The Majestic Line offers a ten day cruise, around the Inner Hebrides, dropping anchor outside whisky distilleries. Rupert Parker climbs on board.
The Glen Etive is the newest addition to the Majestic Line, and this is her third voyage. It will take me over to Mull, then to Colonsay, and stopping off at Jura and Islay for the whisky festival – Malt and Music. It’s a five minute transfer by tender to the ship and I’m welcomed on board by bosun Michelle Wheeler who thrusts a glass of prosecco into my hand. One of her many responsibilities over the next ten days is to ensure that my glass is never empty, but she’s really there to ensure the highest level of service.
There are just six cabins, four crew and nine passengers, although it can take a maximum of a dozen, and with this high crew to passenger ratio it feels like a private yacht. Michelle shows me to my quarters which contain a large double bed, separate shower and toilet and is economical on space without being cramped. She services the cabins every morning, usually when everyone’s at breakfast.
An hour’s sailing brings us to our anchorage in Loch Spelve, on the island of Mull, and it’s turned into a fine evening. We sit together, round a large rectangular table, and Captain David Wheeler briefs us about the cruise. There’s no set itinerary, as it all depends on the weather and the state of the seas, but he’s confident he’ll be able to make it to Islay.
Next day dawns bright and calm, so much so that he decides to brave the whirlpools of the Gulf of Corryvrekan, between the islands of Scarba and Jura. This is a treacherous stretch of water and the combination of tide and wind regularly whips up 15ft waves. Today it’s like a millpond and even the whirlpools are less than spectacular. We emerge without mishap and anchor off the village of Scalasaig on the Island of Colonsay. There’s no distillery here but it does have its own brewery – a pint of their IPA is most welcome after a long hike to the glorious white sand beach of Kiloran Bay on the other side of the island.
Tonight’s anchorage is Craighouse on Jura so it’s back east, through the Sound of Islay to reach the port. The weather has been improving but not enough to cause the cloud to lift completely off the Paps of Jura, the three famously conical mountains in the centre of the island. I decide to take a closer look so stride out up the coast and start to climb. Unfortunately there’s not enough time to reach their summits but I get a good view from the loch below.
I console myself with a dram of the Isle of Jura 16 Year Old, in the Craighouse distillery, before the tender picks me up to take me back on board. The boat’s chef, Michael Weir, conjures up miracles every night, serving his version of classical French food, and I’m greeted by a delicious dinner of roast cod with lemon flavoured carrots. His breakfasts change every morning, lunches always have a selection of salads and there’s tea and cake in the afternoon, just in case you’re slightly peckish.
Next day we head south to Port Ellen, on the Isle of Islay. I’ve arrived in the middle of Feis Ile, the week-long festival of malt and music, and today, the famous Laphroiag distillery is staging its open day. It’s about an hour’s walk, and although it’s early, they greet me with a tasting glass and three tokens to exchange for wee drams. The distillery is right by the sea and there’s live folk music serenading the festive crowd. Fortified by tastings of their peaty whisky I also visit the two other distilleries nearby, Lagavulin and Ardbeg.
We now head south and west and the weather is so clear that the coast of Northern Island is clearly visible around 20 miles away. Our destination is Loch Indaal, with Bruichladdich and Bowmore distilleries on opposite banks. Next day it’s Bowmore’s turn to host its open day and I get a chance to explore the town and its famous round church before fitting in a tour of the distillery. It’s astonishing to see the germinating barley laid out in their malt barns – Bowmore is one of only a handful of distilleries still producing its own floor malted barley.
We leave Islay and sail to the small Isle of Gigha, just seven miles long and a mile wide. It’s the most southerly of the Hebrides, with a warm microclimate, and the 54 acre Achamore Gardens are well worth a visit. At the end of May, their impressive collection of rhododendrons are in full bloom, a riot of colour, rubbing shoulders with sub-tropical plants like palm lilies and flame trees.
Tonight’s anchorage is just outside the village of Tayvallich, in Loch Sween. After the wilds of Jura the landscape now looks positively civilised but beautiful in a different way. The weather is still set fine, so I leave the boat and walk seven miles to Crinan, at the head of the canal of the same name. This was built in the early 19th century so boats could get to the sea from Loch Fyne and the Firth of Clyde without having to make the perilous journey round the bottom of the Mull of Kintyre. It’s low tide and from the towpath I see an abundance of wading birds and even a couple of Ospreys taking advantage of the rich pickings.
Pushing away from the mainland, we arrive in the Slate Isles of Seil and Easdale. There was once a booming quarrying industry here with the islands supplying slates for houses in Glasgow. The tiny Easdale Island, just a mile in diameter, at its peak supported a population of over 500. Unfortunately, in 1881, a freak storm flooded the quarries, and the industry came to an abrupt end. These days its’s a pleasant spot, with the cottages going for holiday lets, and a tiny ferry plies the few hundred yards between the adjacent island of Seil.
Another couple of nights, putting into sheltered spots on the Isle of Mull, brings us back to Oban. As I pack my bag, I look at all the wet and cold weather gear I haven’t needed. Ten continuous days of no rain are almost unheard of in Scotland, and bright sunshine and almost no wind, even rarer. Scenery and shore trips are always at the mercy of the weather, to say nothing of navigating the treacherous seas around these islands. I silently give thanks as I sip my final dram of whisky in the Oban Distillery.
The Glen Etive makes good use of space and has three levels. Up on top, there’s a spacious sun deck and Captain Dave Wheeler is happy to welcome anyone to the bridge. Next level down is the saloon, with sweeping views through large windows. Aft, there’s communal dining round a large rectangular table and, set back from the open bow, is a comfortable lounge with a bar. It’s here that Chef Michael Weir’s marvellous canapés are served every night before dinner and it’s useful to have extra space to relax. Most cabins are downstairs, but there are a couple at this level. It’s still necessary to have a certain level of agility, as you’ll need to negotiate a fixed stair when climbing in and out of the tender. Fortunately the crew are there to assist and a hand rail provides extra support.