Island of Bute Natural History Trails

The Buteshire Natural History Society, The Museum, Stuart Street, Rothesay, Bute Bute is reached by regular vehicle ferry services Wemyss Bay – Rothesay and Colintraive – Rhubodach Map references:

Bull Loch Trail NS026

South end of Bute Trail 5 NS106

Two of 7 trails around the island prepared by local natural historians: inland Bull Loch Trail-4-miles; coastal trail around south end of Bute (No. 5)-4 miles

Detailed trail booklets available from the Museum in Rothesay Lying close to the fragmented coast of west Scotland, is the green and fertile Island of Bute. Smaller and softer-profiled than its rugged neighbour, Arran, Bute is covered by plan-tations and farmland, rich in natural history and archaeology and home of one of Scotland’s foremost resorts, Rothesay.

Separating the island from the shore are the narrow Kyles of Bute, revered both for their beauty and excellence as sailing waters. So narrow are the Kyles (Gaelic for straits) between Colintraive and Rhubodach that at one time farmers forced their cattle to swim across

for St Blanes Fair on Bute. Today it is a five-minute crossing by car ferry, almost too quick to appreciate the stunning views. A longer crossing is from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay, or it is possible to board one of the cruise steamers that frequent the Clyde.

All roads on the island lead to Rothesay, and there are more in the dairy-farming south than in the north. Here walkers and naturalists can delight in exploring more vertical scenery on foot in the total peace of a countryside uncon-taminated by exhaust fumes.

There are seven nature trails and descriptive booklets on each, produced by Buteshire Natural History Society, obtainable from the Bute Museum, Rothesay.

Where the ferry lands at Rhubodach and the A886 road from Rothesay terminates is where the Bull Loch Trail begins. It is about an hour’s uphill climb to the loch itself, following bracken-massed sheep tracks, old paths or just a sense of direction. Walkers soon encounter Balnakailly burn, one of the many tiny water-ways that rise in North Bute and flow out to the Kyles. At the mouth of this one are the rusting remains of the ‘Snow-flight’, a slate-carrying ship which collided with another boat in 1936. A few years later, during the Second World War a scheme was implemented which was to leave more chunks of iron littering the once-beautiful countryside.

To confuse the enemy, this part of western Scotland around the Clyde was festooned with lights so that in a black-out it would look like a built-up area. This northern half of Bute was banned to the public and used for commando training.

Years before, farmers worked the poor soil around Balnakailly and there are ruins of their houses. Cattle and sheep were fed on roots pounded into the hollow of a boulder with a rock. One of these knocking stones lies among the grass at Balnakailly.

The surrounding woodlands are mainly lichen-covered oaks, witness to a damp atmos-phere which encourages moss underfoot. It has proved to be a useful commodity. That pale moss, was treated and used to pack wounds when cotton was scarce during the first war, and for years Bute’s Girl Guides have gathered hair moss and sent it to a Poppy factory to back memorial wreaths of poppies.

Over the hillside, boots are scratched by three species of heather. With its pale bells bunched at the top of the stem is the first to flower, followed by the larger bells of (bell). In September, Bute like the rest of Scotland, is carpeted with the purple ling heather Cotton grass loves boggy moorland (it, too, has been employed to stuff pillows and make candle wicks), as does the pale spotted orchid and the yellow-spiked bog asphodel.

At Bull Loch, the surface is curded with waterlilies and edged with reeds and sedges. Sightings of otter tracks have been reported on the steep muddy banks, but few walkers ever see this delightful animal. Overhead, birds of prey are common; the cream spotted underside of a kestrel catches the eye as it accelerates to catch a bird on the wing, and the slow-circular flight of a buzzard can quickly be converted into a downward plummet to devour a rabbit.

The loch can mark the end of the trail, but for a longer walk, the banks of a burn are followed through a boulder-strewn valley to the shore near the northern tip of the island.

The path comes out near the Maids of Bute-two stones painted in red and white bands which look like sitting figures from the water. Oak trees grew along this shoreline and in the 19th century the bark was stripped off and used for tanning-a process long since superseded by modern chemicals.

Almost blocking the Kyles are a handful of small islets—the Burnt Islands which have been adopted by species of gulls. Herring, Common and the lesser Black-backed gulls nest untidily on the ground, with terns defending their brood aggressively a little later on. Sadly, these colonies are threatened by a contemptible but lucrative demand for sea birds’ eggs. On the increase are eiderducks and swans nest here also. It is not uncommon to see the whiskery face of a seal pop out of the water somewhere around Burnt Islands.

Other islands in the Kyles have historic connections. To the north in Loch Ridden lies Eilean Dearg (One Tree Island) where the Campbells of Loch Awe built a castle and chapel in the 14th century. Three hundred years later, the 9th Duke of Argyll made Eilean Dearg his headquarters before the uprising of 1685. There is evidence that he did not do it alone, for recent excavations have unearthed Dutch muskets, flints and navigational dividers, suggesting the presence of William of Orange’s men.

