Bute is the second largest of the Clyde islands and, being around 90 minutes from Glasgow city centre, it is also one of the busiest. The direct train from Glasgow Central takes you to the pier at Wemyss Bay, where your ferry will be waiting. After a smooth 35 minute sail across the Upper Clyde on one of two new ferries, you find yourself pulling alongside in Rothesay, the largest settlement on Bute.
Leaving the ferry, it’s best to turn right, leaving the numerous pubs and chippies (fish and chip shops) behind, and almost immediately a soothing stillness descends.
On the inland side of the road, Victorian villas built as grand holiday homes for the Glasgow tobacco barons, peek out from behind palm trees and monkey puzzles and have expansive views across Rothesay Bay towards Loch Striven, Toward Castle and the rugged Cowal hills.
The road hugs the coast most of the way, but you have the option of cutting inland through the hamlet of Ardbeg for some refreshments at the village shop. Both routes lead you into Port Bannatyne, a sleepy village set in Kames Bay, home to some of the best seafood available on the Clyde.
The Squat Lobster, an old style seafood diner sits on the seafront, where you can watch the owners’ fishing boat, Wanderer, catching your lunch. As the restaurant is not licensed to serve alcohol, you can buy some drinks in the pub next door, and bring them in to enjoy with your meal.
After your meal, start walking North again, past Scotland’s only island petanque club and the marina, until you reach the junction at Kames Castle’s gatehouse. Turning left, you get great views over Kames Castle, continuously occupied since the 14th Century – making it one of the oldest inhabited buildings in the country. There are some self catering cottages and a large walled garden here, and would be an idyllic setting to spend a few days. Turning left at the gate house the scenery changes very suddenly, from rocky shores and rugged mountains to low lying, rolling fields as far as the eye can see.
The first building you come across after half a mile or so is St Colmac’s Church, built by the landowners in 1836 to serve the Gaelic speaking islanders of North Bute. It last held a service in 1980, but is now a popular rest stop on the way to Ettrick Bay.
Opposite the church is an early medieval earthwork, supported by a circular wall and containing the 18th century tombs for the residents at Kames Castle. Also at this junction is the beginning of the tramway, a path along what was once the track for an electric tram that ran from the ferry at Rothesay to Ettrick Bay.
As you near Ettrick Bay the majestic mountains of Arran come in to view, towering above the white sands and glistening Firth of Clyde, and it’s easy to see why this has been one of the most popular beaches in Scotland for more than 150 years. An altogether more modern addition is the Ettrick Bay Tearoom, where you will find high quality food and drink with one of the finest views around. It’s also available for private functions, and I can’t think of a better way to start a party than sitting on the beach watching the sun go down behind the mountains.
After a walk along the beach, you can get the bus back to Rothesay, which often feels deserted in the evenings when the mainlanders begin to head home. This gives you the space to enjoy Rothesay Castle, built in the 13th Century and pivotal in the Battle of Largs, when King Alexander III rid Scotland of the vikings for the last time. The castle fell into ruin over the years, but was partly rebuilt in the 19th century, including the reinstatement of it’s impressive moat and defensive walls.
If castles aren’t your thing then there’s always the option of a quiet stroll along the seafront, where palm trees give a surreal sense of the tropics, against a backdrop of unmistakably Highland scenery and Victorian splendour. No trip to Bute would be complete without dinner from one of the many famous chippies along the promenade, but beware the seagulls, who will surround you in mobs, and tease you into a position where it’s easy to steal your well earned food!
If you survive the exertions of eating outside be sure to visit the famous Victorian toilets at the pier before you board the ferry – they really are unmissable!