Expedition Journal

Scotland Slowly

Jun. 21–Jul. 1, 2019

© Dennis Minty

Today’s greatest treat was visiting the justly famous Calanais Stones. Unlike some ancient monuments, we were able to walk among the stones, touching them gently, half fearful and half hoping that we might get whisked into a time warp back to ancient Scotland.


Scotland slowly 2019 trip log map
  • Day 1: Glasgow, Stirling Castle, Fairlie Quay
  • Day 2: Islay
  • Day 3: Staffa (Fingal's Cave) and Iona
  • Day 4: Mingulay
  • Day 5: Isle of Skye
  • Day 6: Island of Hirta
  • Day 7: Isle of Lewis
  • Day 8: Orkney
  • Day 9: Shetland—Mousa and Fair Isle
  • Day 10: Peterhead

Day 1 – Friday, June 21

Glasgow, Stirling Castle, Fairlie Quay

Coordinates: 55°46'N 4°51'W

Weather: Sunny, with calm seas

It Could Have Been Utilitarian

We gathered in the lobby of the Glasgow Marriott Hotel with great excitement, organizing ourselves and our luggage for this Scotland Slowly trip of a lifetime. We had a hearty breakfast, and then took a trip by bus to nearby Stirling Castle.

Impressive manoeuvring by our bus drivers took us along the narrow, winding roads of Stirling up to the hilltop stronghold. Our botanist, Dawn Bazely, enthused about a historically important rose garden that we would see at the castle. Storyteller Tom Muir warned us not to look at the ghostly green lady or her companion, the blue lady, should they appear, as looking upon their visages could bring dire consequences!

Stirling castle

Stirling Castle

After we explored the castle and gardens, we drove back through the city and into the restful Scottish countryside. One man said about our first morning, "Adventure Canada took what could have been a utilitarian day and made it into something special."

We arrived at Fairlie Quay and got our first glimpse of the ship that would be our home for eleven inspiring days—the Ocean Endeavour. We were guided to our cabins, then enjoyed a welcoming tea as the crew got our luggage sorted.

Our host for the adventure, Ian Tamblyn, showed us a gift that had been left to us by the guests from the previous trip—a colourful "stone circle" they'd created to celebrate the summer solstice. The stones led Ian to a point. Speaking about our individual involvement in the upcoming adventure, he said, "You don't have to be great. You just have to be part of it."

No rest for our crew, yet. They continued to help us settle in with a heroic effort to get us all booted, jacketed, and briefed for our first Zodiac experience, which would commence on the following day. After a superb dinner, some of us played a hysterical round of "Two Truths and a Lie." Others retired to quiet decks and lounges to watch the Scottish islands slipping slowly past as the summer solstice sunset lingered behind the Aran Islands. Our adventure had begun.

Day 2 – Saturday, June 22


Coordinates: 55°50'N 6°61'W

Weather: Started out cloudy, but soon became a brilliant, warm day

Idyllic Islay, Queen of the Hebrides

Our Islay adventure offered a choice of Scottish experiences. One possibility was a bus tour visiting the shops and gardens of Islay House Square, the RSPB Loch Gruinart Nature Reserve and Finlaggan, the ancient seat of the Lords of the Isles. Three buses were to take alternate routes to experience these locations in turns. A merry mishap found two groups in the nature reserve at the same time. Fortunately, there was plenty of room to spread out. An alternative adventure that some folks opted for was an equally enticing experience: a tour of Islay's famed peat-flavoured malt whisky distilleries.

Tasting peat flavoured malt whisky

© Dennis Minty

A tour of Islay's famed peat-flavoured malt whisky distillery.

For some, this trip from the ship to Islay was our first experience of riding in a Zodiac. Encouraged by the confidence of fellow guests who had done this kind of thing many times before, we gamely clambered in and set off for Port Askaig, Islay. Soft, mist-capped hills were our companions as we made our way to land.

