The Lochs and Isles of Western Scotland rate as some of the most spectacular scenery in the world and there is no better way than to experience them than by boat.
My journey begins on boarding the Oban bound train from Glasgow. Gathering speed, the city is left behind exchanging tower blocks for villages, farms, rural areas and the open country, passing the Firth of Clyde, its low water revealing sandy rock backed beaches where visitors take in the early summer sunshine. Further north the Clyde is replaced by lochs, steep cliffs adorned with pine trees, areas of dense woodland, birch and pine trees rising from the moss and fern covered ground, wild foxgloves in purple and mauve adding a dash of colour, sheep grazing in rolling green pastures. No wonder this is often described as the most picturesque train journey in the UK. 3 hours later sees us arriving at Oban, a picturesque town on Scotland’s west coast, now bathed in rays of the setting sun and my home for the night.
The following morning a 20-minute taxi ride sees me being delivered to Dunstaffnage Marina, home port of Seahorse ll, my home for the next 5 days. Built in 1972 as a Norwegian Fjord ferry, it later to become a dive support vessel for those working on the famous Malmo Bridge before being acquired by the Ministry of Defence as a target towing vessel. Finally, in October 2017 it was acquired by the current owners, St Hilda Sea Adventures, to operate as a ‘Skippered Charter Vessel’ offering trips in and around the lochs and isles of Western Scotland. Only 25 metres long, carrying a maximum of 8 passengers and a crew of 3 it will certainly be different from the large ships I usually cruise on.
Once on board, introductions concluded, it’s time to visit my cabin on the lower deck, accessed by steps which we are advised to descend backwards as they are quite steep. My single berth cabin is compact with bunk bed but with a surprisingly large amount of storage space, a wide hard top surface area useful for placing laptops, tablets etc., part of which is hinged to reveal a wash basin. Soft towelling robe, towels and soap dispenser are all there and electric sockets are the 2 pin European variety so an adapter is needed although one is supplied.
Back to the main saloon for the safety demonstration given by Roy the bosun, Charlie the captain informs us that because of high winds we are going to remain in port for the night but we are free to go ashore if we wish. I prefer to get my bearings around the ship, noting paddle boards and kayaks on the rear deck (not that I will be using them). Next on the agenda: pre-dinner wine and a selection of ‘nibbles’ whilst Val the cook prepares dinner in the galley: an opportunity to become better acquainted with fellow passengers who hail from Scotland, Ireland, and a group of four from the USA who have brought with them their small dog, Pippin.
Dinner is a salmon sandwich: if you’ve never had it, then you should try it. Fresh salmon, a centre filling of coconut and pistachio with a crust topping accompanied by new potatoes and French beans. Desert, a mix of fresh strawberries, blackberries and raspberries, was followed by a selection of cheese and crackers all washed down with a choice of red or white wine, with tea or coffee to finish.
Going out on deck reminds me how far north I actually am: it’s gone 10pm and the sun is only just starting to set behind the ruins of Dunstaffnage Castle, dating back to the 13th century, this is one of the oldest stone castles in Scotland. After a long day, it’s time to climb up into that bunk – which turns out to be quite comfortable – and dream of tomorrow.
Next morning, the wind has dropped and following breakfast we set sail from the marina, heading north through Loch Linnhe to Loch Laich, the location of Castle Stalker, built in the 14th century. Passing through the hands of several clan owners it was finally restored by the current owner in 1965. Standing on an islet it’s mainly accessible by boat and featured in the 1975 film ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’. Time for lunch as we continue our journey to Loch Drumbuie – and yes, I have spelled it correctly! – for our overnight anchorage, passing fish farms and watching the antics of gulls and gannets as they soar overhead. Once at anchor it’s that time again, yes, pre-dinner aperitifs followed by another of Val’s specialities. Where has the day gone? Wandering out on the aft deck, you can’t help but be impressed with the quietness, seclusion, tranquillity and beauty of the area, an opportunity to reflect and be at peace with yourself.
The days pass quickly, sailing the lochs taking in sights of the wildlife: dolphins swimming alongside, guillemots swimming and running on the water as we approach, gannets circling above the loch before diving at speed into the waves and surfacing with fish, wild goats on the rocky shore line nestling with their young. Spending time on the ‘Bridge’, observing cormorants skimming the water’s surface as they return to their nests with food for their chicks, passing the Caledonian MacBrayne ferries as they transport passengers and their cars between the islands. Too soon it’s over and, with farewells said, we begin the journey back to our normal lives.
Memories? Yes, many.
Tobermory, the capital of Mull, a small town of brightly coloured houses, cafes, restaurants and shops, its busy small harbour making it a very popular location for visitors to Western Scotland and used as the location for the children’s television programme ‘Balamory’.
Rendezvousing with the scallop boat in the Sound of Mull, speaking with the divers and taking on board scallops fresh from the loch bed. They don’t come any fresher – what a wonderful dish they made.
Loch Melfort, a serene overnight mooring, with cottages and a holiday village nestled on the shoreline, the water so still and clear producing a perfect reflection of everything in and around it, even the set of swans that paddled out to us at sunset made wonderful reflections.
Our last night on board moored in Oban Bay, the setting sun bathing this beautiful town in its diminishing rays making it stand out against the hills. Yes, definitely many memories.
So, who is this ship suitable for? Basically, providing you are physically fit, very mobile and healthy, it should appeal to a wide age group who are looking for an adventure styled holiday as opposed to 5-star cruising. Whilst the 50-plus market will enjoy the spectacular scenery, wildlife and peaceful seclusion, the under 50s will enjoy making use of the kayaks and paddle boards this ship carries. As for the crew – Charlie, Roy and Val – thank you for making my trip so enjoyable. You are the best!
Silver Travel Advisor recommends St Hilda Sea Adventures