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Exploration Yacht Charter Spirit of The Highlands
Cruising the lochs of Western Scotland
Aug. 12, 2006 10:15 AM
“My desire is always to be here” sang Sir Paul McCartney in his tribute to the Mull of Kintyre, and the Western Highlands have inspired the same loyalty in many who have come to know and love this secluded coast. The Scottish landscape is a theatre where the hills themselves appear to move in the shifting light, one minute swathed in cloud, the next a misty veil of sunlight, and later against a piercing blue sky the brilliant sunshine bouncing off fresh snow on the hilltops.
One of the first things to strike you here is the lack of clutter; this is scenery empty of the flotsam and jetsam of modern civilization. Instead it’s full of natural wonders, creating an impressionist canvas that evolves with the seasons as well as the weather. In autumn, robes of purple heather drape the hillsides, crowned with golden bracken and birch. Winter russets, ochres and deep hookers greens are dusted with icing sugar snow before the emerald grass of spring appears, splashed with bright daffodils, wild primroses and carpets of bluebells. Then in early summer darkness hardly falls, the distant glow of the midnight sun lights the horizon and gleams on the white sand beaches. In his book Ring of Bright Water author Gavin Maxwell describes perfectly the visitor’s dilemma on getting his first view across the coast: “The landscape and seascape that lay spread before me was of such beauty that I had no room for it all at once...”
Places so beautiful rarely remain that way, but the Western Highlands have escaped because they are so difficult to reach. No roads existed before the 18th century and the highlanders struggled for survival on land of such poor agricultural value. Their solution was to raid the lowland farms before disappearing back into the hills, where they remained out of reach of the law. Such inaccessibility rendered them beyond the grasp of the British government, until the first roads were built by the army in order to gain control. Before then, the only successful conquerors were the Vikings, who arrived by sea in their longships and were able to penetrate deep into the hills by rowing up the long fingers of the lochs.
Even today, this is a frustrating place to visit in a vehicle because one is faced with long road journeys to cover relatively small distances as the crow flies; it’s still better conquered from the sea. We were therefore thrilled to receive an invitation from the owners of a rather characterful little ship called Fyne Spirit, which promises travelers the opportunity to do just that. On a bright and bracing spring day we were greeted at Glasgow airport by Captain Klaüs Muller and Ship’s Purser Nadine Ruts. Klaus and Nadine have been in charge of Fyne Spirit’s conversion from a British Navy vessel and are responsible for her forthcoming launch at the start of the 2006 summer season.
Chosen because she is specifically suited to cruising the Scottish lochs, Fyne Spirit’s sturdy build and size (110ft) give her access into the far reaches of the lochs and many deserted anchorages – and I really do mean deserted, rather than shared with a bunch of other hopefuls! Modifications have been made to allow for a spacious saloon with large windows to either side, enabling guests to enjoy the majestic panoramas in all weather conditions. And I’m quite serious when I say that Scotland looks even more dramatic in the rain than it does in the sunshine. A modern motor yacht would be at odds in this environment – not only in appearance but in sheer practicality. Fyne Spirit is at home in her surroundings, dependable and comfortable she embodies the traditional values of the Scots. There’s no need to rush about here; sit back and enjoy the ever-changing view, savor the sense of isolation, absorb the atmosphere of the Highlands.
Previously Captain of the well-known luxury cruising yacht Star Clipper, Klaus has lived in Scotland for over fifteen years. Although he is German by origin, you’ll rarely meet a more naturalized Scot – he’s the first German I’ve ever heard regularly use the word “Aye” (‘yes’ in Scottish dialect). He even plays the bagpipes! Klaus has made his own home in Fyne Spirit’s home port of Inverary and is a well-known local ‘celebrity’, having become an integral part of the local community. Wherever Klaus accompanied us, people stopped to greet him and enquire about when Fyne Spirit would be arriving from the shipyard in Glasgow, where she is in the final stages of her transformation. The result is that Fyne Spirit is also a ‘local’, and thus inspires a special enthusiasm amongst the inhabitants that guests will sense immediately. You can expect a hearty welcome which includes being piped aboard by the local schoolchildren, who are accomplished pipers despite the fact that their instruments rather dwarf them in scale.
Inverary is situated at the head of Loch Fyne in the county of Argyll. An orderly gathering of whitewashed Georgian houses, it sits a short but respectful distance from the imposing seat of the famous Campbell Clan, Inverary Castle. The Campbells arrived in Argyll in the 13th century and played a leading role in Scottish history. Constantly feuding with the Macdonalds, they supported the British army against the Jacobite rebellion in the 18th century, a loyalty that was rewarded with Dukedom. The 8th Duke married Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise and, as Master of the Royal Household, the present Duke will always be seen at the Queen’s side when she attends an official function in Scotland.
Klaus guided us around the castle personally, as he has an expert knowledge of local history. He was quick to point out that the vast range of fearsome armory on display is not the cache of an enthusiastic collector. It was in fact kept at the castle in readiness for war, the weapons being handed out for use by the Clansmen as and when required for battle. Rows of vicious lances line the walls of the atrium, many with their original tassels still attached just below the blade. Their gruesome, if practical, task was to staunch the blood of the victims in order to prevent it running down the wooden handle of the lance and making it too slippery to hold - another reason there weren’t too many visitors in the past! The flintlocks also on display were used at the battle of Culloden, from which the defeated Bonnie Prince Charlie fled in 1746, heralding final victory for the Hanoverian King George III over the Jacobites, and resulting in the British monarchy of today.
Thankfully, a Scottish welcome now has a different meaning. The history may have been bloody and the weather unpredictable, but this is more than made up for by the warmth of the Scottish people. Indeed, many of the things that make Scotland so enjoyable exist because of the climate: a blazing hearth, hearty food and, of course, Scotch whisky.
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of whisky to this part of the world, both economically and culturally. There were once as many as thirty-four whisky distilleries just in Campbeltown on the Kintyre Peninsula alone, as well as many more sprinkled around the coast and islands such as Islay, Jura and Skye. The local whisky store in Inverary stocks several hundred single malts, making it a good place to start a voyage of discovery in more ways than one. One of the oldest licensed distilleries in Scotland is at Oban, where they’ve been making whisky for over 200 years. The ‘wash’ (a type of weak beer made from malted barley) is distilled twice to give the malt its unique character and taste, and the two unusually small stills reflect the cramped nature of the site. This working distillery is still based in its original building in the heart of the town, just opposite the quayside, making it easy to stow away a few bottles as a souvenir.
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