Cruising Orkney, Shetland & St Kilda

We set off last Sunday on a week’s cruise courtesy of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) around the islands of northern Scotland: Orkney, Shetland and St Kilda.  This was a bit of a dream for both of us since we’d never been to Orkney or Shetland before and were really looking forward to it.  Sadly, although all the places we visited were amazing, the ship was a major letdown in all sorts of ways.

Obviously, the NTS don’t run a fleet of cruise liners themselves, so when they want to organise their once- or twice-yearly cruises they charter a ship from somebody else.  Four years ago we did another trip with them, to the Western Isles, and they borrowed a boat from Saga for the week.  This worked really well.  The ship was small enough to be intimate (and to get into some otherwise unreachable ports), and the Scottish captain and crew knew the waters like their own high streets and were able to improvise when necessary.

This time, we were on a ship called the MV Berlin, owned by a German outfit called FTI Cruises and staffed by a motley crew from a dizzying array of countries.  We’d never heard of them before, but bolstered by previous NTS experience, were perfectly happy to give it a go.  Bad move!  The first inkling that everything might not be perfect came when we saw our cabin – small, drab, and so lacking in storage that I lived out of a holdall all week.  Then the food at dinner was unappetising.  Of course, those are only niggles (although, at the price we’d paid for the holiday, expensive niggles), but worse was to come when the ship had to be lugged out of Leith harbour backwards by not one but two tugs – one yanking, the other shoving.  This didn’t bode well for the state of the ship’s thrusters, and other equally important bits of equipment proved not to be working later on, as you will see!

It got worse.  The crew seemed to be either inexperienced or poorly trained and didn’t function well as a team, whilst the captain made some decisions that could only be described as bizarre, like taking the ship through the Pentland Firth (a notorious strip of water between Orkney and the northern tip of Scotland) in a force eight gale without working stabilisers, and allowing passengers ashore on St Kilda without checking the local tide timetables first.  Both of those had Serious Consequences; more details in the next few days…

In the end we’ve seen some wonderful places that we wouldn’t otherwise have managed to get to, so from that point of view the trip was a success.  Hoy and Skara Brae in Orkney; Fetlar and Lerwick in Shetland; and the fishing port of Peterhead on the Scottish mainland were all fascinating in very different ways, with archaeology, museums, shops, scenery, and coastal walks that we absolutely loved.  We took hundreds of photos, and have made a mental note to go back to both Kirkwall and Lerwick again in the not-to-distant future, perhaps even with the NTS.

We won’t, however, be setting foot on the MV Berlin again!

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