Rothesay is the main town on the Isle of Bute and also the place that, until last year, I called home for the previous 5 years. The town has lots to offer day trippers and holidaymakers will find it an ideal base for exploring the rest of the island. To help make the most of your time, I've put together a list of my recommended things to do in Rothesay below.
The town is famous as a once thriving seaside resort, particularly for Glaswegians who would head 'doon the watter' to Bute for their holidays. Like many British seaside resorts, package holidays to sunnier climes brought about a downturn in the economy.
Today it suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. While some tired looking premises rely on nostalgia to survive, a host of new local businesses catering for a quality driven generation of travellers have opened in recent years.
Rothesay can be reached in just over 90 minutes from Glasgow, making it one of the most accessible island escapes in Scotland. The ferry to Bute leaves from Wemyss Bay on the mainland and for those not wanting to drive, a train runs directly to Wemyss Bay from Glasgow Central Station.
The Isle of Bute has many more attractions worth visiting outside of the main town but I'll tackle them in a future blog post. For now, this article hopefully provides plenty of inspiration and options for those wondering what to do in Rothesay.
If you're up early, you might just catch a 'buteiful' Rothesay sunrise
My Recommended 'Things to do in Rothesay' Includes -
See below for a full description of each place listed and even more suggestions of where to shop, eat and more things to do in Rothesay.
HERE IS A HANDY MAP OF ALL THE LOCATIONS MENTIONED
Rothesay is primarily a seaside town and one of the best ways to relax in to holiday mode is with a walk along the manicured Esplanade. Lined with cabbage palm trees, on a warm, sunny day you could almost fool yourself in to thinking you were somewhere a little more exotic than the west coast of Scotland.
Every year, I am impressed by the colourful and well-maintained floral displays which are one of the town's biggest assets in my opinion. At the heart of the gardens is a pretty fountain which was originally erected in 1961 and thanks to restoration work is still flowing today.
In the summer, the putting greens open up to provide some old-fashioned fun for all generations of the family. The long promenade which runs along the seafront is an ideal place to watch the diverse range of boats that use the Firth of Clyde, including the two local CalMac ferries.
On a sunny day there is no better spot in town to sit and enjoy an ice-cream. In the evening, relax on one of the Esplanade benches with some takeaway fish and chips. Both guaranteed to induce full on seaside holiday mood!
Isle of Bute Discovery Centre & Cinema
Bute has a long and interesting history that dates back thousands of years. To get a quick snapshot of the island's past, head to the Discovery Centre which is housed in the old Winter Gardens on the Esplanade. The centre comprises a tourist office, gift shop, island exhibition and cinema. Dogs on leads are also permitted within the visitor centre.
The Winter Gardens were originally opened in 1924 as an entertainment complex. It ran a busy schedule of variety performances, attracting some of Scotland's biggest stars at the time. Amateur dramatics and a bandstand added to the year round programme of events.
After a sharp decline in tourism, the ornamental building closed in 1974 and it was proposed that it should be demolished which is almost unbelievable. Thankfully, a trust was established and it was saved.
Unfortunately the cast iron and glazed structure does not weather well and renovations were undertaken recently to preserve the building for future generations.
The multi-purpose centre still offers local entertainment in the form of a 90 seat cinema. I highly recommend getting a ticket for a night out at the wee picture house, which is a refreshing change from the modern multiplexes. If you're nostalgic about they way cinemas used to be then this will take you back although the movies are bang up to date.
There is no other place in Scotland I have visited where I would class the public toilets as a 'must see' visitor attraction but the Victorian Toilets in Rothesay are not just any old loos. Situated near to the ferry terminal, they are worth every penny to visit, 40 of them to be precise.
The toilets date back to 1899 at a time when Rothesay was a fashionable holiday destination. The decor, fixture and fittings are almost completely original to the day they were built. This public convenience was obviously designed with quality and style in mind, proving that great craftsmanship stands the test of time.
Be aware though that it is the gent's toilets that are the real attraction although ladies can have a peek at the luxurious loos too - just check with the attendant that they are empty first! They are still used as public lavatories and even though there are free toilets nearby it is worth paying the entrance fee if you need to relieve yourself in Rothesay. After all, how often do you get the chance to pee in such a fine historic setting?
