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Around Scotland’s Western Isles local ships are personalities, familiar characters whose histories and quirks are keenly discussed. Everyone who sails between the islands knows the “CalMac” ferries of Caledonian MacBrayne, lumpily splendid with their red funnels and black-and-white livery. Norwegian vessels cruising the sea lochs to hoover up farmed salmon are a familiar sight, as are the trawlers and the day-trip boats for tourists.
So joining the maiden voyage of the Glen Etive, which set off on its first journey through the deep blue waters of the Hebrides late last month, is rather like travelling with a celebrity. Heads turn wherever we go, and small knots of admirers gather on quays with comments and questions.
Glen Etive is a strikingly pretty little ship, her lines recalling a fishing boat at the bow and a motor yacht at the stern, her brass and paintwork gleaming and the funnel an unlikely bright gold. That’s not all that marks her out. There is the way she smells: most vessels reek of diesel, with an overtone of institutional cooking, but this motor yacht wakes us with the aroma of baking bread. And she rides surprisingly: you expect to roll and reel on a small craft, but Glen Etive has stabilisers, which feel as though they flatten the sea.
On the bridge, a magnificent brass Admiralty compass, made in 1942 and looking fresh out of the manufacturer’s box, sits alongside digital navigation screens. She can be steered in four ways, but Captain David Wheeler tends to use mouse-clicks. Perched beside him on an admiral’s chair, you survey the seaways as if they were laid out for your pleasure. Along with 11 fellow passengers, I am thoroughly spoiled from the moment I embark.
The Glen Etive is the latest addition to the Majestic Line, where it joins two converted trawlers, Glen Massan and Glen Tarsan, that carry fortunate passengers through the beautiful waters of Scotland’s west coast. The new ship is something of a triumph, both for Scottish shipbuilding and for Majestic’s owners, Andy Thoms and Ken Grant.
Thoms trained to be an architect like his father but became bored on land: “I know every way you can convert a Scottish cottage, believe me,” he says. Instead he looked to the sea, working in the fish farming industry and inventing an anchoring system for the cages. Eventually he sold up and went on holiday to Turkey with Grant, his friend and business partner.
There, they discussed a subject that both considered a travesty: a governmental decision to reduce the Scottish fishing fleet by paying fishermen to destroy their vessels. “These were perfectly good boats,” Thoms says. “It was a sin. When the Med was fished out, the Turks converted their boats to carry tourists. We thought we should try it. We haven’t got the weather but we’ve got the heritage and the scenery.”
It didn’t take long for the Glen Massan and the Glen Tarsan to be successful. Thoms says he has no competition. “As long as you don’t carry more than 12 passengers, you only have to abide by small-craft regulations. If you take more than 12, you have to carry 50 before you start making a profit again.”
With an industrious crew of four and a bit of luck with the weather, the Hebrides are your oyster, it seems — though the two converted trawlers are not ideal, in Thoms’ view. “The engines are too big, so the rest of the space is reduced,” he says. “And they roll like bitches.”
The Glen Etive is his purpose-built solution, with a dining room at the stern, a bar and library forward, a larger galley and a modern Doosan engine with a power that belies its size. She was built in the Ardmaleish shipyard on the Isle of Bute and undertook a sea trial around the Mull of Kintyre, proving herself in stiff weather. She offers 10-day cruises and will go as far as St Kilda, winds and waves permitting.
Joining her in Oban, we are served Prosecco by Michelle Wheeler, the tirelessly sunny bo’sun, and appraised of our muster station by her husband, the skipper, who has the laconic air of the Royal Navy about him (he served a year before deciding he would rather find his own way to sea).
In the late afternoon we weigh anchor. Up the Sound of Mull we steam, to Tobermory, where houses painted in the bright hues of a child’s colouring book line the harbour and we relish the first of a series of delicious meals, the view changing as Glen Etive swings at anchor. Food, scenery and shore trips are the trinity upon which the success of the voyage rests, with food the only element not at the mercy of the weather.
Chef Michael Weir grew up in Coleraine, Northern Ireland. “My mother cooked for us from Larousse,” he says, “We ate very well indeed.” Weir worked in a series of Michelin starred restaurants, developing his brand of French classical cuisine with a twist. He produces succulent cod fillets the first night, served with lemon-flavoured carrots, the best I have eaten.
