Articles - island
There had been no need to rush on this warm sunny afternoon. Relaxing into ‘Bute time’, I was happy to drive a stretch of one of the island’s narrower roads particularly slowly – there was no other traffic but I was behind a large hare. It had taken up the middle of the road and just kept on going, straight down the middle, seemingly unconcerned.
Now I was on a well-defined, sign-posted path leading up a hillside. With each step of the way I felt I was reaching back in time.
The path ends at a flat walled area with a graveyard and the remains of a small church. This ruin dates back mainly to the 12th century. It was built on the stones of a much earlier monastic settlement founded by St. Blane and is thought to have been in existence in 574.
It’s believed Blane was born on Bute. At some point he travelled to Bangor in Ireland where he was educated before returning as a missionary. He would have been familiar with this hillside.
From his churchyard he could look over the fertile land sloping down to the sea and across the water to the mountains of the Isle of Arran that fill the background. It’s an impressive sight and probably little changed from Blane’s day.
The pioneers exploring Bute some five or six thousand years before Blane also left their marks on the island. Now we can only make an educated guess at the significance of their standing stones.
Not all visitors were welcomed wholeheartedly. Eight years after the last abbot died in 790, Viking raiders set fire to the monastery. However, they weren’t all bad. Many of Bute’s place names suggest some of these Norsemen were farmers who stayed to work the land and fish the surrounding sea.
More recent visitors to Bute have included the wealthy Glasgow merchants who built large houses along the seafront, or, perhaps because their view was obstructed, further up the slopes behind Rothesay Bay.
Whole families, including domestic staff would have arrived in their own yachts. As well as a grand holiday home, a yacht was the other status symbol of the day.
Sea bathing, donkey rides and hydrotherapy treatments, including cold baths and drinking the water from a mineral well on the shore, were popular pastimes then.
After the days of sail, when steam ships became the usual way to get to Bute, the island became the holiday destination for huge numbers of people, especially from the central belt of Scotland.
These were busy days for Rothesay when some families booked accommodation with the same landlady year after year. It’s said there were certain landladies, though this tale might be apocryphal, who would fill their rooms to bursting point by drawing chalk marks on the floor – sleeping arrangements by number!
If even more people wanted accommodation, the chalk marks got smaller! It was even known for families to sleep out in the woods having arrived to find all the accommodation taken.
At that time, visitors would have been transported to other parts of the island in horse drawn vehicles and later in electric tram cars.
Today it’s much easier getting to the Island of Bute. Trains run from Central Station, Glasgow to Wemyss Bay, from where Caledonian MacBrayne car and passenger ferries sail across to Rothesay in thirty five minutes.
The attractions of the Isle of Bute haven’t changed all that much over the years and though Rothesay may be crowded in the summer months there’s plenty of space at any time for everyone.
To enjoy the splendours of the south side of the island, drive off the ferry, turn left out of Rothesay and head along the shore road.
Your passengers may want to keep a look out for seals lazing on the seaside rocks and for the sign for the entrance to Ascog Gardens.
The private house, Ascog Hall, once belonged to Alexander Bannatyne Stewart, a prosperous, philanthropic Glasgow merchant with Rothesay roots who became Convener of Bute County.
About 1870, he commissioned Edward La Trobe, the designer of the Botanic Garden in Melbourne, Australia to landscape the garden in front of the house and construct a fernery.
Over time however, the fernery fell into disrepair and when it was uncovered in 1997, was found to be in a near ruinous condition. Amazingly, one fern from the original collection had survived – a Todea barbara or King Fern. When that same fern was dated in 1879, it was reckoned back then to be more than 1000 years old.
King ferns are indigenous to the damper areas of New Zealand, South Africa and parts of Australia. Some of the many other sub-tropical fern species thriving in the nooks and crannies in the fernery’s weathered sandstone rock walls have equally exotic origins.
With a grant from Historic Scotland, the sunken fernery with its glass roof was rebuilt to the original design and replanted with knowledgeable help from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
It had obviously been constructed and planted with care; each rock carted from Bute’s beaches, as well as each pebble making up the path, appears to have been specifically chosen to enhance the overall setting.
Wander round the garden and you might imagine you’ve been transported to somewhere tropical. There are a number of different ‘rooms’ with profusions of candelabra primulas, yuccas, azaleas, rhododendrons and the very large leaves of Gunnera mandicata providing a backdrop behind the formal pool.
