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Voyage around Scotland means sailing through history

By Ken McGoogan
Special to the Globe and Mail

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.

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Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.