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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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Quirky Cruise covers a number of sailing vessels that came into this world for a distinctly different purpose.

Sailing on Old Ships

by Ted Scull.

Let’s begin with something land-based.

Years ago when I was looking to buy a New York apartment, and long before the gentrification of many neighborhoods, I contacted real estate agents specifying pre-war only. This meant I wanted an older building constructed before WWII.

Benefits of sailing in an old ship

Former Brixham trawlers provide heritage sailing. * Photo: Trinity Sailing

Why Old Ships?

With age comes, at least to me, a more attractive building to look at, usually better craftsmanship inside and out, higher ceilings, more soundproof walls, attractive molding framing the doors and ceiling, and maybe larger rooms. Some of the older apartments I inspected were in better shape than others. I wanted, except for painting, move-in condition and didn’t want to have to replace the wiring, plumbing, and appliances.

My wife and I found our dream home, and decades later, we remain happily ensconced and have no thought of moving.

Okay, Not All of Us Think This Way

I realize many folks want a new building for all the obvious reasons, and that might also translate into choosing the latest ship, one with all the bells and whistles.

The new vs older ship debate can be a bit more complicated. While there may be little argument about many older ships looking more pleasing compared to some built today that resemble densely-packed condos — with almost no pointy bow and walls of cabins piled high virtually the length of the ship and at the stern — there’s no debating that old ships often require more maintenance.

Ships take an increasing amount of investment to keep them sailing safely, and as they plow through varying types of seas, they endure more pressure on their superstructures, internal divisions, plumbing, wiring and mechanical equipment than any stationary building on land.

The building I live in is over 90 years old, and is in excellent shape, while few ships last more than 30 or 40 years. They often get downgraded as they reach a certain age.

So, where can we throw all that to the wind?

Sailing Ships Age Well

One possible exception, is the sailing ship. In many cases they have been refitted from an earlier life to become a cruise ship, while still maintaining the maritime character not found in new ships. They provide an authentic sailing ship experience, albeit with added modern comforts, and likely operate an auxiliary engine to kick in when the wind dies, as most people need to be somewhere else at some point.

Built for a Different Purpose

Quirky Cruise covers a number of sailing vessels that came into this world for a distinctly different purpose. Here’s a look:

Sea Cloud Cruises. Let’s start at the top end for luxury-minded with the former private cruising yacht Sea Cloud, once belonging to the cereal heiress Marjorie Meriwether Post and operating as an extremely popular cruise ship for 40 years.

Built in 1931 as the Hussar, the Sea Cloud is largely authentic to its period with original dining and lounge spaces, eight luxury cabins as built, plus 26 smaller units added to make the now commercial ship turn a profit. Standing on deck with the sails up, she takes you back in time to a more elegant world. She’s pricey, so let’s look at some others.

*Note: Our Sea Cloud review does not list the lines that regularly charter her, and many will likely book through one of them or through an alum, museum group, than directly through the line Sea Cloud Cruises.

Quirky Cruise covers a number of sailing vessels that came into this world for a distinctly different purpose.

Sea Cloud, originally built in 1931 as a private yacht. * Photo: Sea Cloud Cruises

Oceanwide Expeditions operates the Rembrandt van Rijn built early in the 20th century as a herring lugger and refitted in 1994 as a three-masted Dutch schooner for cruising in the Arctic. Running mate Nooderlicht, originally designed as a light vessel in 1910, was refitted as a two-masted cruising ship for the same northern waters. With handsome profiles, wonderful wood-paneled interiors and cozy cabins with comfy bunk beds, you will be transported back to an earlier time.

Old ships

Noorderlicht. * Photo: Oceanwide Expeditions

Trinity Sailing operates a trio of once highly innovative Brixham (Devon UK) trawlers, once numbering in the thousands, that transformed Britain’s fishing fleet into a huge financial success.  Now they offer coastal cruises amongst the British Isles. Operating also as a registered charity, they also take school aged children from all backgrounds on sail training courses to help advance their confidence, skills and teamwork and make new friends. Leader built 1892, 12 passengers; Golden Vanity b.  1908, 7 passengers; and Provident b. 1924, 12 passengers.

quirky-cruise-trinity-sailing-brixham-heritage-trawler-in-the-river

Brixham heritage trawler in the River Dart, Dartmouth in Devon. * Photo: Trinity Sailing

Silhouette Cruises, in the Indian Ocean, converted a 1915 former sail-powered fishing boat into Sea Pearl (27 passengers) and a 1920 pilot vessel into Sea Shell (23 passengers) for interisland sailing in the Seychelles.

