Small ship cruises in Scotland

The Blue Boat
How late the daylight edges toward the northern night, as though journeying in a blue boat gilded in mussel shell, with slung from its mast a lantern like our old idea of the soul
– From ‘The Tree House’ by Kathleen Jamie (Picador, 2004)
Treat yourself to a copy of this wonderful book of poetry by award winning Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie who captures the natural nano-worlds that one enters when traveling on a small ship cruise vacation in Scotland. Indeed, these vacations are all about discovering the edges of places. The edge of daylight, as Jamie writes so eloquently. The edges of cliffs, where bird colonies hover in their safe havens. The edge of seasons, when the Northern Lights dance their way out of summer into autumn. The edge of the Atlantic, as discovered on remote Hebridean Island cruises.
Small boat cruises in Scotland are also at the cutting edge of responsible tourism, with trips led by local skippers and wildlife enthusiasts, encouraging slow travel in the true sense of the word. And, if you travel by train to the harbours where these small boats are moored, then you will have a clean, car free vacation too.

Jamie has been celebrated for bringing back landscape writing as a tradition. Her book of essays, Findings, is another wonderful example, where she travels to the remote Hebridean Island of Coll as part of a journey in search of the now very rare corncrake bird.

In her writing she takes time to focus on a pair of peregrines, or flotsam on a Hebridean shore. It’s as if she is able to zoom in with a metaphorical microscope and see the beauty in everything that floats past, and this is what small ship cruises are also for. Zoom away from shore, away from digital worlds, away from politics and people, and in on Scotland’s marine and marginal magnificence.

What are the small ships like?

These vacations are the absolute antithesis of giant cruises. Swap behemoths for beautiful, traditional wooden ‘ketches’ or restored fishing boats. No swimming pools or casinos, but there will always be room on board for bikes, canoes, windsurf or surfboards. There will be a Captain’s Table, however, but given that there are rarely more than 12 passengers on board, he or she is there as everyone’s host. And he or she may also have taken you fishing earlier for dinner, or thrown down some lobster pots. We even know a skipper who dives down himself for scallops.

Our top trip

Skye and the Small Isles sailing vacation

Skye and the Small Isles sailing vacation

Sail Scotland's Small Isles and visit spectacular Skye

From £1520 to £2880 9 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2024: 16 Apr, 21 Apr, 10 May, 14 May, 3 Aug, 22 Aug, 7 Sep, 9 Sep
2025: 30 Apr, 4 May, 10 May, 20 May, 15 Jun, 31 Jul, 18 Aug, 19 Aug, 22 Aug, 5 Sep, 7 Sep, 9 Sep
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Scotland or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Where can I cruise to?

The skipper is also the person who dictates the route, because there are no real fixed itineraries on Scottish small ship cruises. In any case, nature is the real boss, so if the weather doesn’t permit you to get out to the outer of Outer Hebrides, then so be it. There will always be another pretty inlet or white sandy bay to discover when you are on a boat that can access the smallest and most sublime spots, especially when you are in the hands of a knowledgeable local skipper.

For the main part, however, the main routes to discover on these vacations are out to Skye and the Inner Hebrides, the Outer Hebrides and then, for something different, the Caledonian Canal, which is one of the finest coast to coast routes in the world. Cross land, but by water. Pure poetry.

Scottish sounds

The words you encounter on a small ship cruise in Scotland also drip off the tongue with bard like beauty. You will visit places like the Kyles of Bute, the Scots word for a narrow channel of water between the mainland and the Isle of Bute. Or a mull, which is a headland, most famously the Mull of Kintyre.

And finally, there are few things more poetic than the concept of sailing through sounds. Because there are ‘sounds’ everywhere, meaning a strait of water. The Sound of Mull, Sound of Jura or the Sound of Bute. And, as in the sublime nature writings of Jamie, the sounds of nature. These vacations really are soulful ones.

See our guide to small ship cruising vacations in Scotland for more details.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: kris1138] [Intro: Petr Meissner] [What are the small ships like?: pxhere] [Scottish sounds: Dave Conner]