There’s something about Bute

By Robin McKelvie

It was dignity that first brought me to Bute, the isle that proved the kindling for my career as a travel writer and seared into my soul a lifelong love of Argyll. Specifically my dad’s dignity. After a serious climbing accident his adventures were curtailed, but every school holiday we used to troop down the Ardmaleish Yard on Bute to paint Sisu, the battered old yacht that lay dormant on this Firth of Clyde isle. We scrubbed. We painted. We kept my dad’s dignity alive.

To be honest I wasn’t a huge fan of painting boats. I was a fan, though, of the excitement of descending down the wooden pier at Wemyss Bay to catch CalMac’s Juno or Jupiter, occasionally the MV Saturn. Snippets of more traditional ‘doon the watter’ holidays are flashing now across my synapses recalling those days – the old amusement arcade in Rothesay, the putting on the promenade, ‘Robert the Bruce’s Castle’ and the milkshakes at the café by the sweeping sands of Ettrick Bay.

Join Robin on his trip to Bute.

What makes Bute so special?

But it was the scenery that struck deepest into my heart. I loved to sit on the rocky shore at Ardmaleish looking out for passing porpoises and dolphins, wondering what each of the seabirds were. Wondering too what the tree-shrouded slopes and glowering hills tempting across the water. I wanted to know, to go, to explore north on Bute too past the tiny ferry terminus at nearby Rhubodach. This sense of perennially wanting to find out what lies across the horizon – essential to sustaining a life as a full-time travel writer – first burned brightly in Argyll and Bute.

The Rhubodach ferry on Bute.

Ways to discover Bute

And there is plenty to see across the horizon, over any of the gorgeous hills, on the Isle of Bute. I’ve been very lucky to revisit as an adult over a dozen times to really explore the lands that fired my childhood curiosity and I thoroughly recommend you do the same. Bute works for so many people and on so many levels. I’ve paddled down here for a few hours ashore on the Waverley; come over with mates for a weekend in the pubs of Rothesay; enjoyed a chilled weekend with my wife; spent three days tackling the West Island Way; and – most joyously – brought my own wee daughters across to Bute twice now. I sincerely hope that they will continue the tradition if they have children too one day.

Explore Bute on bike.

The West Island Way

For an island that is only 30 miles long Bute offers myriad possibilities, Even the scenery is diverse as the southern stretches of the island lie in the Lowlands and the hillier, more rugged north of Bute is firmly planted in the Highlands. In Rothesay a line is marked where you can literally step back and forth between the Highlands and the Lowlands. The best way to appreciate this scenery is on the West Island Way, the 30-mile waymarked walking adventure that is deservedly one of Scotland’s Great Trails.

Take in the scenery whilst walking the West Island Way.

Meeting the locals of Bute

I always find such positivity on Bute from the people who choose to live and work here and the locals don’t come any more positive than Hendrik Wester. He conjured up the gorgeous Balmory Stables self-catering escape and works with the local umbrella tourism organisation Visit Bute. Chatting to him as we tucked into some of the island’s superb produce he told me, “There is such richness to Bute. Whether you’re a hiker or a watersports enthusiastic, whether an artist or a foodie, we’ve got it all for you and it’s all so easily accessible too.”

Wester made me think about my experiences on Bute and my memory roll call seems infinite too. I remember stumbling upon an otter feeding at Rubh'an Eun Lighthouse, marvelling at the epic drama of Mount Stuart – surely Scotland’s grandest country home – and tucking into Rothesay Bay langoustines as I watched dolphins frolic in the bay just outside. Drinking the fine local Bute Gin too and chatting myriad spirits at Spirit of Bute. Then there is seal spotting at Scalpsie and even hearing about plans to cultivate truffles on Bute. The list on Bute goes on and on.

Why not visit the gin garden of the Bute Distillery whilst on the island?!

My sweetest memories come wrapped in the warmth of my children. Sharing with them the delights of homebaking and those milkshakes at Ettrick Bay’s tearoom, running around with foam swords at Rothesay Castle - the classic castle I myself loved visiting as a kid - and taking an open top bus tour. The latter was sublime as we got to see much of the island and stopped off at a phone box where a local artist sells sweet treats and her art on postcards: an unusually big honesty box.

A childhood reunion

Tying back into my own origin story, that haze of childhood memories roared back into firm focus a couple of years ago. I had always wondered what happened to Sisu when my late dad sold her. On a long shot I went back to Ardmaleish and asked them if they knew; presuming she had long since been scrapped. A day later they called me. I raced back to Ardmaleish and there she was hidden around the back, diminished, decayed but her steel hull still intact, the name S-I-S-U still visible. My own childhood journey came to an end then. I said goodbye to her and the memories of my dad that swim all around her, delighted that I could tell my mum she hadn’t scrapped before she joined my dad on their last sunset cruise down the Clyde.

Robin being reunited with Sisu

Head to Bute: Just a romantic ferry ride away

When I’m writing about Bute I feel the same as I do when I am on Bute – I don’t want it to stop. But I’m reluctantly bringing this to a close. Not on a low note though – but with real optimism. Bute constantly re-invents itself, offering new things to tempt people back or to the island for the first time. The latest this year is the hotly anticipated opening of Bute Yard. This glorious, collaborative, community-focussed development has Isle of Bute Gin as its centrepiece. On Bute – an island that inspired me to develop my love of travel and deep seated love not only of it but Argyll too – there is always something over the hill, on the horizon, waiting to be explored just a romantic ferry ride away.