If you like walking but also enjoy the finer things in life, why not take a cruise to Scotland's Western Isles. Anthony Lambert sets out to sea

"Is this a holiday?" asked the chief wag as we huddled in the lee of some rocks, munching mackerel and horseradish sandwiches and catching the edge of a squally shower moving down the glen. As if in answer, shafts of sunlight broke through the cloud, silvering the waters of the loch and throwing the mountains into an artist's relief of receding browns, greys and pale greens.

"Is this a holiday?" asked the chief wag as we huddled in the lee of some rocks, munching mackerel and horseradish sandwiches and catching the edge of a squally shower moving down the glen. As if in answer, shafts of sunlight broke through the cloud, silvering the waters of the loch and throwing the mountains into an artist's relief of receding browns, greys and pale greens.

We had walked across peat bogs and moor to this remote spot in Assynt, north of Ullapool, from the Hebridean Princess. She began life in 1964 as MV Columba, a modest-sized Caledonian MacBrayne ferry on which a fortune has been lavished, transforming her into a floating five-star hotel for 49 guests and 38 crew. A country house party atmosphere prevails. Tables in the wood-panelled dining room soon coalesce as guests choose to eat together - there are no keys for the rooms, and one of the traditional banes of cruise ships is eliminated by a strict no-tipping policy.

To take walkers into country better tackled with an expert guide, "footloose" cruises have been added to the choice of all-inclusive tours of the Western Isles and Scotland's mainland. The cruise took us on a return voyage from Oban north to Ullapool, stopping off for full- or half-day walks with two, sometimes three, options to suit strollers or the more numerous walkers. However, some guests enjoy the ship so much that they hardly leave it, taking in the 180-degree panorama from the Tiree Lounge or reading in the library.

With none of the queueing that afflicts large ships, we disembarked using two tenders and an inflatable that scorches along at hair-straightening speed. Our first landfall was on Eigg, "capital" of the four Small Isles with Muck, Rum and Canna, though its population is only 70. Yehudi Menuhin once came as a guest of the Runciman family, who owned the island between the wars. He was described by a crofter as: "a handy man for the ceilidh".

The walkers headed up into the mist wreathing the island's ridge of An Sgurr, while the strollers took the cliff path from the roofless church of Kildonnan which serves as the Catholic graveyard. The day lived up to the advice - "go 20 miles or wait 20 minutes" - if you're looking for a change in the Highland weather, and demonstrated the way that beams of sunlight can create more dazzling effects on water and scattered islands than a cloudless sky.

The walks take full advantage of the Hebridean Princess's shallow draught, which allows her to get close to remote places often many miles from the nearest road. Enfolded in the Cuillin Hills of Skye, Loch Coruisk is difficult to reach overland but simple by landing at Loch Scavaig. Close by was the site of Gavin Maxwell's ill-fated venture for processing basking sharks, established before he became famous with his autobiographical story about otters, Ring of Bright Water. Seals practised appealing postures on the rocks in the bay, and within an hour's walk we were watching a group of grazing deer through binoculars. We would have missed many such sights were it not for our guides, Ted and Pat, who provided an astonishing variety of insights into the history behind the places we visited as well as their flora and fauna.

After dinner, they and Cate, the strollers' guide, gave brief talks about the programme for the next day, and one evening the military story of the Jacobites was brilliantly brought to life by a man who looked as though he might have served at Culloden. Handling the incredibly heavy muskets in use at the time increased one's admiration for the stamina of the soldiers, especially after a day walking the terrain they would have had to cross, loaded like pack animals. Nor would they have had someone like Russell to whisk away the results of a close encounter with a bog - over dinner our room steward had thoughtfully decided my mud-spattered trousers could do with a wash, which was typical of the service on board.

Cloud and mizzle obscured all but the first few hundred feet as we anchored off the long line of white-washed houses at Shieldaig, built as a training base for sailors during the Napoleonic Wars. The strollers went off to see the famous gardens created at Inverewe in 1865 by Osgood Mackenzie and his daughter, while the walkers climbed through sunshine to the Fairy Lakes, small black tarns amid a sea of rocky hillocks. One of these claimed a Liberator bomber and all 15 on board who were returning to the US in June 1945 - engines, undercarriage and pieces of fuselage still litter the slope and loom out of the brackish water.

Even more inaccessible is the Knoydart peninsula, north of Mallaig. The 22,000-hectare estate was bought in 1934 by the Nazi sympathiser, the 2nd Lord Brocket, on whom Kazuo Ishiguro based Lord Brockenhurst in The Remains of the Day. The small community on Inverie Bay can be reached only by sea or overland on foot, and boasts Britain's most inaccessible pub and post office. We walked beside stone walls muffled in moss and along a farm track to the Brocket monument, erected to commemorate his family on a hill overlooking the Inverie River.

On Rum, I joined the strollers to visit the extraordinary contender in BBC's Restoration series, Kinloch Castle, which narrowly missed winning the £3m prize. Many rooms have hardly changed since the house was finished in 1901 and the last member of the Bullough family left in 1954. It exemplifies the 19th-century Highland idyll indulged in by many a wealthy industrialist, though not many required the 250,000 tonnes of Ayrshire soil that were brought in by endless Clyde "Puffer" steam boats just to create Kinloch's garden. The kennels were heated; the servants' accommodation was not.

Striding out by day allows greater freedom at night, which is just as well given the excellent cuisine aboard Princess and the home-made cakes that awaited our return at tea time. Dinner is a minimum of five courses and may include such dishes as Colonsay oysters, fillet of turbot with orange-braised fennel, and roasted loin of Ayrshire lamb over mashed parsnip. Three of the dinners are "formal" (black tie is not mandatory, but everyone chose to wear it). Yet the atmosphere over coffee and petits fours in the Tiree Lounge was anything but formal, helped by Ted's skill as raconteur and his ability to sing to the guitar almost any song requested. Such occasions can be excruciating; the two evenings were anything but.

Our last long walk took us to Ulva, off the south coast of Mull. In a walk of no more than six miles we enjoyed remarkably varied landscapes under an azure sky, from a coastal belt of wind-contorted hazel flanking the path, past basalt columns shaped like the famous pillars on Staffa, and along the hillside where David Livingtone's father and grandfather sheltered in a cave while waiting for their croft to be finished.

The wind soughed through the birch trees as we passed an idyllic cove with Telford's 1828 church in the background, built for a congregation of 300; today's population is less than a tenth. The appearance of a quad bike bearing Lady Congleton, whose descendants run the island, in search of the day's post, returned us to the 21st century.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Hebridean Princess is operated by Hebridean Island Cruises (01756 704704; www.hebridean.co.uk). Prices for a seven night cruise start from £1,215 per person, based on two sharing a double cabin. This includes all drinks, food and shore visits.

Nearly all cruises embark at Oban. A chartered coach links Glasgow (airport and Central Station) with the ship, at extra cost, or you can take the scenic railway from Glasgow Queen Street to Oban (ScotRail; 08457 550033; www.scotrail.co.uk).

ON BOARD

All 28 cabins and suites have television and video players (tapes are free from the library), a mini-bar, refrigerator and tea/coffee-making equipment. Dressing gowns (but not slippers) and a wide range of Molton Brown toiletries are provided. The library has a free email facility. Clay-pigeon shooting can also be arranged.

KEEPING DRY

Unless you are content with a stroll, the walks require good boots. Decent wet-weather clothing is vital, and headgear appropriate for the season is advisable. Walking sticks are helpful for steep ascents and descents and a day pack is also handy.

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