The Isle of Bute – part 7 -thursday

Much of this [again very hot!] day was taken up with visiting the grounds of Mount Stuart – re-built in the 1880s, the “seat” of the marquesses of Bute. A couple of miles south of Rothesay, this is a must do for any holidaymaker, not because of the massive pile [which was fairly impressive – Im not a fan of the aristocracy or most of their “big hooses”…but the grounds were wonderful.

Eryl and Mount Stuart
Cool shady driveway on a very hot day..
Big leaves and little Eryl..beside the long driveway to the north of Mount Stuart
Forest Shield Bug
Eryl at the Kitchen Gardens – a mix of flowers and veg..
Into the cool of the enclosed pond complete with goldfish and tropical plants…very welcome on this hot day
After a long walk down beautiful avenues of trees and along the shore we re-emerged at Mount Stuart – the lawn looked a bit were we until we had some food and drink in the tea room..

After the excitement of Mount Stuart we drove to the viewpoint above the magnificent Ettrick Bay…a grand day out….


Isle of Bute – part 6 – wednesday

Woke up to another scorcher….headed off to the SW corner of the island where we had read about some its ancient history. Dunagoil was a hillfort as far back as the late Bronze Age. The views from the plateau top across to Arran and up and down the Firth are superb, well worth the short walk from the road.

Dunagoil…”Fort of the Foreigner” may refer to invading norsemen or even earlier intruders
Eryl scrambling to the top of Dunagoil
The mountains of Arran looming out of they would have done for “The Gall” thousands of years earlier.
On the summit of Dunagoil..butterflies, flowers and a picnic above the cliffs
Sea Thrift/Sea Pink
Remains of the old parish church built by Olaf the Red
St Blane’s Churchyard dating from c.1135

Coming down from Dunagoil in baking heat we travelled the few hundred yards to the car park for St Blanes..and walked up the stony path to the site of the old monastery and church.The monastery site dates back to around 600AD, burned by vikings in 790 and rebuilt around 930. A parish church was then built on the site in 1135 by a christian convert, Olaf the Red. I would recommend this place to anyone – it has an air of calm and shelter even now..which the sheep obviously enjoy too!

Back to Rothesay in the evening in time to see the Waverley coming in to harbour.

A reminder of my childhood trips to Rothesay, Kirn and Dunoon on a variety of paddle steamers on the Clyde in the 1950s. The Jeanie Deans and the Talisman, I remember…it was a rite of passage to go and look at the engines and paddlers turning, with your dad – Im sure I would have preferred to be up on deck looking for gannets , porpoises and basking sharks!

The Isle of Bute – part 5 – tuesday

Woke up to another hot sunny day..wonderful…is there anywhere so beautiful as Argyll on a summer’s day?..Today’s plan included me going fishing alone, back to Rubha an Eun and Eryl having a good old potter round Rothesay and Port Bannatyne…and so it was but with the prospect of an evening reunion with an old friend and ex RSPB colleague, Susan McComb, who had invited us for a meal and to show us her lovely house and garden overlooking Rothesay…more later..a days walking and fishing first, bliss!

Hawks Nib – again!..with fishing bag…
A light ripple on the water, looking across to Great Cumbrae
Glassy calm on a hot day..this sailing ship can only move under engine power, off Little Cumbrae
The lighthouse at Rubha an Eun…
Very hot sun shadow...
Looking north up the island from Rubha an Eun..
Spinning for pollack..and catching just one small one!
[only] Catch of the day – a small pollack..returned.

The Firth of Clyde in my lifetime has gone from a rich ecosystem full of pollack, coalfish, cod, haddock and whiting, basking sharks and dolphins to a sparse fish semi-desert. All due to uncontrolled overfishing and trawling by commercial boats. That also includes the herring fishery, as a young boy I saw seine net boats returning with over 100 cran [baskets] of herring from one nights fishing at Carradale. All gone. Also as a young boy I would expct to catch 20+ fish off rocks like this, on one tide. An ecological disaster..easy to miss on a sunny day if you dont know the history. Our expectations are so low…..

