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Issue 19 - Cowal and Bute – Beauty and adventure on Glasgow's doorstep

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 19
March 2005


This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Cowal and Bute – Beauty and adventure on Glasgow's doorstep

You don't have to go to the Hebrides for a Scottish ferry-hopping holiday, as Ian R Mitchell explains. Cowal and Bute have castles, stately homes, churches and grand walks nearer to hand

As the crow flies the Cowal peninsula and its neighbouring island of Bute are the closest parts of the Southern Highlands to the central belt of Scotland.

Yet, probably since it is a long, circuitous and slow road journey of 80 miles from Glasgow via Loch Lomond to Cowal, this is one of the lesser frequented tourist destinations. However, think Caledonian Macbraynes, and think Gourock – reached by the M8 motorway from Glasgow in three quarters of an hour – and you are a short ferry ride from Dunoon, gateway to Cowal.

The modest extra expense of the ferry is recompensed by the saving of time, petrol and hassle of going by road, and ferry-hopping allows you to vary the return route, and see the best of both Cowal and Bute.

Also to realise why, in the days before the motor car, taking the boat “Doon the Watter” to Cowal was such an obvious holiday option. From the late 19th century until the 1960s Cowal and Bute was the destination of tens of thousands of summer holidaymakers from industrial Clydeside.

Dunoon was host to the US Polaris fleet for 40 years, and has a strong US influence still. A good place to start and get your bearings is the Castle Museum, which has an interesting display of local history, including Clyde steamermodels from the glory days of “Doon the Watter”, and information on such celebrities as the comic Harry Lauder and Burns’ Highland Mary, who had Cowal connections.

As well as its world-famous Cowal Highland games, Dunoon also hosts a Jazz Festival in Summer. The Benmore Younger Botanic Garden, north of the town, gives fine walks amidst glorious rhododendrons (250 varieties) and giant redwoods. Benmore House and Gardens is simply the most splendid of the many created by Glasgow industrialists from 1800 onwards in the accessible Cowal peninsula.

The Tourist Board has produced an excellent guide to walks in the Cowal peninsula, a snip at £1.99, with route descriptions, maps, local facilities and other information given. One delightful walk is Puck’s Glen, five miles north of Dunoon, a round trip through six miles of wooded riverscape.

For the more adventurous walker, Cowal has several Corbetts (2500 ft and up to 2999ft) and Grahams (2000 to 25000 ft) which are well worth climbing. Just south of Loch Eck the road climbs up Glen Massan to Stonefield, from which the highly recommended ascent of Bheinn Mhor (2433ft) begins. Proper mountaineering equipment is needed for this walk. (Map OS Landranger Sheet 56).

Glen Massan was the scene of the discovery over a century ago of a 16th century Gaelic manuscript, which had made its way here from Ireland.

The Glenmassan manuscript tells of the life and loves of Deirdrie, an Irish princess who in the pre-Christian era spent time in Cowal. In the play Deirdrie, facing her return to Ireland, tells of her sadness at leaving Glen Massan.

If you have climbed Bheinn Mhor and looked down at the narrow defile of Loch Eck, surrounded by its wooded mountains, you may feel the same. It is hoped that the Glenmassan ms may be returned on loan to Cowal in October 2005, to feature in the series of events, such as exhibitions and ceilidhs, organised around the now annual and highly successful Cowal Walking Festival.

Further north at Strachur, enthusiasts of industrial archeology are well served by the Strachur smiddy (blacksmiths), restored by a local trust and showing examples of the tools and craft of the blacksmith and farrier; it also has a café and craft shop. Proceeding south you arrive at Glendaruel, the heart of Cowal. Kilmodan Church, dating back to 1610 is worth a visit. It has a good collection of medieval incised stones, one depicting a warrior, and an unusual gravestone in Gaelic.

Before World War Two there were still old people here abouts who spoke Gaelic; sadly this is now extinct, like the Scottish wild boar, the last of which was killed in Cowal in the 1690s.

Just about the time the last boar was killed, Colin MacLaurin was born, a son of Kilmodan manse. His father had produced the first Gaelic edition of the psalms, and MacLaurin became mathematics professor at Aberdeen University in 1717, at the age of 19. Later becoming professor of natural philosophy at Edinburgh, MacLaurin made important contributions to mathematical theory, but wore himself out and died from exhaustion after organising Edinburgh’s unsuccessful defence against the Jacobites in 1745. Cowal’s most famous son deserves to be more widely celebrated.

Our route now heads for Tighnabruaich, home of the shinty team Kyles Athletic, showing that we are really in the Highlands here. Arriving at Tighnabruaich in the summer months you may well catch a glimpse of the Waverley, the last ocean going paddle steamer in the world.

It plies between here, Dunoon, Rothesay and the mainland.

Watching the giant steam engines at work is alone worth a sail. On inclement days there are restaurants and often jazz bands on the boat, while on a fine day, there can be no place nearer heaven than the decks of the Waverley on a Clyde cruise.

Doubling back a little from Tighnabruaich one can catch the short (vehicle) ferry from Colintraive to Rhubodach on the Isle of Bute, whence a brief drive will take you to the island’s capital, Rothesay.

The first thing that catches your eye is the restored Winter Gardens, now the Isle of Bute Discovery Centre. Dating from the 1920s this red tile roofed extravaganza has information on the attractions of the island, to help with planning an itinerary. However, one of the main attractions is very visible nearby, and that is Rothesay Castle, with its fabulous moat.

Alate 12th century strongpoint, and extended in the 16th century, this was a favourite residence of the Stewart Kings of Scotland, and after their deposition, of the Earls and Marquises of Bute. It was occupied by the Vikings on their way to the Battle of Largs in 1263. Now in the care of Historic Scotland it is open all year.

The main attraction on Bute, however, has to be Mount Stuart. You may not be a devotee of Victorian Gothic revivalist architecture, but the sheer scale of the opulence and extravagance of this building is overwhelming.

The house, and its 300 acres of landscaped garden is a must–see. The reconstruction of Mount Stuart was the work of the third Marquis of Bute, a man whose classical learning was overshadowed for his contemporaries by his much-disapproved of conversion to Catholicism.

From Rothesay there is no need to retrace your route all the way to Dunoon. Simply get on the Cal Mac ferry near the Winter Gardens, and this will take you to Wemys Bay back on the mainland. Landing back at Wemys Bay is a delight because, even if you are carbound, you can take time out to admire the magnificent railway station.

Dating from 1865 it was rebuilt in 1903 to take the increasing holiday traffic to Bute. The mock Tudor exterior with clock tower is a delight, and the interior web of glass and girders a marvel. Cowal and Bute are so close, though feeling a land apart.

How to get there:

Caledonian MacBrayne
(CalMac) operates year round ferries to Cowal and Bute. They offer bargain Hopscotch packages for single journeys on all three ferries mentioned here.
Tel: +44 (0)1475 650 100

Scotrail runs regular trains to Gourock and Wemys Bay from Glasgow Central Station.
Tel: +44 (0)8457 484 950

By train from Glasgow it is easy to visit either Rothesay or Dunoon for a simple day trip, with train/boat connections
Local Area Tourist Board:
7 Alexandra Parade, Dunoon,
Argyll, PA23 8AB
Tel: +44 (0) 8707 200 629

Accommodation Booking
Hotline: Tel: +44 (0)8707 200 600
Useful websites: