Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"Doon the watter" to the Isle of Bute — part I

The Isle of Bute makes a wonderfully charming day trip.

Situated off the west coast of Scotland in the Firth of Clyde, the smallish island only 15 miles long and 3 to 4 miles wide has a wealth of small attractions to enjoy. The main draw for most visitors is the Mount Stuart house, a Victorian Gothic mansion and estate. But there also are medieval ruins, sandy beaches, hairy coos, and prehistoric stone circles to explore.

You can read Part II about the Isle of Bute here:

Mount Stuart house, Isle of Bute, Scotland
The neo-Gothic Mount Stuart house.
Not to mention the "jewels in the sanitarian's crown," the Victorian toilets. How many other places have you visited where the toilets are a tourist attraction?

Wemyss Bay

Our trip started at an ungodly early hour: 5:30 am. Well, truthfully, the goal was 5:30 but we left around 5:45, which ain't bad when you consider we were trying to transfer our kid from his crib to his car seat without rousing him from slumber. {Ed.'s note: No such luck.} From our house in Glasgow, we followed the River Clyde west as it emptied into the Firth and then bent south along the coast of the mainland to Wemyss Bay. With no traffic of any kind, the drive took us only 45 minutes.

View of Isle of Bute and Isle of Arran across the Firth of Clyde
The early morning view across the Firth of Clyde.
Then we had time to kill. Our ferry ride was scheduled for 7:15 am. If you're bringing a car on the ferry, you're told you must arrive at least half an hour before the departure time. But several cars arrived after 6:45 without a problem, so I'm not sure how strong the rule is. Anywho, we had time to take Mattie for a short walk, get Jackson changed out of pajamas and into clothes, and take a peek inside the train station at the ferry port.

Train station and ferry station at Wemyss Bay
The train and ferry station at Wemyss Bay.
Wemyss Bay train station and ferry station, railway architecture in Scotland
According to a placard, the Wemyss Bay station "is the finest piece of railway architecture in Scotland."
Train station at Wemyss Bay, Scotland
The hourly train ride from Glasgow Central station takes 50ish minutes.

"Doon the watter"

The trip from Glasgow to the Isle of Bute's only town, Rothesay, was extremely popular for vacationers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their most common method of travel was going "doon the watter" (i.e., down the water, meaning traveling downstream on the River Clyde) via steamboat. At that time, Glasgow was the British Empire's shipbuilding capital indeed, the world's shipbuilding capital and Glasgow ranked as the "second city" in importance to the empire, after London. You can still take the world's only remaining seagoing paddle steamboat, the P.S. Waverly, from Glasgow throughout the western islands of Scotland.

A paddle steamer in 1913, heading from Glasgow to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. (Photo courtesy of the fabulous web site

Ferry boat trip via Caledonian MacBrayne

Our modern day trip to Bute was on a ferry boat run by Caledonian MacBrayne. This ferry company, known to everyone as Cal Mac, operates dozens of ferries on the western coast of Scotland. We've been on several of their ferries and have had uniformly on-time and pleasant experiences. In general, the boats have a bottom floor for cars and trucks, and then at least one level where passengers can sit or wander at their leisure, with snack bars and shops. You can watch the scenery pass by indoors or on several observation decks outside. Pets are allowed in your vehicle, and most boats have designated areas for bringing your pet to a seating area with you.

The route between Wemyss Bay and Rothesay takes 35 minutes. Two ferry boats ply the route (in opposite directions, of course), with departures on both ends every 45 to 60 minutes. Another ferry boat connects the northern tip of the island with the mainland across the Kyles of Bute (i.e., straits). That ferry boat crossing takes a mere five minutes.

Caledonian MacBrayne ferry boat between Wemyss Bay and Rothesay
Our Cal Mac ferry boat between Wemyss Bay and Rothesay.
Cal Mac ferry boat parking for passenger cars
Our car is the black one.
Cal Mac snack bar
A typical Cal Mac snack bar.
Indoor seating on a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry boat
Indoor seating.
Outdoor seating on a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry boat
Outdoor seating.

