A Small Ship Cruise in the Scottish Hebrides

Every September morning I wondered why I hadn’t explored the Scottish Hebrides before. White sand beaches and turquoise sea, purple-washed mountains and golden glens lured me every day. Dry weather heightened my enchantment as I lapped up the islands’ ancient history wherever I found it. The Hebridean islands, formed by ancient volcanoes and sculpted by the restless Atlantic, run north-south off Scotland’s west coast. Each island is distinct and all are warmed by the Gulf Stream.

At anchor in Ulva Sound as the sun sets.

At anchor in Ulva Sound as the sun sets.

A Majestic Line six-day cruise in a converted trawler begins my island adventure. Dramatic clouds are blowing away as I cross Oban’s seafront to Glen Tarsan’s tender, an open dinghy. A short shower combined with salt spray spatter us as we zoom to the ship.

Glen Tarsan anchored off the Isle of Staffa with a misty Mull in the background

Glen Tarsan anchored off the Isle of Staffa with a misty Mull in the background

Nine passengers and I embark to circumnavigate the Isle of Mull and visit Iona and Staffa. Once safely aboard, the bonding process begins over afternoon tea that Andie, the chef, has laid out. Most fellow cruisers are in their fifties and sixties and all are lively. I’m eager to know them better. Our crew of four assure us that every night and lunchtime we will anchor in a remote spot, alone but for the sky and sea birds, with no engine noise or swells to disturb us.

As I unpack, the engines rumble to life and we navigate to our first anchorage at the head of Loch Aline across from Mull. The appetizers before dinner set the tone for many gourmet meals — they are langoustines from Mull caught that morning. We eat them with finger-licking gusto in the evening sunshine.

A surprise birthday buffet with Captain Sandy – all the seafood on board is so fresh it shocks my taste buds.

A surprise birthday buffet with Captain Sandy – all the seafood on board is so fresh it shocks my taste buds.

Our days settle into a rhythm of delicious meals around a long table, laughter and good conversation, and sound sleeps. Our cabins are spacious; the ensuites, tiny though adequate. The small bar is well stocked. While cruising everyone is welcome in the wheelhouse as we sail from place to place. Passengers relax in different ways — some are buried in books, others experiment with their cameras. I was concerned that, in such a small space, I would lack alone-time, but everyone respects the others when quietly occupied.

The six cabins have king-size or twin beds and ensuites, and are serviced every day during breakfast. Two cabins/cruise are reserved for solo travelers © The Majestic Line

The six cabins have king-size or twin beds and ensuites, and are serviced every day during breakfast. Two cabins/cruise are reserved for solo travelers © The Majestic Line

We explore Loch Sunart, have lunch at Calgary Bay, Carsaig, Iona, and other sheltered bays, and sleep near Ulva, at Bunessan and Tobermory, and beside the Isle of Lismore on our last night.

Glen Tarsan anchors for two nights in the harbour at Tobermory on Mull and conversation at dinner revolves around our land-based wildlife safari tomorrow and what to wear. Mull is the wettest of the Hebridean islands. Next morning I don my toque and gloves as the wind is cool, but have no need for rain gear. David Whitehouse, owner of Mull’s Wildlife Expeditions and our guide, warns us that we won’t drive everywhere on the island but he hopes to find us many birds and mammals to observe.

Tobermory, the unofficial capital of Mull, is known for its colourful waterfront. The distillery, founded in 1798, and the small stores are closed on Sundays.

Tobermory, the unofficial capital of Mull, is known for its colourful waterfront. The distillery, founded in 1798, and the small stores are closed on Sundays.

Mountains rear up on the eastern side of Mull, sea lochs penetrate deep inland, glens bisect peninsulas, cliffs drop steeply into the sea, and remote, sand beaches glisten white. David’s powerful binoculars and telescope enable us to watch the severely endangered white-tailed sea eagles, proud stags on high ridges, and golden eagles soaring above. But there are no otters or whales today, and the puffins are at sea.

The Isle of Inchkenneth with Ulva behind painted purple by the heather. Taken from high in Ardmeanagh, Mull.

The Isle of Inchkenneth with Ulva behind painted purple by the heather. Taken from high in Ardmeanagh, Mull.

Marine cloud greets us next morning as we roll around the northeast of Mull in Atlantic swells, passing the oddly-shaped Treshnish Islands where the puffins breed in spring. Tiny Staffa appears on the horizon — it is one of the “Greatest Geosites” in the UK because of its volcanic origin. Staffa is home to Fingal’s Cave, which inspired Mendelssohn to compose his Hebridean Overture.

