AN HOUR out of Gourock, the late morning ferry edges past the Cowal Peninsula and there is Bute, the pride of Argyll, coming out of the waves once more to meet you regally. This morning she is swaddled in an early February mist and as a rheumy sun begins to emerge you imagine that you could be approaching somewhere fast and even exotic. In benign conditions such as these you see gentle hills separated from the sea by a boulevard on which handsome, white, three-storey houses shimmer.

You can see cars moving along the front of the island and from this distance you imagine they are pink Cadillacs and that there are pretty girls on back seats with wide, gathered skirts and horn-rimmed sunglasses and that their hair is tied tightly under white headscarves with red polka dots. Of course they are smoking and listening to Elvis. And at the ferry docks at Rothesay Bay the voice of your long-departed gran is singing to you once more: One Hogmanay at Glesca Fair, There was me, mysel' and sev'ral mair, We a' went off to hae a tear An' spend the nicht in Rothesay, O, We wandered thro' the Broomielaw, Thro' wind an' rain an' sleet an' snaw, And at forty minutes after twa, We got the length o' Rothesay, O.

A dirrum a doo a dum a day, A dirrum a doo a daddy O, A dirrum a doo a dum a day, The day we went to Rothesay, O.

If you were being cynical you would say that Rothesay, the island’s storied town, remains a prisoner to a past when it ruled the waves as the favoured, slightly louche holiday destination of the west of Scotland’s working classes. But what a glorious past and how grand and lovely still are the monuments which made it so. OK, so perhaps they are slightly careworn now and, like an ageing chorus line, they are looking for rich admirers to make a fuss and spend money on them. This place though was majestic once and could be once again. And what, after all, would Havana now be if a wrecking moderniser had tried to bring it up to date?

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Yet, like many of Scotland’s other desiccated holiday destinations, Rothesay seemed resigned to its fate as a victim of changes it could not control. Unlike the others, though, it was also beginning to shrivel up. The most recent census revealed that Bute’s population had fallen from 7,228 to 6,498 within 10 years – an alarming decline of 10.1 per cent. Yet during the same period the population of Scotland’s other islands grew. The rate of depopulation shocked the islanders and galvanised them into a programme of action that is now ready to roll.

This time last year a public meeting, organised by community council member Martin Catlin, was convened to address the depopulation issue.

“The Isle of Bute has so much going for it,” Catlin told The Buteman, the island’s 162-year-old newspaper. “I believe, if key issues were addressed, that we can become one of Scotland’s more attractive places to live and work.”

It seemed the island agreed with him and, much more importantly, was prepared to convert sentiment and hand-wringing into collective action. Graeme Murdoch, a retired newspaper designer, told me: “I came to Bute from Edinburgh in August last year for tranquillity while I work on a book and I live in Port Bannatyne, but have decided to stay.

“Whenever I return to the island from the mainland I feel a strong affirmation of my decision as the CalMac ferry comes into Rothesay Bay. Of course the town needs tender loving care as it looks a bit frayed at the edges but I am confident the initiatives in play, with the new pavilion at its heart, will breathe new vitality into this jewel on the Kyles. And I’ve never seen what seems like an entire community so fully engaged in making good things happen.”

A year after the emergency community meeting Martin Catlin’s vision and optimism is beginning to light a fire under Rothesay. The week after next a charrette entitled Remaking Rothesay will take place over four days. The word charrette is the latest one to be adopted by campaigning groups to convey something progressive and edgy. Essentially, charrette has begun to take the place of words like "symposium" or "colloquium" and will consist of activity-based workshops not simply to express a mere wish-list but to establish common goals and work together towards them. A glance at the programme menu conveys the scale of the vision: economic growth and investment; start-ups; young people and families; re-use of redundant buildings; collaboration and empowerment. On the last day a bring-a-dish community lunch will conclude the exercise.

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While all the local and national tiers of government are supporting this they are not deploying remote control, their usual modus operandi. You get the overwhelming idea that this is a grassroots initiative.

Paul Duffy, another young community councillor, said: “The independence referendum, no matter which side of the debate you occupied, empowered people to get involved in issues pertaining to their local communities. Something changed for ever during that campaign and that was that people were no longer simply prepared to hang around and wait until they were told what to do. We’re seeing this in Rothesay.

“The townspeople, through the Bute Alliance for Action, has already identified three main objectives: a better relationship with CalMac, the ferry operators; stronger links with all of our schools and a commitment to improve the Rothesay townscape.”

