Friday, October 3, 2014

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

Rothesay, Isle of Bute, Scotland
The town of Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. Snaking the hill is the Serpentine Road, flanked by Victorian houses.

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

When is Prince Charles, heir apparent to the British throne, NOT known as the Prince of Wales?

Whenever he is in Scotland.

Duke of Rothesay

The English monarchy designates its heir apparent as Prince of Wales. But the Scottish monarchy which was joined in 1603 with the English monarchy in the "Union of Crowns" when James VI of Scotland became also James I of England designates its heir apparent as the Duke of Rothesay.

The tradition dates back to 1398. Scottish king Robert III created the dukedom of Rothesay for his son, David. Although David died before ascending the throne, Robert III allowed the title of Duke of Rothesay to pass to his next son, James, who eventually ascended the throne and became James I of Scotland. The title Duke of Rothesay has continued to be granted to the Scottish heir apparent ever since. In 1469, the Scottish Parliament codified the designation.

Coat of Arms of the Duke of Rothesay
The personal coat of arms of the Duke of Rothesay.
Sometime during the 1600-1700s, the title of Duke of Rothesay fell out of fashion with the British monarchs. But in the mid-1800s, Queen Victoria mandated its usage for the heir apparent whenever he was in Scotland, a tradition which continues to the present.

Thus, when in Scotland, ol' Prince Chuck is referred to as His Royal Highness The Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay. In fact, he has several further Scottish titles, including Earl of Carrick, Baron of Renfrew, Lord of the Isles, and Prince and Great Steward of Scotland.

As you will recall from Part I of our discussion of the Isle of Bute, the Stewart dynasty of kings and queens who eventually renamed themselves "Stuarts" originally held Bute from their days when they were not royal but merely the Stewards of the kingdom. Once they became kings, a few of the early Stewarts spent a fair amount of time on Bute. Eventually, however, the island passed out of the hands of the ruling kings to a subsidiary branch of the Stewart (and then Stuart) family.

Consequently, Prince Charles' title Duke of Rothesay does not come with any land or property. It's only a ceremonial title. Originally, however, the dukedom granted dominion over the Isle of Bute, including the main town of Rothesay.

Standard of the Duke of Rothesay
The standard of the Duke of Rothesay.

Rothesay Castle

Given its importance to the Stewart family, particularly some of its early kings, Rothesay necessarily needed a castle. Soon after taking possession of the Isle of Bute, the Stewarts built a defensive structure with wood. Within a few decades, however, they scrapped it and built a stone castle by 1230. It was then promptly captured by Norse vikings, who ignored the boiling pitch poured upon them and hewed the stone walls (nine feet thick) apart with their axes. The Norsemen soon had to retreat, but a second Norse army captured the castle again in 1263. By the end of the century, four towers and a gatehouse had been added.

Rothesay Castle gatehouse, Isle of Bute
The gatehouse at Rothesay Castle. Originally, the bridge stopped midway across the moat and you entered across a drawbridge.
West and south walls of Rothesay Castle
The back side of Rothesay Castle. From the hole in the wall you can see that the inside and outside of the wall were built with careful masonry, but the interior of the wall was filled in with rubble, a cheaper but common method for construction of castle walls.
Rubble-filled wall at Rothesay Castle
The rubble within the walls.
By 1371, the Stewarts climbed from the position of stewards of the Scottish kingdom to becoming the actual kings. {Ed.'s note: It can be a good idea to marry the king's daughter. Even if other people have to die first, you've put yourself in position to capitalize.} The new Stewart king, Robert II, spent a fair amount of time on Bute in Rothesay Castle. So did his successor, the aforementioned Robert III, who made Rothesay the first "royal burgh" in Scotland's history in 1400. He died in the castle in 1406.

At the direction of kings James IV and James V in the early 1500s, the curtain wall was heightened and the gatehouse expanded into a keep with accommodations for royal visits. In the early 1600s, the top level of one tower was turned to use as a dovecot (Scots call it a "doocot"), to house pigeons during the winter as a source of meat. By the 1650s, however, the castle served as a garrison instead of a princely residence, having been taken over by Oliver Cromwell's troops. They partially dismantled the castle when they left in 1660. The final blow to the castle came in 1685, when it was burned as part of a rebellion.

