It’s the early 1970s and we’re in the Austin 1100. Me, my mum and dad and my granda, and Simon and Garfunkel on the eight-track. We’re heading for the Firth of Clyde and the ferry to Rothesay, where we’ll play pitch and putt, walk along the esplanade gardens, eat fish and chips and, if my granda will watch me, my mum and dad might go for a wee night to Foley’s Hotel, to listen to the “chanters”.
“Rothesay was chockablock during the Glasgow fair,” says my dad. “People went to the dancing and up the road to Foley’s to sing songs. Glasgow people loved getting a mic and getting up and being allowed to sing.”
We’d stay in a wee room and kitchen – a small flat – overlooking the pier that was “to do” with my granda’s sister Maggie, who, I would learn more than 40 years later, became the grandmother of actor Billy Boyd, AKA Pippin the Scottish hobbit.
There’s a picture of my granda on Victoria Street with a paper for picking the horses under his arm, and my mum (with a beehive) and my Auntie Pat walking along eating ice-creams – captured by the street photographer who was always there with his Box Brownie. “He used to walk up and down where the putting green was, taking people’s photos,” says my dad.
Rothesay was a grand Victorian seaside resort, one of the places “doon the watter”, where paddle steamers would drop holidaymakers from Glasgow, Paisley or Greenock for a fortnight’s holiday or just a day trip. In 1913, up to 100 steamers a day would stop at the pier and men would pile in to its glorious toilets, built in 1899 – all ceramic tiles, mosaic floor and marble urinals. They’re still open and still beautiful.
The sale of alcohol was forbidden on Sundays from 1853, except on the paddle steamers and so “steaming” drunk came into common parlance – male “steamers” had a great need to relieve themselves.
Cheap package tours took their toll on the Isle of Bute as a tourist destination, and although it’s only a short train ride from Glasgow to stunning Wemyss Bay station for the ferry, people turned their backs on the island. But it is a stunning place, a microcosm of the best of the west coast of Scotland. The Winter Gardens and the currently-being-refurbished Pavilion are architectural marvels, the pitch and putt is still on and haddock and chips are divine – though now, at the Kettledrum Cafe at least, they’re served with homemade tartare sauce.
If I have my druthers – a Scottish truncation of I’d rather – my ideal Bute day out would involve a tour of the island on the open-top bus. But first I’d get together a picnic. If it’s a Saturday, I’ll pick up a prawn cocktail from Ritchie’s of Rothesay. I’d get there early because “they fly out the door – they’re just £4 for a foil tray that’s enough for two”, and I’d also take some smoked salmon, cheddar and a jar of Butes Fruits preserve, or maybe chilli jam. Then I’d head to the Electric Bakery to buy some rolls and on to Helmi’s Patisserie, where a family of Syrian refugees who were settled on the island in 2015 sell fabulous strawberry tarts, macarons and other pastries. I might even pick up a bottle of Isle of Bute Gin and some tonic for what my dad calls “a wee tightener”.
Then I’d hail the open-top bus at the stop by the Winter Gardens, sitting at the front upstairs if I can. It heads to Port Bannatyne and over to Ettrick Bay, a mile-long beach backed by fields and hills, with a view over the Kyles of Bute towards the Cowal peninsula and the Isle of Arran. I might picnic here, and take a swim, or maybe I’ll go to Scalpsie Bay instead.
At Kilchattan Bay in the south, I’d look out across the upper Firth of Clyde to the mountains of Clyde Muirshiel on the mainland, and over to the island of Great Cumbrae. I could jump off again at Mount Stuart, home of the marquesses of Bute and the first house in Scotland to use electric lighting and the first in the world to have a heated swimming pool. I could gaze at the Tintorettos, Titians and Veroneses that line the walls or wander the 300 acres of gardens.
I’d stay in a sea-view room at Cadillac Kustomz Hotel and head to the Scottish Honky Tonk, where the music crosses the Scottish love of country and western with the Alabama roots of owner Brody Jamieson. I might even join in with the chanters, who, if I really had my druthers, would indulge me and play some Simon and Garfunkel. “Lie la lie, lie la lie lie, lie la lie,” I’d sing, and think of my granda. I wonder if he won any money on the horses that day.