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Issue 13 - God's own cruising heaven

Scotland Magazine Issue 13
March 2004


This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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God's own cruising heaven

Tom Bruce-Gardyne goes cruising around Scotland's beautiful west coast, but don't mention the weather.

Scotland does not slip smoothly into the sea, at least not for the most part. Rather, its coast is endlessly jagged and dramatic, with the west in particular marked by a series of giant slanting sea lochs that cut far inland.

It is said that if you measure every bay, loch and indent of Argyll and Bute, the county that stretches from the Mull of Kintyre in the south to Oban in the north, its coast alone is as long as that of France.

From the land, it can often feel tantalisingly out of reach, but from the sea it becomes instantly accessible. And hidden amongst its cliffs and rocky headlands can be some of the prettiest and most secluded beaches and natural harbours you could imagine. That is, when the conditions are right.

Beyond lie the Inner and Outer Hebrides, a chain of islands strung round the west of Scotland like a double row of pearls, while to the north are the Orkneys and the Shetland islands. The waters in between are what many who have experienced them believe to be God’s own cruising heaven.

And whether it is on a small dinghy virtually kissing the surface of the sea, or high above it on the deck of a 10,000-tonne cruise ship, the appeal is essentially the same. In the words of Peter MacLeod, Past Commodore of The Royal Highland Yacht Club:“If you are possessed of wit and humour and have music in your soul, you will savour the people and the places, enjoy the ceilidhs and hospitality, and conclude that here is a world apart.”

Above all, there is a real sense of escape and freedom to explore in peace. With well over 2,000 miles of coastline and some 600 islands of which 165 are over 100 acres in size, these waters are anything but crowded.

And with the absence of commercial shipping, they are also wonderfully clean. But if this is beginning to sound too good to be true, there is one possible fly in the ointment to cruising round this coast.

As with all things Scottish, one cannot avoid mentioning the weather. This can be dazzling as to turn the sea into a deep Caribbean blue, albeit not quite the same temperature, or depressingly grey and ‘dreich’ as they say in Scotland. The one thing you can predict is that it will be totally unpredictable.

The whole area is caught in a crossfire of lively elements and volatile weather fronts. To these you can add a myriad of local factors such as the tall peaks that tear at passing clouds and help funnel the wind to sometimes gale-force intensity.

Perhaps it is best just to quote the old fisherman on the Isle Skye, and leave it at that. “Ah, the weather,” he replied when asked to explain its ever-changing moods. “It is true to say that on Skye there is a lot of it.”

The philosophy of Hebridean Island Cruises is that ‘small is personal’. With just 30 cabins, the Hebridean Princess, a converted passenger ferry, is one of the most intimate cruise ships afloat. It is also one of the most luxurious, with en suite marble-clad bathrooms, fine cotton sheets and even a trouser press in every cabin.

Of course, such luxury does not come cheap. In July last year, for example, the cost of a single cabin for seven nights on the ‘Hebridean Outposts’ cruise starts at a cool £3,530 ($6,400). As well as being seriously pampered en route, you may have the chance, depending on how calm the sea is, to set foot on Hirta.

This is the main island of the St Kilda archipelago, a far-flung outpost way out in the Atlantic and completely exposed to its power. This is the ultimate destination for those who love wild, romantic, far-away places, and one that was inhabited for some 3,500 years, until the last islanders were evacuated in 1930.

It was their isolation from the outside world and all its diseases that preserved this extraordinary community for so long.

But the arrival of the first tourist ship in 1834, followed by a hell-fire preacher some time later, marked the beginning of the end for St Kilda. The island, now a World Heritage Site, belongs to the National Trust for Scotland who run their own annual cruise aboard the Black Prince for two weeks in May.

Each year, the itinerary changes according to a particular theme, and might include the west coast of Ireland, the Bay of Biscay or even Spitzbergen. Usually, the cruise sails from Greenock on the Firth of Clyde and spends a few days threading its way through the Western Isles stopping at some of the more remote islands such as St Kilda en route.

This year, however, the main cruise sails from Leith on the east coast and heads straight for the Baltic, where the theme is to be architecture and horticulture.

But the Hebrides is being covered in a separate week-long cruise on the Black Prince, also in May, visiting some of the great island gardens. These sheltered oases with their palms and subtropical shrubs only survive by exploiting the Gulf Stream and the relative warmth of the onshore breeze.

As a result, there are plants that grow wild in places such as Central America, despite being on the same latitude as Moscow.

The Black Prince is considerably larger than the Hebridean Princess, but it still holds only 400 passengers, making it a tenth the size of today’s generation of super cruisers that drift round the Mediterranean and Caribbean.