Isle of Bute

At 47 square miles, the Isle of Bute isn't very large. Its population of 6,500 is concentrated in Rothesay (~4,850), the only town. The island straddles the Highland Boundary Fault, making the northern part hilly and the southern half less so. Much of the island is either undeveloped or in use for agriculture, often with sheep and cattle.

Most remarkably, nearly all of the island is owned by the 7th Marquess of Bute. Almost everyone who lives on Bute does so as a tenant to the Marquess. Technically, most of the island is owned by the Mount Stuart Trust, with 28,000 acres (or 43.75 square miles). The trust is controlled by the five members of the Marquess' family, along with an attorney and accountant. None of those seven people live on the island. The Marquess, a former race car driver, lives in London. Since I serve as Lord of Kincavel and manage in absentia an estate of 92,903 millimeters, I understand the burdens of the aristocracy.

Rothesay, Isle of Bute, Scotland
Morning arrival in Rothesay.
We arrived at 7:50 am and most sites weren't open yet. So we headed to the southwest corner of the island to explore the medieval ruins of St. Blane's Church.

St. Blane's Church

Built in a hollow at the top of a hill, with short cliffs protecting the site both from harsh sea winds and viewing by unsuspecting passersby, the site originally served as a small monastery. Its first abbot, now known as St. Cathan (or Catan), came to Bute in the sixth century as a missionary from Ireland. He was accompanied by his unmarried sister. As the story goes, Cathan's sister gave birth to her son, Blane, and a furious Cathan placed his sister and her newborn baby adrift in the ocean in an oarless boat. They miraculously washed up back in Ireland. At age seven Blane returned to his birthplace on Bute, reconciled with his uncle, and eventually succeeded him as abbot. Both Cathan and Blane eventually left Bute as missionaries trying to convert the Picts in western and central Scotland. Blane, now St. Blane, was quite popular in medieval times, as reflected in current Scottish place names like Strathblane, as well as Dunblane and its cathedral.

Path to St. Blane's church, Isle of Bute
The ruins lie just over the hill.
The monastery enjoyed two centuries of peace and prosperity. By the late eighth century, however, Viking raiders had found them, and they were plundered like so many abbeys and monasteries in the British Isles. The monastery was either abandoned or destroyed in the early ninth century. Eventually, Norse immigrants (i.e., Vikings) occupied the site. After a few hundred years, those Norse immigrants had been converted to Christianity, and a new church was built in the early 1200s, with a small addition in the 1300s.

On our visit, we had the place completely to ourselves. Blue skies, freshly cut grass, medieval ruins, happy kid, happy wife, and happy dog. w00t!

St. Blane's Church and vallum, Isle of Bute
The ruins of St. Blane's Church, which was built on the ruins of the monastery. On the hill, you can see the remains of the vallum (i.e., wall) which served as the boundary between the monastic territory and the outside world.
Lower courtyard, St. Blane's Church, Isle of Bute
Here's the view from just outside the lower courtyard, which first was used as a cemetery for the lay folk, and then in the later Middle Ages just for women. The inner wall likely was originally built to encircle the monastery, serving first as the upper courtyard for burial of monks and priests, and in the later Middle Ages just for men.
Nave and chancel of St. Blane's Church, Isle of Bute
Looking from the nave of the early 13th century church into the chancel. The church's thick walls and rounded chancel arch are common for Romanesque building. The Gothic-style pointed windows at the back, however, are a tip-off for a later addition to the church, in the 14th century.
Decorative pillar in St. Blane's Church, Isle of Bute
The supporting decorative pillars previously had carvings, but have been either eroded or destroyed.
St. Blane's Church exterior, Isle of Bute
When you have the site to yourself, your dog can roam freely. Or, she can just sit and take in the view.
Hog-back tombstone, St. Blane's Church, Isle of Bute
The long, low, whitish, arched tombstone in front is called a "hog-back tombstone." Until somewhat recently, folks thought this marked the grave of St. Blane himself. But it's actually a 10th century gravestone for a Viking settler.
The church was destroyed in the late 1500s in a different though no less effective way than a Viking raid. When the Protestant Reformation came to Scotland in the 1560s, the church's local vicar refused to abandon Catholicism. Rather than forcibly oust him from the church, the religious leaders instead left him with a quickly dwindling parish. Though the vicar retained physical possession of the church until at least 1587, it had fallen out of use. In 1593, Scottish church leaders finally announced he was "excommunicat apostet." After he died, the abandoned church was never used again, except as a source of stones for farmhouses.

