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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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The Majestic Line

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. 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 shows availability.

If you ever wanted to explore Scotland’s coast line 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 trio, soon to be a quartet, of wee ships.

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Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

GLEN MASSAN (built 1975 & converted 2005 & 11 passengers); GLEN TARSAN (b. 1975 & converted 2007 & 11p); GLEN ETIVE (b. 2016 & 12p); and GLEN SHIEL (b. 2019 & 12p).

The Majestic Line

Majesty Line’s trio at the dock before the GLEN SHIEL was delivered in 2019. * Photo: Majesty Line

Passenger Decks

Three decks and no elevator.

Passenger Profile

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

Price

$$$ Very pricey

Itineraries

GLEN MASSAN and GLEN TARSAN offer short-break 3-night and longer 6-night cruises and GLEN ETIVE 6- and 10-night cruises from Western Scotland to lochs and town landings in Argyll and trips out to the Inner and Outer Hebrides. In all, 14 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. GLEN SHIEL added the mix of itineraries in 2019, and her slightly higher speed allows for more far-ranging destinations.

In 2020, Argyll and the Clyde will be featured at the beginning and end of the season on 6-night cruises. As most of the route is along the river and into sheltered lochs it should be smooth sailing. Highlights are picturesque town of Rothesay, Loch Fyne’s access to Inverarary, Mount Stuart Mansion House, Carrick Castle and the narrow channel to the Kyles of Bute.

puffins on lunga

Puffins on Lunga. * Photo: The Majestic Line

Included Features

Good selected wines at dinner. The tender may be used for exploring at no extra cost while traditional shore excursions do not exist. With maps and guidance from the crew, passengers go ashore independently to visit towns and take walks.

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.

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. The newer GLEN ETIVE and GLEN SHIEL (2019) have larger cabins. 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

Public Rooms

A passenger lounge with bar service, dining room, and open deck space. 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.

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.

Dining on Glen Tarsan. * Photo: Majestic Line

Dining saloon on GLEN TARSAN. * Photo: Majestic Line

Activities & Entertainment

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

Special Notes

All four vessels are available for charter, and such an arrangement can be researched first by looking at the cabin availability on the annual cruise schedule. No bookings indicate a charter may be possible, and rates are discounted by 10%. GLEN ETIVE and GLEN SHIEL (2019) have stabilizers and is 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.

The Majesty Line's Glen Shiel

The Glen Shiel joined the Majesty Line fleet in 2019! * Photo: The Majesty Line

Along the Same Lines

Hebridean Island Cruises‘ 49-passenger HEBRIDEAN PRINCESS also cruises in Scotland’s Western Isles; as does an equally small pair operating for Hebrides Cruises; and the single vessel, LORD OF THE GLEN, for the Magna Carta Steamship Company. Also check out Argyll Cruising and St Hilda Sea Adventures, a pair of wonderful companies with charming vessels cruising Scotland.

Contact

The Majestic Line, Unit 3, Holy Loch Marina, Sandbank, Dunoon PA23 8FE Argyll, Scotland; +44 (0) 1369 707 951 or www.themajesticline.co.uk.

— TWS

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Magna Carta Steamship Company

UPDATE:  Magna Carta Steamship Co Sells Lord of the Glens. by Ted Scull  (Aug 16, 2020) … more details to follow.

Founded in 1999, the Magna Carta Steamship Company the LORD OF THE GLENS, a 27-cabin mini cruiser outfitted with classic interiors, on five- and seven-night cruises, April to October. One-way trips operate between Inverness and Oban via the 60-mile Caledonian Canal or between the coastal community of Kyle of Lochalsh and Inverness.

All three ports have train connections to the rest of Scotland, and south to England and Wales. Some mid-summer dates are chartered out to Lindblad Expeditions

Cruise the beautiful Caledonian Canal spanning Scotland from the North Sea to the West Coast and the sheltered Scottish coast aboard a comfy mini cruiser.

Beginning in May 2020, you will have the choice of two vessels when the LORD OF THE HIGHLANDS is delivered.

