Rothesay and Dunoon
Arriving at Rothesay
In April 2018 I used some spare time in Glasgow to take a day trip down the Firth of Clyde to Rothesay and Dunoon – both of which I had only visited very briefly many years ago. The discovery that a bus service ran between the two towns – Rothesay on the Isle of Bute and Dunoon on the Cowal peninsula in Argyll – meant that visiting both in one day was feasible, taking a route overland which was new to me.
The first stage of the journey was by train from Glasgow Central to Wemyss Bay. There seemed to be more derelict sites beside the track in Glasgow and Paisley than I remember then, after skirting Glasgow Airport, the village of Bishopton has expanded into part of the huge former Royal Ordnance Factory site – hopefully the site has been decontaminated of any explosive material. For a few miles the railway line and the M8 motorway follow the south bank of the River Clyde through posh Langbank and into Port Glasgow which, together with Greenock and Gourock forms the metropolis of Inverclyde. Port Glasgow looks much as I remember it – a small town centre surrounded by grotty housing schemes climbing the hills.
Wemyss Bay station
The Wemyss Bay branch leaves the main line to Gourock and climbs uphill through upper Greenock to the Spango Valley then descends to the Firth of Clyde coast at Inverkip. Since electrification in 1967 the Inverclyde lines have had a frequent train service – hourly to Wemyss Bay and per hour to Gourock. The branch is single track and it has been inexpensive to create stations serving the housing schemes – Branchton opened in 1967, Whinhill in 1990 and Drumfrochar in 1998. The train also calls at IBM Halt – opened in 1978 to serve the large computer factory. It is still served by hourly trains despite the factory having closed – the site is now completely unoccupied and the final derelict buildings are being demolished – presumably Invercyde Council would like to see the site redeveloped. From the hills above Greenock there are views over the Clyde to Helensburgh and to the Highlands beyond. Then train calls at Inverkip before terminating at Wemyss Bay, 26 miles and about 50 minutes from Glasgow.
Wemyss Bay station is a magnificent building, built in 1903 by James Miller for the Caledonian Railway and excellently restored in recent years. The station graces the front cover of ‘Britains 100 Best Railway Stations’, a recent book by Simon Jenkins with excellent photography (1). The line and station were built for the steamer traffic to Rothesay and other ports on the Firth of Clyde. This remains its main function and most passengers transfer to the car ferry. There is time for a very quick look round before heading down the ramp to the pier for the ferry to Rothesay.
Though it is a sunny morning it is windy and the sea is choppy. The MV Bute has good stabilisers and cuts through the waves. I’m up on the observation deck for the view over the Clyde to Innellan, Toward, the mountains of the Cowal Peninsula and the island of Bute. As is usual on Calmac ferries there is a cacophony of car alarms due to the movement of the ferry – drivers are requested to disable their car alarm if possible, but it seems that no-one ever does.
After we arrive in Rothesay I walk round the esplanade to take a photograph of the ferry as it departs – there is something that looks odd about it moving out from the pier sideways. I can remember very little from a previous visit in the mid-1980s – I expect we didn’t get further than the nearest bar. Rothesay has a population of about 5000 and is the only town on the island. While the castle remains date from the 13th century, Rothesay grew rapidly in the Victorian era as a major holiday resort for Glaswegians – the rich would have their summer houses here and commute to the office when necessary, the majority would spend a couple of weeks in a boarding house. The town had a period of serious decline as Glaswegians forsook the Costa del Clyde for the Costa del Sol. It appears to have recovered since the beginning of the present century – it is on the coach tour circuit and easy to reach for day trips or weekend breaks, while it also attracts retirees to live by the sea. It is small enough to avoid major chain stores (apart from the Coop) and has a good mix of shops for both locals and tourists. Though there are a few derelict buildings and empty shops the Esplanade and Winter Gardens have been renovated and it looks ready for this summer’s visitors.
A story from my late partner about a friend of his, a civil engineer working on the modernisation of Rothesay pier. After the demolition of the old pier they were left with a small mountain of timber to dispose of. The cheapest method was chosen – the wood was taken across the island to a remote spot and burned. They overlooked the fact that the timbers were impregnated with a hundred years worth of tar, creosote and oil and the fire burned for days sending a pall of thick black poisonous smoke over the island. He kept his job so perhaps there is some exaggeration.
After a walk along the front and round the castle it was time for a pint and I spent a pleasant lunchtime. The front room of Macs Bar opposite the castle is tiny so you can’t avoid being drawn into the conversation. Even better, the real ale was kept well. For the aficionado they had special deals on a hauf’n’hauf – house spirit and half-pint of beer. The second decent pint was in the Black Bull Inn, the only pub in the current Good Beer Guide. This involved more conversation – there weren’t many tourists on the island that day and a strange face is easily spotted. From the esplanade the pub looked closed – the front door was locked due to the high wind – but the back door in the lane behind was open.