Artist's rendering of Rothesay Castle in the 1540s
The castle looked something like this in the 1540s.
Vaulted entry tunnnel to Rothesay Castle
Visitors enter the castle through a vaulted tunnel in the gatehouse.
Reconstructed great hall in the Rothesay Castle gatehouse
Above the gatehouse's entry tunnel was the great hall, reconstructed in the late 1800s.
Northwest tower of Rothesay Castle
Only the northwest tower survives at near its original height.
Doocot within the northwest tower at Rothesay Castle
The cutout squares in the northwest tower serve as nesting boxes in the dovecote. It has been housing pigeons for 400 years.
Rothesay Castle is unique in Scotland because its curtain wall is roughly circular in shape; no other Scottish castle has a circular plan. Its uniqueness, as well as its history, made the castle interesting to me.

But for most visitors, I think it'll probably be a dud. I say that as a lover of castles, of ruins, and of castle ruins. Unless you've seen very few castles or ruins, Rothesay Castle simply doesn't have much left to impress. For the normal visitor, other than taking the stairs to the top of the wall for views of the town, there's not much to see. You've got to really love the little historical details to get much out of this castle I do, but not many of you are quite so nutty. I visited the castle while Jackson (and Kate) napped in the car, and I didn't think it was worth their time to explore when they woke up.

Circular curtain wall of Rothesay Castle
A structure with with corners will sag and crumple if you burrow under the corner. Hence, a circular curtain wall (or tower)  is harder to undermine because it lacks corners.
Barren interior of Rothesay Castle
Not much to see within Rothesay Castle . . .
Chapel walls within Rothesay Castle
. . . except for the remains of the chapel.
Ruins of the chapel within Rothesay Castle
The main points of interest are the chapel's empty niches and window frames.
View of Rothesay from the castle walls, Isle of Bute
Rothesay surrounds the castle as though it is the centerpiece of the town square. From the castle walls you can see out to Rothesay's harbor.

Bute Museum

Across the street moat from Rothesay Castle is the Bute Museum, completed in 1926. Though it has only two rooms, the museum bursts with interesting historical objects. Before visiting, I was a little uncertain whether I should bother. The outside of the building is dull and I feared the inside might match. But it turned out to be a very enjoyable hour of examining bits and pieces of the island's history spanning thousands of years.

Exterior of Bute Museum
The museum consists of the two rooms to the left and right of the door.
One room is essentially a series of display cases of stuffed wildlife. Given its size, Bute has an impressive variety of flora and fauna. Admittedly, however, this room didn't do much for me.

Flora and fauna at Bute Museum
For only 47 square miles, the Isle of Bute has great diversity of wildlife, e.g., there are 214 species of birds. Deer, mink, seals, foxes, and hares are among the many wild species. In the latter half of the 1800s, the 3rd Marquess of Bute introduced wallabies and kangaroos some of which were allowed to live in the wild but I can't find any information regarding how long they lasted on the island.
The other room is chockablock with curio cabinets. Neolithic pottery; nineteenth century office supplies; medieval chess pieces; a printing press; swords and photos and bicycles and china and tools; wartime memorabilia; and so on. You get little bites of the different eras, from prehistoric times through to modern times.

Bute Museum's cabinets of sundry curios
Bute Museum is charmingly unpretentious, while holding some genuinely good stuff.
Rothesay begging badge from 1774
In 1774, if you were unable to work due to old age or disability, you had the right to beg in Rothesay only if you had a lead badge marked "Rothƨay [sic] Poor." Here is badge #4.
Medieval chess piece in Bute Museum
A medieval chess piece, likely a knight.
An early bicycle, the "bone shaker," at Bute Museum
This comfy bicycle is named the "Bone Shaker."
Curio cabinet of professional tools
A curio cabinet with representative tools or symbols of various professions, from chemist jars to police billy clubs.
Neolithic items on display in Bute Museum
The production value of the display of Neolithic era pottery reminds me of a high school project. But the items themselves are fascinating.
MacAlister stone, the carved shaft of a Celtic cross
This is the shaft of a Celtic cross, carved more than 1,000 years ago. Carved at the bottom is a Latin cross with two birds just above it; in the middle is a strange arched-back beast; and at top is a winged beast. The cross is called a "pilgrim" because over the centuries it was moved around to various parts of the Isle of Bute.
Queen of the Inch necklace in Bute Museum
Bute Museum's most impressive piece is this "Queen of the Inch" necklace. Made of jet and lignite, and combined from several necklaces into this large one, it was found on the skeleton of a woman buried in a cist 4,000 years ago. The "inch" refers to the little island of Inchmarnock, off the west coast of the Isle of Bute. To have possessed a necklace this valuable, to have kept it even in death, and to have been buried in a cist, the woman had to have been a significant figure.
Bute Museum doesn't cover anything in great detail, but if you're a generally inquisitive type you'll find something that catches your interest.

