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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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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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