“Lord Of The Highlands”: Passenger Ferry Converted Into Luxury Cruise Ship By Oliver Design Sets Sail For Final Destination In Scotland

Lord of the Highlands In the next few days, the “Lord of the Highlands” will set sail from Vigo for its final destination.

For many reasons, this is a very special cruise ship; not so much for its dimensions –it is just 45 metres in length– or its luxurious design and finish, but for the extraordinary circumstances that have surrounded the operation to convert a modest passenger ferry operating between two Mediterranean ports into a luxury floating hotel that will travel Scotland’s lochs, islands and canals.

The venture has been nothing short of a nautical metamorphosis, testing not only OLIVER DESIGN’s expertise in undertaking radical redesign and remodelling of the ship, but also the firm’s ability to successfully overcome the unforeseen in the shape of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.

In March 2020, having already put 16 months’ work into complete reform of the ship, the Spanish firm found itself facing an entirely unexpected setback. At the height of the Covid-19 outbreak, in light of the grim prospects facing the cruise industry, the British shipowner that had first commissioned the work pulled out of the deal and refused to accept handover of the vessel.

OLIVER DESIGN –based in the Spanish port of Getxo (Biscay)– specialises in naval design and architecture. However it found itself in uncharted waters when it was obliged to take ownership of the ship as payment for its services. Management had to embark on the difficult task of finding a buyer among tour operators from around the world – just at a time when all cruises had been suspended because of the health scare.

After negotiations with a number of Spanish, Greek, American and Australian shipowners, OLIVER DESIGN finally managed to agree sale of the “Lord of the Highlands” to an operator that plans to use it for exactly the same purpose for which it was originally remodelled: short-stay trips through the lochs of the Scottish Highlands and Orkney Islands. The cruise ship is now about to leave Vigo –where alteration work was carried out– for its final destination.

The new owner of the ship is Hebridean Island Cruises Ltd, based in Skipton (Yorkshire, Northern England) which specialises in luxury cruises. To date, the operator’s main asset has been the “Hebridean Princess”, another medium-sized vessel used for exploring Scotland’s Western Isles.

Last August, Hebridean announced that it had bought the “Lord of the Glens”, a very similar vessel to the “Lord of the Highlands” from Magna Carta Steamship Co Limited, the same shipowner that commissioned the latest project.

From Turkey to Scotland by way of Spain

The extraordinary odyssey of the “Lord of the Highlands” first began in 2012, when Turkish shipyard Medyilmaz completed construction of a small 400-seater ferry, the “Necdet Ali Yildirim”, designed to service a short eight-mile passage between the Turkish port of Çesme and the Greek island of Chios. Under the guiding hand of OLIVER DESIGN, this unassuming ship, devoid of any form of luxury, underwent a radical transformation. The operation is not without precedent; 20 years ago, the Spanish architect completed a similar project for the same client, the London-based
Magna Carta Steamship Company.

On that occasion too, the work involved completely remodelling an Aegean ferry to create the “Lord of the Glens”, a small cruise ship catering to the Scottish tourist market. That vessel was very similar in size to the “Lord of the Highlands”; 46 metres in length and 10 in the beam, it has four decks and capacity for 54 passengers and 20 crew. As well as completing the initial radical conversion, OLIVER DESIGN subsequently carried out an extensive refurbishment and upgrade on the vessel in 2015.

The “Lord of the Glens” allowed Magna Carta to offer a unique tourist experience: a cruise from North Sea port Inverness –often considered the capital of the Highlands– to Scotland’s west coast and the Hebrides (Mull, Iona and Skye), by way of the legendary Loch Ness. The journey takes in the Caledonian Canal, a historical feat of engineering which is about to celebrate its 200th anniversary.

The canal links the two seas across a narrow strip of land, barely 30 kilometres wide, allowing vessels to ascend the 32 metres from the sea to the three large lakes. Opened in 1822, the 29 locks are only large enough to accommodate small private recreational vessels. Magna Carta had the idea of creating a tidily-sized “floating hotel”, offering a unique tourist experience.

Due to the limited capacity on board –the ship can take just 50 passengers– this is a truly exclusive cruise.

The originality of the project guaranteed its popularity and given the limited number of places, waiting lists for places on the “Lord of the Glens” stretched to two years. To meet this demand, the operator decided to double its capacity by adding a second ship to its fleet, the new “Lord of the Highlands”.

The turnkey project—designed, directed and supervised by OLIVER DESIGN—required exceptional architectural work, particularly in the passengers’ quarters. It also presented a twin challenge, partly due to the technical complexity of the work (which included resizing the hull), and partly because of the meticulous interior finish required of a top-class cruise ship. In many ways, the project might be likened to turning a city bus into an ultra-sophisticated motorhome.