This is a haven full of delights. Before leaving, take a few minutes to read the information on boards dotted round the garden which give an insight into the indefatigable plant hunters who sent back seeds and plants from far corners of the world to make such gardens possible.
From Ascog garden, your next stop should be Mount Stuart House.
The surrounding woods and gardens are vastly more extensive than those at Ascog, so you may decide to concentrate on one aspect only, be it a woodland walk, the kitchen garden, or rock garden before going inside the house for a guided tour.
The first Mount Stuart House was built by the 2nd Earl of Bute between 1719 and 1721.
After a fire destroyed the central section of the building in 1877 the 3rd Marquess of Bute, who has been described as ‘the greatest architectural patron of the Victorian era’ embarked on his hugely grand, expensive undertaking.
Everything about the building is lavish.
The workmanship and artistry involved in creating the carved wood features, the tapestries, the white marble chapel, the brilliantly coloured stained glass windows and star spangled ceilings has to be seen to be believed.
After being shown around this ostentatious display of serious wealth you might crave a few simpler pleasures.
From Mount Stuart it’s no distance to Scalpsie Beach on the west side. Build a sandcastle, paddle in the sea or just sit and marvel at the views out to Arran before heading back to Rothesay.
Leave a visit to Rothesay Castle and the north end of the island for another day.
But before you leave Bute, give a nod to the raised statue of Alexander Bannatyne Stewart which overlooks a section of the formal floral gardens on the seafront.
Then like thousands of other visitors before you who have enjoyed a trip ‘doon the watter’, make time for a game of putting, a last stroll round Discovery Centre for any last minute information or gifts and a visit to the nearby Victorian Toilets.
Understandably, public conveniences are not usually a visitor attraction but this building and its fittings are an example of Victorian munificence – for the men at least - all gleaming copper pipes and highly polished black marble.
Nowadays though, it’s hard to believe that women weren’t provided for at that time - it was much later before a separate section was added to complete this facility.
Back on the ferry take a few moments to study a map hanging on one of the lounge walls – then step outside. As other smaller islands and mountainous parts of the mainland disappear into the distance you may more readily appreciate Bute’s favoured, sheltered position in the middle of the sea lanes in the Firth of Clyde.
To reach Holy Isle off the Isle of Arran, I had travelled by train from Central Station Glasgow to Ardrossan on Scotland’s west coast. The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry, Caledonia Isles, was already berthed, allowing time for passengers walking the short distance from the station platform to come aboard.
The crossing to Arran takes around fifty minutes. It’s generally so comfortable that some passengers take the opportunity to sit back, close their eyes and nap. But should you go up on deck, keep those binoculars at the ready. There’s a chance of spotting porpoise and even a passing whale.
As the ferry is docking at Brodick, Arran’s main village, local buses draw into the parking bays behind the ferry terminal. From there, it takes only a few minutes to reach Lamlash, where you can then board the small ferry, weather permitting, for the ten minute trip to Holy Isle. With each stage of the journey it will seem as if your usual cares are being left further behind.
Saint Molaise, a Celtic Christian who made his way to Holy Isle from Ireland in the 6th century possibly also noticed this effect. Molaise was the son of Cairell, an Irish king of what is now called Ulster. It’s believed he was much loved by his own people and was offered the throne of Ulster when he came of age. Instead, he chose to live for a time, in a cave on the west coast of Holy Isle. Perhaps he was aware of the island’s reputation, that it had long been considered a ‘holy place’.
The island is only about two miles long and half a mile wide. From Lamlash, it looks vaguely like two weathered extinct volcanoes floating on the sea. The unseen east side is rocky with steep cliffs. The west side is flatter in places with some productive land.
When visitors step from the small ferry onto Holy Isle’s pier, they may be surprised to be welcomed by a Buddhist nun or monk wearing traditional dress (and sometimes, incongruously, a matching warm fleece jacket, waterproof anorak and woollen hat). This will be one of the volunteers from the island’s Centre for World Peace and Health. Visitors are then given a little guidance on where they can wander to enjoy the best of Holy Isle.
The next unusual sight is a line of brightly coloured Tibetan prayer flags, each a few yards apart, fluttering in the breeze. Sited between each pair of flags is a stupa, a white ornamental structure that for some people holds great symbolic meaning. Past the flags and behind a dry stone wall stands the Centre for World Peace and Health which until a few years ago was a very run- down farmhouse.
