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Issue 88 - A Magical, Majestic Voyage

Scotland Magazine Issue 88
August 2016


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A Magical, Majestic Voyage

Vivien Devlin sails around the Hebrides aboard the newly built cruise ship Glen Etive

Earlier this year, my partner Ken and I set off from Oban on a ten-night voyage to Islay and the Southern Hebrides. This whisky and wildlife- themed, island-hopping adventure explored the straights, sounds and sea lochs along Argyll's rugged coastline. There are few more romantic, beguiling and bewitching destinations than the Scottish Highlands and Islands, which are rich in ancient history, culture and natural scenic beauty. Listed in 1,000 Places To See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz, the Scottish Hebrides should be on your bucket list - and one of the finest ways to travel around these idyllic islands is on a leisurely Majestic Line cruise.

The story of The Majestic Line is a tale of entrepreneurial vision and passionate endeavour by Andy Thoms, a retired architect, and his University friend Ken Grant. Inspired by their love of sailing around the West Coast of Scotland and the Mediterranean, they had the ingenious plan to transform a traditional wooden-hulled, Irish fishing vessel into a miniature cruise ship for just a dozen passengers. The Glen Massan was launched in 2005, followed by a second boat named Glen Tarsan - both exhibiting the company's, now iconic, gold funnels. The ‘majestic' aspect of the company's name comes from a comic story by Neil Munro about Para Handy and the crewaboard a puffer cargo boat, the Vital Spark. Based on a gentleman's motor launch, the gleaming new, purpose-built Glen Etive joined the fleet this season under the command of Captain David Wheeler and crew: his wife Michell; the bosun, Steve; and Mike, who is both the engineer and chef. Like a floating country inn, the ship's six en suite double cabins are warm and comfortable, with tartan rugs, soft duvets and efficient showers. To ensure guests may sleep peacefully, overnight anchorages are in hideaway bays. The spacious lounge bar has a library of novels, travel books and well-perused Ordnance Survey maps; the dining saloon is surrounded by large picture windows that offer splendid views and a breath of fresh air can be enjoyed on the aft and upper decks.

Each evening begins promptly at 7pm when guests all gather for aperitifs (very popular is the Majestic Line's own Bilgewater Gin) and exquisite canape´s, the first delight of a four-course gourmet dinner. With hearty breakfasts, superb buffet lunches and enticing afternoon teas, the imaginative cuisine is an outstanding highlight of the cruise. Due to the changeable nature of Scotland's weather, wind and tides, there is no set itinerary; decisions are made daily (or twice daily) to ensure smooth, safe cruising. On the first morning, after breakfast (porridge, fresh fruit, scrambled eggs and smoked salmon), we sail south to the ancestral home of Clan Macfie: the Isle of Colonsay. En route we pass the Fladda lighthouse, which was built in 1860 by the Scottish engineers David and Thomas Stevenson. Thomas's grandson was the novelist, poet and traveller Robert Louis Stevenson, who was proud of their pioneering achievements.

"My kinsmen and my countrymen, Who early and late in the windy ocean toiled, To plant a star for seamen..." - Robert Louis Stevenson

Further on, we pass through the narrow Gulf of Corryvrecken. It is here that converging currents, rip tides and underwater rocks between the islands of Jura and Scarba combine to create the world's third most ferocious whirlpool. This can be difficult and dangerous to navigate, but when we visit the sea is fairly calm and just a few circular ripples are visible on the water's surface.

Colonsay (pronounced: Col-on-say) is a peaceful island haven known for oysters, lobster, honey, arts and crafts, wildflowers, seabird colonies and the stunning white sandy beach of Kiloran Bay. After a strenuous hilltop walk, it's time for a pint of local Pig's Paradise Blonde in the beer garden of The Colonsay Hotel.

They say that there is no bad weather in Scotland - only the wrong clothes. The Hebrides, however, are protected by the North Atlantic Drift, a warm offshoot of the Gulf Stream which creates a mild, temperate climate. Thankfully, we were blessed with blue skies and sunshine for the entire cruise.

The Hebrides' rocky cliffs, grassy machair and sandy beaches are a natural habitat for seals, otters and abundant bird life - kittiwake, razorbill, guillemot, sea eagle, hen harrier, Arctic tern and wintering Greenland geese can all be seen. Depending on the season, you may see minke whale, basking shark, porpoise and dolphin. Binoculars are supplied on board for wildlife spotting.

Islay (pronounced: Eye-la) is known as ‘The Queen of the Hebrides' and has eight whisky distilleries that are famous for producing a very distinctive flavour. The earthy peat, soaked by Atlantic mists for thousands of years, is burned in kilns and the resulting smoke is used to dry the malted barley used to make whisky. This process results in whisky with a dry, smoky, taste of the salty sea. The annual Feis Ile - the Islay festival of music and malt - takes place in late May, when the island population doubles following the arrival of over 3,000 whisky-loving visitors.

It is a gloriously warm day when we visit the festival's open day at Laphroaig Distillery (founded 1815) and the lovely beach an ideal setting for the distillery's summer party with live music, BBQ, oyster shack and complimentary whisky tastings. Of the Laphroaig 10 years old single malt, it is said that ‘no other aroma so perfectly encapsulates the island. Peat reek, soft oak, craggy coastline, screeching gulls... captured in a glass.' Laphroaig is a favourite of Charles, Prince of Wales, so you are in royal company if this is your chosen tipple. Back on board that evening, guests take the opportunity to sample a few other Islay malts - Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Bunnahabhain - from the fine selection of Scotch whisky in the ship's bar.