Our experts were positioned at the location, available to speak with each of our groups as we arrived. On one bus, Dawn helped several adventuresome ladies plan a spontaneous taxi tour of the island as we travelled to our first location. Geologist David Edwards explained the "sexy" geology of the cliff face at Port Askaig with a decided gleam in his eye, telling us we would now be the envy of every geologist for having seen this world-famous geological location. Apparently, it's the site of a weird anomaly that gets rock-lovers really excited—who knew?

Islay House Craft Centre and Community Garden

© Dennis Minty

Islay House Craft Centre and Community Garden

At Finlaggan, several people commented on the sense of peace that permeated this ancient seat of the MacDonalds. The walking paths of Loch Gruinart were fringed with deep pink foxgloves, flowers which we were told are called "trowie glivs" in Orkney—a trow being a faerie, and these blossoms obviously their gloves. Our walk was somewhat truncated by news from the ship about tides and ferries, but we managed to get far enough to see an inspiring view of the surrounding hills.

Finlaggan Islay v1

© Dennis Minty

Ted Cowan later gave us a talk on Scottish history, and storyteller Tom Muir gave us our first story from Scotland. Before dinner, Captain Dmytro Ashanin toasted our excellent ship's crew, who hail from twenty different countries.

The day ended perfectly with a concert by folk musician and stone mason, Bobby Watt, singing the sun down to another gorgeous sunset.

Day 3 – Sunday, June 23

Staffa (Fingal's Cave) and Iona

Coordinates: 56°19'N 6°23'W

Weather: Overcast but comfortably warm

Flower of Scotland in Fingal's Cave

A leisurely trip around the island of Staffa and inside Fingal's cave was early on the adventure list today. The overcast morning and calm seas made our photographers happy, while the abundance of birds delighted the birders among us. We saw about a dozen kinds of seabirds, including the adorable puffins, swooping back and forth to their burrows with tiny fish for their pufflings clamped tight in their beaks. Some of us were fortunate enough to hear Lizanne Henderson and David Reid singing "Flower of Scotland" or Ian Tamblyn playing his flute inside Fingal's Cave. All our experts dug out stories to delight us from their treasure troves of knowledge.

Fingals cave v1

© Dennis Minty

Fingal's cave.s

As with travelling by bus, travelling in Zodiacs accompanied by our various experts was a slightly different experience for each group. Particular aspects of the locations were highlighted by individual hosts, but also making each trip unique was the interplay of travellers as we brought our own life experiences, knowledge sets, and curiosity to the mix, eager to learn from each other.

We had a leisurely exploration of Iona in the afternoon. Some of us went about with local guides, while others preferred to explore on their own. It was a lovely, warm day—so nice that one of our more daring lasses went swimming near the white sand shore.

Iona Abbey

© Dennis Minty

Iona Abbey

We all seemed to be feeling a sense of awe, aware of the patient centuries of history laid down in Iona. The beauty of the church and its surrounding community made it easy to imagine the slow, quiet lives of people of faith who lived here long ago, and perhaps to envy, just a little, those who still do.

We got a different kind of story when we returned to the ship—the fascinating story of the cave's geology from David Edwards. Lizanne gave a talk about seal and selkie traditions in the north—appropriately, since some of us had been lucky enough to see a seal today. We heard everything we always wanted to know about seals, including their medicinal value!

We all made more new friends today. The good cheer and cohesiveness of the larger group continued to grow as people began to connect through our individual stories.

Day 4 – Monday, June 24


Coordinates: 56°48'N 7°37'W

Weather: Overcast, calm seas, some rain in afternoon

The Long Island

A curious grey seal kept careful watch on our Zodiacs as we travelled to the uninhabited Outer Hebrides island of Mingulay. Puffins, guillemots, fulmars, and razorbills were abundant on the island, and we were delighted to spot a sea eagle. The shipboard wildlife watch proceeded throughout the day, bringing common dolphin, bottle-nosed dolphin, and minke whale sightings.

