Seriously Fun Staycation on the Isle of Bute
Our guest blog post by travel writer, broadcaster and blogger – Robin McKelvie
As a wee laddie you couldn’t pay me to come to Bute. OK, that’s not strictly true. The price of hauling me down here every year to paint my dad’s yacht at Ardmaleish was a daily handful of coppers to spend on the waterfall machine at the amusement arcade in Rothesay. I’m pleased to report that I’ve just been back doon the watter with my own kids and no bribery was required. Bute today is an island that is ideal for a seriously fun staycation as we discovered with not a dull moment. And, mercifully, on our long weekend there was not a paintbrush in sight.
Our base on Bute was spot on; the sort of oasis that instantly illustrates what is so appealing about 21st-century Bute. This is an isle where the old and new seamlessly combine. Yes there was the old solid stone and the views out across Bute’s famously lush fields, but our abode at Balmory Stables was also a seriously plush one, all hardwoods, woodburning stoves and chic designer furniture. They’ve done a brilliant job here, as they have down the road at Mount Stuart with their choice of self-catering escapes. There are loads of hotels and B&Bs in Rothesay, but we enjoyed being hidden away here in the countryside with more birdlife than fellow holidaymakers.
The epicentre of Bute life is ‘The Town’: Rothesay. Once a grand Victorian-era resort during the days when half – if not more – of Glasgow bashed down here on paddle steamers for their holidays. Legacies of those days are tantalisingly alive. My girls – newly teen Tara and ten-year-old Emma – were intrigued by the plush, marble-kissed Victorian toilets by the pier where you can spend a penny for 40p in truly historic surrounds. Just across the trimly kept flowerbeds and waterfront promenade the Winter Gardens still stand proud too. They have been reborn as the Discovery Centre, with a lovely wee cinema, a gift shop and exhibits that delve into the glories of doon the watter tourism.
While the built environment is compelling on Bute we also found its natural charms brilliantly accessible. We took to the West Island Way (see what they’ve done there? Love it!), a 30 mile waymarked trail that sweeps from the southern fringes of Bute all the way to its northern extremities. One half of Bute lies in the Lowlands; the other in the Highlands. So there is huge scenic diversity. On previous trips I’ve walked most of the sections and all are worth doing. On this trip the girls enjoyed yomping out of Rothesay up the hillside in search of Port Bannatyne, a deeply scenic walk much less manicured than the mansion sprinkled coastal walk.
The West Island Way ripples to or near most of Bute’s top sights too. Two them stood out for us on this trip. First up was Mount Stuart, the lavish home and estate of the world’s richest man when it was completed in 1900, the 3rd Marquess of Bute. The grounds are glorious to explore with an explosion of flora and fauna to lose yourself in. Inside the remarkable vast house a riot of marble and opulence await. The chapel where Stella McCartney was married has to be seen to be believed. A simpler chapel lies in Bute’s south. We ventured down to ramble around the ruins of St. Blane’s Chapel, an evocative spot where the only noise was the girls playing and the whistling of the wind.
The West Island Way takes in a slew of great beaches too. Bute excels with beaches with the seabird and wildflowers of Kilchattan Bay, the tearoom fringed mile-long sands of Ettrick Bay (the milkshakes are still as good as I remember as a boy in the tearoom). One new ‘discovery’ for us this time was St Ninian’s. This sandy stunner was a sheer joy. We spotted it from the car and eased down to find a beach all to ourselves. The girls skimmed stones and looked for ‘crystals’ as daddy enjoyed the views across to the isles of Inchmarnock and Arran. We also loved Scalpsie Bay with its seal colony, which added a new level of excitement to our paddling!
Another source of great excitement was our open top bus tour. Stick with me – we’re not talking some dull city sightseeing trawl in heavy traffic. Oh no. We were up top with trees and birds swishing by. The girls loved watching lambs skipping around madly as we rumbled by and also the alpacas that have arrived at one of the local farms. Then there was the red telephone box, a popular request stop. Inside is an honesty shop with goodies from local artist Ruth Slater. And tablet. Silky soft, sugary, buttery, gorgeous Bute tablet. You don’t get that on a circuit of Paris.
Ok so Paris then may be renowned for its food, but here Bute is no slouch either these days. It really has no excuse with so many farms enjoying the fertile soils and animals munching happily away on sea salt-tinged grazing. We had a glorious hamper from Bute Kitchen delivered to us and also a ‘Flavours of Bute’ three course dinner brought to us through the same people at Balmory. It was a delight with local Loch Fad trout to start, followed by Kilchattan Bay beef and panna cotta spiced with Bute rhubarb. Our breakfasts were amazing with Bute Shores artisan bread, Ritchie’s (smoking on Bute since 1888) smoked salmon and Macqueens butcher goodies.
Dining out was a joy over the weekend too. At the Victoria Hotel we tucked into proper battered haddock and chips, served with mushy peas. At Kettledrum I gazed out at the ferries whilst enjoying a steak pie made with Bute beef. We loved newcomer Ambience too with its creative Caribbean menu, and lovely, welcoming staff. I caught a later ferry to my girls, sneaking in a relaxed lunch at The Bonnie Clyde, where the waitress recommended the Rothesay Bay langoustines freshly caught by her husband. It proved a great recommendation and I caught the ferry not having had a bad meal on Bute.
With all that lovely food we kept very active over our weekend. It’s easy to do on Bute. As well as the West Island Way I headed out in the mornings before the girls got up with an e-bike from Cycle-Bute. Then there are the stand up paddle boards from Bute Paddle Boards. They have an ace new family one that can take eight people! Also new is the adrenaline pumping RIB from Bute Boat Tours. It’s a great way to bash up to the Kyles of Bute and appreciate the epic scenery that saw filmmaker Richard Attenborough buy an estate here.
With so much to see we tried to plan our time to get the most out of it. The Coig app proved very handy for that. It’s easy to use and what’s more it’s completely free to download. You can download it here https://ayrshireandarran.com/app/. I very much recommend you do. Another thing to look out for is the monthly photo competition that The Coig are currently running for the rest of this year. It’s called #CaptureTheCoig. I’m looking forward to seeing some great images there so get snapping!
I left Bute feeling like I always do these days, having had a brilliant time, and knowing there is a lot more still to discover. Next time I want to hike to the remote stretch of Glen More into the hills there and check up on the farm at Scalpsie who have started farming truffles! I love heading doon the watter and my girls now do too. It’s very much a case for us of Haste Ye Back!