Hebridean Princess – a magnificent Scottish cruise

Mount Stewart House

Alan Fairfax voyages in the Western Isles

Landing at Glasgow Airport after the short flight from London it’s only another 30 minutes to my destination where a glass of Taittinger Champagne awaits and within minutes I’m in my home for the next 7 days, the Colonsay Suite. A large bed, the magnificent headboard of light grey tartan matching two large high back armchairs by the picture windows. An expansive dressing unit with lights and mirror is home to fridge, television, tea/coffee making facilities, hairdryer, fridge and a decanter of whisky that is replenished daily, there is even an ironing board and iron that fold discreetly into a cupboard, along with ample storage in drawers and wardrobe.

The bathroom is breath taking, light tan marbled floor, walls in beige contrast gleaming gold coloured metal fittings, and yes, toiletries are supplied in abundance from the luxurious Molton Brown range.

Already I knew I was going to enjoy my stay. Oh yes, the name of this hotel is, well actually it’s not an hotel, it’s a small cruise ship, Hebridean Princess carrying only 48 passengers, but in sublime comfort operated by Hebridean Island Cruises. You could say, ‘It’s a ship fit for a Queen’ and you would be correct. In July 2006 the ship was chartered by the late HM Queen Elizabeth for her 80th birthday celebrations and again in 2010. Which cabin did she occupy? That’s a well-kept secret.

As a solo traveller I share a dining table with seven other solos which certainly makes me feel more at ease. Each night the table is hosted by one of the ship’s officers, the ship’s lecturer or ship’s guide. Six chefs each with their own speciality prepare meals of the highest standard. Nothing is too much trouble for the waiting or galley staff, if you want something different from the menu or something cooked in a certain way, they will do it.

We remain in port overnight as our first tour is nearby, Finlaystone House built in the 18th century with commanding views over the Clyde. Set amongst beautiful gardens its history can be traced back to the 13th century and has been the seat of both Clan Cunningham and Clan MacMillan. Currently its occupied by Arthur MacMillan and his family together with his 93 year old father, George MacMillan, the clan chief, who gives us all a wonderful talk on its history.

Over the following days we visit more of Scotland’s wonderful stately homes in the Western Isles, locations that have created memories, that for me, will last a very long time.

Ardkinglas House, located on the eastern shore of Loch Fyne and built in the baronial style on a site where once stood a castle belonging to the Campbells. Amazingly it was built in just 18 months and completed in 1907 for Sir Andrew Noble. It was the first house in Argyll to have electricity powered by it own hydro system.

Strachur House, this magnificent looking white building dates back to around 1770 with the outer wings added in about 1815, stands in expansive grounds overlooking Loch Fyne. From 1957 to 2005, it was the residence of Sir Fitzroy Maclean a British army officer, writer and politician, with Lady Veronica Maclean, it is now the home of their son, Charles Maclean.

Dumfries House, built in the 1750’s set among 2,000 acres of beautiful gardens and streams, trees that reach for the sky with enormous trunks, stroll amongst the grounds that change colour with the seasons. The house is breath taking, rooms that shout opulence and quality. In 2007 the estate was purchased for £45 Million by a consortium headed by the then Prince Charles, known in Scotland as the Duke of Rothesay and in 2008 the house opened to the public with guided tours.

Hunterston House and Castle near West Kilbride, with the castle dating back to 1263, is the ancestral home of Clan Hunter and to this day run by its descendants who reside on the estate. The four storey Hunterston House is a venue that has featured in television programs and films and unlike many historic houses is a home, home to Richard Hunter and his family, the Clan Chiefs brother. He has a delightful sense of humour as he guides us around the house telling us of his life there, the running of the estate, of film crews and famous actors who have visited. His sister, Madam Pauline, is the Clan Chief of Clan Hunter.

One of the most beautiful historic homes visited is Ardgowan House, Castle and Estate standing in 10,000 acres, home to the Shaw Stewart family but currently only occupied by Sir Ludovic Houston Shaw Stewart, 12th Baronet of Greenock and Blackhall who likes to be known as Ludo. The 76 room house has commanding views over the gardens and Clyde. The ground floor has been recently refurbished to accommodate weddings and conferences whilst other areas are decorated in a style where wall colours contrast with thick carpets whilst large paintings of family from over the centuries look on. Concaved chandeliers hang from coved ceilings and bookcases are high enough to require a ladder to reach the top shelves. This really is a beautiful house.

And now my favourite, if I am allowed to have one. This is a venue I have visited several times and am always happy to return, the Isle of Bute, the small town of Rothsay and Mount Stewart House standing in magnificent grounds on the banks of the Firth of Clyde. The original house, built in about 1716, was unfortunately destroyed by fire, but in 1877 rebuilding began, the current house is still claimed to be unfinished despite continual building through the 1900s.

Enter the house arriving in the colonnaded marble hall adorned on two walls by pictures and a large tapestry on a third. It was here on the 30th August 2003 that Stella MacCartney married Alasdhair Willis attended by over 200 guests including Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Moss and Pierce Brosnan to name but a few. A wide winding marble staircase leads to the gallery, magnificent lounges and bedrooms that have been occupied by the rich and famous over the centuries. The jewel in the crown for many, the white marble chapel, so plain, yet so breath taking, the alter backed by stained glass windows, candles in tall bronze holders stand each side of the simple but mesmerising altar.  When the sun shines through the red glass dome, the white marble is transformed to pink which I am lucky enough to witness on this trip. The house is purported to be the first house in Scotland to have been lit by electricity.

Suddenly it’s the last night, champagne reception followed by Gala Dinner which would not be complete without piping aboard the haggis and the ancient address to it. The Western Isles have a history to be proud of and attract in excess of 200,000 visitors a year. Stately homes, castles, mountains, lochs and rivers reflecting the often clear blue sky, an area of changing beauty according to the seasons. My visit is in the autumn, the leaves falling turning the hills into a carpet of yellow and gold reflecting in the sunlight. Go earlier, the hills are alive with heather in shades of pink and mauve whilst during the spring its the yellow from Gorse and Broom. It really doesn’t get much better than this.

Find out more

Hebridean Island Cruises have exceptional voyages in the Western Isles of Scotland and also on the Caledonian Canal, Great Glen and Western Seaboard. Our Silver Travel Advisors will be delighted to help you find and book the perfect Scottish cruise. Call on 0800 412 5678.

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Alan Fairfax

Travel writer & cruise journalist

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