It is personal for me with Bute.

My late dad used to spirit us doon the watter every Easter and autumn to work on the wee yacht he’d somehow built. That yacht was his Dignity. And Bute became the inspiration for my life as a travel writer as I sat at Ardmaleish Yard wondering what lay across the dolphin-kissed waters over those hulking Argyll hills. Bute to me has always spelt romance and promise.

There is plenty of promise on Bute today, too: the recent opening of Bute Yard has brought this isle bursting back into the limelight. Bute has long been hidden in plain sight, adrift in the Firth of Clyde just a half hour ferry ride from Wemyss Bay, the most dramatic railway station in the British Isles. 
This isle captivated the passionate attention of the world’s richest man, the 3rd Marquess of Bute. He fashioned the remarkable Mount Stuart, arguably the most dramatic country house in the British Isles. He saw the sublime in Bute, as did filmmaker Richard Attenborough, who bought an estate in the surprisingly wild northern extremities of the Clyde’s second largest island.

The Herald:

Bute’s natural treasures are manifest. This is an island that dramatically straddles the Highland Boundary Fault, a literal line marked in the island capital of Rothesay splitting the island between Highland and Lowland Scotland. It’s no prosaic divide: the south revels in agricultural bounty and sandy beaches; the north forges high through Glen More, a Clearances-blighted scenic wonder that could easily be Wester Ross; the wild, untamed Scotland of Ben Fogle documentaries. And Bute is made for TV. Cinema even. It burns in a big-skied natural amphitheatre, the earth’s elemental forces exploding contours into life, patches of Caledonian forests clinging to modern Scotland and a coastline alive with more marine mammals than tourists.

You could just hop over to Rothesay on the thrashing paddle romance of the PS Waverley for a couple of pints and a fish supper at Zavaroni’s. I have: it’s an utter joy. Far better, though, to give this most majestic of isles a trio of days. Then you can hike around the cheekily named West Island Way – see what they’ve done there? This 30-mile adventure is as dramatic as any of the other Great Trails of Scotland, its bijou life-affirming charms the microcosm of an island more fulfilling than most macrocosms. My time wrapped in its charms are up there with any hike I’ve taken on the west coast. 
Were Bute just a natural wonder of golden eagles (the occasional sea eagle too), deer and otter, it would be worth your holiday time. But it is resoundingly more, never more so than in Mount Stuart. 

Here, as the world’s industrial economies kicked into gear in the nineteenth century, the world’s richest man chose eastern Bute as his home. He fashioned a house to match his wealth. Then went doolally. You have to extend your tolerance for excess at Mount Stuart, the Sistine Chapel of Scottish country houses. It was the first place in Scotland lit by electricity and the first house in the world boasting a heated swimming pool. The atrium is an astrological wonder, topped with a starry sky. Then there is the literal chapel, where Stella McCartney was married, its riot of marble more Bologna than Bute.

The Herald:

Of course the imprint of man is not just limited to Mount Stuart. There is the ridiculous Tudor half-timbered hamlet of Kerrycroy the Marquess fashioned south of Mount Stuart and the grand mansions and merchant houses of Rothesay that make ‘The Town’ more than the sum of its parts; a sleeping potential Brighton on the Clyde. There is real strength in depth. Just ask the Stuart monarchs who chose Rothesay as the fulcrum to finally rein in the Lords of the Isles. The latter were perhaps just daunted by the drama and fortitude of the kind of moat-kissed castle that kids draw from their imaginations.

That natural drama and that history make Bute worthy of a visit; Rothesay’s recent renaissance makes it unmissable. At its heart is the brainchild of the late 7th Marquess of Bute, Johnny Dumfries. He fought long and hard to fashion Bute Yard as a huge space where local businesses and the community could thrive. He wanted to put Bute back on the map. Only opened in June this year, Bute Yard already has is in wondrous fashion, an indoor/outdoor space part Bauhaus cool, part Barras food stalls, all very much still Bute. The anchor tenants Isle of Bute Distillery and the Bute Beer Co are very much the stars.

We’ve focused on nature, Mount Stuart and Rothesay so far. Rightly so, but the joy of Bute is that there is always more despite Bute’s bijou dimensions. Cut south and the sandy charms of Kilchattan Bay tempt. They are echoed by Ettrick Bay’s sands in the northwest, its charms augmented by the wonderfully old school Ettrick Bay Tearoom. In my travels to over 100 countries it remains my favourite spot for a strawberry milkshake and a wee traybake.

Bute just keeps on delivering. We’ve got the Pavilion, an art deco dame slowly but surely being restored to its 1920s heyday. It will soon be a cultural beacon beaming across the Clyde, joining the wee cinema in the old Winter Gardens. You can now bash off around Bute on a fast RIB boat, or take a hop on/hop off bus tour that visits a red phone box where you stock up on local artist Ruth Slater‘s work. And her tablet if you’ve not indulged too much at Rothesay’s brilliant Syrian bakery. In the south there is the spiritual presence of historic St Blane’s Chapel; in the north Port Bannatyne, Rothesay’s characterful cousin. There is an ambitious new truffle farm and the world’s most remarkable gents’ toilets.

Bute stacks up brilliantly for a multifarious break, but what impresses me is how Bute is often community-powered. Yes Bute is one of the most ‘owned’ islands in Scotland, its land tightly controlled by the Mount Stuart. But within that framework pockets of the community get, well, very Bute. In Port Bannatyne that translates as one of the most impressive community-owned pubs in Scotland – the Anchor Tavern. In the north the march of monocultural industrial Scandinavian pine has been arrested by Bute Forest. No mere flash in the community pan, they’ve branched out with ranger-led walks and a life-affirming collage of off-the-grid glamping escapes.
None of this should be surprising. As a wee laddie I sat on Bute’s shores watching cetaceans splash by, dreaming of things bigger than prosaic concerns, before I knew what prosaic concerns were. Bute today is all things to all people; not bad for a wee Firth of Clyde island only 15 miles long and a mere four miles wide.

The Herald:


The Bonnie Clyde

Tucking into sweet Rothesay Bay langoustines served by the lady whose husband caught them is very Bute. As are romanticised images of the ‘doon the watter’ glory days adorning the walls, capped off with dolphins frolicking in the bay outside.

Kingarth Hotel

This legendary inn closing down was a travesty; its recent return an utter joy. It’s well worth delving deep down into the southern reaches of Bute to savour this welcoming, local produce-driven oasis.

Bute Yard

It’s all happening in the seriously impressive Bute Yard. As well as the gin and beer guys  there is the Coffee and Chocolate horse box and the container offering smoked fish and delicious smoked cheese. Those monthly markets are remarkable.


The Glenburn

Once a symbol of Bute’s decline, this palatial abode has re-opened. Great value for a sleep bathed in doon the watter heritage. Amazing vews too.

Scalpsie Farm

Instagram’s ‘Scalpsie Shepherdess’ is the creative Danish talent behind the impressive glamping pods by the sands of Scalpsie Bay. 
Admire the views to the Arran Hills from 
these chic abodes, look out for the Northern Lights and marvel at the charmingly vocal local seal colony.

Bute Forest

This community-owned and powered initiative has off-the-grid glamping accommodation that offers respite from the modern world.