Keep heading north to escape Europe's cruising crowds
Australian Financial Review - Sophisticated Traveller - October 16, 2019
Over an entree of Norwegian cloudberries on a creamy Scottish Culross oyster the chef just picked up in today’s port, our cruise table-talk turns to an alarming fact: Scotland is now so popular as a destination that tourist cars have been turned back from the Isle of Skye because the island runs out of beds.
In the 1920s, my grandparents couldn’t get out of Scotland fast enough. But these days, the world is buying in. It prompted the BBC to ask recently: “Why are tourists flocking to Scotland?”
The public broadcaster might sound a bit miffed, but since 2013, Scotland has outperformed the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of attracting visitors, and Edinburgh is now the top UK destination outside London.
Put it down to the country’s rich history or to its many spectacular monuments, walks and scenery. There’s also the Harry Potter effect (author J.K. Rowling now lives on a vast Scottish estate), and the popular television series Outlander. But let there be no mistake: Scotland is on fire.
To be honest, I’ve opted for Seabourn’s 14-day Norway, British Isles & Edinburgh trip mainly to avoid the crush of summer crowds on the more obvious European cruise itineraries around Croatia, Italy, Spain and France.
Work commitments mean I’ll do a shorter, eight-night leg of this sailing, taking in Edinburgh, Dunfermline, Inverness, Thurso, and Lerwick in the Shetland Islands, before the ship crosses the North Sea for Bremerhaven, Germany.
If the weather turns bad, that’s fine by me – I’m in a verandah suite on the 15-month-old Seabourn Ovation; I’ll just enjoy this lovely, still-new ship.
Surprisingly, Edinburgh turns on brilliant sunshine for day one ashore.
Although Scotland is busier than I’d expected, it’s still nowhere near as crammed as the Mediterranean ports.
“I love it up here – it reminds me of my home in Norway,” Ovation’s captain, Stig Betten, says. “Just water and boats, not so many people.”
Along with all that water, Scotland delivers big on Celtic tales, clan history, kilts, bagpipes, haggis, and paddocks of pagan-looking Scottish Blackface sheep.
But for a few of us onboard, this journey quickly morphs into an impromptu fascination with a side of Scotland we hadn’t previously slowed down enough to truly appreciate: namely, the varied heritage architecture in this part of the world, from crumbling castles with Shakespearean-scale history to humble terraced workers’ cottages.
Pretty much from the start, I throw my intended itinerary of whisky tastings and tartan workshops out the window, and set myself the daily challenge of “spot the National Trust for Scotland logo” as soon as we dock.
After a day spent wandering Edinburgh’s busy medieval Royal Mile, taking in the city’s piercing church spires, battlement towers and dark energy, the silence of Dunfermline Abbey is deafening. Located 21 kilometres from Edinburgh as the crow flies over the River Forth, the abbey’s ancient vibe encourages the broody contemplation so suited to Romanesque architecture.
One of Scotland’s most important cultural sites, Dunfermline Abbey was founded in 1128 by King David I of Scotland – two years before he established Edinburgh as an early royal “burgh” (city or town).
We arrive at the abbey aboard our trusty shuttle bus as the last of the thick morning fog is being splayed by a determined mid-morning sun. Wandering around the eerie, ruined refectory on a cool summer’s morning, surrounded by lush Pittencrieff Park and its birdsong, is a pitch-perfect Scottish travel moment.
There are plenty of headline tombstones too, with some big names in history buried here: Saint Margaret of Scotland, laid to rest in 1093; King David I, in 1153; Robert the Bruce in 1329, although sans his heart, which was interred in the Gothic Melrose Abbey 71 kilometres to the south.
From religion to industry as experienced through bricks and mortar – a mere 10-minute walk down the road is the cramped weaver’s cottage where Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie spent his childhood before the family moved to the United States in 1848, when Carnegie was 13.
