There’s Scottish blood running through my veins, though I’d never visited the country. With my father, now retired, and an avid golfer, it was natural we’d plan a trip to our homeland, he for the golfing history, and for me, the legend and lore of the Isle of Butte. Scotland might not have the glamorous appeal of somewhere like The Cayman Islands but that is just because Hollywood has not really caught onto this untapped gem just yet.
We stayed in Glasgow and took the ferry over for three separate days. What I’ll describe below couldn’t possibly be done in a day, certainly not if you wanted to enjoy yourself, which we did.
Climbing onboard the ferry, it was a short trip to a completely foreign land, moors of heather full of a primal beauty, while nearby the sandy beaches stood in sharp contrast. With a history stretching back to the Victorian age and beyond, there were secrets on this island, some I would learn, others buried by the sands of time.
NOTE: The ferry makes the crossing multiple times each day, and there is rarely need to reserve a ticket. The price includes one car and up to four people.
The full-time population of Butte hovers around 6,500 which is ample for an island only 15 miles long and 5 miles wide.
The island was the adventure holiday destination in Victorian times, but even today travelers from around the world grace its shores. Warmed by the waters of the Gulf Stream, the Isle of Butte’s mild climate makes it ideal for exotic plants, evident in the spectacular garden of Mount Stewart and the palm trees growing along the sandy shores. The times have changed, but the sheer magnetism of the Isle has stood the test of time with visitors golfing, sailing, hiking, biking and touring the ruined chapels, and wondering about the people who dwelled here long ago.
The island sits on the Highland fault; itself marked by Loch Fad line, it seems to split the island in two geologically speaking, with the hill to the north and flatlands to the south. For a view that encompasses it all, stand atop Canada hill which provides a commanding vista of the Isle.
What to See on the Isle of Butte
As mentioned earlier, if you want to truly experience the Isle, it can’t be done justice in a day, although there are package day trips available which can show you the highlights. For my dad and I, we disembarked at the seaside capital of the Isle, Rothesay. In Victorian times, this was considered “the place” to visit. Mild temperatures and seaside leisure-suited the nobles of the day, and still today, the town has much to offer.
HISTORICAL NOTE: King Robert III, granted the town its status of royal burgh. Today, Prince Charles is the current Duke of Rothesay.
There is a guided tour of the town on Tuesdays, which we missed, but word says the trip is filled with facts, history, and grants a good overview of Rothesay. Since our journey didn’t happen on a Tuesday, we took a short stroll through the local museum, well maintained and packed with local history, geology about the fault line and a representation of the wildlife in the area. There is an admission charge, but it’s well worth the price.
VICTORIAN ERA RELICS: A lot has changed in the world since the Victorian age and nowhere is that more evident than in the bathroom facilities. If you fancy a look at how far the toilets have come, you can see the award-winning restored Victorian Toilets on the pier.
NOTE: If you’d like to delve into the genealogy of the Isle, or would just like more information about what to see and do, stop by the Tourist Information Center on Vitoria Street, house in the former, now restored, Winter Garden
While we didn’t spend the day in Rothesay, there is plenty to do and see should a family merely want a day away from the hustle of city life. The Pavilion Theater has a little something for everyone, with plenty to see and do for adults, while the kids see the children’s shows. On High Street, you’ll find leisure pools, solariums, and saunas. Stroll to the Moat Center for a session of snooker, badminton or table tennis. And yes, there are squash courts complete with children’s play areas nearby. And lest we forget, rememberto visit Zaravoni’s ice cream shop, which proves the town is still catering to tourist. While the times and activities have changed since Victorian days, the sentiments of the city are timeless.
Journeying out of the city, we were ready to delve into some of the legend and lore and began with Barone Fort, in ruins now it once sat proudly on Barone Hill, guarding the seas against intruders. St. Mary’s Chapel, which dates from the 14th century, was an interesting though brief stop, the historical significance dating to the time of Napoleon and houses the tomb of Stephanie Hortense Bonaparte, his niece. There is also a tomb of an unknown Knight in armor, his name forgotten but it is certain he stood guard with honor and strength.
