VESSEL CONVERSION | Lord of the Highlands – Mediterranean ferry finds new life as cruise ship for Scottish inland and coastal waters

Photo: Oliver Design

A group of Spanish companies led by naval architecture firm Oliver Design recently completed a nearly three-year-long project wherein a Turkish ferry originally designed for Mediterranean sailings was converted into a luxury river cruise ship for an operator in the UK.

The refurbished vessel, which as been renamed Lord of the Highlands, was originally intended to be used by London-based Magna Carta Steamship Company for week-long cruises through Scotland’s Caledonia Canal connecting the famed Loch Ness to the Hebrides archipelago.

From utilitarian to luxury use

The ship was originally completed in 2012 by Turkish shipyard Medyilmaz as the 42- by 9.3-metre ferry Necdet Ali Yildirim, which had space for 400 (later 700) passengers and was used for short trips along the 12-kilometre route between Turkey and Greece. The goal was to transform the ferry into what the operator described as an exclusive “floating hotel” with a reduced passenger capacity.

Necdet Ali Yildirim (Photo: Oliver Design)

Lord of the Highlands is Oliver Design’s second vessel conversion project for Magna Carta Steamship. Lord of the Glens, which entered service with Magna Carta in 2000, is a conversion of a 1985-built ferry originally designed for the Aegean Sea.

Unexpected developments

In March 2020, 16 months into the conversion project, the Covid-19 pandemic struck worldwide, forcing the cessation of global cruising activities.

For Oliver Design, the pandemic also resulted in an unexpected setback. The company claimed that, in light of the grim prospects facing the cruise industry, Magna Carta, the shipowner that had first commissioned the work, pulled out of the deal and refused to take delivery of the refurbished vessel.

Oliver Design was obliged to take ownership of the vessel as payment for its services. The company said its management then took 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 to the sale of 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 company reported in mid-August that the ship was about to leave Vigo, where alteration work was carried out, for its final destination in Scotland, with operational sailing schedules yet to be announced.

The new owner of the ship is Hebridean Island Cruises, a luxury cruise operator based in Skipton, Yorkshire. To date, the operator’s main asset has been Hebridean Princess, another medium-sized vessel used for exploring Scotland’s Western Isles. Last August, Hebridean announced that it had bought Lord of the Glens, the same ex-Magna Carta vessel that had undergone a similar ferry-to-cruise ship conversion process at Oliver Design’s Vigo facilities over 20 years prior.

Top-to-bottom conversion

Oliver Design said the turnkey project – which it also directed and supervised – required exceptional architectural work, particularly in the passengers’ cabins. It also presented a dual 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.

To meet the requirements originally set forth by Magna Carta Steamship, it became necessary to enlarge the vessel, adding three metres to its length and one metre to the beam, as well as inserting extra ballast into the keel to provide greater stability and to compensate for the additional deck.

The propulsion systems have also been completely revamped, with two new main 250kW 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 sailed under the Turkish flag, and so it needed to be adapted to meet more demanding EU shipping regulations. The interiors have thus been completely redistributed.

Photo: Oliver Design

The original vessel had two large lounges, completely taken up with seats for the 700 passengers. This area has now been converted to allow the incorporation of 22 cabins, a spacious lounge/bar, and a restaurant. Other additions include the crew’s quarters, the galley, and the ship’s store. The bridge has also been adapted to suit the vessel’s new role.

With the new configuration, the ship is now 45 metres in length and 10 metres in beam and with a GRT of 737 tonnes.

Photo: Oliver Design

Other distinguishing features of the new Lord of the Highlands include the interior decor and services. Oliver Design said the layout of the staterooms were reminiscent of luxury train carriages of earlier periods, with fine hardwood overlays, high quality upholstery in classic patterns, and carefully selected furniture, lighting features and accessories. Each passenger cabin has a full en suite bathroom and individual climate control systems that have been specially adapted to Scotland’s weather conditions, thermal insulation and soundproofing, as well as a phone connection and satellite TV unit.

Oliver Design said that one of the challenges of redesigning and outfitting the vessel has been to provide the levels of comfort passengers expect of such high-quality accommodation, while at the same time meeting the IMO’s strict safety standards. 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.

Photo: Oliver Design

The refurbished Lord of the Highlands boasts four decks with guest accommodations and other key spaces carefully distributed throughout:

  • The lower deck houses five crew cabins as well as the engine room and other ancillary spaces (laundry, water tanks, wastewater treatment, fuel tank).
  • The main deck includes a suite at the bow and another seven twin-berth cabins, four of which have direct access to an outside balcony. At the rear are the galley (with a lift that provides access to the restaurant service area), the crew’s mess, as well as on-deck emergency and life-saving equipment.
  • The bridge deck also houses the captain’s cabin and another 13 twin-berth passenger cabins.
  • The upper deck has restaurant and lounge/bar with a large picture window together with an outdoor bow balcony, make this an ideal observation area for passengers.

Oliver Design and Spanish engineering firm Insenaval handled the technical aspects of the redesign including the vessel’s new structure and safety and stability features while Armada Shipyards (docking space), Gestido Workshops (steel, aluminium, and piping works), Solem (electrical installation), Protecnavi (sanitary and firefighting systems), and Carpinautic (interior furniture installations) performed the remainder of the conversion work including fitting out of the vessel.

Classification society Bureau Veritas reviewed all pertinent drawings and performed site inspections to ensure the work complied with existing rules.

Click here for the other news, features and reviews comprising this month’s Passenger Vessel Week.

Baird Maritime

The best maritime site on the web. The sea's our scene!