Hopping on the Ferry to Bute
It’s May, the heating is still on. Political and economic uncertainty hang in the air. It’s been a slightly timid start to the season for the tourism industry. Nobody seems quite ready to say a firm goodbye to winter just yet. Never has a jolly to the Scottish islands seemed more called for and it’s high time I caught the ferry to Bute.
I have to hold my hands up and admit that it has been many years since my last visit to the Isle of Bute. A sorry state of affairs that I’ve been looking forward to rectifying, it is evidence that even travel fanatics like me too often overlook what is within immediate grasp. But with longer days now guaranteed, this most accessible of isles is suddenly very much in the cross hairs. Blissfully located adrift of Argyll’s claw-like peninsulas in the Firth of Clyde, the sea air is calling.
I’m trying to think of sandy beaches closer to Glasgow than Bute’s. Our mainland south west coast is quite limited, the great mainland beaches are much further north. Largs and Great Cumbrae maybe? There’s East Lothian’s offerings away on the other side of the country (around 90 minutes away via the boring M8). Arran requires a longer ferry crossing….
Which leaves Bute! My pick for the best sandy beaches closest to Glasgow. There, I’ve said it. A 45-minute drive to Wemyss Bay, a 30-minute ferry to Bute and a short drive from Rothesay to Bute’s west coast, and there you go. You’ll have the sand between your toes in no time.
On arrival, there’s multiple options. West does tend to be best where beaches are concerned and the huge bays of Ettrick and Scalpsie will grapple to be your first port of call. Both provide superb views over to the Isle of Arran and its big jagged peaks. Both ease effortlessly between the waves and the gentle surrounding farmland. And both are, more often than not, empty.
A day trip to Bute probably won’t allow you ample time to do justice to the island’s north, but be sure not to miss the south. Kilchattan Bay is a must for a stroll as you strain to identify the seabirds big and small that are joining you. My trip this month saw a sea eagle, peregrine falcons and oyster catchers aplenty. Dolphins even made an appearance on the ferry to Bute crossing.
Easily one of the most visually impressive buildings in the country, Mount Stuart is the single biggest attraction on the island. Set in the midst of gigantic grounds, its imposing, slightly Gothic exterior is trumped by a lavishly opulent core. Grand Italian marble, vibrant artwork, its own immaculate chapel and even a ceiling of stars combine to leave visitors in total awe of this island treasure-trove.
Stunning as the building is today, it would have been even more so in Victorian times. This is believed to be the first home in the world to boast an indoor swimming pool and Scotland’s first to have a telephone system, electric light and even a passenger lift! All is owed to the big thinking of the 3rd Marquess of Bute, a philanthropist, magnate and aristocrat who was born here at his family seat, and prospered in the 1800s. Prospered may be putting it mildly….he was believed to be the richest man in the world. His passion for architecture, travel and even astrology are evident throughout this magnificent building.
Be sure to walk the vast grounds and gardens, as much of the 300 acres as you can manage. You’ll see everything from huge open coastal views to greenhouses consumed by tropical plant life. With the bizarre influence of the warming Gulf Stream very much in evidence around the island, the exotic allure is at its strongest here. The fact the heating is still on at home is temporarily forgotten.
While Mount Stuart has its own Visitor Centre and operates guided tours, the process is confusing so I suggest calling ahead (or visiting their website) and confirming which tour you want to go on ahead of time. There is a Mary Queen of Scots exhibit going on over the course of the 2019 season as well but the rules for getting into that are even more bizarre, so be sure to get this clarified in advance as well.
Further Historical Attractions
On arrival from the ferry into Rothesay, you are a matter of feet away from one of Scotland’s most picturesque castles. 13th Century Rothesay Castle was the residence for the Stuart kings and remains as one of only two of our castles to boast an impressive moat.
The Vikings twice besieged the castle in its early years at a time when raids by manic, bearded, axe-wielding nutters from across the North Sea were pretty much run of the mill on the Scottish islands. These days it’s just Glaswegians. Conflict here continued during the Wars of Independence when the castle was seized from the English by Robert the Bruce in 1311. When the war ended, Rothesay Castle gradually established itself as a favourite spot for the next generations of the Bruce’s family. So began the tradition of honouring the heir to the throne of Scotland with the title ‘Duke of Rothesay’ (held currently by Prince Charles).
Following centuries saw better days and the castle took on its now distinctively circular plan and formidable defensive installations. A nasty combination of Oliver Cromwell and the Argyll Campbells, though, saw the castle reduced to ruin in the 17th Century, before restoration in the 19th brought back this beauty from the rubble.
Outside of the big two above, Bute is not overflowing with attractions as such. It’s more about the beaches and the relaxed pace. But one other historical site is definitely worth a big mention, St Blane’s Chapel. Hidden away inland in the island’s south, its origins go back as far as the AD 500s and there’s a mystique about the ruins to this day. In the 12th and 13th Centuries, after the Vikings had wrecked the place and gone, St Blane’s became a place of renewed Christian serenity. Its opportune placement in a sheltered hollow still allows for wonderful south and west-facing views over the coast and provide the cherry on top.
Bute does also boast what would be a superb standing stone site, Kingarth. Set amidst a roadside forested area, the surrounding trees have been cut down to leave the site undeniably sullied.
All in a day’s work
With a renewed sense of optimism that the industry can shake itself awake and that I can soon start reducing my domestic energy bills, I jump back aboard the ferry. Home in time for dinner. Hint of a tan there too I notice in the car mirror. Quite how I’ve not managed to fit in a day trip to Bute in recent years is beyond me, but don’t let yourself make the same mistake….
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