St. Colmac cottages stone circle

After I explored the castle and museum, we all headed a few miles west of town to visit a prehistoric monument, the St. Colmac cottages stone circle. Only four stones remain standing. Filling out the circle are three or four stone stumps, broken nubs left over from the destruction of other standing stones. The circle is enclosed by a fence and surrounded by a farmed field. If you don't know to look for it, you'll drive right by; there's no sign, parking, or any kind of indication.

St. Colmac cottages stone circle, Isle of Bute
The St. Colmac cottages stone circle sits cordoned off amid a field.
The St. Colmac cottages stone circle dates from the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age, which in Britain was approximately 2,500 to 2,000 BC. As is so typical of many stone circles, we don't know why it was built. The name of the circle derives from a nearby ruined church and some houses (i.e., cottages) in the vicinity.

About 80 feet away are traces of a second stone circle. That second circle, however, was blown apart with gunpowder in the early nineteenth century, for reasons unknown. With as many hundreds (thousands?) of stone circles, henges, cairns, barrows, and other prehistoric monuments still standing in Britain, you can imagine how many more might exist but for their purposeful destruction over the millennia, whether used as building materials for later buildings, targets for religious zealots, or simply general mayhem and hooliganism.

St. Colmac cottages stone circle viewed from the north
Four remaining standing stones and a couple of the stumps.
St. Colmac's cottages stone circle viewed from the south
Jackson approaches the circle. The tree tends to dominate photos of the stone circle, but it's important to remember the tree wasn't there 4,000 years ago.
Kate and Jackson pretend to push over a standing stone
Engaging in pretend mayhem.
Topple tree in the St. Colmac cottages stone circle
Fantastically strong Kate and Jack push over a tree.
Kate and Jackson help complete the stone circle
Jackson and Kate act as temporary standing stones to help complete the circle.

St. Colmac cross

A quarter mile away amidst a farm stands a solitary stone, called the St. Colmac cross. Many centuries ago, a cemetery and a small chapel to a 6th century Irish saint, St. Colmán of Dromore (sometimes called Mocholmóc), stood nearby. Apparently, "Colmac" is a derivation or bastardization of those names. The chapel was demolished in the late 18th century and its stones were used for the local farmer's house. The cemetery, likewise, has disappeared.

St. Colmac's cross in a modern farm
St. Colmac's cross retains its solitary position amidst this modern farm.
All that remains is St. Colmac's cross, carved into the prehistoric standing stone. The cross's origins are unknown, and its decoration is unusual. As yet, there are no solid guesses about when the cross was carved. The cross may have been carved into the stone as a means of "exorcising" its pagan qualities, thereby making it suitable for the Christian chapel.

Fence around St. Colmac's cross
The farm doesn't seem too impressed with its prehistoric monument.
Although such a carving in a prehistoric monument is not unique, it is exceedingly rare. You might think such a noteworthy stone would deserve a sign or some kind of acknowledgement of its existence. No such luck. It's essentially invisible from the road, blocked by a hedge and farm buildings. There's no sign pointing the way. If you didn't know of the stone in advance, you'd have no chance of discovering it. When I asked a farmhand about its location which I knew generally from a map he didn't bother to respond and walked away.

I had to circle about half a mile through pastures, over fences, past barns and cows and dogs, to first spot it and then find a way to get to it. Do you see the effort I put in for you people?!? {Ed.'s note: You're our hero. [eye roll] }

St. Colmac's cross
The stone stands nearly five feet high (1.5 meters). At its base the stone measures .5 meters wide and .4 meters deep. In an 1893 record, the stone was measured at only 3 feet 7 inches; in 1943, it measured 4 feet 6 inches. The differing measurements are because soil had accumulated around it, which has since been cleared away.
Close-up of St. Colmac's cross
A close-up of the carved Latin cross.

Rothesay promenade

Rothesay peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The area around its bay became the focus for development. When it was built in the 1200s, Rothesay Castle stood defending the shoreline. But after the castle was destroyed in the late 18th century, the townspeople began to fill in the bay and build upon it. The castle now stands several blocks from the water, intercepted by a wide promenade for ornamental gardens and shops. The docks were expanded to accommodate newer and larger vessels.

As Glasgow became the British Empire's shipbuilding capital, its new steamboats needed attractive ports to call on. Rothesay was happy to oblige, building itself in tandem with the steamboat traffic.

