Five Ferries: 24 hours on the Isle of Bute

AD: This trip was sponsored by West Coast Waters, a campaign to celebrate Scotland’s diverse west coast ahead of VisitScotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters (#YCW2020). Having grown up and spent almost all of my childhood holidays on the west coast, I’m excited to share more of this part of Scotland with you.

After disembarking from the short ferry journey from Colintraive on the Cowal peninsula, we were on our last leg of the Five Ferries long weekend — the Isle of Bute. With the north of the island hugged by Argyll’s secret coasts and sea lochs, and the south lying further into the Firth of Clyde, Bute (which is less than 2 hours’ travel from Glasgow’s city centre) was a bustling destination for Victorian tourists in its heyday — and we were about to explore it ourselves over a hundred years later.

First, we drove to Mount Stuart estate to check in at the self-catering house we’d be staying at overnight. Surrounded by fields, landscaped gardens and goldening trees, the autumnal Kennels Cottage felt like a bolthole from the buzz of our daily commutes to the city. In fact, the corners of the island we explored in the short 24 hours would also have that same nostalgic, switched-off rural feel that’s at the heart of a true holiday in Scotland.

The parts of the island we explored had that same nostalgic, switched-off feel.

After settling in — and you can see more from the cottage in this post — we returned via the road north to Rothesay. The main town on the island, yet with less than 5,000 residents, the past popularity of Rothesay is reflected in its rich architecture. As we drove in, we noticed grand Gothic and Victorian mansions; a Modernist pavilion and tucked behind a shop-lined square a thirteenth-century castle.

cajun salmon at rothesay victoria hotel

For this evening’s dinner, we were eating at the Victoria Hotel, flanked on each entrance by intricate street lamps. Before the meal, we had an interesting chat with the manager Ian, who told us a bit more about the history of the town and the changes there as holiday preferences began to evolve after the advent of low-cost air travel and package deals. Things were looking up though, he said, as more travellers were realising that Bute was a gem that deserved all the attention shone on it.

Although for decades Bute hadn’t been on the bill, things were beginning to change again for the better.

We ate a delicious and hearty meal here prepared by the talented chefs: scallops and black pudding; cajun salmon and balsamic with asparagus and potatoes; and homely desserts of sticky toffee pudding and apple pie with cinnamon. The portions were generous and the staff so welcoming. It’s a restaurant we would absolutely go back to next time we’re on Bute (for the Christmas market, in case you’re wondering).

the celestial ceiling at mount stuart

The next morning we woke to the silence of Mount Stuart estate. In the fields cows padded slowly over the dewy grass; the horses we’d seen the day before had disappeared to some far-off corner of the grounds. We cooked breakfast, a meat feast from the local butcher, and wolfed it down before heading to the main house for a private tour.

I’d been to Mount Stuart with my family once before back in around 2011, and to my annoyance couldn’t recall much of the visit bar the extravagant main entrance and some dim memory of marble. So when we were greeted outside by Mary, our tour guide, it was like seeing the building for the first time.

Trying to do justice to the house in either words or pictures seems futile.

Inside we went, up the stairs, knowing that we had just a few hours to try and gulp down every detail of this house. Built in the late nineteenth century atop the fire-eaten ruins of the original building, the current Mount Stuart is an architectural marvel dreamt up by the Third Marquess of Bute (who was, at that time, the richest man in the United Kingdom).

From the entrance hall, we were straight into one of the most amazing rooms I’ve ever seen: an inner courtyard covered in marble, huge columns seemingly sinking down from the sky, the stained-glass colours of the zodiac dancing, and a dark cerulean star chart adorning the ceiling. It’s absolutely breathtaking. Trying to do justice to the Marquess’s design in either words or pictures is futile; instead imagine the work and craft of the builders and architects to bring his vision — inspired by his love of astrology and astrology — to life, and you’ll have some idea of what this place is like in reality.

The entire house, labyrinthine in its ideas and architecture, is a work of art.

Clocking twenty types of marble lining the hall and staircase, the tour took us upstairs to the grand bedrooms of the owners, decorated with carved bedsteads and an adjacent greenhouse, the latter a surgery during WWI when the house was used as a hospital. From there, the private tour also takes in the swimming pool and adjacent Turkish baths — believed to be the first heated indoor swimming pool anywhere in the world — and then to the library, a mahogany-gilded room of books from floor to ceiling, laddered to reach almost 25,000 books in a diverse collection that also includes a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio. I mean… how many more boxes can this stately home tick?

the library at mount stuart

Well, there’s one final stand-out part of the tour that will quite literally take your breath away — and, if you’ve ever been to Italy, make you think you’ve somehow jumped borders. The Marble Chapel, a bright high room of white stone and red glass, could literally be taken straight from the streets of the Vatican. Designer Stella McCartney chose the ornate chapel as her wedding venue, and as guide Mary pointed out, it is possible to hire this venue for your own wedding if you want to go all out!

the chapel at mount stuart

For the rest of the day, we wandered the grounds of Mount Stuart. Lunch was a relaxed pause at the nearby estate café The Courtyard, where the head chef greeted us with a platter of local produce and hand-made cakes which had all the neighbouring diners gazing over with jealous glee. Finding a fabulous café during a day trip is something I always secretly plan before setting off, so to have this literally around the corner from the Mount’s main entrance made it a must-do after a tour.

This long weekend left me with the desire to return, to sink into all the details of the island.

Through the ornamental gardens, down to the shore of the Clyde, and back up through the avenues which were beginning to show signs of autumn, we continued to explore. Despite having a few hours before our final ferry home, we still didn’t manage to see every corner of the estate, let alone the island itself. Like many trips where you’re trying to squeeze sights into a set amount of time, this long weekend left me with the desire to return to all of these places and spend a long period really sinking into the details: the landscapes and little towns; a whole week of weather fronts; or the hotchpotch of flora and fauna found between copse and coast.

lunch at mount stuart

But at that moment, we had to return to Rothesay for the last ferry crossing of our Five Ferries journey, back to Wemyss Bay on the mainland. The cloud was closing in again, and as we took a seat in the cabin café with a cup of tea, we looked back on the quiet island, with its beautiful houses, calm countryside and coastline drifting away from us.

To travel somewhere like the Scottish islands or secret west coast, where you truly are off the beaten track, is to switch off. As commuters to work in the city, we can only dream of what living in a truly remote corner of the world must be like, separated by winding road or water from the claustrophobia of a hectic existence in the city.

leaves on a wooden bridge at mount stuart

Would you add the Five Ferries trip to your Scotland travel wishlist?

The West Coast Waters 2020 Campaign is a partnership initiative and has received funding from the VisitScotland Growth Fund.

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