The view over Rothesay Bay from outside Susan and Malkies flat

After that long hot day, in idyllic surroundings, I returned to Rothesay where Eryl and I were invited for the evening up to Susan and Malkie’s flat high above the town. After pulling ouselves up the amazing twisty street called the Serpentine we were met by Susan and taken to their beautiful flat. Splendid home made curry and beer [and “a shot” on a Gibson Hummingbird guitar later – Malky was a guitar tech for rock bands] and chat was had, followed by a guided tour of their large garden with its greenhouse, garage [full of bits of vintage motorbikes] and vegetable plots and fruit trees. they made a tremendously fortuitous move there, from a room and kitchen in Glasgow’s Yorkhill area. Susan kept trying to apologise for how lucky they had been!..It seems to me that they deserve everything theyve got, two hardworking talented people, who cant believe their luck….A memorable evening, thanks to both of you…[hopefully Eryl has some photos of their garden!].


The Isle of Bute – part 4 – monday

This will forever be known as “the day of the cleg” [Cleg aka as horse fly]. We had planned to take a nice walk up the track from Glecknabae to the ruins of St Michaels Chapel – see walk no 10 in the excellent “Bute” by David McDowall, our guidebook for the week. It started well, another sunny hot windless day as we parked in the tiny parking place at Glecknabae and set off up the tree lined track a few metres from the Kyles of Bute. The NW corner of the island, one of the great things about Bute is that you are never more than about 30 minutes from the start of any walk.

We were never bothered by the dreaded scottish midge the whole week – Argyll is famous for them in July in particular, maybe the drought had suppressed them – but I had forgotten about the horrors of a cleg attack. We spotted the first ones after about 100 yards..and for the next 3 kilometres we were trying to bat them off and at one point we even scrambled across a stony beach to the sea edge to get away from them. At last we arrived, exhausted, at the small bay below Kilmichael cottage. At this point I should say that without the clegs, it would have been a lovely walk with a beautiful mixed wood of oaks and other native trees and bird song all around.

A cleg….

The view from the bay down towards Arran was magnificent with small boats buzzing about on an almost flat calm sea.

Fascinating patterns on the rocks at the top of the shore and a feeling of isolation – until a family arrived from the Cowal side of the Kyles, for a picnic on an inflatable.

Time to retreat – we hurried back through the clegs and got back to our car with relief.

Despite the harrassment from biting insects I did get at least one nice photo – fungi on a tree near the shore.

Time to head back to the civilisation of Rothesay. One of the main draws that took us to Bute were the newspaper reports of Syrian refugees having settled in Rothesay and starting up restaurants and bakers shops. We soon found a superb cafe/delicatessen called Helmis where we bought coffee and superb cakes.

Blueberry and Lemon and a happy Eryl…

Coffee, cakes and a seat watching the ferries….which soon became a favourite occupation, either from the seafront or from our flat window……summer holiday bliss.

The Isle of Bute – Part 3 – Sunday

First full day we startedwith a short recce of the centre of town looking for good eating and shopping places and generally seeing the sights. There are some wonderfully shabby corners – which is what we love!..Not everyone’s cup of tea but we both share a love of run down holiday resorts and factory buildings – Rothesay was a paradise, everywhere you looked there were signs of its former glory.

However, this blog is not meant to bury Rothesay but to praise it [to horribly misquote that Willie Shakespeare chappie]. There is obviously a strong community feeling and activity going on. We kept seeing community gardens and signage – the locals are very proud of their town…they also have a sense of humour!

But we had also come to Bute for its scenic beauty and walks – so in the afternoon we headed off to the south end of the island and one of the best walks of the week – from Kilchattan Bay to the lighthouse at Rubha an Eun. I was also doing a recce for a return visit with a fishing rod. For anyone reading this and considering the walk, dont take it too lightly!..Some fairly rough bits, although we were probably helped by the stunning weather and continuing drought – the path was at least dry.