Mingulay puffins

© Dennis Minty

Ted and Lizanne told us that Mingulay, "The Long Island", was evacuated before St Kilda. Both of these island evacuations were voluntary and not clearances, as were imposed so tragically in the Highlands, but an abandoned place that was once lived in and loved by humans can't help but feel a little bit lonesome. This is echoed in the famous "Mingulay Boat Song", written after the evacuation.

Our experts were available to guide groups. We could also choose between two levels of hiking or self-paced exploration. With the island no longer inhabited by people, we found Mingulay to be a paradise for birds...and for birders.

Mingulay 1

© Dennis Minty

The rain held off for most of the expedition, and then it was back to the ship for teatime. The free Nikon Exchange Program was in full swing in the reception lobby, giving us a sampling of great photography equipment and expert advice. We enjoyed an afternoon filled with wonderful talks and Scottish storytelling, taking a look at microplastics with Shane Keegan and discovering surprising botanical intrigue with Dawn Bazely. We studied the importance of Scotland's birds with the wonderfully enthusiastic Chris Rollie and learned about stone masonry with the shy and retiring Bobby Watt. Finally, traditional storyteller Tom Muir gave us a few Scottish tales...some truer than others.

To revive us from our exertions, we enjoyed an evening coffee-tasting session—with other goodies!—courtesy of Adventure Canada's partner organization PIKHS, producers of Kaapittiaq Coffee. This Inuit-owned-and-operated business helps preserve Inuit culture. We learned that the word Kaapittiaq means “good coffee”, and so it was!

Day 5 – Tuesday, June 25

Isle of Skye

Coordinates: 657°11'N 6°75'W

Weather: Sunny, light wind, slightly choppy seas

Blue Skye

MJ (fearless leader) Bradley-Swan's decision to switch days for our trips to Mingulay and Skye due to threatening weather patterns proved to be wise. We enjoyed beautiful, sunny skies in Skye with just enough cloud and mist on the hilltops to make things interesting. Even the mild wind served us as we explored by keeping the dreaded midges hiding in the heather.

The Zodiac ride to our beach was steady going. A dolphin played nearby as we left the ship. We had to wade through a few inches of water to reach the beach, but that was no problem. We had plenty of helping hands on the way.

Hiking isle of skye

© Dennis Minty

After an initial gawk at the astonishing beauty of the place, we formed groups according to our interests. On offer were advanced hiking with David Reid and Kristian Bogner, intermediate hiking with Dennis Minty and Veronica Ryl, ornithology with Chris Rollie, geology with David Edwards, and storytelling with Tom Muir and Lizanne Henderson.

We'd been warned about the boggy and stony areas on the paths, and all found the level of challenge we were comfortable with. We saw many birds and two red deer, who seemed to consider us kindred spirits. Walkers had plenty of time to explore the paths we chose and still be back in time for questions and answers with our experts or to enjoy a little storytelling on the beach with Tom.

Isle of skye v1

© Dennis Minty

By this time, we were all happily tired, a bit sunburned, and eager to get back for lunch. MJ invited the young family whose front yard we'd been invading to come back to the ship with us and have lunch. Coming out to a ship by Zodiac must have been a big treat for those two adorable, towheaded boys. The family said they'll be talking about this unexpected adventure for a long time.

Deers isle of skye

© Dennis Minty

Afternoon programming included a tutorial from Kristian about taking great photos and a fascinating talk by Dawn. As Tom said, it was mildly disturbing to find out that "Grass is smarter than sheep and sheep are smarter than me", but Dawn's talk was fascinating, nevertheless. Later, Lizanne held us spellbound with her studies of witchcraft trials in Scotland.

An evening concert from Ian Tamblyn completed our full day, featuring his new classic, “Iona Have Eyes for Ewe”.

Day 6 – Friday, June 26

Island of Hirta

Coordinates: 57°48'N 8°33'W

Weather: Overcast and cool

Ghost Town

Our time on the island of Hirta, St Kilda, was both poignant and exciting. The morning began with an informational visit to the ship from Ranger Sue, who gave us a briefing on what we could expect. Sue informed us that we were about to experience a World Heritage Site with dual status for archaeology and wildlife. Hirta is an important place for many reasons, and one that relatively few people get the opportunity to experience.

