For generations Glaswegians used to head ‘doon the watter’ to the Firth of Clyde isles. Nowadays most jet off to warmer climes instead, leaving one of Scotland’s most charming wee islands pleasantly quiet for those looking for a chilled break away from it all. Recently I took my own trip doon the watter to discover the more than slightly strange Isle of Bute.
Bute is a wee gem and I mean wee. You could cycle all its roads in a day and it spans just a few miles across at its widest point. The highest point is just 267m and there are only around 7,000 inhabitants. Most of them are tucked into the resort town of Rothesay, where the majority of the ferries arrive too.
Sticking with the wee theme I arrived on what must have been the shortest ferry trip of my life. We sailed, or rather floated, across the Kyles of Bute from Colintraive on the remote Cowal Peninsula to Rhubodach on Bute. The crossing takes less than 5 minutes and I was scared to nip off to the loo in case I returned to find everyone else gone and me on my way back to the mainland.
Such an unusual arrival set the tone for a thoroughly charming and offbeat island. The first thing I saw was a big white house, which turned out to be owned by none other than Lord Richard Attenborough. My base was at Munro’s, a rather grand B&B, which enjoyed sweeping views over the Firth of Clyde. The ultra friendly owners were clued up on local life so recommended I ate in what turned out to be the superb brand new No. 29 (Tel. 01700-500685) restaurant in Rothesay.
With some great local produce to work off it was off for a hike on the West Island Way. No, not the West Highland Way, but Bute’s much smaller (of course) version, which runs 26 miles up the even less populated west of the island. It is a surprisingly rugged trail and I savoured sweeping views of rocks, rugged slopes and isolated lighthouses as I admired gannets diving in the waters and buzzards hunting prey high above.
My half-day hike was worth it as it opened up the remarkable 12th century St Blane’s Church, which you can only get to on foot. Amazingly the church is not the island’s chief historical or architectural highlight. That honour goes to Mount Stuart. If you have never been drop what you are doing and go now. Right now!
I’m serious. This massively underrated gem is for me up there with any stately home in Europe, a gorgeous riot of marble laden with fine art and sculpture, not to mention ornate gardens with views of the Clyde coast. Then there is the kids’ adventure playground and the superb modern restaurant serving the best of island produce. Being Bute it had to have something quite bizarre too. That came on the estate’s coastal fringes in a surreal slice of Tudor England, Kerrycroy. This little hamlet looks like it has just flown in from Surrey.
I’d expected to spend my time on Bute slipping into the sleepy pace of island life. In truth I scarcely had time to draw breath as this bijou isle packs a hefty punch. I’ve not even mentioned yet my wild walk up to an old ruined village overlooking the epic Kyles of Bute, my paddle in Kilchattan Bay, the best strawberry milkshake in Scotland at Ettrick Bay Tea Room and the frankly stunning Victorian toilets by Rothesay pier. That last one might sound like a strange tourist attraction, but spend a wee while on the seriously surreal Isle of Bute and not much will seem strange anymore.
- For more information see http://www.visitbute.com/
- For ferry transport see www.calmac.co.uk