Sometimes we need reminding of what is here on our own doorstep
We all know that Scotland is the most beautiful country in the world. No contest.
But sometimes we just need reminding of what is here on our own doorstep before we are blinded by the novelty of a bit of sunshine on a southern island somewhere.
Certainly, you don’t have to tell Fred Olsen cruise lines that.
Already famed for their forays to the scenic splendours of Norway, in the past few years they have increased their focus on lochs and fjords closer to home – with an enthusiastic response from their core market.
Sailing serenely out of Rosyth, the Lochs of Scotland cruise on the Black Watch is the start of a week of revelations for me.
I’m not saying I thought I’d seen it all but, you know, I’d been to Scotland. No surprises in store here. I know it’s scenic, I know it’s friendly, I know there’s tartan and distilleries and shortbread and castles.
I recognise why foreigners would find it pretty and cute and quaint but, well, I live here.
I already know.
Well, that’s just where I was wrong.
Our programme is pretty packed – seven nights, five ports – but, as we sail into the North Sea, it seems as if we are on a journey which is not just geographical but historic.
Not to get too Outlander-esque, but every port we visit reveals a country where sometimes sad and turbulent histories still resonate today.
And, as we gradually move far from the busy urban central belt we sail into the mists and legends which linger just beneath the familiar day to day life we all know.
First of all comes Kirkwall, capital of the Orkney Islands and gateway to extraordinary sites of prehistoric and Viking culture.
If you haven’t been to Skara Brae, the astonishing Neolithic village is a must.
Owls in flight at Dunrobin Castle
And we don’t need Neil Oliver on hand to reveal the magic of this World Heritage Site where you can clearly see how people lived, slept and ate thousands of years ago.
But a visit to Skara Brae comes with the added pleasure of visiting the grandest house on the islands – the actually fairly modest Skaill House nearby.
After being intrigued by, among other things, Captain Cook’s last dinner service which was sold on Orkney to raise funds for stranded sailors, it is time to shake off the past and enjoy some fresh air and sunshine on lovely Skaill Beach.
A visit to the mystical standing stones of the Ring of Brodgar just as light is falling, is a memorable end to the day.
After a relaxing evening and excellent dinner on ship, the next day we find ourselves south again at Invergordon.
No slight intended on this small douce town on the Cromarty Firth, but it seems a little surprised to find itself a convenient berth for more than 90 cruise ships every year.
And no wonder as it is the perfect hopping off place to visit the main tourists sites of the north – Culloden, Loch Ness, Castle Urquhart and Cawdor Castle.
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We choose to journey through the picturesque scenery and towns of Tain and Dornoch to visit Dunrobin Castle. This imposing castle, just outside Golspie, shows exactly why you should never judge by appearances.
On the outside, it is an imposing French chateau, with formal gardens and fountains and a view of the sea. However – and no disrespect to the present owners – it is also the historic home of the Dukes of Sutherland and that legacy isn’t quite so pretty.
Responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the Highland Clearances, the Sutherlands still carry the curse of the past.
Even the arrogant statue of the Duke himself on a nearby hillside attracts hostility, with our very ladylike guide telling us she liked to walk up there just to spit on him.
However, a little more light-hearted are the falconry displays held twice a day in the grounds.
And there you can orget the wicked Duke and enjoy watching and learning about a variety of beautiful falcons and owls who live on the premises.
The next morning we wake up on the west coast and, after a relaxed breakfast, stroll down the gangplank to find ourselves in the Thomas Telford- designed village of Ullapool.
Orkney’s Skara Brae village
Now we are truly in the land of dramatic scenery with the rolling fields of the east and Orkneys behind us. Ullapool is the place to go for soaring mountains, tumbling waterfalls, beautiful beaches, ancient forests and spectacular views of the Summer Isles.
A trip south to the famous Inverewe Gardens take us past the splendours of Loch Broom, through remote and rugged Wester Ross territory, past Corrieshalloch Gorge, and the lovely Gruinard Bay to Poolewe, where Victorian plant collector Osgood Mackenzie’s vision of a lush and beautiful garden is there to prove the practical delights of the warming Gulf Stream.
Now in the hands of the National Trust, this garden and the Mackenzie family home provide an oasis of civilisation in among the untamed grandeur of the surrounding wilderness.
If it’s Friday, it must be Fort William. Of course, you can spend the day wandering round the shops or taking a ride on the Jacobite steam train but, for me, like many others, Fort William means Ben Nevis.
Naturally, I would be keen to tear myself away from the comforts of the Black Watch, to hike up Britain’s highest mountain – if only there was time.
Luckily, we can cheat and instead take a comfortable gondola up Aonach Mor.
Mealt Falls at Kilt Rock on Skye
There, more than 2,000 feet up in the heavens, we enjoy a bracing walk and some amazing views before fleeing the driving rain for a hot chocolate in the coffee shop.
Bear Grylls would not approve but somehow that just makes it all the more fun.
Back on board, we enjoy a magnificent formal afternoon tea in the Observatory lounge and watch the spectacular scenery go by – through the Corran narrows, along Loch Linnhe and past Duart Castle and Tobermory on the island of Mull.
The following day, the sun shines for our last port visit, Portree on Skye. A photographer’s paradise, this island has been a prime destination for tourists for centuries.
Forget the wilderness of Wester Ross, this is castle country and, whether it’s Dunvegan with its fairy flag or chocolate box Eilean Donan across the Skye bridge, there are tours available.
We decide to opt for a journey around the northern Trotternish peninsula, taking in the life and times of Flora MacDonald, the dramatic Old Man of Storr rock formation, the Kilt Rock, spectacular Mealt Falls and the fascinating Museum of Island Life with its traditional black houses.
The misty Aonach Mor gondolas
A wander round lovely Portree brings the day and our port visits to an end. Sadly, we are now on our way backto Rosyth but there are many treats still in store.
This is the day when you realise a cruise ship is often the best way to see a landscape.
Hugging the north coast, the Black Watch is able to pass through the Sound of Raasay, Loch Torridon, Loch Shieldaig and the intriguing Loch Eriboll off Cape Wrath.
Trying to calculate how we could possibly have seen what we have in a few days if we had been travelling by road and passenger ferry, we realise that this is truly a unique, cost-effective and fascinating way to access and enjoy a huge variety of places in this country of ours, which looks so small yet feels so big.
Our only full day at sea also allows us to enjoy the delights on board – like a relaxing massage in the Atlantis Spa, and a movie in the comfortable film theatre.
However, all too soon we wake up back in dock and back to reality. My short voyage around my own country has taken me very far indeed.
The Ring of Brodgar in Orkney
Next year Fred Olsen will be basing their ship, the Balmoral, in Rosyth, offering customers from Scotland and the north of England a convenient departure point close to home.
For a similar holiday Balmoral will be setting sail from Newcastle on July 29, 2018, on a seven-night Scottish Highlands & Islands cruise (L1822).
Ports of call include Invergordon, Kirkwall, Stornoway and Lerwick.
Prices currently start from £999 per person. For further information on Fred.
Olsen Cruise Lines, visit the website at www.fredolsencruises.com or call 0800 0355 242.
Source : EXPRESS