All at sea on the west coast of Scotland...what a wonderful place to be. The short break teeming with wildlife, walking, great food, equally great company and the best bit of all - relaxation
If you’re anything like me, your best attempts at recycling revolve around remembering if the empty pinot grigio bottles live in the green or the brown bin.
So when offered a chance to cruise aboard a recycled fishing trawler, I leapt – like a salmon swimming upstream – at the chance.
And with a sense of adventure packed alongside my sensible shoes (no heels on the deck), I boarded the Glen Tarsan at Oban, on Scotland’s magnificent west coast.
Mull: a photographer's dream
I was off to explore the Isle of Mull, the second largest of the Inner Hebrides islands – home to less than 3,000 people. It’s a photographer’s dream and a world away from the stresses and excesses of modern urban life.
It’s also where you’ll find the burgh of Tobermory (or as the kids know it, BBC’s Balamory); mysterious tales of treasure; sad stories of Highland Clearances; castles; soaring mountains; a tough terrain teeming with wildlife; and enough lochs to shake a caber at. It was these lochs (sea inlets are also known as lochs, not just lakes) and islands surrounding Mull that the good ship Glen Tarsan was setting sail for.
Sleeping in a fish-hold doesn’t exactly scream of a good kip, but The Majestic Line (see below; +44 131 623 5012; www.themajesticline.co.uk) has done a sterling, yet sympathetic, job of transforming the vessel. The Glen Tarsan was the second former trawler to be granted an afterlife thanks to the passion of company owners Andy Thoms and Ken Grant; she’s been sailing the seas around Scotland in her new guise since 2007.
Jumping into the ship’s tender at Oban, seven passengers - cuddled by life jackets – waited excitedly as we slashed our way through the waves to get a first glimpse of our home for the next week. A member of the crew holding a tray of Champagne greeted us. This was going to be my sort of cruise.
And there was no whiff of the boat’s former life in our lower deck cabin. In fact the spotless ensuite bedroom was quite a surprise: a comfy double bed, a pile of clean fluffy towels, posh toiletries, a porthole on the water level – even a power shower! There were six cabins altogether with space for 12 guests, plus room for four crew: the knowledgeable skipper Tony, the friendly faces of engineer Andy and bosun Vicky and the supremely talented chef, Gary.
Spotted: a pipe band on Oban pier
Boarding was at 4pm from Oban. By 8pm seven newly acquainted friends were quaffing free wine and enjoying a hearty chunk of smoked salmon, followed by cheese, biscuits, fruit and nuts. I discovered a new love: Strathdon Blue – a tasty mild blue cheese. Dinner was chased by coffee and tablet and, with a merciful lack of phone signal and television, everyone turned in by 10pm to be lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the sea.
Spotted: porpoise, seals, barnacle geese, shags (no offence to the pipe band, but this was more like it)
Our first chance to walk off a few dinner and breakfast (porridge and kippers) calories was at Duart Castle (+44 1475 635 235; www.duartcastle.com; entrance £5.30). From land there are connections via the road from Craignure but we had the advantage of simply setting the anchor down and hopping into the tender to be dropped off in the castle’s back garden. For larger groups the tender will make two trips and the crew are patient and helpful when it comes to any shaky limbs (be they caused by hangovers, nerves or advanced years). The castle is the base of the Clan Maclean and, if you’re lucky, the current “boss” - clan chief Sir Lachlan Maclean - can be found wandering the great halls and dungeons. I don’t mean in some ghostly way, Lachlan is alive and well and the day we visited his trousers matched the green tartan floor coverings. He’ll happily share the history of his ancestral home with you.
Skirting the top side of Mull during the afternoon, the boat anchored in Loch Sunart later in the day as the sun was beginning to drift towards the horizon. There was time for a walk from rocky coastline, through shaded woodland and up a relatively easy ascent to behold spectacular views from the hills. The views reminded me of the Lake District, but on a grander scale.
And if a man in an orange boiler suit should shout you over to his cottage by the shoreline, just go; it’ll be Campbell. On first glance a weather-battered lush (there were wine bottles a-plenty on the picnic table), on closer inspection a comical and lively former international orthopaedic surgeon who has retired to his little place by the water’s edge. We chatted as we mixed blackcurrant liquor Creme de Cassis into white wine with our little fingers (it’s a French cocktail called kir don’t you know...).
Spotted: shag’s nest, herons and Balamory!
