Hiking Scotland’s Islands: On and Off the Beaten Track

Led by John Barbour, Professor of Religion, and Meg Ojala, Professor of Art and Art History
May 17–31, 2017


We invite you to join us for a wonderful adventure that combines hiking in spectacular locations with a wealth of fascinating history and archaeology. After we spend two days in Glasgow, our hiking tour takes us along Scotland’s west coast to the Isles of Mull, Iona, and Skye, and then north to the Orkney Islands. We return by ferry to Aberdeen and drive to Edinburgh, where we say our farewells.

The western Highlands and Islands have evolved as a landscape of gentle farmland and expansive peat bog surrounded by rugged hills, secret glens, and hidden lochs. At the edge of the land is a unique seascape, wild and exposed, dominated by the archipelago of islands that make up the Inner Hebrides. Sculpted by the sea, these islands have long and varied coastlines with high cliffs, caves and arches, spectacular sea lochs or fjords, and enchanting bays of sand or pebble. The landscapes of the fertile agricultural islands of Orkney, thanks to its base of Old Red Sandstone, contrast with the more rugged islands along the west coast. Some of the natural highlights on our tour include, on Skye, a boat trip and hike to Lock Coruisk and along part of the Trotternish ridge, the dramatic geological formations on the Isle of Hoy in the Orkney Islands, and coastal paths in several locations.

We have chosen our visits and walks to showcase the cultural variety to be found on Scotland’s islands. We visit several unique sites guaranteed to appeal to anyone who has an active curiosity about history. Many sites are “off the beaten track,” and, where they are internationally renowned, such as those on Iona and Orkney, we try to see them at their quietest and best. You will experience daily the interest and variety woven into the story of Scotland.

Cultural highlights include the medieval Glasgow Cathedral, the early Scots’ hill fort capital at Dunadd, the Abbey on Iona, and the Talisker distillery on Skye. On Orkney’s main island we visit “the Heart of Neolithic Orkney,” a UNESCO World Heritage site, including the chambered tomb of Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar, and the Skara Brae settlement. The archaeology during this tour will take you back 6000 years to Neolithic times. We also hope to hear live Celtic music, and will be on Orkney during their annual folk festival.

John will provide optional readings and lead discussions on Celtic Christianity and pilgrimage, and Meg will share her ideas and insights about landscape photography. Together they will lead discussions about the philosophy, aesthetics, psychology, and pleasures of walking, referring to classic and recent literature and works of art.

Program Leaders

Professor of Religion John Barbour and Professor of Art Meg Ojala led St. Olaf’s Global Program in 2001-02, Term in Asia in 2008-09, and nine January interim courses in Rome, Mexico City, Chicago, New York City, and Holden Village. In all these places and many more they have been avid walkers!

John’s teaching and research interests center on ethical and theological issues raised by works of fiction and autobiography, for instance their exploration of the nature of sin, grace, or community. He is the author of four scholarly books and Renunciation: A Novel (2013). The grandson of a Scottish geologist, John spent his junior year in college at the University of Aberdeen and has visited Scotland several times.

Meg teaches photography and makes pictures about the experience of place. She has explored and photographed the banks of the Cannon River near her home, the temple sites of Angkor Wat, and the interior of a factory in southern Minnesota. Meg exhibits her work regularly and is represented by Groveland Gallery in Minneapolis.

What to Expect

This active land tour features daily hikes that are easy to moderate in difficulty. To fully enjoy the experience, participants should be in good walking condition and enjoy hiking. Except for a seven-mile hike on the Isle of Hoy, daily walking distances are between three and five miles, sometimes over rough paths with several hundred feet of ascent.

Three minibuses, each with a local driver/guide, will accompany our group, which is limited to only 19 participants. Our guides will explain in advance the difficulty of each day’s hike and, if you prefer, you can opt out of any hiking excursion and be driven to the next stop. We will have two days that require driving much of the day—but past spectacular scenery, and with breaks for meals, ferries, and sightseeing.

The weather in late May can vary dramatically. No two days are the same here as cloud and sun, light and shade, wind and rain continually alter the canvas. May is usually the driest month on Scotland’s west coast, but you need to be prepared for rain and wind. The average daytime high is in the low 60s, with nighttime temperatures dropping to around 50. The days will be long with a late sunset and extended twilight.

You need to be fit and an active walker by the time of departure. You should plan on seeing your family physician or a travel doctor at least four to six weeks prior to departure, preferably earlier, to talk about routine vaccinations. For more information on travel health, visit cdc.gov or who.int.

Program Fee

The program fee is $5,975 per person. Based on double occupancy, it includes discussions led by John Barbour and Meg Ojala, accommodations, breakfast daily and group meals as listed on the itinerary, admissions for group activities, ground transportation during the program, gratuities to group guides, drivers, and meal servers, and limited medical coverage while overseas. For single occupancy, add $780.

Airfare to and from Scotland is not included. Participants are solely responsible for all expenses not specifically included in the program fee. Examples of excluded expenses are: International Airfare • Airport transfers • Any passport and visa fees • Any recommended immunizations or vaccinations • Baggage and trip cancellation insurance • Beverages, including at group meals • Laundry • Dry cleaning • Phone charges • Room service or other items of a personal nature • Expenses incurred during free time or non-group activities • Lunch and dinner, unless specifically included on program itinerary.

Making Your Travel Plans

You should plan to depart the U.S. on Wednesday, May 17, 2017 in order to arrive in Glasgow on May 18. Plan to depart from Edinburgh any time on Wednesday, May 31, 2017.

Flights will be available 11 months prior to departure; however, we recommend you not purchase non-refundable airfare until we can confirm the program has enough participants to go.