Looking for somewhere new and unusual to stay? Lysanne Currie is full of praise for the Royal Yacht Britannia’s exquisitely converted lighthouse ship in Edinburgh’s historic port of Leith
IF YOU’VE EVER BEEN lulled to sleep by Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast, your imagination has probably taken you to the rugged coast and islands of Scotland. Now you can make your journey around Malin, Hebrides, Dogger and the like by booking a cabin on the floating boutique hotel, Fingal – a former Northern Lighthouse Board ship, and younger sister to the nearby Royal Yacht Britannia, now permanently moored in the historic port of Leith in Edinburgh, the largest deep-water port in Scotland.
The final ship to be built (for £448,000) by Glasgow’s famous Blythswood Ship Building Company, but originally registered in Leith, Fingal successfully made her maiden voyage on 13 January 1963, from Greenock to Oban. “The ship proved herself to be most comfortable and a very good sea boat,” reported Northern Lighthouse Board Secretary W Alastair Robertson. “Indeed, it is true to say that all concerned are most satisfied with her.” And for the next 30 years, she navigated rocky inlets and stormy seas from the Isle of Man to Oban and Skye, in the days before the Northern Lighthouse Board had helicopters, ferrying lighthouse keepers, equipment and supplies to perilous and stormy Scottish locations.
She has a complex etymology; her name can be traced back to Oisin or Ossian, the son of an ancient Caledonian king, who purportedly authored a cycle of epic poems featuring the Irish folk hero Fingal, very loosely based on Fionn mac Cumhaill, a legendary Celtic bard. That’s the story according to Scottish poet James MacPherson, who first published the poems in 1761. An eponymous sea cave on the uninhabited island of Staffa is also supposedly named after MacPherson’s / Ossian’s hero.
Fingal certainly made an impression on her future owner, Royal Yacht Britannia Trust CEO Bob Downie, who was born in Oban and had grown up watching her travelling back and forth as she worked. And there’s many an Edinburgh local with family ties to Fingal, and the lighthouses she serviced. In her final six years, she serviced Orkney and Shetland, was retired in 2000, and then ended up in the hands of a private owner, who carefully maintained her for the next 14 years, before Britannia purchased her in 2014.
Now back in Leith, she has been transformed into an exquisitely crafted floating hotel by Edinburgh’s Royal Yacht Enterprises, who have invested £5million to preserve her rich history and “transform the Scottish hotel scene.” After being developed by the Pedley Group (they’ve installed some 180,000 hotel rooms in 61 countries for leading hotel groups includ-ing IHG, Hyatt, Hilton and Marriott) the boutique attraction was launched in January 2019. And what a beauty she is.
Luxury here comes in the incredible attention to detail: everything has been considered, from the stunning whole calf skin wardrobe to Fingal’s ‘trident’ logo, the weapon of the Greek sea god Poseidon, initially fixed to the bow of the ship during her time with the Northern Lighthouse Board and now found on the handles to the Noble Isle toiletries in the shower and the nautical taps and hooks. Even the original teak from the working ship has been restored and relaid across the decks, while the glass lift in reception has been designed to resemble the top of a lighthouse.
All 23 rooms, including classic and luxury cabins, the duplexes and a ‘penthouse’ suite with private deck, are named after lighthouses designed by the Stevenson family, that have served the coastline since 1811. I stayed in Bell Rock, which stands off the coast of Angus, Scotland and is the world’s oldest surviving sea-washed lighthouse, built between 1807 and 1810 by Robert Stevenson. Its portrait has been stitched above the huge bed. And upon those beds lie exquisite woven bedspreads, created by Scottish textile designer Araminta Campbell and complete with patterns representing a lighthouse and its light, the sea, and the land of Scotland, with all its rich colours. In fact, all her interiors have been inspired by the Scottish landscape, from soft sea greens to rich burgundy tones, with accents of brass.
Each room contains a replica of Fingal’s original Radio Controller’s chair (Princess Anne has the original) and the suite hosts the original log books from Fingal’s service days. (Plus, a more modern smart TV, Wi-Fi and underfloor heating.) Every one of those rooms is a different shape too, the cabins following the lines of the ship, while not a single piece of on-board joinery is the same.
Down a sweeping staircase, in the bow of the ship, you’ll find a spectacular ballroom with stage in the ship’s former hold. There’s even a retractable roof (cars can be lowered into the room!) while the aforementioned Lighthouse Bar has full-length windows, that fabulous ceiling, and sumptuous leather chairs. Non-residents can come and just have a drink, but need to book in advance.
Given it’s the sister ship, you can also plan events with the Royal Yacht Britannia, just 10 minutes away. It’s a terrific tourist destination – even if you’re not a royalist – by day, while at night the Queen’s dining room can be hired for private dining before a waterside stroll back to your cosy cabin at the Fingal. The latter’s menu is worth staying in for too, serving delicious local, seasonal fare. And don’t miss the afternoon tea where you can feast on the likes of truffled potato and parmesan tart, and smoked salmon with arragon mustard. Just remember to take a moment to gaze upwards at the bar’s undulating copper ceiling that looks like a horizontal cascade of rippling tidewater, transporting you back to the freedom of the seas once again.
A stay at Fingal costs £300 per night based on two people sharing, including VAT and a full Scottish breakfast.
T: +44 (0)131 3575000