as new, with spacious cabins, cantilevered hot tubs on the top deck, a sauna with ocean views, and a streamlined bow that cuts through the swell with fewer vibrations.

The small size of the vessel allows us to sail close to the two highest sea stacks in the British Isles: Stac Lee, rising 172m above the North Atlantic, and Stac an Armin, towering at 196m. As John Love provides a fascinating commentary, I’m transfixed by the striking sight of 60,000 pairs of gannets crowding along every inch of ridge or flying around the rugged peaks. After our weeklong immersion in the Hebrides, we head for the surprising sights of the Shetlands. Yes, there are the namesake ponies and more sheep and ancient structures, but also some unexpected treats. Papa Stour reveals whimsical waterways winding through a labyrinth of sea caves. Without any warning of the beauty inside, we casually enter a cave of rainbows. My jaw drops at the multi-coloured walls where jagged shards are naturally painted pink, mauve, red, orange and yellow. From these crystalline corridors of pastel blue water, we glide through a long, dark tunnel to emerge in the open sea towered over by grass-topped cliffs. “It’s like a time machine – you pop out into a whole new world,” says Snowy, our Zodiac driver. At the aptly named Fair Isle, the emerald land is dotted with sheep and cottages. In the community hall, stalls are set up to sell the island’s signature style of knitwear. The welcoming locals offer us lifts to the museum and the chapel. When someone stops to ask if we need a ride back to the pier, we seize the chance to hitchhike to the harbour for a quick kayak. Aurora Expeditions is trialling “lite paddling” in inflatable kayaks for those who would rather not commit to daily sessions in choppy seas. Vacuum-sealed into dry suits, we go for a paddle around the calm waters and explore 100m deep inside a pitch-black cave. One of the staff, Steve, feels moved to sing opera, and his voice reverberates off the walls until rocks crack and splash into the water. It’s one of those memorable moments that adventure travel brings.

Spotted off the rugged coast of the Isle of Skye – the Greg Mortimer on our Wild Scotland expedition.
Spotted off the rugged coast of the Isle of Skye – the Greg Mortimer on our Wild Scotland expedition.

Reaching the Orkneys, we come to Papa Westray, population 90. Knap of Howar, the oldest preserved stone dwelling in northern Europe, is a sea-facing farmstead dating back to 3500 BC. Our guide transports us to Neolithic times with intriguing stories of typical family life. The ultimate time-travelling is saved for the last day at Skara Brae, a 5000-year-old village that was uncovered by a storm in 1850. Incredibly, the semi-subterranean buildings were not properly excavated until the 1920s when an Australian archaeologist realised it was a significant Neolithic settlement. As our guide emphasises, Skara Brae was inhabited before the Egyptian pyramids were built, and yet the seaside homes and furniture are extraordinarily well-preserved. At the end of the trip, I realise we have not seen a castle or a kilt, nor tasted whisky or haggis, and there has been barely 10 minutes of rain in 10 days. Was I even in Scotland?

In the know

In 2023, Aurora Expeditions’ new 132-passenger Sylvia Earle will offer two itineraries to the Scottish islands, including visits to Iona, Staffa, St Kilda, Papa Westray and Fair Isle. The 14-night Jewels of Coastal UK departs London on May 4 and also calls at Islay, Isle of Man, Pembrokeshire Islands, Holyhead, Isles of Scilly, Penzance and Portmouth. From $13,346 a person, twin-share.

The 16-night Ireland and Scotland Discovery, departing Dublin on May 23, also stops at Kirkwall for the excursion to Skara Brae. Other ports of call include Malin Head and the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, Inishmore in the Aran Islands, Skellig Islands and Connemara. From $16,121 a person, twin-share.

Louise Goldsbury was a guest of Aurora Expeditions.

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