REMEMBER THE film Whisky Galore, inspired by a real event in 1941 when a cargo ship sank and its 264,000 bottles of whisky washed up on shore? That was on Eriskay, in the Outer Hebrides but I am a long way further south, sailing around the Inner Hebrides for 10 days. I am still surrounded by whisky, though, with Islay alone home to 11 working distilleries. And if you cannot stand the stuff, then the scenery is more than adequate compensation.
I have come prepared for the worst — thermal underwear, rain gear to cover every part of my body, fleeces thick and thin, even waterproof socks. Arriving in Oban, I get soaked carrying my bags to the hotel and my home for the next 10 nights is bobbing around in the harbour, buffeted by wind and rain.
The Glen Etive is the newest addition to the Majestic Line, with just six cabins and three crew to look after 12 passengers. The rain has stopped and an hour’s sailing brings us to our anchorage in Loch Spelve, on the island of Mull. After a sumptuous dinner, Captain David Wheeler briefs us about the cruise. There is no set itinerary, he says, as it all depends on the weather and the sea but, with a fair wind behind us, we could visit Colonsay, Jura, Islay, and Gigha, before returning to Oban.
Next day dawns bright and calm and he decides to brave the whirlpools of the Gulf of Corryvrekan, between the islands of Scarba and Jura. This can be a treacherous stretch of water but today it is like a millpond and we anchor by the village of Scalasaig on the Island of Colonsay. There is no distillery here but it does have its own brewery — a pint of its IPA is most welcome after a hike to the glorious white sand beach of Kiloran Bay.
Tonight’s anchorage is to be Craighouse on Jura, so we head back east, through the Sound of Islay. The weather has improved but not enough to lift the cloud completely off the Paps of Jura, the island’s three aptly named conical peaks. In the morning, I stride out over peat and heather and start to climb. Unfortunately there is not enough time to reach the tops but I console myself with a dram of the Jura 16-yearold whisky, in the Craighouse distillery.
Next day we head south to Port Ellen, on the Isle of Islay. It is the middle of Fèis Ìle, the week-long festival of malt and music and the Laphroiag distillery is holding its open day. Although it is early, the folk greet me with a tasting glass and there is live folk music serenading the crowd by the sea. Just nearby are two other distilleries, Lagavulin and Ardbeg, so I head up the road and get a sample of each.
Our course now takes us around the bottom of the island and it is so clear we can see the Irish coast 20 miles away. We sail into Loch Indaal, with Bruichladdich and Bowmore distilleries on opposite banks. In the morning, it is Bowmore’s turn to host its open day but I explore the town and its distinctive round church before enjoying the festivities.
We leave Islay and sail east to the small Isle of Gigha, just seven miles long and a mile wide. It is the most southerly of the Hebrides, with a warm micro-climate, sandy beaches, clear green seas and a host of wildlife.
The 54-acre Achamore Gardens are well worth a visit, particularly if you are there when the impressive collection of rhododendrons is in full bloom.
We anchor for the night by the village of Tayvallich, in Loch Sween. We are now back on the mainland and the landscape seems strangely civilised after the wilds of the Hebrides.
In the morning I leave the boat and walk seven miles to Crinan, at the head of the canal of the same name, built in the 19th century. It is low tide and there is an abundance of wading birds and even a couple of ospreys feeding
Pushing north from the mainland, we arrive in the Slate Isles of Seil and Easdale. These once supplied slates for houses in Glasgow with Easdale, just a mile across, supporting a population of more than 500. In 1881, a freak storm flooded the quarries and the industry was wiped out.
These days it is a pleasant spot and a tiny ferry plies the few hundred yards to the island of Seil.
Another couple of nights, putting into sheltered spots on the Isle of Mull, brings us back to Oban. We have had 10 continuous days’ bright sunshine, almost unheard of in Scotland. Shore trips are always at the mercy of the weather, to say nothing of navigating the treacherous seas. I silently give thanks as I sip my final dram in the Oban Distillery.
The next Majestic Line (themajesticline. co.uk) Southern Hebrides Cruise leaves Oban in mid-May for 10 days and costs £4,250 per person. Read more from Rupert at planetappetite.com
I am greeted with live folk music and a glass’
and Ardbeg Open-day hospitality at Lagavulin Glen Etive: 12 passengers, three crew and all this view