Writ­ten on the wind

The plea­sures of small-ship sail­ing in Scot­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - JANE SANDI­LANDS

ON the last night of our week-long voy­age on He­bridean Princess, three mu­si­cians from the Isle of Mull play the soul-stir­ring Macpher­son’s Lament.

A fel­low pas­sen­ger mur­murs that “this ship takes us back to a world that re­ally doesn’t ex­ist”. And dur­ing this week, piped on board by a Scot­tish piper, we have will­ingly taken our pass­ports to this non-ex­is­tent uni­verse.

The route of the ship, it seems to me, is writ­ten on the wind. There is an itin­er­ary (ours is Her­itage of the He­brides) but weather, time and cir­cum­stance all play a part in where we travel. And none of this mat­ters at all. The ship trav­els only by day, en­sur­ing peace­ful nights.

We pass un­in­hab­ited is­lands, still-de­fi­ant cas­tle ru­ins on the edge of lochs, see dol­phins, visit whisky dis­til­leries plus places of pil­grim­age and tiny vil­lages, walk fiercely or gen­tly (or not at all) and dine like roy­alty.

The ship’s royal con­nec­tions are worn with pride: it has been char­tered by Queen El­iz­a­beth II twice — once for 80th birth­day cel­e­bra­tions with her fam­ily, fol­lowed by a re­turn visit, some­thing shared with more than 60 per cent of the ship’s pas­sen­gers, who choose the ship again and again.

The his­tory of the He­bridean Princess be­gan with its com­mis­sion­ing by the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment in 1962 as a pas­sen­ger and car ferry at a time when ve­hi­cles were loaded by crane. This was the height of the Cold War and the 235-foot ship was de­signed to dou­ble as a com­mand cen­tre in the event of a nu­clear war with its ul­tra-thick steel hull, de­con­tam­i­na­tion cham­ber and out­side sprin­klers to rinse off ra­di­a­tion. Charles, our chief purser, as­sures us we are “in the safest place in the world”.

Some of the ship’s 50 pas­sen­gers (looked after by 38 crew) have par­tic­u­lar rea­sons for tak­ing our voy­age. One wants to re­turn to the Isle of Colon­say to which she had been evac­u­ated from London dur­ing World War II.

A Scot now based in the Cay­man Is­lands wants to ex­plore his her­itage and, he con­fesses, to have the op­por­tu­nity to wear his four dif­fer­ent kilts.

A wid­owed doc­tor in his 80s says he takes trips reg­u­larly on var­i­ous cruise lines but he reck­ons He­bridean Princess “looks after sin­gle peo­ple very well’.

The Tiree Lounge is the cen­tre of ac­tiv­ity, a gath­er­ing place with com­fort­able spa­ces to be alone, or join oth­ers. The in­ti­mate li­brary, glow­ing with deep Ch­ester­field arm­chairs, has books about Scot­land, its plants, its coast­lines, a well-thumbed vol­ume of Who’s Who and the lat­est crime of­fer­ings by Scot­tish au­thor Ian Rankin.

A num­ber of small ar­eas on deck en­cour­age pri­vate con­ver­sa­tion. Our cab­ins are tended by in­vis­i­ble hands at least three times a day and an early riser out and about be­fore 5am is likely to see the brass on the com­pan­ion­way steps get a brisk pol­ish.

At the time of book­ing, there is the op­tion to dine with your trav­el­ling com­pan­ion or be placed at a larger ta­ble. We choose to min­gle and at the chief en­gi­neer’s ta­ble, pas­sen­gers are joined by the tour man­ager and mem­bers of the crew. It feels like a Scot­tish ver­sion of Tales from the Ara­bian Nights, wait­ing breath­lessly for each night’s sto­ries.

Tour man­agers travel with each sail­ing, and they are the keep­ers of the back­sto­ries to the places we visit. Each evening, Mal­colm gives a brief­ing on the where and when of the fol­low­ing day. And he knows all the an­swers to our var­ied ques­tions, such as how the Vik­ings phys­i­cally lifted their ships from one loch to another, and why a New York banker bought Staffa, the tiny hexag­o­nal basalt out­crop, which rises from the ocean like a gi­ant’s cup­cake. (It was a birth­day gift for his wife.)

Staffa, and Fin­gal’s Cave, were brought to world at­ten­tion in 1772 by botanist Sir Joseph Banks. Fa­mous vis­i­tors fol­lowed. J.M.W. Turner painted it, po­ets Keats and Wordsworth vis­ited, as did Jules Verne. And thanks to a slight change in the ship’s itin­er­ary, so do we.

Inside Fin­gal’s Cave, the in­spi­ra­tion for Men­delssohn’s fa­mous Over­ture, we thrill to the roar of the ocean as the Sea of the He­brides builds up and up and then re­cedes with a great, tragic sigh.

When we board the small trans­fer boat at Staffa in a ris­ing sea to head back to He­bridean Princess, a wicker ham­per awaits with a cargo of dainty sand­wiches, large Ther­moses of cof­fee and tea and the ubiq­ui­tous bot­tle of whisky. Just as the last pas­sen­gers board, a wave over­takes them. Un­selfishly, one calls out, “Save the whisky!”

Then, com­ing full cir­cle, it is the Scot­tish piper again, this time herald­ing the ar­rival of the hag­gis at our farewell din­ner. The cruise is over, sadly. Back to the real world.

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