There is the occasional direct bus from Rothesay to Dunoon (see practicalities below). A West Coast Motors minibus turns up and three of us get on – the other two had been visiting Rothesay from Dunoon for a few hours. The bus heads out of town to Rhubodach, drives on to the ferry for the five minute journey to Colintraive on the mainland then onward to Dunoon. The driver sells the ferry ticket together with the bus fare. The sea lochs mean that the road doesn’t follow the coast but heads through the hills. From Colintraive we head north along Loch Riddon to Auchenbreck, where we connect with another bus heading from Dunoon to Tighnabruaich and Portavadie. We take a low pass through the hills and round the head of Loch Striven, then across country again along the bank of inland Loch Tarsan to reach Sandbank on Holy Loch and finally Dunoon. Much of the road is single track with passing places, including the recently improved and resurfaced section.
The Rhubodach – Colintraive ferry.
Dunoon is about the same size as Rothesay but with more neighbouring settlements, mainly affluent retirement villages, it should have more facilities. The town should have recovered by now from the loss of the US Base at Holy Loch in 1992, but it doesn’t look like it to me. There is a large Morrisons supermarket in the town centre which may have affected some of the local shops – there are quite a few empty premises. The area around the old steamer pier is being improved – the pier has been refurbished and the surrounding area is being remodelled as a gateway to the town. My instant gut reaction is that Rothesay feels as though it is on the way up, Dunoon seems to be struggling.
The plan was to take a short break in Dunoon then catch the Argyll Ferries catamaran which carries passengers from Dunoon to Gourock station but I’m met by a sign – ‘service suspended due to high winds – bus replacement in operation’. I’m told the ferry is liable to cancellation as soon as there is a bit of a breeze and the weather is getting worse rather than better. After a quick walk along the main street and a pint in the Clansman Bar (recommended by people in Rothesay as the best, but the landlord was busy playing his own selection of music on the juke box too loudly for conversation – this may have contributed to my jaundiced view of Dunoon) it is back to the pier.
The replacement bus to take me across the water to Gourock is waiting – a top of the range West Coast Motors coach and about 45 passengers. We drive a couple of miles to Hunters Quay where a car ferry is waiting to take us across the firth to McInroy’s Point followed by another few miles into the centre of Gourock and the station. The journey takes about 45 minutes in total, compared to 25 minutes by the catamaran. With frequent trains to Greenock, Paisley and Glasgow the ferry suspension does not mean a major change to my plans. Even better, the replacement coach service is free so I save the ferry fare.
The Hunters Quay – McInroy’s Point ferry.
On the hill above Gourock, one can see from the ferry a large modern shed, sitting on what should be a prime piece of real estate, with tremendous views over the firth and surrounding country. It turns out to be an Amazon Fulfillment Centre – there are hardly any windows but I presume that Amazon doesn’t want their slaves to waste their time looking at the view and concentrate 100% on fulfilling.
I remember Gourock station being an impressive terminus with people transferring to ferries and steamers – though the photograph is slightly before my time. Most of the old station has been demolished, as has the adjoining Bay Hotel, and the centre of Gourock now consists of roads, a car park, a bit of grass and a utilitarian station. It seems that plans for redevelopment have come to nothing. I manage a pint in Cleat’s Bar before catching the train to Glasgow. Inverclyde looks as miserable as ever – the whole place screams both financial poverty and poverty of imagination. The shipyards have been replaced by dual carriageways, car parks and retail parks along what could be an impressive waterfront. I’m not trying to put anyone off – the scenery has been tremendous all day – just lift your eyes away from the towns and focus on the water and the countryside.
(1) Britains 100 Best Railway Stations, Simon Jenkins, Penguin Viking, 2017. Amongst other things Simon Jenkins was the founder of the Railway Heritage Trust.
All photos by Steve Gillon except the Sound of Soay (Hunters Quay – McInroy’s Point) ferry by River Clyde Photographs and the Glasgow train at Gourock Pier credited on Google Images to edowds. The base map is from www.mapmaker.nationalgeographic.org
Glasgow Central – and the crowds head for the Wemyss Bay train.
Glasgow to Rothesay and Glasgow to Dunoon are served by trains and ferries at least hourly. However, the direct bus between Rothesay and Dunoon runs only on Saturdays and Monday to Fridays during Cowal School Holidays. These dates and the current timetable can be checked on Argyll and Bute Council’s website www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/timetable/bus – look for service 479. I left Glasgow just before 1000, arriving back just after 1800, with over two hours in Rothesay and an hour in Dunoon. On the same days it is possible to do the trip in the reverse direction, starting and finishing about two hours later – this is only a good option when the evenings are light, and the time of the last ferry from Rothesay should be checked at www.calmac.co.uk .
Note that there are combined rail and ferry fares between Glasgow and Rothesay and between Glasgow and Dunoon which are slightly cheaper than buying separate tickets. However, they are not available from the ticket machines at Glasgow Central – you have to queue at the Scotrail ticket window. There is no railcard discount on these fares and anyone with a railcard will find it cheaper to buy separate rail and ferry tickets.
The choice of beer in Rothesay was good. It also as its own brewery, Bute Brew Company which may be open for drinks – check their Facebook page. According to www.whatpub.com (usually reliable) there are no outlets for real ale in either Dunoon or Gourock. I noticed a bar in Wemyss Bay station as I passed through in the morning. It may be worth a stop if doing the trip in the opposite direction before catching the train back to Glasgow.
Copyright. The text and those photos not credited to someone else are© Copyright Steve Gillon, 2018.