A fort on the Eilean Buidhe poses a mystery, for when it was excavated in 1936 the walls were found to be vitrified. It was as if exceptionally high temperatures had fused the stone together at some time in their history.

One clue may lie in the rock formations visible in the south of Bute. A nature trail which explores the coast and hills on a fist of land sticking out into the Firth of Clyde is geologically fascinating. Like the Loch Bull Trail, it begins where a road ends, at Kilchat-tan south of the B88.

Like the offshore island of Little Cumbrae, the south of Bute is made up of volcanic rock, columnar or jointed sandstone and basalt out-crops. The shore is remarkable for another phenomenon, a good example of a raised beach, some twenty-five feet higher than the present level. This makes a natural highway for walkers who can discover the caves which pockmark the old red sandstone cliffs. A cave on Creaga Mhara headland was excavated, but only shells and animal bones were found and no human artefacts.

From the unattended lighthouse at Rhun an Ean (the point of the birds), there are breath-taking views of Great and Little Cumbrae and glimpses of the Ayrshire coast beyond. The sea teems with fish, so heron are regular anglers, and basking sharks, seals and porpoises are not uncommon.

After passing a Bronze Age cairn and the ruins of an inn which accommodated sailors awaiting fair winds to Ireland or America, the trail turns away from the sea and climbs upward. Loch na Leigh (the physician’s loch or pool of healing) is a sanctuary for nesting seabirds, tufted ducks and teals. The waters are edged with the velvet batons of bulrush and colourful bog plants and the air is full of a variety of bird song.

Equally idyllic is the 17th-century chapel of St Blane, built among cliffs and trees overlooking the sea on the site of a tiny church founded in the 6th century. The trail booklet devotes several pages to this, the highspot of the walk and to the fascinating relics which mark centuries of use by a religious community. The walk back to Kilchattan follows the old track made by villagers coming over Suidhe Hill to worship at St Blanes. It is rarely dry underfoot, with grass and gorse bushes cropped by sheep and swaths of bracken, but the view from the hill, ‘the seat of the King’, 516ft above the sea, is one of the best on the island.

Another trail leading to St Blanes begins at Kingarth cemetery and passes through farmland, plantations and the vitrified fort of Dunagoil. Of historical interest are groups of Bronze Age standing stones, foundations of two Norse long-houses and the earliest type of Neolithic burial chamber.

There are more of these chambers on a trail which sets off from the sandy bay at Ettrick and leads north for about three hours to Kilmichael chapel. More evidence of Bute’s volcanic and glacial history can be seen, but more impressive are the traces left by early man-the oldest, at around 3000 BC, is at Glecknabae Cairn.

Even Bute’s capital and popular resort, Rothesay, has its own walkabouts. One goes round the bay, the hub of the town which at one time was busy with trading ships. Today the harbour is packed with the tall sails of private yachts and it has become a major sailing centre in addition to being a popular stopping-off point for the frequent Clyde steamer tours.

Another route leads up the High Street and to the ruins of the round castle. Begun in the early 13th century, it was stormed by the Vikings, took a punishing in the Civil War and was burned by the Duke of Argyll in 1685. However, much of it remains, thanks to renovations carried out by the second and third marquesses of Bute, and both the castle and Rothesay’s fortunes are traced and catalogued in the museum nearby. Apart from tourism, Rothesay has thriving cheese-making and woven cloth industries. Bute Creamery is built over a stone-age village and Bute Looms is housed in a former convent and cotton mill.

Another way of exploring the island is by car, and this is possible by following a five-point route which takes about two hours. This way, an overall impression is gained, banks of wild flowers become a coloured haze and individual fields melt into a tapestry of rolling farmland. From Rothesay, the motorist visits Craigmore, Kerrycroy, Kingarth, Scalpsie Bay, Ettrick Bay and Port-Bannatyne.

Across the Kyles to the north of Bute, the rugged terrain is covered with mixed wood plantations, many of them planted by the Forestry Commission quite recently. The older trees surround what used to be the laird’s house in the former Caladh estate. The trail has some steep, slippery sections in countryside inhabited by wild cats, badgers and foxes, although a roebuck is more often glimpsed through the trees on a summer day. The castle itself was demolished unceremoniously when it was found to have terminal dry rot, and only the landscaped gardens remain. They contain flowering shrubs and specimen trees planted by the various owners of the house, which included George Stephenson, nephew of the railway pioneer. A waterlily-covered pond is the quiet water hole for a number of wild fowl and creatures from the forest, and a natural harbour behind the tiny island Eilean Dubh, has long been a refuge for yachtsmen.

Bute is undoubtedly dominated by its inheri- / tance of geological, archaeological and natural s history interests, but it offers other pursuits, too. Rothesay has a breezy undulating golf course which was designed by the maestro, James Braid, and there is another 18-hole moorland course some two miles to the north at Port Bannatyne.

It is from Rothesay that the twelve-man fishing boats set out to plunder the Firth of Clyde and sea lochs. A common catch includes cod, pollack, haddock and, at night, congers, although the locals once discovered an exotic sun fish from the South Seas.