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Skarv Lines

COVID-19 UPDATE

Skarv Lines has been running since Sept 7, 2020.  Be sure to check the line’s website for up-to-date news.

Skarv Lines are an owner-operated, single vessel, small cruise ship company who offer rugged adventures around Scotland’s incomparable Hebrides.

More unusually they also venture to the country’s Orkney archipelago and Scotland’s East Coast.

Scottish coast on Nova Spero

The 11-pax Nova Spero is a great way to explore the scenic Scottish isles. * Photo: Skarv Lines

While there is an outlined itinerary on this former fishing vessel — the striking Nova Spero — for every departure, the exact coastal and island calls and their sequence are dependent on the ever-changing Scottish weather.

As the vessel carries a maximum of 11, a cruise is very much a shared experience in close quarters — with, of course, any COVID-19 regulations in place at the time of sailing taken seriously.

If you ever wanted to explore Scotland’s coastline and the highly varied Hebrides without fussing over ferry schedules for your rented car or resorting to a confining bus tour with too many others, here is your answer.

Note that the Nova Spero does not have stabilizers and is built to roll with the seas; bliss for those with strong sea legs, but perhaps sometimes too much of an adventure for more timid sailors, especially on the North Sea and St Kilda expeditions.

The Nova Spero is available for charter; for rates contact them direct.

Skarv Lines' Nova spero

The Nova spero. * Photo: Skarv Lines

FLEET

Nova Spero (built in Scotland in 1972 & 11 passengers) — Hebrides, Caledonian Canal, Orkney & East Coast.

PASSENGER PROFILE

Primarily from Great Britain, ages 50 and up. Children under 12 not accepted unless part of a charter.

PRICE

$$ Moderate

INCLUDED FEATURES
  • On board meals
  • House wine at dinner
  • Tender excursions for exploring when harbors not available. Not guided.

RELATED: Nova Spero cruises the Scottish East Coast by Robin McKelvie.

ITINERARIES

Skarv Lines are offering public cruises, plus private charters for single families, for the rest of 2020, with a full schedule of cruising for 2021 now available to book online. The full 10-night return Forth Bridges cruise from and back to Inverness starts at around US$4,000 per person including all meals and wine with dinner.

Most cruises embark and disembark from Corpach Fort William, a port with ScotRail connections to the rest of mainland Britain. Exceptions include their North Sea cruises, which head from Inverness down the less explored East Coast towards Edinburgh and then back to Inverness.

Skarv also has a one-way cruise between the Kyle of Lochalsh and Inverness via the Caledonian Canal. It’s short but a lot of Scotland is packed in with a train journey between Inverness and Kyle to join or disembark the vessel.

Nova Spero in the Scottish Isles

The Nova Spero cruising Scotland. * Photo: Skarv Lines

Scotland's Orkney Island

Scotland’s Orkney Island. * Photo: Skarv Lines

The vessels usually anchor by dinner time in a secluded setting, and get underway after breakfast. If the next stop is a bit further on, then the boat may depart before breakfast. The main exception to this set-up is their east coast itinerary as it uses proper harbors and goes alongside.

SAMPLE ITINERARY

The 10-night “Forth Bridges Cruise” sets off from the Highland capital of Inverness and enters the sea through Thomas Telford’s remarkable Caledonian Canal. It then navigates the Beauly Firth out of the city until it becomes the dolphin-rich Moray Firth and opens up into the North Sea.

After rounding Troop Head, it pops into a string of fishing villages on its route south before cutting west into the Firth of Forth and passing under the majestic trio of Forth Bridges. The Nova Spero then does the same in reverse, stopping at different ports on the return.

Forth Bridges Scotland

The Forth Bridges. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

WHY GO?

Scotland is beautiful when the weather cooperates — and even more dramatic when it doesn’t — and is noted for its world-class seascape scenery in many different lighting conditions, deep lochs to explore (similar to Norway’s fjords), a multitude of varied islands, castles and proud Scottish clan history.

 Scottish isles.

Gorgeous Scottish isles. * Photo: Skarv Lines

Wildlife is seen in the air, on the sea and on land during walks. Circumnavigate the Isle of Skye, cross Scotland via the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness, and cruise out into the Atlantic to see two of the world’s largest gannetries, in the form of Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth and the seabird-rich isolated archipelago of St. Kilda.

RELATED: Cruising Scotland’s Western Islands, an Overview.  by  Ted Scull

Scottish seals

Keep your eyes open for adorable seals swimming near the boat. * Photo: Skarv Lines

WHEN TO GO?

With Scotland’s reputation for unpredictable and constantly varying weather, there is no best time.

Be prepared for chilly and windy conditions at any time of the year, as well as long days of sunlight in May and into August.

Scotland sunset

Late sunsets in summer. * Photo: Skarv Lines

SUSTAINABILITY INITIATIVES

The Nova Spero buys most of its food and drink in advance, though they do make an effort to source fresh local seafood where possible, especially in the Outer Hebrides and in the east coast fishing villages.

ACTIVITIES & ENTERTAINMENT

On board, activities are board games, puzzles, and videos or relaxing and reading from the library selections in the library/lounge.

Lounge of Nova Spero

Nova Spero’s lounge. Photo: Skarv Lines

Traditional guided shore excursions do not exist as such. With maps and guidance from the crew, passengers go ashore independently to visit towns and take walks.

The tender takes passengers ashore — when not moored alongside — to land on a beach or to a dock with sightseeing aids for creating short walks or longer hikes of one to two hours. Passengers may also fish, mostly for mackerel, or help lower and raise the lobster pots.

Nova Spero's tender to shore

Nova Spero’s tender to shore. * Photo: Skarv Lines

DINING

Two communal booth-style tables. Typical meal times are: breakfast 8-9am; lunch midday-1pm and dinner 7pm. Wine is included with dinner.

Main courses feature local fish and shellfish, beef, lamb and venison, sourced locally where possible. Seafood platters for dinner are a highlight, as are ‘Arbroath Smokies’ for breakfast, which you can enjoy on the East Coast cruises.

A morning ritual is traditional porridge — for a real treat you can have it with a wee dram of whisky poured over.

Scotland’s waters are famed for both fish and shellfish, so it’s little surprise that each cruise features seafood of the likes of lobster, mussels, langoustines, scallops and oysters. The nightly cheeseboard often includes some of Scotland’s (excellent) cheeses.

Skarv Lines Nova Spero fish and chips

Fresh fish and chips of course. * Photo: Skarv Lines

whiskey on Skarv Lines

When in Rome … a wee dram. * Photo: Skarv Lines

SHIP

NOVA SPERO

Still in appearance very much a sturdy fishing boat, the exterior is rugged and sturdy, with few concessions to the frivolity of cruising. This gives it a great deal of character that the big ships just cannot match and for fans of traditional boats sailing on the Nova Spero is a real treat.

The compact wheelhouse is open to guests, but it has no frills and doesn’t offer sweeping views as it is hunkered in against the big seas.

Skarv Lines wheel house

Nova Spero’s Wheel House. * Photo: Skarv Lines

Nova Spero sticks true to her fishing heritage, with its inside space low to the water. Most cabins are below water level with negotiating a steep step of stairs required to gain access to the main deck.

The main saloon is the main gathering place for meals, relaxing moments with views and sometimes programs on the large-screen TV. The chart is beamed on to the screen if passengers wish.

Skarv Lines dining

The interior dining area. * Photo: Skarv Lines

Drinks, including a wide choice of Scottish single malt whiskies, are served al fresco on the sheltered aft deck, which is accessed by French doors. If weather allows, meals can be served here, too.

A library stocks books on local attractions and games. A real highlight in the open plan saloon is a highly unusual wood-burning stove. For early or late season cruising this is the social hub as guests snuggle in the seats that tempt by the cosy flickering flames.

Cabins

The vessel is quite small, hence the cabins are compact with twin configurations. Bathrooms and showers are shared.

nero spero cabin

A cozy cabin. * Photo: Skarv Lines

Nova Spero plaid carpet

Decor sports a Scottish flair. * Photo: Skarv Lines

ALONG THE SAME LINES

Hebridean Island Cruises‘ 49-passenger Hebridean Princess also cruises in Scotland’s Western Isles.

Also check out the four vessels operated by the Majestic Line and the small pair operating for Hebrides Cruises; as well as Argyll Cruising and St Hilda Sea Adventures, a pair of family-run companies with charming vessels cruising Scotland.

CONTACT

Skarv Lines, UK-based.

www.skarvlines.com

— Robin McKelvie

Don’t miss great articles, reviews, news & tips about small-ship cruising, SUBSCRIBE to QuirkyCruise.com for updates and special offers!  

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Heading up the Forth

Nova Spero Cruises the Scottish East Coast

By Robin McKelvie.

Tell a Scot you plan to cruise the Scottish coast and they will presume you mean the west coast; a littoral served by an ever-growing flotilla of small ships. Nova Spero steers away from the herd though and not just because she also ventures to the east to take on the North Sea.

This former fishing vessel also likes to go alongside rather than anchor, and she still looks like a proper fishing boat. And she is definitely the only ship currently cruising Scotland’s waters that sports a wood-burning stove in her cozy saloon.

Scottish East Coast cruising

The Nova Spero. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Why Scotland’s east coast?

Ironically the man driving force behind the Nova Spero, John MacInnes, is Hebridean born and bred, earning his sailing stripes amongst the sheltered bays and numerous anchorages of Scotland’s west coast, then moving on to tankers. His first tanker trip took on the big seas across the Atlantic from Marseille to New York. In winter.

Standing proudly on the compact, working wheelhouse, MacInnes explains the thinking behind the Nova Spero:

We do offer west coast options, but I also wanted to try something a little different. No one else cruises the Scottish east coast, but I think it is seriously underrated with its big skies, wildlife and characterful harbors.

Swirl in the fact that the Nova Spero was built on the east coast and was designed here, and it all starts to make sense.

Scottish East Coast cruising on Nova Spero

Nova Spero home in Arbroath. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

A luxurious fishing boat

The rugged Nova Spero dates back to 1972, when she was fashioned as a sturdy fishing vessel built to take on the often-tumultuous North Sea. Arriving at Seaport Marina in Inverness I see immediately that she has retained that rugged feel. She startles in turquoise. Her wheelhouse sits low to the water, almost hidden into the foredeck, as if anticipating bad weather at any moment.

MacInnes has worked hard to retain her working boat spirit, and it has paid off as she turns heads everywhere we go. Being aboard again is like sailing in a different era. At her heart is a swarthy Caterpillar engine that makes short work of the seas.

Robin in the saloon.

The interior passenger space is entirely a different kettle of fish. The large wood-paneled saloon is bathed in light not just from the windows, but from the skylight where the fish hatch used to be. Two comfy benches with tables beckon at meal times, while further cushioned seats sit closer to that wood-burning stove.

MacInnes wants to sail when other vessels are shored up for winter so that wood-burning stove is inspired, coming into its own during the chilly, short days of the Scottish winter.

Canals and dolphins

The Caledonian Canal is a fitting start point for a vessel that celebrates great Scottish engineering. Thomas Telford’s 19th-century marvel was built to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the North Sea — 60 miles, three lochs and numerous locks away. We just have to descend a brace of locks to take us into the North Sea’s Beauly Firth.

I say just, but that involves rotating a swing bridge that brings all mainland train traffic from Inverness to points north to a halt. A crowd gathers as we descend like a submarine in the shadow of the bridge as a collie dog stares on in disbelief.

We gun due east now, soon swapping the Beauly Firth for the Moray Firth, the latter famous for its dolphins. It doesn’t disappoint as there they are in the narrows off Chanonry Point, one of the best places in the UK for shore-based dolphin spotting. They are a decent size too; in fact, the largest and most northerly pod of bottlenose dolphins in the world.

It’s not the only wildlife we encounter as we are accompanied by a never-ending array of seabirds, the odd pod of porpoises and — the highlight — a minke whale. We don’t see the sunfish — just days before we set sail a sunfish was spotted off Chanonry, a highly unusual sighting in these chill waters, but the east coast proves full of surprises.

Nova Spero on a North Sea cruise

Robin aboard the Nova Spero.

Built to take the big seas

As we enter the harbor at Buckie on the second night a northerly wind is gathering strength, never a good sign in this part of the world. As we motor out the next morning the big seas are soon upon us with 3-4m swells and breaking waves.

North Sea surf

The North Sea surf. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

“She’s built to take this weather,” smiles John in the wheelhouse as he stares out at cresting waves he greets like old friends.

Some of Scotland’s small ships tend to be a bit timid; a trip on the Nova Spero gives you the opportunity to sample some real weather. In safety. And staying dry too as they provide full wet weather gear.

scottish east coast cruising

Robin all geared up.

Kitted out from toe to tip I bash around on the stern feeling like one of the fishermen you see in those TV documentaries. I feel secure in John’s hands and doubly safe as there is never actually any time in the five-night voyage when we cannot see land. That said, it definitely helps to have your sea legs cruising in these parts.

waves on a North Sea cruise

Bashing through the North Sea. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Savoring seafood en route

The Nova Spero remains conscious of passenger comfort too, so we choose to take a break from the weather in Peterhead, a huge harbor that protects the largest white fish fleet in the UK. Just on the quayside sits the Dolphin Café — it seems a shame not to try the local seafood. You can get haddock and chips all over Scotland, but it’s boat fresh delicious here. They also offer sole and even queen scallops ‘suppers’ (with chips).

Our passage from Peterhead south to Arbroath is much smoother and even allows for a quick swing around the Bell Rock, where a famous lighthouse has stood tall since 1810. It’s a sturdy brute that not only stands firm against the North Sea, but also repelled repeated attacks from the Luftwaffe during World War Two.

Bell Rock on a Scottish cruise

The famous Bell Rock. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

We make good time into Arbroath, where more superb seafood awaits. This time it’s the famous Arbroath Smokies, which are caught locally then smoked in the traditional wooden houses I visit by the quayside.

Arbroath Smokies on a Scottish east coast cruise

Arbroath Smokies for breakfast. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

They are delicious fresh off the smoker and also when chef Jim serves them with butter for breakfast the next day. He proves a whiz with seafood, conjuring up a heaving platter on the last night of our cruise too.