THERE was a time in the 1960s and 1970s when Rothesay, it seemed, would always be Scotland’s island paradise, impervious to changing attitudes about leisure and recreation. The pink guest-houses gathered into a horseshoe bay which shielded bathers from the ocean’s wilder elements; those curious palm trees on a manicured esplanade which enabled men and women from Partick and Drumchapel to be high rollers for a painted week or so and taverns where drinking became a pleasure once more and not a grim duty. Earlier generations had sailed here on the River Clyde’s first steamers. These also carried members of Glasgow’s merchant classes who chose Bute as a favoured location for their second homes.

Bolstered by the tens of thousands who arrived here every day during summer and Easter in its 1960s and 1970s golden age it seemed this Xanadu would last 1,000 years. And when cheap flights came on stream to carry us to the planet’s other Rothesays, where there was no rain and a sense that you had gone up in the world, this place had not the accoutrements, invention or weather to fight back. Yet many of the natural gifts with which Rothesay had been blessed were merely mothballed and preserved in a state of suspended animation ready to be pressed into service once more when the time for them to be reborn might come. That time may now have come.

The town possesses an assortment of unique architectural gems which, when fully working and properly marketed, ought to elevate Rothesay into the premier division of UK holiday destinations. The gardens and their palm trees look elegant once more and the esplanade, upgraded pier and marina are beginning to seem beguiling again. The town square has been restored to something of its former, more vibrant self and behind it stands the 13th-century Rothesay Castle, one of the finest in Scotland with its circular towers and moat intact. This building is worth a visit on its own.

Work will soon start on an £11 million project to restore Rothesay Pavilion, a magnificent 1930s edifice which looks like Art Deco but was inspired by the Bauhaus movement. When this is finished in 2018 Rothesay will have gained a concert and arts venue to compete for a share in the massive market for music and heritage tourism.

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AN ELECTRONIC vote taken at the public meeting to address Bute’s population decline revealed that more than two-thirds of participants cited a lack of jobs as the main reason for migration away from the island. Other factors such as the poor broadband capacity in large areas of the island mitigate against new business start-ups. The 15 empty shopfronts all along the front of the island tell their own story.

A few years ago, the journalist Ian Jack observed the passing of a once-vibrant rural industry. “When we first began to stay regularly on the island a dozen years ago, 30 dairy farms flourished and sent their milk to the island creamery. Only 13 remain. The creamery has closed, its 19 workers have lost their jobs, the milk leaves by tanker for the mainland, and cheese labelled Isle of Bute is no longer stacked on supermarket shelves.” During this period Arran, its less gifted brother further down the Firth of Clyde, has become a highly marketable brand.

Michael Russell, the MSP for Argyll and Bute, is straining to keep the frustration out of his voice when he says there is no reason why Rothesay can’t emulate Arran. “The potential here is massive and there is a heart-warming appetite among the citizens to improve their community but this ought to be unfolding as part of a bigger economic plan from the council. I’d like to see them fund investment opportunities by developing business premises and granting preferential rates for businesses involved in the tourist trade. There is absolutely no reason why Bute and Rothesay cannot develop into an extraordinary and high-class tourist destination."

The ferry operator, Caledonian MacBrayne, seems to have entered a new chapter in its role as a principal stakeholder in the island’s economy. Its £3m repair of the critical Wemyss Bay terminal will be completed next month, making Bute one of the best-served island destinations in Scotland. From last October CalMac significantly reduced fares under the RET (Road Equivalent Tariff) scheme. Under this structure a single ticket costs £3.05 for a passenger and £10.95 for a car, with a return costing exactly double – £6.10 and £21.90 – respectively.

Last Tuesday afternoon I counted 20 craft in the marina. Marine tourism around Scotland’s desirable waters has become a significant industry and you feel that Rothesay could become an ideal staging post for an affluent clientele. There is, though, little in the way of eye-catching wine bars or high-quality seafood restaurants to tempt them. There isn’t an edgy dynamic and no vibe … yet.

Rothesay has the infrastructure, the history and some sparkling venues. It was born with handsome features and an easy charm but, at a time when it needed it most, there was no imagination to be found among the local authorities to meet the wiles of the Mediterranean.

The Bute Alliance for Action says it wants to realise Rothesay’s potential as a unique place to live, work, visit and grow. Last December, 15 bedraggled and war-weary Syrian refugee families began to do this: to live, work, visit and grow. I was told more than once by local people that they were settling in well and that, in time, they will begin to make their own contribution to the island potential. It took a leap of imagination to bring them here and you sense something similar is beginning to stir among their new neighbours as they seek to remake Rothesay.

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