Written on the wind
The pleasures of small-ship sailing in Scotland
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.