Seafood on Nova Spero

Seafood platter on board. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

The homecoming queen

It’s unusual as a journalist to be the story, but I am, or rather we are, in Arbroath. This is the first time MacInnes has sailed the Nova Spero back to the port where she was built. The wee shipbuilders, Mackays, is still open right by the harbor. The local newspaper is here to shoot photos and cover the return maiden arrival.

I speak to Harry Simpson who was just an apprentice when he worked on the Nova Spero in the early 1970s — he later went on to own the yard. Simpson admits to ‘having a wee tear in my eye’ when her steady bow appeared around harbor walls little changed since those days.

Nova Spero 'home' in Arbroath

Nova Spero ‘home’ in Arbroath. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Simpson explains to me that the Nova Spero was actually designed a little further south down the east coast at JW Miller in St Monans in the Kingdom of Fife. He is delighted to find her back in Arbroath rather than being cut up for scrap: “It’s interesting to see how she looks nowadays. A lot of the old fishing boats were decommissioned and cut up. It’s nice to see a traditional-style boat coming back into Arbroath harbor and actually be used for something else.”

Southwards in search of the Three Bridges

Under brilliant blue skies — and hardly a puff of wind — we set sail south again across calm seas in search of the mouth of the Firth of Forth, the last of the trio of firths we have to negotiate. It’s my home firth too, as I live in South Queensferry (just west of Edinburgh). The sail up the Forth alone is worth coming on this trip.

Heading up the Forth

Heading up the Forth. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

First up are its necklace of islands — the east coast may not have as many islands as the west, but it offers some gorgeous ones. Bass Rock stars with thousands of pairs of gannets, while Fidra blinks back, a wee isle said to have been the inspiration for author Robert Louis Stevenson when he penned his novel Treasure Island. Then it is on to the Scottish capital. Edinburgh looks every bit the ‘Athens of the North’ as she strides in the sunshine across a volley of hills, topped off by its vaulting medieval castle atop a hulking volcano.

Journey’s end comes in spectacular fashion cruising right under the trio of Forth Bridges.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnDFBMBhtLk

The Queensferry Crossing is a twenty-first century wonder, the largest triple cable stayed bridge in the world and the tallest bridge in the British Isles. The Forth Road Bridge was the longest suspension bridge outside North America when it opened in 1964, and its span echoes the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Last, but certainly not least, is the epic UNESCO World Heritage listed Forth Bridge. This striking red iron cantilever confection dates back to 1889, when the car had just been invented and before the advent of the airplane.

Forth Bridges Scotland

The Forth Bridges. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

This engineering drama is a fitting end to my cruise on the Nova Spero. She herself is a fine example of sturdy Scottish engineering, built to last and steadfast against anything the North Sea can throw at her. For now, she is the only small ship cruising Scotland’s beguiling east coast and if you’re looking for a life affirming cruise off the beaten charts John MacInnes and his steady steed await.

North Sea Sunrise

Gorgeous North Sea sunrise. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

map of Scotland

Robin’s route between Iverness and South Queensferry, just west of Edinburgh. * Goggle maps

QUICK FACTS

Itineraries/Fares

Skarv Lines are offering public cruises, plus private charters for single families, for the rest of 2020, with a full schedule of cruising for 2021 now available to book online. The full 10-night return Forth Bridges cruise from and to Inverness starts at around US$4,000 per person including all meals (lots of seafood!) and wine with dinner. (Robin only cruised from north to south one way.)

lobster on a Scottish cruise

Lobster served on the Nova Spero. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Getting There

The Nova Spero will primarily cruise out of Corpach or Inverness and on occasion Kyle of Lochalsh.

These days there are a number of direct flights from North America to Scotland. Depending on your airline, many flights connect through London. You can choose to arrive in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh or Glasgow. Trains run from Edinburgh and Glasgow direct to Inverness.

Tips

For those concerned about COVID-19 the Nova Spero is currently running at limited capacity (normally 11 passengers), with passenger temperatures checked daily, hand sanitizer available and face masks worn by the staff at all times. Guests have to wear them in public areas inside when not eating or drinking, plus when going ashore.

Robin with a mask

Robin all masked up.

Weather

Scotland is this green with a reason as it can rain whenever you visit. The cruising season usually runs from spring in April through to autumn in October, but Skarv Lines are breaking the mold with some winter cruising. May and September are good choices as they tend to be drier and there is less chance of having to contend with the baleful midge, a harmless but annoying small insect ashore. August is the warmest month, but can also be very wet.

Money Matters

The British Pound is the official currency, with Scottish banks printing their own notes that are legal tender throughout the UK. Credit cards and cash widely accepted.

For more information on cruising on Skarv Lines check out www.skarvlines.com.

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The Majestic Line's Glen Shiel

Majestic Line’s Glen Shiel

By Robin McKelvie.

Eking into the remote bay the dolphins finally leave us, replaced by a brace of soaring sea eagles, arcing in languorous loops as we marvel from far below. Dead ahead awaits a ramble up a mountain path ashore, followed by a delicious dinner of local lobster risotto and a wee dram under the stars back aboard.

Dining on Glen Shiel

Robin dining on lobster risotto onboard. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Welcome to cruising on the Majestic Line’s Glen Shiel, an ideal cocoon for navigating troubled waters in these testing times.

Cruising in the time of Covid-19

Cruising itself — as COVID-19 ravages the world of travel — is a rare joy. Scotland’s flotilla of small ships, which take a maximum of 12 passengers, are able to sail, but of course nothing is quite the same with COVID.

A Glen Shiel tender to Rum

Robin going ashore on Rum. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

I wouldn’t want it to be as everyone needs to be safe — and I feel instantly safe with Majestic. In the days before we sail we all have to fill in a health questionnaire. That is no surprise as one of the owners, Ken Grant, is handily a respected epidemiologist.

We are temperature checked on arrival and hand sanitizer stations are dotted around the ship, with masks freely available.

Captain Peter Watt explains: “We all have to stay safe and that means using the gel. You must wear a mask at all times in the tender and when entering shops ashore.”

These measures prove both effective and reassuring. We are even given temperature checks every morning and Peter also clarifies that the crew are all regularly tested too. It feels safe as we cruise away from the mainland into a world of sparsely populated, or even uninhabited, islands, where social distancing is not a problem. It feels safer than going to my local supermarket.

There were seven passengers, including me, with one fellow Scot and five English people. All were looking for a safe, secure escape from the stresses and strains of these hard COVID-19 times and they found it aboard the Glen Shiel. Could almost feel their souls unclenching as the days went on.

Getting acquainted

Our six-night adventure is dubbed “Skye and the Small Isles,” but you must forget any firm itinerary when exploring Scotland’s wild and wildly beautiful west coast and its islands. Here the weather and the Atlantic are king and queen of everything you do.

For the first day and a half we seek shelter in brooding bays beneath mist shrouded Highland mountains as vicious winds ravage more exposed vessels. Indeed during the first night another ship moored in the same sea loch slips anchor. We hold fast.

West Coast of Scotland

The brooding west coast of Scotland. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

The inclement weather allows us time both to get to know each other — a real joy with small ship cruising — and the trim shipshape vessel.

Only launched in 2019, the Glen Shiel is a sleek affair, more private cruising yacht than the monster cruise ships many people conjure up when they think of cruising. She was built at the tiny Ardmaleish yard on the Scottish island of Bute, the biggest vessel they have ever built. I know the yard well as my late dad built his own yacht and kept her there.

Majestic Line's Glen Shiel

The 12-passenger Glen Shiel. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

I have my own family connections to the Glen Shiel, but there is a family feel about her in general and cruising with Majestic. It really is so informal. Everyone is on first name terms with our skipper always just Peter, engineer Chris, bosun Jill and chef Molly.

The Majestic Line is a Scottish family-run company too, who have steered calmly through tough times for the industry back in 2001 and 2009 to offer efficient, enjoyable cruises that still feel personal; intimate even.

Glen Shiel's deck

The intimate Glen Shiel. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Over the years I’ve cruised on all three of the Majestic Line fleet, and soon the Glen Shiel, my fourth, becomes my favorite. She is slightly bigger than the Glen Etive, making her the largest in the fleet.

Like the Glen Etive she also has two indoor public areas: an aft dining room with a large hardwood table that you can use by day for reading, and a fore bar/saloon area with chairs, sofas and a bookshelf.

Glen Shiel's dining area

Glen Shiel dining room. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Glen Shiel's lounge

Glen Shiel’s lounge.* Photo: The Majestic Line

Cabins are fairly spacious, with calm not too “twee” décor and everything you need, including showers that are always hot.

Glen Shiel double cabin

A double Glen Shiel cabin. * Photo: The Majestic Line

Into the Sea of the Hebrides

The bridge is always open and comes with its efficient modernity given a more classic feel with a fully functional wooden helm and an equally useable ceiling binnacle.

Glen Shiel wheelhouse

Glen Shiel wheelhouse is always open. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

It is where I stand on the second morning as we make use of the easing weather to funnel down the historic Sound of Mull (checking out the flurry of castles on either flank as we go) in search of Ardnamurchan Point.

Ardnamurchan Point

Ardnamurchan Point.* Photo: Robin McKelvie

Here the Sea of the Hebrides proper unfurls. Mendelssohn always rings in my ears as I round the most westerly point in the UK mainland — he was so entranced by the ethereal Hebrides that he was moved to craft his Hebrides Overture here.

Muck

Our first island is Muck; it proves a perfect choice. While the rest of the passengers ramble around its tiny “capital” and check out the new café, I break west.

I hit Gallanach Bay where I catch sight of a pod of porpoises frolicking in the aquarium-clear waters off a white sand beach. The scene looks positively Caribbean, but you don’t get many otters there. Here one works his way along nearby rocks on the water’s edge.

Muck beaches

The beaches of Muck. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

It’s tempting to stay and hang out with my new animal friends, but I’m determined to haul myself up Beinn Airein, at 137m (450 feet), the island’s highest point.

Muck's highest point

Robin on Muck’s highest point. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

It’s worth the effort as I get a view of the three other Small Isles (Eigg, Rum and Canna), with the massive hulk of the Isle of Skye (the fourth largest island in the British Isles) haunting the background.

Muck looking to Eigg

Muck looking to Eigg. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Onwards to Skye and Canna

We spend the next two days wrapped in the wild charms of these dizzyingly beautiful isles. It’s a land where perspectives constantly change, along with the light. Islands veer in and out of view, while the distant mainland looms in the background.

Somewhere there out west I know the Outer Hebrides lurk too. It feels like sailing through an oil painting: shapes, textures and colors constantly shift with sweeping brushstrokes.

We’re not alone out here as we’re joined by an array of marine mammals. A pod of dolphins skip alongside playing with our bow wave, while porpoises make typically brief cameos.

Dolphins next to Glen Shiel

Dolphins alongside as Glen Shiel heads for Rum. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Then it’s the turn of the Atlantic big guns as we spot a brace of minke whales nearby. At first they look like giant dolphins, but their rear dorsal fin confirms the sighting; less clear are the orcas we spot thrashing around in the distance, but we conclude they are orcas nonetheless.

Homeward bound

We manage time ashore on Rum, Canna and Skye too, but not Eigg as the islanders there are still not keen on day trippers.

Canna

Beautiful Canna. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

With face masks on in the tenders to shore, and in the wee shops and cafes, we’re welcomed by communities who have had very little contact with the outside world since March 2020. It’s a privilege to spend time on the isles and learn about ways of living that seem idyllic — close to nature, indeed immersed in it — but which must be tough to live on in the long winter months.

Beauteous Sky

Beauteous Skye. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Steaming back south all too soon we again have reached Ardnamurchan Point and in the comparative urban charms of the picturesque settlement of Tobermory on Mull.

Tobermory on Mull

Tobermory on Mull. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

An afternoon and night passes here with a trip to the shops and a cozy pub, as well as to the local distillery.

Our last night is spent moored off the southwestern tip of Lismore, where we enjoy a spectacular, lingering Hebridean sunset, as we bob below a brooding ruined castle, then spot shooting stars and even a meteorite on an ultra-clear night.

Castle on Lismore

A castle on scenic Lismore. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Puttering back into Oban we talk about how refreshed we all feel, ready to take on the world of COVID-19, even our local supermarkets, after a life affirming adventure in Scotland’s incomparable Hebrides.

Glen Shiel

Glen Shiel heading back to Oban. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

QUICK FACTS

Itineraries/Fares

The Majestic Line is offering trips on the Glen Shiel until the end of October, then again from spring 2021. Their “Skye and the Small Isles” six-night cruise is priced from US$3,000 per person including all meals, wine with dinner and trips ashore.

Canapes served on Glen Shiel's deck

Canapes served on Glen Shiel’s deck. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Getting There

These days there are a number of direct flights from North America to Scotland. Depending on your airline, many flights connect through London. You can choose to arrive in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh or Glasgow. Trains run from Glasgow direct to Oban.

Tips

The Majestic Line has three other ships in their fleet. The Glen Etive is of a similar size and appearance — she is sailing in 2020 through end October. The smaller converted fishing boats, the Glen Massan and the Glen Tarsan, are available for private charter in 2020. All four vessels are planning on running full schedules in 2021.

RELATED: Reader Review of the Glen Tarsan.

Weather

Scotland is this green with a reason as it can rain whenever you visit. The cruising season runs from spring in April through to autumn in October. May and September are good choices as they tend to be drier and there is less chance of having to contend with the baleful midge, a harmless but annoying small insect ashore. August is the warmest month, but can also be very wet.

Scottish skies

When the weather’s good, it’s amazing! * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Money Matters

The British Pound is the official currency, with Scottish banks printing their own notes that are legal tender throughout the UK. Credit cards and cash widely accepted.

Contact

For more information on cruising with The Majestic Line check out www.themajesticline.co.uk.

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gorgeous hike in Scotland

Hebridean Princess: Footloose to the Clyde.

By Ben Lyons

Choosing Scotland for a hiking vacation at the end of October admittedly carried some risk. With weather in the Hebrides hardly settled even in the height of the summer, many of our UK friends kindly offered us well meaning, but clearly skeptical, advice.

