Robin McKelvie

THE signal rings to cut engines and the grand old dame of Scottish cruising is finally home. As the Hebridean Princess sails into Oban for the first time in two years I’m in good company – the Queen is such a fan she has chartered her as a stand-in for Britannia. Twice. The Hebridean Princess isn’t alone in her Hebridean explorations, just the most exclusive in a growing flotilla of small Scottish cruise ships. Two weeks later I’m writing this aboard new Fleur de Lys, a game changer that forges from Mallaig straight into the heart of the Hebrides.

First things first, why would you bother cruising Scotland? I’ve sailed all over the world and hand on tartan heart I’ve found no finer cruising than the Hebrides. And these small ships offer an intimacy impossible on the hulking floating cities that choke the Med and Caribbean.

Scotland’s charms are manifest: world-class wildlife, from puffins to sea eagles, basking sharks to killer whales; as fine beef and seafood as you’ll find anywhere. It is one of the world’s most unappreciated littorals– how many Scots know we have over 800 islands, a coastline three times larger than England’s even without those isles and over 10% of Europe’s total coastline?

Covid wreaked havoc with cruise ships even more than most sectors of travel. It was a double whammy for the Hebridean Princess as stricter Scottish regulations saw her flee south to cruise England and Wales. This voyage to Oban then this autumn was not just a relocation cruise, but a triumphant return. She is now sailing in Scottish waters until November 13 and then again earlier than usual next year from February 28, with bookings already looking strong.

It’s easy to see why people book a Hebridean Princess Cruise. OK, she is not cheap – we’re talking the cheapest four-night cruise from just under £2,000 per person. But what an experience she offers; crucially a unique one. A brilliantly converted old CalMac ferry – back then she was the MV Columba – she was also a ‘Citadel Ship’ to be used by the royals and politicians in the event of World War Three. She exudes history; romance too. That ringing to the engine room entering Oban Bay was no artifice, her traditional Chadburn still rings full steam ahead when her captain takes her to sea.

Based in Oban – like the majority of Scotland’s small cruise ships – she has to funnel down the Sound of Mull, before rounding Ardnamurchan and enjoying an explosion of islands that inspired Mendelssohn to pen an overture in their honour. If CalMac offer a tempting canape of Scotland’s Hebridean delights, the Hebridean Princess serves up a gala smorgasbord.

The highlights of the Hebrides are at least daily, with calls at the likes of Rum to ramble around the most outlandish castle in Scotland, or Islay to sample a dram or two. Her solid bow scythes across The Minch too, offering ‘Footloose’ cruises in the Outer Hebrides, where the tender eases you ashore for a hike. A hike Hebridean Princess style – as you break over the last ridge you spot white linen tables on a remote beach. Steaming stew and fresh bread await, washed down with strawberries and champagne. Only London’s Savoy orders more Taittinger. And then there are the gold dust expeditions to St Kilda that always sell out.

The decadence – think of it more as a celebration of Scotland’s rich culinary larder – continues aboard in the Columba Restaurant. Relaxed lunches and dinners (the maximum of 50 passengers are soon on first name terms) showcase Pentland lamb, Gigha halibut, and West Coast lobster, while the Tiree Lounge awaits fore with its superb whisky collection. Well, chief purser Iain Gibson is an Islay man.

The royal connection ripples through the Hebridean Princess. Her Majesty’s signed photo still hangs above reception and she was renamed by the Duchess of York in 1989. The crew tell glorious stories too. Captain Richard Heaton told me of the first royal cruise when the Queen kept asking for the only set of charts. When it came to requesting their return to the bridge the officers drew lots on who was going to interrupt ma’am. The second time they chartered there were two sets of charts, both discretely marked up.

It’s unlikely that the royal party will ever charter the vessel I’m floating on now just off the coast of Eigg. The Fleur de Lys only takes a maximum of eight passengers for a start. White linen tablecloths and champagne are eschewed for a communal table and local ales, but the same cheeriness is soon injected by a hearty Highland welcome from skipper Chris Gray.