Thankfully, our St Kilda adventure began with a smooth Zodiac trip through the incredibly blue water that surrounds the St Kilda archipelago. The island’s primitive and unique sheep, known as Soay sheep, wandered among us, grazing peacefully with their lambs. We explored the village at our leisure. Our bird-lovers were out of their minds with excitement at spotting the St Kilda wren, which lives nowhere else in the world. Some of us climbed far above the village to enjoy spectacular views, while others roamed about the abandoned village, just wondering.

Hirta St Kilda

© Dennis Minty

"Cleits”—stone buildings once used for drying and storing food—improbably dotted the hillside. The small cemetery was particularly touching, enclosed by its beautiful oval stone wall. We were told that some of the dispersed former residents of Hirta chose to be buried in their old home when they died, decades after they'd been evacuated.

Today's expedition had a melancholy tinge, prompting ruminations on the themes of emigration, loss, and the meaning of home. We marvelled at the ingenuity and strength of these people, admiring their sheer hardiness as they clung to their isolated world together. We were saddened to learn how events intervened in their lives to bring the change that would eventually push them from their island.

Hirta St Kilda 2

© Dennis Minty

We returned to the Ocean Endeavour and were soon gathering on the decks for an enchanted seabird-watch as we slowly drifted past Stac An Armin, Stac Lee, and Boreray.

Our evening took on a distinctly Scottish theme, featuring Scottish games with Ian and (ahem), and a whisky tasting with Oliver Gomes, our excellent Food and Beverage Manager. Before dinner, David Reid gave Robert Burns's “Address to a Haggis” in dialect and dressed in full clan regalia. After our haggis dinner (and other delicious meal choices, as always), came the iconic Adventurers & Explorers Party, where our effervescent and ultra-organized program director, Laura Baer, took high honors, bobbing eight apples!

Day 7 – Thursday, June 27

Isle of Lewis

Coordinates: 58°59'N 2°58'W

Weather: Overcast and calm

Edge of the World

The last Hebrides Island in our Scotland Slowly adventure was the Isle of Lewis. Today we visited Stornoway, the Blackhouse Village, Dun Carloway broch, and the Calanais Standing Stones.

Black Houses

© Dennis Minty

Black Houses

We passed a pub in Stornoway that set the tone for the day as we made our way to a more rural destination. This pub was called "Edge of the World". It certainly felt like we were exploring the edge of the world as we wandered through the Blackhouse Village. Some of us climbed the heather-covered hill for photos of this pleasing village perched by the sea.

The lovely, thatch-roofed restored village on Lewis’s northwest coast was a delight to those looking for a bit of quiet communion with nature. Evidence of the old runrig system of farming was still visible in the stone walls partitioning narrow strips of land nearby. Especially after encountering the Gaelic-speaking caretakers of the house set up as a living museum, we were aware that this place was not just an attraction, but a homeland where people had lived and died for thousands of years.

Dun Carloway Broch

© Dennis Minty

Dun Carloway Broch

The comparatively well-preserved Dun Carloway Broch afforded us a stunning view. Though we couldn't go inside the broch due to dangerously loosened stones, Kristian's drone provided us better views inside the broch than we could have managed by ourselves. One highlight here was the imaginative display of village life that we discovered inside the museum/gift shop. The visual vignette gave us a glimpse into what it might have been like to live in this very place long ago. As we drove between our destinations, we spotted belted and highland cattle, hooded crows, and greylag geese.

Today’s greatest treat was visiting the justly famous Calanais Standing Stones. Unlike some ancient monuments, we were able to walk among the stones, touching them gently, half fearful and half hoping that we might get whisked into a time warp back to ancient Scotland.

Before dinner, Lizanne gave us a song—a gorgeous rendition of Tim Buckley's “Song to the Siren”. Tom told us the true story of the HMY Iolaire. Filled with WWI veterans returning home, the ship struck rocks and went down mere yards from home shores. We'd seen references to this tragic event all over Lewis, as 2019 was the centenary of the local tragedy.