As chance would have it, the longest and most complicated voyages the vessel will ever have to make are the two trips taking it from its original destination to its new home via the northwest coast of Spain. After seven years in service between two Aegean islands barely eight miles apart, the “Necdet Ali Yildirim” had to complete a voyage of 2,500 nautical miles to Vigo where it underwent remodelling. Now, the renamed “Lord of the Highlands” will have to sail around 1,300 miles to its new base in Inverness, from where it will cover runs of no more than 200 nautical miles on a variety of routes.

Larger hull, extra deck and new interiors

To meet the requirements of the new “Lord of the Highlands”, it has been necessary to enlarge the vessel, adding 3 metres to its length and 1 to the beam, as well as inserting extra ballast into the keel to provide greater stability and compensate for the extra deck. The propulsion systems have been completely revamped, with two new main 250 kW generators, automated switchboards and new navigation equipment and lifesaving gear.

The vessel has also been fitted with a wastewater treatment plant and oil/water separator to prevent discharges of marine oil.

Automatic sliding doors have been installed in the sealed compartments in the hull.
The vessel previously flew under a Turkish flag and so it has also had to be adapted to meet more demanding EU shipping regulations. The interiors have been completely redistributed. The original vessel had two large lounges, completely taken up with seats for the 700 passengers. This area has now been converted into twenty-two magnificent cabins, a spacious lounge bar and a restaurant. Other additions include the crew’s quarters, galley and ship’s store.

The bridge has also been adapted to suit the vessel’s new mission. With the new configuration, the ship is now 45 metres in length, 10 in the beam and has a GRT (Gross Registered Tonnage) of 737 tonnes.

Other distinguishing features of the new “Lord of the Highlands” include the interior decor and services. Design of the state rooms takes its inspiration from the luxury train carriages of yore, with fine hardwood overlays, high quality upholstery in classic patterns, and carefully selected furniture, lighting features and accessories. All cabins have a full en-suite bathroom and individual climate control (adapted to the rigours of the Scottish weather!), thermal insulation and soundproofing, as well as a phone connection and satellite TV unit.

One of the challenges of redesigning and outfitting the “Lord of the Highlands” has been to provide the levels of comfort passengers expect of such high-quality accommodation, while at the same time meeting the strict safety standards of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). In order to comply with requirements on the use of fireproof materials, the different areas have been sectioned off by means of sandwich panels with mineral wool insulation.

Layout of the different areas on the four decks The new “Lord of the Highlands” is an elegant four-deck cruise ship:

– Lower deck: as well as the engine room and other ancillary spaces (laundry, water tanks, wastewater treatment, fuel tank), this deck also houses five crew cabins.
– Main deck: includes a suite at the bow and another seven twin-berthed cabins, four of which have direct access to an outside balcony. At the rear are the galley (with an elevator to the restaurant service area), the crew’s mess, as well as on-deck emergency and life-saving equipment.
– Bridge Deck: with the bridge to the fore, this deck also houses the captain’s cabin and another thirteen twin-berthed passenger cabins.
– Upper deck: the large picture window in the restaurant and lounge bar, together with an outdoor bow balcony, make this an ideal viewing point for passengers.

The three passenger decks are all named for the classic spy novel “The 39 Steps”, set in Scotland and the basis of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller. The main deck is called the John Buchan (after the author of the book); the bridge deck is the Richard Hannay (the hero of the story); and the upper deck is the Tweedsmuir (the peerage awarded to Buchan by King George V).

Work undertaken by OLIVER DESIGN and its collaborators and subcontractors

As well as the exterior design, architectural planning of interiors and coordination of the entire turnkey project, OLIVER DESIGN invested around 10,500 hours’ work in outfitting the “Lord of the Highlands” with up to twenty operators working simultaneously on the ship at peak periods. It also led a select group of specialist firms from different fields, most based in and around Vigo, where the conversion work was carried out:

• Insenaval took charge of technical engineering (structure, main systems and stability).
• Talleres Gestido was responsible for the steel work, aluminium superstructure, piping and a range of navigation elements.
• Astilleros Armada, as well as providing docking space for the vessel at its shipyard, also took charge of metal plating, painting and other tasks related to the hull, overhauling rudders, shafts and propellers and various other items.
• Solem fitted the electrical installation, including the new switchboards required by the alterations.
• Protecnavi fitted sanitary and fire protection pipes and climate control ducts.
• Carpinautic manufactured and installed the interior furniture.
• Bureau Veritas reviewed the drawings and performed the site inspection.


OLIVER DESIGN, a Spanish firm specialising in naval design and architecture, was founded in 1990 by naval engineer Jaime Oliver. Based in the northern town of Getxo, it also has offices in Santander and Cadiz. It offers a wide range of services for shipyards and ship owners, including concept design, outline, architectural design, interior design, construction drawings, fitting-out and comprehensive site management and supervision.

Its design catalogue includes almost 400 ships of every kind: training ships, private yachts, freight ships, fishing vessels, dredgers, ferries, cruisers and others. Throughout its history, OLIVER DESIGN has won numerous international plaudits and awards, including several Shippax prizes for naval design.

(Oliver Design, Hebridean Island Cruises)