The Fleur de Lys was fashioned by the owner of Mallaig Boatyard as a comfortable, but not showy, private run-around for his family. Seeing the spiralling demand for Scottish small ship cruising, at a time when we’ve all realised the charms of Scotland, she has been put to work this year. Her USP is Mallaig. You don’t ‘lose’ a day and half burrowing down the Sound of Mull hoping to get around Ardnamurchan going out and then again coming back. That leaves more time for exploring the isles, perhaps why her standard trip is five days rather than most operators’ usual week.

The focus is given away by the name of the company – Skye and the Isles Cruises. Yes, you can easily get to Skye anyway, but it’s hard accessing Loch Coruisk at the heart of the Cuillin mountains. Here I’m spirited by tender to the fringes of Loch Scavaig, just a short hike from Coruisk. The real joy, though, is the unrivalled access she offers to the quartet of Small Isles. The timetable of CalMac’s Glen Nevis seems to have been designed to deter island hopping, but here they’ll usually get you on them all.

First up is Rum. We barrel ashore and I quickly meet ‘Chainsaw Dave’. Landing from a new ship with only a handful of passengers we are welcomed as a novelty. This local handyman and wood sculptor sweeps us quickly through the local happenings, the most remarkable are the four new families who won a global competition to be the island’s newest residents, a competition that captured the imagination in the dark days of summer 2020 with over 3,000 notes of interest. The effect has been immediate as the fragile island’s school roll has risen. This positivity is in contrast to crumbling Kinloch Castle – I peer through the windows and make out the sumo wrestler statues, a lion skin rug and a Steiner piano bedecked with cheetah skin.

We make a pit stop on Muck, a tiny isle where I yomp up to the highest point to peer back down at Coll and Tiree – there are always other islands to dream of in the Hebrides. It’s a brief visit to Canna, where the National Trust for Scotland have just announced they’re going to share ownership with the community.

Canna’s local community are a quarter of a century behind Eigg. In 2022 Eigg celebrates the 25th anniversary of its highly successful community buy-out with the opening of their swish new An Laimhrig community and visitor hub. Eigg’s community don’t just talk: they get things done. Eigg is believed to be the first island in the world to generate all its own electricity from green sources – as I visit I find the community working on expanding the hydroelectric system.

There is still time to cruise into Knoydart, another remote corner now owned by the local community. Eigg and Knoydart are inexorably linked – on Eigg I meet an islander heading over to get oak seeds from Knoydart for reforestation efforts. Knoydart may be on the mainland, but it feels as remote as an island – but our cruise connects the communities, joining the mental dots in a way impossible on public transport.

The Hebridean Princess and the Fleur de Lys may be deeply different, but they are both part of the explosion of small ship cruising in Scottish waters. These ships may be small, but they offer a unique insight into the myriad charms of the Hebrides – a land of big skies, epic wildlife and tall tales – in a big way. Why would you want to cruise anywhere else?


Hebridean Princess –

Fleur de Lys –

Other small Scottish cruise ships

Hebrides Cruises – Family-run company with two trim vessels out of Oban, the sleek Elizabeth G and the more luxurious Emma Jane (which sports an outdoor hot tub). Both sleep eight.

Skarv Lines – A newbie in 2020, the brilliantly converted Novo Spero fishing boat offers myriad routes for up to 11 passengers. The wood burning stove in the lounge is a cosy touch.

European Waterways – If you’re put off cruising by rough seas, the luxurious eight-passenger Scottish Highlander eases gently along the Caledonian Canal. Her plusher sister, the 12-passenger Spirit of Scotland, has an outdoor hot tub.

Argyll Cruising – Salty old sea dog skipper Iain Duncan knows the Firth of Clyde better than anyone - he’ll make you appreciate the estuary in a new way. Maximum eight passengers.

Red Moon Cruises – Ideal for a family or two couples as only sleeps four. Your party has this lovely old dame to yourselves.

The Majestic Line – In recent years they’ve added two purpose-built (on Bute) vessels to bolster their original brace of fishing boat conversions in Oban. The new 12-passenger Glen Etive and Glen Shiel offer much more space than the 11-passenger Massan and Tarsan.


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