Travel December 2013

Where They Drink Whiskey in the Morning

A cruise around the Hebrides, the Scottish islands that inspired Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and Robert Louis Stevenson
The Glen Massan, a wooden-hulled trawler, anchored off the coast of Erraid Island, where the shipwrecked hero of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped washed ashore (Susanne Stout Smith)

In 1773, Samuel Johnson—poet, essayist, and London’s literary light—and his biographer, James Boswell, passed through the rugged, starkly beautiful Hebridean Islands just off Scotland’s western coast. Their famous tour produced not one but two waspish journals that remain in print today.

Dr. Johnson, who was 64 and had completed his monumental Dictionary of the English Language, was a bit of a whiner, complaining occasionally of bad food and uncomfortable lodgings. No such suffering for us aboard the Glen Massan, one of two luxuriously converted 82-foot wooden-hulled, double-ended trawlers that originally fished the western coast of Ireland and now take passengers on cruises through the Hebrides.

The trawlers make up the entire fleet of Majestic Cruises, a small-ship line that is at the opposite end of the cruising universe from Carnival or Royal Caribbean. Not unlike the gulets that ply Turkey’s Turquoise Coast, the boats include six comfortable cabins, each with a private bath; a roomy main saloon for meals and lounging; outdoor decks fore and aft; and a spacious wheelhouse where all are welcome. The crew consists of a skipper, an engineer, a boatswain, and a chef.

Our floating house party consisted of six couples, all longtime sailing friends. We split the cost of 17,000 pounds ($27,300) for the week, which included superb meals and wines with dinner—not cheap, but nothing in Scotland is these days.

As Dr. Johnson noted, there is no such thing as bad weather in the Hebrides, only inadequate clothing. So we brought our fleece and foul-weather jackets, and we used them every day. We also had periods of warm sun, and in late May, beautiful sunsets that lingered past 9 p.m.

To find the history, mythology, and literary legend that are around every corner in the Hebrides, we anchored just off Erraid Island, where the shipwrecked teenage hero of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 18th-century adventure story Kidnapped washed ashore. We stopped at Iona, the soft, green island where an Irish scholar and monk, Saint Columba, arrived in the sixth century to Christianize the pagan Scots; the abbey he established is still extant and well worth a visit.

The chief attraction on the Isle of Staffa is Fingal’s Cave, dark and dramatic, on the southeastern face of the steep island. Water rushes in and out of the cathedral-size opening—a sound that inspired Felix Mendelssohn to compose his Hebrides overture. The cave, named for a mythical Irish warrior and giant, has been an adventure destination for years, attracting notable visitors, including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Sir Walter Scott, John Keats, and, of course, Robert Louis Stevenson.

Tradition holds that good fortune comes to those who touch the back wall of the deep cave. Johnson and Boswell approached Staffa by boat, but, as Boswell noted, they “could not land upon it, the surge was so high on its rocky coast.” We had better luck. With relatively smooth water and a low tide, we could take the tender—the crew called it the “jolly boat”—inside the towering cave, motor carefully up to the back wall, and, one by one and gingerly, put a hand on it.

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