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A Voyage Around the Small Isles of Scotland

A Voyage Around the Small Isles of Scotland

This little ditty was taught to us by our Scottish geography teacher many years ago, and because of it, I have always wanted to explore the group of tiny sea-washed islands to the south of Skye.  This opportunity came about when Sheila spotted an advert by a company called The Majestic Line.  Apparently they operate a fleet of small luxury motor cruisers holding around twelve passengers and four crew.  What they had on offer was not only a cruise around our chosen waters of the Hebrides, but all the while enjoying meals (prepared in our case) by a Paris trained Cordon Blue chef.  

We booked the tour of what are known as the Small, or Sma’ Isles quite early in view of the limited number of spaces available, later making our way as instructed to the quayside in Oban.  About a quarter of a mile off shore our home for the next few days, the Glen Etive waited our arrival.  We soon discovered that access was by a small tender that came bouncing its way across the open water, an early introduction to the standard method of reaching the island stop-offs.

The Majestic Line has only been running for a few years and takes its title from an episode in a Para Handy tale.  He was the skipper of a Clyde Puffer called The Vital Spark, hilariously filmed in a BBC TV comedy series a few years back.  A member of Para Handy’s nefarious crew was called McPhail, the self-styled engineer who spent his spare time when not tending the rickety engine by reading cheap romantic novels. One day he went missing, only to return a few weeks later with the story that he had sailed with the Majestic Line, whose ships had golden funnels.  The founders of the company we were travelling with decided to call it the Majestic Line and, in keeping with the story, all their ships’ funnels are painted gold.  But that is the only link with Para Handy tales, no black smoking coal burning steam engines and accommodation is way ahead on anything offered by the Vital Spark.  Not only does it border on five star luxury, but as I discovered when I chatted to Skipper Peter, the spoked ship’s wheel is only for decoration and the Glen Etive steers itself by sat/nav and computer programme.

While Peter was responsible for our safety and comfort at sea, our inner comfort came via the culinary skills of Chef Gordon, a man whose life has to say the least, been quite an adventure.  After a spell in the SAS he turned to cooking, becoming along the way the owner of an Alnwick-based Michelin-starred restaurant until he was ‘captured’ by the Duchess of Northumberland.  Parisian training also led him to the job of catering for the demands of film crews.  Looking after the likes of us filled in the gaps between commissions.  Every meal was a culinary delight, using foods caught or grown around the waters of the Western Isles. For example our first dinner, a true taste of the Hebrides, was made up of lobster, langoustines, mussels and locally grown salad and new potatoes.  Fish was plentiful and blended in with venison and my favourite, haggis!

Two other crew members were there to make sure we enjoyed every comfort; Jill the ‘Jack’ of all trades was officially Bosun and Ian, a young lad from the Clyde Valley was quickly getting his sea legs as an up and coming deck hand.

A gentle burble from the engines told us we were on our way along the Sound of Mull, the canal-like stretch of water between Mull and the rest of Scotland.  With the tender bouncing in our wake like a well-trained puppy we made our way to a sheltered anchorage near the mouth of Loch Sunart.  Sleep came easily, but I was woken later to the sound of roaring, not the Sunart monster, but amorous stags.

With a strengthening wind behind us we made our way up the Sound of Sleat, past Ardnamurchan Point, the most westerly part of mainland Britain.  Onwards beyond the wilderness of Kintail to a quiet bay  below the ruins of ‘Saucy Marty’s’  castle – she was a medieval princess who spread a chain across the channel in order to exact tolls from passing ships.   What the rest of M.V. Glen Etive’s crew and passengers seemed unaware of was that very near to where we anchored lies the wartime wreck of a ship full of mines.  Apparently it was in collision with another ship while anchored at Kyle of Lochalsh and burst into flames.  In order to avert a disaster, the burning ship was towed across the sound to a quiet spot where it sank, fortunately without the mines exploding, but it is still there almost eighty years later.

