In July 2011 Cape Farewell embarked on a month-long expedition by boat across the Scottish Islands, bringing the notion and experience of expedition home to the UK, with an exploration of island ecologies and cultures, and of the strategies for sustainable and resilient futures being implemented across the Scottish Isles. More ›

The Crew

The expedition crew of 40 includes island artists, storytellers, film makers, playwrights, architects, designers, musicians, community leaders, social scientists, ecologists, marine biologists, oceanographers, poets, acclaimed Gaelic singers and a chef.
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Video highlights

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Out of the Mist

We reached St Kilda after an eight-hour sail from Lochmaddy in 28 knot winds, on a grey-black sea wrinkled, serrated, swollen and rolling. Some of us bowled over by seasickness; the rest holding to bits of heeling boat in our storm gear, searching for the lost horizontal. 100 miles from the mainland, on the western edge of Europe, at last, in the evening, this profound grey form pushing up from the water, soaked in mist. Gaelic singers Julie Fowlis, Mary Smith and Mary Jane Lamond from Cape Breton, along with Lewis storyteller and maker Ian Stephen and SAMS oceanographer Emily Venables, are our crew this week, and they’re straight in at the deep end. Waves blast the bow, white-beaked dolphins stitch in our slipstream, gannet and sheerwater coast on currents between trough and peak. We slip into Village Bay on the island of Hiorta in near-dark and anchor below the jagged outline of Dun in calm waters, exhilarated, exhausted, relieved.

In the morning, the ruined village emerges in sunlight and stillness, swept round by thinly-grassed slopes which rise to sheer cliffs on the other side of the island. Around the bay the incredible sight of a modern society of stone; hefted by hand from mountain scree and placed for roads, walls, houses, byres, cleits for drying meat and thatched black houses. The saddle of the valley is filled and littered and patterned with stone: rounded sheep pens below, and around a thousand cleits scattered across the uplands right up to the highest ridge; home now to the small brown Soay sheep, whose wool is shed in flags and drifts all over the island, and to vicious arctic skuas, which dive with brutal accuracy at bare heads as we cross their nesting grounds.

Stone by stone, year by year, since prehistoric times, the island has been reformed, its stones gathered for shelter, until it was finally abandoned in 1930 after too many hard seasons. But some of the St Kildans and their descendents survive, and so do the traditions they gathered by hand, passed knee to knee along the single paved street of the village, from schoolroom to church to hilltop to shoreline, in all weathers. Mary Smith has gathered songs and poems of St Kilda; Ian Stephen brings home its stories, and our wanderings around the village are accompanied by moments of song and tale-telling among the stones, surrounded by sheep, between the beacon hills. Mary and Mary Jane sing a St Kildan song about a bird; its bright call woven into the song. ‘These aren’t the songs of a joyless people’, says Mary.

At the top of the mountain, the grasses give way suddenly to salt air and the absolute fall of 1000 foot cliffs. On a ledge below us a fulmer chick sits fatly in grey-white down, waiting to be fed. Tiny orchids, buttercups, shanks of greasy wool. Mary sings of a woman whose lover has fallen from these cliffs catching seabirds. It’s not hard to imagine. clouds of every kind ring the world’s horizon. Here, we’re not on the margins at all, but at the centre of a green place of passage and exchange, a meeting point for seafarers, migrating birds and all weathers; a green place of memory, stone and song.


Author: Ruth Little


Joins the expedition for week 1, 2 and 3 Ruth Little is Associate Director at Cape Farewell. She is an Australian dramaturg, teacher, writer and former academic who lives and works in London, where she is Literary Manager of the Royal Court Theatre. Much of her work with writers and theatre artists explores the territory at the edge of chaos, and the dynamic relationship between order and disorder.
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  1. avatar Steve Hurrel says:

    Hi Ruth,
    Just a quick note to say I’m enjoying your posts from the seas and islands. It’s great to be able to follow the journey in this way and to still feel connected. I’m slowly processing the whole experience… and gradually the flotsam and jetsam of ideas are coming to the surface – some clear and many others fragmented. So much to take in from just one week! I know I need to return to Barra soon to pick up on conversations and develop ideas.
    Anyway just wanted to say hello and thanks for everything…and thanks to the crew and other Cape Farewell-yins. So much positive energy! Back on solid ground the swaying has finally stopped, but it seems all the action is not in the city but in the sea.
    All the best for now,

  2. avatar Kristina says:

    I wish I could have tagged along for more of the expedition – it looks so incredible and I’m very jealous of everything you’ve seen and experienced. I think you’re back on the mainland at this point – I hope to hear the stories when I see you next!


