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4 May 2020

An island odyssey

Written by Caroline Borwick
Poppies and other wildflowers grow on a rocky coastline, with a bright blue sea in the background. A ferry can be seen in the distance.
An idyllic Hebridean seascape
My husband and I were very privileged to join a cruise to celebrate the life and achievements of my father, Sir Jamie Stormonth Darling, who served the National Trust for Scotland as Secretary/Director from 1949–83.

Jamie, a very knowledgeable botanist and ornithologist, had a life-long passion for wild flowers and birds. He was never happier than on a mountainside enveloped by joyous bird song while discovering a rare orchid. The choice of an exploration of the islands and coastal gardens of Scotland was therefore particularly relevant. All the places we visited came into the care of the Trust during his 35-year tenure and each is especially significant.

We embarked at Oban where the fabulous crew of the Hebridean Princess welcomed us with tremendous care and attention. Superbly clear skies and calm seas enabled stunning views of Mull and the surrounding islands. The rich legends of sunk Spanish gold, pirates and battles between rival clans kept us well entertained as we headed for Canna. Once peacefully nestled in the shelter of the bay, we were treated to the superb musicianship of Katie Mackenzie, renowned Celtic singer and clarsach artiste, prior to our introduction to the excellent onboard cuisine.

Exploring the magical island of Canna, where the team have recently achieved the incredible feat of eliminating the rats that were decimating the ground-nesting seabird population, was enthralling. The geology of Canna is a layered sequence of basalt lava flows of the Palaeocene period. The rich history of Canna is fascinating, from Neolithic souterrains (also found on St Kilda), Bronze Age remnants and ancient Celtic monuments, to the extraordinary collection of the lost culture of the isles. The island and the collection in Canna House were gifted to the National Trust for Scotland by Dr John Lorne Campbell and his wife Dr Margaret Fay Shaw. For us, on a beautiful day, the enchantment of the wildflowers and the soaring bird population was glorious. Canna is a botanists’ paradise.

To cap a superb visit, we were entertained to an absorbing collection of stories and music recited and sung by folklore expert Fiona Mackenzie and her daughter Katie. Fiona is recognised internationally for her work on Margaret Fay Shaw’s collection. Fiona and husband Donald both care for Canna for the Trust, and are passionate experts on the island.

A small cruise ship is anchored in a calm bay, almost surrounded by green low-lying land except for a c
Hebridean Princess at anchor in a bay

Our evening sail round the islands of Eigg and Skye, accompanied by dolphins, porpoises and the most stunning sunset, was magical. Docking in Gairloch and travelling up to Inverewe Garden was, for me, especially evocative. I spent two working holidays at Inverewe. As ever, the gardens are stunning and never cease to evolve and surprise. The superb inter-relationship in the Walled Garden between rare species of plants from all round the world with the delectable vegetables and remarkable sculptures supplies interest for every visitor.

The opening of Inverewe House and courtyard is excellent, a beautiful and informative addition reflecting the history of this garden created from a barren wilderness by Osgood Mackenzie and his daughter Mairi Sawyer. You can find her pantry fully restored and her ‘Dark Sticky Gingerbread’ remains my favourite recipe.

As a ‘mud student’ I stayed in the house with Alice Maconochie, long-term property manager, where part of lunch was Stilton cheese and the legendary gingerbread! I thought you might enjoy this poem written by Alice’s mother after a particularly distressing number of plants went missing!

A printed copy of a poem by Lady Maconochie: Awake, my Muse, bring bell and book / To curse the hand that cuttings took. / May every sort of garden pest / His little plot of ground infest / Who stole the plants from Inverewe, / From Falkland Palace, Crathes too. / Let caterpillars, capsid bugs, / Leaf-hoppers, thrips, all sorts of slugs, / Play havoc with his garden plot, / And a late frost destroy the lot.

For the ‘birders’ amongst us, the following day’s sailing was very special as we made our way through the Shiants, a remote and unpopulated group of islands, renowned for their seabird populations. We were constantly being alerted to rare birds, and sightings of whales and dolphins kept us all on our toes.

St Kilda, our destination, emerged out of the mists of dawn for those who arose at 5am! The chilly, misty looming of the archipelago, 41 miles west of Benbecula, powerfully reinforces the sense of islands on the edge of the world.