On the day I visited, I was invited in to meet Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche the driving force behind Holy Isle’s Centre for World Peace and Health. As we sat in the Centre’s cosy library I asked how he had found Holy Isle. He explained that he had not been looking but that the last owners of Holy Isle found him and had offered him the island at a much discounted price as they ‘felt its future would be best taken care of by the Buddhists from Samye Ling monastery in Dumfriesshire’.
Though people travel there from all over the world, Lama Rinpoche the Abbot of Samye Ling monastery told me his vision for Holy Isle was quite different. He explained that the Holy Isle Centre is not a Buddhist monastery but is open to everyone whether they are believers, non-believers, or are completely non-religious.
‘When I was offered Holy Isle,’ he said ‘it was fresh and unpolluted.’ In the past, local shepherds from Arran had ferried their sheep over for the grazing and previous owners had kept a small herd of highland cattle which have since been taken away. But for many years, no one lived there, so the island has remained ‘unspoiled’.
Lama Rinpoche envisaged an ecologically sustainable environment where individuals could develop and experience inner peace, regardless of their background or spiritual tradition.
The emphasis now is very much on people’s wellbeing and health. The once run down farmhouse is now very comfortable and a new building has been added where people live while participating in various courses including yoga and meditation.
The Centre is run completely by volunteers. Some stay for a short time, others for longer periods while they work at various jobs for which they receive board and lodgings.
In one of the polythene tunnels, I met a professional gardener from Germany who was planning the layout of new, sheltered vegetable plots. Eventually it is hoped enough vegetables can be grown under polythene and in outside plots to meet most of the Centre’s needs. With seaweed constantly being washed up on the stony beach there’s a readily available free source of fertilizer.
Sid, one of the other gardeners, is happiest when he is working in the flower beds. He left his wheelbarrow long enough to suggest I make time for a sensual meditative walk through the garden. His instructions involved me stopping, taking time to touch leaves, stalks and petals and smell the flowers. He said I should look carefully at the different textures and colours around me and notice the way leaves on the trees moved in the wind. While sitting on a bench with my eyes closed, trying to concentrate only on the birdsong, I really was in another world.
The peace garden is delightful with painted rocks placed amongst the plants. Notice boards carrying poems add to the interest. In one separate area named the Children’s Garden, a number of little fairy dolls and toy animals have been hidden, awaiting discovery amongst the flowers and branches of bushes.
When you leave the Peace Garden, you may opt to hike up the rough rocky path leading to the top of Mullach Beag (beag meaning small in Gaelic) then carry on to the top of Mullach Mor (mor meaning big ) the highest point of Holy Isle at 1026 feet above sea level.
Most visitors choose the coastal path which starts fairly close to the sea. The small flock of dark brown Soay sheep wandering around are used to visitors. Unperturbed, they hardly bother to look. A few white Saanen goats can be spotted further up the hillside seeking out whatever is edible. Hardy Eriskay ponies hidden by shoulder high ferns occasionally make an appearance as if to watch the passing strangers who are watching them.
Every few hundred yards there are representations of Buddhist deities painted on large rocks on the hillside.
The cave where Molaise lived is easily spotted just off the path. Step inside. Mind your head. Look for the Viking graffiti and a cross scratched into the rock. Unless Holy Isle’s weather was very different in his day he must have experienced great physical hardship here.
Near the cave a spring of water known as the Healing Well flows into a pool. Pilgrims once journeyed here to drink the water believing it had curative properties. Now a small information board lets us know that the water, for drinking at least, doesn’t meet European Union standards.
Further along, higher up the hillside, there are a few glass fronted buildings, known as pods, fronted by another piece of ground being developed as a vegetable garden. This part of the island is closed to the public and is kept for those on long retreats.
Volunteers may be working further along, scything overgrown vegetation, or planting a few more of the 30,000 native trees that will soon attract wildlife.
The path ends at an unusual square lighthouse known as Pillar Rock- a lovely spot to enjoy a picnic.
From parts of the path there are expansive views across the water to Lamlash and from some points, to Goatfell, the highest peak on Arran.
On the short sail back to Lamlash the rain was pouring down from the blackness above. When the clouds passed, blown further east, a brilliantly coloured rainbow arced across the sky. One end seemed to be touching Holy Isle.
First published in The People’s Friend 02.11.2013