As our bard, Rabbie Burns, once said: “Nae man can tether time nor tide”. And so it was that our time in Bute was coming to an end. But we still had a few hours to enjoy before we had to say our goodbyes, and we wanted to make the most of it. I decided to run a few errands and leave Linda to enjoy a few more minutes in the land of nod. I checked the camera for battery and for memory, then made my way from the Coach House into town under a steel-grey sky.
My first stop was at Bute Fabrics to get a photograph of this concern that has been a mainstay of island employment for as long as I can remember. The mill is in a spotlessly clean and quiet square complete with immaculately manicured lawns and mature trees, while the main building and centre of activity looked more like a rural holiday retreat than a factory producing high-quality upholstery fabrics for up-market hotels and homes. Of course, I arrived there about 7am, and there were only a few lights on in some of the offices. There were no lights on in the weaving room and no machinery could be heard. While it is possible, if not very likely, that from 9am to 5pm it turns into a dark and satanic mill, I did not have time to dally: the car needed fuel and photographs had to be taken.
My next port of call was to fill the car up with diesel. I headed down to Duncan’s garage and started fuelling up when the attendant came around. Here, apparently, the fuel pumps are not self-service and you are supposed to wait. The attendant didn’t really mind, though, possibly just putting it down to one of those incomers from the mainland not understanding how things are done on the island. We did have a chat about the recent fuel crisis that saw queues and fights outside petrol stations and led to many fuel outlets limiting customers to £30 of fuel per visit. He said they were never at risk of running low, that their deliveries arrived as normal, although he did admit there was a brief period at the height of the scare when people were panic buying – but not enough to threaten stocks.
I headed down to the Prom. I needed to try to get a reasonable photo of the Winter Gardens, which is easier said than done under a featureless sky and flat light. I did what I could under the circumstances, and promised to come back to Bute to try again when the light is better.
This part did sadden me. The pier has been fenced off and closed to the public, while the Prom has been separated from the putting greens and Winter Gardens by an unattractive, black breeze block flood defence wall with steep staircases and ramps providing access over it. To add insult to injury, the Prom has been covered in black tarmac, replacing the light surface of old. The old railing is still there along the sea wall, and there the views out over Children’s Corner, past the Pavilion and sailing club and on to Ardbeg remain wonderful, and while Rothesay Bay remains still attractive, bounded as it is by the Skeoch Woods on one side, the Skipper’s Woods on the other and opening up on to Loch Striven and the hills of Cowal, the Prom is a shadow of its former self. Once the bright beating heart of the town, it has now been cut off from it and ghettoised. The dark surface and the dark wall have deprived it of its soul and separated it. You now have to overcome obstacles to reach the Prom, and once you are there you feel hemmed in. It is dark, almost claustrophobic, and unwelcoming.
It is difficult to know what can be done, but something really has to be done. It could start by painting the dark, utilitarian flood walls a bright colour and replacing the hideous black tarmac surface. The Prom is not a road, and it should not be made to look like one. And while I understand that the Prom is to be sacrificed in the event of a high tide that threatens to inundate the town, there is no need to abandon it for the majority of the time when there is no threat of a flood. Brighten it up and reunite it with the town – that would be a good start.
I crossed over the wall at the point where the old outdoor draughts board used to be and walked past the fountain – now a smaller, golden version of the yellow one I remember. The flower beds had been cleared with care, but the fountain was not switched on, and under the dull, flat October sky, the scene was more one of potential than attractiveness. The sign symbolising the transition from Highland to Lowland Scotland looked small and lost. It all had an air of melancholy and I could feel rising in myself feelings of despair and anger tinged with sadness. But then, very few places can look attractive when the sky is grey, the air damp and the light flat: so perhaps I am being overcritical of the efforts being made by people who have an investment in the town’s success. I need constantly to remind myself that while I am a Brandane, I am also an outsider.
I got the ferry tickets and made my way back to the pier to enquire about changing my Wemyss Bay tickets for Colintraive tickets. I was told that the tickets were good for both ferries, but that it might be moot anyway as the Wee Ferry was currently suspended because of an electrical fault on the boat, and that there was no indication of when – or if – it would be back in service. That placed me in a bit of a quandary: what to do. I decided then just to hold on to the Wemyss Bay tickets and, if the worst came to the worst, then we could drive to Gourock and get the Western Ferry to Dunoon and get to Portavadie that way. A longer journey, certainly: but all part of the adventure.
