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Sailing the Scottish seas

One of the best ways to explore Scotland, which is an archipelago of 790 islands, is island-hopping on a cruise

Tan Chung Lee on 06 May 2018

The Straits Times


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Mention Scotland and images of its majestic highlands on its mainland, occupying the northernmost tip of Britain, usually come to mind.


But it also comprises an archipelago of 790 islands, with only 93 inhabited, scattered like stepping stones in the Atlantic.


A glance at a map of Scotland reveals a wild, rugged coastline indented with numerous inlets, with most of its windswept isles dotting the waters to its west.


This makes island-hopping the perfect means of exploring the archipelago - and for good reason, as quite a bit of what is on offer is not accessible by land.


So, there are numerous public ferries criss-crossing the Scottish waters to link the islands. However, nothing matches sailing among them in a small boat with the flexibility of lingering at one island or moving on to another, including anchoring in secluded alcoves, where large ferries cannot go.


I signed up to sail on a converted fishing vessel named Splendour and a cruise named Arran And Ailsa Craig Wildlife Explorer.


A converted fishing vessel does not sound glamorous, so imagine my surprise when I set eyes on Splendour at her berthing place in Holy Loch Marina, an hour's train and ferry transfer from Glasgow Airport.


At 20m long, it looked splendid, befitting its name and boasting an interior of highly polished wooden fittings.


Its en-suite cabins on the lower deck are spacious and luxuriously furnished, with port holes for a view of the outside world.


Up on the main deck is the galley, where on-board chef Steve turned out gourmet meals using local produce, and a dining saloon, which doubles as a library. Outside are a spacious sun deck and wildlife watching deck, a great place to be at in the early morning with a cup of freshly brewed coffee in hand while on the lookout for whales, dolphins, seals and porpoises.


There are only four cabins which can accommodate up to eight passengers, but with only five people on board during my one-week cruise - a couple and two women from England and me, there was more than enough space on board.


Our cruise centred on four inhabited isles - Arran, Bute, Cumbrae and the Holy Isle - as well as Ailsa Craig, a dramatic rock outcrop teeming with birdlife. All are part of the cluster of 40 islands in the Firth of Clyde.


In the heyday of pleasure steamers, the Firth of Clyde was a popular holiday destination, with its fine beaches, scenic beauty, tranquil villages, ancient castles and wildlife. In 1900, as many as 300 paddle steamers operated in these waters and going "doon the watter" (down the water) became an expression for holidaying on these isles from the Scottish mainland.


However, in the 1960s, with the dawn of package tourism to Spain, many of the steamers gradually ceased operations.


Today, only one is left - the PS Waverley - and we spotted this magnificent steamer three times during our cruise.


The Firth of Clyde archipelago is located nearest to the mainland and with short cruising distances among the isles, we had time to step ashore and explore. There would be at least two shore stops a day.


It was a delight to see, when sailing out of Holy Loch Marina towards our first overnight stop at Loch Riddon, nine seals basking on Gentock Rocks around its beacon.


Wherever we cruised in the Firth of Clyde, we would see them often popping their heads out of the water, observing us curiously or lolling about on rocky shores.


On a few occasions, we spotted porpoises in the waters, but only briefly, as they would swiftly disappear underwater after surfacing.


Birdlife is especially plentiful and we got to see a dizzying array of species when we sailed around Ailsa Craig on the second day.


Rising above the waters like a dome, we heard the deafening calls of about 40,000 birds that inhabit the island long before we reached it. As we circled the 99ha outcrop, we saw the various species staking out their territory - gannets on the upper slopes of the 300m-high cliffs, guillemots on the lower reaches, shags near the shoreline and puffins on the ground.


Gannets are the most numerous here and their presence has made Ailsa Craig the third largest gannet colony in Britain.


Now uninhabited, the privately owned island is still quarried for its granite, used to make stones for the winter sport of curling.


Located midway between Belfast and Glasgow, Ailsa Craig was once an important staging post for Irish immigrants making their way to Scotland to seek work. Now, all that remains of its past is its 1866 lighthouse (designed by Thomas Stevenson, father of writer Robert Louis Stevenson) and a tower house built in the 16th century to defend the island from potential attacks by Spain.


On land, especially on Arran, we got to see red deer and, soaring above its peaks, a couple of Golden Eagles, both of which comprise part of the island's Big Five - the others being seals, otters and red squirrels.


