MULLING IT OVER IN SCOTLAND

The Glen Tarsan, between Iona and Mull.

The Glen Tarsan, between Iona and Mull.

It was a great week. Here’s the full article about our cruise around the Isle of Mull, recently published in the Fairfax Press in Australia…

‘I so want that boat,’ says the American lady beside me.

With its dark blue hull and gold funnel, the polished wood of its superstructure catching the light, it bobs on the inlet below us, framed by yellow gorse bushes in the foreground and the rocky shore of the Isle of Mull beyond.

I eavesdrop as a discussion starts among the members of her tour bus party. Is it a local fishing boat? Too clean. A private pleasure cruiser? Too old-fashioned.

Smugness gets the better of me. ‘It’s my boat,’ I say. And for this week, it is.

The Glen Tarsan was indeed once a fishing vessel, outdated and destined for the scrap heap, until rescued by The Majestic Line in 2007. Rebuilt from the hull up and fitted with comfortable cabins, it now steams around the islands of the Argyll region with a crew of four and a maximum of ten guests. My wife and I are among them.

In my limited cruising experience, the ship has been a comfortable and convenient way of getting to the interesting places, which are generally on solid ground. This trip has been about the boat, the sea and the Hebridean coastline – and a fabulous coastline it’s turned out to be.

A few days ago we clambered into a tender with engineer John and bosun Claire to putter out to our new temporary home, moored in Oban Harbour. Skipper Sandy took us through the emergency drill and warned us that although this was officially the Around Mull: Wildlife Explorer cruise, itineraries here are weather-dependent. Safety and comfort would come first.

Fine. Much as we love wildlife, nobody wanted to risk life and limb for a puffin.

The Tarsan moored in Oban, the starting point of our adventure.

The Tarsan moored in Oban, the starting point of our adventure.

Once settled into our double cabins (with en suites, thank you!) we steamed across the Sound of Mull and dropped anchor in the stillness of Loch Spelve, mist rolling in over the rocky peaks. ‘If you can see those hills it’s about to rain,’ said John, ‘If you can’t, it is raining. Just think of it as liquid sunshine.’

Over pre-dinner drinks we met our fellow passengers. It was an important moment. The ten of us, from Yorkshire, Carrickfergus, St Louis, Noosa, Sydney and Amsterdam would be sharing our lives for a week, and on a small boat there’s no escaping that bore, complainer or annoying drunk.

The atmosphere and dress code was relaxed and it was quickly evident that there would be no social problems. ‘There never are,’ said Tina, who was on her eighth Majestic cruise. ‘These trips attract like-minded people.’

‘On those bigger ships they’re polishing their shoes for the ball right now,’ added Robbie, himself a boat-builder and sailing aficionado.

The liquid sunshine had cleared by the morning and on our trip up the Sound of Mull, the first wildlife made its appearance. Wild goats and deer, a pair of dolphins surfing on our bow wave, a curious seal surfacing to check us out, and a white-tailed eagle perched strategically on a hilltop.

The common seal is less common than it once was,  so it was good to get this shot.

The common seal is less common than it once was, so it was good to get this shot.

But wildlife spotting was a bonus. Out in the Hebrides the scenery alone is worth the price of admission. Mull has some of the most spectacular and varied landscape in Britain, volcanic and mountainous, the peak of Ben More rising nearly a kilometre into the clouds.

The island has over 450 kilometres of heavily indented coast to explore and the Glen Tarsan was able to move in close to the puffin colony on the Treshnish Isles, though it was unfortunately too rough to land. We chugged past Staffa Island, where waves crash at the foot of the massive organ-pipe cliffs and flood into Fingal’s Cave, named by Sir Joseph Banks and the inspiration for Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture.

In the open water the little boat rolled and pitched on the swell, setting the bottles clinking on the shelves of the bar and causing some of us to head for the heads.

Such passages were mercifully short and soon we were back in calmer waters, moored for the night in a spectacular loch or inlet, binoculars scanning the hillsides and shorelines for deer and birdlife, and our stomachs settling as they prepared to tackle chef Andie’s food.

The mussels were fished out of Loch Spelve less than an hour ago.

