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The Isle of Bute

Easy to get to and easy to get around, the tiny Isle of Bute is being rediscovered by a new generation of travelers.


Any town that opens its list of visitor attractions with a lovingly restored public lavatory is plainly unafraid of metaphor. The Victorian toilets that greet ferry passengers on the pierhead at Rothesay, capital town of the Isle of Bute, are unquestionably a thing of beauty -- marvellous imperial symphonies in black and white sanitary ceramic and gleaming copper pipes, and an outstanding place to answer nature's summons at a modest 20 p per pee. But there is, about both the town and its island, a good deal more to be said.

Bute's real battle is against the contempt that familiarity breeds. It brands itself "the unexplored isle," but that isn't quite right. From the late 19th century to the mid 20th, there was no more popular destination in all Scotland. Tucked into the jaws of the Firth of Clyde, separated by the narrow Kyles of Bute from the mountainous mainland of the Cowal Peninsula, it was where industrial Glasgow headed for its summer respite "doon the watter." At the tourism Discovery Centre in the delightfully restored Winter Gardens, there are early photographs showing paddle steamers queuing up for berths, just like holiday charter flights do today.

That, though, was then. The cliché about Rothesay is that it has seen better days, and so it has. But it's also seen worse. The 21st century finds Bute patiently rebuilding its appeal as a short-break destination, and attracting a whole new discerning public of walkers, ornithologists, divers, golfers, cyclists, sailors, riders, gourmets, horticulturalists, history buffs, architecture enthusiasts and even commuters.

Yes, commuters. This may be an island with a distinct whiff of the Hebrides about it, a haven of rural peacefulness with some breathtaking seascapes, but it is served by a fast and reliable combination of trains, roads and ferries that put central Glasgow little more than an hour away. The ferry journey from Wemyss Bay, on a large and comfortable Caledonian MacBrayne vessel, takes 35 minutes, and sailings are roughly hourly, coordinating with train services out of Glasgow's Central Station. There is also a short-hop ferry route, again operated by CalMac, across the Kyle from Colintraive to Rhubodach. It only takes a few minutes, although Colintraive is somewhat off the beaten track. Either way, Bute is the perfect day trip.

Fifteen miles long and five wide at its broadest, Bute has an insidious rather than a "hey-wow" appeal. Its charms ingratiate themselves gradually. Like nearby Arran, it is bisected by the Highland Boundary Fault and can thus lay plausible claim to being Scotland in miniature. In truth, the north/south divide along Loch Fad is nowhere near as dramatic as on its larger neighbour, and neither does Bute have the spectacularly soaring, jagged mountains of Arran's Goatfell range. On the other hand, it does offer captivating views of that range across the Sound of Bute, and when it is not doing that (and sometimes when it is), it provides equally beguiling vistas to the purple peaks and corries of Cowal. Bute's own hills may be of the green and gently rolling variety, but the visitor is constantly treated to a changing slideshow of perfectly framed compositions of sea and mountaintops. And the great sweeps of beach at Ettrick Bay and Scalpsie Bay, the latter home to a vast family of splendidly indolent seals, stand comparison with any on Scotland's bejewelled west coast.

The full text of this article is available in the Winter 2008 issue of Scottish Life.

Click here to preview our feature article on The Knitters of Fair Isle by Terry Williams.

Photos above: © Scottish Viewpoint. Photo top right: courtesy Argyll & Bute Council