LORD OF THE GLENS passing Urquhart Castle. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

LORD OF THE GLENS passing Urquhart Castle. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

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Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

LORD OF THE GLENS was originally built in Greece in the 1980s and then rebuilt for the present owners in the year 2000, taking 54 passengers.

Note: In May 2020, the Spanish-built LORD OF THE HIGHLANDS will join the line taking 42 passengers in 21 outside cabins. Details will be added as they become available.

Passenger Decks

4 and no elevator.

Passenger Profile

Americans, Canadians, British and Europeans. Crew is British and European.

Price

$$ to $$$ — Expensive to very pricey.

Included Features

Rates include excursions as outlined in the itinerary and transfers to/from Inverness at the start or end of the cruise. Suggested tipping is GBP 7 per person per day. Limited internet is available and WiFi generally not except in towns.

Itineraries

Two different itineraries are operated.

LORD OF THE GLENS in the Caledonian Canal. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

LORD OF THE GLENS in the Caledonian Canal. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

5 nights: Inverness to Oban via Loch Ness and through the locks of the scenic 19th-century Caledonian Canal. The route through the heart of the Highlands aims southwest to Scotland’s west coast entering the sea via Neptune’s Staircase, a flight of descending locks. The cruise continues to colorful Tobermory, the Isle of Mull for Duart Castle and finally to the port of Oban.

7 nights: Begins similarly then heads out to the Christian site at Iona, the Isles of Eigg and Skye, Eilean Donan Castle, the pretty town of Plonkton and finally to the Kyle of Lochalsh. Bird and sea life sightings are features of this longer cruise.

Docked at Tobermory. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

Docked at Tobermory. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

Why Go?

When the fickle Scottish weather cooperates, the shimmering lochs, deep glens, and high bens (mountains) are magnificent. Spring brings wild flowers and the autumn, an array of color. The landscapes change very quickly as the ship moves along the Caledonian Canal and crosses long deep lochs, including Loch Ness, perhaps the most famous of all.

When to Go?

Magna Carta Steamship Company cruises operate from May to October, and July and August are the busiest months for visits ashore to prime tourist spots. But Scotland is rarely a crowded scene, just the contrary.

Cabins

The 27 cabins (average about 135 sq. ft.) are divided into four categories over three decks and accommodate 54 passengers, all with dressing table, hairdryer, satellite TV, radio, music system, air-conditioning/heating, safe deposit box, and private shower, toilet, and washbasin. Suitcases fit under the beds.

Windows bring in abundant natural light in all rooms apart from four lower deck units with double portholes. Beds are mostly twin.

Alexander Graham Bell cabin. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

Alexander Graham Bell cabin. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

Public Rooms

The highest of the four decks is given over to an observation lounge with a glass domed ceiling and a mahogany-trimmed bar lounge with good views, while the dining room seating all passengers at one time is on the deck below. The forward deck has uninterrupted views ahead and to port and starboard. For ocean liner buffs, some decorative features and some furnishings are from the SS France, RMS Rhodesia Castle and RMS Windsor Castle and the original Orient Express.

Dining

Breakfast (buffet) is available from 7 to 9:30am, lunch 12:30pm and dinner 7:30pm. Scottish produce is featured with angus beef and bounty from the sea. Passengers are asked to choose their entries in advance to give the chef an idea of how much to prepare. Most men wear a jacket to dinner and may dress up a bit more for a special evening.

Bar-Lounge. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

Bar-Lounge. * Photo: Magna Carta SS Co.

Activities & Entertainment

Social life predominates aboard, and ashore with coach drives to castles and beauty spots of this green country, plus walks around pretty towns. A film is screened every night.

Special Notes

With the Scottish cruises of short duration, one week or less, plan on a larger itinerary than might include Glasgow and Edinburgh or even the Outer Hebrides.

Along the Same Lines

Hebrides Cruises, The Majestic Line, Hebridean Island Cruises.

Contact

Magna Carta Steamship Company Ltd, 136 Hamilton Terrace, London NW8 9UX UK; Tel: 020 7372 2077

TWS

 

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