The cottage is chalk and cheese to the abbey, but Carnegie dreamed big. Through his interests in steel, he became one of the richest Americans in history – then gave away more than $US350 million, conservatively estimated to be worth closer to $US65 billion ($96 billion) in today’s dollars.
Our small Seabourn Ovation tour group is guided through his parents’ house, learning how Carnegie never forgot that the owner of nearby Pittencrieff Estate refused to allow locals to roam the beautiful woodland grounds.
In 1902, aged 67, Carnegie purchased Pittencrief from Colonel James Maitland Hunt, and handed it over to the people of Dunfermline, for everyone to enjoy. The park stretches across 30 hectares with three playgrounds, an orchard and peacocks. It brings to life one of Carnegie’s most popular quotes: “There is little success where there is little laughter.”
A 20-minute bus ride down the road delivers our group to an entirely different architectural masterpiece, in the form of Culross: Scotland’s best example of an intact burgh dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries.
Television box-set aficionados will recognise Culross from Outlander seasons 1, 2 and 4, and the Biscuit Cafe atop the Culross Pottery and Gallery provides a pleasant spot to survey this fascinating little village, population: 395 souls.
The white-harled houses have the rough-cast finish of this region, consisting of a mix of lime and aggregate, finished with bright-red tiled roofs. Steep, cobbled streets run from the market cross in the middle of town, up to the hilltop abbey.
In the centre of town sits Culross Palace, a distinctive yellow-coloured villa built in the 16th century by coal baron George Bruce and featuring a reconstructed original garden roamed by rare Scots Dumpy hens, known for their extremely short legs.
Culross is counted as among the most picturesque villages in Scotland, but our next stop, Inverness, is the cultural capital of the highlands. It’s a lovely spot, but the day is all drizzle. Most of the ship’s passengers are off on Loch Ness monster-themed tours, given this is where the River Ness meets the Moray Firth.
I stick to my theme, ticking off the 19th-century Inverness Cathedral, the Victorian Gothic-style Town House, Leakey’s Bookshop (housed in a Gaelic church dating to 1793) and Inverness Castle. Then I wander the banks of the River Ness, admiring the stately homes along the river and the West Highland Terriers tearing around their yards.
Pushing ever north, by the time we reach Scrabster Harbour, three kilometres from Thurso, our eyes are adjusting to the landscape, both natural and built. The further north you go, the smaller the houses get, until they seem almost tucked into the landscape, slung low and neat.
Our now semi-official “Seabourn Ovation amateur Scottish architecture society” gathers in Thurso to catch the local Number 80 bus out to John O’Groats via a stop-off at the late Queen Mother’s glorious Castle of Mey, parts of which date back to the mid-1500s, and which she bought in 1952.
John O’Groats is the northernmost village of the UK mainland, and is named after Jan de Groot, a Dutchman who held the first ferry contract between this village and the Orkney Islands.
Virtually the only attraction at John O’Groats (once named Scotland’s most dismal town) is the signpost pointing to Lands End, the westernmost (and almost southernmost) point of the UK mainland, in Cornwall. But the bus ride, with its spectacular coastal scenery, is well worth the trip there.
By the time we arrive at Lerwick – the main town of the Shetland Islands, with a population of 7000 – the landscape is so desolate that the small settlement and bright fishing trawlers appear over-optimistic sitting way out here, “the full stop at the end of Britain”.
Everything that lasts up here is built for cold and wind, be it houses, animals or people. During a morning tour of Carol’s Shetland Ponies (highly recommended), Carol informs us the native ponies stand between only 70 and 107 centimetres tall because “it’s much better to have short legs on these islands, especially when you get a winter hurricane. There’s always a breeze, so you want to stay close to the ground.” Well that also explains those dumpy hens and Westies.
After an afternoon tour of mournful Scalloway Castle – an important tower house and gathering spot dating to the 1600s – we board Ovation. The group is feeling extremely grateful not only for a warm bed tonight, but also the early evening Scottish oysters with caviar and champagne to which we’ve grown hopelessly accustomed.