From lighthouse service vessel to luxury hotel: Fingal’s voyage

Following a fantastic lighthouse cruise in June 2019 around the Inner Hebrides with some friends from the Association of Lighthouse Keepers, we left Oban and headed to Leith, Edinburgh’s port, along Ocean Drive, past the cruise terminal and Royal Yacht Britannia.  Here, in Alexandra Dock, we found Fingal, now permanently moored, looking graceful and majestic once more, beautifully painted in a deep navy with bright red waterline, and most importantly, the words FINGAL proudly adorning her bow and stern once more. 

I had arranged for a private tour of the ship, as she is featured in my book Lighthouse Accommodation Britain and Worldwide, which was re-launched earlier this year, so we were looking forward to our visit on board.

We walked along the cobbled path that flanked the dock, lined with bay trees and boarded the red carpeted gangplank to the beautifully finished wood doors.  Already we felt like VIPs, and inside didn’t disappoint.  We were greeted by a friendly receptionist who immediately made us feel welcome.  The spacious wood panelled lobby revealed a beautiful glass door lift ahead, its design clearly inspired by a lighthouse, with a sweeping spiral staircase alongside.

We were warmly greeted by Kirsty McKee, the Guest Relations Duty Manager, who proudly showed us around the ship, and we were pleased to see such craftsmanship and attention to detail as we were shown around.

Kirsty explained that she had been involved with the project since the previous year, and had been very much hands on with the refurbishment; indeed her passion and enthusiasm was evident.  Because there are only a small number of rooms, the personal attention from the staff is paramount.  She explained that when she had applied for the job, she had done her homework by reading the excellent book In Fingal’s Wake!

First we were escorted through the double doors from the lobby into the Ballroom, which was the former ship’s hold, and during her working life would have seen numerous buoys stored and maintained.  From the balcony, two sweeping staircases led down either side into a large wooden panelled function room, which was remarkably light.  Within the balustrades on the staircase were inset bullseye lenses.  The carpet had a large diamond pattern, to represent the astragals from a lighthouse lantern.  The colour of the panelling and flooring reflected off the beautiful hammered stainless steel ceiling which gave off a wonderful copper effect. A huge skylight let in plenty of daylight, big enough for a car to be lowered into this room from the deck above.  A display board along one side of the room showed the transformation of the ship from the date she was purchased, and during the restoration process.

Ballroom

Returning from the function room, we passed the beautiful bespoke circular art deco style glass lined lift, one of only a handful of this design in the world.  A spiral staircase wound around the outside of the lift taking guests to different decks.

Heading along the corridor on the lower deck we walked along a red carpeted glass floor and glass corridor, through which we could clearly see the engine room, which has been fully preserved.  Even the light fittings were original; it was so lovely to see that this aspect had been retained.  This glass corridor led to the cabins on this deck.

Walkway through the engine room

The theme throughout the ship was very much lighthouses, and it was heartening to learn that close consultation had taken place with the Northern Lighthouse Board during her reconstruction to ensure as much authenticity as possible.  Indeed all 23 cabins were named after lighthouses, chosen by the NLB, and each room had its name engraved on the wooden threshold.

We were first shown into the Rubha Nan Gall suite, one of two Luxury Duplex Cabins (the other being Ornsay).  Inside, the room was immaculate, with sloping wood lined walls and portholes, retaining the elegance and feel of being on board a ship.   Each headboard had been specifically made to display a location map depicting the position of the lighthouse of the room it was named after; in this case, the headland of Rubha Nan Gall on Mull.  These headboards had been finished by Transcal, who design the interior upholstery for luxury cars, including Rolls Royce.

Even the cushions and bed runner were unique, made in a specially hand woven tartan designed for Fingal by local weaver Araminta Campbell.  The design of the tartan depicted a thick white stripe to represent a lighthouse, a yellow band representing the beam, and other local colours were represented.

The flooring in the room and in the en-suite bathroom had diamonds to represent lighthouse astragals, with beautiful shimmering tiling, a free standing bath, engineered brass taps, and luxury bathroom products, and the shuttered blinds in the portholes were opened and closed by remote control.

We climbed the spiral staircase from the bedroom into a compact, cosy lounge above, which formed part of the duplex suite.  The wardrobes were covered with leather in the sea foam colour, which reflected the green colours used in the engine room when Fingal was in operation.  The leather wardrobe panels were made by Andrew Muirhead from Glasgow.

Even the curved mirror above the mini bar (stocked with local products) represented the prisms of a lighthouse optic, and the wooden chairs had been specially designed to look like the original engineers’ chairs.  

After visiting the Flannan Isles Suite, a Classic cabin (there are ten Classic cabins in total: Mull of Galloway, Fair Isle South, Start Point, Lismore, Isle of May, Muckle Flugga, Bass Rock, Neist Point, Cape Wrath and Flannan Isles), we were then shown around the Skerryvore Suite; this was the ultimate in luxury.  HRH The Princess Royal had stayed in this suite – sort of; when she visited the refurbished ship earlier in the year, she informed the staff that when she’d sailed aboard Fingal with the Lighthouse Commissioners, her cabin had actually been in what is now the en-suite bathroom of the Skerryvore Suite!

The Skerryvore Suite was the largest of all the cabins, with interlinking doors, should access be required to the adjoining cabin, and a private dining area.  Wooden doors opened out on to the teak lined foredeck allowing access to personal deck space towards the bow of the ship.   The headboard in Skerryvore, rather than depicting just the one lighthouse, showed all the major lighthouses featured in Fingal along the Scottish Coastline, though a Skerryvore panel was also displayed.

The beautiful panel in the Skerryvore Suite

In addition there were two Classic Duplex cabins: Kinnaird Head and Mull of Kintyre, and a further eight Luxury Cabins: Tarbat Ness, North Ronaldsay, Bell Rock, Monach Isles, Girdle Ness, Dubh Artach, Ardnamurchan and Hyskeir.   These all have doors leading out directly on to the side decks.

The Bridge above was another treat; this room could be used as a private dining room or meeting room, and various log books were displayed on the table, which we enjoyed browsing through; though curiously they were from the 1961 built NLV Pole Star.  On the table a beautiful silver cocktail shaker in the shape of a lighthouse made a stunning centrepiece, and various archive photos adorned the walls, alongside some exhibition cabinets.

Finally we were taken into the stunning Lighthouse Bar on the top deck.  Again the hammered copper effect ceiling and large windows made the room look very spacious and light, with glass bullseyes lining the bar.  Doors led out onto the top rear deck, where you could imagine lavish cocktail parties being held.  A sweeping spiral staircase from the outside deck led down to the deck below, which in turn led to the side doors of the cabins on that deck.

We were left to relax over a cup of coffee in the Lighthouse Bar, which is open to non-residents, subject to availability – of course guests get the first booking!

Unfortunately we were not staying this time, but we were treated to a tour of the nearby Royal Yacht Britannia, which was extremely interesting, and we spent several hours on board the beautifully restored ship on a wet Saturday afternoon.  We hope to return to Fingal one day, perhaps to celebrate a special occasion; it would certainly be a special treat!  She really is the height of luxury, and no expense has been spared in lovingly restoring her.

am grateful to Kirsty McKee and Fiona Strauss for their generosity and patience in answering my endless questions, and to Kirsty for her time in showing us around the beautiful ship.

Find out more about Fingal’s history

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