“The weather can be a bit… off… then. Bring a raincoat!”

It was on our first full day onboard Hebridean Princess’  “Footloose to the Clyde” itinerary, however, when we learned one approach to the country’s fickle fall climate. Towards the end of our first guided walk, up slippery, rocky hills and then along a ridge line bursting with vibrant golden grass and dramatic views to the stoic loch below, the skies opened up with rain.

John, a fellow passenger and proper English gentleman to his core, simply covered his head with his hood, took out the “Wee Dram of Whiskey” provided by the ship, and downed half in a quick swig. Others followed suit, and, properly fortified, on we marched through the rain.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II Charters the Ship

Carrying only 50 passengers looked after by 38 crew, the Hebridean Princess is perhaps best known today as the vessel that Queen Elizabeth II has twice chartered for a family holiday after the Royal Yacht Britannia was retired. (More on that at the end of the article!)

Hebridean Princess

The 50-passenger Hebridean Princess. * Photo: Ben Lyons

A seagoing parallel to a snug yet elegant country home, the ship is the perfect marriage of vessel and destination. Cosseting and cozy, she is one of those rare vessels that is a throwback to earlier times when ships developed a personality and following all of its own.

Hebridean Princess deck shot

The view from deck. * Photo: Ben Lyons

Makeover From A Ferry

Originally built in 1964 as the Columba, the ship plied the Hebrides for several decades as a ferry carrying up to 600 passengers and 50 cars. In 1988 she was purchased for conversion and a year later emerged as the Hebridean Princess following an extensive refurbishment.

Since then, she has been sailing almost exclusively around the maze of Scottish lochs and islands with a loyal, and well-heeled, clientele.

Occasional summer jaunts have taken her as far afield as Norway, England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales and France.

Hebridean Princess deck

The decks of the Hebridean Princess. * Photo: Ben Lyons

Footloose

While I had sailed the Hebridean Princess almost 10 years before, I had been eager for some time to try out one of the popular “Footloose” cruises.

The premise sounded delightful; approximately four itineraries each year are designed around some of the best walks in Scotland. They combine exercise with scenery; enhanced, of course, by the considerable comforts of the ship. With three experienced guides to lead the way and to help shepherd both the “Strollers” and the more energetic “Hikers,” we set sail from Oban complete with a serenading bagpiper.

Our first morning set the tone for the rest of the week. We had only traveled a few hours from Oban, but found ourselves anchored off the community of Tayvallich on Loch Sween. A few houses and a school up the hill seemed to be the only signs of life to greet us. With the sun peeking through occasional rain clouds, we hearty hikers quickly set off towards the ridge line on what would be a three-and-half-mile stroll.

hiking in the Hebrides

Lovely trekking. * Photo: Ben Lyons

On The Trail

Hebridean Princess passengers tend to be in their 60s and up, and Footloose devotees. Many of whom do at least one, if not two, Footloose trips every year and are almost universally fit and active. They confidently clambered up steep, slippery slopes and navigated uneven ground that would certainly be described as “strenuous” in most mainstream cruise line shore excursion booklets.

gorgeous hike in Scotland

Stunning scenery is business as usual on a Footloose cruise. * Photo: Ben Lyons

Walks were offered at least once a day, including three full-day hikes where the ship provided a boxed lunch and hot soup that we would eat midday.

tea time on a trek

Trekking tea time of course! * Photo: Ben Lyons

As these “all day” hikes were not more than seven miles, my wife and I were eager for a bit more of a challenge. Consulting with the guides when the ship docked in Campbeltown, they proposed that we break off from the main group and hike 12 miles of the Kintyre Way while the ship repositioned to the quaint fishing town of Tarbert. We eagerly accepted.

After the bus dropped off the regular hikers, the two of us were taken further north and turned loose. We began strolling under sunny skies along the coast with the Isle of Arran across the water; in two days’ we would be hiking across that very island.

path on Hebridean Princess trek

One of many gorgeous trails along the way. * Photo: Ben Lyons

Passing through the one-church and one-lane community of Skipness (population 100), my wife was cheerfully invited to a Halloween party the next night. Appreciating the invitation, we had to regretfully decline.

We then turned inland, hiking up through forest and peat bog over the Kintyre Peninsula along a well-marked trail that is popular in the summer. Today, we were the only ones on it. A few hours later, we triumphantly descended into Tarbert, where our fellow passengers, having sailed while we hiked, were exploring the ruins of the town’s castle.

We were greeted with hearty congratulations (and no doubt a bit of relief from our guides that we were safe) before stopping at the local café and bakery. There, Hebridean Princess’ Purser was waiting, hosting an informal tea ashore and picking up the tab for any guests who joined.

It was a wonderful gesture; whereas most companies search for ways to reduce expenditures, Hebridean Princess took “all-inclusive” to another level!

On The Trail To More Adventures

While not all hikes were as challenging as our 12-mile trek, they all provided good exercise accompanied by views invariably well worth savoring. In Lochranza on the Isle of Arran, we climbed out of a valley where sheep and herds of red deer grazed around us. Reaching a pass over the island, we took in a commanding view of the Firth of Clyde stretching below us.

trekking in the Hebrides

The views! * Photo: Ben Lyons

In Holy Loch, a six-mile hike through Puck’s Glen took us along a babbling river with dramatic waterfalls, dripping ferns and verdant foliage that seemed stolen from a Lord of the Rings set.

Puck's Glen in the Hebrides

Puck’s Glen hike. * Photo: Ben Lyons

On our last day, we hiked high above the River Clyde, just outside Greenock, and had sweeping views of farmlands and hedges reaching to the river below.

hearty hikes on a Hebridean Princess cruise

Hearty hikes daily. * Photo: Ben Lyons

guide on Hebridean Princess

One of the knowledgable guides. * Photo: Bey Lyons

The Weather Again

Despite the dire predictions of raging storms and torrents of rain, we found most days to be pleasant and cool with little precipitation. With temperatures in the 50s, it was mostly perfect hiking weather, and any rain that did come was generally short-lived.

The one exception was an afternoon at Largs; there, 40 knots of wind and unceasing rain battered our stout ship at the pier. After a short ferry ride, we felt equally battered as we hiked for three miles over the island of Great Cumbrae. At times, there was scarcely a few hundred yards of visibility, so we had only occasional glimpses of the countryside when the rain temporarily let up.

Still, almost all of the regular hikers joined this walk in good cheer. Not a single complaint was heard; if anything, we all seemed to relish this battle against the elements! It was a tale to tell others onboard, and only made the rest of our drier hikes that much sweeter.

rainy day in the Hebrides

Rainy patches didn’t deter us. * Photo: Ben Lyons

For the approximately one-third of the passengers that preferred a slower pace and a shorter distance, alternatives were offered. One guide always led the “Strollers” on more leisurely excursions. One morning, we were all taken to Ardgowan Estate, exploring a restored 18th-century estate rather than stretching our legs and challenging our stamina.

Those that wanted to go fishing or tour in the ship’s speedboat merely need ask; bicycles were also available free of charge.

Other Cruises

Conventional, non-Footloose cruises often have themes around gardens, manor house architecture or even cycling. All itineraries, however, tend to be geographically compact, rarely covering more than a few hundred miles each week, and always favoring small islands or remote communities over larger towns.

Hebridean Princess zodiac

The ship’s zodiac takes passengers to shore. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

In many ways, the exact itinerary matters little — each small community or loch seems more impossibly charming than the last, and wherever you sail, the experience is often similar.

Hebridean Princess at anchor

The Hebridean Princess at anchor. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

At least one afternoon is usually given over to scenic cruising. Scotland boasts a wild and rugged coastline, and sitting on the aft deck, snug in a wrapped steamer blanket sipping tea or hot toddy, is a very agreeable way to take it in.

Hebridean Princess lounge

The ship offers many cozy spots to relax and enjoy the scenery, outdoors and inside. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Now For the Cabins & Lounges

Whether stroller or hiker, however, everyone was delighted to have the comforts of Hebridean Princess awaiting us when we returned from shore. Utterly charming, the ship has only 30 cabins (10 of which are for singles), and each is individually decorated. Expect draped window treatments, sturdy wooden desks with a decanter of whiskey, brass-ringed windows, canopied beds and, in many cabins, full-sized bathtubs.

Hebridean Princess single cabin

One of 10 cabins for singles. * Photo: Hebridean Princess

While even the suites are not particularly large by today’s standards (and the smallest cabins are inside and amongst the smallest in the industry), each one possesses so much character that you tend to think of them more as your personal bedroom for a week.

Berneray on Hebridean Princess

The Berneray suite. * Photo: Hebridean Princess

All guests are accommodated in the Tiree Lounge that overlooks the bow through generously sized windows.

Hebridean Princess Kathryn reading nook

Reading time in a cozy nook. * Photo: Ben Lyons

A brick faux-fireplace forms the aft end of the lounge, and a bar, staffed by the ever-personable bartender Toby, dispenses complementary drinks.

There is a natural focus on whiskey; the ship boasts over 70 different types onboard, and tastings can be arranged upon request.

Hebridean Princess bar

A wee dram is always in order. * Photo: Hebridean Princess

Afternoon tea, complete with classic shortbread and clotted cream-filled scones, is served every day, and most guests gather before dinner for cocktails in the lounge.

After dinner, a quiet, low-key atmosphere usually prevails with perhaps the Purser telling a few jokes. However, at least once a trip a local band may perform prompting an energetic round of dancing and singalongs. It is a communal, friendly atmosphere that is readily idiosyncratic to such a small ship.

The Restaurant & The Food

For many, one of the special delights of sailing on Hebridean Princess is taking every meal in the clubby, wood paneled, Columba Restaurant. Each couple has the opportunity to enjoy a permanent assigned table for two for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Solo sailors usually join larger tables hosted — at almost every meal — by a ship’s officer.

Hebridean Princess dining room

Dinner is a high point of the day! * Photo: Ben Lyons

Meals are traditionally Scottish — think Welsh rarebit, or lamb with mint apple jelly — and perfectly prepared. Special requests can be accommodated. Fresh local products are used wherever possible — the wildflower honeycomb at breakfast was delectable — and a seafood buffet one afternoon overflowed with mouthwatering choices of oysters, lobsters, and freshly caught fish.

In keeping with the onboard ambience, the ship is very dressy at dinner, and on twice weekly formal nights, black tie is de rigueur. The formal setting and ambiance is a delightful contrast to modern Freestyle dining.

There is a genuine pleasure in being able to sit at an exquisitely set table with your traveling companion at every meal while occasionally leaning over and gossiping with friendly neighboring dinner tables.

The Last Evening Onboard

On our last night onboard we anchored just outside Greenock following a beautiful, slow sunset that lit the sky in myriad shades of cobalt.

sunset from the decks of the Hebridean Princess

Lovely sunset. * Photo: Ben Lyons

As we settled in for dinner, the Purser paraded haggis around the dining room, before turning the evening’s program over to one of the guides.

Dressed in a kilt and clutching a dagger he recited the traditional “Address to the Haggis” by Robert Burns. Alive with gusto and enthusiasm, his rendition brought us all to applause. It was a charismatically Scottish end to a cruise which exuded that same quintessentially Scottish character on display throughout our time aboard.

In 2021, Hebridean Princess will offer four 7-night Footloose itineraries round-trip from Oban, with sailings in April, June, September, and October. Fares start at £4,300 (British Pounds) per person, including all excursions, alcoholic beverages, meals on board and ashore, gratuities, and transfer to and from the ship. See more details here.

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Sidebar: The Royal Connection

The Ship of Queens

by Robin McKelvie

The legendary Orient Express is heralded as the Train of Kings. If that’s the case then I reckon the Hebridean Princess is undoubtedly the Ship of Queens. And not just metaphorically.

Hebridean Princess

Hebridean Princess. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

This grand British dame is a firm favourite with the British Royal Family and Her Majesty, the Queen, has chartered her on two occasions. I’ve been lucky enough to have been on her four times and have gleaned some inside information on the Royal connections during my voyages.

It is easy to see what Her Majesty, the Queen, finds so beguiling about the privately run Hebridean Princess. This elegant vessel is registered in the UK and is British built too, a rarity for a cruise ship these days. When I first stepped aboard I was struck by how much she echoes Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia. The Royal Family used to take relaxed escapes on Britannia around the Scottish islands most summers before she was retired and the Hebridean Princess plies the same waters.

Britannia departs Cardif

Britannia departs Cardiff for the last time. * Photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/

When I stood watching HMY Britannia sail out of Victoria Harbour on July 1, 1997, with Princes Charles aboard, it was not just the end of an era for Hong Kong and the British Empire. Just months later Britannia was retired too.

Britannia is now an excellent floating museum in Edinburgh. I recommend a visit there as part of your Hebridean Princess vacation as it really opens a window into the similarities between the two and their shared world of understated, calm luxury.

RELATED: The Britannia Floating Museum.

Britannia museum

The Britannia museum in Edinburgh. * Photo: Britannia Museum

The Next in Line

Waiting in the regal wings was the 2,112 gross registered tonne, 235 feet long, 46 feet beam, five-deck Hebridean Princess. The owners of the Hebridean Princess are understandably discreet about their most famous passenger, but I learned more about her time cruising when I was aboard.

Her Majesty, the Queen, booked this independently-run ship for exclusive use her own 80th birthday in 2006 and then again with the same private hire set-up in 2010 for Prince Andrew’s 50th birthday.

Stepping aboard most recently I found the Royal connection impossible to avoid. Her Majesty, the Queen, still stands proud in the form of a signed portrait of her right at the heart of the ship in the reception area. She is pictured along with Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, said to also be a huge fan of the Hebridean Princess.

Hebridean Princess Queen portrai

Hebridean Princess Queen portrait. * Photo: Ben Lyons

Another visible Royal connection comes in the form of a commemorative plaque, dating back to 26 April 1989. This was when the former Columba car ferry was reborn as the Hebridean Princess. Her rebirth gained an immediate Royal seal of approval as the Duchess of York was there on her big day.

