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The Isle of Bute's West Island Way - two days

The Isle of Bute's West Island Way - two days

Postby adtaylor » Wed Aug 26, 2020 4:15 pm

Route description: West Island Way

Date walked: 18/08/2020

Time taken: 2 days

Distance: 48 km

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The northern woodland of Bute

When the great antiquarian Thomas Pennant first visited the Isle of Bute in the summer of 1772, he was struck by its quiet charm amidst the dramatic Firth of Clyde:

… the isle of Bute, with its fertile shores, lies oblique, and the stupendous mountains of Arran, soar at some distance, far, far above.

Bute remains a place of harmonious contrasts. The wooded wilderness of the north rolls down into the gentle farmland of the central region, before finally giving way into the rugged coastline of the south.

The West Island Way, inaugurated as part of Bute’s millennium celebrations, is a 30-mile route that endeavours to introduce the walker to the varied terrain and natural beauty of the whole island. The Way is divided into three stages but is easily walkable over two full days, giving the walker ample opportunity to experience the many charms of this fascinating island.

Breath-taking views from the WWII decoy bunker

Getting there

The Isle of Bute is easily reachable from the Scottish central belt. A 50-minute train journey (1 hour by car) from Glasgow Central will take the traveller directly to the port of Wemyss Bay. A regular 35-minute CalMac ferry operates between Wemyss Bay and Rothesay, the main town of Bute.

Alternatively, a 5-minute ferry journey from Colintraive on the Cowal Peninsula will take one to Rhubodach at the far north end of the island, a 20-minute drive from Rothesay.

Port Bannatyne and Rothesay

Where to stay

Although the West Island Way bypasses Rothesay, the port town is the obvious base for just about anything on Bute. There are several different accommodation options for all budgets, including hotels, B&Bs and a backpackers’ hostel. Rothesay also has a range of eating and drinking establishments, as well as two Co-op Food shops, a Post Office and a couple of pharmacies.

Limited accommodation options can also be found in the village of Port Bannatyne (two miles north of Rothesay) and in Kingarth (six miles south of Rothesay).

The Isle of Bute Discovery Centre is situated next to the main pier and holds the VisitScotland information point, which is a good place to ask for practical information – although it should be noted that as of August 2020, they no longer stocked the West Island Way guidebook.

Kames Castle

Day One – the North Bute Circuit

Total distance – 13 miles for the circular walk + 5 miles to and from Rothesay

It was an optimistically sunny morning when I walked out of Rothesay along the main road in the direction of Port Bannatyne. Rothesay is a town of rustic seaside charm and my progression along the sea road was punctuated by many friendly ‘hellos’. I reached the small village of Port Bannatyne, which more than lived up to its name by the great congregation of fishing boats sitting merrily in the bay! This was the official start (or end, depending on one’s direction) of the West Island Way.

The first official stage of the Way is a large circuit through the northern part of the island. The start of the walk took me westwards across the island, following the line of the A-road. I passed the picturesque Kames Castle and, later, the abandoned church of St Colmac. The path actually took me along the former tramline that would have once taken holiday-makers to the sands at Ettrick Bay.

After a couple of miles, the route turned right and followed a farm track into the north of the island. The landscape swiftly grew wilder and more rugged, although the track was still lined with plenty of trees and some beautiful flowers – including some wonderfully bright ligularias! The farm track turned into a narrow path and continued on through some slightly boggy moorland. The ascent was quite steep here, and I could feel the late morning sun somewhat intently. Before long, however, I reached the large area of woodland at the very north end of Bute, complete with firmer ground and cooler air.

The walk through the woodland was pleasant, and just as I was thinking about lunch, I came across a very handy wildlife observation point – perfect! Not long afterwards, I had the choice to extend the walk to include the Balnakailly Loop. I would highly recommend doing so, as the Loop took me through some enchanting woodland to see the ruins of an ancient farmstead, as well as a breath-taking viewpoint at a decoy World War II bunker. I carried on along the northernmost shore and ended up at the Rhubodach Ferry, the smaller of the two ferries that bring people to and from the Isle of Bute.