Tobermory, or as the kids will advise you, Balamory. The rainbow of buildings along the harbour front is instantly recognisable if you have ankle-biters and allow them to watch television. We’d only been at sea for two days but this was enough to transform Tobermory from an averagely nice little town into the very height of urban, cosmopolitan chic. Hairdressers, a chocolate shop, pubs, bookstores: what can I say? I hadn’t yet relinquished my craving for urban pleasures. I couldn’t resist Tobermory Chocolate (Main Street; +44 1688 302595; www.tobermorychocolate.co.uk) and recommend it for a sugar rush and a hot chocolate. And it only seemed right, after a three-hour round trip to Aros Park via a coastal path, to sup a local beverage at MacGochans (Ledaig, Tobermory, Isle of Mull, PA75 6NR; 08721 077 077); well it was right next to the pontoon.
Demonstrating that we weren’t there to stick to a rigid schedule, following around a tour leader holding aloft an umbrella, the skipper took a diversion in the tender to get us close to a shag’s nest next to a waterfall in the cliff face before we headed “home” for dinner of seabass with fennel mash followed by raspberry cranachan (I’m practically drooling as I write).
Spotted: puffins, and lots of them, plus a pair of sea eagles
Rough seas in the morning mercifully gave way to some calmer waters just before lunch: red lentil pate and caraway seed bread, a combination humble chef Gary just “knocked up” after breakfast. The cries of “delicious” and “we must have the recipe” were almost met with a blush and “aww shucks”.
The Treshnish Isles are mere breadcrumbs on a map out to the west of Mull. But the isle of Lunga is very special for one reason: puffins. Penguins are comical enough, the way they waddle upright like humans, but these little penguin-look-alikes take the laughs to the next level with their multi-coloured clown-like beaks. There’s a colony on Lunga and from April/May onwards the comedy critters return to breed. Take waterproofs and lie down near the nests; the birds are social and will come close enough for portraits – you can even hear them “growling” if your fellow human visitors are quiet.
Like a horror movie, a heavy curtain of mist fell in the evening and the world was eerily quiet as we anchored at Gometra. The saloon is so arranged with windows to all sides that all passengers have an outside view at dinner. Our steaks came with a side-order of drama and atmosphere thanks to the misty night.
Spotted: a tick and a pub
The mist stubbornly clung to the horizon as Tony the skipper warned us about ticks. We were stepping onto dry land on near-deserted Gometra, which is linked to the not-quite-but-almost-as-desolate island of Ulva by a bridge, and had instructions to make our way across to the Ulva ferry pier – a 3.5 hour walk filled with dangers like ticks and not finding a pub for a re-hydration stop. I’m joking about neither. The risk of lyme disease from ticks is certainly not insignificant in this part of the world (tips are don’t go off the beaten path and…fashion alert…tuck your trousers into your socks). Neither prevented me picking up a hitchhiking tick after my fingers grazed long grass at the side of the path. Thankfully he was upside down and hadn’t had chance to sink teeth in. And we found a pub…after three and a half hours at the ferry pier. Opportunities to imbibe shouldn’t be missed on Ulva so stop at The Boathouse (ferry pier; +44 1688 500241; www.theboathouseulva.co.uk). Pick up a Skinny Blonde if it takes your fancy – it’s a fine brew from Oban.
Spotted: an osprey, wild red deer and mussels
It comes to something when your biggest decision of the day is this: focus on the sky to spy an eagle, spare your eyes for the coastline to spot an otter, or scan the scrubby brown horizon in the hope of seeing a deer. I was really getting the hang of this relaxing malarkey.
We’d come nearly full circle around Mull and had the mainland port of Oban almost in our sights as we entered Loch Spelve. You can swing in to the pontoon and pick up two kilos of rope-grown mussels (better than beach-caught as they don’t get sandy or gritty) for just £2. I was delighted to see five kilos going back to the kitchen as we were dropped off for a hill walk. We left the others behind to ascend Carn Ban to find a lost village. We found it, plus some wild red deer who spied us gingerly from a distant hill.
Thankfully the mussels had found their way into a steaming pot of gin, sage and cream by dinnertime.
Spotted: the mainland – sorry to say
It was with great sadness that we took our leave of the Glen Tarsan and its crew at 11am. Despite talks of mutiny and kidnap, the seven passengers resigned themselves to life back on dry land. Maybe next time…
A six-night cruise with The Majestic Line costs £1,565; big discounts are often available on last-minute bookings. Call the office on 0131 623 5012 or visit www.themajesticline.co.uk. Three-night cruises from £795 and whole boat charters are also available.
The meeting point before the cruise is the Caledonian Hotel in Station Square. Your luggage will be transported to the boat from the hotel and there are complimentary cakes and beverages while you wait. Start your cruise in style and book a room here for the night before your departure from £50. You couldn’t find a more central location and the staff offer warm hospitality. Get an ocean view room if you can and spy the seas you’ll be setting sail for. Bon voyage!