The Scottish Isles have never been high on my list of
food-related destinations. It’s North and it’s a rare day that
finds me further in that direction than Watford. It’s not a prejudice,
merely ignorance. But there I was on a converted fishing boat and
wondering why I didn’t come here years ago.
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The Majestic Line offers holidays and short breaks on
two converted fishing boats around the waters off the west of Scotland.
They cater for lovers of nature, birds and wildlife, and food. Our boat
might not have been the size of a land-locked 5* hotel or even one of
those gleaming white cruise ships but the beds were superbly
comfortable, the service was professional and friendly and the chef,
Steve Boswell, was first class.
Andy Thoms and Ken Grant wanted to save these wooden-hulled fishing
trawlers from the scrapyard. So in 2004 they bought and converted their
first vessel, the Glen Massan, to a mini cruise liner, sailing out of
Holy Loch, near Dunoon, to cruise the lochs and islands of the region.
In May 2007 a sister vessel, The Glen Tarsan, was launched to sail out
of Oban, exploring Mull and Islay.
The name ‘The Majestic Line' is inspired by the 1960s TV series "Para
Handy", based on the books by Neil Munro and you will find these in the
ship’s library to bring back memories. An episode tells of the Vital
Spark ship’s engineer, McPhail, who walked out of his job saying he had
signed on a ship of ‘The Majestic Line' claiming it had a gold funnel;
and now the Glen Massan and the Glen Tarsan have gold painted funnels
and the boats stock a local beer called ‘Vital Spark’.
Iain Duncan, Skipper of the Glen Tarsan for this trip, told us more
about the company. “There are three crews of 4, Andrew the shore
manager, plus six support staff, so that’s 19 of us. We can carry 11
passengers in 6 cabins (all en-suite). The vessel is 80ft (24.4m) long
and has a 550hp engine. This cruise we have young Marc, Ray as Engineer
and Chef Stephen Boswell.
“The intention is to build another boat, and eventually have a fleet of
five sailing the west coast. Business on the west coast
is still as buoyant as ever, though here on the Clyde it’s slightly
down. People have a preconceived idea of the Clyde as a dirty
shipbuilding river, and as soon as you mention Mull and Skye it
conjures up a different picture, so they are busier than we are.”
That’s a shame as a few hours on a cruise out of Holy Loch into the
Firth of Clyde will remind you that beautiful lochs and hills start
just there. An undiscovered gem of Scotland’s Western Isles.
Iain loves this region and points out a practical advantage of holidays
in Britain. “I tend to holiday at home, we go to Mull or Skye or Arran
or another island, and we like to walk. In fact I think my passport’s
lapsed, but I can’t imagine ever using it again!” I envy those lucky
folks with all this scenic beauty on their doorstep and a big city with
its transport links within easy reach. The proximity of Glasgow makes
this holiday area accessible to all of us.
Iain points out, “Americans go to London and Edinburgh
and that’s it – they’ve ‘done’ Britain. Of course, some are extremely
well-travelled, and we have a few who keep coming back
to us, even though we haven’t advertised in the States yet – they love
it, adore it. We did advertise in the Kew Gardens brochure, which
brought us a lot of passengers. West Coast gardens are
spring gardens rather than summer, and they are stunning with azaleas
This time the boats had swopped ports. Our particular cruise was a
6-day ‘Taste of Arran and Argyll’ from Holy Loch, with an evident focus
on food. With regard to the meals they are many and substantial. One
starts the day with a breakfast fit to fill any hefty highland lad
...or lassie. Wander into the communal saloon at around 8am and grab a
cup of tea from the “let's make sure there is enough tea to quench the
thirst of a dozen or so passengers” sized teapot. Take your steaming
mug and stroll out onto the flat bit at the back of the boat (they tell
me that’s the aft deck). Enjoy the mirror-calm water
reflecting the surrounding hills and waterfalls. The surface is only
ruffled by the light breeze and perhaps the occasional fish taking a
closer look at the dry universe.
Breakfast, like every other meal on the Glen Tarsan, displays all the
famed generosity of traditional Scottish hospitality. You might like
porridge for breakfast and sure enough it’s here, made in Scottish
style with a sprinkle of salt. One sits at the large
table groaning under the weight of jars of four different sorts of
breakfast cereal, a couple of bowls of yoghurt, each garnished with a
different fresh fruit and puree, eight different Arran jams (do try the
rhubarb and ginger jam), marmalade and honey, a laundry-basket
of toast, a bucket of fresh fruit and more tea and coffee. No, dear
reader, that’s not your only breakfast fare, the cooked element is
being prepared and will be on the table just as you are finishing your
last mouthful of raspberries.
