Archaeology

Beautiful Bute – Scotland’s Island Haven

Isle of Bute

The Isle of Bute is a pretty island on the west coast of Scotland, the perfect place for a short, relaxing break.

In Victorian times Bute was a popular playground for Glaswegian tourists. It was part of the “Scottish Riviera” and its harbour was once packed with steam boats plying their trade. Today it’s a quiet but lovely backwater.

This picturesque island couldn’t be more different to Arran, its rugged, mountainous neighbour. It’s less dramatic with rolling hills, quiet beaches and pastoral landscapes.

Bute is a small island at just 15 miles long and 5 miles wide – perfect for exploring by foot, bike or car.

Bute boasts beautiful views

The Isle of Arran is known as “Scotland in miniature” because of its diverse scenery, but Bute doesn’t have a snappy moniker.

I wondered about calling it “fire island”. The name Bute is thought to be a derivation of the old Irish word ‘bót’ meaning “fire”, a reference to the beacons which were once lit to warn of Viking raids.

Perhaps we should simply dub it “Beautiful Bute” because this island is stuffed with history, culture, wildlife, heritage and pretty scenery. Here are a few of my Bute highlights which I’m sure you’ll enjoy…

Life on a Small Island

Most visitors to Bute arrive at Rothesay on the CalMac ferry which is a quick 20 minute hop from Wemyss on the Scottish mainland.

It’s a short but scenic ride although my lockdown trip meant that we couldn’t get out of our car to enjoy the views.

It is worth spending a couple of hours in Rothesay, the island’s only sizeable town. Rothesay’s biggest draw is its castle which dates back to the 13th Century, showing the strategic importance of Bute in earlier times.

Rothesay Castle Bute
Imposing fortress – Rothesay Castle

Today Rothesay Castle is still impressive with its impregnable walls, imposing towers and a moat. Sadly it was closed because of Covid when I visited so I was only able to see the exterior and grounds.

I amused myself by reading the Trip Advisor reviews which varied from “stunning” and “beautiful” to “not much to see inside”. One reviewer even mentioned that it was a “pity about the disgusting moat”!

It may not be in my top 10 of Scottish castles but it’s still well worth a look. Although much of the interior has been lost through the ravages of time, I’m told that the surviving great hall is well worth a look.

The castle gatehouse and moat

The town of Rothesay is a mix of the good, the mediocre and the beautiful. Like many old seaside resorts, there have been regeneration projects including a new marina and a revitalised harbour front. But there are still a few run down areas of the town which have seen better times.

The main pier, ferry terminal, harbour promenade and Winter Gardens are worth a leisurely walk. Why not break up your stroll with a visit to Zavaroni’s ice cream parlour?

I wondered why the name rang a bell, but it’s because the family were related to the child singing sensation, Lena Zavaroni, still the youngest person to have had an album in the British Top 10. 

Rothesay marina

Whilst taking a walk around Rothesay harbour, why not spend a penny and pop into the famous Victorian public toilets (pictured below)?

Built in 1899, these public conveniences claim to be the most complete Victorian toilets in Britain. Sadly they were closed during my lockdown visit but the exterior still stands out with its fancy tiles.

Photos reveal that the luxurious interior has patterned ceramic tiles and exotic mosaics. The white porcelain and green marble urinals in the gents are also worth a peep – if you’re a bloke!

Another oddity on the harbour front is the Rothesay Bell. Dating from 1834 the bell was previously positioned on the top of the Old Courthouse building in the town centre.  It’s now located close to the sea front alongside interpretative panels about the town’s history.

The Victorian and Edwardian feel of the town continues along the the promenade with large old country house hotels and sturdy looking B’n’Bs from Rothesay’s heyday.

Eventually the road out of Rothesay winds along the seafront to the Bute Sailing Club and old Port Bannatyne, a coastal village, once famous for boat building.

Bute’s Beaches

Bute is best known for its lovely beaches and the spectacular views across from the island to neighbouring Arran and Jura.

The western side of Bute has some of the island’s best beaches, many with great views over the Sound of Bute towards Arran and Bute’s smaller satellite island Inchmarnock.

St Ninian’s Bay and Kildavanan on Ettrick Bay are popular tourist spots with expansive views.

St Ninian’s Bay or The Straad is one of my favourites. Sheltered by a spit of land that sometimes becomes cut off by spring tides, there are lovely views of Inchmarnock, a tiny satellite isle to the west of Bute.

Several of Bute’s beaches are shingle or rocky especially at high tide so don’t imagine vast expanses of sand. Pick a beach that suits your interests, whether you’re a beachcomber or sun bather.

Ettrick Bay is a a golden sandy beach which extends for about 1 mile along the west coast of the island. Another popular beach is Scalpsie Bay which is quieter and less touristy than Ettrick. 

If you’re looking for a guide to the Bute beaches, this blog post is one of the best I’ve read on the topic.

St Ninian’s Bay sign

Early Religious Heritage

Bute’s early history is fascinating and historians are still trying to put together the pieces of this historic jigsaw puzzle.

It isn’t known exactly when Christianity arrived in Bute but it’s possible that it may have involved monks visiting from Ireland.

What we do know is that there was definitely an active Christian community by 600 AD.

One of the most impressive sights on the island is the ruined St Blane’s Monastery which dates from at least the 600s. It’s also the best preserved of the surviving early Christian sites on Bute.

I strongly recommend a trip to this fantastic attraction which is also an ideal spot for a picnic on a sunny day.

St Blane’s monastery

Historians think that a monastery was founded here by St Catan in the late AD 500s. So who was St Blane?

