In more charming times than the ones we currently live in, there was a tradition for the working people of Glasgow to take a steamboat down the Clyde and holiday in places such as Dunoon and Rothesay which became popular seaside resorts. The habit was known as going “doon the watter”. These days there’s only one of the old steamboats remaining but thanks to a network of trains and modern ferries, it’s still possible to go doon the watter. And that’s exactly what I did a few weekends back.
The train passed through the gloomy suburbs of Glasgow and deposited me and my friend, Graham, at Gourock where we went doon the watter on the Argyll Flyer, a small passenger ferry to Dunoon. As we crossed, the sea was ruffled and steely grey to match the skies overhead. I can never think of Dunoon without singing in my head the Sinatra song “Fly me to the Moon” because a friend of mine always use to say it with the words “fly me to Dunoon” instead. Highland Mary didn’t find that at all amusing as she stared down unmoved above the pier. Her statue commemorates Mary Campbell, a mistress of Robert Burns.
Off the water and on the bikes, we cycled west across the Cowal peninsula up and down ridiculously steep roads through a landscape that was surprisingly rugged and remote despite its proximity to the populations around the Clyde. At Colintraive we took to the water again as our Calmac ferry made the very short crossing of the Kyles of Bute. We rolled off on the other side on Bute, “the unexplored isle” as pronounced by the sign that welcomed us.
We set off exploring south down the only road at the top end of the island. In early March the nights still draw in fairly early so we were soon looking for a camp spot. We pulled off onto a forest track and made a steep climb up into the trees to find a lovely spot at the edge of the woods. There was a view back down to the ferry, still chugging back and forth across the water, and as the light faded we enjoyed surround-sound bird song. Once darkness set in, we sat nursing mugs of hot tea and watched the lights of the ferry going to and fro on the inky black water. The constant throb of its engine drifted up through the night air to our camp.
The springtime sun made an appearance as we explored the rest of the island the following day. As we pedalled south, to our right were the mountains of Arran, looking hazy and misty, and teasing us with brief glimpses of their rocky upper parts. Bute itself is quite a contrast. In the north of the island our road crossed hilly moorland but in the south we found ourselves cycling through lush farmland. At times the pungent smell of fresh manure would almost make you pass out and we found ourselves pedalling faster to get away from it. We stopped regularly as there’s so much to see on Bute – sandy bays, ruined chapels, Bronze age hill forts and standing stones, such as the prehistoric stone circle at Kingarth.
The highlight of Bute however, is not the hand-cut chips on the seafront in Rothesay but the wonderful St Blane’s Chapel. The chapel is part of a monastery dating from the 6th century and you really get an idea even today of the expanse of the place with the main chapel and many of the boundary walls relatively intact. You can still see in part the vallum wall which marked the border between the monastery and the secular world beyond. To the rear of the complex is a large boulder with an oblong hole that once held a large cross. It’s filled up now with rainwater and previous visitors had dropped coins into it like a wishing well. These old structures are set in a natural amphitheatre with protection around three sides afforded by a rocky outcrop, the roll of the hills and stands of tall trees.
But the most wonderful thing about St Blane’s Chapel is its secretive existence up in the hills, like a miniature Machu Picchu. We arrived by cycling a long way down a single-track road then making a winding walk on a wee path steeply uphill above the sea and the fields below. The chapel is completely hidden from view until the very last moment so it’s a real surprise and utter delight to come upon the place.
St Blane’s is at the bottom of Bute and we had to get back up to the island’s main town, Rothesay, to catch the homeward ferry. We cycled the dirt track called the Moor Road which cut high across the central spine of the southern part of the island. It was rough and muddy in places but was lined by yellow gorse and with a blue sky above, you couldn’t grumble. The route dropped into Rothesay via the causeway of Loch Fad, part of the Highland Boundary fault line that had filled with water over the millennia. We rolled into Rothesay and onto the late afternoon Calmac ferry that would take us back “up the watter”.
Start: Dunoon, using the train from Glasgow Central to Gourock. The ferry from Gourock to Dunoon meets the train and leaves right next to the platform.
Finish: Wemyss Bay having taken the ferry from Rothesay on Bute. A train goes from Wemyss Bay (beautiful station) back to Glasgow Central.
Route: From Dunoon we cycled the A885 north and then took the B836 west – it has some stiff climbs on it upwards of 20%. We then took the A886 south but diverted quickly onto the delightful and empty B886 to Colintraive. We continued south on the A886 on Bute. The woods on the right soon after the ferry provided a good campspot. We then took the A884 down the west side of the island. Just before Kingarth a single track roads keeps going south to St Blane’s at its end. We cycled up to Rothesay on the A884 but took the Moor Road to the left about 2km after Kingarth – the start is beside the war memorial. The track was mostly good but with some muddy sections and one very rocky but short section. It pops out on the B881 where we turned right and then took the first left to cycle up to and over the causeway at Loch Fad. At the other side, turn right to head into Rothesay.