Approaching from the sea, Staffa looks a bit like muffins tipped at an angle. The slow cooling of the lava formed basalt columns below that overflowed in a jumble on top. Fingal’s Cave is on the right.

Approaching from the sea, Staffa looks a bit like muffins tipped at an angle. The slow cooling of the lava formed basalt columns below that overflowed in a jumble on top. Fingal’s Cave is on the right.

The tender, which first pauses at the arched cave entrance for photos, offloads us at a small dock. We negotiate our way to the cave around a perilous ledge atop hexagonal basalt columns. The sea surges below us, clear and cold. Fingal’s Cave reminds me of a cathedral, soaring up 20m (66 feet) and extending deep into the island’s heart. I climb many steep steps to Staffa’s flat grassy top and the view is worth my laboured breaths.

Walking on top of the basalt columns to reach Fingal’s Cave takes strong nerve.

Walking on top of the basalt columns to reach Fingal’s Cave takes strong nerve.

We negotiate with the captain to spend four hours ashore on Iona instead of two as we pass Loch na Keal’s cliffs in sunshine. Later on deck, I catch my first glimpse of the restored medieval abbey dominating a grassy shelf west of the village. Iona is treeless, low-lying, and edged with pristine beaches. I can’t wait to explore.

My first stop is the Iona abbey complex, the birthplace of Celtic Christianity. First established by St. Columba in 563CE, the monastery suffered Viking raids in 800CE that decimated it. In 1200 the Benedictine order revitalized the abbey until the Reformation, after which it fell into ruins. The current restoration began in the late 1800s and Iona is once more a vibrant community attracting pilgrims from around the world. I visit everything.

Whether or not a visitor is Christian, a tour of the 1500 year-old Iona Abbey site is a bucket list item. The isle lies close to Mull’s southeast corner with regular ferries and boat tours from Fionnphort.

Whether or not a visitor is Christian, a tour of the 1500 year-old Iona Abbey site is a bucket list item. The isle lies close to Mull’s southeast corner with regular ferries and boat tours from Fionnphort.

The place breathes ancient history and faith. Iona’s turbulent and brutal past creates a tenuous separation between past and present, substantial and spiritual. I can visualize how the monastery looked when the three hundred Celtic crosses were still standing outside the abbey church. Today only two remain. I walk the Street of the Dead down which ancient funeral processions passed from the harbour to the church. MacBeth whispers to me, one of many Scottish lords who were buried here.

St. Martin’s cross is original and dates from the 700s. This side is carved with stories from the Bible.

St. Martin’s cross is original and dates from the 700s. This side is carved with stories from the Bible.

Our last full day takes us along the Ross of Mull — wild lofty cliffs — and ends at Duart Castle, the home of the Clan Mclean, where our captain has arranged a private tour for us.

The Ross of Mull, Mull’s southerly peninsula, is best seen from the sea. Here are the Carsaig Arches – a tumble of rocks and caves with a sea stack at the base of the cliffs, above which golden eagles soar.

The Ross of Mull, Mull’s southerly peninsula, is best seen from the sea. Here are the Carsaig Arches – a tumble of rocks and caves with a sea stack at the base of the cliffs, above which golden eagles soar.

Our final dinner is tinged with regret that the cruise is nearly over, but filled with memories of our time together on board the Glen Tarsan. All agree that small-ship cruising is unparalleled. Our ship was able to navigate to and anchor in remote, unspoiled places a big ship could never enter. It also created the environment for first-class customer service, fresh local cuisine, and flexibility to tailor the cruise to the passengers’ wishes. Before I disembark to explore the Outer Hebrides, I vow to return.

Tips:

  • Scotland’s weather can be cold and wet even in summer. Take a warm hat and jacket, a scarf and gloves.
  • My most worn item was my low-cut hiking boots.
  • Pack as light as possible – there’s not much closet space in the cabins.
  • Binoculars are available; cameras need long zoom lenses to shoot good photos from the sea.
  • The Majestic Line two ships have no TV or internet, and spotty cell reception.
  • The chef can handle most food allergies and diet restrictions, likes and dislikes, with advance notice.
  • Passengers need to be agile enough to manage wobbly steps down to and up from the ship’s dinghy.
  • In the less-sheltered areas during strong winds, motion sickness can rear its ugly head. Come prepared.
  • Map of Mull (download page):

Written by Julie H. Ferguson and photos by Photos by Pharos for EuropeUpClose.com unless otherwise noted.

 

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