A Cruise to the Outermost Islands of Scotland

By MacLeod, Dawn | Contemporary Review, May 1994 | Go to article overview

A Cruise to the Outermost Islands of Scotland


MacLeod, Dawn, Contemporary Review


THE M.V. Meteor, a vessel of about 3,000 tons, belonged to Bergen. My voyage on her took place many years ago. She was under charter to The National Trust for Scotland, her captain was a blue-eyed Norwegian of Viking breed, her passengers came from all over. We Scots pondered why so many had flown from the United States specially to visit a string of poor little islands planted like a marine rockery around our northern coasts. 'Enterprising folk, aren't they!' we said with admiration.

One of these transatlantic travellers, a pension-aged man from New York, kept me busy on a Sherlock Holmes assignment. Not Who-Done-It but Why-Has-He-Done-It became a regular brain-teaser. First day at sea, he sat in a basket chair on the deck of the mother-ship with his eyes shut and his mouth so firmly closed you'd have thought he feared his lips might get stolen. Later, down in the small boats to which passengers were conveyed on a sort of carrier-belt of strong Norwegian arms and horny but gentle seamen's hands, he continued to keep his eyes and mouth shut, and for greater security clasped his fingers over the curve where gentlemen used to display their gold watch-chains. His feet, which were unusually large and flat, seemed the only part of him not tightly buttoned up. Was he feeling sea-sick, suffering from a hangover, mourning his deceased wife, or just plain bored? Nobody seemed to know what ailed 'Pop'.

As the little boats reared and plunged, rodeo fashion, in the boiling surf around the bare, lonesome island of North Rona, those feet waggled so loose that I feared they might come unstuck at any moment. The grey seals, which waddled down the weedy rocks, dived and splashed and pushed up childish round-eyed faces to gaze at our invading tourist army, were occupying almost every other mind, and engaging thousands of dollars worth of camera lenses. But 'Pop' kept me so interested that I scarcely saw the seal review.

On the green, smooth Shetland island where the many-coloured knitting known as 'Fair Isle' had its inception, I for some hours forgot our mysterious shipmate. Perhaps my attention was diverted by the fine show of woven and knitted goods displayed for sale by the islanders. Or maybe it was their hospitality, for they invited us into their houses and gave us cups of strong tea and glasses of wine. A little orphan lamb attended my house-party and shared the milk in the baby's bottle. The island's only motor vehicle of any size -- a ten-ton lorry -- jolted us all back to the pier over the one rough road. I felt glad my teeth were rooted, for bought ones must have escaped. The baby, which had been hoisted aboard in its perambulator, slept through the bashing with true Scottish fortitude. (It was too young to have any teeth to worry about.) Its usual companion, the lamb, got left back home with the feeding-bottle.

The National Trust for Scotland exists to look after properties of historic interest or natural beauty, and is doing its best to stem the tide of de-population in Fair Isle. So when the chairman, a well-known Scottish peer, was asked by a family of islanders to step inside their cottage and solve a problem for them, he responded readily. A bottle of tonic wine was broached in his honour, and after the guest had taken a sip, the mighty question was put to him. But did it hinge, as was expected, on some local trouble with sheep rearing or fishing? No, the good wife leaned forward and said with great earnestness. 'Now, would you please tell us just what it feels like to be a lord?' The lord blinked, took a swig of the tonic, and leaning to meet his hostess half-way, responded. 'Well, it is just like anything else. You get used to it in time.' The good folk seemed well satisfied with this answer, and allowed their visitor to return to his post as leader of the cruise party. Few of the members could have guessed what occupational hazards a peer of the British realm may have to take in his stride. …

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