Early on in the walk to the lighthouse, Eryl looking for “new” birds with her new binoculars…

It being mid July and sunny, one of the glories of the walk was constant butterflies. We also came across a buzzard family on the hillside above the path, with a chick continuously calling its parents for food. The few other walkers were infrequent enough to leave us with a lovely feeling of isolation, with splendid views across the Firth to the Ayrshire coast and the Cumbrae islands.

One particularly striking landmark was the “Hawks Nib” a tower of red sandstone which narrows the path above the rocks of the shore.

The Hawks Nib [Hawks Beak]..

Nearby was a welcome cave to shelter from the heat….

Eryl enjoys a brief rest..

The butterflies continued all along the path, with at the rocky parts the wonderfully camouflaged grayling butterflies appearing, as if by magic from under our feet.

On along the path with many ups and downs and a few stops to admire the view. Eventually the path opened out onto a flat grassy area with the small lighthouse of Rubha an Eun at its tip.

Rubha an Eun lighthouse at low tide – Little Cumbrae on the left and the faint outline of the Ayrshire coast dead ahead..

We saw porpoises and gannets out in the deep sound between here and Little Cumbrae..but also, sadly a passing submarine from the Trident base at Faslane. As a small boy I used to watch these harbingers of doom [along with their twins – the US Polaris submarines from the Holy Loch] silently passing the tourist towns of Kirn and Dunoon; from my grannies house…they should have been long gone by now.

At last we were at the lighthouse – a last awkward scramble across rocks. A stunning view..and then a long thirsty walk back to the car..but the prospect of a cold drink back home in Rothesay. A grand day out..

Eryl at the end of the road..[as a nuclear submarine sneaks past the lighthouse!]

The Isle of Bute – part 2 – saturday.

We had arrived around midday in perfect sunny weather, so after unloading our bags in the flat we set off for a walk round Rothesay. Nothing beats a good explore! We walked round the bay admiring the Victorian architecture, some crumbling and covered in old scaffolding and others, such as the splendid Winter Garden obviously lovingly maintained. We also admired the cafes and restaurants and made plans for meals..until we stumbled on an intriguing narrow street bending upwards next to the Kettledrum Cafe [of which, more later].

We decided to take a look at what lay behind the seafront. Moving slowly up the pavement with protective metal rails, we came across this curious but benevolent looking sign, showing an unusually green attitude to wild plants.

This was next to a row of pots planted up with bright flowers. That encouraged us to keep going up the steep twisty road towards overgrown terraces with mature trees in the near distance.

Eryl waiting for Dave to stop taking pics and catch up…

Near the top of this road, where it meets with Bishop Terrace, we saw a sign for “Woodland Walk to Ardencraig Gardens”. As we were already getting good views across Rothesay Bay this seemed like a good idea. Although we were “travelling blind” at this point we soon did the right thing and bought the OS Explorer map of Bute and more importantly David McDowalls excellent guide book “Bute”.

I highly recommend this woodland walk, beautiful mature trees and superb views…once called Skipper Wood it has had a chequred past, since first being planted to provide timber during the napoleonic wars. On the map its now called Bogany Wood.

None of this is new: as a holiday resort, Rothesay has been in retreat since the late 1950s; as an administrative capital since 1975, when Buteshire was abolished as a county. The island’s population has halved from a postwar peak of around 12,000. The court, Woolworth’s and the local newspaper closed in this century. Two fishmongers have become one. Three out of four banks have gone. The last greengrocer is up for sale. Only two of the dozen Presbyterian churches that had congregations in 1960 still hold services. Of the Kyles Hydro, said to have been even more splendid than the Glenburn, only the gateposts remain. The Royal Hotel in the middle of town is a gaunt shell held up by scaffolding.