Now, I am a well-publicised lover of the Full English but I didn’t know
what to expect from a Majestic Line Full Scottish. It’s a bit like a
Sassenach’s cooked breakfast but it’s bigger. Our chef offers a
sausage, a round of black pudding, and a square of Lorne Sausage (a
delicious Scottish speciality, Lorne sausage is said to be named after
Tommy Lorne, a Scottish music hall comedian of the 1920s. That’s
unlikely but a legend possibly started by Lorne himself. Lorne is also
an area of Scotland, so who knows?). That is joined by a perfectly
fried egg, a grilled half-tomato, a rasher of back bacon and a potato
Another day we were served an equally traditional breakfast of kippers.
Chef Steve prepares them two ways and it would have been rude not to
try both. The usual way in these parts is to have them fried which
brings out the smokey-salty robustness of the cured herring. Steve also
presented jugged kippers, which is a popular and classic dish. Yes,
they were originally cooked in a jug: put your fish into a heatproof
jug or dish and steep them in boiling water. This helps to leach out a
little of the strong flavour so the finished dish is a milder and
lighter alternative to the original. Smoked haddock topped with a
poached egg is also part of the bountiful breakfast fare – a different
cooked breakfast for each of the six days aboard.
Don’t forget that there might be morning tea or coffee in a couple of
hours and this is Scotland so there will be a “little something” to
help down your hot beverage. In fact, after-mealtimes are the only
occasions when one might wish to be staying on a conventional
cosy here) nor any criticism of the crew (they take
marvellous, attentive and first-name care of us). No, it’s that one
might aspire to a jog around 2 miles of deck to burn off some of those
truly delicious calories. But there is always time on land to stretch
those increasingly chubby legs, although I notice that the exercise
does rather build up the appetite again. Must be the sea air.
This is a real holiday on which to relax. You won’t be burdened with
the need for extravagant dresses for dinner and your casual clothes
don’t have to sport designer labels. A holiday on the Glen Tarsan is
all about unwinding. Take a pile of books you have wanted to read for
ages – that thriller that your Auntie Minnie gave you last Christmas,
and Fly Fishing by J.R. Hartley (or is that just from a TV ad?) and
find a spot to sit and read as the stunning countryside slides by.
Talking of fishing, passengers can bring their fishing rods or there
are a couple onboard for those novices who want to try their hand with
a rod. The waters around here are full of mackerel and sea trout and
your chef will gladly cook them for your supper should your piscatorial
first-time luck be in. You could be treated to a personal masterclass
from a chef who is proud of his fresh Scottish fish, whether from the
local professional fisherman or from an amateur with a line over the
Yes, the landscape slides by rather than rushes. There are scenic photo
opportunities every few minutes, and there are no exclamations of
“damn, I missed it” unless it’s a shot those elusive porpoises that
followed us for a day or so. It’s an ideal cruise for those who want to
perfect their camera skills. Plenty of time to change the exposure,
change the lens and remove the lens cap. The quality of light, the
scenery, the birds, and the wildlife are available to take centre-stage
of your composition. We had close encounters with seals and swans as
well as those porpoises.
The crew, being local, will always be on hand to tell stories about the
villages along the waterway, so you’ll have plenty to talk about when
you show those pictures back home. There is lots of history along these
lochs – ancient castles, churches, the occasional disused military
installation, even the gents’ loo in Rothesay is a tourist attraction –
but it’s the unspoilt landscape that is so evocative of Scotland.
Glens, hills and cottages persuade passengers that Glasgow must be at
least a couple of thousand miles away.
But I mentioned that this was a food-lover’s cruise. In fact this boat
is an informal cooking school as well as a floating restaurant with a
chef who is happy to share his knowledge, and producers who want to
introduce you to their wares. Even the little bar has a few surprises.
The owners of the Majestic Line have their own brand of gin called
gin that could be addictive. Try it with ice,
tonic and a couple of slices of lemon and you will note that the spirit
becomes a refreshing citrus libation. If whisky is what
you crave then there are a couple of shelves full and you could always
go ashore at the Arran distillery to find out exactly how “the water of
life” is made.
Scotland is full of culinary delights. It’s particularly famed for its
baked goods and every afternoon you will be able to enjoy a cup of tea
and a fresh, warm-from-the-oven cake from your chef. It’s strange but
true that however full one thinks one might be, there is always a
little space for something sweet. Afternoon Tea is all the rage in
London and that’s lovely as a beautifully presented meal replacement,
but mostly what one craves is a nice cuppa tea and a slice of something
light and buttery, with perhaps a sprinkling of dried fruit, or there
might be a glaze of tangy lemon, or there could be a frosting of rich
dark chocolate. You can keep your three tiers of frills and allow me,
for this week at least, to enjoy every crumb of Sunday’s chocolate
rum-and-raisin cupcakes, Monday’s ginger cake; and there might be a day
when chef Steve will roll out his boat-made cream horns filled to the
very end with jam and fresh whipped cream. Steve would be considered a
remarkable chef even in a full-sized kitchen with half a dozen sous
chefs at his command, but this chap manages to bake bread and cakes as
well as preparing braised meat dishes and full-scale seafood banquets
in this tiny galley, without raising his voice.
