Question: What’s the connection between Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers, the explorer who died along with Scott in the Antarctic, and James Dobbie, nurseryman and founder of the well-known chain of garden centres?
Answer: the Island of Bute!
Henry Bowers’ family lived on Bute for many years and he loved the time he could spend there when on leave from the Royal India Marine. It was time spent walking, talking, playing tennis and even swimming all the way from Ardbeg Point to Craigmore every day before breakfast!
A small man, of boundless energy, he was one of last surviving members of Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. On realising that they had no hope of surviving, Scott wrote a letter to Bowers’ mother, “We are very near the end of our journey and I am finishing it in the company of two very gallant, noble gentlemen. One of these is your son. He has come to be one of my closest and soundest friends and I appreciate his wonderful upright nature, his ability and his energy. As his troubles have thickened his dauntless spirit ever shone brighter and he has remained cheerful, hopeful and indomitable to the end.” Not long afterwards their tent was finally buried in a ferocious blizzard, and their remains not found until eight months later. They were buried where they died.
By contrast, it was James Dobbie’s passion for plants that brought him to Bute. His overriding interest in horticulture led him to give up his job as Chief Constable and Public Prosecutor in Renfrew and move to Rothesay in 1875 to develop his growing horticultural interests: Bute chosen because it had what he considered to be the ‘perfect climate’ for growing plants. Even after he had officially retired from the company, Dobbie’s love of gardens and plants continued. On his death on 13th October 1905 he was buried at the High Kirk in Rothesay.
Bowers and Dobbie are but two of the thirty-six men and women who appear in the book Bute Connections, compiled by Bute residents Jean McMillan, Margaret Lamb and Allan Martin. It was published in 2011 by the BNHS (Buteshire Natural History Society) and is available from Bute Museum. In fact, so many connections were discovered that a second volume has been suggested to bring this intriguing and revealing slice of local history up to the present!
It’s an island rich in history and archaeology, as was discovered when the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) completed a new survey of Bute in 2009/2010 as part of the excellent three-year Discover Bute Landscape Partnership Project. Aided by the knowledge and expertise of islanders, the survey team identified nearly two hundred previously unrecorded archaeological sites!
At the close of the project, RCAHMS archaeologists Alex Hale and George Geddes produced the expertly written and beautifully presented book The Archaeological Landscape of Bute – a must for all with an interest in Bute’s past and how that has formed its present and could shape its future!
For some people, Bute is synonymous with Rothesay, the island’s ‘capital’, sadly now a faded reflection of its former Victorian grandeur. But there is so much more to the island than Rothesay. So just what does Bute offer visitors today?
For a start, you could get your bearings and brush up on the island’s history by spending an afternoon in the wonderful Bute Museum. Then head for the dungeons of Rothesay Castle! Or sample the Gothic splendour of Mount Stuart. Or why not be brave and explore the caves below the Iron Age fort at Dunagoil? Or be energetic and hire a bike from the Bike Shed and cycle up the steep twists and turns of the Serpentine – or if that’s just too challenging go for a cycle round the island! Or take a walk through the atmospheric remains of the early medieval monastery of St Blane’s. Later, should you feel like something a bit more strenuous, you could spend a week walking the West Island Way. And round things off with a meal at one of the islands many excellent restaurants, washed down with a fine craft beer from the new Bute Brew Co!
In addition to all that, you could always go along to one of the many cultural events on the island. For example, just last week we had the great pleasure of being in Rothesay when murder came to Bute in the shape of an author visit hosted by the library as part of Book Week Scotland. There was a full house for crime writers Craig Robertson and Alexandra Sokoloff – he from Stirling, she from California. By the end of that evening you would have found yourself seriously considering a visit to the Faroe Islands, deciding you definitely must go on the tour deep below Central Station and the streets of Glasgow and worrying slightly at the thought that serial killers could also be women!
If Bute can attract speakers of the calibre of Craig Robertson and Alexandra Sokoloff, then it’s got a lot going for it!