Once we saw Rothesay Castle sitting on a small, somewhat flat hill our, or at least my, excitement grew, this was why I had wanted to come to the Isle of Butte, to get a firsthand look at history, a window into time. The castle is in ruins, to be expected since it dates to the 13th century, but still, it is renown as one of the most spectacular in Scotland, perhaps because of the circular layout. The castle is surrounded by a curtain wall, strengthened in part by four circular towers and protected by a moat. The castle’s long history includes surviving attacks by Norsemen and eventually becoming a royal residence. The castle has undergone some restoration by the state, but one can only look at the ruined walls and imagine the stories they could tell. of bravery, honor and death
HISTORICAL FACT: The castle and the wars with the Norsemen in 1230 and again in 1263, caused the castle to change hands again and again as blood was spilled in the battles. With the Norsemen defeated or at least repelled, the castle rested as a royal residence until being taken by Earl of Lennox in 1544.
After contemplating the history of Rothesay Castle, a quiet stroll through the beautiful gardens of Ardencraig are a welcome respite. The garden is pristine, full of exotic plants and open to the public on most days, you can stroll the garden, visit the aviaries and immerse yourself in a world of strange birds, most not native to the area, then meditate on a nearby bench located conveniently near the exotic fish ponds. Dogs are welcome if on a leash and the gift shop sells souvenirs as well as some plants if you’re in the mood to create your own garden.
No visit to the Isle of Butte would be complete without a lengthy stop at Mount Stewart. This house is indeed a window into the Victorian Era and is heralded worldwide for it’s authenticity and attention to detail. Both the exterior and interior are a feast for the eyes, and few leave without being amazed at the sumptuous splendor. Having won the Scottish Tourism Oscar Award, Mount Stewart is easily accessible by bike, car or shuttle bus.
Walking through the halls and rooms, you’ll speak in hushed whispers as the sunlight cascades through stained glass windows, painting the rooms with color and magical ambiance. The themes range from white marble brilliance to astrological marvels with the horoscope room featuring the zodiac of the 3rd Marquess.
Each room is unique, from the dining room to the library, you’ll wonder about those who lived in these magnificent halls, generations ago.
CELEBRITY NOTE: Stella McCartney was married in the white marble chapel in 2003.
DETAILS: Tea rooms, restaurants, and facilities are located nearby, as well as picnic areas. The house is accessed by guided tours except for July and August, when guests may peruse at their leisure, with a stationary guide in each room.
NOTE: There are special events throughout the year, particularly at Halloween and Christmas. Call ahead or check the house website for details.
TRAVEL TIP: If you’re interested in a day trip, be sure to purchase an all-inclusive day pass. The pass includes entrance to the house and gardens, as well as the ferry ride over and bus or train ride to Mount Stewart.
Nearby and easily accessible by car, bike or bus is the sandy beaches of ilchattan Bay. This may have been where the Norsemen first landed, but today there is no thought of wars and invasion, just quiet contemplation or a pony trek along the beach. The beach overlooks the island of Great Cumbrae, and the ruins of Kelspoke Castle are nearby.
Saint Blane’s Chapel
Dating from the 12th century, the ruins of Saint Blane’s Chapel leaves little doubt that eons have passed in these lands. Today it is a quiet spot for peace and meditation. Located nearby are the more ancient ruins of a monastery founded by Saint Blane. Imagine the prayers uttered long ago as you gaze out to the hills of Arran across the sea.
HISTORICAL NOTE: There were two cemeteries here, one for men, a separate one for women.
What I’ve described above took my dad and me several days, and we enjoyed every minute. I’ve not mentioned the many other ruins and relics of the past, the other sandy beaches, the fact you can often see seals lounging, it’s an adventure holiday where you can spend a day or a week. For us, my dad is insisting we visit the Port Bannatyne Golf Club, so I’ll close by saying, see the Isle of Butte, it’s an adventure holiday to be experienced, not just read online.