Every crew member I spoke to says the Royals are very comfortable aboard. All of her officers are British, including her current Master, Captain Richard Heaton.

Heaton remembers his two Royal cruises fondly: “The first time I was second officer so as the navigator I spent some time chasing the charts they enjoyed poring over in the lounge planning their adventures. The second time I was the Chief Mate in charge of the tenders ashore — I remember they were big fans of a beach picnic.”

Heaton adds with a quiet, modest smile, “Basically they were just a lovely family enjoying a lovely family holiday visiting many of the places they used to enjoy going to on Britannia.”

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Scottish cruising on the Red Moon selfie

Cruising in Scotland

By Robin McKelvie.

In these turbulent times the idea of stealing away on a small ship to an uninhabited island or two with just your loved ones has never been more appealing. Handily Red Moon Cruises offer just that and the great news is that they have just started sailing Scotland’s spectacular coastline again.

Join me now as I take you on an adventure aboard Red Moon’s first post-lockdown sailing out of Dunstaffnage Marina last month.

Red Moon in Scotland

The charming Red Moon. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

The four-passenger Red Moon is a trim, little converted fishing trawler, which was launched by the British Admiralty in 1945 as a general-purpose vessel as World War II drew to a close. She has operated under many guises since and changed a great deal — for example she has lost a machine gun fore and gained a sail!

Red Moon vintage photo

A photo of the Red Moon in her previous life. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

Today she operates as an ultra cozy small cruise ship, lovingly looked after and operated by husband and wife team, New Zealander Scott Atkinson and English woman Mary Waller. They have clocked up decades of experience of sailing and working on vessels across the world, so you’re in good hands aboard Red Moon.

Covid-19 Cruising on Red Moon

The Red Moon at dock with owner-operators Scott and Mary. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Covid-19 Cruising

This experience and a steady hand have never been more important. On arrival at the marina, Scott welcomes my wife, two kids and me with a broad Hebridean smile, but no handshakes as they are continuing to take COVID-19 seriously.

galley and dining table

Red Moon’s interior galley-dining area. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

We have the run of the ship, but we’re asked not to touch any of Mary’s cooking facilities in the spacious galley and to give Scott physical distance in the lovely wooden wheelhouse. Our bathroom to be cleaned daily, but not our cozy cabins. There is one double and a pair of twin cabins, which share a roomy bathroom with shower.

double bed on Red Moon

The Red Moon’s double-bedded cabin. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

twin bed cabin

One of the pair of twin-bedded cabins. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

Hand sanitizer is readily available alongside wipes and regular gel use is a must, especially when going ashore on the tender.

The precautions don’t alarm us and are actually reassuring. We sail out of Dunstaffnage in our floating cocoon feeling like we are escaping a storm rather than sailing through one, a precious feeling these days.

Robin McKelvie and family

McKelvies on Red Moon. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

As Red Moon is only currently available for use by a single family, and takes a maximum of four guests, we have a great deal of freedom.

Skipper Scott explains he works around ‘themes’ so we tell him what we like and he helps us plan an itinerary that caters to our tastes and the weather conditions.

As a Scot I’m well aware that some of Scotland’s island communities are not too keen on tourists visiting at the moment, especially the Western Isles.

This is the only health board in Scotland not to have suffered a single COVID-19 death and the authorities want to keep it that way.

So, we choose a relatively modest plan for our three-night cruise that keeps us within sight of the mainland, whilst still being able to land on a couple of wee islands.

The 4-passenger converted fishing trawler Red Moon. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Wildlife & islands

Bashing out to sea our COVID-19 worries quickly dissolve as we spot porpoises to port, and then hulking bottlenose dolphins.

porpoise along Red Moon

Thrilling to see a porpoise hugging the hull. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

As we eke into a deserted bay just off the southwestern shores of the isle of Lismore a massive juvenile sea eagle greets us with a lingering fly past.

The scene is quintessentially Hebridean as we hunker in the shadow of a ruined castle and gaze out towards a sprinkling of other isles and brooding mountain peaks.

Castle Stalker on a COVID-19 cruise

Castle Stalker. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Meals prove to be quintessentially Hebridean too. First up is a heaving platter of boat fresh langoustines. We catch sight of the boat that caught them en route to Lismore. The main is perfectly pink salmon fillet, which we wash down with a local craft ale.

food on the Red Moon

Mary’s cooking is a delight. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Other foodie highlights include delicious venison, plump monkfish and massive king scallops. Mary works miracles in her wee galley including dishes with lots of herbs and spices flavoring the local produce.

dining on deck in Scotland aboard the Red Moon

Depending on the weather, cakes and coffee can be enjoyed outside on deck, while meals are served inside. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

Our first trip ashore comes the next morning on our second day to the uninhabited isle of Bernera. The revered Scottish saint St Columba is once said to have preached here under a giant yew tree. We walk through the wilds with his ghosts as we make for this tiny island’s highest point.

Bernera Scotland on a cruise

McKelvies on Bernera. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

From here the mists ease for a moment to allow teasing glimpses of Lismore and out west towards the remote Morvern Peninsula.

Scotland's Morvern Peninsula

The Morvern Peninsula. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Onwards to seals & seabirds

That afternoon we make it ashore in Morvern, delving up an emerald glen through the heather in search of red deer and golden eagles

We find them, but don’t see a single soul as we stroll without having to worry about physical distancing for a change.

On our third day we make landfall on another island. Balnagowan is a beauty.

going ashore in Balnogowan

Scott rowing us ashore to Balnagowan. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

We row in so as not to disturb the thriving local seal population. They watch us with great interest, especially the young cubs, as we make it ashore with a beach landing. We wait for the seals to come and check us out as my girls play with seashells.

Balnagowan Scottish cruising

Remote Balnagowan. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

On Balnagowan I strike out for a wee walk on my own and come across the owner of the island. Instinctively I recoil not wanting to offend or worry her. I needn’t have worried too much. She is delighted to see the friendly face of a stranger after what must have been quite a lonely lockdown.

We talk about her — to me — idyllic life on this gorgeous island paradise. She keeps goats and makes it clear I can ramble anywhere I like, but advises quite rightly that I stay away from the nesting birds.

A reassuring return

All too soon that night we are having our last supper.

We had all been nervous about heading out after being shielded away in our bubble during lockdown.

Scottish cruising has been in lockdown too and when we sailed we were the first small ship to get going again.

Red Moon chart house

Robin’s daughter Emma, aboard the Red Moon. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Literally we sailed on the first day permissible by the Scottish Government, July 15. We were reassured, though, by our open and professional husband and wife crew. It was encouraging too that it seems some islanders are keen to see visitors return.

Easing back into Dunstaffnage Marina we have returned with the suitcase full of epic memories that any adventure to Scotland’s incomparable Hebrides offers up in such life affirming abundance.

Scottish cruising is back and it has been a sheer delight being part of its rebirth.

If you’re looking for a heart-warming family-run small ship cruise experience in Scotland, you’ve just found it.

Scottish cruising on the Red Moon selfie

The author Robin McKelvie on the Red Moon in July 2020. 8 Photo: Robin McKelvie

RELATED: Cruising Scotland in the Age of COVID-19. By Robin McKelvie

QUICK FACTS

Itineraries/Fares

Red Moon Cruises have 4-night cruises available in 2020 from £4,800 for four guests all inclusive including all meals, drinks and excursions.

Red Moon is currently only available for single family use with a maximum of four guests.

Getting There

These days there are a number of direct flights from North America to Scotland. Depending on your airline, many flights connect through London. You can choose to arrive in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh or Glasgow. Trains run from Glasgow direct to Oban, which is a 10-minute cab ride away from Dunstaffnage Marina.

Red Moon map

Red Moon’s cruising area.

Tips

Red Moon Cruises offer a Bed & Breakfast option to stay the night before or after a cruise at the marina. This comes in handy for those who have just made a long journey or are about to embark on one.

Weather

Scotland is this green with a reason as it can rain whenever you visit. The cruising season runs from spring in April through to autumn in October. May and September are good choices as they tend to be drier and there is less chance of having to contend with the baleful midge, a harmless but annoying small insect ashore. August is the warmest month, but can also be very wet.

Money Matters

The British Pound is the official currency, with Scottish banks printing their own notes that are legal tender throughout the UK. Credit cards and cash widely accepted.

For more information on cruising with Red Moon Cruises check out www.redmooncruises.co.uk.

Scotland's West Coast

Cruising the West Coast aboard the Red Moon. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

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Red Moon Cruises in Scotland

Scottish Cruising in the time of COVID-19

By Robin McKelvie.

Few things are simple in the age of COVID-19. Indeed sometimes it’s just tempting to just give up hope, which has happened to some lovers of cruise ship travel as sailings around the world first fell victim to the virus and then were cancelled en masse.

There are tentative green shoots, however, in a few places including Scotland, where it is small ships that are leading the way.

Scottish Cruising

On the face of it cruise ship travel doesn’t look possible in UK waters.

In a statement issued on July 9 the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advised “against cruise ship travel at this time. This is due to the ongoing pandemic and is based on medical advice from Public Health England.”

They do stress that this advice is constantly under review, but it appears unequivocal.

However I’ve just been out on a cruise in Scottish waters . . .

Red Moon Cruises in Scotland

Red Moon Cruises the Scottish West Coast & Isles. * Photo: Red Moon Cruises

When is a cruise ship not a cruise ship?

I headed out with Red Moon Cruises on the very day that restrictions for general travel around Scotland were eased on July 15. How?

Well, it was possible due to another part of the FCO guidance that is easy to miss. It clarifies its definition of what constitutes cruise travel — “Cruise ship travel means staying overnight for at least 1 night on a sea-going cruise ship with people from multiple households.”

As the husband and wife duo who run Red Moon only take four passengers — in this case me and my immediate family — we did not constitute “cruise ship travel.”

Scottish Cruising with Robin and his family

Robin and his family on the Red Moon. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

So Red Moon is an option if you want to head out right now. They are good value too with exclusive use — including all food and drink — for four people for four nights from £4,800.

RELATED: Cruising with Red Moon. by Robin McKelvie

River cruises are go

It is not just small ships running as de facto charters that already have the official, clear go ahead. The FCO makes a distinction between “sea-going” and river cruises as these generally tend to be taken on smaller vessels that do not have the same risks of mass spreading of the virus.

In Scotland a superb option is European WaterwaysSpirit of Scotland.

Spirit of

Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: European Waterways

It is easily the finest way of exploring Thomas Telford’s remarkable Caledonian Canal. They are cruising again on September 6 with a six-night adventure that will be repeated on September 13, 20 and 27.

You can read a full review of my trip on this luxurious river cruiser last year, below.

RELATED: Spirit of Scotland on the Caledonian Canal.  by Robin McKelvie

The rest of Scotland’s small cruise ships

There are yet more green shoots for people desperate to head off on “proper” cruise ships as it were.

Indeed I am booked on two more sea-going cruises next month  on the Majestic Line and SkarvLines. This is possible due to the small nature of the vessels, leading on from the FCO advice on river cruising.

Ken Grant of the Majestic Line explains how they plan to recommence sailing at the end of August: “We are cruising based on our own risk assessment and following all relevant tourism and hospitality guidance issued by the Scottish Government.”

Many matters of policy — especially apparent in the field of public health during this pandemic — are devolved from the UK to Scotland and come under the auspices of the Scottish rather than UK government.

Grant is keen to reassure passengers: “We will have health and safety protocols in place, including weekly testing of staff to ensure they are COVID-free. Passengers can wear face masks if they choose, but this won’t be made compulsory. Before boarding, all passengers and crew will have their temperatures checked and the ship’s public areas and touchpoints will be regularly cleaned and sanitised throughout the day.”

RELATED: Ken Grant is in fact a public health doctor and epidemiologist, and he shares his opinions about travel in the age of COVID-19 in a white paper here.

RELATED: Ken Grant was interviewed for The Telegraph by writer Dave Monk, where he’s quoted saying he’d rather not sail than force guests to wear face masks.

Their first cruise on August 29 was set to be a charter, but now has spaces for the public. The plan is to run using two of their four vessels and make 11 cruises in total this year.

It’s no surprise that they are running their larger vessels, the Glen Shiel and the Glen Etive, which both carry up to 12 passengers and have more space including, I think crucially, indoor public spaces fore and aft, as well as outdoor areas.

Glen Etive Scottish cruising

Glen Etive’s interior. * Photo: Majestic Line

Scottish cruising on Glen Etive

Glen Etive’s stern deck space. * Photo: Majestic Line

Glen Etive Scottish cruising

Glen Etive’s upper deck. * Photo: Majestic Line

A brave new cruise ship this year

There has never been a worse year for the cruise ship industry and it is certainly a terrible year to launch a cruise ship. That is the unfortunate position that SkarvLines have found themselves in. This is the first year for their 11-passenger Nova Spero, a converted fishing boat.

Skarv Lines cruising Scotland

The 11-passenger converted trawler Nova Spero. * Photo: Skarv Lines

For months they must have worried that they would not even be able to make their maiden passenger voyage in 2020, but now they are slated to set sail in September and I will be on one of their first voyages.

I spoke to their owner, who is excited at the prospect of finally getting going.

“Honestly, we can’t wait. We have spent a fair bit of time during lock-down working out social distancing measures and we’re happy that we’ve got it covered. Safety has always been of paramount importance and once the sea air has blown away any thoughts of COVID-19 I am sure we’ll all get along just fine,” said John MacInnes.

MacInnes provides a useful overview of how cruising more generally might be in the time of COVID-19:

“For the remainder of this year, we are limiting the number of guests on board and we’re offering single occupancy of cabins for no supplement. This reduced capacity means we can spread guests out more evenly throughout the boat with the required two-metre distancing enabled. Crew/passengers will be wearing PPE throughout the cruise (masks will be worn by all when outside cabins) and we will have strict cleaning regimens in place for public areas and shared shower rooms/toilets as well as all high-touch surfaces using COVID-effective biocidal cleaning sprays. All towels and linens will be washed at a minimum of 60 °C degrees.”