There’s a weird folklore story about a woman called Ertha who got pregnant to an unnamed man. After giving birth, she was cast adrift to sea with her baby son, Blane. They were eventually washed up in Ulster where Blane spent his early life at St Congarth’s monastery.

Later Blane is thought to have returned to Bute and became abbot of the monastery until his death in AD 590.

The 1,400-year-old monastery is a remarkable place with enough of the original structures to give us a good impression of what it once looked like.

Early graves at St Blane’s

The first thing that struck me was the impressive scale and size of the monastery complex.

There would’ve been an abbot’s house, individual cells of the monks, a food refectory, living quarters and a guest house for visitors.

There are also the ruins of several possible small buildings or ‘cells’, a well, a corn kiln and the ‘socket’ stone for a cross.

This was clearly a large community which might have featured on the pilgrims’ route? It certainly had links with other early Christian communities in Scotland and possibly with Ireland.

The monastery complex – artist’s impression c/o St Blane’s/Historic Scotland

On the edge of the monastery site there’s a curious structure known as ‘the cauldron’. This large circular enclosure with sturdy walls is a mystery. Its date and function are not known.

Its location at the foot of a sheer 70ft high rock face is particularly baffling. Some experts believe it might have been a place of penance at some point in history. Alternatively, it could’ve been used as an inner stronghold when the monastery had to be defended. My theory is that it might have been a retreat for the monks.

Folklore suggests a pine tree once grew within the “Devil’s Cauldron”. It was said to have magical powers to give visions if a sprig was put under a person’s pillow overnight. But this story seems very fanciful!

The old graveyard

Close to the main monastery complex is a fascinating Dark Age graveyard which is full of very old graves which house the remains of the lay people of the area.

It’s interesting trying to decipher the fading carved words on the ancient stones.

A prominent hog-back stone which lies on its side is well worth a look. It was once thought to be the tomb of St Blane but it actually dates from the 10th Century and is believed to be that of a Viking settler.

Equally impressive are the ruins of Kingarth Parish Church. The original church was probably built here in the early 1200s.

This is a great example of Romanesque architecture. A highlight is its lovely chancel arch, dating from the 1300s, which is exceptionally beautiful.

Not much is known about what caused the final demise of the monastery, although Viking raids are a strong possibility. The Norsemen were known to be highly active in this area of Scotland.

The setting for the monastery and church is particularly beautiful, lying in a sheltered dell surrounded by farmland and reached by a signposted track.

It’s an easy walk from the small parking area at the end of a road two miles south of Kingarth. 

If you enjoy early religious sites, there’s another ruined chapel, dating from the 6th Century, at St Ninian’s Point, but it’s much smaller.

Stone Circles

Bute is also famous for its standing stones including the Bronze Age circle at Kingarth, a short drive along the road from St Blane’s Chapel.  

There are three stones which were once part of a larger prehistoric group which can be seen from the roadside. They lie close to a find site where bronze halberds which were discovered in the 19th Century.

The southern stone is unusual in that it’s a large block of conglomerate which features ancient graffiti including what looks like a small incised cross.

This whole landscape is known to have evidence of prehistoric occupation from at least the Neolithic period onwards. The isthmus was narrower and the sea level was higher back then – this would have provided early settlers with an excellent harbour for boats.

Black Park and the Kingarth Stone Circle

Further along this route, there is another set of stones at Largizean comprising three boulders in the corner of a farmer’s field.

Bute’s Aristocratic Lands

A visit to Bute isn’t just all about the great outdoors. There are several intriguing indoors attractions which is useful when the weather turns bad which is often the case when I’m doing a Scottish trip.

Most famous of these is Mount Stuart, a striking Victorian Gothic pile, which was the ancestral home of Bute’s landowners. It was built by the Marquess of Bute who was once the richest man in Britain.

Mount Stuart

If you’re looking for a theatrical building, you’ve come to the right place. Architect Robert Rowand Anderson knew how to make a dramatic statement and the overall effect is like entering a cathedral. The interior design is said to have been inspired by religion and the stars.

The stately home is also a palace of the arts with paintings by the great masters including Tintoretto, Titian and Veronese adorning the walls. The extensive gardens are also incredibly beautiful, set off by their coastal setting.

Sadly, I wasn’t about to see inside this famous mansion because of Covid closures. It’s been described as an Instammers’ parade so I’ll definitely be rushing back now it has reopened.

It’s just another in the long list of treasures which justifies why this small island should be called “beautiful Bute”. Why not take a staycation on this small island?

Tammy’s Top Tips

Getting There

The Isle of Bute can be reached by Calmac ferry from Wemyss Bay from the mainland or there’s a shorter ferry ride from Rhubodach to Colintraive at the north of the island.

Tickets for both journeys can be bought from the ferry departure points. The Wemyss Bay route takes 20 minutes whilst the Colintraive ferry is a short hop of 8 minutes.

Accommodation

There’s a range of accommodation on Bute from self catering cottages to traditional B ‘n Bs, small hotels and a couple of camping and RV parks.

Most of the medium sized hotels are in Rothesay, the island’s main town. Don’t expect to find large hotel chains.

I stayed at the Roseland Holiday Park which has chalets, caravan/motor home pitches and glamping pods. There are relatively few big motorhome and caravan sites on the island.

Walking

Walkers will enjoy the West Island Way runs the entire length of the island and can be accessed from various points if you want to do take all or part of the journey.

Vehicle break downs

I can strongly recommend the W&J Duncan Garage in Rothesay which saved our staycation with an emergency repair job on our broken motorhome. Their help went beyond the call of duty!

Bute to Colintraive ferry

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