Rothesay's bayside promenade, Isle of Bute
Rothesay's promenade along the bay. The blue lampposts are an original Victorian feature.
Boats in Rothesay's harbor
After a glorious day sailing in the bay surrounded by hill-strewn islands, you can dock your boat in Rothesay's cute inner harbor.
First, the wealthy industrialists of Glasgow built homes as retreats from the city. Not too much later came the middle class Glaswegians "doon the watter" by the steamboatload for day trips and vacations. Restaurants, dance halls, ice cream parlors, and hotels sprang up to meet the demand.

The peak year for visitors to Bute came in 1913. That summer, as many as 100 steamboats per day dropped off vacationers at Rothesay.

Bute had clean air and natural beauty it was the "Jewel of the Clyde" firth on the west coast of Scotland offering a respite from rapidly industrializing Glasgow. Visitors could take rambling hikes in the hills or frolic on the wide sand beaches; an electric tram carried them from the docks across the island to the beaches at Ettrick Bay. In an era when doctors would prescribe visits to the seaside, Bute's mild climate attracted the infirm. A hydropathy establishment in Rothesay, which opened in 1843 as the first institution of its kind in Scotland, became a popular spot for therapy.

Ornamental gardens on Rothesay's promenade
Ornamental gardens line the promenade. Across the harbor is the Cowal peninsula on the mainland of Scotland.
Flower box along the promenade
Flowers and gardens are a point of pride throughout the Isle of Bute, most prominently at Mount Stuart House.
Five-tiered fountain on Rothesay's promenade, Isle of Bute
A fountain amidst the ornamental gardens.
Bute has a mild climate, especially considering its northerly latitude. It is well-sheltered in the Firth of Clyde. Atlantic winds and storms from the west are diminished by both the Kintyre Peninsula on the mainland of Scotland, as well as the Isle of Arran. Meanwhile, the Gulf Stream warms the island. There's a slight hint emphasis on hint of a Mediterranean feel to Rothesay.

Palm trees on Rothesay's promenade
Palm trees on the green? In Scotland? Not in an indoor garden? Trust me when I say that palm trees are not common in Scotland.
Miniature golf on Rothesay's promenade
The gardens feature a putting green.
Golfing on Rothesay's promenade
Jackson has what might be described as an unorthodox grip.
Bute played its part in the two world wars. The little island lost more than 230 men in World War I. They erected a memorial for those who fell in the war, with a bronze angel statue by Charles Pilkington Jackson. He was a prominent British sculptor of the time who erected dozens of memorials around Scotland, including all the exterior sculpture at the Scottish National War Memorial within Edinburgh Castle.

Rothesay's World War I memorial designed by Pilkington Jackson
Note that the memorial dates the war from 1914 to 1919. Although we often see 1918 as the end of the war, that was only the end of the fighting. The end of the war came from the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.
In World War II, Rothesay served as a naval port. As one of the primary training grounds for British submariners, nearly every submarine crew came through Rothesay at some point during the war. Rothesay also served as the logistical base for submarine warfare in the Baltic Sea. Bute's own populace lost fewer soldiers during the war than it did in World War I, with deaths below a hundred. A monumental stone and list of names stands behind the World War I monument.

After World War II, Rothesay went into decline. Domestic and foreign travel became substantially faster and cheaper than it had before, and interest in a nearby holiday on Bute diminished. Buildings were shuttered and the town, as with the island as a whole, steadily lost population. A revival of the town and island began in the 1990s, with significant refurbishment. Mount Stuart House opened to the public in 1995, and erected an award-winning visitor center in 2001. The manor house gained international attention with the marriage of Paul McCartney's daughter, Stella, in 2003. Tourism has increased substantially.

The future for Rothesay and the Isle of Bute seems brighter than it has been in many decades.

Victorian toilets

Do any other toilets in Scotland, or Britain, have their own tourist information leaflets?

How about toilets with guided tours?

Obviously, any trip to the Isle of Bute would be incomplete without a stop at this porcelain palace. The Victorian "public conveniences" stand at the pier where the steamboats of old (and Cal Mac ferries of today) moored to let off passengers. The building isn't all that attractive from the outside, and many travelers pass by without a second glance.

Victorian toilets exterior at Rothesay
The exterior of the Victorian toilets don't strike a very posh pose.
Inside, however, comes the beauty. Built in 1899, the public toilets were meant to impress. Tiled mosaic floor. Porcelain white urinals framed by faux marble. Decorative ceramic tiles on the walls. Vaulted ceiling with skylights. {Ed.'s note: Y'know, for the natural light guys want so they can look their best while peeing.} Glass-walled cisterns feeding shiny copper pipes. Grates in the walls to let the sea breezes help with your olfactory needs.

