How to choose a small ship cruise in Scotland

First things first: you need to decide what’s important to you when choosing a small ship cruise in Scotland. Do you want to see whales and orca, or is it seal colonies and fish eagles you’re after? Is the boat size or having a cabin with an en-suite bathroom important? Perhaps the location is vital: you’ve always wanted to travel along the Caledonian Canal or island-hop in the Outer Hebrides. Read our guide to find out the three questions that’ll help you choose a small ship cruise in Scotland that’s right for you.

1. What do I want to do on my cruise?

Many cruises in Scotland pick a theme and stick with it, like wildlife watching or cruising the Caledonian Canal. The passenger list will reflect the theme, too. Like attracts like so, depending on the theme of the cruise, you’ll (sometimes literally) knock elbows with eagle-eyed wildlife enthusiasts, landscape painters with acrylic-dipped fingertips, or families and their free-range kids. Pair that with a captain and guides who specialise in the waves and whims of area, and you won’t be short on conversation starters.
Wildlife watching cruises
When you first glimpse the real sea beasts of Scotland off the bow of your boat, you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about Nessie. People should be chatting about the dolphins, whales, basking sharks, orca and seals that carouse Scotland’s many coastlines instead. Some of our best wildlife watching cruises in Scotland pair wildlife sailings with hikes around the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides, where gold eagles screech, otters play in the lochs, and you can join conservationists observing minke whales. Other wildlife cruises keep you on board for a week, so you can see the variety of marine life across a range of remote islands, lochs and open water.
Painting & art cruises
Painting holidays in Scotland are unruffled by changing weather and tides. Experienced captains create flexible itineraries that chase the best light and calmest bays that day. All you have to do is take a seat at your on-deck desk already stocked with whatever materials you need. These cruises host experienced watercolour and sketching tutors such as the award-winning Scottish artist Anthea Gage. All painting and drawing materials are included and the landscapes are delivered to you; you’ll wake up in a different spot – from Fingal’s Cave in Staffa to the white sands of Iona – each day.
Photography cruises
The prolific wildlife photographer and filmmaker Gordon Buchanan was inspired by his home, the Isle of Mull. You’ll see why on our Scotland photography cruises, which also head for the Hebrides and its ever-changing scenes of wildlife, waves and weather. A tutor will be on hand for lessons and tips, plus the main cruise ship will be equipped with sea kayaks and a smaller boat to zoom you in on cackling kittiwake colonies and stranded seal beaches. Photographers can also consider choosing an untutored cruise that improvises an itinerary around a few days in autumn or spring, when the choppy weather creates a changeable itinerary and dramatically lit landscapes.
History & tradition cruises
Some cruises focus on the history and traditions of Scotland more than others. A cruise down the Caledonian Canal is a masterclass in how the Scottish engineer Thomas Telford created a safe passage from south-westerly Corpach to north-easterly Inverness via a chain of 29 locks. Other cruises stretch your legs in the crumbling castles and Victorian gardens of South Argyll or explore the malt whisky islands of Islay, Jura and Mull, where distilleries sit between fishing communities.

2. Which part of Scotland should I go to?

Sometimes, you have your heart set on a place. The Hebrides are a popular route for wild coastlines and far-flung island communities. The Inner Hebrides includes the isles of Mull, Skye, Eigg and the Small Isles. The Outer Hebrides (also known as the Western Isles) are a longer voyage away from the mainland – about 10-12 days in total. As such, you can expect more remote scenes like the Barra Isles, where Viking sagas played out across white dunes, and Uist, a sextet of raggedy islands with empty beaches and moors traipsed by weatherproofed Highland cows. Some cruise ships venture even further, to the towering sea cliffs of volcanic St Kilda.
Cruises along the Caledonian Canal set a sedate pace. You’ll share the 97km-long route from Corpach to Inverness with idle boaters and canalside wanderers. However, the neat, ingeniously engineered locks and canal are only a third of the route. The rest is made up of mountain-framed lochs that dot the canals like huge, really scenic pearls on a string. South Argyll also pairs modern human history and a picturesque coastline.
Some small ship cruises circumnavigate an island, so that you get to know every nook and cranny. Mull is often the isle of choice, escaping the big cruise ships in Tobermory and circling the island and surrounding isles via Iona Abbey, Duart Castle and the puffins of Lunga.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Scotland cruising or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

3. Which type of ship should I choose?

Waterparks, zip lines, ice rinks, theatres… Big cruise ships often seem to be a constant game of one-upmanship. Thankfully, we only offer small ship cruises to Scotland: all the better for sliding silently into seal bays and dropping anchor in five-home harbours.

Our Scottish cruise specialists St Hilda Sea Adventures have three boats on their books that give you a good idea of the cross-section of small cruise ships sailing in Scotland. You might choose the eponymous St Hilda, a tall ship built in Fife. Boats like this are roomy enough for a communal saloon, six cabins (including a double with an en-suite) and storage for sea kayaks and paddle boards.

Ships tend to get smaller from there. An old Norwegian ferry holds up to 11 guests and includes a high foredeck for wildlife watching. Other boats have great backstories. The Gemini Explorer is a retired lifeboat that helped rescue 44 people in its working days; these days, the hull is a Tetris board of double, twin and single cabins.
Other cruise specialists we work with use restored fishing vessels brought back from the brink using recycled materials. There’s a converted wooden trawler that’s enjoying its retirement as a leisure yacht exploring the wriggling coastline around Glasgow, too. Its cosy size shrinks passenger lists down to seven people.
Families are welcome on most small ship cruises in Scotland. Colette Duboise, co-owner of our partners St Hilda Sea Adventures, explains: “It is lovely to see young children on board, who are so fresh, enthusiastic and wanting to learn and anticipate… On a couple of occasions, we had teenagers on board who were about to choose their university degrees, and after discussing things with Michael, the skipper, they changed their minds and did something else! And they wrote to us later on to tell us, which was wonderful.”
There are also private charters. The price might make your eyes water, but you’ll get the whole crewed ship for yourself and up to 35 people; it’s definitely on the larger end of small ship cruising in Scotland. Your itinerary is tailored to suit your group and gourmet meals are cooked using fresh Scottish ingredients and recipes.
Photo credits: [Page banner: kris1138] [Wildlife: Conor Lawless] [Photography: Nils Leonhardt] [Which parts: Paolo Chiabrando] [Type of ship: St Hilda]