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Sea Change Programme

Puffin from the Bird Yarns project, part of Cape Farewell's Sea Change programme.
Grown out of the Scottish Islands Expedition, Cape Farewell’s Sea Change is a four-year programme of research and making across Scotland’s western and northern isles. Sea Change involves over 30 UK and international artists and scientists, working collaboratively and independently to consider the relationships between people, places and resources in the context of climate change.... Read more ›

A timely reminder of how valuable an outsider’s perspective can be

Community Energy Scotland’s annual conference offered a timely reminder of how valuable an outsider’s perspective can be.  It was reported on some research into how different countries are taking forward the development of renewable energy. The study looks at several European countries including Scotland, as well as five states in America. The most striking feature... Read more ›

First there was an island – then there was a boat

Shiants 2
“First there was an island – then there was a boat”, so begins a poem by Shetland writer Laureen Johnston.  Since owning my first boat at the age of eleven, I have been an obsessive explorer of islands, the smaller and more remote the better.  Once, in the grip of a sudden attack of aquatic... Read more ›

‘On these isles’

Lawrence has a 7am coffee break after feeding cattle.
‘On these isles’ is a project by photographer Ed Smith, whom we had the great pleasure of meeting when visiting the Island of Eigg. Ed has spent large periods of time on Eigg and other Inner Hebridean isles capturing life there in pictures. Have a look at more of his images and this project at... Read more ›

A gaelic song

Mary Jane Lamond, Jo Royle and Julie Fowlis Video by Ruth Little

Cape Farewell – we know what to do, can art help us get on and do it?

The following is an excerpt from Sara Parkin’s article found on the Forum for the Future website. …I was fortunate enough to join the crew for one week of a four week tour of Scottish Islands, starting with Skye and Canna before crossing the Minch to Mingulay, Barra and South Uist. The weather was kind,... Read more ›

Islands and Visions

Eigg Barbecue on Song of the Whale
There is a sea view when travelling from Eigg to Mallaig where you have a 360° vision of the Small Isles, Skye, the mountains of Scotland, Mull and, far into the distance, the Outer Hebrides. At 6 am yesterday the grey of the sea bled into the numerous blues of the mountains all dramatised by... Read more ›

Annie Cattrell and Jo Shapcott in conversation about week 4 of the expedition

Annie 1
JS Annie, what is it about islands? AC I like the fact that there’s a larger proportion of sea than land mass visible. There appears to be a completeness and self-sufficiency about the individual islands even though they are all distinctly different. There seems to be a big distinction between uninhabited and inhabited islands –... Read more ›


Photo by Sion Parkinson
(1) On the crossing from Ullapool to Stornaway on the Calmac, I wrote myself a list of rules, a set of behaviours that would concentrate my efforts, or assuage any guilt from any feelings of impotence, in my seven days aboard the ship. (1.1) Rules: (1.1.1) Take photographs, more than you need to, get in... Read more ›


Cotton Grass marking  Dwelling Rona
It was my birthday when I went to Rònaidh first. A place I wanted to see since I was little but I had always missed the boat. It is about forty miles north of my house near the Butt of Lewis. I went on the sixth of August aged thirty eight on the yacht ‘Song... Read more ›

Mary Arnold-Forster

Skye architect Mary shows the house of Fred Taylor she designed and reflects on the progress on Eigg and other green based aspirations for the islands architecture and energy supply.   Video shot by David Buckland     Sketches by Mary Arnold-Forster

Farewell and Ahoy: Log of a Voyage

Photo by Mary Smith
“Back in the kitchen.  A new group has joined Song of the Whale. There is an overlap of crew, Cape Farewell folk, and the artists and scientists who will sail together this coming week. They are planning to sail to North Rona, the Shiants and the coasts of Skye. But I’ve left the ship though... Read more ›