At nightfall we take the tender to Tobermory, where the Mull Music Festival packs the pubs with musicians and dancers. I have seldom walked into a more jumping bar than the Mishnish that night, as the wild skirl of fiddle, accordion and guitar sends the dancers, mostly young women at first, into a kind of Celtic pogo frenzy. The music is simultaneously pagan, Irish and Scottish, and the atmosphere double charged with the feeling of a venerable indigenous culture still intoxicatingly alive. The great silence of the loch outside and the mountains all around seems to amplify the revelry.
In the morning we cruise out of the Sound of Mull towards Ardnamurchan point, the most westerly promontory of the British mainland. It is a splendid day, the sea widening ahead, the island of Coll to the south of us and a CalMac ferry, the Isle of Lewis, bustling by at 17 knots, heading for Oban.
The islands and hills are as quiet and as richly coloured as a plate from an old Shell Guide. I feel the singular joy of having a ship under me, the swell putting a spring in her step, the sun bright and the whisk of a white sail on the horizon.
There are rafts of guillemots on the water and now the islands appear, Eigg the biggest, low-lying Muck and the mountains of Rum behind, purple with heather. As we turn north up the Sound of Sleat, the cliffs of Barra are just visible far to the west and on the landward side the mountains of Moidart are streaked with snow and shelved with cloud over their crests. The peaks seem to jostle close together, as if crowding to catch a glimpse of the Sea of the Hebrides, which is turquoise, aquamarine, blue and green. As the channels between the islands converge in the sound and Skye rises ahead of us, there is a feeling of old sea roads meeting.
We anchor off the village of Isleornsay on Skye, a small scatter of houses, a hotel and a lighthouse. We land and pick our way along a pebbly strand, remembering the pleasures of kelp, rock pools and the smell of the foreshore. In the hotel Eilean Iarmain three young musicians are playing Gaelic instrumentals. Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic University of Scotland, is nearby. Every Sunday afternoon some of its students perform in the hotel’s Praban bar.
Outside there are curlew, oystercatchers and a white northern light in the sky. The afternoon turns into a long, still evening. Back aboard, we feast again, this time on lamb. Depending on the luck of the passenger list, dining together three times daily might be a great pleasure or something of a test. We are fortunate; among our number is Suzanne, a retired judge in her nineties with the quickest wit on the ship; Maja, an Anglo-Swedish social anthropologist and world authority on the Naxi people of western China, and several well-travelled journalists, one formerly the Reuters correspondent for the Middle East. At one point, Suzanne says, “I don’t wish to bring anyone down, but I’ve come to see this for the last time.”
“You’ll be saying that again next year,” comes the immediate reply. But if you were going to go on a last voyage, this would be a good choice, I reflect, as the sinking sun turns the hillsides bronze.
On the radio on Monday morning I hear the deliberate tones of the Stornoway coastguard, warning of winds of force five or six as a low pressure moves down from the North Sea. We head for Loch Nevis on the mainland side, passing Mallaig to starboard and heading up the loch to the bay of Inverie, where stands one of the most idiosyncratic communities in Britain. Knoydart, home to about 100 people, is cut off from the UK’s road system by 16 miles of rough country, and boasts the most remote pub on the mainland.
“You have to carefully plan how much food you’re going to need,” says Kim Mackay, who is tending the community shop. Supplies come in by sea, via a 45-minute ferry service to Mallaig. “I get on with 90 per cent of them,” she says of the Knoydarters, “but you know that if you were ever in trouble, everyone would have your back.”
The interweaving of community and family, in consequence and defiance of the indifference of the mountains and the harshness of the sea, is striking in the Hebrides. For our engineer, Steven Campbell, the web of connections is a great advantage. “I was at school with the guy who did the welding [on the Glen Etive] and the man who put in the engine lives two doors down,” he says. The ship’s successful launch is a source of pride not just to the young engineer but to a wide circle of the populace.
We cruise on through many anchorages and incidents, returning from exploring Eilean Donan castle to the smell of chef Michael Weir baking bread and relishing his purchases of fresh halibut and scallops (Glen Etive forages as she goes). We anchor in Loch Carron under fierce hills suddenly white with snow. We watch eider ducks and, once, a white-tailed sea eagle that flies across the bow, its wings enormous and the thrust of its great beaked head like a griffon. I left the ship in the Kyle of Lochalsh. She was going on to Portree and points north. I wished her well, and all who sailed in her very well, and I wished that I was going with her.
Horatio Clare was a guest of the Majestic Line (themajesticline.co.uk). Its 10-night cruise on the Glen Etive costs £4,050 per person
Photographs: Getty Images; Alamy; Horatio Clare