Decommissioned from active service as a vessel that carried supplies to Scotland’s most inaccessible and remote lighthouses, Fingal enjoys a new incarnation as a glamorous five-star floating hotel, says Lucy Cleland.
Review: Fingal, Scotland’s First Luxury ‘Floating’ Ship
Only 30 minutes notice is given to staff before Princess Anne – or indeed any of the royals, but the Princess Royal in particular loves her boats – comes to stay aboard Fingal, now a luxury hotel yacht permanently docked in Leith port, Edinburgh. She even brought her mother, the Queen, for dinner with her once in 2019 – a thank you letter for the ‘tremendous success’ from Vice Admiral Tony Johnstone-Burt, Master of the Household of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, hangs on the wall at reception. Princess Anne herself always stays in the Skerryvore Suite (the penthouse) and generously dines with any guests who happen to be staying there at the time.
Fingal’s history is long and her endurance as Scotland’s only luxury floating hotel is thanks to The Royal Yacht Britannia Trust, who bought her in 2014 after she had been sold privately. She was originally launched in 1963, the last ship built by the Blythswood Shipbuilding Company in Glasgow for the Northern Lighthouse Board, of which The Princess Royal was also patron. Fingal’s duties were to carry important supplies and equipment to the most inaccessible and remote lighthouses in Scotland. But when automation, which had been gradually rolled out across the decades, finally ended the need to have lighthouse keepers for good in 1998, Fingal’s sailing days were over.
Five million pounds were spent to redevelop the vessel as a 22-cabin hotel – recently crowned AA Hotel of the Year Scotland. The spaces have been faithfully designed to reference the golden age of the cruise liner but also its past service to the lighthouses: think polished wood, gleaming brass, Art Deco lights, black and white photos, glamorous curves (everything as far as possible is curved, from the salt and pepper pots to the bar to the walls, and of course, its beautiful, central circular lift as the ultimate accolade), plus a sunken ballroom for riotous parties (you can hire out the place exclusively). Its trident motto is picked up everywhere too, from the forks (you’ll only find three prongs on this ship, right down to the cappuccino art on your morning coffee). In the rooms, you’ll find bespoke woven throws and cushions by contemporary Scottish designer Araminta Campbell.
The rooms themselves are all named after a particular Stevenson lighthouse. The Stevenson family were famed for the building of these maritime edifices, three generations being responsible for more than half of the 207 found in Scotland (though not each member followed in the family trade – Robert Louis Stevenson, of course, found fame as the author of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Kidnapped and Treasure Island, among other titles). Each bed’s headboard cleverly plots the location of its lighthouse in stitches across it in a lovely nod to Fingal’s past connections.
On the lower floor, reinforced glass allows you to see the wondrous, pipe-lined bowels of the inner workings of the ship below; while on the top floor you’ll find the Lighthouse Bar and restaurant, a romantic spot to tuck into beautifully presented Scottish fare – don’t miss the salmon, smoked on site. The deck could provide a lovely sun trap should you be lucky, but this being Edinburgh, I wouldn’t count on it (it rains around 129 days of the year).
Ten minutes walk away and you’ll find its big sister, The Royal Yacht Britannia – Scotland’s visitor attraction of the year 2023 – which is well worth an exploration, although I think they could have found a more exotic entrance – you have to trog through a rather miserable shopping centre to get there. For diehard fans of Netflix series, The Crown, you’ll already know how much the yacht meant in particular to her Majesty the late Queen – and how she shed a tear at the decommissioning ceremony in Portsmouth in 1997, after the Blair government decided that it wouldn’t be politically expedient to spend millions on its restoration. The Queen and Prince Philip had worked closely with architect Sir Hugh Casson on the interior design and the Queen is quoted as having said, ‘Britannia is the one place where I can truly relax’.
Edinburgh city centre is easily accessible too, if you hop on the tram – the stop is just a couple of minutes walk from Fingal (do buy your tickets before you get on from the machine). No visit – for tourists, at least – is complete without a steep walk up to Edinburgh Castle (jump off at Princes Street station), part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and so crucial to Scottish history, as a royal residence, military stronghold, prison and fortress. Apart from its imposing position atop of Castle Rock, with staggering vistas across the city and beyond (on a fine day), there is much to explore (tickets must be booked in advance), the highlights being the Scottish crown jewels, ‘The Honours of Scotland’, worn by Mary Queen of Scots herself on her coronation and the Stone of Destiny that was used to anoint Scottish kings before the 1200s.
As for food and drink in the city, you’re spoilt for choice. New to the scene is the latest outpost of Monte Carlo’s famed Le Petit Beefbar which has just arrived on George Street. Light, airy and distinctly glamorous, this turns the traditional steak joint on its head, where beef of course is the star of the show, but it’s the whole slam dunk experience that makes it special. The details, from the decor (exquisite) to the beautifully illustrated menus, to the creatively conceived cocktails, reveal the devil in them.
The great thing too for a Londoner looking for a weekend escape is that you can jump on a smooth and efficient 4pm LNER train from King’s Cross and be sitting down to dine at the Lighthouse on Fingal by 830pm. I can’t think of a nicer place to be.
Cabins from £300 per night. fingal.co.uk