Lounge of Nova Spero

Nova Spero’s lounge. Photo: Skarv Lines

“Meals will be taken with increased spacing at tables. Payments will all be handled in advance or by contactless card transaction. Guests will be asked to complete a health questionnaire before arrival and as part of this they will need to agree to allow personal contact in the event of an emergency. Other than that, the guest experience will be much as normal and we still strongly believe a cruise on Nova Spero will be truly unforgettable.”

decks of Nova Spero

The Nova Spero. Photo: Skarv Lines

What about the others?

Not everyone has committed to cruising yet. Iain Duncan of Argyll Cruising is being more cautious, but still optimistic.

“We’re not out cruising ourselves at the moment. We too are waiting for word from the FCO and Department of Transport. We are hoping that we will be allowed out come September and resume cruising from 12th Sept to end of October 2020,” Duncan says.

RELATED: Back Doon the Watter, a Cruise on Argyll’s 8-pax Splendour. by Robin McKelvie

RELATED: Check out the Argyll experience below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eW1icMOPbTA

 

One cruise line that definitely won’t be heading out is St. Hilda Sea Adventures, a company that runs a trio of characterful small ships. They may not be sailing, but they are showing impressive flexibility by now offering their vessels for stationary self-catering breaks.

If you’re not comfortable about cruising at the moment this is an option to get a slice of that romantic cruising ambience.

Seahorse II in Scottish waters

St. Hilda’s 11-pax Seahourse II. * Photo: St Hilda

Good news on the horizon

Hebridean Island Cruises, who operate the glorious 50-passenger Hebridean Princess, may have cancelled all sailings aboard the favourite cruise ship of British Royalty, but they have good news too.

In mid-August they announced that they have bought the plush Lord of the Glens, which cruises Scotland’s Caledonian Canal and isles. Look out for a step up in luxury as they strive to bring her up to a similar level as the Hebridean Princess next year.

Lord of the Glens update

Scottish yacht Lord of the Glens has a new owner. * Photo: Magna Carta Steamship Co.

RELATED: Lord of the Glens is Sold.  by Ted Scull

Looking ahead there is further good news.

All of the cruise companies I spoke to are planning on running full programmes in 2021, COVID-19 dependent of course.

With an eye perhaps on revenue, some are offering earlier than usual booking into 2022 and offering new programmes.

A shining example is the Majestic Line, who have announced that they are to be the first small-ship company (with vessels under 12 passengers) to pioneer trips out to the remarkable Orkney Isles off the northern tip of Scotland in 2022.

Amidst an ocean of depressing cruise news, Scotland’s small ships are plotting an impressively optimistic course for the future. Watch this space.

Cruising Scotland

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Note

Before booking any Scottish cruise it is essential to check all of the constantly under review COVID-19 travel restrictions not only to the UK, but Scotland too as they can vary. Also it is essential to check the guidelines on spending time in Scotland safely in the time of COVID-19 as regulations again vary from England and other parts of the UK.

Clear advice is available on the Scottish Government website at https://www.gov.scot/collections/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance/.

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emma jane hot tub

The Hebrides by Hot Tub

by Robin McKelvie.

I’ve long been a fan of Hebrides Cruises, whose sturdy wee Elizabeth G has spirited me out to the ultra-remote St Kilda archipelago and also on another adventure along the remarkable Caledonian Canal. Her sister, the 10-passenger Emma Jane, who joined her in 2017, is more luxurious and spacious with plush furnishings and fittings, a large owner’s suite and an outdoor hot tub!

(The Emma Jane was formerly called the Proud Seahorse and sported a red hull, before she was renovated, painted navy blue and renamed Emma Jane during the winter of 2017/2018. Read more about that at the end of this article.)

hot tub on Emma Jane

Robin having a soak in Emma Jane’s hot tub. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Over the years I’ve been lucky to head out on cruises through the Hebrides over a dozen times and have never been disappointed. How could you be when this vast island-studded oasis is awash with epic mountains, shimmering white sand beaches and stunning sunsets?

It’s also an oasis bursting with all manner of wildlife, from red squirrels to red deer on land, through to porpoises, dolphins and even whales in the sea. Then both golden eagles and sea eagles soar through the skies.

Golden Eagle spotted on a Hebrides cruise

A Golden Eagle. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises Wildlife Guide Nigel Spencer

Emma Jane makes the most of all this and I greatly enjoyed sampling the 6-night “Skye and the Small Isles” voyage.

The Hebrides on Emma Jane

The Emma Jane is named for Emma who is the daughter of Rob Barlow, owner and Skipper of Hebrides Cruises. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises

RELATED:  Cruising Scotland’s Western Isles.   by Ted Scull.

A perfect Hebridean cruiser

Emma Jane is the ideal vessel for a comfortable cruise around the Hebrides. She only takes a maximum of 10 passengers and she earns her owner’s description as a “luxury mini-cruise ship.” It is worth splashing out on the master cabin suite with its separate sleeping and lounge areas.

On my most recent cruise aboard Emma Jane, I boarded in Oban and had soon bonded with my fellow passengers as we pushed out of Oban Bay bound for the Sound of Mull, gateway to the Hebrides.

At the helm we could not have been in better hands as our captain was James Fairbairns, a veteran of years of cruising with the Mull Sea Life Surveys and an authority on the local marine mammals. This knowledge has been accumulated over two decades working in Hebridean waters.

basking shark in the hebrides

A basking shark. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises Skipper James Fairbairns

We also had on board an excellent young chef, plus an ever-helpful bosun and an onboard wildlife and walking guide for trips ashore.

An overnight in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull allowed us a relaxed walk along the coast through thick forests to the Aros Centre, before it was time to push on to our targets on this 6-night “Skye and the Small Isles” adventure.

We eased around Ardnamurchan Point (the most westerly part of the UK mainland) and managed to make the Isle of Eigg for the night.

Skye and Big Isles map

.

Eigg – a star of the Hebrides

All four of the Small Isles boast their own charms, but Eigg may just be my favourite. It’s a dynamic wee place where the locals celebrated 20 years of community ownership in 2017. Eigg was on form offering up a glorious sunset before a large pod of common dolphins skipped by during breakfast the following morning.

common dolphins in the hebrides

A pod of common dolphins this close to the boat. * Photo: Nigel Spencer

We managed two walks on Eigg, punctuated with a gorgeous bowl of steaming mussels at the Galmisdale Bay restaurant.

Fresh mussels on a Hebrides cruise

Fresh mussels at Galmisdale Bay on Eig. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

The first hike was to the baleful Massacre Cave, where the Macleods of Skye notoriously murdered almost the entire population of Eigg in 1577. They blocked the entrance to the cave where around 400 men, women and children were hiding and lit a fire.

Our second walk broke away from human tragedy to enjoy the natural wonder of An Sgurr. This 393m high volcanic plug is one of the most eye-catching mountains in Scotland and looks impossible to tackle from the Eigg quayside. It isn’t. As long as you have the right outdoor gear, plus a map and compass. After a hearty ramble around its back we scrambled up the rocks to the summit and enjoyed breathtaking views out over the other Small Isles of Rum, Muck and Canna.

Eigg on a Hebrides cruise

Walking on Eigg. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Hiking on Eigg in the Hebrides

Hiking on Eigg. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

From the summit of An Sgurr, Skye loomed large and the largest of the Inner Hebrides was our next stop. We anchored in Loch Scavaig, which let us ramble up to Loch Coruisk for a four-hour bash around this deeply dramatic natural amphitheatre on foot. As we eked our way around the crystal-clear waters, the mighty peaks of the Black Cuillin mountains soared like rock sentinels above.

Loch Corriusk

Jenny & Robin at Loch Corriusk. * Photo: Nigel Spencer

Sailing off to Canna

Back aboard, our by now nightly hot tub session benefited from the epic backdrop of the Cuillin as we cruised away from Skye by the wee island of Soay bound for the natural harbor of Canna.

We got ashore at Canna the next day, but not before more superb cooking. Our young chef grew up near Oban and learned his chef skills locally so he handily knew where to source all the best of the fresh local produce around Oban. Every meal was a delight — my favourite dish was the filet of perfectly pan-fried salmon laced with cream and spiced with chorizo.

Hebrides Cruises dinner

Delicious fare, like this crab cake with prawns meal. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises

The rest of the passengers made it ashore on Canna after a hearty breakfast. I’d chatted to the captain who was kind enough to tender me ashore on to the neighbouring island of Sanday — the crew are always very helpful in getting guests ashore when it’s possible. This enabled me to hike along the cliffs checking out the puffin colonies on Sanday’s rock stacks.

puffins on a Hebrides Cruises adventure

Emma Jane sets the backdrop for a pair of adorable puffins * Photo: Wildlife Guide Will Smith

I joined the rest of the passengers to explore Canna’s coast before another wee solo hike up to Compass Hill. This brought great views and the company of a nosy golden eagle.

Cliffs of Canna in the Hebrides

The breathtaking Cliffs of Canna. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Onwards to Rum

Our last island was Rum, where we managed to get ashore again. By far the largest and most mountainous of the Small Isles is a brutal beauty.

Rum Mountain in the Hebrides

The peak of Rum in the background of Canna Harbour. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises

Rather than tackle her daunting mountains (they offer no “easy walk”), on this trip I opted to stay with the group as our guide ushered us up around to the wee settlement and to the grandiose country house of Kinloch. In the Village Hall’s café, we met some engaging friendly locals, a feature of every island we landed on. They wanted to know all about us and our ship outside lying at anchor in the bay.

We were blessed with our weather aboard the Emma Jane. We enjoyed low winds, blue skies and lots of sunshine.

Emma Jane in the Hebrides

The coast is clear from the bow of the Emma Jane. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

For four days in a row we enjoyed glorious views of Skye’s omnipresent Cuillin ridge. Fittingly as we closed back in on the Sound of Mull the wind kicked up to make seeking sanctuary in Tobermory appealing.

On my last night I took advantage of the Emma Jane being moored alongside and nipped into my favourite pub on Mull, the Mishnish. Over a wee dram I gazed out towards Emma Jane. Already I missed the great company, the stellar cooking, the epic scenery and wildlife of those very special isles, and, yes, of course, that hot tub with a view!

The Hebrides sunset

Gorgeous sunset views from deck. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises

QUICK FACTS

Itineraries/Fares

Emma Jane has an 8-night “Skye and the Small Isles” mentioned here on July 17, 2021, from $3,650 per person including all meals, wine with dinner and excursions.

The vessel is also available for private charters, which currently account for about 15-20% of all bookings.

Note, people often book cabins well in advance, often two years ahead, with much of the summer 2021 season already booked out, so do look to the 2022 season to avoid disappointment.

drinks on deck in the Hebrides

Drinks are included in the fares. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises

Getting There

These days there are a number of direct flights from North America to Scotland. Depending on your airline, many flights connect through London. You can choose to arrive in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh or Glasgow. Trains run from Glasgow direct to Oban.

Tips

Emma Jane’s sister Elizabeth G is not as luxurious and spacious, though she is still comfortable, and her rates are lower so she is a better option if you are watching your budget.

After a refit a couple of years ago, Elizabeth G comfortably accommodates a maximum of 10 passengers (8 for individual bookings in four en-suite cabins, and 10 for full charters). She is smaller than her more luxurious sister, but Elizabeth G is a wee charmer, a sleek former Norwegian rescue ship that cuts through the Hebridean seas with ease.

She’s a trusty steed and one who has steered me out to ultra-remote St Kilda. For that reason alone she is a favourite of mine. Read more about them both here.

Elizabeth G & the Emma Jane together

The Elizabeth G & the Emma Jane. * Photo: Hebrides Cruises

Weather

Scotland is this green with a reason as it can rain whenever you visit. The cruising season runs from spring in April through to autumn in October.

May and September are good choices as they tend to be drier, prices are a little cheaper and there is less chance of having to contend with the baleful midge, a harmless but annoying small insect. August is the warmest month, but can also be very wet.

hebrides is green

The green green grass of An Sgurr on Eigg. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Money Matters

The British Pound is the official currency, with Scottish banks printing their own notes that are legal tender throughout the UK. Credit cards and cash widely accepted.

Emma Jane Backstory
Proud Seahorse was launched with Hebrides Cruises in May 2017. She was bought from an Orkney family, who were pleased she would be owned by another seafaring family. The vessel was built in 1978 as an ocean going stern trawler with twin Detroit 8v71 engines and Alison gearboxes, typical of Norwegian rescue ships.
Proud Seahorse in the Hebrides

The red-hulled Proud Seahorse gazing over to Skye. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

She was then commissioned for survey work in the Gulf of Suez and the Mediterranean Sea. In the 1980’s she was contracted by the British Royal Navy for 18 years, doing survey work around the coast of Britain and the surrounding waters. She was then bought by the Reid family in Orkney and fully converted into a luxury yacht, remaining in their ownership until sold to Hebrides Cruises in 2017.

During the winter of 2017/18 the vessel was resprayed to match Hebrides Cruises’ Elizabeth G and renamed Emma Jane (Emma is the daughter of Rob Barlow, Hebrides Cruises owner and skipper, and works for the company.)

For more information on cruising the Hebrides with Hebrides Cruises check out https://www.hebridescruises.co.uk/.

Emma Jane cruising the Hebrides

Emma Jane at sunset. Ahhh. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

RELATED:  Back Doon Tha Watter. by Robin McKelvie.

RELATED:  Capturing the Spirit of Scotland on the Caledonian Canal.  by Robin McKelvie.

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bag piper aboard the Spirit of Scotland

Capturing the Spirit of Scotland

by Robin McKelvie.

Want to taste the spirit and beauty of the Scottish islands, but not sure you’ve the stomach for the rough local seas? That’s where a canal cruise comes in. Even if you’ve got strong sea legs, we’re talking proper luxury, world-class cuisine and an outdoor hot tub aboard the Spirit of Scotland.

There’s a well-stocked (inclusive) whisky collection too to accompany your Nessie spotting as you ease through the mountains and lochs of Scotland’s otherworldly Great Glen.

The remarkable Spirit of Scotland only started plying Thomas Telford’s epic Caledonian Canal a couple of years ago. The aquatic artery was forged in the early 19th century through the Great Glen as a utilitarian project to prevent ships having to battle around Scotland’s northern wilds, but there is nothing utilitarian about the Spirit of Scotland.

