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 Majestic Line converted fishing boat and wondering why I didn’t come here years ago.
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 for Majestic Line.
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 and rhododendrons.”
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 scone.
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 cruiser.
That longing isn’t brought about by a wish for better accommodation (it’s 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 side.
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 Bilgewater. It’s a high-proof spirit made especially for the Majestic Line, a mild-flavoured 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 with Majestic Line. 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 pleasure. You’ll be freshly showered and you will doubtless look nice but the 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 whisky-based.
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 Majestic Line 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 Lochranza Castle.
• 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 Foods.
• 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.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018