By Jane Wright

There are few places that fill me with a sense of nostalgia quite like the west coast of Scotland. Endless childhood summers of bright blue skies and three little kids squinting in the sunlight forever remain on old Kodak slides in shoeboxes somewhere in my parents’ bedroom. In the faded tones of the Seventies we roam from Arran to Islay, the Kintyre peninsula, Crinan, Loch Sween, Easdale, Oban, Mull, Ardnamurchan. All those destinations that seemed so far away are now fused in my memory as magical places. Package holidays to Spain weren’t even on the horizon then.

It’s funny how you always remember your childhood as being sunny, even in Scotland. As I step off the train at Oban, the rain is teeming down and the taxis have skedaddled. Even in a downpour, it’s a vibrant little town, this hub for the islands, its big white lumbering Cal-Mac ferries with their red puffing funnels and distinctive lion rampants signalling their departure for places full of promise. Bursting with tourists and travellers, its outdoor shops, chippy and Waterstones are doing a roaring trade. Everyone’s stocking up and going somewhere.

I’m headed three miles north to Dunstaffnage, the marina where I will board an ex-Norwegian ferry called Seahorse II that once connected Tromsø with the westerly island of Sessøya. Now a sturdy little adventure cruiser, where once she carried six cars and 40 passengers, she has been transformed to accommodate 12 passengers in seven cabins with a spacious curved saloon, a small galley and an alfresco dining space on deck that shares space with a small tender, three kayaks and a paddleboard.

It doesn’t occur to me at this point that the weather might get in the way of a planned itinerary to Rum, Eigg, Muck and Skye. But as soon as we are all gathered on board – three Scots, an Australian and two Americans – skipper Charlie and firstmate Roy regretfully inform us that stormy Atlantic weather necessitates a change of plan.

So our first couple of days are spent sheltering in Loch Sunart, waiting to see how the weather will go. Disappointment gives way to a sense of adventure as Charlie advocates a lucky-dip journey that will take us, literally, wherever the wind blows us. Despite the weather, it’s a real pleasure to be seeing the west coast this way, from the deck of a small ship. A peaceful and meditative experience, immersed in nature above and below, it’s a chance to observe the weather rolling in and view the stunning landscape from a seagoing perspective.

The beauty of Seahorse II is that she’s powerful enough to cruise the many islands and lochs of the Inner and Outer Hebrides, yet small enough to anchor in the remote, magical places that larger ships cannot venture. Which makes her the perfect base for wildlife spotting, from otters on the shore, myriad native birds, deer on the hillsides, and seals, porpoises and maybe whales if you’re lucky.

On our second morning I rise early, keen to try out the paddleboard. The surface of Loch Sunart is quite still, gleaming like polished glass, impenetrably black from the peaty water that has run off the hillsides after heavy rain. After a slightly shaky start, the paddleboard glides easily through the silky water and everything is quiet apart from the distinctive call of a solitary curlew. Behind me two curious seals eye me from a distance, following with an occasional plop as they submerge and reappear. A fine tendril of mist wreathes the top of the grey-green hills that encircle the loch, drawing me towards the shore at the far end. Savouring the silence and the stillness, I turn in a long slow arc back towards the boat.

Seahorse II is not fancy but she’s warm, convivial and homely. The excellent home cooking – hearty breakfasts, obligatory elevenses, a leisurely lunch, afternoon tea with home baking (and snoozes) and dinner with wine – is a high point. Come evening the saloon’s the place for reading, good chat, a few hands of cards and a couple of drams. There is no TV. Down below are cosy cabins for two and a bathroom with – joy of joys – underfloor heating for bare feet on chilly mornings. Up top is the wheelhouse, where guests can seek out the skipper for information on the weather, local wildlife, the landscape and possibly what’s for lunch.

Once Charlie has tracked the weather he decides our best option is to head south back down the Sound of Mull to Ardfern, Jura and Loch Sween – the beloved West coast of my childhood. Even down this relatively sheltered route it’s a thrillingly choppy sail to the technicoloured waterfront of Tobermory, where we stop off for eagles, whisky, and fresh scallops on the quayside.

