The Hebridean Islands of western Scotland are one of the most magical and majestic places to cruise in the world. And there’s no better way to experience their beauty than on a small British-run cruise ship that’s become a stand-in for Her Majesty’s Royal Yacht Britannia.
As the British travel writer Robin McKelvie once said, “If the Orient Express is the Train of Kings then the Hebridean Princess is undoubtedly the Ship of Queens.”
Indeed, as my wife Gail and I were piped aboard the Hebridean Princess during a pleasant September afternoon in Oban to begin a seven-day cruise around the Scottish Hebrides, we could see why this intimate ship had become a favourite of at least one monarch — Queen Elizabeth. In fact, since the Royal Yacht Britannia was decommissioned in 1997, Her Majesty has twice chartered the entire ship for family vacations and her signed portrait hangs in the lobby.
Not bad for a ship that began life in 1964 as a 2,110-tonne ferry taking passengers and cars around the Hebridean Islands off the northwest coast of Scotland. However, after the MV Columba was sold and refitted in 1989, the 235-foot long vessel became a luxury cruise ship with 30 well-appointed cabins (four with balconies) and the ability to pamper 50 passengers in the understated elegance reminiscent of a British country manor.
After a gentle night’s sleep, we arrived the next morning in Port Ellen on the Isle of Islay (pronounced Eye-La). The most southerly island of the Inner Hebrides (it’s actually closer to Northern Ireland than mainland Scotland), Islay has a rich history as the former seat of the MacDonald Clan who once ruled most of Western Scotland. However, today the island is best known for its ‘peaty’ single malt whiskies which have been produced here from the time of the Celtic monks over a thousand years ago.
Once our ship was berthed at the dock, we took a tour bus to the Laphroaig Distillery – one of Scotland’s legendary producers of single malt scotch including Ardbeg, Bowmore and Lagavulin. We were then treated to a ‘malting to maturation’ tour of the distillery to learn about the painstaking process of making quality Scotch whisky, followed by a tasting of three different casks. We bought a bottle of the Lore, which is made from whiskies aged in a combination of quarter casks, sherry casks and reused peated casks.
With a warm glow inside, we returned to the ship for lunch in the Columba Restaurant, which offers a small but superb selection of local Scottish cuisine in an intimate setting. While we dined on an extravagant seafood buffet, the ship sailed northeast through the Sound of Islay to the Isle of Colonsay.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we arrived at Scalasaig, one of three tiny villages on the island which has a total population of 120 people. Colonsay lies at the entrance to the Firth of Lorn with nothing between it and North America except for 3,000 miles of open Atlantic Ocean. The island’s location (locals claim it is Britain’s most isolated community) is probably why it has 150 species of birds, including golden eagles and corncrakes, and boasts the widest variety of plant life in the Hebrides.
After our ship tied up at a wind-swept pier, we walked to the nearby village hall where we were greeted by Andrew Abrahams, the owner of a local oyster farm and honey bee colony. Andrew gave us a brief presentation about raising oysters in a remote cove, and his 30 years of nurturing one of Europe’s few populations of pure black bees. We were then treated to magnificent oysters, delicious honey and French Champagne.
Later that evening the Captain held his welcome champagne reception in the lovely Tiree Lounge, which features a huge brick Inglenook fireplace, a cozy Pub-style wood bar, and traditional fabric-covered armchairs and sofas. As the staff served us Taittinger Champagne and a selection of hors d’oeuvres, Captain Richard Heaton introduced his officers, which included our charming Chief Purser from the Isle of Islay, Iain Gibson.
We spent the next morning cruising the Sound of Mull around the Ardnamurchan Peninsula and then northeast to the Isle of Rum which has a total population of 20 people. A mountainous island with a majestic skyline and wild expanses of rough moorland, Rum is a National Nature Reserve with large herds of red deer, a special Western Hebridean breed of Rum ponies, and plenty of otters, seals and white-tailed sea eagles.
Once the ship’s tender dropped us ashore, we made our way along a gravel road to the island’s main attraction, the 19th century Kinloch Castle. Built in 1897 by multi-millionaire industrialist George Bullough (who owned the entire island), Kinloch Castle was constructed with red sandstone and featured the best furniture and fittings that money could buy. Interestingly, half the castle was designed with soft furnishings to suit the tastes of society beauty Lady Monica Bullough, while the other half reflected her husband’s vision of their summer home serving as a hunting lodge.
