Saturday, 27 April 2013

Bute: a full day

Mount Stuart House
In the days of integrated transport

Wemyss Bay splendid Victorian station
Spring rising in Mount Stuart

Mountstuart from the east

Looking over the Clyde to Largs
Mountstuart grounds

Rhododendrons and Almond blossom in the wee garden

Mountstuart coastal walk

Goat Fell on Arran from Scalpsie on Bute

Rothesay sea views

Rothesay with Arran peaks behind
Some days take on a life of their own and today was one of those. The early morning sun was unusual and I suggested a day on the coast rather than going for a run or heading for the hills. We decided to go to Bute and visit Mount Stuart House, the restored ancestral home of the Marquess of Bute. It was only opened to the public in 1993 as an attempt to arrest the decline in visitor numbers to Rothesay which had occurred in the 1980's as Scotland fell on hard times and foreign holidays diverted expenditure away from Scotland's traditional holiday resorts on the Clyde.

I had visited Bute often in the 1970's either 'going doon the watter' on the Waverley paddle steamer, catching a train to Wemyss Bay and hiring a bike to cycle around round the island or sailing into Rothesay to collect one of the crew for a weekend sailing event on the Clyde. Alas I had not been to Rothesay for over thirty years. I had never visited Mount Stuart before despite its growing reputation as one of Scotland's finest buildings. 

Mount Stuart House is 5 miles south of Rothesay and sits in well tended grounds that look over the Clyde estuary to the east. It is an absolutely exquisite neo gothic building constructed with the finest Italian marble, Dumfries red sandstone, fitted out with English oak and containing an art collection that would be the envy of most national art galleries. The house replaced one that had been razed to the ground in 1877. It was conceived by the third Marquess of Bute (1847 - 1900). He was an antiquarian, scholar, polymath, linguist, philanthropist and architectural patron. He commissioned Sir Robert Rowand Anderson to prepare plans for this second Mount Stuart in 1879.

Construction began in 1880 with a jetty and horse drawn rail track constructed first to bring in the stone, marble and timbers. It was built by a massive assembly of British craftsmen. They continued until 1912, well after the death of the the third Marquess. Shortly afterwards it became a field hospital during the Great War. It was the first house to be designed to use electricity, it had central heating, a marble swimming pool and contained four chapels. No expense was spared, this level of investment was only possible because of the huge wealth of the Bute family who, through several generations of canny marriages, owned large parts of Sussex, South Wales, Bedfordshire and Dumfries as well as the Island of Bute. 

It was a mightily impressive and informative tour of the house and the pleasure continued during a five mile walk around the grounds and gardens  and then back along the beach. The sea was benign and all plant life seemed to be bursting with scent and colour. It was 4pm and there was time to drive around the island: admiring the soaring peaks on Arran, the rich grazing lands, which support llamas and alpacas as well as sheep and cattle, and the glorious beaches. We returned to the faded charm of Rothesay which is littered with fine victorian and edwardian villas and hotels. It was quiet and the buzz of yesteryear had disappeared along with the day trippers. The reward was a good fish supper from the Sqab Lobster cabin on the seafront and eaten in one of the shelters. I tried to visit the magnificent Victorian urinals on the  harbour but they had closed early.

The evening ferry back to Wemyss Bay allowed the full appreciation of the Clyde estuary. We took the less travelled coast road past the Clock lighthouse, through Gourock and West Greenock with their splendid houses sparkling in the evening light. Then through the depressing town centre and former industrial sites that were home to shipbuilding and sugar refineries but now support Tesco and other unattractive retail activities that could be anywhere. The roundabout by the town hall is an exemplar of everything that is wrong about town centre redevelopment: people and buildings sacrificed to vehicles. But, amidst all of this carnage and post industrial developer tat, the views across the Clyde towards the Cowal peninsula reminded us that the rich industrial heritage that had flourished in the first half of the twentieth century was matched by some of Scotland's best coastal landscapes.

Victorian Urinals in Rothesay - pissing heaven

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