It was a sunny and hot 30°C when I hopped off the plane in Glasgow. I hadn’t packed for this. Scotland is not meant to be this toasty.
My first trip back to Europe from New Zealand since the pandemic was long but worth it. I can’t believe I used to fly this route all the time without batting an eye!
With winter behind me and my feet itching to embark on this new adventure, I quickly got over my jetlag before boarding the Ocean Endeavour – my new home for the next few months. My dream of working on expedition ships was finally happening with Adventure Canada for the northern summer. I would be working on seven trips with them, journeying from Scotland to the Faroe Islands, Iceland to Greenland, and all around Arctic Canada.
Let’s go, guys!
The first port of call for me was Glasgow, where I would hop onboard for their iconic Scotland Slowly expedition. We would spend the next 11 days sailing around Scotland’s northern and outer islands, finishing in Aberdeen.
I haven’t been to Scotland since 2008, when I was studying abroad in Spain. My best friend was studying in Edinburgh at the same time, so I visited her for a long weekend. I only remember the pubs.
Time for a revisit!
The Shetlands, Orkneys, and the Hebrides are some of Scotland’s most beautiful and remote places, best experienced by boat. Traveling to these wild islands by boat was an incredible way to experience Scotland over 11 days.
Of all their incredible trips, the Scotland one is often the most popular. I’ve thought a lot about this; curious as to why Scotland trumps polar bears and icebergs the size of cities; it comes down to heart, I think. Also, Adventure Canada only visits Scotland every other year.
Many people onboard have Scottish ancestry, and many Scots who left came from these northern places and remote islands. Also, this trip takes you to places that aren’t exactly easy or quick to visit on your own. To get to these Scottish Isles requires flights and ferries repeatedly. Isn’t it much cheaper and simpler to go by ship? It is.
I have so much more to share from my adventures around the Scottish Isles, but to begin, here are 30 of my favorite images from the trip. Enjoy!
Islay and Bowmore
Islay was the first place we called into after departing Glasgow on the Scotland Slowly trip with Adventure Canada. Pronounced “eye-lah.” Known as the Queen of the Hebrides, Islay is the southernmost island in the Inner Hebrides. The Hebrides are an archipelago off the west coast of the Scottish mainland: Inner and Outer.
I’m going to be honest here; I hadn’t heard of the Hebrides in the Scottish Isles before this trip. Or if I had, it had long been forgotten.
Home to beautiful coastlines, great seafood, thriving textiles, and lots of wildlife, Islay is famous for one thing about all: whisky. Home to nine iconic distilleries, the iconic peaty, smokey taste makes Islay world-famous. The nostalgic salty seaside air combined with the peat bogs crafts a flavor unlike anywhere else.
Bowmore is the main hub of Islay, with plenty to see and do. With one of the few round churches in the world, great distilleries, and fab shopping, it was easy to spend a day here.
Staffa is a remote uninhabited island in the Hebrides that has become iconic for its incredible rock formations, basalt columns, and caves. If you’ve been to the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, it’s the same.
Famous naturalist and botanist, Sir Joseph Banks wrote about Staffa after visiting on his way to Iceland. Banks is a figure I know well since he was the botanist onboard Captain Cook’s first trip to New Zealand and because he turned Kew Gardens into the leading botanical garden in the world (hello, fellow houseplant fams). He renamed the main sea cavern Fingal’s Cave, leading to Staffa becoming increasingly well-known. Mendelssohn even featured it in his Hebrides Overture after visiting in the early 19th century.
We hopped in the zodiacs from the ship near Staffa and went on our own little tour around the island. It was wild and beautiful, and we saw many seabirds, including shags, razorbills, and ALL THE PUFFINS.
Isle of Iona
As a massive nerd with a medieval history degree, visiting Iona was a big deal. While Iona is a small island, it was the beating heart of Gaelic monasticism for centuries. The Iona Abbey is world-famous, founded by Irish St. Columba, and was the center of Christianity, spreading through Scotland in the 6th century. I’m not religious or anything, but if you’re interested in the Dark Ages in Britain, it’s the core theme.
