Scotland Small Ship Cruises

Small Ships in Scotland

Explore famous Glens and Lochs and see the raw beauty of the Hebridean Islands.

Scottish cruises are the ultimate escape into wild northern lands brimming with light, life, and majesty. Cruises around Scotland have so many different destinations to choose from that you could literally return year after year and always be surprised.

What makes Scotland stand out over other popular cruise countries is its castles and its archaeological and paleontological relics of long-gone human societies and longer-gone prehistoric plants and animals, even back to the dinosaurs! Another stand-out, unique feature of Scottish cruising is the system of man- and nature-made lochs which can transport your ship through the heart of the highlands. In terms of scenery and wildlife, cruising Scotland is as mind-blowing as any other top-tier cruise destination on Earth, with mountains, beaches, whales, and thousands of birds.

Best Scottish cruises and areas to visit

Inner Hebrides

Just off Scotland’s west coast, these plentiful islands enjoy the shelter of the Outer Hebrides farther west, which endow them with calm waters perfect for exploring the shorelines’ nooks and crannies. Wildlife, castles, fossils, and an explosion of varied landscapes wait in store.

Isle of Mull - Hebridean cruises often take advantage of the myriad offerings around Mull. This large island in the center of the Inner Hebrides gives you access to a smattering of everything that makes the western isles of Scotland so attractive. Its main town Tobermory enlivens your journey with colorful harbor-front buildings, specialty food, and local craft shops. As you slowly circumvent the island and bounce around its smaller neighbors, you can see an old castle, forested slopes, sand and shingle beaches, plenty of cetaceans (Minke whales, dolphins, seals, and otters), and other wildlife like Basking Sharks, nesting puffins, and eagles.

Isle of Skye - This largest of the inner Hebrides islands is an ancient volcano with bizarre, geologically intricate rock formations to tempt climbers and geologists. The islands of its inner sound (between Skye and mainland Scotland) exhibit picturesque caves and inlets, gorgeous harbours, and breathtaking mountain panoramas of Skye’s imposing Cuillin range. Wildlife abounds here, with otter, deer, white-tailed eagles, and a variety of cetaceans. Skye also flaunts its fossilized dinosaur skeletons! You can also comb the beach for fossils if you want to play paleontologist.

Isle of Islay - When Scottish boat cruises visit the Isle of Islay, southernmost in the Hebrides, it’s not just for the famous local whisky. Cruising the Isle of Islay area, which includes the indented coastline of Argyll, yields rewarding natural sights- lush forests on one island, stark mountains on another, and plenty of wildlife in the sea and air. Islay is an important historical seat of power in the Hebridean region, and its storied artifacts and ruins bring the centuries of royal drama to life for visitors who wander the area.

Outer Hebrides

This wind-washed chain of islands battered by the Atlantic swell is a premier Scottish cruise destination. The feeling of wildness in landscape and animal life is extreme, along with some unique softer features like the blooming machair (flowering, grassy dunes) which stretch along the shoreline.

Mingulay and Vatersay - Hebridean cruises find a reliable favorite in Mingulay island, which sports a stunning beach, an abandoned village, and a couple hundred Grey seals who waddle up onto the shore at night. The seals call to each other, assumedly to make sure that the beach is safe; you will likely never forget their haunting song resonating in the gathering darkness. Vatersay island has some of the best beaches in the western isles of Scotland, with two white, sandy expanses drifting into the distance from a hilltop viewpoint. The blooming machair here is some of the best.

St. Kilda - No small ship cruise in the Outer Hebrides is complete without visiting the archipelago of St. Kilda. These rocky cliffs and sea stacks (promontories which jut from the ocean) host over two hundred species of birds, and the nesting grounds on the archipelago are extremely important. Your Scottish cruise may even try to spend up to two full days in the St. Kilda area, but be prepared that inclement weather can make it impossible to even reach the place.

Shiant Islands - The Shiants have been described as a miniature St. Kilda, but they lie closer to the Scottish mainland and are therefore more accessible! As on St. Kilda, thousands of seabirds nest in the Shiant Islands’ rocky cliffs. The Shiants also boast an eye-poppingly beautiful horseshoe bay and multiple archaeological sites.