Old Post Office
Head to Bishop Street to view the grand Post Office building dating back to 1896. Although it no longer functions as a post office, it is still used as the Royal Mail delivery depot and collection office and is open to members of the public.
It isn't an obvious tourist attraction but stepping inside is like stepping back in time. The interior still has a very Victorian feel and there is a small exhibition of historical island and Royal Mail memorabilia.
Despite the many Victorian structures that still dominate the town, most have lost their interior historical charm. A bit like the Victorian Toilets, the old post office is a remnant from a bygone era of wealth and grandeur in Rothesay. It won't take you long to visit but I personally think it is well worth popping in as you pass if you appreciate period buildings.
The ruins of Rothesay Castle dominate the town centre and these days it looks a little bit out of place among the surrounding modern architecture. The unusual circular design is unique among Scottish castles and a pretty moat just adds to its fairytale appearance.
Orkney and Shetland are famous for their Norse heritage, however much of the west of Scotland, including the Hebrides was also under Norwegian control at one time. This rule even extended to the Isle of Bute in the 1100s. By 1200, Bute was back under Scottish rule and in the early 13th century, the castle was built as a defence against future Norwegian attacks.
However the King of Norway managed to seize the castle from the Scots twice, in 1230 and 1263. Both sieges didn't last long before the Scots regained control. This led to four towers being added to the castle for further defence, however they weren't needed as Norse rule in Scotland came to an end for good.
Rothesay Castle has always been closely linked to the Stewart royal dynasty and that is why the heir to the throne, currently Prince Charles, still has the title Duke of Rothesay when in Scotland.
The castle is now cared for by Historic Environment Scotland and there is a charge to visit although entry is free for members.
St Mary's Chapel
About half a mile further up the High Street from the castle, next to the United Church of Bute, is a little hidden historical gem. St Mary's Chapel dates back to the the early 14th century, however only the medieval chancel remains today.
It is an atmospheric wee place with two impressive carved tombs about which very little is known. The knight's tomb has an effigy complete with armour and an ornate belt with sword and dagger. The presence of the Stewart coat of arms suggests he was connected by blood to the royal house of Stewart. The lady's tomb has an effigy at prayer, dressed in a flowing gown with a baby at her side. Who she is remains a mystery. There are further medieval grave slabs located on the floor, including another effigy of a knight.
Whoever is buried here was obviously important as the carving, although a little weathered now, is still exquisite. This part of the church would also usually have been reserved for the burial of clergy and nobility. We might never find out but it is an intriguing piece of Bute's history.
The chapel is free to visit but check the Historic Environment Scotland website for opening times.
I personally don't feel that Bute promotes its impressive history as well as it could, however Bute Museum is the best place to get an insight into the many different periods that have shaped the island's story. It is a seriously good wee museum that has fascinating exhibits dating back as far as the Mesolithic period (7000 to 3800 BC) right up to its seaside holiday heyday in the 20th century. The exhibits are split across two rooms, with one dedicated to natural history and the other dedicated to archaeology and history.
It might be small and unassuming from the outside, but you could easily spend an hour or more here as there is so much to see. Two items that I think are particularly interesting come from the neighbouring island of Inchmarnock. The first is 'The Hostage Stone', which features a sketch inscribed on piece of slate. The scene shows a Viking leading a monk away to his ship, presumably unwillingly! It is thought to have been drawn by a novice monk from the monastery which once stood on the island.
The second item is 'The Queen of the Inch Necklace' which is just magnificent. The necklace is made of stringed jet beads and was found with a woman's skeleton during an excavation of a burial cist. Further investigation has dated the burial back to 2000 BC and given how ornate the jewellery is, it is believed the skeleton belonged to a woman of importance, either a queen or a chieftain. A facial reconstruction of what she may have looked like is also on display which helps to bring her story to life.
There really is an eclectic mix of extraordinary and unusual objects to view, making Bute Museum one of my top recommended attractions in Rothesay.
There is a small entrance fee and as the museum is manned by volunteers, it only opens on a part-time basis so be sure to check the opening times in advance if you plan to visit.
