The West Island Way
“No, not the West Highland Way; I’m walking the West Island Way,” I protest for what feels like the 100th time. The Isle of Bute’s cheeky piggyback marketing is so successful everyone I tell about it thinks I’m off to the Highlands. Well, I am really, just not to Fort William. This magical bijou 30-mile adventure boasts an impressive bang for its walking buck as it soars from the Lowlands across the Highland Boundary Fault deep into the Highlands of Scotland, offering a taste of Scotland in a nutshell.
The West Island Way is Scotland's first island-only Great Trail, opening back in 2000 before Arran got in on the act. It’s a sheer joy as I find setting off from Kilchattan Bay deep in Bute’s southern reaches. I leave the plush mansions and shimmering sands behind, in truth I leave everything behind as the first loop from here brings me back to the same spot hours later without having seen another human being, nor a single traffic light.
The path is waymarked throughout, with those markers easy to follow and a local team working to keep them in good nick. There is a handy map too you can buy on the island. Online the website also has detailed route information. I’d still strongly recommend taking an Ordnance Survey map and a compass with you, and someone in your party who knows how to use them, especially for the hill country in the north.
I sweep right down to the southern fringes of Bute, the Cumbrae twins seemingly within touching distance just across the water, the sheer rock stack of Ailsa Craig just visible on the horizon halfway between Glasgow and Belfast. Freshly baked goodies from Rothesay’s Electric Bakery boost my energy when I stop at Rubh' An Eun Lighthouse. Here I’m not alone as I spot an otter working its way along this rocky coastline.
I detour a little to gain some height and I’m keen to peer out over the rest of Bute and size up the rest of my three days. Gain any height and you realise how surprisingly hilly Bute is. I descend again with a guard of honour of dozens of sheep to find myself the only soul at St. Blane’s Chapel. The only alive human that is as this is an evocative site alive with heritage and more than one ghost. I think of St Blane and his followers, who hid away here from rampaging Vikings, whilst simultaneously trying to spread the Christian word. There are suggestions that even older ruins here pre-date Iona, turning everything we thought we knew about early Christianity in Scotland on its head.
I gather pace now cutting back over to Kilchattan Bay, where a flattish section sweeps me right back west by the island’s tiny grass airstrips and around the course of Bute Golf Club. My day ends being welcomed by beaming Scandi-Scot Lisa Gast. The ‘Scalpsie Shepherdess’ as she is known on Instagram farms the fields around us. She has also fashioned a brace of gorgeous glamping pods. I settle into one and cook up a Macqueen's of Rothesay curry. It’s delicious, epically after a day of walking. It's washed down with a wee Isle of Bute Gin as the sun slips down over the beach in front of me. Bliss.
Day two has me working my way across the spine of Bute on old tracks that once brought day-trippers across from Rothesay in the ‘doon the watter’ heyday. I bullet along Lord James’ Ride, so named as it was built so the local aristocracy had a hard surface for bashing along on their horses. I could detour to glorious Mount Stuart, a grand country home built by the 3rd Marquess of Bute when he was the richest man in the world.
I resist the temptation and instead cross the Highland Boundary fault and push on towards Port Bannatyne, also ignoring the bright lights of Rothesay, which I skirt en route. Again I’m largely alone. Again I’m walking with ghosts as I descend into Port Bannatyne. Once the hillside here was home to the Kames Hydropathic Hotel. Today nothing remains of this glorious old dame. Tonight I’m staying at the Bayview Hotel in Rothesay. They say they welcome walkers and they do. I’m warmly welcomed and then sent on my way the next day with a properly cooked breakfast fit to feed an army of walkers. The pod of dolphins frolicking in Rothesay Bay just outside the breakfast room is above and beyond the Bayview.
Day three proves a proper test. I’ve got a lot of ground to cover right up to the top of the island and then all the way back to the route’s end in Port Bannatyne. The start is easy as I follow the ghosts of those Hydro guests again on the old tram that used to spirit them off to Ettrick Bay where they could take the waters at the beach.
Soon, though, I’m steadily working my way due north, shaking off-farm after farm, as I try to leave the modern world behind again. I succeed, but still, find man’s baleful imprint. The cleared villages of Glen More are a reminder that the north of Bute is Highland in many ways, including being subject to the trauma of the Highland Clearances when people were forced off the land here never to return. I can still make out the stone ruins and almost smell the peat of their hearths. I’m glad to soon be walking on, the endorphins taking the edge off the sadness.
I avoid the optional Balnakailly Loop, not because I don’t know it’s gorgeous – I’ve walked this stretch before from Rhubodach – but because I don’t want to visit another cleared community. Not today anyway. Instead, I wrap myself in life-affirming thick forests on wide tracks where I feel like a rally car cutting along. I take a long easy right above Rhubodach after reaching the most northerly point of my adventure. It’s all south now.
At first the cloak of light-sapping forest – think the Bute version of the Brothers Grimm – continues as I make my way downhill, then steadily back up. Then I clear the forest and I’m back under big skies out on the open moor. The Kyles of Bute sparkle below now, emerald hills flanking this most scenic of stretches of water. My dad used to sail the yacht he built here, Sisi. He kept her at Ardmaleish Yard on Bute, which I’m soon just above.
I sneak in one last detour before the route’s end. It is too 278m-high Windy Hill, the highest point on Bute. I can make out swathes of Argyll and Bute from up here, from the Cumbraes, over to Cowal, and then north to the Argyll Hills. It’s a spot to savour and I do. I know Port Bannatyne is just an hour or so away so I linger even longer, not wanting the West Island Way to draw to its denouement.
All too soon I’m hovering like one of the eagles I spot on this day, high above Port Bannatyne. I work my way down, catching sight of a house, then a fence, and then an unwelcome strip of tarmac. I’m returning to the modern world again after three days mostly wrapped in Bute’s surprisingly wild charms. The West Highland Way this ain’t. Oh no, far from just being a piggyback marketing gimmick, the West Island Way is very much its own charmer. And mile for mile it’s one of the most varied, spirit-soaring routes that I’ve ever had the pleasure of walking in Scotland.
To find out more about the West Island Way click here.