Bright sunshine and a gentle wind took us up to Loch Kintail opposite Applecross, site of the famous road across the Pass of the Cattle, the highest road in Britain, it winds its way from sea level to over 2000 feet in a matter of four miles.  At its foot, two redundant North Sea oil rigs were being dismantled, brought back to their birthplace, they show how fragile the North Sea oil industry has become.   With attractive views of distant peaks, we turned towards Plockton, one of the prettiest villages in Scotland.  This is where a quirk of the Gulf Stream encourages flowering shrubs to bloom well away from their normal habitat.

Being Scotland the weather changed overnight, with strong winds and a choppy sea taking us back into the Sound of Sleat.  Unlike the trainee captain of a submarine a year or so ago who ran aground nearby, we passed under the bridge connecting Skye to the mainland at Kyle of Lochalsh.  It was around here that the first of the friendly, inquisitive dolphins came to see us and playfully splash and grin as they enjoyed our company.  Turning the Point of Sleat and saying goodbye to Skye, the sea quickly went from choppy to rough, so rather than stop at Armadale, we made directly for Kinloch Bay and Rum.

The Island of Rum is owned by the National Trust for Scotland and is run jointly with Scottish Natural Heritage.  At the moment only 22 people live permanently on the island, but until the ‘clearances’ of the nineteenth century 350 islanders made a precarious living from crofting.  Long before them Norse Viking raiders named most of the peaks, their names ending in ‘val’, such as Trollval and Hallaval, with Askival at 2,659 feet being the highest.  With interests in yachting and deer stalking, Frederick Bullough, a Victorian textile magnate with money to spend, built a castle at the head of Mull’s Kinloch Bay. It cost him, at the equivalent in today’s money, a mind boggling £14 million.  A place of great luxury, it was run by a staff numbering over a hundred, many of them chosen from Bullough’s Oswaldtwistle mill workers. When Frederick died, the castle and stalking estate was inherited by his son George later Sir George and his wife Lady Moira.  Despite the opulence of Kinloch Castle, Sir George only visited it for around three weeks at the height of the stalking season.  Lady Moira did live there for longer periods, especially in later life, making it obvious that visitors to the island were unwelcome.  The couple were not on good terms, each having their own set of rooms at opposite ends of the massive castle, but when both eventually died, they were buried together in a mock Greek temple above the deserted western coast of Rum; the mausoleum though open to Atlantic gales, enjoys fabulous sun sets.

Following Lady Bullough’s death, the castle was sold to a developer, but the scheme to run it as a hotel failed.  Today the place stands in forlorn memorial of an eccentric mill owner; its rooms left in slow decay are still fully furnished, such as the huge dining room with its table set about with over twenty massive chairs, waiting beneath heavy oak panelling for guests who abandoned it many years ago.  Visitors to Rum are more likely to be self-sufficient bird watchers and climbers who either camp by the sea shore or stay in the comfortable bunk house.

Skirting the self-sufficient Island of Eigg where its weirdly incongruous mountain is so full of iron that it effects ship’s compasses, the Glen Etive made its way to Muck, an island run almost entirely for the benefit of sheep.  Once ashore via the bouncing tender, a short walk to the opposite side of the island was rewarded by a golden sandy beach, just waiting for the sun to shine, regrettably something which being in Scotland only comes at rare occasions.  It certainly wasn’t one of those occasions, for another storm was predicted and Captain Peter decided to run quickly past Ardnamurchan Point.  Missing out Canna, home of illusive corncrakes, and then back into the Sound of Sleat we reached the shelter of Tobermory and its multi-coloured harbour-side buildings.

Sadly all good things come to an end as they say, and we were soon back in Oban where we were treated to a little bit of Oban harbour authority bureaucracy.  Our luggage was off loaded and the Glen Etive began to refuel and replenish its drinking water stocks, but we mere mortals had to jump into the tender for the last time, reaching land on the far side of the (fortunately), sheltered harbour.  Grabbing a couple of delicious crab sandwiches we boarded the Glasgow train and the start of our long journey home.

For details of cruises planned for 2022, contact the Majestic Line (Scotland) Ltd.  Holy Loch Marina, Sandbank, Dunoon, Argyll PA23 8FE

Web site: www.themajesticline.co.uk

Tel: (01369) 707951

Email: info@themajesticline.co.uk


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