Shortly after the first moon landings, my teacher at Rothesay Primary School asked my class to draw what we thought Bute would look like in 2019. Most of us drew flying cars, people in space suits and rockets ready to go to Mars. It was the space age, and we loved the thought of breaking free and seeing Bute becoming a part of this brave new world.
I was fortunate to spend the first 20 years of my life on the Isle of Bute. I did not realise it at the time, though, and was anxious to get off the island to further my education and my career. Nevertheless, I had a very happy childhood in a community where people did not lock their houses or cars, and where everyone knew everyone else. Our house was on the top of the Serpentine Road, overlooking the putting greens, the Prom and Rothesay Bay. At that time, there was a gantry over the pier. On the side facing arrivals, it said Ceud mìle fàilte, while the side facing departures entreated visitors to Haste ye back. The main road between the town and the putting greens was strung with colourful lights, while the putting greens were decorated with illuminated cut-out animals set against the backdrop of palm trees and the Cowal hills.
From Easter until October, the ferries would arrive full of people from Greenock, Paisley and Glasgow, who would sail “doon the watter” to get some fresh air and dip their toes in the Clyde at Children’s Corner or Ettrick Bay. The adults filled the pubs, while the younger ones went to the amusement arcades, putting greens or the Radio Clyde Roadshow at the Pavilion. Wallace Arnold coaches would discharge their complement of pensioners at the Glenburn Hotel for afternoon tea before settling down to watch the Ella Wilson Gang Show at the Winter Gardens. The more energetic would hire lilac-painted bikes from Mr McCainsh’s bike shop and cycle around the island as burgundy-jacketed photographers from Butey Snaps patrolled, cameras at the ready to create black and white memories for a small fee. However, as the 1980s approached, the number of visitors declined: for all the island’s beauty it could not compete with the Spanish costas. Things began to change, and the town fell on hard times. I moved away in 1984 to start working in Glasgow. Life moved on and Bute became a place I went back to only rarely.
I recently returned to Bute to find out what had become of it and how it was reinventing itself in the wake of the pandemic. Was it finally finding a way to encourage people to make the 30-minute ferry crossing, and if so, how? How can it hold on to the visitors it welcomed when people were unable to go farther afield?
I spoke with Hazel Mulholland from VisitScotland’s iCentre in the Isle of Bute Discovery Centre. We were joined by Robert Barr, the handyman and projectionist at the 90-seat cinema that shares the former Winter Gardens. We reminisced about the Bute of our childhood before discussing a vision for the future that involves getting the cinema Covid compliant and reopened, promoting the Isle of Bute music festival at Ettrick Bay (which was recently headlined by The Wedding Present) and the recent Pride parade on the Prom. There was also talk about doing more with the Prom, which was once the heart of the town: where people promenaded, hired motorboats, ate ice cream and played crazy golf. All of that is now long gone, but perhaps some of it could be revived to give visitors with young families more things to do.
Inevitably, talk turned to the importance of Mount Stuart House, formerly the private residence of the Marquesses of Bute. Built by the 3rd Marquess in the late 19th-Century, it incorporated a number of innovative features, including electric lighting, what is believed to be the world’s first indoor heated swimming pool, an indoor lift and an internal telephone system. Mount Stuart is a beautiful and unique attraction. No visit to Bute can be complete without taking in this neo-Gothic house and gardens. However, give yourself plenty of time: ideally, you should arrive in the morning and plan to leave in the evening. Even with a full eight hours to spend, you will be left with lots unseen.
Aficionados of craft gins are also spoiled for choice. The island is home to two distilleries: Spirit of Bute and Isle of Bute Gin. I visited both to find out their ambitions for their brand and the island they call their home.
Keith McIntyre, owner of Spirit of Bute, invested almost everything he has into this venture. “It’s my pension”, he said. “It has to succeed because there is so much at risk.” We were interrupted by a steady stream of customers, with none leaving empty-handed. One of the driving forces behind the Isle of Bute Business Improvement District (BID), Keith believes local businesses need to step up to make the island more attractive. He hopes the BID can make a difference, perhaps by making aesthetic improvements to the likes of Montague Street, which is now looking tired and in need of some sparkle. He thinks the town would benefit from a good quality delicatessen, which could sit alongside a butcher’s, fishmonger’s, grocer’s and all kinds of craft cafes, bookshops and much more. And with that, he had to return to his customers, making them feel welcome and important and rewarding their purchases with a free tote bag.
At the Isle of Bute Gin Company, I spoke with distillery manager Iona Buick about the international success of their gin. She said the company is focusing on expanding its markets and selling its product as widely as possible and doing so while maintaining the quality for which it is renowned. As for its role in the community, Iona discussed the distillery’s place at the heart of the Bute Yard food and drink hub that will open next year. Bute Yard will be a place for small businesses and produce stalls to offer their wares in a project committed to growing food and drink tourism on the island. As a key part of this development, Isle of Bute Gin will move into larger premises alongside the Bute craft microbrewery to serve the regular farmers’ markets and fairs and support and complement existing events, providing both the island and the town with a new attraction.
Two micro-distilleries, both established within the past three years, and both producing quality products and succeeding on their own terms. These businesses are putting the Isle of Bute on the map and serving as examples of what is possible if only we are prepared to think a little outside the box.
Speaking of thinking differently, David Brown, owner of WildBute tours, showed me around the island. We began at the Bute Fabrics factory established in 1947 to employ demobbed soldiers. He told me that there were four cotton mills on the island at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, each powered by water wheels on an island with no rivers. Our tour took us past Rothesay Castle, a royal fortress used by early Stewart kings and the only circular castle in Scotland. On we continued, past the remains of the Kyles of Bute Hydro hotel that was requisitioned by the Admiralty during the Second World War and renamed HMS Varbel, and which was home to the midget submarine programme and from where the operation to sink the Tirpitz was planned. Onwards we ventured past the Viking Ting, then the stone circle at St Colmac and the series of artificial raths into which livestock would be herded when raiders came calling. The tour could have gone on for several more hours. As it was, we were scratching the surface.
My initial pessimism had been turned around by the enthusiasm of the people who continue to make Bute their home. Yes, the Prom is dark and foreboding, and yes, there is a desperate shortage of quality hotel accommodation. Still, the town has a charm of sorts, and the island is a beautiful and peaceful haven. You can see that the people are proud and want to succeed, despite all the obstacles placed in their way, and there are plans to offer attractions and services that will appeal to residents and more discerning visitors.
And so it was that the discussion turned to the Pavilion. This listed 1930s art deco building has been undergoing renovations for several years, with work delayed by a contractor going out of business followed by the pandemic. I spoke with Julie Tait, executive director of Rothesay Pavilion Charity. She spoke enthusiastically about this iconic building and its future role as a creative hub that will give young people career paths that mean they do not have to leave the island. She acknowledges the challenges of having a venue of this size in such a small community and accepts its chances of success will be enhanced should plans for a large, modern waterfront hotel be revived. Whether the hotel is built or the Glenburn can reopen, there is at least optimism as work on the Pavilion recommences, providing the island with a space it has lacked ever since the Winter Gardens closed.
And on that positive note, my return to Bute came to an end. There may not be any flying cars or rocket excursions to Mars from the pier; the fairy lights and wooden animals may be long gone. But the people of Bute are still there, fighting as hard as ever to see their town and their island succeed.
Jamie and his wife, Linda, were guests of VisitScotland. During their time on Bute, they stayed at the Coach House at Stewart Hall. They travelled to Bute on the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay and returned via the ferry from Rhubodach on the Isle of Bute to Colintraive in Argyll.