Benefits of cruising in an old ship

What could be more romantic than an heritage sailing vessel among the Seychelles? * Photo: Silhouette Cruises

 

Follow Up

In an upcoming post, we will cover our small engine-powered cruise ships that reveal their heritage as working ships and offer a real time look into the past.

 

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quirky-cruise-trinity-sailing-brixham-heritage-trawler-in-the-river

N.B. Part of Brixham’s heritage fleet is to be sold after The Trinity Sailing Foundation, a charity which has taken thousands of disadvantaged people to sea for 20 years, announced it has to cease current operations and redefine its mission. The Brixham-based charity’s three historic vessels — Leader (1892), Provident (1924), and Golden Vanity (1908) — will be sold after the charity said that changing conditions in recent years mean its previous operating model is no longer viable. If any further details about the future of the three historic ships become available, the news will appear here. Sad news indeed.

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Trinity Sailing operates a fleet of three historic gaff-rigged sailing ships based primarily in Brixham, still an important South Devon fishing port, and also a tourist attraction thanks to the lovely setting. The fleet also cruises from other ports along the south coast of England, and up in Scotland for exploring the Western Isles.

Trinity Sailing

Brixham sailing trawlers with Leader (left) and Provident (right). * Photo: Trinity Sailing

In addition, the firm operates a foundation, a registered charity founded in 1999, taking 600 children annually from all backgrounds, including the disadvantaged, on sail training cruises where they learn teamwork, develop skills that they did not know they had, gain confidence in themselves and make new friends. The website provides more information and videos illustrating this important program.

Sail the scenic coastal waters around Britain aboard wooden sail-powered former Brixham fishing trawlers that take 7 to 12 passengers. Built on the River Dart in South Devon between 1892 and 1924, the cruises begin at one or two nights and then on up to a week or more. In the late 19th century, these fast sailing vessels once formed the backbone of Britain’s most important fishing fleet.

 

Trinity Sailing

Three crew aboard the Leader. * Photo: Trinity Sailing

Ships, Year Delivered & Passengers

LEADER built 1892, two masts, 12 passengers; PROVIDENT built 1924, two masts, 12 passengers; GOLDEN VANITY built 1908, one mast, 7 passengers.

Passenger Decks

Just two and no elevators (after all, these are historic sailing ships).

Passenger Profile

British, other Europeans, Australians, Americans, and Canadian of all ages.

Price

$ or approximately $130 per day

Itineraries

Operating season is end of March to late September.

  • Brittany (France) & Channel Islands (6-12 nights from Brixham).
  • Devon & Cornwall (1-9 nights from Brixham & Falmouth).
  • Dorset & Isle of Wight (6 nights from Poole); Isles of Scilly (6 nights from Falmouth).
  • West Coast of Scotland (6, 9 & 10 nights from Oban) with the first departure of the year from Falmouth and last ending at Falmouth.

Vessels are available for charter.

Trinity Sailing

Brixham heritage trawler in the River Dart, Dartmouth in Devon. * Photo: Trinity Sailing

Included Features

Excursions, sail training, meals, snacks between meals, and soft drinks.

Why Go?

Cruise in an historic wooden sailing vessel (a Brixham trawler) that once numbered in the thousands, and now just a few remain as heritage vessels. Share the experience with up to 12 like-minded adventurers who come for the sailing experience, coastal and island scenery, specific destinations to explore, and camaraderie. Anchor at night in a sheltered location, sail for part of the day and then go ashore. The skipper will lay out the day every morning at breakfast.

Trinity Sailing

Skipper Toni Knights may host art sessions during the cruise.

When to Go?

The season begins at the end of March and continues into late September.

Cabins

PROVIDENT has three double cabins with upper and lower berths, and a cabin for four in the fore peak. LEADER offers open dormitory-style accommodation for 12 passengers (with privacy curtains), and same for GOLD VANITY, which sleeps seven. All three offer shared toilets and hot showers.

