'An epic land of brooding peaks and big skies': Exploring the Firth of Clyde on a converted trawler

Robin McKelvie
The Kyles of Bute, which Robin and his fellow passengers were reluctant to leave - Copyright: Victoria Wilkinson Brownless 2014

Hitching a ride around Scotland’s Firth of Clyde on a converted North Sea trawler was quite the adventure, writes Robin McKelvie

As our wooden vessel eases into a long forgotten anchorage, a brace of porpoises break the still waters in the peachy gloaming light. It looks shallow and a hearty wind is forecast overnight, but we’re in safe hands. Our skipper Iain Duncan learned to row as soon as he could walk, here in the Firth of Clyde. He has spent a lifetime exploring this epic land of brooding peaks and big skies, an oasis he is now sharing with a new generation of ‘doon the watter’ adventurers at the helm of his grand old Splendour.

“You just cannae beat the Firth of Clyde,” enthuses Iain at the helm, his sweep of white hair like a breaking wave. “The Clyde is sheltered, with little swell and alive with wildlife. Then there are the Victorian-era resort towns like Dunoon and Rothesay, castles, beaches and superb walks.”

As the classic diesel engine chugs us out of Argyll Cruising’s family-run base at Holy Loch it’s easy to see what so entrances Iain about the Firth of Clyde. The craggy coastline is peppered with starched white beaches, plunging cliffs and hidden caves. The slender fingers of the sea lochs that split the rugged mountains lend it the air of the Norwegian fjords rather than an estuary just a stone’s throw from Glasgow.

The Firth of Clyde’s natural beauty is accompanied by a sense of trawling through a timewarp. Now a quiet oasis, it was once alive with a flotilla of paddle steamers in the days when Glaswegian holidaymakers ferried ‘doon the watter’ rather than jetting off to the Spanish Costas.

Splendour at sea Credit: Robin Mckelvie

As we join the porpoises slipping south along the sinewy Isle of Bute, the scenery feels grandly cinematic: ice calm water, a cloud peppered sky and heather-clad gnarly hills. A fact not lost on Lord Richard Attenborough who owned a hideaway here overlooking the Kyles of Bute narrows.

We spend our first overnight anchorage there, in a quiet cove protected from on all sides. We are just inside the Highlands, but we see more guillemots than people.

My fellow passengers – we are half a dozen (the Splendour only ever takes a maximum of eight) – are reluctant to leave the Kyles the next morning. The Firth of Clyde itself is a hard place to leave.

Iain can’t. Born at Stonefield Castle on the banks of Loch Fyne he tried to move to Scotland’s northeast. “I couldn’t do it, I just had to come back here. Handily I got a job as an engineer with a small ship cruise company who were pioneering Clyde cruises. When they moved further north I saw an opportunity.”

Iain seized it by searching for his own vessel, an old North Sea trawler, who celebrated her 60th birthday in 2019.

Loch Riddon and the Isle of Bute Credit: Getty

Argyll Cruising fashioned a quintet of comfy en suite cabins in the 20m long Splendour. The cosy lounge is the social hub and culinary wonders emerge from the tiny galley. We’re talking lashings of local produce, such as scallops landed in Oban and smoked fish from Argyll Smokery in Dunoon, backed up by Loch Fyne Ales and coffee roasted in the Kyles of Bute.

Iain is always welcoming at the bridge, a great vantage point for wildlife viewing. “Last year we had a pod of orcas in the Clyde and I’ve had minke whales cutting right under us and humpbacks breaching just ahead.” he beams.

“People think you have to struggle all the way out to St Kilda to see world class wildlife, but it’s all here especially around Ailsa Craig”.

Heading back to Holy Loch after three nights cosseted aboard I jokingly complain I’ve not seen an otter. Seconds later a sleek dark body breaks the surface dead ahead and then the cheeky wee whiskered face of an adult otter beams back at us. Iain smiles, but doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t need to. He knows the Firth of Clyde better than anyone and he knows that she wins hearts all by herself.

A three-night ‘Kyles and the Isles’ on April 11, 2020 on the Splendour starts from £920pp (from £6,010 private charter) with all meals, wine with dinner and excursions inclusive (argyllcruising.com).

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