Fish and chips aren’t for sale on the small ferry bound for the Isle of Bute, yet all around us people were tucking into huge portions, washed down with Irn Bru. The aroma was making us delirious.
Wemyss Bay, where the Rothesay ferry departs from, has a cracking chip shop, so folks get their chippie hit before catching the ferry home – a fact we were told far too late to join in the tradition.
The woman nearest to us wolfed down the last of her golden and crispy fish – so crispy I could hear the crunch as her teeth clamped down on it – and headed out to the observation deck which also doubles as the ‘smoking area’. It was pitch black, the end of December and the weather had been bitter and stormy, none of which bothered Bute’s hardy, hardened smokers.
It was good to be back in the West of Scotland.
Although the weather had been stormy, the Clyde was like a mill pond and the 35 minute crossing was smooth and relaxing… despite the tortuous aromas.
Rothesay, Bute’s main town, looked much smaller than I remembered. Two thin lines of houses on either side of the bay with a small cluster in the middle. Bute itself is tiny; 15 miles long by 4 miles wide with a population of around 6,500. It is dissected by the Highland fault line, something that has influenced the island’s history as well as its scenery.
I ignored Bute’s obvious charms growing up there. As an adult returning for the first time in a decade, it looked a very different place to my older eyes.
The ferry passed the most imposing building in town, the Glenburn Hotel, a grand Victorian relic lording it over the bay. Built in the mid nineteenth century, the Glenburn was Scotland’s first Hydropathic hotel. I have a soft spot for the old place. I worked there for a couple of years (some may describe it more as enthusiastic partying) whilst deciding what I wanted to do when I ‘grew up’. I made a serious error of judgement at that hotel; reading Stephen King’s The Shining when working as a night porter… during the winter… when there were no guests.
Rothesay pier itself hadn’t changed much over the years. A smart covered gangway leads into the main building. Last time I stepped off a ferry here it was by way of a wobbly wooden gangplank that heaved as much as some of the passengers on a particularly choppy crossing.
The pier area in Rothesay is a tourist attraction. What other pier can boast having famous Victorian toilets? I was pleased to see that there was still a ‘Haste Ye Back’ sign and ecstatic that swans still glide around the inner harbour.
Rothesay has lost a few buildings since my last visit, but the architectural smorgasbord of Victorian, Georgian and Edwardian houses lend the town’s welcoming façade a touch of sturdy class, even though some are in need of a makeover. Street names paint a vivid picture of its past – Bishop Street, Castle Street, Tower Street, Watergate and my favourite, Gallowgate.
Bute is an island with a history that’s as rich as a Tunnock’s tea cake but that’s for another blog, this is more a tour of some of my favourite places around the island.
There is no other castle like it in Scotland. Built in the thirteenth century it is surrounded by a moat populated by mallards. A ghost, the white lady, roams the battlements after dark. I’d never dare glance the castle’s way whilst walking home from the pub in case I spotted her. Too much alcohol still couldn’t erase the fear of a ghostly encounter.
The Winter Gardens
The entertainment centre of Rothesay at one time, the Winter Gardens is an Art Deco classic surrounded by putting greens with Rothesay’s famous palm trees. My mum and aunt once appeared as extras in Taggart, sitting on the benches here – not much acting involved. All the top Scottish performers played the Winter Gardens – Andy Stewart, the Alexander Brothers, Moira Anderson. Real cutting edge acts. I won a yellow submarine in a talent contest at them. I think the judges gave it to me to shut me up.
Like Rio and Barcelona, Rothesay has an urban beach. There the similarity ends. On a late December day there were only heron and oyster catchers on the damp sands. Hard to believe I used to get badly sunburned along with the hordes of other local children on this tiny beach.
A scary place and home to tinkers (not my term) who stole babies… so we were told. The fact that a homeless guy with string for a belt, who kept all his belongings in a pram, did live there added weight to the nonsense. He had a pram, what more proof did we need. It’s a good place for a forest stroll. Exploring them for the first time in decades, I slipped on wet leaves and ripped the backside out of my trousers. I’m sure I heard the forest sniggering… or maybe it was the spirit of the alleged baby thief.
A proper Scottish beach. A long, wide and wild stretch of sand with views across the water to Arran and the Sleeping Warrior. I lost loads of things at Ettrick Bay including the little man who was ejected from James Bond’s Aston Martin. It is a hauntingly beautiful spot and this visit was perhaps the first time I’d truly appreciated how stunning this place is. The café here sells tablet ice cream but it was far too cold a day to try it.
It’s claimed that inebriated locals were dumped on this tiny island to dry out. If so, it must have been awfully busy there at weekends. There used to be three brothers who made the journey from the island to go to the local disco at the weekend. They always wore denim jackets and jeans that were a bit half-mast. I didn’t fancy their journey home at the end of the night. Apparently now Inchmarnock is an organic farm with Highland Cattle and no drunks.
A stunner of a beach which is the place to come to see wildlife as deer are common and there are a colony of seals. In truth I never ventured to Scalpsie much as it was too far away and involved a meticulously planned expedition with lots of egg sandwiches.
A little community and a beach at Kilchattan that would be a crowd puller if it was located somewhere with a much warmer climate. Kingarth Hotel is a cracker of a rural hotel with a cosy restaurant where you can tuck into the best of local nosh like pheasant pate followed by venison. Deer and pheasant are so common in these parts there’s a chance of running one, or both, over on the way home. Outside the hotel is a sign which points to Rothesay in both directions – good for a silly photo. There’s an airstrip here now. Damned if I could spot it.
The area around Loch Fad was a natural playground for adventure-seeking children with the Devil’s Slide testing nerve and rope-swinging skills. In winter an iced up Loch Fad was too tempting to resist… until a fall through the ice ended any fascination with seeing if it was thick enough to take our weight. My favourite part of the loch was the ‘bridge’ that cuts the loch in two. Hidden away in the forest is a house once owned by Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean. At its gatehouse are four busts of the big names in showbiz at the time, including the bard himself.
One of the most unusual and interesting stately homes in Britain and home to the Marquess of Bute. It was closed for the winter, damn. Too interesting to describe in a couple of lines, so a return visit will be required. The 7th Marquess of Bute is also known as Johnny Dumfries the racing driver. The 6th Marquess was a very amiable chap who occasionally would take a few moments to chat when my dad delivered the post; he was a bit like the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey.
A totally out of place Tudor hamlet complete with maypole designed as a model English-style village by the wife of one of the Marquesses. It’s always felt exclusive and a bit out of bounds. Even taking photos during this visit, I felt at any moment a red-faced gamekeeper might come storming out of one of the immaculate houses brandishing a walking stick to see me off the premises.
High Kirk Cemetery
A scary place but then aren’t all cemeteries after dark? If we were playing football in the public park below the cemetery walls when dusk fell, we’d shift to a safer and more distant spot of the park… just in case the Copper Man was abroad.
And so it goes on.
Being back on an island I now recognise as an extra special place unlocked a chest of old memories. Although the memories are all true, some of the details now are difficult to clarify – I’m sure there was an old bomb crater pond near Barone Hill where we used to catch newts and odd looking insects. But I can’t find mention of it by searching Google.
Or maybe the internet doesn’t know everything.
Forgive me this indulgent stroll down memory lane. I’ll write a ‘proper’ post about why people really shouldn’t be ignoring Bute in their rush to get to less interesting Scottish Islands that, for some reason, might have a more romantic image.
Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Google+