A small island – only five miles long by one and a half miles wide – Canna is the westernmost of the Small Isles in the Inner Hebrides. It has a tiny population of about 15 people, who farm, raise cattle, and run the small tearoom on the island. Canna also has many historical and archaeological sites for travelers to visit during their Scotland cruise. Many of the ancient sites date back to the Neolithic, Columban, and Viking eras.
Canna is well known for its bird population, and has been a bird sanctuary since 1938, with 157 species of birds monitored annually since 1969. On a tour of the region, keep an eye out for golden eagles, white-tailed eagles, peregrine falcons, puffins and Manx shearwaters. The latter are remarkably long-lived; in 2003, a bird that had been ringed as a five-year old in 1953 was retrapped—at 55 years old, the oldest known wild bird in the world.
Located midway between the Orkney and Shetland Islands in Scotland’s Northern Isles, Fair Isle is a lovely gem of land with a population of about 70 people. The isle has long been inhabited; archaeologists have found evidence of human settlement dating back 5,000 years. Ancient oval-shaped stone houses, turf and stone dykes remain on the land today. Fair Isle currently has fourteen celebrated historic monuments for you to explore while on a Scotland tour of the region. These range from structures used by the first peoples who settled the land to the remains of a World War II radar station.
The island is only three miles long by one and a half miles wide. The majority of the islanders live on crofts, small agricultural landholdings, on the lower southern part of the island. Most of the farmers follow low-intensity, subsistence farming methods, producing crops like hay, silage, oats, kale, and turnips. Many people keep sheep or cattle as well. Since 1954, Fair Isle has been owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and, though small, has a successful community that has led the way in developing projects in wildlife tourism, windpower, and sustainable environmental practices. During your tour of this Scotland island you are sure to experience what makes Fair Isle such a popular location for the savvy traveler.
Fair Isle may be best known for its unique knitwear, which has long been a source of income for the people. For centuries, the islanders bartered their knitted wares and fresh produce for goods they could not make on their small island. Today, the term ‘Fair Isle Knitting’ is used to describe a particular type of stranded color knitting. However, the only source of genuine Fair Isle articles is Fair Isle itself, where the small Fair Isle Crafts cooperative produces traditional (red, blue, brown, yellow, and white) and contemporary (natural wool colors of brown, grey, fawn, and white) garments on hand-frame machines, labeling each article with the unique Fair Isle trademark.
The island is a favored breeding spot for thousands of seabirds. Spring and autumn are the best time to plan a Scotland cruise for bird watchers, when a myriad of bird species migrate to their summer and winter destinations, for Fair Isle lies on the intersection of important flight paths from Scandinavia, Iceland, and Faroe. The island’s impressive cliffs are the summer home of fulmars, kittiwakes, gannets, shags, puffins, guillemots, and razorbills, while skuas and terns make their nests on the moors. Fair Isle has been home to a Bird Observatory since 1948, though the current building has only been around since 1970. The observatory has many day activities, from trapping and ringing migratory birds to counting the size of sea bird colonies.
While birds are the most prevalent creatures on Fair Isle, during your trip you may also look forward to seeing sea animals such as grey and common seals, harbor porpoises, orcas, minke whales, and beaked Atlantic white-sided dolphins. Local flora includes over 250 species of flowering plants, such as the bright yellow bog asphodel, purple marsh orchids, and the rare frog orchid. Sea pinks flourish in June, and yellow birdsfoot trefoil cascades down the cliffs along with white sea campion. Though the summer weather may fluctuate between glorious sunshine and dark, stormy clouds, the landscape beneath is always beautiful.
The Flannan Islands lie about 20 miles west of the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. They consist of seven main islands, 45 rocks and islets split into two groups: the main eastern isles, Eilean Mor and Eilean Tighe; and the main western isles of Eilean a’ Gobha, Roaiream, and Brona Cleit. During your Scotland cruise, spend time visiting the lighthouse and ruined chapel on the eastern isle of Eilean Mor.
The Flannan Islands are known as the Seven Hunters because of the large number of ships wrecked upon their rocky shores during storms. Much of the islands’ early history is unknown. Though never permanently inhabited, it is rumored the islands were once used for the private purposes by a wealthy family from Lewis in the 8th century. Later on, monks moved to the Flannans and built a church and monastery, dated around 990 AD. By the 16th century, the monastery was abandoned and the islands came into the ownership of the McLeod’s Clan. Since 1970, the National Trust of Scotland has owned this land.