Seaside resorts on the British mainland contain similar facts, of course, but the loveliness of Bute makes its abandonment more striking. The putting green, the pretty wooden shelters on the prom, the benches all along the front dedicated by their relatives to the dead who “always loved this view … this island … this spot” (and in this way mark a double absence – both of the deceased and of the living for whom the bench and shelter were intended): all lie empty, save for a family of putters laughing at each other’s efforts. Over the railings, rusty now owing to lack of paint, the tide goes out to reveal artificial inlets in the rock and long lines of stones stretching into the sea, marking tidal swimming pools and boating stations that are now archaeological and need interpretation..”

Bracket fungi on a very old tree stump in the wood

As I recall the wood itself was a beautiful mix of mainly decidous trees, we passed children playing; in the wood and in spacious backgardens to victorian villas until we eventually took a fork in the path back to the roads. Time was getting on and an evening meal was beckoning.

So it was down among the beautiful victorian and early 20th century stone built houses with their superb gardens and along the edge of the bay back into Rothesay. Passing the magnificent Glenburn Hotel…

As the rest of the week showed us, with minimal searching, Bute is full of beautiful surprises.

The Isle of Bute – a holiday blog – part 1

Ive only visited Bute in the Firth of Clyde twice before – the first time is one of my earliest memories, I must have been all of 4 years old, in the 1950s, I was with my father in a pub in Rothesay [odd in itself as he seldom drank except on Burns Night or his annual Lovat Scouts reunion] and got shouted at, by strangers, for walking in front of the dart board! The second visit was also a one day job, this time a work visit involving investigating the killing of herons and cormorants, in the mid 1980s.

No one warned me about how beautiful the place is. Since I was a young teenager, Arran was my island of choice – first cycling to Ardrossan then camping at Corrie when I was fifteen, followed by riotous weekends and then whole summers in the late 60s and early 70s; girlfriends and guitars; drink and smokes; lifelong friendships kindled.

Bute was just a place across the water indistinguishable from the Ayrshire coast…this week I had the great pleasure of viewing the stunning mountains of Arran, just across the water…

Arran in the mist from Dunagoil Hillfort on Bute.

So, last year, shortly before we all got locked down, we had booked a cheap rental flat on the seafront in Rothesay. Eryl, the missus, had read an article about Syrian refugees being housed, in what was then Rothesay’s empty council housing and integrating with the local community but also opening cafes and a bakery, making syrian food…and then Covid…but we kept the idea alive and when it was possible we booked the same place [thanks Keith] for a week in July 2021.

The online reviews for the flat were mixed, to put it mildly, but having friends here in Moffat who run B and B’s and also considering the price, we chose to ignore what were almost certainly the type of people who love to complain and expect 5 star luxury, for single star prices…and so it turned out. For the money we ended up with a superb bargain.

View from our flat in Rothesay

Looking back on our week, I realise that having everyday with sunshine and temperatures up to 29 degrees C, isnt exactly typical for Scotland and it will have given an unusually rosy glow to our holiday but still I hope I can show, this place has a lot to offer.

We arrived in the mid afternoon of saturday 17th July at the Wemyss Bay ferry terminal which not surprisingly, was very busy. Into the queue, tickets bought, told we would have to wait for a second ferry. Across the road to the excellent “McCaskies at Seaview Cafe Bistro” for some quality scran while watching the ferry queue out of the window. Once we were safely onboard there was a disappointing “stay in your vehicle” rule – Ive always loved bird and cetacean watching from the many ferries I experienced on my work trips. The longer run, the better – with the single exception of my first ferry to Islay in 1981 when we had waves crashing over the ship..but I digress.

Emerging from the hold and onto Rothesay’s seafront, in bright sun we immediately knew we were in for a good time here..exactly the faded seaside splendour we both love. Hotels built during the Victorian heyday of the Firth of Clyde’s tourist boom – now with peeling paint and rusting scaffolding; bright flowerbeds, lawns and a putting green with holidaymakers wearing wonderfully unflattering shorts, skirts and blouses.