Ardencraig Gardens are definitively one of my favourite Rothesay hidden gems. They are situated just outside of the town and concealed behind a wall. If you didn't know they were there, they would be easy to miss.
This was one of my favourite oasis to hide away in on a sunny day when I lived in Rothesay. It is generally very quiet and the vivid tapestry of colours and fragrant blooms buzzing with bees and butterflies are a treat for the senses. You can also catch a view across the Firth of Clyde from the upper path.
The small walled garden was originally part of the estate gardens belonging to Ardencraig House but since 1970 it has been cared for by the local council. It is open from May to September but the best time to visit is usually June, July and August when the displays are at their best.
There are also flowers on display and for sale within the glass houses, personally I like the cactus greenhouse the best. The gardens are free to visit and dogs on leads are permitted.
Skeoch and Skipper Woods
Rothesay has more than seaside views to offer - it also has two areas of woodland at either end of the town where you can get a nature fix among some characterful trees.
Skeoch Woods sits on a hill side and can be entered across from the sailing club to the north of the town. At the far end of the path there are steps which lead up to trails at different levels heading back toward the town centre. Exploring won't take long as the woods are quite small but if you're quiet it is a great location to see a variety of birds and if you're lucky, some of the many roe deer that live on the island.
Skipper Woods sits at the east of the town and can be accessed via Bishop Terrace, just off the Serpentine. For an easy and scenic circular walk of around 3 miles, follow the trail to the end of the woods which brings you out near to Ardencraig Gardens. Stop by the gardens and when you're finished turn right and head down the hill back to the waterfront. Follow the walk back to the town centre, past grand Victorian villas on one side and views up the Firth of Clyde and over to the Cowal Peninsula on the other.
Stand in the Highlands and the Lowlands
Did you know that the Highland Boundary Fault Line cuts through the Isle of Bute? It might not seem obvious as there are no mountains and the change in landscape is quite subtle. However, travel to Rhubodach in the north of the island and you can definitely sense you have entered a Highland landscape.
For a bit of fun, look out for a sign near to the fountain on the Esplanade which marks the Highland Boundary Fault. Stand underneath and you can have with one foot in the Highlands and one foot in the Lowlands at the same time! I'm not sure exactly how accurate it actually is but I like to think whoever positioned it there did their calculations correctly.
The Serpentine is an uphill road in the town centre that boasts 13 back to back hairpin bends and an average 10% gradient. Masochistic cyclists are enticed here to test their stamina while even the most confident of drivers will find it a skills challenge. Walkers don't escape the pain as even on foot it is an endurance climb.
However, apart from the fun/fear factor and sense of achievement at reaching the top (or the bottom!) in one piece, the effort is also worth it for one of the best views over the town.
Bute open-top bus tour
As you will see from my list, there is plenty to do in Rothesay. However, it would be a shame if you didn't get to experience the natural beauty of the rest of the island. From May to September, the easiest way to do this is on one of the City Sightseeing Bute open-top bus tours. If the sun is shining, make sure you get a seat on the top deck so you can get some good photos along the way.
The tour departs four times a day from Guildford Square and takes approx. 90 minutes. The route passes beautiful beaches and some of the other scenic settlements on the island. Live commentary from the driver includes history, jokes and general stories about island life.
Your tour ticket can also be used on any of the local buses for the rest of the day which is ideal if you are planning to do some more exploring beyond the town.
Although these are my pick of the top attractions in Rothesay, there are other local businesses worth visiting while you're on the island and I've listed some of the best below.
What else to do in Rothesay
The Castle Gallery, 13 High Street
The Coffee Stop, 29 High Street
Helmi's, 26 East Princes Street
Macqueens of Rothesay, 1 Bishop Street
Richard H McIntyre, 5 Gallowgate
Ritchie's of Rothesay
Most people that visit Bute for the first time are pleasantly surprised and wonder why they haven't been before. Most dip their toe in by visiting for a day and then vow to return in the future for a longer stay when they realise how lovely it is. Many people I've met make an annual pilgrimage to the island and have done for years. As for me, I ended up heading 'doon the watter' from Glasgow for an extended 5 year vacation!
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