A Visit to the Isle of Bute

To start off, some of us may have to ask the question; “Where exactly is the Isle of Bute?” Well, the answer may not be obvious to all but it is a beautiful and highly scenic island situated just off the Western coast of Scotland close to the estuary of the famous River Clyde and amidst rugged mountain landscapes and coastal waterways known as the Kyles of Bute. This wonderful and slightly tropical Scottish island has gained fame throughout many centuries of history and yet, it is famed even greater in more recent times when throughout the industrial revolution and most of the nineteenth century is became known as Scotland’s Rivera.

From the City of Glasgow, one of Scotland’s main industrial and now cultural cities, an annual summer pilgrimage of holiday makers would sail from the Broomilaw Dock in Glasgow on any one of over twenty well known paddle steamers, going what they called “Doon the Wattir” for the Gleskay Fair. In our language this means sailing down the water for the Glasgow fair, which is a two week period in mid July each year when the majority of workers had their annual vacation. These paddle steamers with names like The Jeannie Deans, The Waverley, The Queen Mary 2 and many others, were filled to capacity with revelling holiday makers all on their way to the seaside town of Rothesay ( Pronounced Roth-say ) on the Isle of Bute. Even back in Victorian times these pilgrimages were popular as the island offered low cost accommodation, mainly good weather, lots of free or low cost activities and for the upper classes, it even had two quite spectacular Victorian Hydros. Known today as Hydropathic Spas and Expensive Hotels. Rothesay also had many pubs and guest houses and there was always live music and singing in almost every one of them. Another very popular spot on the island for the holiday makers was the almost adjoining historic fishing village of Port Bannatyne, built along the shores of a bay just around the corner from the main hub of Rothesay. The views from Port Bannatyne are quite stunning looking across the curved bay and the Kyles of Bute into the mouth and steep mountains of Loch Striven on the mainland coast.

Bute is an island which even to this day is run on a thing called the Feudal System, which goes back in time to the days of Mary Queen of Scots. In simple terms it means that the island and in this case, its shores and the shores across from it are all owned, managed and controlled by the Stuart family. The same Stuart family as the previously named Mary. In latter years when I was last on the island, it was owned by Sir David Crighton Stuart or Lord Bute as he was better known. From his family home and summit of power called Mount Stewart, he would run his empire when he was in residence there. Of course he also had numerous managers, land factors and agents to do all of the work for him when he was not in residence. Even the fifty three farms on the island are all owned by, lock stock and barrel by the late Lord Bute ( also known as the Marquess of Bute ) and they are all operated by tenant farmers as they have been for hundreds of years. The feudal system is so strict that I can remember one occasion when Lord Bute returned to the island on his large yacht called King Duck 3, he drove into Rothesay on business and noticed that one of the buildings had a new window installed on its gable end, where no window was before.

He then immediately went off to the Town Hall and demanded to know who had granted planning permission for this new window. From there, he amplified the matter to such an extent that the planning committee met and ruled that the said window had to be removed again and the resultant hole blocked up to match the existing building. When residents, even of privately owned homes, apply for planning consent, the planning committee has to run each application past his Lordship for his approval. If he did not approve the application, then it would never be passed. This being said, the people of Bute are a happy and mainly content bunch, all well used to and accepting of their feudal system and all it holds. In the 1970s and on through the 80s too, the Isle of Bute suffered greatly as its tourist diminished slowly and steadily. Many of the well loved steamers were taken off service and scrapped and the hotels and guest houses on the island were all suffering from deterioration inside and out, mainly due to the fact that Lord Bute never wanted much to change on the island and as such, would never grant any permissions for building upgrades and modernizations.

Very soon after the late Lord Bute’s death in 1970, the island started to show signs of new life again, with a serious program of modernization and upgrading throughout Rothesay and in many of the previously popular tourist places around the island. The people knew they had to do something to bring back the crowds of holiday makers and as the world became smaller with lower cost flights to far off destinations, they had to do something fast. There is very little alternative industry on the island other than tourism and farming and so, Rothesay got its facelift, including the very famous pier and promenade. Guest houses and hotels were improved and pushed into the modern era with en-suites and resident bars and very soon, through the endless efforts of the local chamber of commerce and the island’s tourism people, Bute was once again placed firmly on the map as a wonderful place to visit.

A mysterious island just off the Scottish coast where circles of strange stones still stand from the day of druids, a real and operational gold mine exists and horse drawn trams could take tourists around Rothesay Bay past endless palm trees and beautifully landscaped gardens and water features. Golf courses with spectacular views, little boats for hire by the hour, horses to ride the shores and an atmosphere of serene tranquility. With the warm water of the Gulf Stream hitting the seaward side of Bute and the majestic Argyll Mountains providing shelter to the inward side, the island has always tended to enjoy a moderate and sometimes almost tropical climate. If you are ever in Scotland and travel to its western coast, then the Isle of Bute is a must as part of your itinerary. You can visit the ancestral home of the Stuarts, with its mixed architecture or towers and spires and its very own family chapel in pure marble. There is much to see and much to do and as always, never enough time to do it all.

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