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Columns Hit the Road

Hit the Road: Scotland

Our zodiac raft gently bobs in the water as we approach Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa, somewhere off the west coast of Scotland. I’ll figure out the location when we return to the ship and I can look at the map again. To be honest, the geography of the Scottish Isles looks like so much scrambled eggs to me. I’ve decided that you either have to live here or be an experienced sailor to understand this geography.

For now, I’ll just enjoy the moment – and there is a lot to take in.

We are surrounded on three sides by soaring basalt columns, hexagonal in shape, which formed when lava cooled quickly from 200 degrees Celsius (392 degrees Fahrenheit) 60 million years ago. When Mother Nature was finished, she had given us the perfect acoustical chamber for the mini-concert that we are attending.

In a nearby raft, Chris Rollie, a native Scot, an ornithologist and polished vocalist, sings “The Banks O’ Doon” (also known as “Ye Banks and Braes”), written by world-acclaimed Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796).  Rollie’s musical tones rise to unknown heights, then envelop the impromptu audience occupying the two Zodiacs.

“I used to sing this song when I was 9 years old,” whispers plant and sheep expert Dawn Bazely, who sits in our raft. (The York University professor’s knowledge of the aforementioned will come in handy in the coming days.) And then Bazely tells us that the cave’s acoustics and the natural beauty inspired German composer Felix Mendelssohn to write the “Hebrides Overture” in 1830.

Passengers on Zodiac rafts enter the mouth of 60-million-year-old Fingal’s Cave on the tiny Isle of Staffa in the Hebrides. The cave was formed when lava cooled quickly from 200 degrees Celsius (392 degrees Fahrenheit). The ideal acoustics of the cave inspired composer Felix Mendelssohn to write the concert overture “The Hebrides” in 1830.

It’s a moment to cherish and no one wants it to end. Fortunately, this won’t be the only singular experience during the next 11 days as our ship sails through the Hebrides, Orkney and the Shetland Islands.

We are traveling with Adventure Canada, a family-owned, Toronto-based expedition company that leases the Ocean Endeavour, a 190-passenger converted Russian ferry capable of navigating the icy waters of the Northern Hemisphere.

If you want ice sculptures, ballroom dancing and water slides, this kind of cruising is not for you. But if you seek moderate adventure with other enthusiastic travelers who value rich learning experiences, then one of Adventure Canada’s summer/fall itineraries could be the ticket.

And don’t worry, there is plenty of good food, too, but you can leave that dinner tux at home. Do bring good hiking boots, wet gear, enthusiasm and the ability to be flexible. That’s because Adventure Canada’s itineraries are based in northern climes where ice, winds and tides can play havoc with best-laid plans. Original itineraries are sure to be modified at least once a cruise, but expedition leaders never fail to come up with equally good alternatives.

Eventually we must leave the cave, and our Zodiac driver takes us for a spin around Staffa, devoid of humans but inhabited by thousands of birds. They nest in craggy niches, dive into the surrounding waters and soar above us, riding the ever-present wind. We see fulmar; meadow pippet; great black-backed gull; shag; great skua (bonxie); black guillemot (tystie); gannet; peregrine falcon; guillemot and my favorite, puffins.

The birders on our raft love it, especially those working to add checks to their life lists. Me? I take in the awesome scene as a whole, thinking about all that happens in nature even when no one is there to see it.

Later in the day, our Zodiac lands on the nearby island of Iona, population 170. The attractions here are the restored abbey built by St. Columba, an Irish monk revered for bringing Christianity to Scotland in the 6th century; the ruins of a convent founded in 1200; some mysterious graves, and four ancient crosses.

Amazingly, the St. Martin’s Cross, which dates between 750 and 800, is whole and standing where it was created

The nearby cemetery and a sizable unmarked, grassy mound is said to hold the remains of Macbeth and more than 40 other kings of Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and Norway.

“Have archeologists verified this?” I ask our guide, one of the 170 island residents.

“No,” she says. “I don’t think they really want to find out if this is true.”

Photo Caption: The Isle of Iona in the Hebrides is considered the cradle of Christianity in Scotland. The religion was brought from Ireland by St. Columba who founded this abbey in the mid-6th century. It was restored in 1938 and many early Scottish kings (possibly 48) are said to be buried in the adjacent cemetery. Photos by Jerry Ondash

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