The next day, our Islay festival tour continues at Bowmore, a charming white- washed port with its eponymous distillery (founded 1779) beside the harbour. More whisky is tasted here, including the Bowmore Black Rock single malt, which can be described as ‘smoked toasted fudge, cinnamon and marmalade.' Other than its whisky, the village is also famous for its round church, founded in 1768, which allegedly was so shaped to ensure that there is not a corner in which the Devil could hide.

Our visit to the Feis Ile was an inspiring couple of days. It helped us to appreciate how Scotch whisky, known as the ‘uisge beatha' (water of life), is such an authentic, cultural spirit of Scotland - in both senses of the word.

"From the lone shieling of the misty island, Mountains divide us, and the waste of the seas, Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland, And we in dreams behold the Hebrides." - Canadian Boat Song, 1829

Throughout the cruise, the frequent sight of roofless cottages is a poignant, ghostly reminder of the 19th Century Clearances, when landowners introduced mass sheep and crop farming to lands previously lived on by tenants, which caused mass migration of crofters to the USA, Canada and Australia. As a result, genealogy tourism to the Scottish islands is very popular, especially with global visitors of Hebridean ancestry. Indeed, it is immediately apparent that ancient history is imbued in this Celtic heartland, as witnessed by castle ruins, stone circles, Bronze Age burial brochs and Viking settlements.

Another day, another island. Gigha (pronounced: Gee-ya) meaning ‘God's Island,' has its own extraordinary microclimate that has nurtured the sub-tropical Achamore Gardens, which are an easy walk from the pier - alternatively you may choose to rent a bike and explore further afield. The warm, fragrant, humid setting is a colourful riot of rhodod- endrons, hydrangea, poppies, magnolia, carmellias and even banana trees.

In complete contrast, we also experience the bleak, dramatic terrain of Jura - its Norse-Gael name, Dyora, means ‘Island of Beasts' - is home to 6,000 red deer and, along the shoreline, seals, otters and golden eagles. This unspoilt natural wilderness is famous for its breast-shaped mountains, the Paps of Jura.

Throughout the cruise, self-guided shore excursions are all about exploring villages, fishing ports, yachting marinas, art galleries, churches and, of course, strolls along some of Scotland's most spectacular beaches. For the more energetic, there's also an option for an eight-mile hike from Tayvellich, Loch Sween, to the Crinan Canal.

There's plenty of leisure time too; little compares with relaxing on one of the sun deck's vintage steamer loungers (think Titanic deckchairs!) and watching the ever-changing seascape. The Argyll coastline's geographical topography is an extraordinary maze of elongated peninsulas, crisscrossed with tapering fingers of fjord-like sea lochs that stretch deep inland and are dominated by glacier-shaped hills. Panoramic seascapes abound as we cruise towards Luing and Shuna. It is like being part of an Impressionist painting as we behold the glimmering, hazy light over tiny shimmering gems of a scattered archipelago. Simply surreal and magical.

A fascinating excursion during the cruise is a visit to Easdale, one of the Slate Islands. Slate mining in the 19th Century developed a prosperous export industry with a population of 450 workers and families, but a drastic flood in 1881 brought an end to it all. Only four people remained 50 years ago. Today, a community of artists, jewellers and musicians is flourishing, while the well-curated museum and annual World Skimming Contest preserves the island's heritage. With no vehicles, this is a beautiful, peaceful place known for fairy foxgloves and marine life on the rocky reef.

Bird watching is a daily pastime during the trip: we have many close up sightings of flocks of gannets - look out for their black-tipped white wings, orange and yellow bill, and pointed tail - gliding low over the water, searching for fish. After locating their quarry, they soar to around 100 feet and at amazing speed make a spectacular dive.

The hospitality, personal care and attention by the skipper and crew is exemplary. As well as their professional roles, they all assist in serving meals, bar drinks, housekeeping and steering the tender boat. The bridge has an open door policy (except during anchoring mano- euvres), to learn about navigation, maritime charts and coastguard weather reports. This ever-smiling, enthusiastic team is keen to create a memorable voyage of discovery and adventure.

The daily routine is sociable, informal and fun, with a great deal of eating and drinking. Chef Mike (who has a Michelin- star background) bakes fresh bread and cakes, and sources all produce locally - hand- dived scallops, mussels and crab from Skye; Highland venison and beef; fresh Scottish berries and artisan cheeses all make an appearance on the menu. When the Glen Etive comes across a prawn boat, he barters a bottle of whisky for langoustines. Salt sea air and exercise entice a healthy appetite. The international ‘house party' ambience is very enjoyable, with laughter and lively conversation from morning coffee to nightcap (or two). Standing on the open deck first thing in the morning is a lovely start to the day, and while taking in the picturesque scene all around you can almost hear the sound of silence.

"The day was yet in its prime, a lustrous summer day which might have gilded the palm-crowned glories of an Indian isle. The sky was bright above, and the great ocean so subdued and gentle, that our hearts filled with joy and gladness." - James Wilson, 1842

The journey offers a glimpse of Highland and Island life on the edge of the sea, with its timeless, evocative sense of history. This hop around the Hebrides is a perfect dream escape from real life, which refreshes the spirit and soothes the soul.

Visitor Information
The Majestic Line offers a range of three, six and ten-night cruise itineraries around the Western Isles, Hebrides and Argyll coastline from April to October. Cruises can accommodate 11 - 12 passengers, with single occupancy cabins available.

Private boat charter cruises welcome.
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