Despite a life of relative contentment I am not a restful man. In my mind doubt and pessimism reign, a perpetual fury of this and that, seldom at ease. The Isle of Bute – whether I’m there in body or spirit – has always been my sanctuary.
Bute is moored peacefully in the Firth of Clyde, perfectly west as the crow flies of Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city by population. The bustle of Buchanan Street is a world away from the sleepy splendour of Scalpsie Bay beach or Ettrick Bay and its postcard view of Arran.
The Caledonian MacBrayne car ferries Argyle and Bute aren’t the vessels beloved of my childhood but they look a lot like them. They sail between the mainland terminal in the village of Wemyss Bay and Rothesay, my ancestral island home and as close as Bute gets to crowded.
Rothesay is in many ways a typical British seaside resort, its most colourful days experienced by now-distant generations and its celebrated buildings beginning to crumble around the newsreel reminiscences of holidays gone by. Though not without its charm, Rothesay isn’t blessed with the phenomenal beauty so prominent in the parts of the island where nature remains dominant.
Just around the coast from Rothesay is Ascog, home to a handful of islanders but to me a beach of shingle and slate-grey sand, punctuated by seabound pipes and the cherry red of an old-fashioned telephone box that looms in the corner of one’s vision when sitting on the promenade bench. This is my mother’s favourite spot on the island and the only place in the world where we share childhood memories.
From that bench we watched Argyle and Bute pass one another on the waves the day before we said goodbye to my grandmother. My first visit in many years to this place I love so much was a sudden and unwanted holiday that uncovered long forgotten summer joys in the shadow of loss and heartbreak.
Rothesay and Bute have a richer history than is suggested by their modest existence today. The island has a past studded with headlines that betray its status as just a little bit more special than the average British island.
Its number one tourist attraction according to TripAdvisor and modern lore is not the seals who sun themselves on the rocks, or the herons who squawk their way over the grand houses of Craigmore to settle on the pebbles after dark, but the Victorian public convenience perched on the seafront in Rothesay, beautifully preserved with most of its original fitments and open to visitors with a penny to spend.
The building was commissioned in 1899 by the Rothesay Harbour Trust, a decorative and lavish statement of lavatorial grandeur quite in keeping with the town’s Victorian golden age. Rothesay was a much loved holiday destination for the ladies and gentlemen of the day. When the Waverley – the world’s last seagoing paddle steamer – sails by, it’s easy to imagine their ghosts on deck, waving to the rather less numerous tourists of today as they tackle the putting greens overlooking the water.
Peer further inland and they would discover a side to Rothesay they would never have imagined.
In late 2015 Bute welcomed 24 families of Syrian refugees and there were more to follow. The inevitable xenophobic backlash was quashed by the forthright advocacy of the local newspaper editor. The shop fronts and restaurants that popped up in the years that followed are testament to their successful integration. Helmi’s Bakery, a popular Syrian patisserie opened by Tasnim and Mohamed across East Princes Street from the harbour, now has a presence on the mainland.
Indeed, Bute has a proud heritage when it comes to offering a safe refuge. In between the Victorian visitors in the 19th Century and the burgeoning Syrian community in the 21st there came an influx of new islanders from the mainland. They were the Butemen of the future. Children of the War.
The waters around the island made Bute an ideal naval site during World War II and both on- and off-shore it provided a base for various military operations. No sooner had war been declared than Rothesay Pavilion was transformed into the island’s reception centre for evacuees.
It’s here that my relationship with this rugged, wonderful, curious place begins. My great-grandparents, Jimmy and Jeanne, made their life in Rothesay and added significantly to its population. One of their children, my grandmother, Prue, was born just as the War began. She left Scotland for Birmingham at the age of 18 and returned after Joe, my grandfather, passed away in 1991.
We buried her with her parents in the grounds of Saint Mary’s Chapel in September 2020 after a service with restricted attendance, mandatory face masks and no pallbearers. I’ve never known a sadness like it.
Not many people of my age meet their great-grandparents but I was lucky enough to know one of mine. Jimmy lived to the age of 100 and, as a lover of pipe bands, he couldn’t have been in a better place. In his younger days he worked as a slater, a role that afforded him an apprentice, Hector, upon whom was bestowed the responsibility of legging it to the betting shop to indulge another of his great passions.
He loved nothing in life more than his family, all three younger generations of us. He was the patriarchal presence of those childhood holidays, the family’s triangulation point. Through him, relatives who would be distant in other families became close in ours. He was proud that his longevity in life facilitated that.
I have many happy memories of Jimmy but my grandfather died in his early fifties. I was old enough to know and remember him but young enough that most of those memories fade together until they’re not really memories at all. They were made not in Birmingham but on Bute.
One such memory emerged in the form of a photograph inherited from the albums left in my late gran’s flat overlooking the island’s visitor centre and the harbour beyond.
Somewhere in the Bute countryside on one of our many fishing trips, my skinny and nobbly-kneed former self takes a brief sidestep out of his youthful shyness and shouts at the top of his little lungs. Standing to my left, sporting a beaming smile and a distinctive pair of sunglasses, is my granddad.
This snapshot could have been taken on any one of those outings. I have no idea. I don’t recognise the landscape or my clothing. But I can smell his tobacco after more than thirty years, and I remember now that he used to stir his tea with his finger as if it were a normal thing to do.
Rothesay’s popularity over the years means that there are hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland, England and all over the world with hazy memories of the Isle of Bute. It’s different when it’s family. Whether we were fishing at Ascog or Kilchattan Bay or Loch Fad, or skimming stones into Kames Bay on the east of the island and anywhere else we could find them, we did so with a sense of home. We didn’t all live there but none among us were tourists.
On my most recent visit, my mum said something later corroborated by two of my colleagues whose coincidental Bute roots are equal to hers and more tangible by far than mine. The island doesn’t sound much, now the last echoes of more prosperous summers are long forgotten, but when you’re there as family it gets under your skin, somehow. It’s easy to fall in love with it and impossible to let it go.
That photograph, taken elsewhere, would still represent happy, sunny days with my grandparents no matter what. Taken where it was, it’s as much about the place as the people.
Within that single frame is a world lived by generations since lost. Not a holiday, but everyday. Food shopping and picking up the paper from the newsagent. Popping in to see great aunts and second cousins for a cuppa. The mundanity of routine, tucked away in the water. And me, a little boy from the south coast of England, loving every moment of it because I felt like I belonged.
Bute is part of my identity. I adore the island for the memories it’s given me, for the home it’s been for my family and for a beautiful landscape I’d choose over anywhere else in the British Isles.
I’ll never feel about anywhere else the way I feel driving off the green ramp of the ferry, Rothesay stretching out in front of me as a lifetime of memories reignite. I’ll never taste vanilla ice cream better than Zavaroni’s. I’ll never capture or articulate the essence of my childhood that lurks just out of reach on every visit. But I like to know it’s there.