Follow the West Island Way on Bute to discover the best of Scotland’s diverse landscapes, from rugged highlands to undulating lowlands
Words by Fiona Russell, photography by Paul Simon and Phil Kirkham
Loch Fad is a beautiful stretch of inland water on the island of Bute, off the west coast of the Scottish mainland. The loch lies along the striking geological line of the Highland Boundary Fault, and is also located in one of the island’s three glaciated valleys. For walkers, it marks the midway point of the West Island Way, Bute’s long-distance walking route that traces an elongated figure of eight from south to north.
As I sit for a while on its banks, relishing the tranquillity and warm afternoon sun, my mind wanders down memory lane back to secondary school geography lessons. If only a trip to Bute had been part of the curriculum, then I’m sure I would have a better understanding of how Scotland’s unique landscapes were created. For, despite its diminutive size – measuring just 15 miles in length and 4 miles across – Bute boasts impressively varied scenery, shaped by many of the same geological manifestations that formed Scotland as a whole.
Most significantly, the Highland Fault Line, which dates back some 375 million years, bisects Bute from Scalpsie Bay in the south-west to the principal town of Rothesay in the east, creating a distinct highlands–lowlands divide. To the north, hard metamorphic rocks have produced rougher and more rugged scenery, although the island’s hills rise to no higher than 277m (912ft) at the summit of the perfectly named Windy Hill. In the south, the lower-lying countryside undulates gently, being composed of softer sedimentary rocks.
There is another remarkable geological feature at the southernmost point of Bute, too. Here, basalt lava outflows, created from vast volcanoes that were active on the west coast mainland around 250 to 300 million years ago, have formed a small area of miniature ridges, hills and cliffs. The much later Ice Age also left its mark on the island, resulting in U-shaped valleys that run across Bute and numerous raised coastal beaches. Over two days spent hiking the 30-mile (48km) West Island Way, I devour the landscapes like a student geologist.
The waymarked route became Scotland's first official long-distance island footpath when it was opened in 2000 by broadcaster Janet Street Porter, as president of the Ramblers. It was the brainchild of Ivor Gibbs, former treasurer of Bute Ramblers, who still smiles at the trail’s name – a clever play on words of the mainland West Highland Way. He says: ‘I thought Bute should have its own West Highland Way, so I called it the West Island Way.’ The Bute Conservation Trust has long had a major role in the upkeep and maintenance of the route. More recently, it was responsible for new signage and routing of the Way and was also instrumental in securing additional funding via the Discover Bute Landscape Partnership Scheme.
I start the walk close to the village of Kilchattan along with two companions, Jim Campbell and Eddie New of Bute Ramblers. A newly-installed oak signpost points us along a path that hugs Bute’s south-eastern edge, skirting a rocky shoreline with spectacular views across the Firth of Clyde and towards the neighbouring isles of Great and Little Cumbrae. The route continues south and rises slightly to pass beneath a large rock slab, known as Hawk’s Neb (‘hawk’s beak’). The outcrop clearly reveals the folds and layers of Old Red Sandstone that is predominant in the south. A little further on, another signpost indicates a path that detours to a low hill with sweeping coastal views, which is also the site of the medieval ruins of Kelspoke Castle.
We travel further south, around a small headland. A squat steel-built lighthouse, Rubh’an Eun, was erected here in 1911 to mark the mouth of the Clyde estuary. I make a closer inspection of the austere structure, hopping across large rocks slabs and pools of seawater.
Looking west, the northern part of the larger island of Arran is visible, with a surprising topping of snowy icing despite the warm sunshine.
Back on the West Island Way another coastal gem, Glencallum Bay, forms a perfect crescent of dark grey sand at the foot of Glen Callum and its surreal landscape of volcanic rocks. Jim points to the remains of a building, set back from the beach. He reveals: ‘That was once an inn, which I think is impressively located at the end of the glen and below an ancient hill road used by local people long ago.’ The trail turns inland just past Glencallum Bay to climb several small volcanic ridges, an undulating rocky underlay beneath a thick carpet of mossy grassland.
A pretty lochan, Loch na Leighe, which has been dammed by the ridges, hoves into view from the path. The water attracts birdlife including whooper swans, little grebes, teal ducks and herons, and otters sometimes take up residence here too. Indeed, the whole of Bute is a haven for wildlife. Basking sharks can be spotted off the island’s south coast and ospreys can be seen at Loch Fad, while there are plentiful conies (rabbits), hares, deer, foxes and feral goats.
The next stage of the way dips and rises with a beautiful irregularity among the vibrant green hues of the landscape, towards the next attraction of St Blane’s. After edging a farm and then following a drystone dyke, the views suddenly widen again with the fertile land of the south-west coast of Bute gently falling towards a mirror-still sea. In the distance is the clear outline of the Arran hills.
