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.
Meet the crew ›

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Video highlights

Watch video highlights from the expedition ›

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

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 – it is so strange being somewhere that’s uninhabited by humans such a contrast to somewhere like London (especially with the current rioting). Of course, they are inhabited by other living creature and organisms – in fact full of life. It’s a reminder that we don’t need to be there for things to happen. I was very taken by the Shiants in that respect.

JS I agree. Islands give you a totally different perspective on our place on this earth: we’re so much less important than we think we are. The first island we visited was North Rona, once inhabited but now rarely visited by people, usually only the shepherds who come over to shear the sheep, and the fishing boats sailing past to pull up creels. That island was teeming with life – birds, seals (it’s one of Britain’s major seal breeding grounds for the grey seal) – more than I’ve ever seen in one small place. It was their place, not ours and the animals checked us out – we were dive bombed by Skuas, stared at by the seals and I narrowly missed being vomited on by a baby fulmer, a great white fluffy chick, staring out at me from its burrow.

AS What’s it been like living on a small sailing boat at sea?

JS Sea life has been a revelation: I’ve never sailed before (my experience of ships is confined to ferry boats and the like) and loved the feeling of being so close to the sea. Aboard The Song of the Whale, we’ve been able to get close up to Common dolphins, Rissos dolphins, White-beaked dolphins which rode our bow wave, Minke whales. When we observed the marine mammals with the sails up, we were able to hear them swimming in the water, heard their individual slapping and splashing and the noise of their own bow waves in a way you can’t in a boat run on an engine.

AC Life on board makes me realise how little I need: it makes you conscious of the essentials for living. It’s been wonderful coming up on deck and although you’ve been on the same vehicle, you don’t know what you’re going to find up there: different waves, islands, views . . . perspectives Everything is in transition, flux. I like the pace the lack of rush and speed everything has its own pace. It is possible to adjust as a result of what you see from afar coming closer then the arriving and departing. It’s surprising when you see a solitary building: it really stands out.

JS That’s what made seeing Mary’s building on Scotasay so special because it seemed as alive as the landscape, alive in and with the landscape, made with materials and an intent that fit the place precisely.*

*crew-member Mary Arnold-Forster, architect

AC Did you enjoy night sailing?

JS Early in the expedition we sailed overnight south from Rona down to East Loch Tarbert with a north wind behind us gusting up to 30 knots and a big swell. We shared the night out in watches – and you and me, Annie, took the midnight to 3.00am watch with Matt Jerram one of the professional sailors on board. We stepped out of our peaceful beds on to the deck and into what seemed like a dark, howling, constantly lurching scene. Matt was a rock, the genius of the boat right then: I was scared to the bone but really thrilled as well by the extremity of it all. We had ten square feet of dimly lit safety on deck and outside that, huge black forces of water and wind way beyond my experience and understanding.

AC Because visibility was so short the navigation instrumentation became absolutely vital –we seemed much more connected and dependant on the apparatus to survive. And the shock when messages came over the loudspeaker from the Stornaway coastguard on shore – these were general messages about the weather for all shipping but it felt personal (in the middle of the night darkness), as if they were concerned worried about us. The trip has been so much about listening. Observing yes, but to comprehend you have to listen to the wind, the waves, the sail, the engine – so that you’ll potentially know what’s happening and act on it. You can’t see what’s happening, but you can hear what might be going and what might change as a result of this. It just didn’t occur to me that we could be in peril in the stormy blackness – Matt’s command of the boat made it feel safe and at the same time exhilarating – dicing with mortality but so engaged with life. Matt says that he likes peacefulness of sailing at night, everything quiet – even a bit mystical.

AC How do you think this trip might impact on your work?

JS I am certain that will, but I don’t know precisely how, yet. I’ll leave the boat with my notebook full. Talking to the other crew-members and hearing about their work – both artists and scientists – has already had a profound effect on my imagination. – from watching Debora* research chalk-producing organisms in the water as we sailed, to Erika’s* charting of light and time, to your clouds and forest banks, Annie. There’s a wonderful serendipity about the meeting of different scientific backgrounds and arts backgrounds, alongside meeting marine mammals and wildlife and the sea. The fragility of what we have was demonstrated every day we sailed or walked on islands. The boat has held together all these unlikely and extraordinary people and unlikely and extraordinary experiences the way a poem can hold a world.

*crew-member Debora Iglesias-Rodriguez, scientist
*crew-member Erika Blumenfeld, artist

AC I know it will have an impact. It’s been such a rich experience to live and observe alongside everyone – we’re all observing the same things but seeing and feeling them in different ways. I like the impossibility of procrastination in this environment. It’s very much here and now. David’s “just do it” attitude is invigorating. Making changes in this environment is constant, adjusting all the time. I like the thought that this way of being could be carried into decision making on a different scale. Embedding change into the future.

by Annie Cattrell and Jo Shapcott

Author: Jo Shapcott


Joins the expedition for week 4 Jo Shapcott is Professor of Creative Writing at Royal Holloway College, University of London, where she teaches on the MA in Creative Writing. She is the current President of The Poetry Society. Her latest book of poems is Of Mutability was shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize and the Costa Award.
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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 ›