In 1899 the Flannan Isles Lighthouse was established – a year later, a tragedy occurred that has only added to the mystery and intrigue of these secluded isles. In December of 1900, a ship came to Eilean Mor, bringing lighthouse keepers to relieve the three working on the island. However, the lighthouse was empty, the beacon unlit. A half-eaten meal lay on the table, and barometric readings dated December 15th had been written on a slate. But no sign of the three lighthouse keepers was to be seen—and never would be again. Those investigating the situation surmised that the men had been swept to sea by a freak wave during a storm, but no proof of this was ever found. The story continues to haunt those who take a trip to the remote Flannan Islands of Scotland.
The Flannans, like many other Scottish Isles, are a haven for breeding seabirds. A Scotland cruise to this region allows plenty of opportunities to see guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, gannets, petrels, and puffins. Some of the larger isles also have lush grass and myriad wildflowers in the summer months, which are a soft and colorful contrast to the stark rock stacks, arches, and cliffs along the coasts. The surrounding seas are the habitat of pilot whales, minke whales, and dolphins, making these isles an exciting destination for any wildlife lover.
Travelers enjoying a Scotland cruise should include a visit to the small island of Foula that lies 20 miles west of the Shetland Islands. Named after the Norse fugl ey, meaning ‘bird island,’ it is quite remote, and one of the only British Isles that has been permanently inhabited. Norsemen conquered the isle around 800 AD, leaving their influence in language—the local dialect is still strongly affected by Norse—and place names such as Norderhus, Krugali, and Guttren. However, after the islands were returned to Scotland by Norway in the 15th century, the Norse influence lessened. While the population in 1881 was around 250 people, it has dropped steadily in the past 100+ years, with the current population resting at just over 30.
Most people keep native Shetland sheep, while others have Shetland ponies. Tourism also makes up a substantial part of the economy, especially during the summer months when the weather is perfect for a Scotland cruise. The people sell sheepskins, handspun clothing made with local wool, and traditional Foula garments. Intricate wrought-iron work can be bought from the local smithy, who also provides his services to the community. The small number of islanders have created a close-knit community, and their way of life is based on strong values, cooperative working, and an internal barter system. This handful of people also follows a slightly different calendar year, as they remained with the Julian calendar when the rest of Great Britain switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1752. As such, they are 12 days behind the Gregorian calendar, celebrating Christmas on January 6 and New Year’s Day on January 13th.
Foula travel is beautiful in the summertime, as the days are long, and the flora and fauna thrive. Wildflowers such as sea pinks, blue vernal squill and golden-eyed tormentil carpet much of the land, while marsh marigolds and wild orchids bloom in lower, wetter areas. The moorland is sprinkled with white tufted bog cotton, sphagnum moss, sundew, and crowberry.
The island is famous for its great skua population, but visitors on a cruise of the region will also see Arctic skuas, kittiwakes, and Arctic terns battling for breeding sites. The small lakes (or lochs) scattered throughout the island are home to nesting red-throated divers, while the cliffs are the territory of thousands of puffins, guillemots, razorbills, shags, fulmars, gannets, petrels, and shearwaters. The bog grasses and stony pieces of land host a variety of shore and moorland birds, including such species as the ringed plover.
Small mammals like the field mouse, house mouse, rabbit, and hedgehog make their homes on Foula, with sea mammals such as grey seals, commons seals, porpoises and orcas swimming in the waters around the island.
The wildlife is diverse and beautiful, but the setting in which these plants and animals live is also spectacular. Five peaks jut up starkly from the land, while the highest cliffs in Shetland rise up majestically from the sea. Kame, the second highest cliff in Great Britain, reaches an impressive 1200 feet above sea level, with the three pillars of Gaada Stack towering 130 feet above the sea just off the north coast of the island.
Whether one enjoys travel to remote islands, bird watching, unique geological features, or simply taking in the natural scenery, the Isle of Foula has something to offer every visitor on their Scotland cruise.
Mingulay and Berneray
A desired destination during a Scotland cruise is Mingulay. Mingulay is the largest of the Bishop’s Isles in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides archipelago. It is about two and a half miles long by one and a half miles wide, with striking rock stacks, 700-foot cliffs, and a majestic natural arch on the southwest coast. At one time it was home to over 100 people. Today, on a trip to Scotland’s Mingulay Isle you can see two buildings that remain standing as a reminder of the past: a schoolhouse built of the abundant gneiss rock in the 1880s, and a priest’s house built in 1898. Both are moss-covered, crumbling remnants of the village that once existed on the eastern shore of the island. Though uninhabited since 1912, Mingulay is now home to about 500 sheep and tens of thousands of seabirds.
