Co-ordinates: 55*37.67’ N, 006* 11.31’ W
Weather: beautiful sunny day with light south-westerly wind
Air Temperature: 15C
Our first day in Scotland, and I awoke to bright skies as we anchored off Gigha, west of the Kintyre peninsula, Scotland. The gently undulating island stretched before us all as we prepared for the first Zodiac landing of this expedition trip. Lush green slopes and brilliant yellow gorse fringed by golden sands, this truly is an island fitting of its name given by the Norse “good island” or “God’s island (Godøy)! In 2002, the island of Gigha was purchased as part of a community buy-out, which has successfully reinvigorated the local economy and brought new blood to the island.
Everyone was divided into different groups to maximize the time available in the spectacular woodland Achamore Gardens, famed for the Horlick collection of rhododendrons. Extending over 50 acres, these gardens are favoured by the Gulf Stream, which allows the juxtaposition of rhododendrons and azaleas with other trees and shrubs of exotic origins. I spent much of the first part of the morning practicing the Zodiac grip with virtually all of the guests as they clambered from the Zodiacs and came ashore … a great way to make new friends!!
Various members of the Expedition Team then headed in different directions, leading guests in a series of exploratory walks. Rob and his groupies sought out the varied birdlife, Robin combed the beach, Toby explored the gardens more fully, and I headed out to investigate the ancient chapel of Kilchattan and its medieval grave slabs with Ros Newlands who had newly arrived onboard as our local guide. My group clustered around the grave slab deeply carved with a “kilted” warrior, which Ros explained more fully. The 12-13th century chapel within that graveyard is in precarious condition, so further exploration of that was not possible, but in the more recent extension to the graveyard, we sighted a grave slab of the Horlick family. Moving further up the hill and sheltered by the gorse, we hiked to the ogham stone, which is one of only a very few surviving from the West of Scotland. Although the ample lichen covered all faces of the pillar stone, thus effectively obscuring the simple lines of inscription at one edge, the significance of this rare stone dating back into the 6th century AD was clear; a remnant of the Scots of Dalriada, who colonised western Scotland from nearby Northern Ireland. The hill is called Cnoc a’Charraidh, which means “Hill of the Pillar” in Gaelic, and it probably marked a grave. I was excited to see this stone and hope that maybe even just a little of my enthusiasm was transmitted to the others.
Back to the ship for lunch and time allowed for my first visit to The Restaurant at lunchtime so far in the trip! As I have now come to expect, the choice and quality was superb…oh dear, more temptation….
Our afternoon plans were complex: four groups doing different things with different landing spots. With continuing blue skies, I once more introduced many of our guests to a new island: Islay, capital of the Medieval Lordship of the Isles and whisky capital of the universe (with seven working distilleries). Dividing into groups for walking through Port Ellen and on to the distillery at Laphroaig, we travelled as pilgrims on a somewhat arduous route. The insistent call of the cuckoo was certainly a personal highlight.
When the distinctive white-washed walls of the water-side distillery came into view (much to all of our relief) we could even start to smell the Angel’s Share, the 2% of the whisky lost in the maturation process whilst in the barrel warehouses. Excellent tours for all groups, walkers and non-walkers alike rounded off a perfect day and we gratefully hauled ourselves once more into the Zodiacs to return home to the ship. For a small group of birders who travelled to Loch Gruinart at the other side of the island with Rob, their sacrifice of the distillery visit was amply repaid at the RSPB reserve at the Loch, with sightings of a male hen harrier, chough, waders and wildfowl, a buzzard and graylag geese as well as a roe deer, hare and common seal. This was indeed a special day, although I for one was most certainly ready for bed at the end of it!