Dubbed "Scotland in Miniature", Arran is a true microcosm of what Scotland has to offer - highlands and lowlands plus castles, beaches, golf courses, brewery and a whisky distillery. Arran Distillers is the isle's only whisky distillery after a long history of having had 50 distillers, many of them illegal. Its last (legal) distillery operated until 1837 and it was not until 1995 that Arran Distillers came into being.


Located at Lochranza, the mountains overlooking the grounds of Arran Distillers are the habitat of the island's Golden Eagle.


The story goes that when the distillery was being built in 1994, a Golden Eagle nest was discovered and building was halted to preserve this protected species. Construction resumed only a year later and, since then, visitors to the distillery have been rewarded with occasional sightings of these magnificent birds.


Lochranza is also home to a 13th-century castle. Set on spacious grounds at the edge of a bay, only a tower and the main facade remains, but it still looks regal and was said to have been the inspiration of the castle featured in the comic book, The Adventures Of Tin Tin: Black Island.


As the largest island in the Firth of Clyde, nearly two-thirds the size of Singapore, it is not surprising to find another castle on Arran, located a short sail south from Lochranza at Brodick Bay.


Here, we anchored to walk ashore, past the village of Brodick - noted for its craft shops, galleries and cafes - to the well-preserved 13th-century Brodick Castle, replete with a lush country park and a rich collection of sporting trophies, silver and porcelain set in a picturesque location at the foot of Goatfell, the highest peak in Arran.


But if much of what we saw was peaceful, Arran also hides a painful past, which was laid bare at Lamlash, where we sailed from Brodick to anchor for another overnight stop. In this pleasant village known for its pretty stone-attic cottages stands a poignant memorial to the victims of "Highland Clearances".


This episode in the 18th and 19th centuries saw the forced exodus of much of the Gaelic population of Scotland's Highlands and its western islands to the Americas and the Oceania, when feudal overlords snatched land from farmers to use it for rearing sheep instead.


Across from Lamlash, the aptly named Holy Isle beckoned us for a visit. This tiny 3 sq km isle has long been seen as a sacred spot, thanks to a holy spring with healing properties and as the site of a mediaeval monastery, now long gone.


Colourful Tibetan prayer flags strung across a row of white stupas greeted us as we stepped ashore, as the island now belongs to the Samye Ling Buddhist community.


We were free to wander the island, which is a nature reserve, but apart from seeing seals, wild goats and ponies, we could not find the cave of a sixth-century monk, reported to contain some runic inscriptions.


From Lamlash, it was a short haul to the isle of Bute, where we went ashore at Rothesay, its capital, which has retained its atmosphere of a Victorian seaside town, thanks to the preservation of its Winter Gardens, formerly a venue for music-hall entertainment.


Rothesay also enjoys a picturesque setting with the round towers of its ruined castle, the only one in Scotland built on a circular plan, looming above the town.


Its other highlight, which may seem bizarre at first, is a well-preserved Victorian public toilet (male section only) sporting polished brass fittings, decorative ceramic walls and floors, marble basin tops and beautiful water cisterns dating back to 1899. For 40 pence (70 Singapore cents), it is well worth a visit.


Great Cumbrae, a 90-minute sail from Bute, also boasts in its main town of Millport a waterfront as elegant as Rothesay's.


The island's main attraction is its Cathedral of the Isles, Britain's smallest working cathedral, noted for its pretty latticework and wooden ceilings. A walk from the cathedral to the highest point in Great Cumbrae afforded us a panoramic view of its sister island of Little Cumbrae.


Millport also boasts of having The Wedge, the "world's narrowest house" in the Guinness Book Of Records, with a frontage of just 119 cm. It opens up inside, however, to be wide enough to include a bedroom, living space and kitchen.


Two other ports Splendour called at were strictly not isles as they are on peninsulas of the mainland.


The first was Cowal on the Cowal peninsula, which is famous for its Cowal Way, a long-distance walking trail offering coastal views through woodland.


The other was Tarbert, on the peninsula of Kintyre, with a splendid harbour, where fishing boats and sleek yachts huddle side by side.


To take it all in, I walked up to a hilly knoll overlooking the harbour. Here, the 14th-century Tarbert Castle sits, the handiwork of Scottish king Robert the Bruce, when he realised the importance of Tarbert's strategic position and decided to shore up its defences by expanding a previous castle there.


On the last day of our cruise, as we chugged back towards Holy Loch Marina, we saw the PS Waverley, the only paddle steamer in the world, sail past us - her paddle wheels churning loudly and proudly, still carrying passengers "doon the watter".


• Tan Chung Lee is a freelance travel writer.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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