The Isle of Bute (Scottish Gaelic: Eilean Bhòid or An t-Eilean Bhòdach) is an island in the Firth of Clyde, off the west coast of Scotland. Administratively it's part of Argyll and Bute in the Scottish Highlands. Indeed the Highland fault line runs through it, from the bay and main town of Rothesay halfway down its east coast, through freshwater Loch Fad and Loch Quien to Scalpsie Bay on the south coast. So most of the island, west of this line, is geologically Highland, but it's of no great height, and Bute is lowland in nature. For visitor purposes it's part of the "Costa Clyde" or "Glasgow Riviera", the string of little resorts stretching down the Clyde coast from Gourock through Ayr to Girvan. With only a short ferry crossing from Wemyss Bay on the mainland, it's popular with day trippers from Glasgow and never feels "away from it all".
By sea is the only way into Bute, unless you've a light aircraft. Most visitors arrive in 1 Rothesay on the Calmac ferry from Wemyss Bay 30 miles west of Glasgow. This takes 35 mins and sails at least hourly every day year-round 07:00-20:00. Return fares are £24 per car plus £6.70 per passenger including driver.
The other Calmac ferry links Rhubodach, at the end of the road on the north of the island, with Colintraive on the Cowal Peninsula. You'd only come this way as part of a scenic tour of Argyll. The ferry runs daily year-round every 30 min 06:00-21:00 (Sunday from 08:30), taking barely five mins. Return fares are £12.60 per car, £2.50 per passenger including driver (Dec 2019). As the sea channel is only 300 yards wide, it's an expensive crossing in terms of £ per mile.
The paddle steamer Waverley used to call at Rothesay on summer excursions. In 2019 she became unseaworthy, and funds are being raised for a replacement boiler.
See 2 Wemyss Bay for details of:
- - trains from Glasgow Central to Wemyss Bay,
- - road routes, the usual approach being westbound M8 > A8 > A78,
- - connections from Glasgow Airport (GLA IATA) or Prestwick (PIK IATA).
By air: seriously, if you do have a light aircraft, 3 Bute Airfield is near Kilchattan Bay five miles south of Rothesay. Grass strip of 500 m, daylight hours only, no fuel. And you'll need to have ground transport set up.
By bus: West Coast Motors run bus services on the island (+44 1586 552319). All bus routes pass along Rothesay Victoria Street near the ferry pier. Those most relevant to visitors are 90, 490 and 493, which follow the coast south past Ardencraig Gardens, Ascog Fernery and Mount Stuart to Kilchattan Bay. These run hourly year-round Mon-Sat.
Buses 90, 477, 479 and 490 run up the east coast via Port Bannatyne to Rhubodach ferry pier, for Colintraive on the Cowal peninsula. Bus 477 crosses to Colintraive by ferry and winds around Loch Riddon via Auchenbreck then south through Kames to Portvadie, for ferries to Tarbert in Argyll. Bus 479 also crosses to Colintraive and from Auchenbreck turns west to Dunoon, for ferries to Gourock thence trains to Glasgow. From Port Bannatyne, buses 90, 490 and 493 turn inland, to Ettrick Bay on Bute's west coast. Routes 488, 491, 492 and 493 loop around Rothesay town to various residential areas, the college, and local hospital.
By bike is an excellent way to explore the island, as the distances aren't great and it's not hilly. Bike hire is available from The Bike Shed near the ferry terminal in Rothesay. Tel +44 1700 505515.
- 1 Rothesay Castle, Castle Hill, Rothesay PA20 0DA, ☏ . Apr-Sept daily 09:30-17:30; Oct-Mar Sa-W 10:00-16:00. A "compound" castle, unusual for Scotland, first built in Norman times. It has a circular curtain wall: four towers were later added, of which only the "Pigeon Tower" survives. It was well smashed up by Cromwell, and then again during the Monmouth Rebellion. From the 19th C the Marquesses of Bute made considerable efforts to restore it - or at least to their spec for what the Middle Ages ought to have looked like. Adult £5.
- Bute Museum, 7 Stuart St Rothesay PA20 0EP (just south of castle), ☏ . Apr-Sept: M-Sa 10:30-15:30, Su 13:30-15:30; Oct Nov, Feb Mar: Tu-Th Sa 13:30-15:30. Just two rooms, but packed with exhibits of local history thorugh the ages. £4.
- 2 Ascog Hall Fernery, Ascog Hall, Ascog PA20 9EU (4 miles south of Rothesay on coast, bus 90, 490 & 493), ☏ . Apr-Oct daily 10:00-17:00. This Victorian fernery was forgotten about, then rediscovered in 1997 and rehabilitated. One fern had survived from the original collection and is thought to be over 1000 years old. Adult £5.
- 3 Mount Stuart House, Kerrycroy PA20 9LR (6 miles south of Rothesay on coast, bus 90, 490 & 493), ☏ . Mid-March-mid-Dec: Su-F 11:00-17:00, Sa 10:00-14:30. A flamboyant Victorian Gothic House set in parkland planted with species from all over the world. The Crichton-Stuarts held extensive lands in Wales and elsewhere, and became even richer from developing industry around Cardiff. The 19th-century 3rd Marquess wanted to recreate the Middle Ages to his own specifications, and restored Cardiff Castle and nearby Castle Coch. Mount Stuart was his next project. It's built in warm red sandstone, with a notable marble hall and chapel, and richly decorated. In 2016 a Shakespeare First folio was discovered in the library. Adult £13.
