Hebrides Cruises attracts tourists from around the world to its wildlife and scenery tours on the west coast of Scotland.

The company was founded in 1994 by marine and shipping expert Rob Barlow, who runs the business today with daughter Emma Fairbairns and her husband James.

Here, Emma explains why the business gives joy to its guests as well as the staff themselves.

What is your business called?

Hebrides Cruises.

Where is it based?


What does it produce/do?

We are a family-run business offering scenic and wildlife cruises on Scotland’s beautiful west coast including the Inner and Outer Hebrides, Southern Hebrides, St Kilda and the Flannan Isles.

There are 14 cruise itineraries to choose from and are the only wildlife cruise company in Scotland to offer a dedicated wildlife guide on every cruise, offering guests a unique opportunity to experience and understand the wildlife on the west coast.

We have three small ships within our fleet, MV Elizabeth G, MV Emma Jane and MV Lucy Mary and provide wonderful crew with extensive maritime knowledge and experience, allowing guests to land at some of Scotland’s hidden coastal gems, secret anchorages, famous landmarks and far-flung destinations.

To whom does it sell?

Guests from all over the world join us aboard to experience the magic of the Hebrides. Guests age range is generally from 40 – 90s with the eldest guest we have had aboard being 95, a very active lady who enjoyed her walks ashore and the company of fellow guests.

We have some real ‘birders’ that are very keen on specific birds, others want to see the bigger beasties like whales and dolphins and with some guests cruising to experience the Scottish Hebrides, its beauty and our hospitality.

The Herald: Superyacht Lucy Mary joined the fleet last year

What is its turnover?

Our turnover ranges between six and seven figures.

How many employees?

We have seven full time employees and 22 seasonal crew members. We believe one of the reasons we are so successful is down to our wonderful crew.

Why did you take the plunge?

It was my father, Rob Barlow, that started the company back in 1994 through a love of the sea, nature and extensive experience in the marine and shipping environment. I took the plunge to join him 11 years ago as shore manager with the responsibility for all operations of the business and making the main focus of the business on creating unforgettable experiences for our guests.

When I joined my father just there was just one vessel, the Elizabeth G, and my father offered diving charters alongside wildlife cruises and National Trust for Scotland runs to St Kilda.

We rebranded and focused more on scenic and wildlife cruises, then in 2017 we purchased the Emma Jane and in 2023 the Lucy Mary. When the business expanded to two vessels, my husband James, who is from a Hebridean seafaring background, joined full time, and has been instrumental in helping to expand the business to where it is today.

I love my job and seeing guests' faces as they arrive back in after a wonderful cruise brings me so much joy. The stories and tales they share with me for those few minutes are magical. They always leave saying ‘we’ll be back’ and so many of them do return.

What were you doing before?

Originally from the Isle of Mull, I grew up in the hospitality sector with my mum and dad running a successful guest house on Tobermory’s Main Street. From a very young age I was keen on boats, and my dad would often take me on his scallop diving boat exploring the west side of Mull.

After university and some travelling, I came back to Scotland and became a mother of three beautiful children. My children also share the same love for the sea.

What do you least enjoy?

When we hear there has been a sighting of John Coe and Aquarius (the famous West Coast Community Orca) outside Oban Harbour and we missed them by 20 minutes. They are so fast.

What are your ambitions for the firm?

To keep delivering the best on the west and continue the amazing working relationship I share with my dad Rob and husband James. Also, to keep our focus on improving our green credentials and research of the cetaceans/wildlife of the Hebrides, both such important elements to us.

Thanks to our loyal crew, my incredible father and loving husband we make things happen and with our love and passion, we all share the same vision for Hebrides Cruises moving forward.

What single thing would most help?

To expand the pontoons system at Oban. The small ship cruising sector has grown a lot over the last few years and increasing space to allow operators to work from would be hugely beneficial for everyone.

What is the most valuable lesson you have learned?

To trust my gut and not let fear or doubt stand in my/our way.

Where do you find yourself most at ease?

Oh I have a couple. Sitting in the hot tub with my husband, looking across to Ben Cruachan with a gin and tonic in my hand or walking the decks or companion ways on all three of our vessels at the end of a season and looking back at the incredible season we just shared with all our guests.

If you weren’t in your current role, what job would you most fancy?

The theatre. I love to sing and have done so from a very young age. I would love to be involved with musical production, singing, dancing. Even to be part of choir would be lots of fun.

What phrase or quotation has inspired you the most?

‘Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it’ and ‘the only way to do great work is to love what you do’.

What is the best book you have ever read? Why is it the best?

Manifest by Roxie Nafousi. It sounds quite deep but it’s not. It's such a useful tool/book that is to the point with clear actions to allow you to manifest you best life.

What has been your most challenging moment in life or business?

I’d say it was the delivery or our recent vessel Lucy Mary. Believe it or not, she came all the way from Beirut. The delivery had its challenges working our way through the Mediterranean and then across the Bay of Biscay in some crazy weather. Thankfully she made it to Hebrides and proved to us what an incredible seaworthy vessel she is, like her sisters Elizabeth G and Emma Jane.

What do you now know that you wish you had known when starting out in your career?

To take a deep breath regularly and find the right balance with work and family. We are only on this planet a short time so to make the most of those precious moments.