A couple of hours in a dripping hide at misty Dervaig proves luckless, even with binoculars trained on a huge twiggy nest high up in a distant pine. Mull is famous for its eagles (sea and golden) which can be spotted soaring above its mountains, glens and cliffs. Britain’s largest bird of prey became extinct in Scotland in 1918 when the last male was shot on Shetland. Eighty-two chicks from Norway were reintroduced on Rum in 1975 and flourished, eventually mating and repopulating Scotland with eagles once more. Four decades later, there are now more than 100 pairs.

Next morning we head on down the Sound of Mull and get a taste of the weather that’s further out, leaping and plunging through inky-coloured waves as we chug south towards Jura. I quite enjoy the ride, though up in the wheelhouse an American woman is gripping the skipper’s arm, all boggle-eyed and asking him “if we’re going to make it”.

We pass the slate islands of Seil and Easdale, and by lunchtime we’re anchored safely off the east coast of Luing, enjoying a plate of fresh scallops overlooking the exceptionally pretty village of Toberonochy. The wind has dropped, and the sun is in full-beam as we take a walk up past whitewashed cottages with neat gardens to the old ruin of Kilchattan Kirk. Luing’s distinctive red cattle have a nosey at us over a drystane dyke as if we have no business being there. It’s pretty idyllic. We meet an old man on the pier loading up a van with live langoustine destined for Glasgow Airport then Spain. Hopeful for our dinner, we ask if he has any to spare, but, he assures us with a rueful smile, every last langoustine is accounted for.

Back on board, we settle in for afternoon tea and books as Charlie takes us further on south to anchor at Ardfern on Loch Craignish. Over Thai green curry at dinner I voice my regret over the weather for the overseas guests and try to explain how truly spectacular the scenery around us is. The idea that they might not witness the glorious Paps of Jura makes me sorry.

And sure enough, next morning is dreich and the mist is hanging low, obliterating anything above a few hundred feet. The Paps of Jura are completely hidden in the clouds. Things cheer up when we reach Craighouse, Jura’s “capital”, where we take a tour of the famous whisky distillery. The water for their whisky filters down from these three fine mountains into Loch Market above the distillery. This briny, smoky dram comes with a rich expression, we’re informed, of flavours that range from coffee, caramel and vanilla, to fig, pear and roasted walnut. So we lose a complete afternoon nosing and tasting the Jura range and return to Seahorse II all jolly and ready for dinner and more drams.

Tayvallich on Loch Sween is our anchorage for the night, a place I think of fondly for seals and messing about on boats. In late autumn, even in the drizzle, the sight of this long narrow loch lifts my heart, the turning larches striating the dark evergreen forest with gold. The village is peaceful and bonny and much as I remember: a few whitewashed cottages, now with some bold new modernist neighbours, the local shop, one pub and a church.

Our last full day of sailing on Seahorse II takes us north again, four and a half hours to Loch Spelve on Mull. Here we hike to Lochbuie under glowering clouds past a red post-box, a few rusty signs and along a road that peters out. White-tailed sea eagles soar above as we trudge through the smirr spotting heron, deer and a gaggle of sooty-faced sheep trespassing in the gardens of a damp-looking manse, its tiny rain-lashed church raised up on a hillock overlooking Loch Uisg.

After a week of downpour and dreich, naturally our final morning dawns bright, still and serenely beautiful. The landscape is luminous, the sea calm, the sky cloudless. I could not be happier that our one Australian and two Americans will finally see Scotland in all its glory. I watch their faces as they come up on deck, their expressions turning from surprise to delight, and laugh out loud. It is sunny, just like the Seventies.


St Hilda Sea Adventures cruises on Seahorse II and tallship St Hilda cover Mull, Skye, the Small Isles, the Inner and Outer Hebrides, Jura, Islay, Argyll, Loch Ness, the Caledonian Canal, the Shiant Islands and St Kilda. From around £800 pp/week, but look out for special offers. Visit , email or call 01776 810802.