The mussels were fished out of Loch Spelve less than an hour ago.

It was five-star cuisine in anybody’s book. With no need to mass-produce meals, Andie could work her magic using fine local ingredients.

Breakfast included the option of porridge with honey and a dash of a 14-year old single malt Oban whisky. It’s different…um… very good actually, but I won’t let liquor for breakfast become a habit. Muesli and orange juice for me next week.

From the brightly-coloured buildings of the Tobermory waterfront came lobsters and crabs, straight out of the nets.

We pause at Tobermory, the largest town on Mull, to take on some local seafood.

We pause at Tobermory, the largest town on Mull, to take on some local seafood.

When we found ourselves near a mussel farm, Sandy hopped in the tender, zipped across the water, dropped a few pounds in the honour box and returned five minutes later with kilos of mussels in a dripping bag. Andie did her thing with the garlic and butter sauce and we disposed of them within the hour.

Most days we were able to spend some time ashore.

We explored the 13th century Duart Castle, stronghold of the McLean clan. A troop of soggy scouts are camped on the hillside reminded me that Sir Charles (Chips) McLean was World Chief Scout during my dibbing and dobbing days.

A day exploring Mull in the minivans of wildlife guides David and Arthur showed us more of the island, as well as giving us a chance to spot otters. I missed them – damn! My wife had more success in Arthur’s van.

When the scenery is this good, does it matter that the wildlife is keeping its distance?

When the scenery is this good, does it matter that the wildlife is taking a break from performing for visitors?


Iona, the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland, was where 6th century monk St Columba established an abbey. It became a place of pilgrimage through the middle ages, and still attracts thousands of visitors, most arriving via a short ferry ride from Mull.

As we waited on the Iona dock, watching Sandy expertly manoeuvre the Glen Tarsan into position to take us back on board, day-trippers from the ferry pulled out their cameras.

So did I. I so wanted a shot I could show friends while bragging about our boat.

A bit of chop in the Sound of Iona.

A bit of chop in the Sound of Iona.

Three things to do along the Road to the Isles…

Glasgow – It’s certainly worth taking at least a day or two to explore what has become a cultural city to match its rival Edinburgh. Don’t miss the fabulous paintings in the Burrell Collection and Kelvingrove Museum.

Train – The 3-hour train trip from Glasgow to Oban is one of the most beautiful imaginable, past lochs and forests, farmland and snow-capped hills.

Oban – The stopping off place for the Majestic Line cruises is a charming, if touristy, fishing village. If tartan shops are not your thing, perhaps the whisky distillery is more to your taste.

Fast facts:

Getting there:

Train from Glasgow to Oban costs GBP37.50 return.

Touring there:
Majestic Line Cruises with various itineraries around Mull and Argyll run from April-September. 6-night Around Mull: Wildlife Explorer Cruise costs GBP1880 p.p. See themajesticline.co.uk or phone +44 (0) 1369 707 951

The writer was the guest of Majestic Line Cruises.

First published, Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age, 2014.

9 Comments

Filed under Scotland

9 responses to “MULLING IT OVER IN SCOTLAND

  1. Excellent article, Richard, and very timely as I was just sipping a single malt from Aberfeldy when it magically appeared in my IN box.

  2. “there’s no escaping that bore, complainer or annoying drunk” – I wonder which category I would fit in to.

    Tobermory is the setting for fictional Balamory in the BBC children’s programme, I thought you might have mentioned that!

    I like the concept of ‘liquid sunshine’.

    • Thanks, Andrew. Yes, I saw that Tobermory was also Balamory, but it’s not a series we Aussies know about.

      As to the ‘bore, complainer or annoying drunk’… I’m sure you could pretend to be a nice guy for a while, if everybody else is doing so. It’s only for a week, after all.

  3. It’s a virtual tour for us through your words and images 🙂

    Thank you so much for sharing…

  4. Cycling the Inner and Outer Hebrides was one my most memorable rides (including the ‘liquid sunshine’)……but visiting them on a small tour boat has to be something very special.

  5. This is such a beautifully written and composed article – love it! And the photos are just perfectly illustrative.

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