Scotland’s coastline, including its hundreds of islands, is more than 10,000 kilometres long. The islands, habited and deserted, the deep mysterious sea lochs and the remote shores are perhaps our greatest and most pristine wilderness. It would take several lifetimes to explore every corner, each abandoned township and all of the islands but at the Wilderness Group, we have the expertise to give your clients much more than a flavour of the special atmosphere and wildlife that lurks here.
Ever since I found Saint Kilda on the map I have had a burning desire, bordering on compulsion, to visit these western outposts of Scotland.
Maps don’t tend to show what lies beyond Scotland’s outermost Western Isles. The specks are there lost in the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean but only those, who peer closely, who zoom-in, discover Saint-Kilda and it is only the intrepid and very determined who actually get there.
Ever since I found Saint Kilda on the map I have had a burning desire, bordering on compulsion, to visit these western outposts of Scotland. In my imagination they loomed large and when I finally stepped onto the pebbly shore in village bay after four hours in a small boat, watching them grow slowly on the horizon, it was, I can honestly say, an emotional moment.
For years I had contemplated the life of those who had occupied the short row of stone cottages at the foot of the grassy hill grazed by hardy Boreray sheep and looking out over the sheltered bay. As I walked among the eerily abandoned homes, some roofed others no more than walls I could immediately appreciate the dilemma these people faced when they finally decided to leave in the 1930s.
Yes the islands were beautiful and completely detached from the modern world but there was no room to grow, food and fuel supplies were marginal and every medical situation a potential emergency. In the end they effectively put a message in a bottle and waited to be evacuated.
Yet life does persist, thrives even, on these remote islands. Before we set off back to Harris there was time to round the long rocky arm that partially protects the bay from the ravages of the Atlantic and sail in close to the high cliffs which gird these islands. Soaring up to 1500 feet out of the grey ocean this is where the drama of life now plays out.
With the engines reduced to a low hum and with just enough power to avoid being swept between the rocks and in against the cliffs I stood on the open rear deck with my head cocked right back to take in the scene.
Thousands of circling gannets and skuas darkened the sky above while calling with maddening persistence to their mates on nests stacked on the vertiginous rocks like books in some vast mythological library. Waves rushing into huge caves emitted a reverberating echo that only added to the cacophony.
Viewed from this angle Saint Kilda looked like a land only just recently formed. The treacherous fins of bare black rock, the towering sea stacks and the impregnable cliffs seemed like the broken detritus scattered in the aftermath of a clash of the Titans. Not only was Saint Kilda barely on the map I thought to myself it is not entirely of this world.
When I met Shane Wasik, a marine biologist, on the Oban pier I found his enthusiasm for the basking shark more than a little infectious and I was desperate to get into the boat and go find some. There were after all many thousands of the sharks in Scotland’s waters and with Shane’s local knowledge and shark expertise the chances of a close encounter were very good.
Now that I was standing on the back of his boat in a wet suit with the huge grey dorsal fins of too many sharks cutting through the water I was not sure. “Wow would you look that – he’s a big guy must be at least eight metres long,” Shane was shouting. While I was thinking, “Eight metres? That’s bigger than the bloody boat.”
“They can grow up to 12-metres,” he added and I gulped.
Then and there out at sea in water that seemed miles from the rocky West Highland shore and with the boat bobbing with the wash from these beasts I decided I was not a fan at all of big fish and small boats.
There was however no backing out. Shane had stopped at least four metres from the sharks to comply with the law that protects them but unfortunately for me the sharks hadn’t got the memo and their inquisitiveness was bringing them in close.
Without thinking about it I jumped in. Oh boy it was cold. My diaphragm contracted, the air vanished from my lungs and I was despite the facemask blinded by bubbles. “Where were the sharks? Where was the bottom? Was there a bottom?” I was in deep water.
When I surfaced seconds later I was calmer. Shane’s reassuring voice urged me to put the snorkel in my mouth and dip my face in the water. Now fins looked like waves and vice versa but I bit hard on the salty mouthpiece, faced down into the water and started to swim. The rule was look but don’t touch and I was more than happy to comply.
And there they were. I could see them. Great big dark grey beasts with wrinkly skin and eerily prehistoric – these were not sharks they were dinosaurs.
Shane had assured me they were not predatory and unless he’d mistaken the huge dorsal fins for a great white I was perfectly safe. Sure enough they did not gnash their teeth in my direction but swam with mouths, big enough to have swallowed Jonah, wide open. They swam with grace while filtering out the invisible but nutritious plankton from the relatively warm sea.
When it truly sunk in what I was witnessing the exhilaration was overwhelming. Here I was watching at close quarters a wild animal feed in its own domain; the shark completely at ease and unperturbed gliding, mouth gaping and feeding.
I was not here to intrude and I swam with as little disturbance as possible. I was a guest and I was very glad not to have been dinner.