The next morning we arrived at Loch Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye, where we made our way by foot up to one of the most picturesque castles in the Hebrides, and the only one that has been continuously occupied by the same family for 800 years. Rising from the shore against a backdrop of sky, mountains and sea, Dunvegan Castle features many beautiful paintings and historic heirlooms such as Rory Mor’s Horn. Legend has it that when each male heir in the MacLeod Clan comes of age, he must drink from the horn in one draught “without setting down or falling down.”
In keeping with the ‘Gastronomic Scotland’ theme of our cruise, after visiting the castle we were taken by motor coach to one of Scotland’s most iconic restaurants, The Three Chimneys. While overlooking Loch Dunvegan, we dined on a delicious lunch of Isle of Muck Partridge, Celtic Rarebit Roasted Hake, and home-made chocolates. For a few minutes, it felt like we were in heaven!
The next morning our ship dropped anchor along the shore of Loch Shieldaig, and we tendered ashore to its namesake village. After a 60-minute walk along a ridge above the village where we had a gorgeous view of the coast and nearby islands, we set off on a tour bus for lunch at a legendary hotel in a beautiful corner of the Scottish Highlands at the end of Loch Torridon.
The Torridon Hotel is set amongst 58 acres of parkland in one of most spectacular locations in the country, and boasts a three rosette rated restaurant with seasonal menus that showcase produce grown on the Torridon Farm and the surrounding area. Our lunch started with cocktails in the cozy Whisky & Gin Bar, and concluded with a marvelous meal of lamb belly, cod and yoghurt parfait served in the hotel’s beautifully wood-panelled 1887 Restaurant.
After lunch, we returned to the ship and sailed to Kyle of Lochalsh, where local musician Louden MacKay came aboard after dinner and treated us to Scottish Highland tunes in the Tiree Lounge. Led by our Chief Purser Iain and our tour guide Brian Hay, guests were invited onto a dance floor to perform a series of traditional Scottish reels.
We arrived early the next morning off the shore of the Isle of Eigg where guests were given the opportunity of a variety of hikes, including the one we took to the Cave of St. Francis, which is better known as ‘Massacre Cave.’ The cave is the site where in 1557 a raiding party of MacLeods from Skye killed the island’s entire population of 395 MacDonalds. However, the raid did not go unpunished – we were told that another branch of the MacDonalds took revenge on the MacLeods by burning a small church in which they were worshipping just north of Dunvegan.
Later in the day the Hebridean Princess pulled up alongside the dock in Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, where we were taken for a private tour of the Isle of Mull Cheese Farm. Located just a few minutes from the town’s picturesque row of brightly painted Georgian houses and shops along the waterfront, the business was started by Jeff and Chris Reade and two of their four sons in 1999, and is still today the only dairy farm on the Isle of Mull.
We were given a wonderful tour by Chris, who, while having stepped aside from controlling the family business some years ago, is still involved in many aspects. In fact, she secretly told us that she hopes her recently married and relocated granddaughter returns to the farm one day so she can work with her in adding a new capacity to make cheese from sheep’s milk!
The next morning our ship cruised through the Sound of Mull on its way to the Isle of Eriska, which is located at the entrance to Loch Creran on the west coast of Scotland. It was our final day on the ship, and time for our third and final Scottish gastronomic lunch at the Isle of Eriska Hotel.
Now a private 300-acre island, Eriska provides gorgeous views over Loch Linnhe and the dramatic Morvern mountains beyond. It’s also home to a lovely mansion built in 1884 which now serves as luxury hotel, featuring a wood-paneled dining room with views over an expansive lawn. This is where we were treated to a lunch of muscade pumpkin soup, red wine-braised cheek of Black Angus beef, and a salted caramel tart, washed down with some of the best white and red wines that we had tasted anywhere on the trip.
It was now our final night of our seven-day cruise on the Hebridean Princess, which meant it was time for the Captain’s farewell dinner with everyone dressed in formal wear, including kilts and full Highland dress for the men if they wished; tuxedos for those who lacked Scottish ancestry or good legs. While we sat at our window-side table for two, a huge plate of haggis was ceremoniously piped into the Columba dining room by our waiters. We were then served a scrumptious meal of haggis, neeps and tatties, followed by venison carpaccio, herb crusted borders lamb loin, and crème brûlée.
We had just spent a week on the Queen’s favourite ship, cruising to one of the most majestic and amazing parts of the world. But before we could leave this unique ship feeling fulfilled, we had one last thing to do. Book a return voyage for next year!
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