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