As such, there is a palpable ‘family atmosphere’ aboard what has been dubbed the ‘friendliest ship afloat.’

Not only are passengers well looked-after, they are kept regularly informed and stimulated by a series of lectures and deck commentaries on the fascinating social history of the islands, as well as their flora and fauna.

There are no trouser presses on board the Corryvreckan, a 65ft ocean-going ketch based out of Oban that has, together with its predecessor, been cruising the Western Isles for 20 years. Nor does anyone put on a blazer and bow tie for dinner on this skippered charter which is open to all, from complete beginner to the saltiest sea-dog.

The beauty of such a charter is that you get the knowledge and insights of the skipper himself. There are plenty of other reasons why such a holiday can work so well.

For a start, it gives access to the islands themselves, of which only 23 are connected to the mainland by Scotland’s principal ferry operator, Caledonian MacBrayne.

There is also the fact that many of the smaller isles represent a genuine uninhabited wilderness, one of few that remain in Europe.

This has been a benign by-product of the gradual depopulation of the islands, a process speeded up in the 19th century by the Clearances. As a result, the islands have been reclaimed by nature, and many are rich in wild flowers and bird life.

On some there are screeching colonies of kittiwakes and fulmars which the islanders used to kill for their oil, on others, puffins, guillemots and razorbills.

From the mammal kingdom there are seals galore, especially on the Monarch Isles, which lie five miles west of North Uist.

Here you will find the world’s second largest colony of grey seals.

The Annette Rosenkilde is a 63-foot, converted Danish trawler offering seven-day trips from April to September, out of Stromness or Kirkwall. There are guided tours of five different islands during the trip, and at the end of each day, the boat ties up at an island harbour for an evening meal and drink.


Sail Orkney is the only company offering bare-boat yacht charter on Orkney, with prices from £600 a week for a Seamaster 30 with four berths. Contact Mike on +44 (0)1856 871 100 or email:

For something completely different, spend an afternoon aboard the ‘Guide’ to view the wreck of the German fleet from the First World War. The 74 battleships were scuttled in 1919 to prevent them falling into British hands.

During the cruise, an ROV (remote operated vehicle) is sent down to explore the wreck and beam live footage of it back to the ‘Guide’.

Contact: Roving Eye on +44 (0)1856 811 360

The MV Cuma is a 67-foot ex-fishery research ship based at Uig, whose skipper, Murdo Macdonald, has a lifetime’s knowledge of the Outer Hebrides.

Cruises last four or six days, with special emphasis on bird life and cetaceans including the minke whale, harbour porpoise, and the white-beaked dolphin.

Species of birds include manx shearwaters, golden eagles and storm petrels, along with thousands of puffins, gannets and razorbills. The boat has six twin cabins and accommodation is full-board.

Contact: Murdo MacDonald, 1 Erista, Uig, Isle of Lewis HS2 9JG. Tel: +44 (0)1851 672 381

Sea Trek, also based at Uig, offers shorter two-hour trips aboard a rigid inflatable boat (RIB) exploring the Atlantic coast of Lewis, including the islands of Berisay and Flodday to see the seals and nesting birds. Contact Murray Macleod on +44 (0)1851 672 464 or visit

The Summer Queen offers two and four-hour cruises down Loch Broom to the Summer Isles, the last place in Britain to print its own stamps. Tel: +44 (0)1854 612 472

Inter-Island Cruising is a long-established operator based at Dervaig near the picturesque port of Tobermory, with specialist whale-watching trips from late April until the end of September. All sightings are logged, and during last September, 107 minke whales were spotted.

Contact Mr & Mrs J. Matthews. Tel: +44 (0)1688 400 264, or visit

The yacht Corryvreckan, named after the infamous whirlpool off the island of Jura, and her predecessor have been cruising these waters for several decades. There are five twin-berth guest cabins aboard this 65-foot ketch that has crossed the Atlantic four times. Beginner or expert, individual or larger party, all our welcome.

Contact Douglas Lindsay, Tel: +44 (0)1631 770 246, email:, or visit

Northern Light Charters offers a range of cruises for those interested in wildlife, walking, photography or diving aboard their three vessels – MV Chalice, Hjalmar Bjorge and Poplar Diver. The latter is a 70-foot former lifeboat, which regularly succeeds in landing on St.Kilda in high seas that defeat larger cruise ships. Cruises last five to eight days. Contact +44 (0)1680 814 260 or visit

Longbow Cruising is run by Ted Warren, the unflappable, highly experienced owner and skipper of this 57-foot yacht. Alternatively based out of Oban and Helensburgh on the Firth of Clyde, a variety of different cruises are available from a long weekend to two weeks.
Contact +44 (0)1436 671 809 or visit

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