Learn how to sail the old-fashioned way, on a 100-year-old tall ship Bessie Ellen sailing around the Hebrides, Scotland’s west coast islands.

The Bessie Ellen is one of Britain’s last traditional trading ketches to still sail our seas. First built in 1904 and thoughtfully restored by skipper Nikki Alford, Bessie now spends summers wandering where the wind takes her around the Hebridean archipelagos. Each island she visits is unique, from the white-sand beaches of Iona, known as the cradle of Christianity, to friendly Colonsay, the smallest island in the world to boast a microbrewery, to Staffa’s ancient stone pillars, loved by poets, writers and composers. Each day is different sailing on Bessie. As part of the crew you muck in with running the boat, navigating and taking a turn at the helm – as well as hiking on land to spot the Scottish big five (red deer, otter, seal, red squirrel and golden eagle), swimming in clear, cold waters off the boat and watching incredible sunsets from the deck. We travelled to Oban and sailed away on Bessie around the Inner Hebrides for a few days of dolphin spotting, rigging-clambering and whisky sampling in glorious sunshine.

I climb aboard to meet my 11 new crewmates and after tea and cake on deck we set sail up the Sound of Mull. Right from the start we’re expected to get stuck in and help sail Bessie under the careful eye of her regular crew. Among our tasks are hoisting ropes, folding sails and helping to navigate. We anchor for the night at Tobermory, Mull’s capital, and are rocked to sleep by the ocean in our tiny comfy berths.

It’s 7am and all hands on deck as we sail west to Lunga. The only residents on this tiny ‘green jewel in a peacock sea’ are a colony of puffins that arrive in spring to lay eggs on its cliff edges. Watching these clownish birds toddle in and out of their burrows is mesmerising, but it’s soon time to head for majestic Staffa, whose ancient volcanic columns have inspired visitors as illustrious as Queen Victoria and William Wordsworth before us. We take the ship’s dinghy into the dark depths of Fingal’s Cave.

We settle for the night in a bay off the island of Gometra in the Staffa archipelago, and first mate Adam and I head out in the dinghy with a lobster pot full of fish paste to see if we can catch tomorrow’s lunch. In the mean time, on-board chefs Pete and Charlotte have prepared a slap-up meal in the tiny galley – tonight it’s fish pie, chocolate mousse and a cheese board, with wine from the honesty bar. Sailing is hungry work, after all.

There’s no netted lobster in the morning, but a ramble on tiny Gometra (current population, two households) makes up for it. As we sail back into open sea, I have a go at climbing the rigging. The higher I go, the more the motion of the ship flings me about, but I cling onto the tarred ropes. I have an incredible view down to Bessie’s deck, and all across the green archipelago we’ve been exploring.

We sail to Coll and in the quiet waters of Loch Breachacha we drop anchor and go ashore, walking along the empty white beach. Curious seals pop their heads out to watch us as we swim in the crystalline water. It’s a peaceful spot, but has a gory past and is where the Maclean and Duart clans battled in 1583.

I’m standing by the bow as yet another glorious sunset begins to tinge the sky with violet. There’s a sudden splash and a glistening grey dolphin leaps clear of the water. A pod of 18 bottlenoses have come to inspect the ship and spend an hour cavorting in the water and diving under the boat. We watch them until it grows too dark.

There’s little wind and the sea is calm, so Nikki gives me the helm to keep Bessie on course for Iona. I aim the bowsprint at a far-off island and watch as the horizon slowly approaches. Adam spots a passing fishing boat and decides we’re getting lobster after all. He barters some of Charlotte’s chocolate fudge cake in exchange for a just-caught lobster and two crabs. Lunch doesn’t get much fresher than cooking up seafood that’s never touched the shore.

Soon I spot my first glimpse of Iona. St Columba arrived here in AD563 to plant the seed of Christianity in Britain, and a huge stone abbey stands here still. I walk to the edge of the island and find a perfect Hebridean beach of white sand and water so turquoise it could be the Caribbean, until, that is, I dip my toes in the ice-cold waves.

Our last day and our final island-hops. On peaceful Orinsay we listen for the distinctive rasp of the rare corncrakes that make their home here, and explore the crumbling abbey, where the bones of the monks who once tended it are still visible in the walls. Then it’s on to Colonsay where it feels good to find a tiny, friendly community, after so many deserted islands.

Pretty Easdale was once a busy exporter of slate, but now its whitewashed cottages are an artist’s colony. The island is fringed with quarries full of aquamarine water – the perfect place to practise for the World Stone Skimming Championships, held here each September. As evening draws in and we near Oban again we spy two golden eagles lazily circling a distant peak. And behind us, the fabled islands we sailed to fade into the horizon.

Nikki Alford is skipper-owner of Bessie Ellen. ‘Bessie is a labour of love. I first came across her at 18, and in 2000 I brought her home to Cornwall from a Danish dockyard. It took three years to convert her cargo hold into a cabin and to restore her to the graceful ship she once was. She’s one of the last surviving West Country trading ketches from a fleet that once numbered 700. People often refer to Bessie as belonging to me, but I feel like she belongs to everyone who comes aboard to learn to sail and to explore our wild coastline with us.’

The Bessie Ellen runs voyages each year in Britain, mid-May to mid-September. Scottish trips to the Hebrides and St Kilda begin and end in Oban, accessible by train from Glasgow, easily reached by train from London and by plane from various UK cities. Trips on the Bessie Ellen around the Cornish coast and Isles of Scilly begin and end in Fowey in Cornwall, easiest accessed by car. You can also join trips delivering Bessie from Cornwall to Scotland, and vice-versa. All trips include board, but exclude alcoholic drinks. Waterproof clothing is provided, but guests must bring waterproof shoes and a towel. Four-day voyages from £645, weeklong trips from £1,105. Book at bessie-ellen