Responsible small ship cruising in Scotland

Marie McGhee from our Scottish cruise partner, The Majestic Line:
“We think that tourists should choose the kind of holiday that we provide as they get to use local resources, sample the wonderful local produce and meet local communities.”
Conservation is at the core of responsible tourism on the west coast of Scotland and, in particular, on small cruise ship holidays which take you into a veritable wilderness on water. We are not just talking marine conservation here, but cultural too. The Hebrides Islands, for example, have histories that go back thousands of years. Many of them were abandoned during the notorious Highland Clearances of 18th and 19th centuries, when aristocratic landlords evicted families, but also eradicated many aspects of Gaelic culture. Depopulation of these island idylls is still an ongoing issue and so, in order to conserve island and highland culture, we need to find a way to help people sustain a good livelihood. Tourism can be key to this, as long as it is responsible.

People & culture

Spreading the benefits of tourism

One of the advantages of small cruise holidays is that they not only allow you to moor in far flung places, but also to immerse yourself in local communities. Tourism on the small islands, or remote peninsular villages of mainland Scotland, is vital. Chefs and skippers on board your responsible cruises care deeply about sourcing ingredients locally, from salmon to scallops, vegetables to whisky. Or, for example, taking part in community arts events, for which the west of Scotland is famous. If you can time your visit accordingly, go and enjoy the local culture, at arts venues like Comar on the Isle of Mull, Camus on the Isle of Canna or Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre on North Uist. The other great thing about small ship cruises in Scotland is that the tour operators are very local themselves.
What you can do:
Buy your holiday souvenirs in villages where you drop anchor and don’t wait until the end of your trip to go to Edinburgh or Glasgow for a shopping trip. Whisky is always a great purchase, and there are distilleries on several islands such as Jura or Skye – as well as other foodie outlets, and plenty of knitwear ones too. Island shopping also gives you a good excuse to toast your trip with a toddy in each port.

Wildlife & environment

Fighting over fish

Colette Dubois co-founder at our Scotland cruising partner, St. Hilda Sea Adventures:
“Sometimes when I lie on the boat at night, and I can hear the seals doing their barking sound, I feel so sad to think that maybe our grandchildren will not hear that, or see that anymore. Overfishing is a big concern of ours.”

Some people would say that this isn’t a tourism issue, but given that many people eat fish on their travels, and indeed at home, it is a tourists’ issue. Cruise ship skippers will definitely have a strong view on the crisis of overfishing, how it not only affects food stocks and local income but also the whole marine environment as the impact trickles down into the depths below. The damage is, in fact, unfathomable. You will undoubtedly do a little bit of fishing on a small boat cruise, and mackerel is usually the catch of the day around Scotland. However, while a few years ago, you would catch six or eight easily, this is no longer the case – and the fish are a lot smaller. At the same time, giant fishing trawlers are out there with their trawling nets, many dredging for prawns. This is called bottom trawling, and it has the same effect on marine life as deforestation has on land-based wildlife. And yet, although most of wouldn’t think about buying something like ebony from a rainforest anymore, and may even endeavour to buy palm oil-free produce, many of us are still guilty of ignoring the sustainable fishing issues.
What you can do
Take this opportunity of sailing around a region that lives and breathes fish to really inform yourself about the issues. Think about the fish that you are buying back home, and look for line or pole caught when possible. Support conservation organisations while you are at it, because they are the ones trying to influence change at government level. Such as Greenpeace, and the Marine Conservation Society. Watch their videos, share with your friends and social media groups and change the way you do things. Because, as Greenpeace says, ‘No fish, no future’.

The big maritime mess

Beach pollution will definitely be a dinner conversation on board your small ship cruise around these highlands and islands. The amount of rubbish at sea and on the beaches is now very dramatic and is definitely an issue for many.

And although not all the beaches are strewn with litter, these photos from Greenpeace are a wakeup call. Scotland was ahead of the game in terms of putting a tax on plastic bags and, in doing so, eliminating them from the plastic pile of poison going into the sea. However, according to recent Greenpeace research, 93 percent of people in Scotland are concerned about the effect of plastic litter in the ocean on marine wildlife and birds. Which is why Greenpeace is campaigning to put a deposit scheme on plastic bottles.

What you can do
Change your behavior regarding your own personal pollution of our oceans. Not just when you are on this holiday but also at home. Stop using products containing marine life killers known as microbeads. Don’t wear makeup, sun creams and moisturisers that contain harmful chemicals, especially when you are swimming. Don’t use wasteful, single-use plastic such as straws or cotton buds. And don’t use plastic water bottles, ever, if you can avoid them, buy a stainless steel one instead. There is also the notion of neoprene in wetsuits to consider, not so much because of what the fabric does to the water but the impact they have when you dispose of them to landfill. At present, the thought is that limestone neoprene wetsuits last two to three times longer than oil based neoprene ones. So they are your better option. And, last not but not least, of course, support the work of Greenpeace. Yet another reason to do so.

Responsible tourism tips

Keeping Scotland's small cruise industry ship shape

Always listen to the skipper’s instructions to respect the safety of your fellow passengers and crew, as well as protecting the environment. Follow the instructions of your guide when you go on land for excursions, as you may go hiking through some environmentally sensitive areas. Such as at the RSPB Reserve at Balranald on North Uist, or the South Laggan Site of Special Scientific Interest on Loch Oich, along the Caledonian Canal. Many islands that are en route are uninhabited and so always tread carefully in these highly pristine areas. If you are ‘agin’ the giant cruise ships industry, as we are at Responsible Travel, you can support the big charities that are working to change it such as Friends of the Earth. However, you can also support and donate to very local conservation charities specific to an island or small region of Scotland. Ask your skipper for more details. This might be through a quick one off donation, or by just promoting their good conservation work on social media. Wind turbines are an issue in Scotland and the west coast and islands are no exception to this. They upset a lot of people and you will hear them being talked about by many locals. Some think they are ugly. Others, such as the islanders of South Uist who led a community buyout to purchase 93,000 acres of their own land and also their neighbours, Benbecula and Eriskay (from absent landlords), now generate a lot of income from wind energy for their communities.
John Hutchison, Chairman of John Muir Trust, an historic charity protecting wild spaces: “From various polls, particularly in the Highlands and Islands, people clearly feel enough is enough. The John Muir Trust is most definitely not an anti-wind turbine organisation. We are a pro wild land organisation and our main concern is where they are being sited. Our worry is the intrusion on wild land. And the fact that international speculators and huge energy companies can profit from our landscape.”
Do NOT feed or touch the wildlife. And when taking photos of animals, such as dolphins, do not use flash photography. Read more of our whale and dolphin watching holiday guidelines for more detailed information on this subject. Another great source of information is Scottish Natural Heritage, which discusses specific wildlife watching guidelines. Please don’t remove shells or stones from the beaches. Many travellers like to bring their bikes on board, so that they can go cycling on islands or along canal towpaths. Particularly with the latter, such as on the Caledonian Canal, please cycle responsibly. So, slow your pace and share the space.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: kris1138] [Hebrides culture: summonedbyfells] [Whisky: Tjeerd Wiersma] [Fishing boat: Marco Bellucci]