The lovely Isle of Bute is changing and ready to welcome you back with a Scottish Gin!
My first visit to the Isle of Bute was over thirty years ago. Via the ferry from Wemyss Bay, alongside my then boyfriend, who had lived in Port Bannatyne as a small child.
I was struck by the splendid architecture of Rothesay’s Pavilion. The manicured Winter Gardens, the opulent designs of the merchants’ seafront villas, and the beaches; miles and miles of sandy beaches. I wasn’t to know that I’d come again, several times, to re-visit this lovely island and discover its Scottish Gin!
Checking out the Port Bannatyne Primary School alongside one of it’s alumni, who quickly clocked how the scale of it’s buildings had changed. Pretty much in direct correlation with his own. Only in the opposite direction! A four year old boy, walking hand in hand along the beach to school with his mother, had found the entrance archway somewhat more imposing than the six foot three inch boyfriend who now had to duck his head to enter.
In many ways Bute is that boy, and that man. It has a scale and grandeur of somewhere much larger, and yet it is really quite small. Of course, a top end resort in Victorian times, when more really was more. Pre-war, it had to expand to accommodate the contents of up to 100 steamers every summer weekend, bringing holiday makers from the mainland. No wonder it has big ideas.
A Tale of Two Campers
Thirty years ago it was looking a bit tired. Many of the houses needed a lick of paint. Several shops were empty. Holidaymakers just weren’t including it in their plans, now that cheap flights to southern Spain were on offer.
Our own holiday budget at that time ran to a curry from a harbour front establishment, then a late night ninja crawl along the back of the beach at Ettrick Bay. Our goal was to pitch our tent among the sand dunes, and hopefully escape having to pay for the privilege.
Whistle A Happy Tune
The mission seemed to be accomplished until dawn broke. With a howling gale and torrential rain and some council workers walking in our direction. Presuming they were about to extort huge amounts of fines from our meagre stash, we collapsed the sodden tent, gathered everything up in our sleep-deprived arms, and ran back to our car. Once the coast was clear, we set up our primus in the lea of a building next to the car park and waited for the kettle to boil.
Imagine a pair of soggy, bleary eyed, hungover and skint romancers. Amazing to think that we progressed to a happy marriage. Even more amazing at the time was that just as our kettle started to whistle happy tunes, a great clattering noise cut through the howls of the wind. We came to realise that our shelter was actually a tea room, just opening it’s shutters for the day! How they laughed. But for us, we would have spent our last pennies on a hot bacon roll and a cup of tea in a warm room. Bliss.
Light and shade they say. You have to experience the lows to appreciate the highs, and gosh, that cup of tea was braw.
We returned to The Isle of Bute on holiday with our young son a few years later. This time with a little more cash in our pockets. We visited Mount Stuart for the first time, and what an introduction.
Built by the 3rd Marquess of Bute it’s a Gothic palace celebrating astrology and astronomy, in acres of Italian marble. A notable collection of exquisite art works and an attention to every tiny detail, make it an absolutely breathtaking residence, even to the day visitor.
It boasts one of the first domestic telephone systems. An early lift and what is thought to be the world’s first heated indoor swimming pool. But then the Marquess was reckoned to be the world’s richest man at one point, so why not?
The Marble Hall at the centre of the house is blessed with an ever changing colour scheme as the sunlight circles the house and shines its rays through the array of stained glass, projecting jewel like colours onto the polished stone. It’s truly magical, and in direct contrast to the simplicity (in colour anyway) of the enchanting white marble Chapel. Find out more here.
Beaches, Castles and Ancient Remains
I was fortunate enough to return in a different guise a few years later still, as a generous PR budget allowed me to hire Mount Stuart for a corporate event. Moving in after the crowds of day guests had departed, and transforming this Palace into a backdrop for a brand launch for 14 people, allowed me to understand the impact it must have had on every visitor fortunate enough to be invited to stay. Certainly it worked for our guests, and we were able to repeat the event a second time, with similar success.
Leaving Mount Stuart and it’s expansive gardens and woodlands behind, the island enjoys a selection of sandy beaches. Stravannan Bay, St Ninians, Kerrycroy, Scalpsie Bay, Port Bannatyne, not forgetting our original find at Ettrick bay of course.
Castles, ancient remains, seals galore, and the West Island Way to explore, which is gentle enough for occasional walkers to conquer with confidence.
A Food and Drink Revolution
There is now a Syrian Restaurant as a result of Bute opening it’s doors and its hearts to a group of Syrian refugees several years ago. Add the mix of ice cream shops, traditional pubs and fish and chips as well as the American diner, and you may need to hire an e-bike from Bike Bute to work off some of those calories.
One of the island’s most refreshing new offerings is Isle of Bute Gin.
Created in small batches in the heart of Rothesay using a traditional copper still, the range of gins made here include gorse and oyster shells as well as a whole range of botanicals sourced on the island too. Their Gin Garden also offers snacks to accompany the gins, and is open Tuesday to Sunday. To book or buy online, click here.
Where to Stay
You’ll need somewhere to rest your head after a full immersion in the Gin Garden, and there’s no shortage of options. From stately hotels in the heart of Rothesay, upmarket B&Bs in some of the nearby villas, to glamping pods and self-catering cottages. Some of which are in the grounds of Mount Stuart and include full access to the gardens. There’s even a conventional camp site at Roseland, if you don’t fancy mimicking our early Ettrick Bay adventure!
For a full range of places to stay check out Visit Bute.
The traditional route to Rothesay is across the water from Wemyss Bay, (timetable here) There is a longer more scenic route up Loch Lomond, through Arrochar, and down the shores of Loch Fyne. This will bring you to Colintraive and the delightful Colintraive Hotel. It’s well worth stopping for a pint, a G&T, a meal, or even an overnight, before starting your Bute adventure afresh with the very short ferry crossing to Rhubodach, just 7 miles north of Rothesay. Timetable here.