The 12-passenger Spirit of Scotland

The 12-passenger Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Canal Cruising in Luxury

This exclusive hotel barge takes Scottish canal cruising to another level. She may be 126 feet in length, but there are only a maximum of 12 passengers. That means decent-sized en suite cabins and lashings (lots!) of public space. There is a large dining room and a comfy bar area too, but the real joy is outside with a small sundeck and hot tub, plus a large sitting area up top.

I join her in Inverness and she soon proves to be the ideal way of discovering Thomas Telford’s engineering marvel, which connects the North Sea at Inverness with the Atlantic at Fort William through a series of Highland canals and lochs.

Scotland's Caledonian Canal

Scotland’s Caledonian Canal. * European Waterways

Map of Scotland

Scotland map. * European Waterways

From the moment the ultra-friendly crew of six welcome me aboard everything is shipshape. The outdoor hot tub offers the surreal experience of cruising through a canal I know well. It is welcome during the day after a canal-side walk, but really comes into its own at night when you can sit bubbling away under the stars.

Spirit of Scotland hot tub

The cozy hot tub aboard the 12-passenger Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

History & Whisky  

We spend six nights gently venturing along a quartet of lochs — Oich, Lochy, Dochfour and, of course, Loch Ness — and myriad locks and canal sections. Handily there are two minibuses at our disposable to ferry us off for excursions twice a day.

On our first morning (day 2) we visit Culloden, where the last battle on British soil was fought in April 1746. It was a battle lost to the British Army, that saw the Highlands ravaged and the scene set for the baleful “Highland Clearances.”

During this time many Highlanders were prized off the land and many sought shelter or were forced to leave for the Americas. It’s a moving experience visiting a battlefield whose excellent museum really brings it to life. It also adds context as the Highlands looks the way it does today as a direct result of that tragic battle — this landscape you cruise through is very much a manmade wilderness.

After that dark experience the afternoon is a lighter visit to Tomatin Distillery, a gem of a Victorian whisky distillery (note not whiskey with an ‘e’ in these parts) in the hills to the south of Inverness.

Our private tour and special tasting even manage to win over the timid whisky drinkers amongst us. Over a dram we talk about how much people are looking forward to tomorrow’s adventure along…Loch Ness!

A visit to Tomatin Distillery on a Spirit of Scotland cruise

The Tomatin Distillery. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Meeting Nessie in Loch Ness

Loch Ness is the reason I find that two of the couples on the cruise chose it. It’s well worth seeing as it’s a remarkable phenomenon. Consider for a moment that if you took all the water in all the lakes in England and Wales together it still could not fill Loch Ness and you get an idea of the depth and scale.

Cruising into Loch Ness on Spirit of Scotland

Loch Ness. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

One Nessie-seeking couple enjoy their monster spotting from the comfort of the hot tub, while I’m more interested in the craggy hulk of Urquhart Castle. This 13th-century castle ruin hangs right on the banks of the loch and swims in history and legend. On this third day, we cruise tight beneath the ramparts, enjoying grandstand views.

Urquhart Castle on Spirit of Scotland

The 13th century Urquhart Castle. * Photo: European Waterways

On the Castle Trail

Our fourth day takes us deep into the pages of Shakespeare, who often used Scotland’s rich history as inspiration. The name “Cawdor” may be familiar to anyone who has read Macbeth. We head for Cawdor Castle, which is instrumental in the English bard’s “Scottish Play.” Unusually, it is privately owned. Cawdor Castle has retained its grand historical appearance, but inside it is alive with all manner of modern art and sculpture.

Cawdor Castle

The 15th-century Cawdor Castle. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Day five brings another castle. Not just any castle. This one lies as deeply scenic drive away to the northwest. It is an archetypal Scottish fortress that has graced many a shortbread tin. Eileen Donan is as striking a Scottish castle as you will find, standing proudly cross a wee bridge at the confluence of three sea lochs with the Skye Cuillin mountains providing a breathtaking background. Its beauty has not been lost on movie makers who have shot scenes for a multitude of films here, from Highlander to Bond.

Cruising Scotland

Beautiful Donan Castle. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

On our last full day (6), I opt out of the excursion to spectacular Glencoe and head off instead on one of their bikes. This is one of the beauties of the Spirit of Scotland. You can enjoy an excursion with a minibus no matter the weather, but can easily break off on your own.

You can just walk, cycle or jog along the tow path heading to the next mooring. As I am Clan Cameron, I instead cycle around the north shores of Loch Oich to make a pilgrimage to the Clan Cameron Museum at Achnacarry Castle.

A Thoroughly Scottish Experience

You could never mistake what country you are cruising through on this voyage. It’s richly Scottish; in a tasteful way that I appreciate even as a native Scot who has lived here all my life. The decor is pleasing with tartan and paintings that don’t go all Brigadoon or Outlander.

I appreciated that the itinerary was focused on culture and history rather than tourist and craft shops. We didn’t waste time with a sonar scanning the depths of Loch Ness for the monster, but instead delved into the depths of Scottish culture. 

The cruise reaches its zenith of Scottishness soon after we are all back onboard when a piper appears on the towpath to serenade us. He then hauls himself aboard in full Highland Dress and poses happily for photos. Afterwards we invite him aboard and treat him to a wee dram, which really gets his tall tales flowing!

bag piper aboard the Spirit of Scotland

A piper to serenade us! * Photo: Robin McKelvie

A special mention goes to the superb young, female French captain and Australian chef. The latter works wonders in the kitchen, with cooking that is a real breath of fresh air. It is often light, always creative and features plenty of delicious local vegetables, such a whole leek, as an unlikely but delicious main, cooked in inventive ways alongside the traditional Scottish red meats the likes of Scottish beef fillet, as well as seafood such as home-smoked salmon impressively smoked right in front of our eyes (and noses) in the galley.

Our skipper is expert at steering us through the canal network and ultra-friendly too.

Freshly smoked salmon aboard Spirit of Scotland

Freshly smoked salmon! * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Scottish beef filet aboard Spirit of Scotland

Scottish beef filet. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

elegant dining area aboard Spirit of Scotland

The elegant dining area aboard Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

If you’re not sure your stomach will enjoy taking on the Hebrides, or just dream of exploring the Scottish Highlands in calm luxury, the Spirit of Scotland is perfect for you. Even as a Scot I am totally won over and will be dreaming of a dram in that hot tub in the gloaming for years to come.

Spirit of Scotland's hot tub

Robin enjoying a soak in the lovely hot tub aboard the 12-passenger Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

QUICK FACTS

Itineraries/Fares

European Waterways’ six-night “Classic Cruise” on the Spirit of Scotland starts from $5,000 USD per person with all meals, drinks and excursions inclusive.

a twin cabin on Spirit of Scotland

A twin cabin on the Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: European Waterways

Scottish whisky

Drinks, including Scottish whisky of course, are included in the fares. * Photo: European Waterways

Getting There

Typically, there are a number of direct flights from North America to Scotland. Depending on your airline, many flights connect through London. You can choose to arrive in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Tips

European Waterways also operate another barge on the Caledonian Canal — the Scottish Highlander. There may be no outdoor hot tub, but she offers a similar level of luxury, is slightly cheaper and is handy when the Spirit of Scotland is full.

Weather

Scotland is this green with a reason as it can rain whenever you visit. The cruising season runs from spring in April through to autumn in October. May and September are good choices as they tend to be drier, prices are a little cheaper and there is less chance of having to contend with the baleful midge, a harmless but annoying small insect. August is the warmest month, but can also be very wet.

the aft sun deck of Spirit of Scotland

Spirit of Scotland’s aft deck on a sunny day. * Photo: European Waters

Money Matters

The British Pound is the official currency, with Scottish banks printing their own notes that are legal tender throughout the UK. Credit cards and cash widely accepted.

For more info, contact www.europeanwaterways.com/destination/scotland.

UK: +44 (0)1753 598555; USA Toll Free: 1-800-394-8630; Canada Toll Free: 1-877-574-3404.

saloon aboard Spirit of Scotland

The comfy saloon of the Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: European Waterways

Spirit of Scotland bar

The bar aboard Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: European Waterways

charming Spirit of Scotland

See you soon aboard Spirit of Scotland. * Photo: European Waterways

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Cruising Scotland

Cruising Scotland’s Western Isles – An Overview

By Ted Scull.

Think Scotland geographically and its Highlands and Islands, Lowlands and Lochs, and people with heavy accents, some darn hard to understand at first, or even after a few days, straining and training your ears. They are friendly folks, to most visitors, and there is no need to launch into Brexit (Scots voted NO) or United Kingdom rule vs Scottish independence.

Let’s stick to why some of us love the place and return again and again, in my case approximately dozen times.

Cruising Scotland

Eilean Donan Castle. * Photo: Majestic Line

My Experience

My land travel has mostly been by train with some beautiful rides between Edinburgh and Inverness, either through the Highlands or along the North Sea coast. One of the best rides happened in May 2018 on the scenic route to Glasgow from Oban, cruise and ferry port for the accessing the Hebrides, Scotland’s Western Isles.

On that train, I met the captain of one of the cruise lines we cover — Trinity Sailing. The encounter can be accessed below.

RELATED: A chance meeting on a Scottish train. by Ted Scull.

Cruising Scotland

A pair of former Brixham fishing trawlers that cruise the Scottish Isles in the summer. * Photo: Trinity Sailing

One rail trip hauled me all the way to the north tip of Scotland to the end of the line at Thurso, a short bus transfer down to the port of Scrabster and a 90-minute ferry crossing to Stromness on Orkney for a stay.

Then it was more ambitiously by overnight ferry to Lerwick, located mainland Shetland above Orkney. And once on a three-night ferry cruise to both chains. The “North Boats” as they are locally known carry more than 300 passenger limit, so no special coverage here but do have a look. https://www.northlinkferries.co.uk/

Some of the QuirkyCruise cruise lines also visit these most northern isles with their ancient and visible connections to Neolithic sites and Viking settlements from ports (such as Oban in western Scotland).

Cruising Scotland

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Cruising Scotland: The Western Isles

Now for visiting Scotland’s Western Isles, the most popular destinations, other than Edinburgh and Glasgow, two very different cities in their upbringing and positions today. They are less than an hour apart by trains with departures every 15 minutes (30 minutes on Sunday). I like both for largely different reasons. Visiting both makes it whole.

Independent visits to the Inner Hebrides and Outer Hebrides (known as the Western Isles) can be made by ferry and then on foot, and occasionally by local island bus transit, and by car onto the ferries and independent touring once there.

Most Western Isles ferries, operated by Caledonian MacBrayne or Calmac, require reservations, and they are harder to come by as summer approaches, so advance planning is a must. Go to calmac.co.uk for sailings to nearly two-dozen island ports.

Cruising Scotland

A Calmac ferry leaves Oban for the Isle of Mull. * Photo: Ted Scull

In May 2018, our friends (Somerset inhabitants) had a car but we could not get space on the ferry to and from Oban and the island of Mull even with two weeks’ notice. A few islands are connected to the mainland by a bridge such as highly popular Isle of Skye, the exception rather than the rule.

Cruising Scotland: Islands Galore & More

Scotland counts nearly 800 islands in the four groupings (Inner and Outer Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland), and less than 100 are inhabited. Population shifts to and from the islands are a complex topic, but it is safe to say, most have declined over the decades, others have held steady, and a few, such as the larger close in islands ones have grown in population.

A fifth island grouping is in the Firth of Clyde, the mouth of the river that flows west from Glasgow. The sea (salt water) lochs that branch off are the way to inland beauty spots.

RELATED:  Scotland Cruise — Back Doon tha Watter.  by Robin McKelvie.

Cruising Scotland

Paddle steamer Waverley is often seen in the Firth of Clyde. * Photo: Ted Scull

A completely different destination, yet partly within the same region, is the highly scenic Caledonian Canal. Some 60 miles long, it climbs through 29 locks and cuts across Scotland from the southwest to northeast linking stretches of natural waterways, Lochs Linhe, Lochy, Oich and yes, Ness. Fat chance of seeing the Loch Ness Monster but never say never given the sporadic sightings.

RELATED: Spirit of Scotland on the Caledonian Canal.  By Robin McKelvie.

Cruising Scotland

Clyde Puffer VIC 32 negotiating the Caledonian Canal. * Photo: Clyde Puffer

Cruising Scotland: A Fleet of Truly Small Ships

QuirkyCruise coverage of the region will center on the small ships, and some really tiny (6-10 passengers) and on up to 50, that are based here the whole season (May to October).

A few included lines also breakaway to Northern Ireland, Ireland, Wales, the South of England or to the Norwegian coast. Lines whose ships that just add a Scottish cruise or two are not included. Scotland based ships know the territory best.

Cruising Scotland

A Majestic Line ship is between trips at Oban, the main departure port for the Western Isles. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cruising Scotland: What’s the Appeal?

So what is the draw and what are these cruises like aboard a fleet that runs the gamut from being a charming conversion from other purposes, such as towing or fishing, or as a ferry, to purpose-built cruise vessels?

Some retain some character from their previous roles. Cabins are small compared to deep-sea cruise ships, but then it is just a few steps to the lounge, dining area or open deck.

Cruising Scotland

An Argyll Cruises’ cabin. * Photo: Argyll Cruises

Cruising Scotland

Alexander Graham Bell cabin aboard Lord of the Glens. * Photo: Lord of the Glens

It’s a social experience, especially at mealtime where it could be a single table for all or several as in a small country inn.

Cruising Scotland

A single dining table aboard VIC32. * Photo: Clyde Puffer

Cruising Scotland: Mal de Mer

Now those with worries about mal de mer should take note. Inland waters will be calm cruising the Inner Hebrides, while on short open sea passages the vessel may move about a bit. If storms are forecast, the route can be altered to a more sheltered passage.

Apart from longer runs from western Scotland to Orkney or Shetland, there are almost no overnight or open sea transits. In fact, most itineraries will see the vessel anchored in a sheltered bay or cove at night. Then after breakfast, passengers go ashore or the vessel spends a few hours en route to another destination.

