Robin McKelvie

THE idea of escaping to the wilds has perhaps never tempted more. We’ve all had seriously clipped wings, but we can dream. How about dreaming of an escape on a small Scottish ship? These family-run little oases of calm sleep up to a maximum of a dozen guests and let you sail away from from the stresses of the mainland to explore Scotland’s remote coastlines.

As a travel writer I’ve been lucky to enjoy over two dozen Scottish cruises and for me the cruising in this country is the best in the world. The scenery is, of course, epic and just gets more epic the more remote the destinations you venture to. But did you know that we have over 800 islands to explore and that our coastline is larger than that of England? And that of France and Spain? Indeed Scotland’s craggy littoral makes up over 10% of Europe’s total coastline.

Kicking off with a vessel I’ve sailed on twice, we have the Splendour, a graceful old trawler that has been lovingly converted. Owner and skipper Iain Duncan is the man at the helm and he’s spot on in the role as I’ve never met anyone who knows the Firth of Clyde better. It’s no surprise really as Iain was brought up on the banks of Loch Fyne and learned to row at about the same time as he learned to walk.

Argyll Cruising operate out of Holy Loch Marina and take a maximum of eight guests. They revamped the Splendour inside and out last year and she is really comfortable now – I love the new solid wooden table on the fore deck, ideal for sitting with a coffee or a dram while you survey the waters for the dolphins, minke whales and even orcas that Iain spots in the Clyde. On my last trip I spotted an otter too.

There are only two crew on the Splendour and it quickly feels like you’re all a family. You can pop up to the traditional-style bridge at any time and see Iain happily at work plying the waters that he so clearly loves. Argyll Cruising now also offer longer trips that ease out into the Hebrides too. Passengers are very much brought into discussions on where to go and what to do en route.

Another owner-skipper, Rob Barlow, is at the helm of another welcoming family operation. Hebrides Cruises operate two vessels out of Oban, which both take eight passengers. They tend to explore some of the more remote parts of the Hebrides and ultra remote St Kilda, as well as covering the big hitters like Skye and Mull. Rob is an impressive skipper – never more so on one trip to the Monach Isles when our propeller became snagged. Rob quickly donned a wetsuit and plunged into the chill waters to free it.

Their original Elizabeth G is a sturdy old Norwegian rescue vessel that has been recently been given a makeover to make her more suited to comfortable leisure cruising. The cabins are much more appealing now and the public areas feel swisher too. This trim wee vessel offers plenty of outdoor space for wildlife viewing too. I once had a great afternoon aboard as we eased along with a pod of playful dolphins.

Hebrides Cruises’ newer arrival is the much more luxurious Emma Jane. Her suite is easily the best cabin I’ve ever had in over a decade of cruising the Scottish coast with a large sleeping area plus a sitting room. It used to be a private vessel and I’m guessing this was the top man’s hideaway. The main lounge is lovely too with the dining table just across from the open kitchen, whilst the bridge has sumptuous leather chairs where you can sit alongside the captain. Then there is the outdoor hot tub, which is very welcome after a day hiking on a remote island.

The Majestic Line have been even busier expanding their fleet with their original brace of converted fishing vessels augmented in recent years by two further purpose built vessels, with the former ships sleeping up to 11 guests and the latter 12. I’ve witnessed this family-run company experience the highs and lows of the travel industry through 9/11 and the 2009 economic crash, so it’s great to see that this Scottish business has emerged as such an award-winning success.

The Majestic Line’s old hard working converted trawlers, the Glen Massan and the Glen Tarsan, are pretty similar and appeal to romantics as they just look so picturesque and draw appreciative looks wherever you cruise from people on the shore. The Majestic Line pride themselves on their food and I’ve eaten very well on my trips on the Tarsan and the Massan.

I’ve also eaten well on the newer Glen Shiel and Glen Etive and prefer the layout of their public rooms. They have a dining room aft and a sitting room and bar area towards the bow. All of their vessels ply a variety of routes, but a newcomer are cruises around the Firth of Clyde. I say new, but it’s more a return to the estuary as this is where it all began for the Majestic Line (in fact Iain Duncan from Argyll Cruising used to work for them in the Clyde) and the Shiel and the Etive were built on Bute. These two more modern vessels were deigned to tackle the more remote islands out in the Outer Hebrides and St Kilda and they do their job supremely well in some comfort.

If the idea of bashing across the Atlantic surf has your stomach churning then don’t despair either. European Waterways have recently started cruising the remarkable Caledonian Canal on their Spirit of Scotland. She is seriously luxurious and up there with my favourite cruise ship in Scotland, the Queen’s favourite, and Britannia stand in, the 50-passenger Hebridean Princess.

I was on the Spirit of Scotland last year and she is easily the finest way to cruise along Thomas Telford’s engineering marvel, which links the North Sea at Inverness with the Atlantic at Fort William, by way of a jaw-dropping series of locks, canals and even a trio of lochs, including Loch Ness. You can take in all the grand scenery along the canal, as the Great Glen rises up steeply on both flanks, from the comfort of their outdoor hot tub.

The Spirit of Scotland takes a maximum of a dozen passengers in supreme luxury. Culinary wonders are whipped up with fresh Scottish produce and served fine dining style with the best of Burgundy wines. A highlight on our cruise was the young Australian chef taking us into the galley to show us how he smokes his Scottish salmon. It’s all-inclusive too, including bar drinks, so you don’t have to worry about a thing when you board and your first glass of champagne is handed to you.

Last, but certainly not least, is Red Moon Cruises. I've just been sailing with them as lockdown eased in July. They only take a maximum of four passengers so it was just me, my wife and my young daughters, along with the husband and wife crew. In these stressful times the idea of sailing off into the sunset with just your loved ones aboard for company is life affirmingly the stuff of travel dreams.


The operators listed are all are taking bookings for later this year and into 2021. All are planning to operate with Covid-19 measures in place and within government guidelines. Argyll Cruising - Hebrides Cruises - Majestic Line - Spirit of Scotland - Red Moon Cruises -