For anyone who regularly passes the shoreline at Leith they will not have failed to notice the many changing faces of a single-funneled vessel, moored in shallow dock, which is currently undergoing a vast restoration project that will culminate in the opening of Scotland’s first five-star luxury floating hotel in 2018.
MV Fingal, a rather austere former lighthouse steam tender, made waves last year when it was transformed from its original colours into a multi-coloured stripy spectacle – evoking the camouflaged ‘Dazzle Ships’ of the First World War; just lately it has been painted over a rather drab gunmetal grey by the artist Ciara Phillips, who received the commission to commemorate the centenary of that great conflict, for reasons that appear hard to fathom.
But for all the paint that has been used to brighten up, and then dampen down, the vessel’s facade, the boat is about to embark on what looks set to be its biggest and most memorable journey yet. If all goes to plan, MV Fingal will finally be able to close the gap for the Royal Yacht Britannia which has longed to be able to offer its many guests – particularly the corporate ones who make up the hundred or so business events every year – somewhere resplendent to stay afterwards.
I join Andrew Thomson, Britannia’s Head of Hospitality & Events, on board the Royal Yacht to talk about the history of how MV Fingal was taken on by the charitable trust which now has responsibility for the running and ongoing preservation of both vessels. He explains that the ambition predates him joining the organisation six years ago, when Chief Executive Bob Downie told him of his plan to try and source an appropriately-sized boat which could be converted into a floating hotel. It was a challenging brief; when ships are decommisioned they are usually quite quickly broken apart and their scrap metal sold to the highest bidder. Add to that the difficulty of trying to source a vessel which would not look odd as a sister ship to the Britannia itself, and it becomes apparent why it has taken so long for that original vision to turn into a reality.
“There’s lots of ships around the world,” says Thomson. “But when you work with a ship like Britannia, with its history, and what it looks like, you have to have something similar and eventually we found something. And it was a great story, it was a former Northern Lighthouse vessel; when all the northern lighthouses were manned, it used to take them and their families supplies; in fact there’s a picture somewhere with Britannia and Fingal alongside each other. So we were really excited to get that ship and now it’s going under renovation – the first steel was cut last week.”
Thomson’s excitement is palpable. Spread out on a table in the Chart Room in front of him are a series of Art Deco-style designs of what the interior of the MV Fingal will look like when it is finished. Work is at a very early stage and I’m surprised given the huge undertaking that the intention is to open sometime in the spring of 2018, which in May will coincide with the 20th anniversary of the Britannia coming to reside in Leith. It’s a significant milestone and undoubtedly one that everyone would like to celebrate with the opening of the new hotel, which at the moment has just been stripped of its funnel and cleared of some 80 tons of material, much of which will be reused. There is, for example, a horde of Burmese teak (a wood which can no longer be sourced and is renowned for its hardness). Unbelievably, much of this now priceless wood had been covered over by cheap B&Q insulation to add extra warmth to the crews who would set off into the freezing northern seas; as restorers began their work, they realised that the immaculately preserved wood would be a huge asset to joiners whose task is to add an element of high-end craftsmanship that would not look out of place in a five-star hotel.
The £3.5m project is being overseen by two imaginative hotel designers – Alan Pedley and Stephen Flanagan – who have worked across the world on multi-billion-pound hotel projects, and who were seduced by the task of transforming a vessel that for the 12 years prior to being taken on by the The Royal Yacht Britannia Trust had been crewed up a river in Cornwall. The past owners’ intention had at one stage been to chop Fingal into two, add a middle section, and turn it into a superyacht. I think it’s much to their credit that they bought into the vision of Downie and his team, and it will be ultimately enjoyed by many more people than would otherwise sample the delights of a boat sailed around the Med by an oligarch.
The “incredibly passionate” Pedley has built over 180,000 hotel rooms across the world and has previously converted an Italian ferry, and Flanagan has spent time working on high-end hotel projects in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Both have the credentials to transform MV Fingal into something special and when I see their plans I’m not surprised why they are part of this project. It’s difficult to focus on any one single element of what will be an utter transformation but the glass lift resembling ‘the top of a lighthouse’ going from the top to the bottom of the vessel is certainly an eye-catching feature, as is the retractable glass skylight which can be opened to lower down vehicles if it was chosen to host a car launch. The multi-functional space below can be configured for a dinner, a conference (there are also break-out rooms) or a media event – the video screen panelled walls will offer the flexibility of branding where the more refined Britannia is perhaps not a suitable space for overt corporate demonstration. The 23-bedrooms will be split in to three categories: the palatial ‘Presidential Suite’ is obviously the room that will generate the most interest, but I wouldn’t at all mind if I could only afford to book myself into the split-level duplex rooms. Even the ‘standard’ rooms look anything but as Thomson shows me interiors featuring leather upholstered wardrobes.
Even though design is going to be incredibly high-spec it is the ‘story’ of the vessel that Thomson keeps returning to; MV Fingal has a heritage and direct connection to the lighthouses designed by the civil engineer Robert Stevenson (grandfather of Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson) off the coast of Scotland. It had been a supply ship to these many lighthouses since being commissioned in 1964 and the hotel rooms will, appropriately, be named after each lighthouse, featuring a map and even a weather report on the day of visitation.
There is even a rather fortuitous connection to the royal family as Princess Anne is patron of the Northern Lighthouse Board, and once even reportedly had her own quarters on board MV Fingal. As to whether there will be a ‘royal opening’ for the ship, Thomson is perhaps understandably guarded at this early stage about committing to such a prospect, adding: “If we can, we will.”
What is clear, though, is that MV Fingal will present an enormous opportunity for the Trust to up its marketing game against its rivals. If just one per cent of Britannia’s 350,000 annual visitors opt to stay on board it will be full. Given the interest it is already getting from the American incentive travel market (Thomson and his team are already fending off ‘when can we book?’ inquiries from eager prospects in the US), I suspect the ultimate user profile will be very different to the everyday consumer market. Prices are yet to be published but the Presidential Suite, occupying most of the first floor, will clearly not be for the feint-hearted or light of wallet and will certainly be north of £1,000-a-night. I expect exclusive use hires will also be pitched at around £15,000 and the first corporate to book the space will no doubt pay a princely sum, fittingly perhaps for what will become the sister ship of a royal yacht.
What is also fitting is the eventual return to MV Fingal’s original colours; when its face changes back into the colours of the Britannia, the vessel will settle into what the Trust will hope is its final and most permanent of berths.