Cruising Scotland: The Attractions Ashore 

There are colorful island villages such as Tobermory on Mull and nature walks amongst flowers and plants from there.

Cruising Scotland

A private garden in late May open to the public close to Loch Long, Cove, Firth of Clyde. * Photo: Ted Scull

Visit a lovely tearoom on the Isle of Muck or a stately ancestral home on Skye such as Dunvegan Castle, seat of Clan MacLeod, and open to the public as a museum of family history and island living.

Admire the standing stones and stone circles from Neolithic times such as Callanish on Harris as well as Neolithic sites and Viking fortifications on Orkney and Shetland.

And of course, fawn over the lovable Shetland pony and sheepdog.

Marvel at the ancient early Christian site, dating to 563 on Iona, and take a gander at the birds in the thousands such as gannets, fulmars and petrels. Be charmed by animals seen in the water — seals, otters and whales — and maybe have an opportunity for some fishing.

Cruising Scotland

Puffins abound in the Western Isles. * Photo: Argyll Cruises

Some cruises venture beyond the Outer Hebrides to as far out St. Kilda, a beautiful and remote island; expect some chop. (If the weather should blow up into a storm, the trip out in the open Atlantic may be cancelled.)

The island has remnants of a permanent population, one that extended back for a couple thousand years. In the 1930s, the tiny resident population, numbering two score volunteered to leave as life was becoming untenable. Now, St. Kilda is home for a small military base and tens of thousands of birds as mentioned just above.

Cruising Scotland

St. Kilda, the most remote of the Western Isles, is noted for its huge bird colonies. * Photo: Ted Scull

Most cruises are a week or slightly less, others just three or four days, and a few to more distant islands a week plus.

Cruising Scotland: Who Goes There? 

The operators with number of vessels and passenger count:

Operator # of Vessels Passenger Count
     
Argyll Cruising 1 8 passengers
Hebrides Cruises 2 8-10 passengers
Hebridean Island Cruises 1 50 passengers
Magna Carta Steamship Company 2 42 & 54 passengers
The Majestic Line 4 11 passengers (2);
12 passengers (2)
Puffer Steamboat Holidays 1 12 passengers
St. Hilda 3 6, 8 & 11 passengers
Trinity Sailing 2 7 & 12 passengers

Argyll Cruising
(1 vessel with 8 passengers)

Hebrides Cruises
(1 with 10 passengers, 1 with 8-10 passengers)

Hebridean Island Cruises
(1 with 50 passengers)

Magna Carta Steamship Company
(1 with 42 passengers, 1 with 54 passengers)

Majestic Line
(2 with 11 passengers, 2 with 12 passengers)

Puffer Steamboat Holidays
(1 with 12 passengers)

St. Hilda Sea Adventures
(1 with 6 passengers, 1 with 8 passengers, 1 with 11 passengers)

Trinity Sailing
(1 with 7 passengers, 2 with 12 passengers)

 

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Kyles ruins in Scotland

Scotland Cruise

by Robin McKelvie.

Scottish travel writer and the author of National Geographic’s guide to Scotland, Robin McKelvie has been cruising his country’s waters ever since he was a wee laddie sailing with his dad.

While Scotland’s famous Hebrides are the islands that traditionally get all the attention on the wildly beautiful west coast, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Firth of Clyde. These comparatively sheltered waters offer up a rich bounty of wildlife, superb seafood and spectacular scenery, infused with a romance that dates from the “doon tha watter” (down the water) years when Glaswegians flocked here for their holidays.

Today the legacy lives on as a family-run small cruise operator plies these waters.

Agyll Cruisings' Splendor

Looking over the bow of the 8-passenger Splendor. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Rebirth of an Old Dame

Argyll Cruising harks back to the glory days of Clyde cruising before the advent of cheap jet travel ended the popularity of the estuary from the 1960s onwards, when holiday seekers started heading for the sun in places like Spain.

Owner and skipper of the 8-passenger Splendour, Iain Duncan, has resurrected a 60-year-old 20m-long (66 foot) former North Sea fishing trawler to fulfil a long cherished dream, a dream of sailing his own wee cruise ship in his beloved Firth of Clyde.

Captain Iain Duncan on a Scottish cruise

Captain Iain Duncan at the helm. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Iain grew up in these parts on the shores of Loch Fyne, Scotland’s longest sea loch and a wild, sinewy loch famous for its oysters and big skies. Joining him on the bridge as we cruise out of their mountain fringed base at Holy Loch (once home to a British and US submarine base), I quickly realise no one knows the Clyde better than Iain.

“I learned to row in these waters just as soon as I could walk,” he smiles as the late afternoon sun reflects off his cobalt eyes and his waft of white hair breaks like a wave over his welcoming smile.

8-passenger Splendour in Scotland

The 8-passenger Splendour. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Sailing Through the Mountains

As the classic Gardner diesel engine chugs us out of Holy Loch the slender finger of the sea loch that splits the rugged mountains lends it more the air of the Norwegian fjords rather than an estuary just a stone’s throw from Scotland’s largest city of Glasgow. The mightiest of the mountains we encounter on our adventure soars over 1,000m (some 330 feet) skywards. That is all the more impressive when you get to see the mountains emerge all the way from sea level, through a thick cloak of emerald forest and swirling mists, up towards often snow-capped peaks.

scotland cruise landscape

The stunning scenery on “Kyles & the Isles” itinerary will take your breath away. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

You won’t forget the Argyll Alps and the Arran Hills. This is the epic land, after all, that gave Scottish-born John Muir a love of mountains that saw him go on to becoming instrumental in founding the US national park network. Muir actually left Scotland in 1849 as a boy by ship for good from Helensburgh, which we cruise near as we spill out into the Firth of Clyde proper.

Scotland cruise map

The “Kyles and the Isles” itinerary. * Map: Argyll Cruising

 Kyles ruins in Scotland

The breathtaking Kyles. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

The Unique Firth of Clyde

Iain’s own enthusiasm for the spectacular Scottish estuary is instantly infectious.

“You just cannae (can’t) beat the Firth of Clyde,” he expands. “The Clyde is sheltered, with little swell and alive with wildlife from dolphins to orcas, castles and a country house (Mount Stuart) built by the world’s richest man [Marquess of Bute]. Then there are the old resort towns, beaches and superb walks.”

Firth of Clyde scenery on a Scotland cruise

The scenic Firth of Clyde. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

It is indeed a varied corner of Scotland. I’m on one of their short three-night cruises, but we cover a massive amount. All at a suitably leisurely pace, though, with plenty of time for lazing around on the ample outside space, including the sturdy solid wood table Iain had built fore during a refit for the 2019 season.

That same refit saw upgraded cabins so the Splendour now sleeps eight in en suite comfort.

Splendour on a Scotland cruise

One of the Splendour’s 4 cozy cabins. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

The Firth of Clyde islands

We spend the first night at a tranquil mooring in the famed Kyles of Bute. It is easy to see why legendary film director Lord Richard Attenborough bought a house here — it is instantly cinematic.

Kyles of Bute in Scotland

A stunning sunset at the Kyles of Bute. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

The mainland and the Isle of Bute ease towards sinewy narrows (kyle means narrows in Scottish Gaelic) as we sneak through safe in Iain’s experienced hands.

I used to sail these waterways with my late father in his yacht and I remember all the isles that to me engendered such a sense of romance — Arran, Bute, the two Cumbraes and the quasi-mystical rock stac of Ailsa Craig.

As we sail between Arran and Ailsa Craig, Iain sums it up neatly as I enjoy a wee dram of Arran single malt: “For me there is no finer place in Scotland to sail. There is such diversity of scenery and wildlife. You won’t find an island more dramatic than Ailsa Craig nor more beautiful than Arran.”

Ailsa Craig on a Scotland cruise

Close up of Ailsa Craig. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

We make landfall on Ailsa Craig, the towering uninhabited granite isle that lies halfway between Glasgow and Belfast, earning it the moniker of “Paddy’s Milestone” (as in St. Patrick). I manage to scramble up the rough ground to the 338m (1,110 foot) peak. From here all the Clyde isles unfurl below and the hills of Antrim beckon beyond the unmistakable peninsula of Kintyre. Remember the romance of Paul McCartney’s mystical “Mull of Kintyre?”

This is the Splendour’s glorious playground.

ruins in Scotland

The ruins of ancient Scotland are everywhere. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

whisky in Arran in Scotland

Robin enjoys a wee dram or two of whisky in Arran.

Epic Wildlife and Delicious Food

The Firth of Clyde may once have launched many of the world’s ships, but today it is more a haven for wildlife. The waters brim with life, from porpoises and dolphins, through to hulking basking sharks and even various whale species. On the (at least) daily trips ashore you can seek out red deer and red squirrels, while seabirds from puffins and gannets fill the skies. Iain stresses you’re always welcome on the characterful old-style bridge — it’s ideal for wildlife spotting.

puffins in Scotland

Adorable puffins. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

dolphins on a Scotland cruise

Watch dancing dolphins right from the boat. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

standing on deck of Splendour in Scotland

Standing on deck spotting for marine life. * Photo: Argyll Cruising

“We recently had a pod of orcas in the Clyde and I’ve had minke whales cutting right under us and humpbacks breaching just ahead,” beams Iain with pride.

Our third night is spent in the wee resort of Millport (our second had been at anchor off Arran), one of the holiday hubs during the “doon tha watter” heyday along with Dunoon and Rothesay.

After a wee trip ashore to a traditional pub to enjoy an ale from a brewery on Loch Fyne, it’s back aboard for another superb dinner.

The meals onboard are memorable, served in the cosy interior or out at that chunky outside table.

dining aboard the Splendour in Scotland

The Splendour’s dining room. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Our chef (who also doubles as the bosun) bustles away, working wonders with delicious fresh local produce such as scallops landed in Oban, lobster from Tarbert on Loch Fyne and smoked fish from Argyll Smokery in Dunoon, washed down with coffee roasted in the Kyles of Bute.

Local Scottish crab and prawns

Local crab and prawns. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Waving a Fond Farewell

Easing out on the deck I share a final dram, this time from Campbelltown, where the Firth of Clyde enjoys a dramatic dalliance with the Irish Sea, in the company of a colony of seals.

As the sun burns down over the brooding Arran Hills there is nothing to break the waters, the calm silence broken only by the call of an oystercatcher, which just adds to the sense of peace.

As my “doon tha watter” Scotland cruise draws to an end I raise a glass in toast with another traditional Scottish phrase — “Haste ye back!”

The Arran hills of Scotland

Looking across to Arran. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

The Practical Stuff

Itineraries/Fares

A three-night “Kyles and the Isles” cruise on the Splendour round-trip from the Holy Loch Marina in Donoon starts from around US$1,200 per person with all meals, wine with dinner and excursions inclusive. The vessel is also available for private hire — contact Iain’s son Jamie for details, at the email below. Argyll Cruising offers 9 itinearies from 3 to 13 nights.

Getting There

These days there are a number of direct flights from North America to Scotland. Depending on your airline, many flights connect through London (and some Dublin). You can choose to arrive in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh or Glasgow, with the latter an hour’s drive closer to the marina in Argyll.  Or you can train it from Glasgow Central to Gourock and pick up a ferry to Dunoon, where you’d need a taxi to get to the marina.

Tips

If you’ve been to the Firth of Clyde already, or are just keener to check out the Hebrides, Argyll Cruising now also offer trips out beyond Kintyre. (The Hebrides are defined as the islands that lie beyond Kintyre.)

Argyll Cruising

When the weather cooperates, the Scottish scenery is stunning. * Photo: Robin McKelvie

Weather

Scotland is this green with a reason as it can rain whenever you visit. The cruising season runs from spring in April through to autumn in October. May and September are good choices as they tend to be drier, prices are a little cheaper and there is less chance of having to contend with the baleful midge, a harmless but annoying small insect. August is the warmest month, but can also be very wet.

Money Matters

The British Pound is the official currency, with Scottish banks printing their own notes that are legal tender throughout the UK. Credit cards and cash widely accepted.

For More Info

Contact Argyll Cruising www.argyllcruising.com; +44 (0) 7917 858 545; info@argyllcruising.com.

Scottish travel writer Robin McKelvie

Scottish travel writer Robin McKelvie knows his subject!

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Hebridean Island Cruises

Hebridean Island Cruises

Based in Great Britain, the independently-owned British cruise line operates a single ship, HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS, a lovely floating country house hotel that has had no equal for three decades in atmosphere or price.

She is based largely in Scotland, with the most frequent base port being Oban, for the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the Western Isles, occasional cruises that calls at Northern Ireland’s ports, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, and in 2021, several summertime cruises to the Norwegian Fjords.

This line should not be confused with the pair of 10-passenger yachts operated by Hebrides Cruises.

Note: The rest 2020 season has been cancelled, and the 2021 and 2022 seasons’ itineraries have been announced.  See the website for details, and we will update the review soon.

Hebridean Island Cruises

The Hebridean Princess. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Addendum: Hebridean River Cruises charters the intimate 70-passenger ROYAL CROWN to ply the Belgian and Dutch waterways in the spring and later in the season cruise the Danube between on two cruise between Passau, Germany and Bucharest, Romania. Fares include transfers between Britain and the riverboat, shore excursions, wines and spirits, internet and WiFi, and gratuities. See the website for additional details.

Note: The shortened 2020 season is expected to resume on 7th October.

Cocktail hour on the after deck anchored off Ireland. * Photo: Ted Scull

Cocktail hour on the after deck anchored off Ireland. * Photo: Ted Scull

Ships, Year Delivered & Passengers

HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS (Built 1964 as COLUMBA and rebuilt into a cruise ship in 1989 & 50 passengers)

Passenger Profile

Mainly British aged 50+ with many repeat passengers and occasionally Americans and other Europeans, Australians.

Passenger Decks

5, no elevator

Price

$$$  Very pricey, yet lots of included features.

Itineraries

Cruises operate from March to November to include lots of itineraries amongst Scotland’s Inner and Outer Hebrides, and depending on the year to Northern Ireland, Isle of Man, Ireland, South of England, the Channel Islands, French coastal ports, and via the Shetlands and Orkney thence across the North Sea to Norway’s coast and fjords. In any one season, no cruise is repeated. Here are samplings of  itineraries and be sure to check the line’s website for all the wonderful options.