Dawn hosted the first-ever themed dinner table for gardeners, where we talked about plants and so much more. The evening brought choices between watching Rob Roy, karaoke, enjoying Scottish stories with Tom Muir in the Aurora Lounge...or resting up for tomorrow's adventure in Orkney.

Day 8 – Friday, June 28


Coordinates: 58°12'N 6°23'W

Weather: Early fog turns to brilliant sunshine, calm seas

Here There Be Vikings

The morning view of Kirkwall was enshrouded by ominous-looking fog as we waited for our pilot to guide us safely through strong tides to harbour. Some folks set out in buses for our various morning destinations, while others took a turn in the Viking stronghold of Kirkwall—a word meaning "church bay" in Old Norse.

We visited the birthplace of Dr. John Rae, briefly experiencing the environment that molded the hardy and intelligent nineteenth century Arctic explorer. We learned why Rae was airbrushed out of history by Lady Jane Franklin and her friend, Charles Dickens. (Yes, that Charles Dickens.) We strolled through the charming port town of Stromness and spent some time shopping in Kirkwall and visiting the St Magnus Cathedral and the Orkney Museum.

Memorial to John0 Rae St Magnus

© Dennis Minty

Memorial to John Rae, St. Magnus

It was easy to see the Viking influence in Orkney, a place far more Nordic than Scottish. Among other things, the place names in Orkney clued us in to its strong Nordic past, though it's considered part of Scotland today. Even Kirkwall’s St Magnus Cathedral was built by Vikings!

The misty morning gave way to a glorious day at the inspiring Ring of Brodgar, set like a stony crown in the midst of its gorgeous natural amphitheater landscape. Some couldn't help but compare the beauty and peace of the Ring's surroundings with the rather disturbing and noisy atmosphere surrounding the wonderful Calanais Stones that we'd seen the day before. Standing at the Ring of Brodgar, it wasn't difficult to imagine a time over 5,000 years ago when it was a place of pilgrimage for peoples near and far.

Ring of brodgar

© Dennis Minty

Ring of Brodgar

Dawson Freeze and Shane Keegan led an optional expedition to explore the beautifully preserved Neolithic village of Skara Brae. This was an addition to our itinerary wrangled together at the last minute by fearless leader MJ, after he'd received a request. We saw a model of a Neolithic dwelling place and then explored the real thing. As we walked closer to the village, stone markers took us back through time, past major historical events, deeper and deeper into the mists of time until we passed the building of Stonehenge and Egypt's great pyramids...and still, Skara Brae was older.

Skara Brae

© Dennis Minty

Skara Brae

David Reid and Veronica Ryl offered bike tours, while our enthusiastic experts staffed the buses. Historian Tom Muir was particularly in demand, at home in his native Orkney. And, to Chris Rollie's lasting joy, we had our first kestrel sighting.

Later, David Reid gave us a thrilling account of his Arctic expedition following in John Rae's footsteps. Our evening entertainment was a rollicking sing-along with Ian and Bobby—the very first time, after all their years of friendship, that they had performed together on stage.

Day 9 – Saturday, June 29

Shetland—Mousa and Fair Isle

Coordinates: 60°07'N 1°11'W

Weather: Overcast, misty, sea a bit choppy, turning warm and pleasant

Sixty Degrees North

We had an early start to our day in the Shetland Islands. Again, our original plans had to be changed for our own enjoyment and safety due to weather conditions, but the alternate plan was no disappointment.

A hunting bonxie haunted the skies overhead on our way to the Shetland island of Mousa, as acrobatic terns dove for their breakfast. The heavy morning mist took its time lifting, but nobody seemed to mind experiencing "proper Scottish weather”. As we walked along the path to Mousa Broch we discovered a bench with a message, reminding us that we were now at sixty degrees north—farther north than many of us had ever been.

