Been to Bute? Four years ago, David Dimbleby made a series for the BBC – Britain & The Sea. The third episode traced Britain’s trade. He visited Bute – and waxed lyrical about one destination: Mount Stuart. He was right to do so. We wanted to visit this island jewel – to follow in the broadcaster’s footsteps – and to discover Bute’s draw and find out why – for more than 2,000 years – folk have crossed the seas to visit …
Look at a map of Scotland and the island of Bute could almost be mistaken to be a part of the mainland: the CalMac crossing – Colintraive on the mainland to Rhubodach on Bute’s north east shore – is one of the shortest. A few minutes sees you across around 330 yards of water. Another ferry route is available from Wemyss Bay (with a connecting train from Glasgow Central), but we were arriving from the north and, to make the most of our time on Bute, stayed the night before an hour north of Colintraive – overlooking Loch Fyne at the Creggans Inn, Strachur.
The Inn was a very welcome stop – comfortable room (dog friendly), wonderful public space – especially the residents’ lounge with a picture postcard view over the loch. And we were not disappointed by our meal …
We opted for a tapas-style combination of their starters and enjoyed squid, salmon bon-bons, steamed mussels and scallops … not forgetting the chips of course … and the wine! The Inn has a bistro-styled restaurant but we chose to dine in the bar and enjoy the comings and goings of other guests, dogs (including the Inn’s own Hector) and the sun sinking behind distant hills.
We were first at breakfast to make the most of the day ahead: more evidence of fresh, local produce and a tasty cooked-to-order Scottish start to the day …
The crossing to Bute is easy. Once o’er the water, we drove down the island’s east coast – through Port Bannatyne – looking across Loch Striven – and into the island’s ‘capital’, Rothesay. The town was built around Rothesay Castle, dating from the 13th century. It was built by Alan fitz Walter – ‘steward of Scotland’ – from which the ‘Stuart’ name is derived. Through the centuries, it suffered numerous attacks, survived many, but fell into disrepair after the 1600s.
In the early 19th century, John Crichton-Stuart, 2nd Marquess of Bute, began a programme of restoration that would last more than 50 years – excavating the ruins, clearing rubbish from the site and stablising the fortifcations. His son, John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, continued the work that cleared and reshaped the castle’s moat. In the 1960s, the Crichton-Stuarts gave the castle to the state and it is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument managed by Historic Scotland. If your time allows, stop in Rothesay: as well as the castle, there are galleries, cafes and numerous shops … as well as a lovely walk along the front. There are also trips on the paddle steamer Waverley.
The drive to Mount Stuart from Rothesay is only a further 15 minutes. The current Marquess may well have driven it in less time. Recognised by many (of a certain age!) for his motor racing career in the 1980s, the 7th Marquis dominated the ’84 F3 season. Johnny Dumfries – as he was know – was nothing short of sensational with 14 victories. Two years later, a breakthrough into F1, competing in 15 Grand Prix for Lotus. In ’88, he scored the greatest victory of his racing career, winning the Le Mans 24 Hours.
Today, John Colum Crichton-Stuart, the 7th Marquess of Bute prefers to be know as Johnny Bute. He divides his time between London and his ancestral home, Mount Stuart. You arrive at a wonderful visitor centre – that includes a cafe and gift shop – and leads you into the grounds, much of which was planned by the 2nd Marquess: 300 acres that include beautifully designed gardens, wild woodland and stunning coastline …
Simple signage takes you step by step through the kitchen garden and along tree-lined paths and roads to the house. We were ahead of time for the next guided tour so enjoyed a coffee in the courtyard cafe that joins what was the original Georgian ‘Mount Stuart’ property with the grandeur of the Victorian neo-gothic mansion. The original house was built in 1719 by the 2nd Earl of Bute – but it was badly damaged by a fire in 1877.
We very much liked the touch of providing buckets, spades and nets for those wanting to explore the shore …
We joined the tour – not too large a group (16 in total) – and were welcomed by our guide, Kevin Knox. It was clear from the off that Kevin had a really dry sense of fun – but that took nothing away from his encyclopedic knowledge of Mount Stuart and the family’s history.
