Bute Connections

Question: What’s the connection between Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers, the explorer who died along with Scott in the Antarctic, James Dobbie, nurseryman and founder of the well-known chain of garden centres and a Syrian patisserie with the best breakfasts in town?

Answer: the Island of Bute!

Henry Bowers’ family lived on Bute for many years and he loved the time he spent there when on leave from the Royal India Marine: time spent walking, talking, playing tennis and even swimming all the way from Ardbeg Point to Craigmore every day before breakfast!

Birdie Bowers

Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers

A small man, of boundless energy, he was one of last surviving members of Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole.  In March 1912, 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 … 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 buried in a ferocious blizzard and their remains not found until eight months later.

Bute Connections, BNHS 2011

Bute Connections, BNHS 2011

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: choosing Bute 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 Jean McMillan, Margaret Lamb and Allan Martin, published in 2011 by the BNHS (Buteshire Natural History Society).

RCAHMS: New insights into Bute's rich and varied past

RCAHMS: New insights into Bute’s rich and varied past

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.  Aided by the knowledge and expertise of islanders, the survey team identified nearly two hundred previously unrecorded archaeological sites! RCAHMS archaeologists Alex Hale and George Geddes then produced 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!

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?

Helmi’s Syrian Patisserie, Rothesay

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.

Or come along to Bute Noir – an annual crime writing festival second only to Stirling’s international Bloody Scotland event. Plus there are a growing number of music events to suit all tastes and ages. And Highland Games and agriculture are in the mix too.

Moumen Helmi, Bashar Helmi and Argyll and Bute MP, Brendan O’Hara

Life is never static and Bute continues to evolve and change. Take for example, the Syrian refugees who were welcomed to Bute in 2015 and who are now firmly part of the island community: the Syrian breakfast at Helmi’s Cafe is not to be missed!

In this month’s iScot magazine I take a look at all this and much, much more. A look at how our lives are interconnected in so many, and often surprising and unexpected, ways and how we’re all the richer for that!

What is it about islands…?

Just what is it about islands that authors, playwrights and poets are drawn to use them as settings for their works? Especially crime writers? I wrote an article on this very topic, which is now in The Island Review.

If you haven’t come across The Island Review before, it’s an online magazine which is: ‘dedicated to great writing and visual art that comes from, is inspired by, celebrates or seeks to understand the extraordinary appeal of islands, as places and as metaphors.’

So if you like books, enjoy crime stories, are intrigued by islands and wonder what William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Peter May and Enid Blyton have in common? Then read on, Macduff!:  ‘A distant isle, where darkest deeds are done’

Bute’s West Island Way

iScot magazine have a special free download offer this month. Among many other interesting items, it contains an article I’ve written about the wonderful West Island Way walking trail on the island of Bute. https://pocketmags.com/iscot-magazine

You can also read about Robert Burns, the remote but beautiful Applecross Peninsula, Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, current affairs, whisky, the dreaded midge, Meal Makers (help for the elderly) and much more.

And if you love the great outdoors here’s a new website devoted to Argyll: http://www.wildaboutargyll.co.uk/  Watch the short film and see how many of these places you have already been to – and then visit the rest!

There’s something for everyone in Scotland!

Steps on the Road to Recovery

The journey on the road to recovery from illness can take different paths

If you know Bute, you’ll know the long, steep, twisting road that’s very appropriately called the Serpentine. It’s a favourite challenge with cycling enthusiasts, who test their mettle tackling the 13 hairpin bends to get to the top. Today we’re sitting in a flat halfway up this precipitous road with a spectacular view right over Rothesay Bay and beyond. From here we can see the Calmac ferry making its final turn to berth at the pier, bringing both residents and visitors to this popular island in the Firth of Clyde. With its gleaming white superstructure and red and black funnels, emblazoned with the company’s insignia, the ferry is a vivid and welcome sight – no matter how often you may have seen it before.

We’re here for a few days holiday – though rest and recuperation would be a more accurate description. My husband almost lost his life a short while ago and even though he’s recovering well, and so very grateful to be alive, it still takes time to come to terms with an event that could have changed our lives forever.

Karen Latto of PrintPoint, with author Richard Smith

Karen Latto of Print Point, with author Richard Smith

It felt like more than a coincidence when we discovered that Print Point, the island’s fine bookshop, was hosting a visit from eminent gynaecological surgeon and cancer specialist J Richard Smith. Richard’s new book – The Journey – is an account of the author’s own brush with ‘the reality of mortality’, as well as examining the physical and psychological challenges faced by recovering patients. You might think that recovery from a life-threatening illness, or accident, would leave you ready to carry on with life as before, but in fact, he told us, people often fall into one of two categories. There are  those who recover and have a heightened sense of being given a second chance and endeavour to live each day to the full. But, sadly, there are others who find themselves sinking into a state of dread, so anxious are they that the illness might recur that they become unable to live life meaningfully, and become prisoners of their own fears.

The road to recovery can be a long one, but can also be a joyous one

The road to recovery can be a long one, but can also be a joyous one

Like most people, I’d heard it said that, if you fall off a horse you should get back on one again as soon as possible before you find yourself too scared to do so. But I hadn’t thought of this in connection with major illnesses and accidents.

I do now.

Unbidden and unwelcome comes the thought that if it could happen once it could happen again. And how do you deal with that?

Richard Smith’s book suggests one way. With his many years experience working with patients who are at their most vulnerable, physically as well as psychologically, The Journey (subtitled Spirituality, Pilgrimage and Chant) maps Richard’s own ‘pilgrimage’, his journeys of discovery. He writes of the road he has travelled towards physical and spiritual wellbeing; “of the challenges and wonders of pilgrim paths to ancient sites such as Jerusalem, Assisi, Iona, Patmos and Mount Athos… The Journey is a book about being whole and is for anyone on the pathway to physical healing after illness, or seeking greater spiritual fulfillment.”

Old Man's Beard lichen tells of a healthy environment in nature

Old Man’s Beard lichen tells of a healthy environment in nature – exercise and being outdoors helps us feel healthier too!

Right now we feel such gratitude that we’ve been given that second chance and are learning to overcome the fears that inevitably accompany it. I hope the path we chose is the one where we continue to live life with relish and make the most of each day as it comes.

Reading Richard’s book, being back on Bute, having the support of friends; these all contribute to the ongoing process of recovery. And I’m grateful for all of them.

The Journey by J Richard Smith

Scalpsie Bay – A Walk through Time

Scalpsie Bay looking across to Arran

Scalpsie Bay looking across to Arran

The Isle of Bute, although lying in the Firth of Clyde and close to the main centre of population in Scotland, is often called ‘The Undiscovered Isle’.  Many people think of it only in terms of the main town, Rothesay, once a thriving summer coastal resort, now rather run-down and tired.  But beyond the town lies beautiful countryside, magnificent bays and a wealth of history – just waiting to be discovered!

Scalpsie Bay, on the south-west of Bute, is home to a populous seal colony, as well as having magnificent views over to Arran.  It also holds thousands of years of history – from a Bronze Age barrow and Iron Age dun, to the water channels built by the 19th century engineer Robert Thom to power the islands then flourishing cotton mills and the “Russian Cottage” used during the Cold War to listen for possible Soviet submarines in the Firth of Clyde.  But there is much, much more to this beautiful bay than this, so go and discover it for yourself!

Fragments of Bronze Age pottery found in the Scalpsie Barrow in 2010

Fragments of Bronze Age pottery found in the Scalpsie Barrow in 2010