Rowing Scotland’s Northern Isles

  • Monday, March 24, 2014 11:30am
  • Life

by Chris Duff

Special to the

Sequim Gazette

I believe adventure travel is about making the conscious choice to slow down and risk living passionately. It is about taking the risk of extending oneself with a handshake, a song or a story to complete strangers and believing that you will be met with an open and welcoming hand. It is the willingness to be vulnerable; to take a chance on the experience of living — to spend wisely the only thing we have that is truly valuable — time.


Looking at a map of Scotland’s Northern Isles, it appears as if a giant took hold of the last rock on Scotland’s mainland and dragged it and all of its loosely connected cousins into the empty North Atlantic.

The dozens of islands, some just large enough for the seals and gulls to call home, separate the North Atlantic from the North Sea where, four times a day, ocean tides swirl, whisper and, in places, roar with frightening power.

The islands are a place of fascinating history where Neolithic people left their burial chambers, where Vikings left their Scandinavian bloodlines and graceful boat designs, and where roofless stone cottages of the 1800s stand against a gray windswept skyline.


Stone is everywhere and trees are few. Sheep are brought out to the smaller islands in the spring and gathered again in the fall for the market. Ships are spotted on the horizon and jets pass overhead but tide, swell and the ever-present winds are the forces the islanders pay most attention to. It is a simple and, at times, difficult life. And it is where family names can be traced back hundreds of years and where tales of storms and boating tragedies of past centuries are told as if they happened only months earlier — the stories recounted by those whose last names are on the stone memorials looking out to sea.


During the stormy summer of 2011, I rowed a tiny ocean rowing boat into the lives and islands of Northern Scotland, carefully moving ever northward, seeking shelter where it could be found, enduring tide and wind when it could not, gathering stories, making friends, bidding sad farewells and receiving more kindness than could be imagined. I was attempting to link the Northern Isles of Scotland with the distant Faeroe Islands and eventually row on to Iceland. Adverse winds and unsettled seas forced me to alter my plans and in the process, helped me more fully to appreciate the people and beauty of these isolated islands. I’ll be going back in 2012 for another attempt to row from Scotland to the Faeroes and then on to Iceland — and in the meantime I can keep the dream alive by sharing my stories with new and old friends.



About the presenter

Chris Duff is a writer, carpenter and traveler who has sea-kayaked over 16,000 miles since 1983. He has solo-circumnavigated the eastern third of the U.S. and Canada, Great Britain, Ireland and New Zealand’s South Island and was part of a team circumnavigation of Iceland. Author of “On Celtic Tides” and “Southern Exposure,” Duff is writing about his Northern Isles adventure and will be going back in 2012 once again to attempt to row his boat, Northern Reach, from Scotland to Iceland via the Faeroe Islands.

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