We found our flat very quickly – just a few hundred yards from the ferry – and parked across the road. Collected the key from a grumpy and no doubt overworked, laundrette person and headed into the close next door. Outer door held open with a piece of brieze block, peeling paint and plaster all the way up the two flights of stairs [I dont write this as criticism, our landlord Keith had warned us about renovation work]. Into the flat for a quick look before we brought up our suitcases – and immediately struck by the fantastic view across the bay to the Cowal hills. We never tired of that view, which included a steady parade of pleasure yachts, small fishing boats and ferries.

Becoming a Conservationist – The Middle Years…

I was a wildlife obsessed child. I grew up in the 1950s in rural renfrewshire, close to the Ayrshire border, in a landscape of loch, hill, mixed farms of cows and crops, woods covering abandoned mine workings and sandstone quarries. Lapwings in every tussocky field, curlews calling from the boggy moors, yellowhammers in summery overgrown hawthorn hedges. Mysterious quarry ponds with huge water beetles and the occasional newt rising up from the deep.

My parents were both townies, who had grown up in urban Glasgow, from opposite sides of the tracks. After World War 2 my father swapped his “sword for a ploughshare”, digging potatoes and planting trees in our village garden; keeping bees and generally living a quiet life – a daily commute by steam train to an office in the city, along with many of the good burghers of our small community.

Both parents were astonished and delighted by the wildlife that appeared in their garden. They had spent every last penny on their bit of paradise – a large house and a large garden. An equally large mortgage and furniture bought in antique shops – no new furniture could be had even if they could have afforded it. A cuckoo calling from across Loch Libo, a kestrel hovering over distant fields, a weasel eating the dog’s bone on the front lawn, rabbits under the hedges, the call of the nesting wood pigeons from the tree in front of their bedroom window. All pointed out to their youngest boy, who was making his own discoveries along tree covered lanes, in the wilder parts of the woods, at the tops of many climbable trees and in the lochs fringing reedbeds. Strange squeaks and grunts from the marsh, loud bursts of song from reed buntings and sedge warblers and out on the water, jousting coots and displaying great crested grebes.

The Thames Express thundering past heading to or from that distant land called England – as remote then as Timbuktu. Smoke trailing out across the valley as the roar and thump of the huge engine echoed from the hill opposite, leaving peace in its wake, very little road traffic then, in the village itself we could fearlessly run our bogies down the big hill at the end of the main street.

Years later, a move from the village school – a Victorian building, a class of 5, the feel of the leather tawse on fingers and wrist, frozen milk bottles in winter, wasps in jamjars at the end of summer – Im in a city school, one of 32, learning maths and hypocrisy and with no clear view ahead. Just university [the first in my family], wildlife not a professional option, no school biology department.

University in my home city, high rise block learning. No dreaming spires. Just the horrors of 9am monday morning statistics 101 – fellow students talking about drink and football. Then…a class in biogeography and the old stirrings are awakened.

Our flat in Glasgow’s West End, living with the friends I had made on the Isle of Arran that summer. Wee John, Alastair, big George. John a superb ragtime guitarist with a lucrative job in the Rolls Royce factory – a Gibson guitar and a stereo with speakers big enough to sit on. Alastair and George both studying electrical engineering. All brought together by a mutual love of live music.

“Here, youve got to listen to this, youll never believe what I learned today!” Im back in our top floor flat, where the rush hour entertainment were the nightly road accidents on the Gt Western Road crossing below, never serious – we had a league table of car types. [Aye son, we had to make our own amusements back then!]. “There was this Austrian scientist, Von Frisch he studied bees, he showed that they could tell each other where the best flowers were, by doing a wee dance at the entrance to the hive. Isnt that amazing!” Whit!?..youre full of sh*t! My flatmates reaction was amused disbelief. What kind of nonsense are they teaching him at that place? Gullible fool. I was crestfallen. …”but he won the Nobel Prize!”