Berneray, or Barra Head, is the southernmost of the Bishop’s Isles, located directly south of Mingulay. It may be most well known for the lighthouse on the southernmost headland, which was built by Robert Stevenson, father of Robert Louis Stevenson, in 1833. It was formerly home to the lighthouse keepers and their wives, but since the lighthouse was automated in 1980, the island has been completely uninhabited. The cliffs of Berneray are not quite so high as those of Mingulay, but at 600 feet they are still impressive.
Most of the land of Mingulay and Berneray is covered by maritime grassland, with some machair and heath. The islands are breeding sites for many species of seabirds—you’ll have the chance to discover about 110,000 pairs total during your cruise of Scotland. Some of these species include razorbills, little auks, gulls, puffins, guillemots, kittiwakes, shags, and fulmars. The two islands have been designated a Special Protection Area since 1994.
The isle of Mousa is a small, uninhabited bit of land off the east coast of Shetland’s South Mainland. Most famous for its beautifully preserved broch (stone tower), a cruise to Scotland’s Mousa Island also offers its travelers the chance to view a myriad of seabirds and marine mammals.
The Shetlands boast about 120 brochs, which were built in the Iron Age (600 BC to 500 AD), during a period of increasing unrest. Brochs are round stone towers that were used to provide short-term defense against invaders—or neighbors holding grudges. After 100 AD, these structures were probably used less for defense and more as status symbols. Over the years, many brochs were dismantled so that their stones could be used for other buildings. Due to its remote location, the Mousa Broch remained safe from such dismantling, making it the best-preserved example of its kind.
Mousa Broch stands almost 44 feet high, and is built with local quarried stone formed into two concentric stone walls. During your trip, take the spiral staircase built between the walls. It allows visitors to reach the top of the broch and walk around the top of the tower. Hundreds of storm petrels make their homes within the broch’s walls in the summer months, and after spending the days feeding out at sea, they return to their nests under the cover of darkness. Midnight excursions to watch and hear the storm petrels is a thrilling experience for anyone on a Scotland cruise to the Shetland Islands.
Other seabirds that breed on Mousa include fulmars, black guillemots, red-throated divers, great skuas, Arctic skuas, and Arctic terns. Beware of Arctic terns—they fiercely guard their territory, often dive-bombing those who disturb their nesting sites. The sea mammals that swim around the isle are less threatening to those enjoying travel in the region; harbor porpoises are common in the Mousa Sound, and are especially exciting to see in the summer when the young are born. Common seals also give birth in the summer, and those wanting to see seal pups should walk around to Mousa’s East and West Pools. Since both common seals and grey seals have become accustomed to visitors, it is possible to have a great view of these animals, and they should not be missed.
North Rona and Sula Sgeir are some of the most remote of the Scottish Isles. North Rona, the larger of the two, lies about 40 miles north of the Isle of Lewis, while Sula Sgeir lies ten miles further west of North Rona. North Rona is no longer inhabited by humans, but it was populated for hundreds of years, making it the farthest island in the British Isles to have had permanent residents. It is said that Saint Ronan lived there in the 8th century, and visitors today can still see the Celtic ruins of St. Ronan’s chapel, as well as cross-shaped grave markers which date from as early as the 7th century. The population held steady around 30 for centuries, with excess people occasionally moving to the Isle of Lewis. In 1680, the introduction of rats and a raid by a passing ship wiped out the entire population. Others attempted to resettle the island, but were killed in 1895 in a boating accident. Until 1844, North Rona was inhabited only by a shepherd and his family. During a Scotland tour of North Rona today the only structures found on the island are a crumbling group of historic buildings, a lighthouse, and a hut that houses students doing research.
North Rona is owned by the Scottish Natural Heritage and is managed as a nature reserve. Its primary residents are sheep, grey seals, and seabirds such as storm petrels, Leach’s petrels, kittiwakes, fulmars, gannets, and guillemots. The sheep are tended by farmers from Lewis, while the seabirds and seals find the isle an ideally isolated breeding ground. North Rona boasts the third-largest breeding colony of grey seals, representing about five percent of all the pups born in the UK. During your tour of this Scotland island keep an eye out for the seals that can be found throughout much of the island, especially in the submerged sea caves along the coast. The isle has an area of less than two and a half square miles, with eighty percent of the land consisting of marine areas and sea inlets; the remaining 20% is comprised of salt marshes, sea cliffs, bogs, and dry grassland.
A few miles away the rock of Sula Sgeir juts up from the ocean. It, too, is famous for its seabird colonies—gannets, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, and puffins—which cover the small surface area in the summer months. Sula Sgeir is also the last isle in the UK where gannets are harvested annually. Each August men from Lewis come to harvest around 2,000 birds, taking the young gannets that have not yet fledged. These plump, young birds are considered a delicacy and are served throughout the world.
