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How do you fancy bashing around the glorious Hebrides under sail on your very own tall ship? That’s exactly what is on offer on the St Hilda. This graceful old Scottish ketch takes half a dozen passengers on island adventures. It’s all aboard now shipmates as I tell you all about my week on the St Hilda in search of malt whisky and wildlife.

Tall Ship Sailing on St Hilda

St Hilda was built in the family owned shipyard at St Monans in Fife in 1973. She started life as a sail training vessel and in those days she accommodated 20 people. With fewer passengers to accommodate today there is much more open communal space. She remains, though, pleasantly a world away from today’s massive cruise ships. Indeed she is one of the smallest of the Tall Ships at a bijou 54ft.

St Hilda at anchor

St Hilda at anchor (c) Robin McKelvie

Aboard the St Hilda

Today St Hilda is still very much a family owned and operated ship whose lucky passengers are joined by two crew. The captain on our cruise – entitled ‘Malt Whisky and Wildlife’ – was Simon. An able seaman who is also engagingly friendly and great company. As is his boson fiancée Lou. It is very much first name and even nickname terms on the St Hilda.

After a warm welcome aboard I packed my gear away. There is one private double cabin at the moment and then an open sleeping area that sports two bunks. This is not ideal for those seeking privacy, but there are plans to turn the space into two cabins next year. I appreciated the decent shower, however, and the toilet (which you had to pump and refill when you used it) made me feel like a proper yachtie.

St Hilda approaching Scarba

St Hilda approaching Scarba (c) Robin McKelvie

Sweeping Island Views

Once we had settled it was time to motor out of Tobermory (this year for the first time all St Hilda cruises leave from the Isle of Mull rather the mainland) into the Sound of Mull in search of our first anchorage in Loch Aline. This proved a wise choice, as strong winds blew through during the night at this safe spot. The morning, however, brought a sunny crossing down to the Slate Islands. From the deck of St Hilda I enjoyed sweeping views out to the hulk of Mull, the sprinkling of little Garvellachs and the rugged hills of Scarba.

Rounding the southern tip of Luing we pulled in to anchor and were tendered ashore. On St Hilda you are not just a guest, and are expected to help with some of the crewing duties. I helped Simon get the dingy safely into the water and then we bounced out to strike off for land.

View from Robin's walk on Luing

View from Robin’s walk on Luing (c) Robin McKelvie

Time Ashore

The cruises on St Hilda aim to get you ashore at least once a day. I made the most of my time on Luing bashing off on a 12km hike. The wildlife element of the trip emerged here as I was (very) lucky to see a soaring sea eagle. I presume it was on a sabbatical from the neighbouring Isle of Mull. I came across a stoat too as I rambled across a series of low hills. Eventually I arrived in the island ‘capital’ of Cullipool. Little more than a hamlet, I was surprised to find a brand new visitor centre and café with great cakes.

Back aboard I settled in – as I did every night – for a hearty home cooked dinner. Lou’s cooking was exactly what we needed at the end of our busy and active days. The first night brought a delicious fish pie, which was accompanied by complimentary wine. This was followed up by cheese and then a simple, tasty dessert. Lunches are more of a buffet style arrangement. I won’t forget Lou’s lip smacking carrot and orange salad in a hurry!

Pushing on from Luing we managed to get the sails up as we forged south towards Jura. We passed the infamous Corryvreckan Whirlpool at a safe distance. It was amazing to feel the force of the tidal race that upped our speed by a few knots and had the wheel heaving to starboard. You can stand at the helm at any time of day so you do really feel part of things on the St Hilda.

Sunset off Luing

Sunset off Luing (c) Robin McKelvie

Distillery Tours

Whisky was an integral part of this trip and Simon organised a tour of the Isle of Jura distillery. Afterwards I hiked up a wee hill and enjoyed looking back down at the St Hilda lying snugly at anchor in the bay between Craighouse and the flurry of Small Isles that lie just offshore. My favourite was the gloriously named Useless Island.

After Jura our next target was neighbouring Islay, Scotland’s most famous whisky isle. With the weather rough Simon arranged for a taxi transfer over instead of sailing, which worked very well. I enjoyed a tour of one of my favourite distilleries, Laphroaig. Handily this distillery on the southern coast of Islay is now connected by a walkway to another brace of two hundred year old distilleries, Ardbeg and Lagavulin. I picked up a couple of bottles that you can only secure in person at each of the three distilleries.

St Hilda off Jura

St Hilda off Jura (c) Robin McKelvie

I had arranged in advance to leave the St Hilda slightly early for more time on Islay, but I was reluctant to leave my newfound sailing home. St Hilda may not be the most luxurious vessel currently cruising Scottish waters, but she offers an adventurous, engaging experience where you can very much get stuck in to help out as you cruise what for me are the most spectacular sailing waters in the world.

For more information on cruising on St Hilda and exclusive offers for Welcome to Scotland readers click here.


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