Though some restoration work was done in the 1990s, the Victorian toilets feature almost completely original fittings. Only the cisterns above the seated toilets have been updated.

Entry to the Victorian toilets
The entry to the toilets.
Victorian toilets sinks
It's true. The water was hot.
Crest of the royal burgh of Rothesay in the mosaic tile
In the floor's mosaic tilework is the crest of the royal burgh of Rothesay.
Urinals in the Victorian toilets, Rothesay, Isle of Bute
A wee in luxury.
The elegant engineering allows the urinals to be flushed using only the water in the glass-walled cisterns above. It's a simple and effective means of water conservation. My understanding is that at one point, goldfish used to swim in the cisterns.

Toilet stall in the Victorian toilets
Note the pull-chain for flushing.
Toilet bowl ("the Deluge") in the Victorian toilets
A "deluge" inspires much more confidence than, say, a trickle. Or a dribble.
Unfortunately for the womenfolk, only men get to enjoy the use of such splendid toilets. If once there were similar loos for the women, there's no trace of them now. They do have utilitarian toilets in the other half of the building, but they're soulless modern lavvy pans. Fortunately for the womenfolk, they can tour the fancy facilities so long as no men are using them at the moment.

One British architectural writer described Rothesay's Victorian toilets as the "jewels in the sanitarian's crown." These public toilet "gems" possess "rare beauty." In all of Britain, "none are more glorious."


A fabulous day on Bute

After a very full day of touristing, we finally had to go home. Our sightseeing needs had been not just sated but engorged. As described in Part I and this post, in one day we experienced:

          •  one of the finest railway stations in Scotland;
          •  a pleasant ferry boat ride;
          •  remote 13th century church ruins;
          •  a wide, sandy, stunning beach;
          •  abundant livestock and wildlife;
          •  one of Britain's best neo-Gothic Victorian mansions;
          •  a medieval castle;
          •  the charms of a small-town museum;
          •  rolling hills and gorgeous views;
          •  prehistoric stone monuments;
          •  a lovely Victorian seaside promenade; and
          •  the best public toilets in Britain.

Since the island is so small, we didn't even feel rushed trying to see everything. Would another day have allowed us more time at Mount Stuart House? Of course. We'd have been happy adding several more days to our visit; there are even more spots on Bute we'd like to see. But this was a fabulous daytrip.

Haste Ye Back to the Isle of Bute
We will.
The end of any sightseeing trip is always a bit wistful for me. But this one more than most. All three of us had a terrific time touring the island. We even found ourselves discussing could we live on an island? This island?

For a day that started before 6:00 am, Jackson was still going strong at 7:00 pm as we departed on the ferry. He was enthusiastically taking photos with his own toddler camera.

Battery Place in Rothesay, Isle of Bute
In the background is Battery Place in Rothesay, named for the cannons placed during the Napoleonic Wars to protect the harbor. Just in case Napoleon had felt the need to invade a tiny island off the coast of Scotland.
The wheels turn within the imp's mind.
Haste Ye Back to the Isle of Bute? Gladly.

Isle of Bute recedes in the distance
The Isle of Bute recedes into the distance. The taller hills beyond it are on the Isle of Arran.


Read more about the Isle of Bute in Part I:

Bonus addendum: You might also like the Isle of Arran

If visiting the Isle of Bute interests you, then you'd very likely also enjoy touring the Isle of Arran, just a few miles away. Both are easily accessible from Glasgow. Both islands make great day trips, which happily could be extended by a couple of days for further exploration or relaxation.

Bute has more history. It has a larger number of specific sights to see. Mount Stuart House is a bit more impressive than Arran's country estate of Brodick Castle. Rothesay has more charm than the towns on Arran.

On the other hand, Arran has fun foodie options (great cheese and beer). It has better hiking, with higher peaks and more dramatic topography. We liked Brodick Castle's gardens and woodlands more than those at Mount Stuart House, though it may be hard to compare since we visited Arran in August and were in Bute in April before a lot of blooming. Arran also has my favorite site overall, the prehistoric Machrie Moor stone circle.

Fortunately, you can't go wrong in choosing. Both are terrific.

Brodick Castle on the Isle of Arran 


Isle of Arran:


Machrie Moor stone circles:


  1. May we include a return to Bute on the list for next year? Please?

  2. What a wonderful review of IoB.

    1. Thanks so much. We're planning a return trip to Bute soon, maybe as soon as next weekend.

  3. Take a ride on Coupey to go there