OBAN, SCOTLAND — From somewhere beyond the horizon the sun casts a dim glow over the vast, inky ocean. I squint at my watch. It's 3 a.m.
Ordinarily, this would be too early for the sky to brighten. But we aren't in any ordinary place. We are on a ferry headed to the most northerly outpost of the United Kingdom - the Shetland Islands.
By 8 a.m., our enormous ferry pushes its way into the busy port of Lerwick and the voyage is over.
Before we get off, a friendly crew member shows us one of the cabins my friend and I had saved money by forgoing. It looks snug and comfortable. But we'd been quite happy in chairs on the top deck. Because we sailed in early May, before tourist season, we had the place to ourselves - like riding a ghost ship.
Before we disembarked, we had already gotten a good, long look at the
southeastern tip of Shetland from the boat. Barren - practically treeless, in fact - the island is a rolling mound of green. What a contrast to the crowded port of Aberdeen, whose stern granite piles we'd lost sight of some 14 hours earlier.
Shetland was to be the first stop on a three-week odyssey that would take us to almost 20 Scottish islands - from the far north to the far west. The 100 Shetland islands were originally part of Norway, and almost 530 years after Britain took them as a dowry for a queen-to-be, the Nordic spirit endures in traditions and in place names.
Just as pronounced is the Shetland hospitality. We met Bunty, a charming retired shopkeeper, through a friend of hers who lives in Edinburgh. She housed us in her quaint cottage, while her friends Rena and Eric drove us practically everywhere. One day they brought us to the island of Unst. This rugged intrusion on the ocean has a beautiful severity, like the rest of Shetland.
From the Hermaness National Nature Reserve there you can see countless sea birds and can look beyond the barrenness to the lighthouse on Muckle Flugga rock. This is the most northerly place in the United Kingdom.
Just a few miles south, near the 400-year-old ruins of Muness Castle, we spotted a small group of the cutest things on four hoofs: Shetland ponies and their colts. They eyed us uneasily while we gazed at them adoringly.
The only place that doesn't seem remote in Shetland is small but bustling Lerwick. We spent pleasant hours wandering cozy Commercial Street, visiting the quirky but wonderful Shetland Museum, and getting a bird's-eye view from 17th-century Fort Charlotte.
The winds of Orkney
We flew south to Orkney on a small plane that the reservations agent accurately described as a box on wings. Orkney, flatter than Shetland, is similarly bald of trees. These islands also have a well-deserved reputation for being windy. At Skara Brae, a 5,000-year-old neolithic village, we barely avoided being blown from the grassy border walls into the stone ruins of the tiny buildings.
We made Kirkwall, the capital, with its magnificent Cathedral of St. Magnus, our base. And we made John Grieve our tour guide. This quiet Orcadian shows the islands to visitors and shares their lore. He drove us to a few of Orkney's countless archaeological sites, many of which have been discovered but not uncovered.
When it came time to leave, we boarded the small ferry to the village of John o'Groats. The sea was rough, and mist fogged our view during the short trip. Then we took buses west across Scotland and over the bridge that links the mainland to the Isle of Skye.
A hike to the Table
Skye is famous for its jagged Cuillin Mountains and its picturesque towns. But all of the western islands we visited after Skye were just as enchanting in their own way. Iona, for example, served as the gateway for Christianity into Europe. Its dramatically rugged landscape is the site of ruins of enormous historical significance.
But our greatest adventure took place the day we hiked the cliffs and pinnacles of The Quiraing back on the island of Skye. An hour into our hike we decided to make the treacherous climb up to the Table. In the 15th and 16th centuries, cattle would somehow be herded up to this flat grassy area, so high in the peaks that rustlers would be thwarted.
We scrambled up grassy areas and slopes covered by rock shards, and hoisted ourselves through crevasses. And we arrived at last to be greeted by a view of the Trotternish peninsula and the ocean. Then we celebrated by eating a snack on this football field-sized "table."
Our most scenic ferry trip was from Oban, on the mainland, to the isle of Islay. We cruised out of Oban's colorful harbor, dominated by a replica of the Roman Colosseum. Before long, distant mountains, including the Paps of Jura, practically surrounded the ferry, making us feel as if we were in a toy boat in a giant's bathtub.
The ferry pulled close to the enchanting island of Colonsay for a stopover. But each time the ferry neared the dock, big waves pushed us perilously close to rock ledges. Finally we pulled in and exchanged passengers.
During the final leg of our voyage, the land and sea darkened as the sun set over Islay's hilly coast, and before long we docked in tiny but welcoming Port Askaig.
TIPS FOR THE TRIP
There are almost 800 islands off the Scottish coast, and many are reachable by ferry.
Two big companies serve most major islands: P&O Scottish Ferries sail to Orkney and Shetland, while Caledonian MacBrayne covers the Western Isles. Smaller companies fill the gaps.
If you want to focus on the Western Isles alone, it is easy to start at the Isle of Skye, sail northwest to the connected islands of Lewis and Harris, then hopscotch south down the Outer Hebrides through to Barra. From there, you can head east to the port of Oban, which can be used as a base from which to see the islands of the Inner Hebrides.
Big ferries on popular routes offer a variety of amenities. Most ferries take cars, though reservations are important. And study the schedules, as many ferries don't run daily.
For information on traveling to Orkney and Shetland on P&O Scottish Ferries, call 011-44-1224-572615. During warmer months, John o'Groats Ferries operates between John o'Groats and the Orkney island of South Ronaldsay. Call 011-44-1955-611353. For information on the Western Isles, call Caledonian MacBrayne at 011-44-1475-650100. The Scottish Tourist Board is at 011-44-131-332-2433.