View of Goatfell and Isle of Arran from St. Blane's Church, Isle of Bute
The view from the church's hill.

Scalpsie Bay

Following our exploration of St. Blane's church and a quick chat with a local farmhand, we headed north along the coast to Scalpsie Bay, where we hoped to find seals sunning themselves on the rocky shore. We thought we caught a glimpse of them from the road and descended the steep hill to the beach.

No seals.

But we played awhile on the beach and then since we foolishly left our hiking backpack in the car climbed the hill while carrying the kid. Ooof.

Scalpsie Bay, Isle of Bute
Scalpsie Bay, where seals like to sun themselves on the rocky shoreline.
Skipping rocks on Scalpsie Bay, Isle of Bute; Scottish beach
Skipping rocks.
Scalpsie Bay, Isle of Bute; Scottish beach
I'm gonna poster-size this photo and put it on a wall.
Although we struck out on seeing seals, we did get to see a fun variety of other wild and domesticated animals on Bute, such as cows, birds, and sheep.
European cock pheasant, Isle of Bute
A common European cock pheasant.
Lambs on the Isle of Bute
It was lambing season. Lambs were everywhere.
Scottish Blackface lambs on the Isle of Bute
Scottish Blackface sheep are the most common breed in the U.K., in part because of their use for the famous Harris Tweed cloth.
Highland cow, a hairy coo, on Isle of Bute
A highland cow, known in common Scottish parlance as a "hairy coo."
View of Goatfell on Isle of Arran from Isle of Bute
These sheep get quite a view over to the Isle of Arran.

Mount Stuart House

From the idyllic Scalpsie Bay we crossed the short width of the island to Mount Stuart House, on Bute's east coast. Considered one of Britain's neo-Gothic masterpieces, it is a lavish Victorian mansion that was Scotland's first home with electricity, and the first home in the world with a heated indoor pool. Mount Stuart also was the first home in Scotland to be purpose built with central heating, a telephone system, and a Victorian passenger elevator. Like all the great British country houses, it is surrounded by many acres of gardens and woodlands.

Construction on the current mansion began in 1880 after the previous house burned down. Although work continued until 1912, it remains slightly unfinished.

Entry of Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute
The covered portico provides the formal entrance into Mount Stuart. At bottom left is a wing of the original 1719 house, in Georgian style, which survived the fire. The chapel rises behind it.
Rock garden at Mount Stuart house, Isle of Bute
The "rock garden" opposite the front of the house.
Neo-Gothic stonemasonry window, Mount Stuart house, Isle of Bute
Neo-Gothic stonemasonry. Note the intricate windowpanes in the upper half.
Chapel apse of Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute
Exterior of the chapel apse.
In 1995, the family opened Mount Stuart House to the public. Currently, it's open from April through August for five hours per day. Visits are by guided tour only.

