Are you a tourist or a visitor? Do you like to be part of an organised group, plan your own itinerary in meticulous detail, or be spontaneous and leave everything to chance and the whim of the day? I was back on Bute this week, for a meeting that helped to move forward the slow process of planning the redevelopment of Rothesay Pavilion, and with some time to spare, I decided to play the tourist.
It was a morning meeting, so I had stayed the night before in Rothesay, at the Glendale, a comfortable, modestly-priced and, architecturally, wonderfully eccentric guest house, where, for breakfast, I partook of brioche with creamy scrambled eggs and smoked salmon. Smashing.
Having arrived at around 8.00 on a pleasant and dry evening, I had gone for a walk along the front. Now, the front at Rothesay should be celebrated as one of Scotland’s small glories. An unbroken walkway stretching for miles, from north of Port Bannatyne right through Rothesay to its southernmost tip, it has, to the seaward, the unmatchable view across to the Cowal Peninsula and the hills of south-east Argyll and, to the landward, a long line of the most delightfully diverse vernacular architecture, with many of the larger villas having fine gardens to their front. And in the centre of Rothesay there are the glories of the Winter Gardens (their fabric sadly looking rather the worse for wear) and their flowerbeds, and, of course, the finest Gents’ lavatories in the country (I can’t speak for the Ladies). Rather like at Nairn Beach, I don’t imagine that walking the front at Rothesay is a pastime of which one would tire quickly.
My meeting was over by lunchtime, so I bought a picnic and drove down to Kilchattan Bay, which I had last visited when I was eleven years old, and I had spent an idyllic week with my mother on a farm holiday there. It’s still idyllic, especially as the weather was positively Mediterranean, and it has a quiet peace that, oddly, reminded me of South Ronaldsay at Scotland’s other extremity. Then on to the picturesque ruins of St Blane’s Church, up the west coast to Ettrick Bay, and across to Rhubodach and the ferry back to the mainland, and the long drive north.
Now, here’s where the paradox comes in. At each place I stopped I was just able to squeeze my little Peugeot into the last parking space—at Kilchattan bay, and at the roadside bays for the hillfort at Dunagoil, and St Blane’s Church. And at all of these locations the special quality of the experience would have been marred if there had been many more visitors—especially a large coach party. At a different scale, something of the same is true at Bute’s largest visitor attraction, Mount Stuart (subject of an earlier blog): it’s in the nature of the house that visitors have to be guided round in small groups, and in high season the numbers going round could probably only be increased by extending the opening hours, the extra income from which might be outweighed by cost.
Yet, in the middle of August, my very pleasant and well situated guest house still had vacancies. On the other hand, those who organise events on the island tell me that Bute doesn’t have enough bed spaces to meet existing demand at times like the Jazz Festival, never mind an increased demand that might be occasioned by new events at a refurbished Pavilion. And nor is the existing accommodation of the type that would attract back to a rebuilt Pavilion the large conferences—especially party political conferences—which the building used to host in its heyday. This is in part due, I’m told, to the number of hotels which, in recent years, have been turned into flats or left derelict.
So, if Bute is going to increase its prosperity, it would seem that it can only do so by increasing the number of visitors, even in high season, and consequently providing more and different accommodation. Yet this risks killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. As I found in my short trip, Bute offers the visitor an exceptional range of experiences in a small compass, but those experiences are very different from those of the days of going ‘doon the watter’: they favour the independent traveller, not organised mass tourism. I think I’m rather falling for Bute, and not just its landscape: its folk are cheerful and welcoming, but also energetic and enterprising. The island has tremendous potential: we all need to ensure that in trying to realise that potential, we don’t mar rather than make better.
© Robert Livingston
I give you two great houses. Both were designed and built in the 1880s and 90s. Both are the expression of one man’s extraordinary vision. Both embody a rich and complex symbolic plan, displayed through a combination of the richest materials and the highest quality of craftsmanship. Both combine an acute historicist awareness of past architectural styles with the most modern technologies. Both houses are overwhelming works of art of a remarkable consistency and unity, and both enchant the visitor as if they had stepped into a fairytale fantasy.
But that’s where the resemblances end. One house, the Palau Guell is located in the centre of the tourist magnet that is Barcelona, and is world famous as the first mature work of one of the most acclaimed architects of all time, Antoni Gaudi. The other, Mount Stuart is at the heart of a large country estate on the island of Bute in the Firth of Clyde. I doubt if even most of Mount Stuart’s visitors could tell you the name of its architect, the atrociously under-celebrated Robert Rowand Anderson .
I first visited the Palau Guell as long ago as 1998, and I have vivid memories of the literally dazzling journey involved in moving from the subterranean entrance to the astonishing forest of tiled chimneys on the roof. Shamefully, I only made it to Mount Stuart for the first time last week, though my excuse is that all my previous visits to Bute had been out of season!