All at once, we reach the atmospheric site of St Blane’s Chapel resting in a verdant hollow set beside several fine, tall trees. The chapel dates to the 12th century and is associated with St Blane, a monk born on Bute who went on to found Dunblane Cathedral. Although in ruins today, you can still see the end walls and intricate carvings. Jim says: ‘I’ve heard that the men buried here occupy a more elevated position than the women. That’s the Middle Ages for you!’
We pass more evidence of old settlements at Kingaven and Branser, as the route swings north-east. Informative hanging signposts offer historical interpretation, and walkers are directed to Bute Museum to find out more. This next section is the steepest part of the southern loop but promises the reward of more panoramic views. It certainly doesn’t disappoint and as we round the hillside of Suidhe Chatain a gorgeous vista opens up over Bute and the yellow sands of Kilchattan Bay. For many walkers, the first 5-mile (8km) circular stage from Kilchattan, which finishes with a descent through pretty woodland into the village, is the perfect distance for a half-day hike, with the next section of the West Island Way to Port Bannatyne reserved for another day.
Leaving Kilchattan again, the route zigzags north towards the centre of the island. It checks in at Stranavan, a picturesque beach with sands tinged a reddish-yellow, before joining a short section of road. Walkers turn off on to a wide track, Lord James Ride, supposedly built because a young descendent of the Marquess of Bute wanted a place he could ride his horse very fast in a straight line. Lord James certainly left a scenic legacy, with some of the best island views seen from the Ride. At a viewpoint on a high bealach [pass] between two rounded hill summits, Eddie declares: ‘This is my favourite place. You can see so much of Bute, which is a perfect island in my opinion, and over to Arran and the tiny isle of Inchmarnock, as well as the long legs of the Cowal and Kintyre peninsulas. I could sit here all day.’
Alas, we have a day’s walk to finish and at a crossroads in a track we turn left on to the Moor Road before the start of a gentle descent. We pass a signpost for Mount Stuart, an eccentric neo-Gothic mansion built by the Third Marquess of Bute, which is an intriguing 1.5-mile detour from the trail. We continue past Loch Ascog, a popular fishing spot that also supplies water to Rothesay, as we approach the ‘long loch’, Loch Fad, and the Highland Fault Line.
From this point, the West Island Way crosses a Highland landscape – though on a miniature scale compared to the mainland. It is possible to drop in on Rothesay, a seaside resort that proliferated in the Victorian era, before reaching Port Bannatyne further north along the coast, which marks the end of the official second stage of the route.
Above the line
Two further stages, from Kames to Rhubodach and back to the port, complete the northern loop of the West Island Way. The official start is at Kames Bay, where we walk along a quiet road before joining The Tramway Walk, a revamped section of the route that follows a horse-drawn tramway, built in the late 1800s to take holidaymakers from Rothesay to Port Bannatyne and Ettrick Bay. The contrasting terrain and scenery compared to the previous day is remarkable as we ascend through farmland and rough moorland in picturesque Glen More, before plunging into atmospheric forest.
The northern end of the route offers several options: follow the A886 south along the north-east coastline; follow new signposted paths over hills and wilder moors; or take the Balnakeilly Loop, which adds an extra 5km, before picking up either of the other routes south. I’d recommend the Balnakeilly Loop that heads to Rubha a’ Bhodaich, passing the eerily deserted ruins of a farmstead. From the shoreline at the headland I spot a seal, its head popping up several times in the scenic waters of the Kyles of Bute.
North Bute forms part of the Kyles of Bute National Scenic Area, one of 40 in Scotland, and the higher level return route offers superb views of the narrow channel between the island and the Cowal peninsula. The terrain is rougher and the walking more challenging, with several hills to climb or contour around – but the rewards are huge. The splendid castellated mansion house of Kames Castle is a fitting final view from the West Island Way, as walkers make the last descent towards the beach at Kames. Originally the seat of the Bannatyne family, the castle is one of the oldest continuously inhabited houses in Scotland.
I finish the trail with a real sense of contentment and satisfaction, but also a new-found knowledge of Scotland’s landscapes. Perhaps Bute should be a must-visit for history students, as well as those studying geology and geography. I know I learned more on this one small island than I ever did in a school classroom.
- TIME/DISTANCE The 30-mile (48km) walk is officially split into four stages, achievable in two big days or more easily over four shorter days.
- MAPS OS Explorer 362. The Discover Bute Landscape Partnership Scheme Map is also available in local shops and at the Discovery Centre beside Rothesay Pier.
- ACCOMMODATION Numerous options across Bute, especially in Rothesay or Port Bannatyne. See visitbute.com
- FURTHER INFO: westislandway.co.uk, discoverbute.co.uk