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Issue 38 - Walk this way

Scotland Magazine Issue 38
April 2008


This article is 10 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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Walk this way

The West Island Way is a great way to explore the island of Bute on foot. Aileen Torrance reports

To most Scots, the island of Bute is synonymous with going ‘doon the watter’ to Rothesay. Building castles on the golden sands of Ettrick or Scalpsea bays; a game of putting at the Winter Gardens; ice cream, fish and chips, and a photo opportunity at the fountain; are all pleasures still on offer today. But the island has so much more to offer. During the last few years, Bute has been slowly re-inventing itself, and the West Island Way, the first long distance path to be opened on a Scottish island, has played a significant role in the island’s rejuvenation.

Bute nestles in the nook formed by the Cowal peninsula, the Ayrshire coast, the Cumbraes, and Arran. In just under 30 miles (42 kilometres) of relatively easy, all-season walking, the West Island Way offers the visitor views which are as diverse as they are spectacular, following a loop which encompasses the island from south to north across the divide of the Highland Fault which splits the island neatly into two quite distinct landscapes.

The terrain is relatively easy, through woods and across moorland, sometimes hugging the rocky shoreline interspersed with sandy bays, occasionally requiring a slightly more energetic climb. The walk, marked with a distinctive yellow boot on a green post, breaks down into four or five easily manageable sections with the town of Rothesay conveniently at the centre.

The first section, starting at Kilchattan Bay, is approximately five miles. The village takes its name from Saint Catan, who, it is believed, retired to a cell there. The route hugs the coastline of the southernmost part of the island, flat for more than a mile where there is a lighthouse and views out across the Clyde back to the coastline of Ayrshire. Seals loll on rocks and birds of prey hover high over the cliffs. After a couple of miles, the Way veers inland and climbs to St Blane’s, one of the highlights of the walk, where the evocative ruins of the 12th century chapel nestle in a grassy hollow. The views from here over to Arran are incredibly rewarding, given the shortness of the climb.

Saint Blane, from whom the chapel takes its name, was the nephew of Saint Catan, who founded the monastery some time in the sixth century. The present chapel has a Norman arch, and dates from the 12th century. There are two graveyards, the higher one for male, and the lower one for females, who were buried separately until the practice was banned in 1661.

From St Blane’s the walk loops back over some marshy woodland, returning to Kilchattan Bay, where you can stop for some refreshment at the hotel there. Alternatively take the brief detour to the Kingarth Hotel, where you can connect with the local bus service back to Rothesay.

The next eight mile section crosses through fields to Stravanan Bay on the opposite shore, passing one of the many stone circles on the island, and continues over a tiny airfield, skirting the fairways of St Blane’s golf course with its fenced-in greens to keep grazing sheep out. The terrain changes dramatically as you climb up over Scoulag Moor, which offers some of the best views back to Arran (on a good day).

The trail then joins the quaintly named Lord James Ride to meander along the banks of Loch Ascog before crossing the fault line at Loch Fad. Here, anglers vie for the famed brown trout (which you can easily buy locally if you don’t have time to catch your own). Finally the path joins the road down past the meadows and into Rothesay.

Rothesay castle was built in the 12th century by Magnus Barefoot. It was the favoured residence of Robert III, who was the first to name his son the Duke of Rothesay, a title still held by the first-born male of all British monarchs. In 1333 Rothesay Castle was seized by Sir Edward Balliol, later (briefly) crowned King of Scots. Two hundred years later, the castle was once again targeted by the English crown, on this occasion Henry VIII.

The five mile stretch from Rothesay across the narrowest point of the island to Ettrick Bay is scenically the least rewarding, notable only for the unique 13 hole golf course which perches on the hills above Port Bannatyne, originally built as part of the (now demolished) Kyles of Bute Hydropathic Hotel. Ettrick Bay itself is a lovely sandy beach with an extraordinarily good café, which despite its unprepossessing appearance, provides the walker with freshly cooked food and mouth-watering arteryclogging home-baking all year round.

From Ettrick, the Way continues for the next five miles through Glen More, past the abandoned village of Achavoulig before turning down back towards the shoreline at Rhubodach. The terrain here on the rocky northern part of Bute is perhaps the hardest underfoot, and the way marking, unless you are armed with a map, can be a little difficult to spot, with some of the signposts directing you vaguely across marshy fields where the direct route is rarely the driest one.

Rhubodach is just a skip and a jump back to the mainland at Colintrive on the ferry which barely has time to put the ramp up on one side before the other comes down.

The final leg of the Way follows the shore line and the road (intermittently busy with ferry traffic) the last five or six miles back to the picturesque village and yacht anchorage of Port Bannatyne. Here, you can celebrate your achievement in one of the small selection of pubs and cafes with views across the bay towards Loch Striven.

The West Island Way can be tackled in its entirety during a short break, or walked in short sections as part of a day out. Regardless of the weather or time of year, this welcome addition to Scotland’s network of walking trails offers the visitor a perfect opportunity to experience the varied beauty of Bute.

And all of this just an hour and a half from Glasgow.

Tourist information can be obtained from the Discovery Centre (tel: +44 (0)8707 200 619, ), which is situated in the Winter Gardens just beside the pier. It has a full list of accommodation, including some establishments which provide pick up and drop offs for walkers. The officialWest Island Way map is published by Footprint and is available from the Discovery Centre Local buses are operated by West Coast Motors (tel: +44 (0)870 650 6687, The services cover key points along the West Island Way, ideal for pick up and drop off, at Rhubodach, Port Bannatyne, Ettrick Bay, Kingarth and Kilchattan Bay

Trains run regularly from Glasgow Central to Wemyss
Bay. (, tel: +44 (0)8457 484 950)
Caledonian McBrayne operate the ferry services
between Wemyss Bay and Rothesay, and Colintrive
to Rhubodach. (tel: +44 (0)8705 650 000,