So this was Calum Mor's House, the oldest dwelling on the Scottish island of Hirta. According to legend, young Calum had built it in a single day to prove his worth: He had been passed over for the annual fowling expedition to Borera, a smaller island in the group that makes up St. Kilda.
This happened a thousand years ago, and I found my imagination racing. That's what comes of writing historical narratives, as I've been doing for the past dozen years.
I could see it all. The September expedition to Borera, six kilometres away, was the one great adventure of the year. The strongest men would risk their lives paddling through rough seas to harvest hefty birds that had to be killed at night while they slept on slippery ledges. Often, the men would stay a few days on Borera, sheltering in the stone cleits or storage houses they had previously erected. In my mind's eye, I could see the aggrieved Calum Mor building furiously with these heavy stones, bent on showing those who had voted against him that they had been wrong, wrong, wrong.
Later, on reflection, I began to doubt that anyone working alone could erect such a structure in a week, never mind a day. But the details I could tease out later. The racing of the imagination – that is what I seek when I travel, that inspirational revving. I'm a history junkie. In places where history happened, I get excited. And I was finding this voyage through the Scottish Isles almost (but not quite) too stimulating.
This circumnavigation of Scotland was mounted by Adventure Canada. Our home for the 11-day voyage, the 335-foot-long Clipper Odyssey, was rightly billed as a “small luxury ship.” We're talking well-stocked bars and lounges, white-linen tablecloths in the dining rooms, fully equipped presentation rooms, and cabins with portholes or windows.
The vessel carried a full complement of 110 passengers, among them a number of lecturers: authors Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, musician Ian Tamblyn, publisher Douglas Gibson, ornithologist Brent Stephenson, myself and another author-historian, Ted Cowan. Starting from Oban on the west coast, we sailed north to Orkney and Shetland, and then south to disembark at Edinburgh. Once a day, sometimes twice, we would pile into 12-person Zodiacs – inflatable craft with outboard motors – and zoom ashore to explore a different island.
The archipelago of St. Kilda, the westernmost islands of Scotland, gave me not only Calum Mor but Lady Grange, a headstrong woman who, in the 1700s, spent eight terrible years there as a prisoner. Articulate, uncontrollable and enraged by the philandering of her husband, she had threatened to expose him as a treasonous Jacobite. That gentleman responded by having his irrepressible wife kidnapped and bundled off to this almost inaccessible island. Even today, only one ship in five is able to put passengers ashore.
Of course, my mind went into overdrive: possible book, possible book? But then, on another less-isolated island, I got talking with a young woman who runs an art gallery. She told me that her mother, Margaret Macaulay, had just published a book about Lady Grange: The Prisoner of St. Kilda. Not only that, but someone had optioned the film rights and started shooting the movie. I was too late.
Some of my fellow voyagers were less about history than birdlife. As we sailed out of St. Kilda, several passengers saw two massive birds swoop down onto a smaller one, drive it into the water and kill it. The ornithologist explained that the great skua, predatory birds with a wing span of up to 1.5 metres, have always been given to dive-bombing smaller birds to steal fish from their mouths. But the quantities of fish in the central Atlantic have dwindled, and the great skua have learned to co-operate in drowning other birds to eat them.
But enough about seabirds, back to history! For some, the highlight of the voyage was visiting Iona, where Saint Columba founded a monastery in 563. For others, it was clambering around Dunnottar Castle on the east coast where, in the 1600s, scores of Covenanters suffered miserably and died for clinging to their Christian creed. At St. Andrews, a third contingent of voyagers stood entranced, gazing up at the rooms where Prince William apparently resided when he was courting Kate Middleton.
And if that wasn't history enough, St. Andrews also served up a ruined castle and cathedral that figured in the Scottish Reformation of the mid-1500s. Here, a mild-mannered preacher was burned at the stake. There, the body of a murdered cardinal was dangled over a parapet. And from these shores, the rebellious John Knox, eventually the father of Scottish Presbyterianism, was carried off to France to serve as a galley slave.
Some of the passengers expressed an interest in whisky. We visited a distillery on Jura and did what was asked of us, and also we got to Islay, rightly famous for Lagavulin, Laphroaig and Bowmore. These distilleries I had investigated during a previous visit. This time, we landed at Port Askaig and hiked overland to Loch Finlaggan, once headquarters of the Lords of the Isles. From an island in the middle of that lake, starting in the late 1100s, the Macdonalds ruled a Gaelic-Norse sea kingdom that lasted three centuries. My own ancestors, descendants of Danish Vikings who came to Scotland with the MacNeils in 1038, would have witnessed the decision-making from the shadows.
Probably you've heard of the Barra MacNeils, those celebrated musicians from Nova Scotia? On the island of Barra, we rambled around Kisimul Castle, ancient stronghold of the Clan MacNeil. The castle sits just offshore on a tiny islet, a situation that made it almost impregnable. That evening, gazing at Kisimul Castle from the water, I found myself imagining a scene from 1802, when 75 families sailed from here to Pictou, N.S. They were driven by hardship, and this view of the castle from the water was the last they would have had of the only home they had ever known. That moment would resonate.
Yet for me, Orkney provided the greatest magic of the voyage. In bustling Kirkwall, population 8,700, we explored St. Magnus Cathedral, a magnificent edifice that proclaims the sophistication of 12th-century Scandinavian society. Outside town, through a dark tunnel, we entered Maeshowe, a massive chambered cairn, replete with etched graffiti, built around 2700 BC. We visited the standing stones of Brodgar, and at Skara Brae we explored the ruins of a 5,000-year-old Neolithic village.
But finally, Orkney came down to John Rae, the explorer who discovered the final link in the Northwest Passage and the fate of Sir John Franklin's lost expedition of 1845. During this stopover, I got to revisit sites I discovered while researching my book Fatal Passage. I saw the marble statue of Rae inside St. Magnus Cathedral, and the simple cross out back, marking the spot where the explorer was buried. Across the island, near the town of Stromness, I revisited the Hall of Clestrain – the ruined mansion in which Rae spent his boyhood. While standing out front, I imagined young Rae emerging from the house with a musket on his shoulder, ready to embark on his life's adventure. And I realized that this vision, and those like it, were making this voyage unforgettable.
IF YOU GO
The next instalment of Adventure Canada’s Celtic Quest program is an Ireland circumnavigation May 4 to 14, 2012. Prices range from $3,995 to $11,395; flights extra. Scotland is on the itinerary again for May 2013 with similar pricing.
Ken McGoogan’s latest book is How the Scots Invented Canada.
Special to The Globe and Mail