Public Rooms

A saloon serves as the lounge and dining room, with additional space to hang out on the open decks.

Dining

Food is sourced locally at the embarkation ports and en route the emphasis is on fresh seafood and Britain’s bounty. A typical lunch would be a cold meat platter, with cheeses, salad and freshly baked bread, while for dinner, expect something the likes of freshly-caught Brixham fish, such as Hake or Lemon Sole, served with potatoes and vegetables followed by a crème brulle. (Reports indicate glowing satisfaction!) A bar on board stocks wine, beer and cider for purchase; soft drinks are included in the fares.

Trinity Sailing

Fresh oysters while enjoying a cruise on a former Brixham fishing trawler. * Photo: Trinity Sailing

Activities & Entertainment

Participate in sailing during the passage to the next destination; go ashore on walks and hikes and general explorations along the shoreline, to beaches and into villages. Perhaps enjoy an evening BBQ ashore and a few hours of sailing after dark. Scheduled theme cruises: art, music, birdwatching, wildlife, family.

Consider a charter of a vessel and establish your own special interests.

Special Notes

The British Isles and coastal France have fickle weather and often cool temperatures when at sea so come prepared for all types of conditions that may also involve changes in the itinerary when the weather dictates. The website also introduces the foundations work and the once huge importance of the Brixham fishing trawler to the country’s economy.

Trinity Sailing

Dolphins leaping for joy alongside Trinity Sailing’s historic Brixham trawler. * Photo: Trinity Sailing

Along the Same Lines

This is a unique sailing experience in Britain’s coastal waters from the Channel Islands in the south to Scotland up north.

Contact

Trinity Sailing, The Sail Loft, Pump Street, Brixham TQ5 8ED UK; +44 (0) 1803 88 33 55; www.trinitysailing.org.

 

🚃 🚃 AND be sure to read Ted’s related article, “A Chance Meeting on a Scottish Train” HERE, about how Ted first discovered Trinity Sailing!   🚃 🚃

 

 

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Scottish Train

By Ted Scull.

In early June at the end of a 10-day visit to Scotland, my wife and I boarded the morning train from Oban to Glasgow, the first of two train journeys down to London. We occupied a pair of assigned seats facing each other while next to me was an Englishman who said he was bound for Brixham on Devon’s South Coast.

I knew Brixham, an important fishing port, as one of my oldest friends grew up there and recently his wife had her ashes cast into the sea nearby.

The man seated to me introduced himself as Toni Knights, a skipper aboard an historic Brixham sail-powered fishing trawler outfitted to take a handful of cruise passengers for a firm called Trinity Sailing. In winter, to make ends meet, he is a commercial fisherman working on a modern diesel-powered fishing boat based in Brixham.

Scottish Train

Ted meets Toni. * Photo: Suellyn Scull

Toni’s just completed trip was skippering the Leader, a two-masted, wooden-hulled Brixham trawler, built way back in 1892, from Falmouth in Cornwall around Lands End and up through the Irish Sea to Oban on the West Coast of Scotland where she would be based for two months for cruises to the Western Isles.

He then opened his computer and showed me a video of his handsome ship under way using all eight sails and taking up to 12 passengers and a crew of six. The firm’s fleet of three sailing trawlers is based in ports largely on England’s South Coast and available for overnight cruises from short getaways on up to a week or more.

Toni then opened an envelope and shared with me a lovely set of watercolors he had painted showing the fleet and the waters through which they sailed. He sells his work to the passengers as a memento of their cruise. On the sailing schedule are cruises offering art classes under his supervision for those interested in painting landscapes, seascapes, bird and animal life.

 

Scottish Train

A Brixham trawler by Toni Kinghts

Most intrigued, I shared my connection to QuirkyCruise, and we started talking business while the two-car Scotrail train wound its way through the beautiful Scottish Highlands.

Thanks to Ted’s chance meeting of Toni, QuirkyCruise has added a review of Trinity Sailing to our roster of small ship cruises. Have a gander as it looks to be great fun if seeking a genuine sailing experience on an historic vessel and happily, not at all expensive.

 

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