Passenger Janet Blachford contributed the following original recitation to our Scotland Slowly cruise Variety Show. She’s kindly allowed us to repost here. Together with Dennis Minty‘s photographs the piece captures the spirit of the trip quite eloquently.
We started in Glasgow, and the first night was filled with roars and squeaks, the music of the young. Males howled, maidens whistled back, both singing of beer and kisses in the cool night air. Youth proclaimed itself right outside the window, and ours was long gone, but we were starting a trip to go back many youth-times, so they seemed a wonderful omen for the next week and a half.
The next morning, rather slow and sleepless, I decided not to fuss about the chronologies of youth and age, and instead to hear the passing present in the different kinds of memory around us: tall tales, wishful thinking, edited or exaggerated accounts of events, reconstructions due to winning or losing; what was true, if anything, what wasn’t, or might not be true, which was practically everything.
It’s easy to think this way when encouraged by the landscape of the Western Highlands and its Islands, especially on a boat sliding through slippery water. The mountains have risen and fallen over millennia, so what you see one minute is truth enough, though things are different behind and ahead, or sideways over the hill.
It’s a late spring this year, and we saw the inner country on a day’s bus ride from Glasgow to Oban. The far trees were still unfurling into a lovely pale green, deep yellow patches of gorse splashed over the green hills, and close by the roadside, carpets of bluebells wove between trees, many of them white blooming hawthorns. Rhododendrons were in flower in all the gardens of all the small towns, red into pink into orange.
We hear about Glencoe, Culloden, the Clearances from our guide, all part of the brutal history of survival here, and also the trail of Protestantism and education from Luther through Calvin to John Knox; not overlooking Jacobites, Orangemen, bloody-minded Kings, Queens, Bonnie Princes, Chieftains, Earls, Lords, and the like. Then we were allowed to relax a little, and flashes of dry, ironic humour started and ended the dire tellings. No one jokes about Glencoe, Culloden, or the Clearances, though.
Still, through it all, we now have a framework to juggle with the mountains and waves, waterways and harbours, towns and hills and islands ahead of us.
Once aboard the Sea Adventurer, we’re rocked day and night by some kind hand on some kind of cradle, and we can start to imagine what life was like two, or four, or six hundred years ago; even two, or four, or six thousand.
The hills are now bare of trees, and long horizontal lines provide a lovely architecture, as in the Canadian North. There are few crops other than fast growing grass well mowed by sheep, and slow growing peat, still cut and burnt for heat in crofters’ houses.
We can understand the attractions of leaving, unforced, and also the extreme attachment to these islands, perhaps then a return, and a regretful leaving again.
The farther north we go, the more the layers of the past appear around us. Perhaps because we’re not shut off by walls of civilization, we can see more clearly how bare mountains and fields have affected those who live here. Natural elements cause life and death; weather, seasons, precious livestock and health are close concerns to the few who choose to stick it out in the most northerly islands.
By some lucky chance, the sun shines out of a blue sky over calm water day after day. The locals say they’ve never seen the like before; they shake their heads and wave their hands to express the usual silently, so that the weather gods don’t overhear and dump down rain and mist and cold wind. People are coming out to the islands from the mainland to see what it’s like for themselves. We all have suntans, unheard of in Scotland. Someone asks for sunscreen in a little grocery store and is told, “We have none of that here, there’s no call for it, you see.”
The sunny days come and go and we visit Jura and Islay, Skye and Rum, Iona, Barra, St. Kilda, Stornaway on Lewis, Papa Stour, Foula, Mousa and Fair Isle in the Shetlands, and Kirkwall in the Orkneys, before heading to Aberdeen. We know these places without having seen them — déjà
vu moments happen all the time. I recognize the pink granite of the Augustinian Nunnery on Iona as seen in Quebec, and names jump out at us constantly: Argyll, McLeod, McNeil, and the blue and white flag of Scotland is one any Quebecer knows well in variation with the fleur de lys; a reminder of the Old Alliance between Scotland and France.
The pagan circle of the Celtic cross moves us back to the Callanish stones on Lewis, the northern Stonehenge that comes to life at the Solstice. John Rae’s memorial at St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall represents, for us, all the explorer Scots who developed Canada through the Hudson’s Bay Company. Rae grew up here, and came home again after a lifetime of mapping our northern wilderness; he is especially famed for establishing a way to get through the Northwest Passage alive. Canada seems close enough to touch.
In the evening, recaps of the daily adventures mix up centuries and millennia with tales of birds: gannets, puffins, fulmars, and sightings of families of seals lying around on shore. “Beach bananas,” some one says. There’s a whiskey label contest: “From the sweet dregs of the Albertan tar sands, brewed to oily perfection in holding ponds, comes this elixir to match your fondest desires….”
We’re told that the dress code for the Captain’s Dinner is “Spiffy-Light.” We have penny whistle classes, and a Scottish dress up dinner — plaid wrapping paper makes a good kilt, a roll of toilet paper is an excellent sporran. It’s not just the Islanders who know how to play; by now, aboard the Sea Adventurer, we’re an island as well.
The real islanders work hard during the day, they’re not on a cruise. The kids go to school even if only six kids are available, as is the case at Moussa, in the Shetlands. Still, out of a population of thirty-five or so, six is pretty good. We go ashore quite often for pub nights, or islanders are invited aboard for dinner and music, and the kids are shy in front of more people than they’ve ever seen before, or thrilled as they explore the wonders of the boat. They sing in Gallic, in English, in local accents; we join the choruses.
One day at Papa Stour, again in the Shetlands, we ride the trusty Zodiacs into black volcanic sea caves, around thick rock needles called stacks, under long rock arches into chambers containing still pools. In a dark place far inside a cave, a guide sings a Gregorian chant, “Salve Regina.”
He has a deep bass-baritone voice, and the echoes swirl around us. It
is lovely sitting there in dark air on dark water. Then, out in the sunshine again, another Zodiac bounces with excitement, and we go over to see what they’re up to.
Murray, a weathered New Zealand sheep farmer sits in the stern with a small black Highland lamb in his arms. It’s amazing, but true. The little sheep got itself stranded at water’s edge on a small beach below steep cliffs, and there was nothing to eat on that beach.
Murray, an expert, had leapt out of the Zodiac in his high boots, grabbed the lamb and brought him back. We hear him say, “Relax now, honey, or you’re lamb chops. It’s your choice.” He pulls away the lamb’s half-shed winter coat as their Zodiac speeds off to find a nice grassy spot for their baby. Three men, all New Zealanders, then carry their little one ashore and up to a green ledge on a low cliff, and he bleats as they leave him.
Their fellow Zodiac members, meanwhile, sing “Murray had a little lamb,” and we all watch as the lamb leaps along the cliff edge in plain view.
A dark cave, “Salve Regina,” a lamb and a children’s song, water, grass, sunshine, and dozens of birds wheeling in the sky — for a moment we saw how such a way of life could last and last, and also how such a moment could allow us to be part of the clamour surrounding a centre of peace.