Going ‘over the sea to Skye’ has improved a great deal since the days of Bonnie Prince Charlie. It is just one of the Scottish islands served by a flotilla of cruise boats – none carrying more than 12 passengers – whose crew will pamper you as you explore the rugged landscape and tranquil bays. Book quickly though, as cruises can sell out a year in advance.
A former tall ship and an ex-Norwegian ferry were joined this year by a converted lifeboat as the fleet of St Hilda Sea Adventures expanded. St Hilda, a traditional 54ft wooden ketch, carries just six guests. Seahorse II, a 82ft ferry, takes up to 11 while the eight-passenger Gemini Explorer, which arrived in April, was a lifeboat that saved 44 lives and was involved in the ill-fated 1979 Fastnet Race. The fleet serves Scotland’s west coast, offering excursions such as visits to whisky distilleries, though some cruises have art tutors, photography lecturers or wildlife guides on board at no extra charge.
Book it: A 10-night cruise to St Kilda and the Shiants on Gemini Explorer, leaving Oban on May 24, 2021, costs from £2,200pp (01776 810802; sthildaseaadventures.co.uk).
Love in a former gunboat
Owners Scott Atkinson and Mary Waller had their first date in 2000 under a red moon in New Zealand and married seven years later. Couples wishing for a similar romantic encounter can exclusively charter the four-passenger boat which Scott and Mary bought in 2015 and christened Red Moon. Guests can even choose where the former Admiralty fishing vessel – which began life in 1945 armed with a machine gun – cruises within two sailing areas, around Skye and Mull. As well as the double cabin, there are two singles, but for many bookings it’s a private love boat for two.
Book it: A six-night East of Skye cruise, leaving Kyle of Lochalsh in July, 2021, costs from £5,280 a couple (07768 101667; redmooncruises.co.uk).
Wildlife and gourmet food
Sailing from Oban, Hebrides Cruises carries a wildlife expert on every voyage and shore excursion. Skipper Rob Barlow works closely with the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust and helped it develop a whale tracking app to record sightings off the west coast of Scotland. His two ships, the eight-guest Elizabeth G and ten-passenger Emma Jane, sail to St Kilda and other remote locations on itineraries ranging from four to ten nights. All accommodation is en suite but Emma Jane is more luxurious with a master cabin suite and a hot tub. Chefs prepare gourmet food using mainly Hebridean produce.
Book it: An eight-night voyage on Emma Jane, leaving Oban on May 7, 2022, costs from £2,910pp (01631 711986; hebridescruises.co.uk).
As a Norwegian rescue vessel built in 1963, Hjalmar Bjørge could cut through ice to help fishermen in distress. Decommissioned in 1996, the ship was sold to an American owner who called her Sunrise. When Northern Light Cruising Company, based in Oban, bought the vessel in 2002 it found the original lettering on the curved wheelhouse and changed the name back. The ship now carries 12 guests in six cabins – five with bunks and one with twin beds, all with sinks. Passengers share three toilets and two showers. Itineraries include overnights on St Kilda, as well as visits to remote North Rona and the Flannan Isles.
Book it:A six-night Mull, Iona, Colonsay and Isles of the Sea cruise, leaving Oban on August 21, 2021, costs from £1,495pp (01599 555723; northernlight-uk.com).
Finding Nessie on a superyacht
A three-deck superyacht that once sailed the Aegean sea is now touring the cooler waters of the Western Isles. Spirit of Fortitude, based in Oban, operates from Dublin to the Orkneys but summer cruises to St Kilda are most popular. The 12-passenger boat, with six ensuite cabins, two lounges, a library and dining room, is small enough to creep into the bays and fishing ports of the Scottish west coast. At the same time, it is also one of the largest vessels able to pass through the Caledonian Canal, which means you might be able to spot Nessie on a cruise along the Great Glen to Inverness.
Book it: A 10-night cruise to St Kilda and the Outer Hebrides, leaving Oban on July 26, 2021, costs from £5,350pp (01577 861121; theroyalscottish.com).
Trawler to Norway
Former trawler Nova Spero takes 11 guests on adventurous cruises around both the west and east coasts of Scotland and as far as Norway. Bought in 2014 for Skarv Lines, the ship with a crew of four – skipper John MacInnes, a cook, deckhand and engineer – is equipped with a rigid inflatable boat to reach island beaches. Using battery power, Nova Spero can sit silently on a Scottish loch or Norwegian fjord. Six of the seven cabins lie in what used to be the fish hold, three of them with bunk beds. Guests share two toilets and two showers.
Book it:A six-night whisky cruise to the Islay Feis, leaving Corpach on May 22, 2021, costs from £1,195pp (07769 183091; skarvlines.com).
Four gentlemen’s yachts
Majestic Line has the biggest Scottish small-ship fleet with four vessels – two are converted fishing boats, carrying 11 passengers each, while the others were built on the isle of Bute to carry 12 people. All cabins are en suite and two on each vessel are reserved for single travellers at no supplement. Majestic Line offers 16 itineraries between three and ten nights from the Clyde in the south to the northwest coast and out to St Kilda. As well as buying local produce, chefs cook lobsters and langoustines caught in the onboard creels.
Book it: A six-night cruise to the Isles of the Clyde and the Southern Hebrides, leaving Dunoon on April 10, 2021, costs from £2,420pp (01369 707951; themajesticline.co.uk).
Bonnie on the Clyde
Skipper Iain Duncan welcomes up to eight guests on board Splendour, a converted wooden trawler yacht, while his shore manager son Jamie plans cruises of between three and 13 nights around the islands and sea lochs of Argyll. Fiona, Iain’s wife and Jamie’s mother, is the third member of the family team, running the back office. Spring and autumn seasons are spent on the Clyde coast, visiting Arran, Bute and Cumbrae, while the summer port is Oban with destinations including Lewis, Mull and Fingal’s Cave on Staffa. Two of the cabins are available to solo guests at no extra charge.
Book it: A six-night Arran and Ailsa Craig Wildlife Explorer cruise, leaving Oban on April 24, 2021, costs from £1,930pp (07917 858545; argyllcruising.com).
Full steam ahead
Huddle around the wood-burning stove as steamboat VIC32, dating from 1943, chugs between islands at a stately six knots. The 10-passenger ship has six cabins that share two washrooms with toilet and shower. Guests are asked to bring their own towels. Meals, including bread made on board, are eaten at a long table in the saloon beneath a traditional oil lamp. If they wish, passengers can help out on Scotland’s last sea-going puffer by studying charts in the wheelhouse or shovelling coal into the furnace. All cruises board on a Sunday, leave on a Monday and end on a Friday afternoon.
Book it: A five-day cruise leaving Crinan, Argyll, on May 30, 2021, costs from £1,250pp (01546 830133; savethepuffer.co.uk).
Dolphins, eagles – and a remote pub
Porpoises, dolphins, seals and whales are on the watchlist as Hebridean Adventures’ converted fishing vessel Monadhliath heads from its base in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis to the wildlife-rich waters of the North Minch. The nine-passenger boat, fitted with two viewing platforms, also visits the seabird colonies of the Shiant Isles and St Kilda to see species including white-tailed sea eagles, puffins, razorbills and guillemots. This year the line will also sail cruises of between two and six nights from Mallaig and Ullapool. Activity-led cruises include sea kayaking, photography and snorkelling. Trips ashore include stopping at Britain’s most remote pub, The Old Forge in Inverie, Lochaber.