As Dimbleby’s documentary discovered, the spirit of nineteenth-century invention is embodied in Mount Stuart. The house is a feat of Victorian engineering and, when constructed, was one of the most technologically advanced homes on the planet. We had a portrait gallery explained – connecting the threads of history from generation to generation – and were then led into the hall. The third Marquess, as we learned, had a passion for art, astrology, mysticism and religion. At the time, we was the wealthiest man in Britain – and the wealthiest Scot in the Empire.
The house reflects all his influences in the incredible architecture, furnishings and collections of art – from painting to books and pretty much everything in between. When we mention books, Mount Stuart is home to some 25,000 from the Bute Collection and includes works relating to theology, botany, agriculture, ornithology, travel, English fiction and Scottish history and literature.
On hour-long tour scratched the surface. Mount Stuart has 127 rooms including 47 bedrooms. But the tour was packed with content from start to finish.
From the hall, we climbed the marble stairs – 21 different types of Italian and Sicilian marble (some English for good measure) – and discovered the Marquess’ near obsession with light. It was the first home in the United Kingdom to have electric light – but the use of natural light is extraordinary – not least of all in the stained glass panels that depict the signs of the zodiac, tainted in various hues to reflect the seasons and studded with crystals that, when hit by the sun, reflect constellations on the marbled walls.
We learned that this money-was-no-object palace was the first home to have central heating, the first to have a telephone – although as Kevin pointed out, the conversation must have been one-sided! The first to have an indoor heated swimming pool. The bedroom and private rooms of the Marquess and his wife, Gwendolen, are incredible – adorned with so many references to the family’s long history … in carvings, wall hangings, paintings and more.
As with all great and grand projects, there is usually a hiccup. The 3rd Marquess died in 1900 – and his son disliked the house, immensely. The overdosed Victorian grandeur of Mount Stuart was far too much for the next in line. That said, he did not rubbish his father’s memory. He wanted to remain on Bute – but wanted to build a home that he would like, so he offered the house for sale on condition that it would be dismantled, moved and rebuilt piece by piece elsewhere.
That was in 1920. The price? £1.
Thankfully, there we no buyers – and Mount Stuart remained. Part of the tour takes you to one of matching conservatories – a his and hers at either end of the Marquess’ private rooms. The 4th Marquess volunteered the house as a military hospital during the Great War and the conservatory we visited served as an operating theatre. Today, the property hosts weddings and this is now the honeymoon suite.
Anecdote after anecdote flowed through the tour – including stories of the family’s continued love of Scotland, wildlife and the arts. The 5th Marquess was an expert ornithologist. In 1931, wanting to preserve the islands of St Kilda as a bird sanctuary, he bought them – leaving them to the National Trust for Scotland in 1956.
The tour finished in one of four chapels on the estate. It is beautiful – so no more words are needed … just this photo of the chapel’s ceiling …
Visitors to the house are able to revisit the property beyond the tour: sadly, on this occasion, we did not have the time – but were delighted that on leaving, we were told we could take up membership (at no extra cost) allowing us to return at any time during the coming year. We joined. Will we return to Bute? You bet.
The west of the island is known for its beaches overlooking the Sound of Bute towards Arran. If you’re looking to stay on the island, you can stay in self catering properties owned and managed by Mount Stuart. They have a great selection – sleeping from 4 up to 12. For more, follow this link.Many links are embedded in our Blog to alow you to find more information. For ease of reference, the following are provided here:
Did you know?
We were inspired by David Dimbleby’s documentary. We wonder if he was inspired by others? The late Lord Richard Attenborough – actor, director and eigth time Oscar winner – owned a personal retreat on Bute at Rhubodach. After his death, the estate was acquired by the people of Bute as part of a community buy-out scheme.
Thank you to Mount Stuart for the cover photo for this Blog: the image is from their Facebook page – so please like it for updates from the house and estate.
Thanks for reading.