Simply Bute-iful: An Exploration of Scotland in a Classic MG (Again).
Almost a year to the day since its last excursion, we fired up the old MG, this time trading the dramatic backdrop of Glen Coe for some of Scotland’s sensational coastline. We were keen to get off the mainland, an adventure I was yet to have as an adult, my only previous experience of the Scottish Isles being damp childhood holidays, trailing behind the rest of the family, slowly losing faith in their claims that “it was not much further to the top”. Fifteen years on and I’m much less reluctant towards such pursuits, and after some scouring of ferries and routes we decided to base ourselves on Bute and see what we could find from there. It’s hard to imagine when you’re sat organising from a flat in the middle of Glasgow that the Western Isles can be so accessible. Though we decided to take a few days to explore, you could certainly get from the city to Bute for just a day, opportune weather permitting, with trains leaving regularly from Central station directly to the ferry port at Wemyss Bay. A plus to this arrangement, of course, is that, unlike us, it will not be necessary to summon the RAC to rescue you and your ailing vehicle over the course of your travels, twice I might add. Penelope did not agree with the sea air as well as her passengers did.
“travelling “doon the watter” of the Firth of Clyde… lush greenery clashes with sandy coast”
The drive out to the coast was nice nonetheless and at just £35 open return for two passengers and a car to get over to the island, no advance booking required, well worth it. Waiting around in the queue to board the boat brought back a nostalgia for school trips across the channel and the daunting prospect of coach journeys, travel sickness and Disneyland. I can confirm, thankfully I hasten to add in my old age, that what you’ll actually be greeted with at Rothesay, the other side of the crossing, is nothing so hectic or garish. An old favourite of Victorian Glaswegian tourists travelling “doon the watter” of the Firth of Clyde, the sleepy town is constructed of beautiful pavilions and villas. Undoubtedly, however, the most striking aspect of this island is the way in which lush greenery clashes with sandy coast. The beaches sit side by side with forests and panoramic views of the range of hills and mountains that enclose the island. In this respect, you get the sense that, although it’s less than 50 square miles in size, you can cover almost every terrain without covering much land at all.
“Scotlands capacity to offer just about everything still never ceases to amaze me and I hope that’s a sense of wonder that never quite wears off.”
With this in mind, we found the most efficient way of making the most of the landscape and getting around at the same time is to cycle. I have to admit we chose an incredibly lucky few days weather wise, but we made some enquiries into whether this was simply a happy fluke not to be relied upon in future and the general consensus amongst residents was that Bute has its own climate and is generally a little warmer than over on the mainland. I won’t vouch for it though, my own experience of Scotland over the past three years being that one must pack and be prepared for every eventuality. We decided we needed to check out the recommended beaches in the area, so first we rode to Ettrick Bay on the west. I have an overwhelming hatred for cycling in the city, so getting back on a bike in Bute was ideal with its winding country roads and thankfully after my break from the sport, only gentle inclines. It was a great reminder of how much I love it and led to one of the mandatory resolutions we always make at the beginning of summer with the promise of boundless free time before us, that as soon as I was home in the countryside I’d get a bike fixed up and would thus make it my sole mode of transport.
The ride to Ettrick Bay from Rothesay is beautiful. The majority of the way you’re engulfed in green hedgerows and farmland, then suddenly you drop down and see the length of sandy beach stretching before you. We parked up and wandered along the coastline, which is incredibly easy going underfoot, flat and straight. This I found surprising, for some reason I had a vision of the Scottish coast as entirely rocky and formidable, not a place where you could lay out a towel and happily lounge for a few hours, but the country’s capacity to offer just about everything still never ceases to amaze me and I hope that’s a sense of wonder that never quite wears off. I can’t say that I joined in myself, but there were even brave swimmers out in force, capitalising on the glorious sunshine and the incredible views across to Arran. I have to recommend the Ettrick Bay Tearooms that you’ll find overlooking proceedings, the food is amazing, just don’t attempt to get straight back on your bike, you’ll need half an hour or so to compose yourself before you continue. As our first Bute Beach experience, we were more than impressed, but if, for whatever reason, you find yourself short of time and only able to make one coastal trip, make it Scalpsie Bay. I’d been insistent on this one because I’d read that a colony of about 200 seals reside here. Admittedly, we only spotted 4, but as a girl who can claim Blackpool as her local seaside, I was genuinely mesmerised. My friend lives in Dover and works on boats all summer so I got the impression he found my fascination a little bewildering, but he thankfully still obliged me in clambering over the rocks to get as close as possible to where they were laying. We probably spent a good half an hour or so, the only souls around, simply watching as they hauled themselves in and out of the water. It took a lot to tear me away from what immediately became my favourite view of the trip, but thankfully, as we moved off, the final seal looked over and flopped back into the sea, I like to think he sensed my reluctance.
“…it didn’t look real. We were winding around cliff top roads with high pine trees bordering the sheer drop back down to the sea.”
We’d noted on our travels to Ettrick Bay a sign to a different ferry port, Rubadach, a little way further on from Rothesay and decided to spend our final day seeing where it would take us. We thought the port itself would shed some light on this fact, but on arrival “port” was perhaps an overstatement. What we found was a small queue of cars and no information or staff, so, naturally, we got to the back of the line, confident that our destination would become apparent soon enough. Later conversation with somebody in the know unveiled to us that we had just, unwittingly, boarded the most expensive ferry in relation to time spent travelling in the whole of Europe. The crossing was less than five minutes and cost in excess of £15. I’m not sure that we hid our dismay particularly well as I reluctantly handed over the cash, but luckily all hard feelings began to dissipate as soon as we were back on the road. We still did not know where we were, but it didn’t look real. We were winding around cliff top roads with high pine trees bordering the sheer drop back down to the sea. Signs to Glasgow instructed us that we had in fact crossed back to the mainland, but we were loathed if we were going to follow those signs home after the heavy investment of the return ticket. It turns out, from later inspection that we had crossed from Rubadach to Colintraive and what we were exploring were the Kyles of Bute. Driving round, roof down, however, it was almost better that we were completely aimless.
Bute is definitely somewhere I’ll be revisiting now that I have my bearings a little and we were sad to pack up the next day, albeit slightly relieved to not be marooned. At around half 8 the evening before departure we realised that all the sharp bends and bumpy terrain we had subjected the MG to over the course of the day had perhaps been a little over ambitious, and describing our location to a central office of the RAC with no exact postcode was a little fraught. We were found, saved, and moving again by morning, thankfully. So, after a leisurely start, made an afternoon ferry back to Wemyss Bay, cradling our final ice cream of the holiday as we watched Rothesay fade into the horizon.