The ferry from Wemyss Bay is as as all good ferries should be, a utilitarian way to a destination, no frills just a piece of transport to deliver you to the other end. In this case the destination was Bute, and more specifically Rothesay. The town is an imposing Victorian construction centred around an almost lost castle. It would surely not be unfair to call it a place of faded grandeur, a place sitting uncertainly between its seaside resort past and an uncertain future. It’s a pleasant enough conglomeration of stone built houses focused around a seafront but the wilder corners of the island were more of interest to us.
Bute has an array of beaches set in sheltered bays looking out to Arran or in towards the Cumbrae islands and the mainland. Many years ago we visited Ettrick Bay on the way west to Islay and our memory was of acres of sand with a beached fishing boat perched in its centre. On this visit the tide seemed to be constantly in, leaving little or no beach to wander across.
Our first destination was the beach at St Ninian’s and a walk around to the ruined chapel of the same name. This could have been a wander over golden sands but instead we clung to the shore as the tide lapped ever higher threatening to cut off the little promontory at its tenuous isthmus. The chapel itself was a set of low walls with little to see but the peninsula end gave great views up and down Bute as well as out to Arran. Here a flash of orange revealed the location of a rather late small copper butterfly as if flitted from our feet and settled again in the shelter of a grassy tussock. A hare shot out from its resting place and disappeared into the low but rocky landscape but there was little else in terms of wildlife.
Our time on Bute was of short walks on beaches such as the pale sands of Ettrick Bay or the redder sands of Kilchattan. Or up to the viewpoint at Tarmore Hill looking out as boats crossed in the sound between Bute and Inchmarnock all dwarfed by the cloud topped hills of Arran behind. To the south is Scalpsie Bay where the Highland Boundary Fault marks the change in Geology from the older rocks to the north and west and the Devonian Old Red Sandstones to the south.
Another short walk took us to St Blane’s Church and Monastry; a ruined complex centred around a small church. It sits in a sheltered gap in the surrounding craggy hills with views towards Arran and Holy Isle. Established in the 6th century by St Catan but named after his nephew St Blane. The sense of wilderness still pervades this spot, perhaps not so different from how it may have felt some 1400 years ago.
We stayed one night in Rothesay, very much the heart of the island, so much so that signposts all seem to lead here. Choices at road junctions often seem to be between Rothesay to the left and Rothesay to the right, 4 miles or 9 miles take your pick, and yet it’s the smaller places that have more of an island charm. Our return to the mainland came as the clouds cleared and the sun reflected off calm clear waters and Bute was left behind still dwarfed by the hills of Arran further south.