No photography is allowed inside. The following pictures are from their website, except for the last one:

Marble Hall of Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute
The "Marble Hall," made of marble and alabaster, serves as the entry hall for visitors.
Marble Hall stained glass, Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute
Each of the four sides of stained glass emphasize a color green, red, purple, and blue for spring, summer, fall, and winter, and show representations of the zodiac. The hue of the room changes slightly as the sun moves across the sky.
Marble Hall ceiling with constellations, Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute
The ceiling reaches 80 feet high. The 3rd Marquess of Bute, who built the house, was enamored with astronomy and astrology. The ceiling has crystal stars, white painted constellations, and gold leaf Greek mythological characters.
Gallery level of Marble Hall in Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute
The gallery level of the Marble Hall.
Who are these Stuarts? The family line easily can be traced back 1,000 years. Shortly after the Norman conquest of England in 1066, a steward from Brittany in France was awarded lands in England. In the mid-1100s, the family fled an English civil war, and settled in Scotland. They became the High Stewards of Scotland, a hereditary position serving as an administrative functionary governing the Scottish king's lands and property. Their family name became "Stewart."

Some time during the 1200s, the king of Scotland granted the lands of the Isle of Bute to the Stewarts.

Dining room of Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute
The dining room. This photo looks nice, but the house's website pictures really fail to capture the sumptuousness of the room.
Eighteenth century portraits in dining room of Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute
Eighteenth century family portraits watch you eat.
Carved wood paneling in dining room of Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute
The carved wood paneling goes round the room, detailing even the tiny legs of the insects.
Carrara arble and Cosmati-style floor, chapel in Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute
Lined entirely with Carrara marble, there's nothing else like this chapel in Scotland. The artful, Cosmati-style flooring is designed to symbolize earth, air, fire, and water.
Marble chapel in Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute
Mount Stuart has more marble than any other building in the British Isles. The chapel was begun in 1896 and completed in 1998.
The sixth high steward married the daughter of Robert the Bruce, and eventually that steward's son became King of Scotland in 1371. The castle on Bute became a favorite residence for at least two Scottish kings. By 1400, ownership of Bute eventually passed to the illegitimate son of King Robert II by his mistress. This line of Stewarts has held the island ever since.

Meanwhile, the Stewart family ruled Scotland until 1714. They became the kings and queens of England beginning in 1603, when James VI of Scotland became also James I of England.

Drawing room with Titian, Veronese, Ramsay, and Tintoretto, Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute
The drawing room houses paintings by numerous masters, including Veronese, Ramsay, Tintoretto, and Titian.
Red silk damask wallpaper, Lady Bute room, Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute
The original red silk damask covers the walls in the Lady Bute bedroom.
Arts and crafts furniture, family bedroom in Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute
The family bedroom bears original carved walnut Arts and Crafts furniture.
Library in Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute
Mount Stuart holds not one, not two, but three libraries. It houses more than 25,000 books, pamphlets, and other materials in its libraries and archives. Its oldest book dates from 1495. Included in its collection are a first edition of Robert Burns poems from 1786, personal correspondence from Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the testimony of the witness of the death of Mary, Queen of Scots. Other records and papers date back to 1158.
The family name was changed to "Stuart" during the time that Mary, Queen of Scots, lived in France (1548 to 1561). The new spelling prevented the French from pronouncing the "w" in Stewart with a "v" sound. Other Stewarts in Scotland followed suit.

With the death of Queen Anne in 1714 she had 17 pregnancies but no surviving children the Stuarts' reign over Scotland and England came to an end, replaced by George I and the Hanoverian dynasty. Nonetheless, the Stuarts retained vast holdings in Scotland, most prominently the Isle of Bute.

Mount Stuart House, Isle of Bute, Scotland
Mount Stuart House and its back lawn.
We spent several hours at Mount Stuart House and its acres of gardens. We could have happily spent more. But we still had many more things we wanted to see on our day trip: a prehistoric stone circle, the Bute Museum, and Rothesay's castle and promenade. Not to mention, those famous Victorian toilets.

Town of Rothesay on the Isle of Bute

Read more about the Isle of Bute in Part II:

You might also like the Isle of Arran:

Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran 


Isle of Arran:



For more about the Machrie Moor stone circles:

No comments:

Post a Comment