Dinner is convivial. One might start with some freshly spiced and
seasoned almonds and a glass of something reviving and one sits at that
big communal table once again and talks over the events of the day –
the one that got away, the smoky flavour
of the whisky at the distillery – and all without the aid of a little
black dress or starched white shirt. This is five-star hospitality that
doesn’t demand anything from its guests other than a purr of
tiara can stay at home and there is no need to wrestle with the
bow tie. Elegance is supplied by the food, ambiance comes courtesy of
low lights, and entertainment is provided by you and your fellow
guests, along with the occasional merry quip from a crew member as he
delivers the next course.
Almost a week on the boat will give the passenger half a dozen
memorable dinners: beef Wellington, local venison, barbecued pork,
Oriental salmon, Indian lamb shanks, and lobster in
tagine spices. Then there are the desserts and sweeties. Chef Steve’s
sticky toffee pudding is comforting and perhaps the best you would ever
have tasted; chocolate ganache with raspberry coulis, cardamom
pannacotta might be your puds, but those cute sounding “sweeties” are
likely to be high-octane preparations for adults only, and possibly
The Glen Tarsan weaves its way between islands and skirts mainland
towns and stops off along the way to allow its passengers a little time
ashore. We visited the Cathedral of the Isles which is said to be the
smallest cathedral in Europe. The walk through the grounds was perfumed
by wild garlic and when we entered the cathedral we were treated to a
rehearsal for a concert of fiddle playing. We missed the concert but
traditional highland tunes in that setting were magical. Perhaps that’s
the beauty of these cruises: one finds unexpected joys that are well
off the beaten track.
Arran is famous for its cheeses. They produce a host of flavoured
cheeses – raspberry, caramelised onion, and many more – but the purist
will want to try the classics. There is a whisky distillery on the
island which has been in business for the past 17 years. It revived an
industry that had disappeared many years before. It had been a cottage
industry which could be more accurately described as a “hidden in the
hills” industry as those stills were illegal, though numerous. It’s a
beautiful walk along the coast from the jetty where your tender will
drop you – you’ll be glad of the exercise after all that food. Taste
some fine whisky and buy a souvenir or two.
Loch Fyne really does exist and it has given its name to a chain of
seafood restaurants, but the heart of the business is the oyster
production and salmon processing. There is a restaurant at the head of
the loch where you can try the eponymous products while watching the
Oystercatchers (the birds – not the employees) from the your window
table. Another opportunity for delicious mementoes of your trip.
While you are ashore you won’t want to miss a visit to the Loch Fyne
brewery, Fyne Ales, which is just up the road a couple
of hundred yards. They make unique brews here from the water that flows
in a stream from the hills above. Nice to get your main ingredient
free. You will doubtless want to sample a few bottles so you’ll be glad
you have the Majestic Line bus and driver at your disposal. They brew,
amongst others, Vital Spark – it’s that mythical boat again – which is
a dark ale with a reddish-brown colour, a full bodied brew with a rich
taste and a pleasantly dry finish.
The itinerary for this food-laden cruise is at the mercy
of the elements but it could run something like this:
• The beautiful Kyles of Bute; anchor in remote Loch
Riddon. Help the crew drop lobster pots from the boat tender.
• Cross the magnificent Firth of Clyde to Lochranza on
the north tip of the Isle of Arran and visit the Arran distillery and
• Cruise the magnificent coast of Arran from the
rugged mountains in the North to wide sandy beaches in the South.
• Anchor off Brodick with a wealth of different
attractions on offer from the tiny Arran Chocolate Factory to the
Island Cheese Company and magnificent Brodick Castle.
• Anchor off Lamlash/ Holy Isle and visit Arran Fine
• Sail to the Isle of Bute; visit splendid Mount
Stuart House and Rothesay Castle.
I hadn’t known what to expect from a food-oriented cruise
with The Majestic Line and I knew the weather would play a part in our
plans but I can honestly say that even if we had had bad weather every
day I would have been content. Chef Steve and other crew members were
always on-hand to share their local culinary knowledge and one is
treated to an extravaganza of fine cooking with local ingredients, and
chef Steve does take advantage of that whisky. Don’t turn away a
“sweetie” of a chocolate cup of Stags Breath, a nightcap to help any
wannabe chef sleep to dream of the next day’s distillery, cheese
producer or round of warm shortbread. Now, that’s a ship’s biscuit of
the best possible class. Chef Steve says he has another hundred or so
recipes, so I’ll be back.
The Majestic Line
Holy Loch Marina
Phone +44 (0)1369 707 951
(Note that this cruise is no longer available; see the link below for current routes.)
Visit The Majestic Line here.