It is hard to describe the impact that exploring Hirta (the largest of the islands in the archipelago) has on the ‘stranger on the shore’. The sense of struggle, resilience, courage, ancient culture, pride and abandonment is overwhelming. We were extremely lucky to be looked after by the exceptionally interesting young archaeologist Craig Stanford. How fortunate we are in the National Trust for Scotland that we can attract such enthusiastic, passionate, intelligent and dedicated people.

A man stands beside a stone structure, with a small opening and a turf roof. He rests one hand above the doorway. He is talking to a group of people, who are not seen in the shot.
Craig talks to our group, standing beside one of St Kilda’s ancient stone structures.

The small schoolhouse is fascinating, especially the report of a young school teacher from the mainland trying to describe a tree to the children. Their inability to grasp the concept brings home the barren, elemental situation in which the small population struggled to exist.

The extraordinary volcanic stacks, which rise vertically from the sea, loomed ominously as we left the island of Hirta and started our journey south. Stac an Armin is the highest in the northern hemisphere. The density of seabirds, including gannets, fulmars, puffins, shags and razorbills, wheeling in the sky and perching perilously on their nests is overwhelming. This precious habitat is vital and an essential aspect in our mission to conserve and protect the uniquely rich seabird population off Scotland’s shores.

Large sea stacks tower out of the sea, with their tops capped by swirling mist.
The sea stacks loomed out of the mist.

We felt torn as we left this ‘world apart’. What an honour that this dual UNESCO World Heritage Site is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.

The uninhabited islands of Mingulay, Berneray and Pabbay are part of the Barra Isles. The islanders were evacuated from Mingulay and Pabbay in 1912 and the islands are now a haven for climbers and naturalists. The wildlife thrives and the Atlantic grey seal population reaches over 5,000 in the summer. We were highly entertained by the family antics of the dominant males and the harried mums as the white pups flipped in and out of the sea.

A view looking into a cave, with turquoise water at the bottom. The walls are made up of columns of rock, rather like row upon row of Kit-Kats!
The incredible basalt rock formation on Staffa

Monday morning, we awoke off Iona to embark onto the local boats that ferried the small groups to Staffa. The spectacular KitKat-like rock formation is made up from interlocking basalt columns similar to the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. The walkway from the pier leads to Fingal’s Cave, the inspiration of composers from Mendelssohn to Pink Floyd. Picnicking with the puffins is such an enchanting experience: you sit quietly on the grassy banks high up on the cliffs and wait. Suddenly, the air thickens with calls and wing beats, the sea begins to rise, tentatively at first, then in clouds as fishing parents return to their burrows. You turn and find yourself facing a cross-looking puffin, beak stuffed with sand eels, as he indicates you are sitting on his burrow! Another unforgettable experience!

Three puffins sit on a grassy tuft, beside a rocky coastal area. Two look to the side, but one looks directly at the camera.
‘That’s my spot!’

Our final visit was to the sacred island of Iona with its beautiful, tranquil abbey – home to Gaelic monasticism for three centuries, and still a retreat centre – was enhanced by yet another glorious day. The clarity of the light on the white sand and the iridescent blue of the sea captivated us as much as the Scottish Colourists Peploe and Cadell. We chose to walk across this enchanted isle accompanied by the soaring notes of skylarks and grating croaks of the elusive corncrakes – a reflective and peaceful time to absorb a memorable journey.

A sun sets behind a Hebridean coastline, silhouetted in the background. The sky is orange and pink. The edge of the ship can just be seen in the foreground.
Sunset at the end of our voyage

Visiting these special places paying homage to the legacy of my father, Jamie Stormonth Darling, was an honour and a joy. The crashing falls at Corrieshalloch and the remarkable feat that is Inverewe, contrasting with the beauty, power and serenity of the islands and their elemental environment, is an experience never to be forgotten.

The National Trust for Scotland has many remarkable treasures and habitats in our care. Our focus this year on the coastal waters and the unique seabird populations that depend on them, emphasises the duty we have for ‘the Love of Scotland’ to protect these special places.

May all we care for enrich and bless you and many generations to come.

If Caroline’s story has set you dreaming of cruising around Scotland’s amazing coastline, take a look at the two cruises we’re running with Noble Caledonia in 2021:

Hebridean Heaven

Love of Country

Turning the Tide

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