Travelers to St. Kilda may be interested to know that the islands are a World Heritage Site under the auspices of three organizations: The National Trust for Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, and the Ministry of Defense. The National Trust works to preserve the islands’ historical, cultural, and natural values. This includes archaeological research in the summers, as well as a work program that allows volunteers to stay on the islands while helping in the preservation effort. The Ministry of Defense site was established in 1957, and is currently staffed by civilian workers who live on Hirta year-round. This base serves as a radar tracking station for the missile range in the Outer Hebrides islands of the Western Isles of Scotland. It also provides infrastructure to the islands—power, medical aid, transportation—which in turn helps facilitate the work of the National Trust and the Scottish Heritage.
Visitors enjoying Scotland travel will be awed by the immense colonies of seabirds that breed there each year. St. Kilda boasts the largest colony of North Atlantic gannets in the world, and the largest colony of fulmars in the British Isles. Other birds found in the archipelago include puffins, kittiwakes, sanderlings, great skuas, Manx shearwaters, and petrels. Birds are not the only creatures that make these islands unique, however. St. Kilda is also home to Soay sheep, which are descendants of primitive sheep and have probably lived on the islands for over 1,000 years. The St. Kilda field mouse is also a unique mammal, a subspecies found only on the islands. Grey seals can also be seen swimming in the waters surrounding St. Kilda.
Those visiting the island must observe certain regulations. In order to keep the risk of parasites low for the Soay sheep, no dogs or cats are allowed on shore. Visitors are taken ashore on small boats; this practice ensures that rats are kept off the islands, as rats would threaten the seabird colonies. People are encouraged to enjoy their travel of Scotland’s St. Kilda islands, but are asked to take pictures rather than plants, rocks, flowers, or other specimens. They are also asked to avoid sheep with young lambs, nesting birds, and breeding seals, as these animals are very sensitive to disturbance. If everyone shows this respect, travelers will continue to enjoy the history, the wildlife, and the spectacular scenery of these remote islands.
The National Trust for Scotland has a St. Kilda website with detailed information and pictures: http://www.kilda.org.uk/
The St. Kilda islands are the most remote of Scotland’s Western Isles. Created by a massive volcanic explosion, the archipelago consists of three larger islands—Hirta, Soay, and Boreray—and several small islets. Small and remote though they are, a tour of these Scotland islands offers travelers stunning scenery, geology, and wildlife. Hirta, the largest island, boasts the highest sea cliffs in the UK. Conachair, on the northern face of the island, rises from the sea in a sheer vertical cliff that towers 1400 feet above the waves. Even the cliffs of smaller Soay and Boreray rise 1200 feet above sea level, treating Scotland travelers to spectacular views. Beyond the islands are offshore vertical pillars of rock, called stacks, with Stac An Armin, near Boreray, the highest at an impressive 650 feet.
St. Kilda has been uninhabited since 1930, when the last 36 residents were evacuated at their own request. Previous to 1930, however, the islands had been continuously inhabited for millennia; excavations have uncovered stone tools that date back four or five thousand years. In the more recent past—a few hundred years ago—a distant landlord rented the land to the small population. Rent was collected during the landlord’s annual visit. Rent was generally paid in raw goods, such as barley, oats, fish, or seabirds. St. Kilda has long been a breeding ground for a substantial seabird population, and St. Kildans used the birds for meat, feathers, and oil. By the 1830s, each tenant worked the same piece of land from year to year, enabling the people to build permanent homes on their rented properties.
The early St. Kildans spoke Gaelic, and lived and dressed in a similar way to the rest of Scotland’s Western Isles. They were a people who loved music, stories, and games, but by the late 1800s the influence of the Free Church of Scotland had somewhat sobered their traditional lifestyle. The church was built in the early 1800s for the resident minister, and by 1884 a school had been built for the small number of St. Kildan children.
The remains of a village exist on Hirta, the largest island. It is likely that this village was rebuilt on various different sites over the years. During a Scotland tour to Hirta visitors will now see the ruined stone houses laid out in a crescent running roughly parallel to the shoreline, a reminder of the last decades of the native population. As St. Kildans began relying more and more on imports, they became less and less self-sufficient, and much more aware of the relative isolation of their home. In 1852, a group of islanders emigrated to Australia. In the early years of the 20th century, there were serious food shortages and an influenza epidemic that decreased the already diminished population. Finally, in 1930, the last 36 St. Kildans asked to be evacuated to the mainland, and the islands were left empty of human life for the first time in a millennia. In 1931 St. Kilda was sold to the Marquess of Bute, who bequeathed them to the National Trust for Scotland in 1957.