Scotland, Hebridean Island Princess

Eilean Donan, Scotland * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

 

  • Secret Gardens of the Western Seaboard (7 nights) round trip from Oban, Scotland visiting Plockton, Loch Ewe, Ullapool, Skye, Mull, and Ft. William.
  • St. Kilda and Islands on the Edge (7 nights) from Oban, Scotland to Colonsay, Tiree,  St. Kilda (the most western isle), Lewis (Callanish Stones), Shiant Islands, Eigg,  and return to Oban.
  • Pearls of the Irish Sea  (7 nights) from Oban, Scotland to Islay, Bangor, Isle of Man, Cockermouth, Larne, Jura, and return to Oban.
  • Sea Lochs of the Lower Clyde (6 nights) from Greenock ( near the mouth of the Clyde) to Rothesay, Troon, Port Ryan, Holy Isle, Holy Loch and a return to Greenock.
  • Two cruises, marked as Spring Surprise and Autumn Surprise, are seven-night Hebridean itineraries decided upon by the captain. They leave from and arrive back at Oban and are popular with repeat passengers who like the ship so much that they don’t mind where she goes. Footloose indicates a focus on walking and hiking outings.
  • 2021 will see a return to Norway, a North Sea crossing to and from little and will known fjords and inlets and island between Bergen and Stavanger and a pair of cruises based at Bergen.

 

St. Kilda is a famous birding island in the far Western Isles.

St. Kilda is a famous birding island in the far out Western Isles.* Photo: Ted Scull.

Special interest cruises include: hiking (marked Footloose), golf, gardens, wildlife and nature, world and highland heritage, architecture, art, classical music, Scottish food and drink; bicycles available. Look for designations.

Generally, the vessel either docks or anchors at night and travels during breakfast or lunch to the next location. Occasional overnight sails take place when the itinerary stretches south to and from English Channel ports.

Included Features

All drinks; tips; shore excursions; bicycles; speed boat rides; fishing trips; Internet; transfers between airports and railway stations; free parking.

Why Go?

If you crave an authentic upscale Scottish country hotel atmosphere and would like it to move about seeking the most wondrous and obscure locales in the northern British Isles, this is your conveyance, and it is limited to 50 like-minded souls. Additional cruises, depending on the year, head south to Ireland, Wales, Channel Islands, South of England, Channel Islands and French coastal ports and coastal Norway.

Most amazingly, the HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS was created from a hard-working, well-engineered ferry that plied the Western Isles for a quarter century before being transformed into something quite different, yet retaining much of its traditional profile. Ted slept aboard her in one of the tiny below deck cabins as a ferry and returned for two wonderful cruise voyages in island-studded Scotland and coastal Ireland.

Scotland. Hebridean Island Cruises

Some cruises specialize in hiking. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

When to Go?

The weather in the British Isles is notoriously fickle, so you take your chances. You won’t find a cozier ship to retreat into on a foul day.

Cabins

All accommodations are individually decorated in beautiful colors and fabrics and are named after Scottish isles, castles, lochs and sounds, with wildly varying layouts. Many are roomy for a small ship, and those without windows have portholes, while six are inside without natural light. Beds may be king-size or twins, double or single. Two cabins have private balconies and ten are singles. Cabins along with the bathrooms were refitted for the 2019 season.

Cabin: Isle of Danna. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Above: Cabin: Isle of Danna. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

 

Renovated cabin - Isle of bute

Renovated cabin – Isle of Bute – use of Scottish plaids and Harris tweed

Amenities include a dressing table, ample storage space, fridge stocked with soft drinks, milk, coffee/tea making facilities, TV, personal safe, hairdryer, trouser press, iron and ironing board, bathrobes and slippers.

Public Rooms

In the forward-facing Tiree Lounge, the ship excels in that special small country hotel feeling with a brick and timber fireplace, comfy sofas and chairs and a cozy bar in one corner. The snug library draws readers to its tartan upholstered and leather seating, and two sides lounges — the Look-Out and wicker-furnished Conservatory are venues for morning coffee and afternoon tea.

In fine weather, passengers gather on the open afterdeck for pre-dinner cocktail receptions with hot hors d’oeuvres. On the topmost Boat Deck, windbreaks protect partitioned sections furnished with sun loungers and chairs.

Hebbridean Island Cruises

A cozy light-filled lounge. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Dining

The restaurant, refurbished for the 2019 season, operates like a hotel dining room with tables for two or up to eight for those traveling together. Single passengers sit at an officer’s table. Presentation and service from a European staff are tops with the menu thoroughly British such as a Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding and sliced duckling , while Scottish specialties may be highland game, sautéed and smoked salmon, and fresh oysters. You might wish to, or not, sample haggis, a concoction of calf or lamb hearts, lungs and liver with onion, suet and seasonings and kedgeree made from rice and smoked fish. Dinner sees men in jackets and ties with women in equivalent attire; some are formal nights.

Hebridean Island Cruises

Restaurant. * Photo: Hebridean Island Cruises

Activities & Entertainment

Shore trips (included) visit near and remote islands, castles, stately homes, and gardens, fishing villages and for walks of varying difficulty on rugged islands. The ship is also equipped bicycles for touring and fishing tackle, so you can try your luck.  In Scotland and Ireland, be prepared for Scottish mists and uncertain weather. Entertainment aboard is geared toward individual musicians.

Activities: How about enjoying a read on the top deck. * Photo: Ted Scull

Staying aboard and enjoying a read on the top deck. * Photo: Ted Scull

Special Notes

Children under the age of nine not accepted. With a high rate of British repeaters, Anglophilia helps.

Along the Same Lines

Equally small and less pricey ships of Hebridean Cruises, Magna Carta Steamship Company, and The Majestic Line.

Contact

Hebridean Island Cruises, Kintail House, Carleton New Road, Skipton, Yorkshire BD23 2DE, www.hebridean.co.uk; from the US 011 44 (0)756 704 704, UK 01756 704 704; Also, contact a US rep. at 877-600-2648. Be sure to mention promo code HEB2020.

— TWS

 

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The Majestic Line

COVID-19 UPDATE 

The Majestic Line resumed cruising in September 2020. Be sure to check the line’s website for up-to-date news.

The Majestic Line specializes in small-boat cruises in Argyll, Western Scotland and the Hebridean Isles, using two converted fishing boats and two custom-designed steel-hulled gentleman’s motor yachts. The latter have stabilizers so are used for longer trips to more remote places.

While there is an outlined itinerary for every departure, the exact coastal and island calls and their sequence are dependent on the fickle Scottish weather. As the boats carry 11 and 12 passengers only, a cruise is very much a shared experience in close quarters. Every cruise has two single cabins offered and the booking chart on Majestic’s website shows availability.

If you ever wanted to explore Scotland’s coastline and the highly varied Hebridean Islands without fussing over ferry schedules for your rented car or resorting to a confining bus tour with too many others, here’s your answer, a local firm with a quartet of wee ships.

All four vessels are available for charter, with rates discounted by 10%.

Fleet

Glen Massan (built 1975 & 11 passengers) – Hebridean Islands, Caledonian Canal & Loch Ness

Glen Tarsan (b. 1975 & 11 p) – Hebridean Islands, Argyll, Caledonian Canal & Loch Ness

Glen Etive (b. 2016 & 12 p) – Hebridean Islands, Outer Hebridean Islands, Argyll, Skye & Northwest Coast

Glen Shiel (b. 2019 & 12 p) – Hebridean Islands; Skye; Orkney; the Outer Hebridean Islands & St. Kilda; Northwest Coast

The Majestic Line

Three of Majestic Line’s vessels at the dock. * Photo: Majestic Line

Passenger Profile

Primarily from Great Britain, ages 50 and up. Children under 12 not accepted unless part of a charter.

Price

$$$ Very pricey

Included Features
  • On board meals
  • Good selected wines at dinner
  • Tender excursions for exploring

RELATED: Cruising Majestic Line’s Glen Shiel.  by Robin McKelvie.

Itineraries

All four boats offer short-break 3-night and longer 6-night cruises, while Glen Etive and Glen Shiel also do 10-night cruises from Western Scotland to lochs and town landings in Argyll and trips out to the Inner and Outer Hebrides. In all, 19 different itineraries are offered with departures from April to October.

Nearly all embark and disembark in Oban, a port with ScotRail connections to the rest of Britain. Exceptions are one-way trips between Oban and Inverness and the first cruise of the season leaving from Holy Loch, Dunoon, Majestic Line’s base of operations.

The vessels usually anchor by dinnertime in a secluded setting, and get underway after breakfast. If the next stop is a bit further on, then the boat may depart before breakfast.

puffins on lunga

Puffins on Lunga. * Photo: The Majestic Line

Sample Itinerary

The 6-night “Isles of the Clyde and the Southern Hebrides” embarks at Oban, sailing through the Firth of Clyde to the Arran Islands, Kyles of Bute and Campbeltown, rounding the Mull of Kintyre to the southern Hebridean Islands, the Firth of Lorn in North Argyll, past the isles of Gigha, Islay and Jura, and ending at Holy Loch on the Firth of Clyde.

Why Go?

Scotland is beautiful when the weather cooperates and is noted for its dramatic seascape scenery in many different lighting conditions, deep lochs to explore (similar to Norway’s fjords), a multitude of varied islands, castles and proud Scottish clans.

Wildlife is seen in the air, on the sea and on land during walks. Circumnavigate the Isle of Skye, cross Scotland via the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness, and cruise out into the Atlantic to see the world’s largest gannetry hosting 60,000 pairs living and breading on isolated island of St. Kilda.

Iona. * Photo: Majestic Line

Iona. * Photo: The Majestic Line

When to Go?

With Scotland’s reputation for unpredictable and constantly varying weather, there is no best time. Be prepared for chilly and windy conditions at any time of the year as well as long days of sunlight in May and into August.

Sustainability Initiatives

At every chance, The Majestic Line sources ingredients for meals from local sources, working closely with local communities with respect to culture and wilderness.

Activities & Entertainment

On board, activities are board games, puzzles, and videos or relaxing and reading from the library selections. Traditional shore excursions do not exist. With maps and guidance from the crew, passengers go ashore independently to visit towns and take walks.

The tender takes passengers ashore to land on a beach or to a dock with sightseeing aids for creating short walks or longer hikes of one to two hours. Occasionally a one-way hike starts with a drop-off at the start and a pickup in an altogether different spot. Passengers may also fish, mostly for mackerel, or help lower and raise the lobster pots, and most likely the catch will be crabs.

At times, the wheelhouse is open to visitors, and the crew is happy to share knowledge of navigation and geography. You might even have a hand at the wheel. — Ted Scull

Dining

Communal table seats all. Typical meal times are: breakfast 8-9am; lunch 1pm; afternoon tea at 4pm; and dinner 7:30pm. Wine is included with dinner.

Main courses feature local fish and shellfish (crabs and sometime lobsters), beef, lamb and venison all sourced locally. With so few to cook for, meals are a craft and a treat. An outside table may also be available when the weather is conducive.

The West coast of Scotland is famed for its shellfish, so it’s little surprise that each cruise features a delicious seafood buffet including mussels, langoustines, scallops and oysters. Venison and beef also appear on menus, locally sourced from the hills of Argyll. And the nightly cheese board is always a highlight with its local Scottish cheeses and preserves.

Glen Tarsan dining saloon

Dining saloon on GLEN TARSAN. * Photo: Majestic Line

SHIPS

Glen Massan
Glen Tarsan

The original Majestic Line boats, these two wooden-hulled, former fishing vessels were converted by the line into bespoke cruise ships. Each has three decks (no elevator).

The deck saloon is the main gathering place for meals, relaxing moments with views and sometimes programs on the large-screen TV.

Drinks, including a wide choice of malt whiskies, are served al fresco on the sheltered aft deck, which is accessed by French doors. If weather allows, meals can be served here, too.

A library stocks books on local attractions and games. Passengers are welcome to chat with the skipper and crew in the wheelhouse. The top deck is ideal for warming in the sun and watching wildlife.

Cabins

The vessels are small hence the cabins are compact with either twin or double-bed configurations. Two singles are available on every cruise with no supplement. All cabins are outside and feature en suite showers, toilets and washbasins.

Glen Etive
Glen Shiel

Majestic Line’s first purpose-built, steel-hulled cruise ships, Glen Etive and Glen Shiel each have three decks (with no elevator).

The Majestic Line's Glen Shiel

The Glen Shiel just joined the Majestic Line fleet! * Photo: The Majestic Line

There’s a dining saloon where all meals are served in informal style, and a warm and inviting forward saloon with great views and socializing with crew and other guests. Drinks and canapés are sometimes served on the outdoor aft deck. There’s a bar in the forward deck with a good selection of malt whiskies available at all times.

The library stocks books and games, while in the lounge/bar they will screen the occasional local documentary or film. The wheelhouse is often open to passengers and there’s also a sun deck with sun loungers.

Cabins

Glen Etive and Glen Shiel have larger cabins than Glen Massan and Glen Tarsan. All cabins are outside and feature en suite showers, toilets and washbasins.

Cabin on Glen Etive. * Photo: Majestic Line

Cabin on GLEN ETIVE. * Photo: The Majestic Line

Special Notes

Glen Etive and Glen Shiel(2019) have stabilizers and are used for longer trips that might encounter some choppy seas such as to the Outer Hebrides and to remote St. Kilda truly out in the Atlantic.

Along the Same Lines

Hebridean Island Cruises‘ 49-passenger Hebridean Princess also cruises in Scotland’s Western Isles, as does Lord of  the Glen, recently purchased by Hebridean Island Cruises from the Magna Carta Steamship Company.

Also check out the small pair operating for Hebrides Cruises; as well as Argyll Cruising and St Hilda Sea Adventures, a pair of wonderful companies with charming vessels cruising Scotland.

Contact

The Majestic Line, UK-based

www.themajesticline.co.uk

info@themajesticline.co.uk; +44 (0) 1369 707 951

— TWS

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