I headed back to the car and phoned the Calmac customer service number. After about five minutes of recorded messages, I was connected with an American woman who was unable to pronounce either Colintraive or Rhubodach, and who told me she would need to check the website before she could let me know what was happening. After being put on hold for a few minutes, she came back and read out the message on the website – something I had already done myself. I asked her for the phone number of the ticket office at Colintraive, and she told me it was an unmanned operation. When I told her there was a ticket office at Colintraive, and that there were people there who sold and checked tickets, she put me on hold for another five minutes before hanging up on me. So, poor marks Calmac.
Linda was now trying to get me. She was panicking that we were running out of time to vacate the Coach House. I told her about the ferry situation, and she took it in her stride. I did eventually get the number for the Colintraive ticket office and was told that the fault had been repaired and the ferry back in service. So now we knew we had a little more time on the island. Enough time to go to the Ettrick tearoom and visit St Blane’s.
First things first, though. The Ettrick tearoom, where I had a full Scottish breakfast, complete with two rashers of bacon, a square sausage, two eggs, two potato scones, baked beans and a round of buttered toast and a mug of tea, while Linda had scrambled egg on toast and a mug of coffee. As a meal, it was enough to last until dinner time, and prepared us for our impending assault on St Blane’s. We sat in the very busy café enjoying the views over Ettrick Bay as the light chased the clouds across the sky. Before leaving we braved the weather and took a stroll along the beach, breathing deeply the sea and sand-scented air on the breeze.
Rather than taking the road back past Stewart Hall and Scalpsie Bay to get to St Blane’s, we decided to take one more tour of the town. We drove past Port Bannatyne, then took the high road past my Dad’s old house, then past the bus station and Ardmory Road, on past my sister’s old house and then the Skeoch Woods, the sailing club and Pavilion into Rothesay itself. We saw the tragic pink bench memorial to Alesha MacPhail, the six-year-old girl whose murder in 2018 horrified the town and shocked the nation, past the car park that once was the West Church, and on through the traffic lights, past the pier and the Albert Pier, to the old Baths and the for sale Glenburn Hotel. On we went, past Craigmore Pier – once a café, now a private home – on to Montford and past the old home for boys, then Ascog and the model village at Kerrycroy, up the hill past the entrance to Mount Stuart and the White Lodge, and then down the long straight past the now-closed Kingarth Hotel and finally, taking the right turn, followed the Plan road out past Dunagoil to St Blane’s.
I love St Blane’s. Not so much for the remains of the church and the old monastery, but for the climb up to it. It really has to be experienced to be believed: photographs do not do it justice. There is an old rowan tree halfway up the hill between the car park and the church. This tree has been bent double by the prevailing winds. It stands with its branches stretching out horizontal with the ground. It is a fantastic example of natural sculpture and fits perfectly with its setting. As you climb, don’t forget to turn around and marvel at the unobstructed views out over the emerald green fields to the iron age vitrified fortress at Dunagoil, then out over the azure Sound of Bute across to the brooding cloud-covered mountains of Arran and its forever dormant Sleeping Warrior. Sit on the bench and take it all in and remember that this land has been occupied continually for millennia: from the people who in Neolithic times erected stone circles, through those who built the fortress on the cliff at Dunagoil, to the early Christian missionary saints who arrived on Bute long before Columba set foot on Iona, through the Vikings to the Normans and on to the present.
The church at St Blane’s is the more modern remains of a chapel that stands on the site of a much older structure. It is surrounded by the remains of a monastic community that once thrived here, and which was probably established there, safe in a natural amphitheatre overlooking the sea and protected on one side by a 30-foot cliff, because it was sheltered, had water and fertile land for crops and livestock and could not be easily surprised by raiders arriving from the sea. It is more than worth the five-minute uphill walk just to experience history in the flesh.
Linda and I wandered around just soaking up the atmosphere, delaying the inevitable. Then it was time to go. Our stay on Bute had come to an end. We walked slowly back to the car, not knowing when we will return, but certain that we shall. We took the High Street into town, giving us an opportunity to pass through Rothesay, Ardbeg and Port Bannatyne once more before making our way to Rhubodach and our appointment with the Wee Ferry and the Argyll Secret Coast.