I knew, of course, all about Mount Stuart, and the passionate personal vision of the 3rd Marquis of Bute which found expression not only here but also in the restoration of Falkland Palace, and in Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch in Wales. And I also happened to know something of the work of Rowand Anderson, because many years ago I helped to mount an exhibition on the Victorian architecture of St Andrews, where one of his earlier works is the confusingly named St Andrew’s Church .
But none of that prior knowledge prepared me for the immersive sensual and intellectual experience that is Mount Stuart. I suppose, naively, I had expected something that would be entertaining in a rather kitsch way, like a less excessive version of Mad Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein. Well, if you were a passionate advocate of Modernism’s rejection of ornament, that might be your reaction, as it would be hard to imagine an interior with more decoration. But, as the late Kenny Everett would say, it is all done ‘in the best possible taste’ . The nearest comparison I’ve seen in Scotland is Patrick Allan Fraser’s eccentric masterpiece, Hospitalfield, near Arbroath, but that wonderful building had not yet escaped from a mid-Victorian aesthetic, and so, to contemporary eyes, it does lean to the kitsch end of the spectrum.
Just as Gaudi’s Palau Guell is an early expression of what would become the international style of Art Nouveau, so Mount Stuart, for all the dazzling richness of its materials, is infused with the new aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Its nearest comparator would be Norman Shaw’s Cragside in Northumberland, built about the same time and, like Mount Stuart, blending a melange of historical styles with innovative technology. That means that both Cragside and Mount Stuart, despite the immense grandeur of their public spaces, still feel like comfortable homes. All the guest bedrooms at Mount Stuart, for example, have en suite bathrooms.
I described both Palau Guell and Mount Stuart as being the results of one man’s vision, but it would be truer to say that they were the outcomes of a fruitful relationship between architect and patron, save that in Mount Stuart the direction of the relationship was reversed, with Rowand Anderson striving to realise the intensely spiritual concepts of John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquis of Bute, who was so passionate a convert to Catholicism that he chose to be painted and photographed dressed as a monk .
Nonetheless, you couldn’t mistake Mount Stuart for the work of any other architect. Which leads me to wonder why we don’t celebrate Rowand Anderson more enthusiastically. First of all, he was responsible for some of the most prominent buildings in Glasgow and Edinburgh—Central Station Hotel and Govan’s Pearce Institute in Glasgow, and in Edinburgh the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the McEwan Hall, and the Mansefield Traquair Centre. He was also responsible for a huge amount of sensitive historical restoration, at Jedburgh and Paisley Abbeys, Dunblane Cathedral, and Balmoral Castle (the last earning him a knighthood).
Perhaps the problem is that we have little or no opportunity to see his work as a totality. Once you consider all the above buildings, a strong, even idiosyncratic personal style emerges that, for me, makes him possibly Scotland’s most interesting and individual architect between Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. And there, of course, in mentioning the ‘Mackintosh’ word I’ve found the explanation for his neglect. It’s as if we only have room in our concept of national identity for ‘one of each’. So Burns is our national bard, and overshadows not only his own exceptional contemporary, Robert Fergusson, but also a host of predecessors and successors. Sir Walter Scott eclipses James Hogg, whose psychologically insightful writings are much more relevant to our modern interests. Even today the understandable fame of John Bellany in painting, Ian Rankin in crimewriting, or James MacMillan in music, leaves too many of their equally gifted contemporaries in the shade.
Perhaps this is inevitable in ‘small’ countries. I imagine Norwegians are equally tired of having their culture identified only through Ibsen and Grieg, as the Finns are probably sick of Sibelius and the Kalevala. But it’s an aspect of the ‘cultural cringe’ that I don’t think gets discussed enough. And it has real impacts. Mount Stuart is, to use a crude term, a world class visitor attraction, and it should be as well known as Gaudi’s masterpieces, and if Rowand Anderson is hardly, in the totality of his work, Gaudi’s equal, he still deserves to be far better known than he is. That sort of fame translates directly into visitor numbers and visitor spend. Yet time after time, from our national tourism agency, to the popular vote for the images on new bank notes (Burns and Nessie), we choose the easy option, and fail to present the true richness and variety of Scottish culture, which of course makes it too easy for sceptics and hostile commentators to deny that such richness exists.
So, do yourself a favour, if you’ve not yet been to Mount Stuart, go soon, go this summer, you won’t regret it. And I haven’t even mentioned the superb gardens, the stunning new Visitor Centre, or the ambitious programme of annual artists’ residencies. Let alone all the other delights of Bute. And all just a short trip from Glasgow.