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.