- 4 St Blane's Church is an extensive ruin, mostly Norman. A monastery stood here 6th to 7th C but only scraps of this remain. After the Reformation of 1560 the priest refused either to become protestant or to leave the church and manse. The authorities left him alone here in an almighty sulk while the place fell to rack and ruin around him. By Kilchattan follow Plan Road south past the airfield; park up at the road end and walk along the track.
- Seals often haul out at Scalpsie Bay on the south coast. The little island one mile west is Inchmarnock. It has sea caves and a Bronze Age burial cist, and in the 7th century was home to the monk for whom Kilmarnock is named. The island is private farmland but boat trips sometimes land by permission.
- The Kyles of Bute are the narrow straits that separate the northern end of Bute from the Cowal Pensinsula. They're a designated National Scenic Area. You can see their eastern arm from the coast road to Rhubodach ferry pier. The western arm can be seen from 5 Ettrick Bay Beach, reached by B878 from Rothesay.
- Victorian Gents Lavatories, Ferry terminal, Rothesay, ☏ . M-Th 08:00-17:45, F-Su 08:00-19:30. Magnificent shrine to Victorian ablutions, but only the gents, and for some reason there isn't a viewing gallery so you come here to "do" not "see". The ladies' is modern and functional. "Separate spheres" and all that.... 40 pence.
- 1 Rothesay Leisure Centre, 96 High Street, Rothesay PA20 9BN. M-F 07:00-20:00, Sa 10:00-17:00, Su 10:00-15:00. For those rainy days. 25-m pool, gym and sauna open daily. Fitness classes rotate between here, the college campus and Moat community centre.
- 2 Port Bannatyne Marina and Boatyard, Kames Bay, Port Bannatyne PA20 0LT (just west of Port B village), ☏ (for berthing). Accessible 24 hours at all tides, dredged to -2.4 m; office 09:00-17:00. Modern marina with permanent berthing, repairs and storing for all craft. During World War II the bay here was a base for midget submarines ("x-craft").
- Port Bannatyne Petanque Club, Recreation Ground, Marine Rd Port Bannatyne PA20 0LT (Opposite Port B Marina), ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. May-Sept. Boules and measures may be hired from the Post Office, or the Anchor Tavern.
- 3 Port Bannatyne Golf Club, Mains Road, Port Bannatyne PA20 0PH, ☏ . An oddity, a 13-hole course: you play 12, then the first 5 again, then the 18th. Club house, great views, friendly club, kit for hire.
- 4 Loch Fad Fishing, Loch Fad, (To Loch Fad by Barone Rd B878 then left onto track; to Loch Quien go south via High St / B881 for 3 miles), ☏ . The deep loch is stocked with trout, and pike, perch and roach may also be fished. Rowing boats and rods for hire. In summer 2018 Bluebird K7, the restored speedboat of Donald Campbell (1921-1967), undertook trials here. Loch Fad Day ticket (5 fish) £25; Loch Quien (catch & release) £14.
- The West Island Way is a long-distance footpath that traverses Bute, 32 miles in all. It's all easy going, pick your own itinerary, but the suggested stages are: Day 1 circuit of Kilchattan Bay, 5 miles; Day 2 Kilchattan to Port Bannatyne, 11.5 miles; Day 3 Port Bannatyne to Rhubodach 8.5 miles; Day 4 back to Port Bannatyne.
- ButeFest is a music festival in late July. The next is Fri 24 - Sun 26 July 2020.
- The Co-op is on Bridge Street 100 yards west of Rothesay ferry terminal. It's open daily 07:00-22:00.
- Macqueen's is a butcher selling hand-made gourmet sausages, haggis and black pudding. They're at 1 Bishop St, Rothesay near the harbour, open M-Sa 09:00-18:00, W to 12:30.
- Zavaronis Cafe, 20 Argyle St., Rothesay, ☏ . The Zavaroni family run two cafes and a fish and chip shop on the island. They're not really possible to miss. The chip shop is next to the Co-Op on East Princes Street, the other two cafes, serving made on site ice cream, drinks, snacks and light meals, are on the seafront.
- Rayan is an East Med takeaway at 16 Gallowgate, Rothesay, 200 yards west of the ferry pier. It's open Tu-Su 11:30-20:00.
- The famous Russian Tavern in Port Bannatyne has closed.
- Small B&Bs dot the coast road from Port Bannatyne to the north, through Rothesay, to Craigmore a mile east.
- Cannon House Hotel, 5 Battery Place, Rothesay PA20 9DP (On coast road half a mile east of ferry pier), ☏ . Check-in: 14:00, check-out: 11:00. Georgian property on the sea front with six double rooms and one twin, needing refurbishment. A la carte menu is available each evening. Residents lounge and small bar. B&B double from £70.
The obvious route is back to the mainland via Rothesay and Wemyss Bay, when Glasgow and the whole of lowland / central Scotland lie before you. This is also the best route to the Isle of Arran, by ferry from Ardrossan.
From the short ferry crossing of Rhubodach-Colintraive, either go north to Loch Long, Inveraray and Loch Lomond, or loop south again to Portvadie, for ferries to Tarbert on Argyll. From there the main road leads to Campbeltown on the Mull of Kintyre. Dotted along the way are ferry ports for Islay (thence Jura), Gigha, and a back route into Arran.