By Ashley Davies
It’s late on a clear Sunday night and, as the lights of Leith disappear behind our ship, a charming man with white hair, a twinkle in his eye and a quick wit looks out to sea and remembers his dear departed wife.
He talks fondly of her and the many cruises they took together, but now he’s here with an old friend who has also lost her sweetheart. They’re here to have fun.
It soon becomes apparent that there are dozens, possibly hundreds, of people here in similar circumstances, and over the next few days it becomes clear that the warmth, companionship and entertainment afforded by a cruise is very much to their liking.
This is not what you would call a luxurious ship – the Marco Polo is a 50-year-old converted ice-breaker – but price-wise it’s more accessible to non-millionaires, and the hard-working staff take very good care of those on board. And while there are plenty of facilities – a small pool, a spa and hair salon, hot tubs, gym, several bars and a packed menu of entertainment including quizzes, bingo, lectures, musicals and lounge singers, not to mention a plentiful supply of pretty decent food and loads of comfortable space on deck – for me it affords the opportunity to visit some islands I have long dreamed of seeing but which are tricky to get to if you’re short on time.
First stop, after a thorough safety drill (and a warning that supervised hand-sanitising takes place before entering every restaurant due to the risk of nasty viruses) and the longest stretch at sea – two nights and a day and a fair amount of quease – is Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands, just to the west of Denmark. The islanders eat puffins (though their favourite dish is called half-rotten meat with soup), their traditional houses have grass on the roofs, they are fiercely independent of spirit – and Europe – and I get the distinct impression that some of them believe in trolls.
The Faroese live close to nature, mainly the sea. There’s a small model ship in every church, and 95 per cent of the islands’ income comes from fishing and related industries. Every November each village commemorates the lives of those lost at sea – and there have been many – and the names of those souls are read out on the radio.
The land looks Icelandic – all craggy cliffs and frilly coastlines – and is staggeringly beautiful. It looks like the location for an expensive bottled water advert.
We take a break for lunch at Gjaargardur (gjaargardur.fo), where the owners have created a modern take on Viking accommodation, which allows for communal living in a big central room around which sleeping cabins are dotted.
After visiting the impressive mountain range around Funningur; a beautiful old traditional church in Kollafjørdur and the ancient village of Tjörn, we climb back onto our ship and set sail for Stornoway on the Isle of Harris, which takes much of the night.
In Stornoway we are lucky enough to get a tour around the Harris Tweed mill, and learn about why this heritage fabric is so special. Unlike most tweeds, the yarns are dyed right at the beginning of the process, which contributes to the rich and broad palette of colours. There are about 120 weavers on the island, some of whom have quite individual ways of letting the mill know when their product is ready for collection (one has an old microwave at his gate, and an open or closed door lets the drivers know whether to come round). While checking out some colour samples in the tiny office, we spot a roll of tweed stashed behind the door with “HRH” felt-tipped on it. Ah yes, that’s for Prince Charles. No big thing.
I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t been aware that Lewis and Harris were part of the same island, so it’s a treat that the Standing Stones of Callanish on the west coast of Lewis are within easy driving distance.
We spend the night at sea and wake up in Orkney on the kind of sunny day that makes you want to stay forever. Kirkwall is a lovely spot, home to the impressive St Magnus Cathedral, founded in the 12th century (you could spend a full day here and discover story after story after story, such as the exploits of Arctic explorer and unsung Orkney hero John Rae, a reclining statue of whom is here), and the Pier Arts Centre, which punches above its weight with some seriously impressive works in its collection.
A quick drive out of town and already we’ve spotted several birds of prey, and before long are transported to the 1940s via a visit to the Italian Chapel, a Nissen hut decorated to look like a chapel by Italian prisoners of war. They were based on the island during the Second World War building the Churchill Barriers – maritime defences to protect the area from German boats. I daydream about possible love affairs between the Italian men and the local lasses but am assured that no such fraternising took place.
Next stop is the Neolithic village of Skara Brae, the outlines of which were first revealed by a huge storm in 1850. A series of excavations revealed more and more of the incredibly well-preserved settlement, and its true age was only really determined in the 1970s. Skara Brae is right beside the vast dramatic Bay of Skaill, one of many breathtaking white-sand beaches on Orkney.
Should the weather drive you indoors, there are worse places to stop than the Orkney Brewery, which gives guided tours and tastings.
Our final night on the Marco Polo before heading back to Leith is an eye-opener. The parade of the Baked Alaska – which involves restaurant staff proudly marching single-file through the eating area – is a strange, charming and memorable tradition.
• Scottish Islands and Faroes starts at £509, excluding excursions. www.cruiseandmaritine.com, 0845 430 0274
This article first appeared in Scotland on Sunday on 29 October, 2013