Iona is tiny but mighty, clocking in at only three miles long. With sandy blue beaches, beautiful views, and a lot of epic history makes for a great adventure.
It helped that it was hot and sunny for most of the visit, so warm that people went swimming.
The Isle of Skye
If I had to hanker a guess, I’d say that Skye is the most iconic of all of the Scottish Isles, at least for my fellow millennials. What’s up, Instagrammers!
Skye is known for its rugged landscapes and amazing views and for being plastered all over Instagram in recent years. It was overcast and still when we landed at Skye. It was one of the only days it rained while we were at sea, and even then, it was just a sprinkle. Big gloomy clouds made the spikey green mountain pop in color even more. How is it this green?
The moody skies somehow made the day even more beautiful. I love experiencing places in the rain.
Isle of Lewis and Harris and Stornoway
Another of the iconic Scottish Isles that hadn’t been on my radar was Lewis and Harris. It was my favorite day of the whole trip. What a surprise. The Isle of Lewis and Harris is part of the Outer Hebrides, and while it sounds like two distinct islands, it’s actually just one island called Lewis and Harris. The northern two-thirds is Lewis, and the southern third is Harris. And yes, it’s home to the iconic Harris Tweed.
On days like this, we often have split days on board. Half the ship gets free time in port; here it was, Stornoway, the largest town. And then the other half go on different excursions. Then we swap halfway through the day. The ship is small, with less than 200 passengers on board, so it never feels crowded, even in these small towns.
Something also I loved about Adventure Canada was that they really encouraged everyone to spend their dollars locally everywhere we visited. As someone who owns a small retail business in a port town where cruise ships always call in (my shop, NODE in Lyttelton), I can say how much it means when tourists stop in and shop.
Stornoway was ridiculously charming, the perfect size town to explore with lots of cute shops and eateries. Then, later on, we went out and visited some of the incredible sites around the island – Dun Carloway Broch, the Calanais Standing Stones, and the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village.
The Shetland Islands and Foula
Did someone say Shetland ponies?!
Visiting Shetland was high on my list of dream places to visit in Scotland, and I was so stoked when we finally arrived. Since we were on an expedition ship, the first place we called in was Foula. Not an easy place to get to, Foula is the most remotely inhabited island in the UK: population 30. Pony population: heaps.
Twenty miles from the mainland, Foula is home to many seabirds and huge seacliffs. It’s a beautiful and wild place, with big open landscapes sprawling across the peat moors. It was one of my favorite stops on the trip, especially getting to spend time with the friendly ponies.
Fair Isle in Shetland
Another incredible and remote island is Fair Isle. This Scottish Isle sits halfway between Shetland and Orkney. The National Trust of Scotland has owned Fair Isle since 1954.
Only about 60 people call Fair Isle home. The main drawcard is that it’s a very important breeding site for our most beloved seabirds. Bird nerds unite!
We spent hours in zodiacs cruising along the seacliffs of Fair Isle, marveling at the sheer number of birds while equally praying not to get shat on. It was worth it! Puffins!
The Orkney Islands and Kirkwall
Some of the best prehistoric sites in Europe can be found on Orkney. It was also another one of my favorite spots to visit. I was lucky to visit twice: on the Scotland Slowly trip and again on the North Atlantic Saga.
Orkney felt special. You can tell people are proud to be from here, and there is often talk about Orkney’s independence, with it being so different from the rest of Scotland and the UK. As an American, I will always support the underdog.
We had heaps of time in Kirkwall, the main town, and explored iconic sites like Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar. The Orkney Islands sit high in my memories of beloved experiences in Scotland. I can’t wait to go back again one day!
Have you been to any of these Scottish Isles? Are they places you’re keen to visit by ship? Share!