Scottish small ship cruising  offers incredible experiences in out-of-this-world locations, says Robin McKelvie

As a travel writer I’ve been lucky to cruise all over the world but, hand on tartan heart, Scotland blows the rest out the water. We’re blessed with world-class west coast waters that burst with wildlife, dish up a rich bounty of fresh seafood and thrill with some of the most remarkable scenery imaginable. And a wee quirk in our maritime law allows a flotilla of small ships – usually sleeping a dozen passengers or fewer – to explore those glorious waters.

Scotland’s coast is massive – we’re talking over 800 islands that constitute over 10% of Europe’s total coastline and a littoral even without those islands three times longer than England’s. It is alive with all manner of marine mammals, from porpoises and dolphins, through to minke whales, humpbacks, fin whales and even orcas. In the air the world’s largest population of gannets stars alongside puffins, skuas and sea eagles. Over the last couple of decades I’ve been on dozens of Scottish cruises and I’ve watched this niche area of Scottish tourism grow. And grow. 

Covid may have temporarily tied up all the vessels, but Scottish small ship cruising has rebounded strongly as many of us look for quality experiences at home that previously we presumed we could only enjoy abroad. This year I’ve been on three cruises and can confirm skippers are reporting a bumper season for sighting marine mammals, too, so there really never has been a better time to hop aboard. Perhaps the most ‘famous’ small ship company – thanks to the positive experience shared by TV’s Jane McDonald – is the Majestic Line, whose brace of converted fishing boats, Glen Massan and Glen Tarsan, have been cruising with eight guests since 2004. They have been joined since by the purpose-built 12-guest Glen Etive and Glen Shiel and this year by the smaller Glen Rosa, who is finding her niche between public-facing cruises and charters. I’ve sailed on all their vessels – preferring the Glen Etive and Glen Shiel with their twin saloons and lashings of space. Majestic Line’s main cruising ground is the Hebrides, though in 2023 they dipped a toe into Orkney.

The Herald:

Argyll Cruises are also TV stars, too, winning the luxury category of the ‘Scotland’s Greatest Escape’ series earlier this year. New owner and skipper, Ted Creek, re-coded his graceful converted fishing boat, the Splendour, this summer to now sleep eight or 10 on a charter. There are only two crew, with young Scottish chef Thomas in the galley and taking the lines, so you are left largely to your own devices at sea. Unusually, they cruise both the Hebrides and Firth of Clyde as they are based in Holy Isle. This relaxed vessel has a welcoming, homely feel, though the steep steps to one cabin can be tricky for less mobile guests. I’m just back from my third time aboard and am already missing this characterful dame.

Also making waves this year are Hebrides Cruises, with their slick new vessel Lucy Mary (eight passengers, 10 on a charter). She is more Monaco than Mallaig, as a sleek white yacht, a vibe that continues inside where engaging hostess Abi welcomes guests with a glass of bubbly. This is a more luxurious experience, matched by her sister, the Emma Jane (10 passengers), which also sports a hot tub aft. This lovely, welcoming family-run company also run the more expedition-style Elizabeth G (eight passengers). I’ve been on all three at least once and they are hard to fault.
If you want to marry both the Hebrides and the unique Caledonian Canal the larger Lord of the Highlands is tying up soon after her first full season. Her week-long voyages sweep from Inverness to Fort William, then this versatile vessel heads down to Oban, before Hebridean calls at Mull and Eigg, with a visit to Knoydart too en route to Kyle of Lochalsh. She sleeps 38 guests in considerable luxury, all-inclusive, with dinners a real event, especially the gala dinner when the haggis is piped in with some aplomb.

Hebridean Island Cruises also own the Lord of the Highlands’ sister ship, the Hebridean Princess. This converted ferry is so grand that Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, chartered her twice in lieu of her beloved Brittania. Expect serious luxury and to be waited on like a Royal. The fact this 1964 dame is still running is a minor miracle – she oozes timeless class with a Chadburn still used for the bridge communicating with the engine room. For me it’s the finest luxury cruising experience not just in Scotland but anywhere: 11 out of 10 with the 48 lucky guests in for a sublime treat. 

Last, but certainly not least, is a luxurious option for those not keen on open waters. European Waterways offer the Spirit of Scotland, which cruises through the Caledonian Canal. Thomas Telford’s epic waterway celebrated its 200th anniversary last year and it’s an engineering and scenic marvel scything its way through the Great Glen, from Inverness on the North Sea, to Fort William on the Atlantic, through a series of canals and the lochs of Lochy, Oich, Dochfour and, of course, Loch Ness. 
Up to 12 passengers enjoy smooth all-inclusive service and a hot tub aft. Bubbling your way through Loch Ness, dram in hand, is just another of the life-affirming experiences that make Scottish cruising 
so special. 

The Herald:

Need to Know

Will I get seasick?

Many of the small ships are fitted with stabilisers to smooth out rough crossings. Skippers also closely watch the weather, ensuring there is always a safe, sheltered anchorage within easy cruising distance. If skippers do expect a bigger swell to come they will often mention this the night before so anyone especially susceptible to seasickness can take precautionary medication.
When is a good time to cruise?
The season runs from spring through to autumn. Spring is good for wildflowers and avoiding those west coast midges. Summer brings the seabirds in, including ridiculously cute puffins. There are plenty of marine mammals too. Autumn is good for wildlife with the unmistakable deer rutting. Autumn and spring see ‘relocation’ cruises – rather than out and back – opening even more varied cruising.

Isn’t cruising boring?

I’ve been on dozens of Scottish cruises and I’ve never been bored. If you have had your fill of watching dolphins and whales bash around outside get out a good book and savour the down time. Or dip inside to grab a fresh brew and a biscuit. Or enjoy a rarity for most people – the joy of waking to discover a new island. How could you be bored after dinner when you’ve either a burning sunset or shooting stars to look out for? Or maybe even the Northern Lights.

When should I book?

This is prime booking time now that all the vessels mentioned here are about to tie up for the season. Booking ahead is essential as many guests enjoy it so much they will very often re-book. 
Do look out for last minute spaces – or even small discounts – in shoulder seasons such as now, usually flagged on the company websites, or if you sign up to 
their newsletters.

Booking Information

Cruises normally include all meals and hot drinks, with wine at dinner. Excursions are included. Depending on the cruise, a guide is also included. Vessels are also available for private charters.

Majestic Line – Three-night ‘Taste of the Hebrides’ from £1,300

Argyll Cruising – Three-night ‘Kyle and the Isles’ from £1,225

Hebrides Cruises - Four-night ‘Inner Hebrides Big 5 Autumn Wildlife Cruise’ from £1,475.

Hebridean Island Cruises – Hebridean Princess cruising on to November this year with a four-night ‘Clyde Coast Explorer’ from £1,700. Lord of the Highlands five-night ‘Scottish Temptations’ from £2,560.

European Waterways – Six-night Caledonian Canal cruises from £4,485. European Waterways –

Other small ship companies to consider:

Skarv Lines – Their Nova Spero is a converted fishing boat where you can dram in front of their woodburning stone after dinner. Various routes.

St Hilda Sea Adventures – 
Expanding company with four vessels cruising the Hebrides; from my 
experience a more rustic experience.

Le Boat – Superb self-guided boating holidays traversing the mighty Great Glen. No sailing experience necessary. Usually week-long, though shorter breaks are available too. I’ve done this twice and can highly recommend it.