Coast To Coast

Read about travel writer Robin McKelvie's favourite cruise experiences along the western fringes of Scotland and Ireland

Colours of the Celts cruise (10–22 September 2017): In early autumn, when the sea is shimmering with the last of the summer sun, Pearl II will navigate the Celtic sea paths to Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. Along the way she'll trace the shores of Wester Ross, Mull, Rum and St Kilda. Among your speakers will be art curator Dr Frances Fowle, while Robert Lovie, Cheryl Forbes and Wayne Robertson will all entertain.

The Trust’s Cultural Cruising programme for 2017 is more inspiring than ever, taking in Scotland and Ireland as well as the mesmerising sea fjords of Norway. Travel writer Robin McKelvie recalls some favourite experiences along these routes:

I’m with James Boswell when it comes to Scotland’s coastline and its myriad isles: they make me want to dance a jig of delight – just as the 18th-century biographer famously did when he reached the top of Dun Caan on Raasay. I’m with Felix Mendelssohn, too: the composer’s spirit soared so much on Staffa that he was inspired to pen his famous Hebrides Overture. As a writer, I’ve been cruising, hiking and roving around Scotland’s wildly beautiful coast for two decades and this oasis, awash with Viking and Celtic ghosts, a land of mountain and sea, of sea eagles and whales, remains a constant source of both joy and endlessly surprised wonder.

My earliest forays around the Scottish coast came on my dad’s yacht Sisu. I’ve now visited over 100 countries as a travel writer, but my heart still leaps when cruising out of a Scottish port as I start scanning the horizon for dolphins, and dreaming of isles that are no longer impossibly remote.

Until I researched my book, National Geographic Traveller: Scotland, I wasn’t aware of the full extent of what Scotland’s littoral offers – that there are more than 800 islands, for example, or that even without these islands, Scotland’s coast is three times larger than England’s. Indeed, unfurl Argyll’s coast alone and it is longer than that of France.

This vast wildscape is full of promise and adventure. If I were to recall every jaw-dropping experience, I could fill this entire magazine. There was the time I arrived in Tobermory on Mull with a dozen Londoners who’d never been to Scotland before. In the very first pub, we wandered into, the legendary Vatersay Boys were playing an impromptu session. After a toe-tapping, breathless, reeling night, we eased back to the ship by moonlight, accompanied by a brace of porpoises breaking the ice-flat waters as the Northern Lights danced above. Quite an introduction.

Robin McKelvie in St Kilda 

The people you meet, some of whom proudly claim direct lineage to the Celts and Vikings, are an essential draw of this magnificent coastline. Their rich stories are backed up by genuinely world-class wildlife, and I am left puzzled by friends flying to the other end of the world in search of exotic creatures. I have never enjoyed better sightings of the UK’s largest land mammal, the red deer, than hiking on Rum, or had better viewing of whales and dolphins than off Mull.

On Knoydart, I once spent a memorable afternoon watching a pair of sea eagles hunt by the water’s edge and scrap with other birds for territory. And then, swimming off the Uists, a large fin appeared just metres away – the perfectly innocent bulk of a basking shark.

Perhaps the uniqueness of the Scottish coast is that it offers human, wildlife and geographical experiences all rolled into one. The epitome of this is that most remote of archipelagos, St Kilda: so impressive that it became the first place in the UK to be recognised on UNESCO’s World Heritage list twice.

I love to spend time in the houses of the former residents, reading about their unique lives, before defying the skuas intent on preventing me reaching the peak of Conachair.

For me, any journey to this unique part of the world is one of learning. On each trip I learn a little more, but I also rather ruefully realise that there is so much more to learn. Here, with the salty air on your lips, you learn just by watching and speaking to local people who spare time to stop, think and share, and from experts like the illuminating guest speakers I have enjoyed listening to on a Trust cruise. Their knowledge – whether of archaeology, botany or Celtic art – can bring a journey alive.

Like the sailors, composers and naturalists before me, who struggle to describe what they’ve witnessed along Scotland’s untamed coastline, I can only hint at its beauty as best as I can. In the end, there is only one way to discover the epic delights of Scotland’s coast and islands. Your cabin awaits…

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