The next week I was back. I had been learning about tropisms [the turning of all or part of an organism in a particular direction in response to an external stimulus] which involved a practical demonstration. I gathered my flatmates together.”Right, this time I’ll show you, I can make the fish swim upside down!”. Yeah, right! …..One of the very few luxuries we possessed was a fish tank, complete with heater, lights and oxygen pump. Curtains were pulled, lights turned off, I got a piece of card [probably an album cover..Pink Floyd, George Carlin, Monty Python, who knows what…] and covered the top of the tank, I put the top light from the tank on the floor. I lifted the tank off the table and held it over the light. Half a dozen guppies, an angel fish and a bug-eyed fantailed black moor, called Charlie, all turned on their sides, desperately trying to turn upside down but held back by their swim bladders. They kicked and jerked around the tank…. Jesus Christ, look at that!!

and that was the last time they laughed at my tales of the wonders of biology.

True story…

Pennsylvania Dreaming – part 10 – Pittsburgh….

After our wonderful stay with Tim and Marguerite in West Chester it was time to leave for our main destination – Pittsburgh! They were heading West too, on a trip of a lifetime across the US, so it was a bit of a surprise when we met them a few hours later at a service stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike [Interstate 76]!..However their first real stop was also in Pittsburgh, staying with their daughter Lauren, in Higland Park, a distinctly up market section of Pittsburgh.

Its now 2020..and Ive taken so long to get this far blogging, that its all starting to seem a very long time ago!..So I will curtail the chat and leave a string of photos of wonderful Pittsburgh – and it was wonderful. The city itself, from the former steel workers area of Lawrenceville where we stayed for two weeks, with our hosts Bob and Regina [and their excellent cat!], to the spectacular Andy Warhol Museum, the meeting of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, the downtown modern high rise buildings, the many bridges and other remnants of an industrial past, huge sports stadiums and a 19th century funicular railway..and last but definitely not least, the huge range of restaurants, cafes and other eateries. Add to that the wonderful Carnegie Library, Museums, Book Shps and public artworks….its a city with everything…hope you enjoy these glimpses..

So..hope you enjoyed those photos. What you may not be able to tell was – it was hot, very hot!..but thats what you expect at end August beginning of September. Eryl and I were seriously impressed with the place – lively but safe, busy but running smoothly. Lots of young folks, new businesses, lots of culture and appreciation for that. Highly recommended!..and a huge thanks to Bob, Regina and family for a truly wonderful experience – I hope this blog can help encourage more visitors to your adopted city. Cheers, Dave.

Pennsylvania Dreaming – part 9

A day outing from West Chester – we took the train into Philadelphia.

Amtrak time again...

We never got beyond the centre of town but what a place!…The heat was incredible but there were fountains everywhere..

Nothing to see here….just some more lovely cool fountains..

We were here for culture though, so off to The Barnes Collection – without a doubt the best layout of an art collection Ive ever seen. Small rooms with odd historical objets on the walls amongst a jaw dropping collection of impressionist paintings. Each room had information cards relating to each painting or object – we had time and space to look at everything. It didnt hurt that we were in an air conditioned building either….

Heres a few of my favourites…

and the outside wasnt bad either….

After that hefty smack to the intellect, back out into the stunning heat….So hot in fact that I dont remember much else – Im sure there was a cafe with ice cream and coffee?…Much to see in the open spaces but we just kept heading for shade.

..and theres a welcome sight when youre far from home!

Into Philadelphia’s famous Art Deco 30th street railway station – used in many films such as “Witness”. Couldnt resist taking photos….

..and so back on the Amtrak to West Chester….having seen a tiny fraction of what Philly has to offer Im sure. The grandiose architecture is worth a look alone…but thats the tourist life, youve got to keep moving..