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Sailing with a Ghost: Island Cruising in Scotland

Sailing out of Oban there are eleven passengers aboard the Glen Etive. And one ghost. That I know of. And indeed I know. The ghost, an elusive one, is my dad Peter. My childhood holidays were spent painting the yacht he crafted by hand at the remote Ardmaleish shipyard on the Isle of Bute. How could I turn down the invitation to join the Glen Etive on her inaugural cruise? She after all is the first cruise ship to be built at this family-owned shipyard and our destination, the Shiant Isles, are somewhere my dad always dreamed of venturing out to.

Bute stirs a spirit of adventure

The Glen Etvie | Photo by Robin McKelvie

The Glen Etvie | Photo by Robin McKelvie

I only once ever sailed on Sisu, that yacht my dad built with passion by hand and then spent years looking after. I say looked after as my dad had a serious climbing accident, which eventually ended his sailing achievements. They were achievements – he won the Clyde Cruising Club Murray Blair Cup no fewer than three times. One of the earliest photos of me is a black and white image of a baby lolling around in the giant trophy. All that remains of his sailing adventures today are the musty old logs that one day I will show to my daughters when they are old enough to understand.

I hope that the log books and his tales of the high seas will stir in them something of the sense of adventure that my visits to Ardmaleish and my single sail on Sisu to Dunoon stirred in me. Today I’ve been to over 100 countries and have sailed on cruise ships around the Med, Black Sea and Greenland. Looking back I can directly trace my adventurous spirit to long days spent at Ardmaleish painting the vessel that my dad could no longer venture out on just to keep his dreams alive. Many people come to Scotland looking to trace their roots, I guess on this trip I am doing that too.

Easing into the Sound of Mull

Photo by Robin McKelvie

Photo by Robin McKelvie

I toast a dram to my dad as we ease into the Sound of Mull, sharing the moment with a porpoise and a sea eagle, who is being harangued by a couple of gulls, his giant wingspan so majestic, yet cumbersome in close combat. As the sun sets ghosts are forgotten for a moment, as I’m lost in the warm embrace of getting to know my fellow passengers and the crew.

It’s first name terms amongst passengers and crew on the Majestic Line, a family owned company who only have three wee vessels. On the Glen Etive we have David, the calmly capable skipper and Michelle, the bosun who is always on hand and never without a smile. And Mike, one of the best chefs cruising Scottish waters, a man who firmly believes in local produce and a spirited sense of place. My girls love him – he cooked for us on a private charter on the Splendour last year.

Sailing around Ardnamurchan Point

Then there is Stevie, the young engineer who is fittingly from Bute. He watched the Glen Etive take shape with the same sense of care and passion as my dad once did in at Ardmaleish with Sisu. More ghosts. Happy ones this time as his tales of the modern shipyard and the antics there make me smile and think of my dad with a smile on his face too. My dad eventually sold Sisu to the Ardmaleish yard when his bones were too tired to paint anymore and my mum has always wondered what happened to her. Stevie promises to find out for her as we talk rounding Ardnamurchan Point.

Ardnamurchan – the most westerly point on the British mainland – marks a fault line. We’ve left the cosseted waters around Oban, the benign estuary of the Clyde and Ardmaleish are far away now as the Glen Etive heaves her bow to face the open Atlantic for the first time. Islands loom into view. Familiar names like Coll, Eigg and Muck. I chat with a fellow passenger from England who is stunned to learn we have over 800 islands in Scotland. She is genuinely gob smacked Scotland harbours 69% of the UK coastline and over 10% of Europe’s total coastline. Soon it feels that way as Canna and Rum veer into view and the thin dark shadow of the Outer Hebrides teases for a second in the distance. The Outer Hebrides archipelago. The Western Isles. The remote ‘long island’ archipelago my dad never made it to. Home of the Shiants.

Into the Sea of the Hebrides

The Glen Etvie's Maiden Journey | Photo by Majestic Line

The Glen Etvie’s Maiden Journey | Photo by Majestic Line

This Hebrides are a truly epic land of vaulting mountain, ancient rock, starched white beach and big skies. The name Hebrides probably comes from Norse, translating as the ‘isles at the edge of the sea’. On some cruises I’ve been on it’s pass the pina colada time. Here it’s more pass the binoculars time as we scan for dolphins and even whales. On land I find the largest land mammal in the UK, the red deer. More than one, indeed a whole herd on Scalpay bashing along the beach near me. I also almost tred on a pair of very rare ptarmigan and catch sight of a mountain hare. Nature comes with a capital ‘N’ in the Hebrides. It’s both a brilliant place to savour the natural world and to realise we are just a part of it.

I’m aboard for a week. We cruise into familiar places like Eilean Donan Castle, Isleornsay and Portree. Familiar yet different. Arriving on a ship brings a totally different perspective, a real sense of salty aired spray lashed joy. I enjoy numerous arrivals by tender, the sort of thrilling introductions to places my dad too was a fan of. I feel close to him now. He’s with me on the tender laughing with wet faced glee. Closer still in a pub on the Portree waterfront listening to fishermen talking about their adventures and evocative names he’d spoken of – the Minch, Barra Head and, of course, the Shiants.

Onwards to the Shiants?

IMG_1490

Photo by Robin McKelvie

It’s coming to the last few days of the trip now. Time away from the mainland has eased the whirr of everyday life. Slowed things down in my mind and body. My shipmates have become my friends. The weather, though, has become the enemy. Gales are whipping up in the baleful Minch. Captain David takes what I cannot argue is not a sensible decision to remain in the Inner Sound. We won’t be getting out to the Shiants.

My dad’s other passion was hiking. It led him to his dreadful accident, an accident that left him in a coma. It has made me a careful climber. Instead of the Shiants we venture to the Isle of Raasay. Breaking away from the Glen Etive I strike off for the snowbound peak of Dun Caan, where James Boswell was so impressed that he danced a jig of delight on reaching the summit. I don’t dance. In fact I don’t make it to the top, choosing – after an adrenaline pumping ramble – to scramble back instead to the ship on time and unscathed.

On Raasay I may not make it to the top, but get high enough to be able to make out a distant crumple of islands. They are, of course, the Outer Hebrides. The Shiants lie there. Waiting. I should be gutted. I should be railing against the Gods. Instead I’m calm. The Hebridean sun is warming my face in the gentle breeze as I survey a scene that includes myriad islands and the epic Skye Cuillin. I heave in cooling lungfuls of air. I feel big and yet so small at the same time. I’ve never felt closer to the ghost sitting there chatting about his yacht Sisu on the Glen Etive below. I smile again. Wider this time. In the epic Hebrides it’s often more about the journey rather than the destination.

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