Shetland and Orkney Islands - Some cruises around Scotland venture even farther north than Scotland’s northern tip- the lands beyond are the Orkney and Shetland Islands. These island groups are culturally connected to ancient Scandinavian peoples and traditions; they were actually part of Scandinavia until around the 1500s. Archaeological ruins are top-notch in this area. There are neolithic villages, museums, restored lighthouses, and bird observatories. Local wildlife includes puffins, petrels, otters, orcas, and plenty others.

Lochs of Scotland via Caledonian Canal - Scottish boat cruises have a unique opportunity to travel through land- along the man-made Caledonian Canal which connects Scotland’s north tip to the western Hebrides area, joining the many famous lochs of the area into one navigable system from coast to coast.

Loch Linnhe - Small ship cruises around Scotland find a perfect venue in Loch Linnhe near the southern end of the Caledonian Canal. Here, you’ve got the opportunity to see dolphins, seals, and White-tailed eagles under the eaves of ancient castles and dramatic mountains. As you travel north along the canal, you’ll arrive in the shadow of great Ben Nevis, a huge mountain peak.

Loch Ness - Cruising Loch Ness, of sea monster fame, is actually more striking for what’s above water than what’s supposedly swimming in the depths. This loch is so enormous that it can feel like the open sea. There are dramatic castles overlooking the loch’s expanse, waterfalls you can walk to, and Golden eagles and ospreys soaring above. The nearby town of Fort Augustus offers informative exhibits at visitors’ centers and a good choice of cosy inns from which you can watch the loch opening and closing.

Loch Lochy and Loch Oich - Cruising Loch Lochy, you may hear the sounds of red deer rutting in the nearby hills. There’s local trout and pike to fish for and a good chance of spotting nimble red squirrels in the trees lining the canal. Birds like Sedge Warbler and Reed Bunting ornament the banks around here and Loch Oich, a beautiful stretch of water which marks the highest point of the canal. In this area, your ship will climb or descend through the controlled water levels of the loch system, passing one notable stretch called “Neptune’s Staircase.”

Wildlife in the Western Isles of Scotland - Birds, marine mammals, and a few large marine fish are what make Scotland cruises unforgettable. The area’s birdlife offer puffins, petrels, great skuas, shearwaters, eagles and fulmars. Marine mammal life includes Harbour porpoise, Common and Risso’s dolphin, orca, humpback, and Minke whale, Grey and common seals, and otter. To top it off, look for oceanic sunfish and Basking sharks.

Best time to cruise in Scotland

The best time to visit Scotland is summer. Hebridean cruises run from April through September. Scotland in April, May, and June is the season for nesting puffins (on the Isle of Mull, for example). In September, the Basking sharks and many whale species arrive, except for Minke whales, who come from July onwards. But most of the wildlife that enlivens your small ship cruise around Scotland is present all season, including porpoises, dolphins, otters, White-tailed eagles and Golden eagles, to name just a few.

How to get to Scotland

Glasgow is the most convenient city to fly into from overseas. This is a big airport with many convenient flights from all over the world. If you’re already in Scotland, you can fly from another United Kingdom airport to Glasgow or even take a train or bus.

Where do Scottish cruises depart from?

Many Scottish cruises depart from Oban, a city perfectly positioned for access to the Hebrides and Caledonian Canal. To get to Oban, take a scenic train, or car or bus, from Glasgow. If your cruise departs from Inverness, there’s a small Inverness airport you can fly to. If necessary, your cruise operator will likely arrange or help you arrange transport from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, the third potential departure point for small ship cruises in Scotland’s Western Isles.

Scottish Cruise Tips

  • Plan ahead - The best trips fill up early, so make sure to research your ideal Scottish cruise destination ahead of time and reserve while there’s space. Choose the trip that speaks to your passions, whether they be lochs, castles, marine life, birdlife, mountains, or beaches.
  • What to pack - Weather in the northwestern reaches of Scotland can be changeable and stormy, even in summer. Make sure you have raingear and warm layers so you can brave the elements to watch the show of wind, light, and clouds whipping across the sky.

Contact our reservations team today to arrange your next cruise to the Scottish Hebridean Islands.

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