Broch of Mousa

© Dennis Minty

Mousa Broch

We all had time to explore, photograph, or seek solitude. Our chosen groups took their various paths around the island, eventually making our way to Mousa Broch, the tallest and best-preserved broch in the world. Lizanne, Ted, Tom, and Bobby were on hand inside the broch, interpreting for us according to their expertise—history, Viking sagas, and stone, respectively. Stonemason Bobby told us that the stone walls we saw lining the fields there were rare singing walls, "built for pure whimsy", with spaces left between the stones so they'd sing when the wind got up.

The afternoon brought the exciting news that we'd be going to Fair Isle, well known for its traditional knitting patterns. The ride there and back again was somewhat rougher than we'd been used to, but we were all getting pretty good at this form of travel and handled it like pros.


© Dennis Minty

The Fair Islanders were wonderful. With little notice, they put together a craft fair for us (including some of the famous knitwear), gave us refreshments, arranged rides to the community center and the museum, and treated us all with open friendliness. It was nice to think that by spending a little money we'd help a small community in return for an afternoon exploring their beautiful island. On our ride back to the ship, hundreds of puffins darted around us, gathering their dinner.

In the evening, we held an auction to benefit the John Rae Society and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Healthy sales from some imaginative auction donations raised $6,100. Well done!

Day 10 – Sunday, June 30


Coordinates: 57°28'N 1°43'W

Weather: Fair skies and calm seas

Fare Thee Well

We did it again! Another day of gorgeous weather was in store for us as we spent our last full day in Scotland, which was handy, since all our expedition locations were outdoors. We began by crawling about in the ruins of Slains Castle. A roof removed to avoid paying exorbitant taxes less than 100 years ago had quickly reduced this grand house to near rubble. (Although Bobby was not impressed by the stonework.) Tom told us that it's said that Bram Stoker might (though it's a very dubious might) have spent some time at this house, using it as inspiration for Dracula. We were all doubtful about that, but the house's cliff-side setting was certainly spectacular enough to inspire such a story.

Some adventuresome spirits hiked from one point to the next, guided by our stalwart experts. The word "fabulous" was tossed about more than once to describe the seaside cliff walk. The Bullers of Buchan was our next stop, with each of us getting on and off the transportation coaches as we pleased. This was another natural beauty location where we took breathtaking photos, combined with a bit of leg-stretching and birdwatching. Among the hundreds of birds congregating there, we spotted kittiwakes, fulmars, and kestrel chicks.

Longhaven Cliffs Nature Reserve

© Dennis Minty

Longhaven Cliffs Nature Reserve

Our final adventure was at the Longhaven Cliffs Nature Reserve, where we took another walk for its worthy views, finally gathering in the sunshine at the carpark to await our bus back to the ship and the promised barbecue. Dennis Minty gave us "Reflections of a Photographer" as we made our way to Aberdeen, urging us to get ourselves and the children in our lives outside in nature. David Edwards enchanted us with geological tales, and the Whisky Label Contest took on a whiff of scandal when Ian Tamblyn suggested that judges Bobby and Ted might not be entirely sober.

On this last evening of our adventure, we had the "Captain's farewell", which gave us the chance to show our appreciation to those who took such great care of us these past ten days. Sadly, there was another leave-taking, with Ian announcing his retirement from further expeditions with Adventure Canada to seek further adventures of his own. Many people who love this man expressed their warmest wishes for him and his future plans. He even allowed Lizanne to give him a hug!

Scotland slowly travellers group photo

© Dennis Minty

It was bittersweet bidding farewell to our new friends—both our fellow travellers and our excellent expedition team. Our heartiest thanks go out to Adventure Canada, Captain Dmytro Ashanin and all the crew, who kept everything running smoothly and enjoyably for us. To all those mentioned in earlier entries, as well as Ashley Savard, Robert Comeau, Alex Preston, Brenya Green, Kaleigh Potts, and Patrick Collins, you have our admiration and gratitude for a wonderful trip as we experienced Scotland Slowly.