In 2021, Rob Barlow, Skipper and Owner of Hebrides Cruises celebrates a personal 25 years introducing guests to cruising the Hebrides. On July 29th 2021, Rob will also celebrate his 250th trip to St Kilda. From a modest beginning in 1996, Rob now runs a thriving cruising business. Here are his thoughts on how he got to be where he is now.
“Hebrides Cruises is without doubt a family run business; it is also a way of life. We all put in so very much to make it the best it possibly can be. My daughter Emma has great communication, administrative and organisational skills in her multiple roles of Shore Manager, Marketing, Administration and Guest Communications. My son-in-law James is a great Skipper with vast wildlife knowledge and fantastic photographic and video skills. My Wife Mairi is a support to us all, so grounded when providing sound advice and family help. For myself, I would like to think the sharing of my maritime knowledge of the Hebrides and the mechanical upkeep of the vessels, much of it hard-won at times, has helped our success. Our excellent crew put in so much loyal effort, having been with us for many years. The boats themselves are part of this family and we invest in them to get the best results for our guests. This reflects in the comments about the boats and crew we get from our guests, many returning year on year”.
When Rob started a cruising business in 1996, he had already been living in Tobermory on Mull for 20 years, earning a living hand-diving for scallops and providing marine services to commercial diving companies. He has always had a deep-rooted passion for the sea and seeing the devastation that the scallop dredging boats were causing on the sea bed started a lifelong interest in protecting the marine environment. By the early 1990s, Rob had his own boat “Sundown”, for hand-diving scallops from Skye to Islay – there was no better way to really get to know the Hebrides. Rob says,
“The variety of wildlife below and above the water has always been a fascination to me and I quickly realised how they are inextricably linked. To watch a black guillemot ‘fly’ past you chasing sand eels while diving was an early memorable experience that made me realise this”
In 1996 Rob started taking guests out on group charters on a boat called “Chalice”. These were often people interested in diving, where St Kilda was a favoured destination. 25 years ago, Rob was still learning the ropes, he says,
“I remember the first time heading through the Sound of Harris in May 1997, a supposedly notorious stretch of water with many shallows and reefs, strong tides and a warning in the pilot book to ‘avoid if possible’ it was a glorious day, blue skies, flat calm and aquamarine coloured water. It didn’t seem to be notorious at all. But the next time, in strong winds and a big swell running, I realised it was definitely a place to respect. Since then, having travelled many thousands of miles around and through the Western Isles, I have met many local fishermen and boat operators that have shown nothing but kindness and given so much invaluable advice and help. It is in their nature to be helpful because they live and know the sea so well, with all its different moods”
Encouraged by the number of people interested in exploring the Hebrides, Rob purchased a vessel in 2001 which set his standard for safety, reliability and comfort in transporting guests to the far corners of the Hebrides. Poplar Diver was a 70ft Clyde Class lifeboat, the first one to be built from steel and where the lifeboat crew could live aboard. Poplar Diver had been expertly converted for guests onboard and as well as providing trips for tourists, the vessel was chartered regularly by the National Trust for Scotland to take volunteers to St Kilda. Other charters included seabird surveys, sometimes over a period of four years which served to increase Rob’s fascination and education about the wildlife of the Hebrides from the experts he encountered.
In 2004 Rob sold Poplar Diver and bought Elizabeth G, a Norwegian-built rescue ship. His focus on taking people out to the seas of the Hebrides was that guests should be on board sturdy ocean-going naval vessels, which are built for safety, reliability and horsepower. People wanted to visit St Kilda and Rob had the boat to take them there. He says
“There is a great feeling of achievement every time we get out to St.Kilda. Its sea cliffs, huge numbers of birds, so many types of cetaceans and its history all combine to make it a unique, mysterious and magnetic place. Every time I get there, I see it in a different and new way. The sense of achievement comes, I think, from being able to take our guests out there and tour the islands and Stacs. Getting in close to the likes of Stac Lee pointing out where the Kilda men landed and unbelievably managed to climb! Putting the nose of the boat, within metres of the shore with the 1600 foot cliffs of Conachor, the highest point on St.Kilda towering above us. A lot of this navigational information came from men like Angus and Murdo both Lewis men, both sharing their knowledge with me”
In 2014 Rob launched a new company, “Hebrides Cruises” to offer a calendar of cruise itineraries with a focus on wildlife encounters, with a wildlife expert on board every cruise. Rob has always had a close relationship with the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust and the company is a Corporate Partner. In 2015, the Trust ran a pilot project with Hebrides Cruises to find a way to record more cetacean sightings. This resulted in the impressive Whale Track project which provides important data on sightings. Rob says
“I would like to think that the data we provide to, and our liaison with, the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust helps protect the huge variety and unique marine wildlife that we encounter on our cruises”
Elizabeth G has been continually updated over the past 17 years and is now providing a luxury cruising experience with 4 double ensuite cabins and spacious decks. She has become a much-loved vessel by guests who return to cruise on her, year after year. In 2017, a second vessel was added to the fleet and in 2018 was renamed Emma Jane, after Rob’s daughter. Emma Jane is also an ocean-going vessel and when purchased was already converted to a luxury mini-cruise ship, carrying 8 guests in double ensuite cabins and 2 guests in a master cabin suite. She is very spacious, with external decks on 3 levels - there is even a hot tub.
With 2021 looking like a season of cruising might be possible, Rob still anticipates going to sea with a sense of excitement, even after 25 years. He says,
“There is still the thrill of getting out on the water, going to some of the remotest parts of the Western Isles, ‘dropping the hook’ in a beautiful anchorage, watching a heron fly gracefully by, listening to the roar of a stag ashore high up on the hill - maybe just catching his silhouette. Or having dolphins playfully cavorting round the boat, snorting and blowing. These are just some of the things that I have experienced, with numerous guests, many times. The ability to land on and explore some of the remotest and wildest islands in Scotland is such a major part of what we do. Then to return to such a welcoming, cosy ship to enjoy an excellent meal with newfound friends. Ending a great day of adventure with a wee dram in hand, sitting on the ‘Top Deck’ and watching the sunset is what we will all remember"