I walked south along the road for about a mile before turning inland and continuing under a woodland canopy until re-joining the ‘official’ West Island Way path (i.e. where I would have been had I not done the Balnakailly Loop). Carrying on, I emerged from the woodland and walked over a beautiful heather-strewn moor that offered some amazing views across the island and further afield in all directions. The ground was quite soggy here, despite the afternoon sun, although this is only to be expected given the wet weather that Scotland has recently endured.

As I began to descend from the moor, Port Bannatyne and Rothesay slowly came into sight. I was directed down the east side of the hills and then turned south again, seeing the windswept heather giving way to verdant farmland as I went. I joined another farm track and soon ended up on the sea road north of Port Bannatyne. This was the end of the first official stage of the West Island Way. However, as I was based in Rothesay, it made sense to carry on along the Way as far as I could, to give myself an easier journey on the second day.

I retraced my steps along the westward road near Kames Castle for about a hundred metres and turned left along a woodland path. This took me behind Port Bannatyne through trees and fields for a couple of miles before ending up on a small road. I followed the road, ignoring the West Island Way signpost, until I ended up right in Rothesay town centre.

The first day was an excellent walk with some wonderful scenery, although with the extra miles between Rothesay and Port Bannatyne it was the best part of 20 miles in total. A word of warning – north of Port Bannatyne there are no shops or cafés of any sort (not even at the ferry terminal), so make sure to bring appropriate food, water and other supplies for a full day’s trek.

St Blane's Chapel

Day Two – Rothesay to Kilchattan Bay and the Kilchattan Bay Circular

Total distance – 9 miles from Rothesay to Kilchattan Bay + 5 miles for the Kilchattan Bay Circular

The second official stage of the West Island Way goes from Port Bannatyne down to Kilchattan Bay in the south of the island. However, as I had already walked the section between Port Bannatyne and Rothesay on the first day, my walk was made that bit shorter on the second day.

I retraced my steps through the town centre early in the morning to reach the spurned West Island Way signpost. It was a wet morning and the long grass in the fields left my boots and trousers soaked! No matter, I soon dried off as I rounded the western outskirts of Rothesay and spanned the peaceful waters of Loch Fad. I crossed the B-road and carried on along a path that took me south past Loch Ascog and up onto the central moors.

The moors of central Bute have a certain poetic wilderness to them; strewn with gorse and heather and offering striking views out across the bay to Inchmarnock and Arran. I walked along a path known as Lord James’ Ride, named after a historical member of the Crichton-Stuart family from nearby Mount Stuart (N.B. Mount Stuart is a fascinating architectural gem that is well worth a visit).

I descended from the moors towards Stravanan Bay, circling around a farm before reaching the shoreside Bute golf club. The route crossed the golf course and swept eastward across the island, passing two short detours to see the standing stones at Largiezean and Blackpark respectively. The path ran along some woodland before ending at the small village of Kilchattan Bay on Bute’s southeast coast.

The third and final section of the West Island Way is a 5-mile circular walk out of the village, talking the walker through some of Bute’s most spectacular scenery. The route begins with a strenuous climb up into the hills, and then a rewarding walk down to the ruins of St Blane’s Chapel. St Blane was a sixth-century monk and bishop whose monastery was on the same site as the current chapel. The ruins are a very peaceful and prayerful place, and I understand that ecumenical church services are still held here on a semi-occasional basis.

The route from St Blane’s Chapel takes one right down to the dramatic southern shore of Bute, and then along a coastal path around Glencallum Bay. I passed a small lighthouse as I carried on along the path to the north, watching the rain clouds loom ominously. Just as it started to pour down, I reached the southern edge of Kilchattan Bay village! This marked the end of the walk, and indeed the end of the West Island Way. It was a wonderful two-day walk with some exceptional scenery and I would highly recommend the Way to anyone who wishes to see some of the varied beauty of the Isle of Bute.

Heather-strewn moors


The West Island Way covers much of the varied terrain of Bute, including some moderately steep ascents and descents. However, there was nothing particularly demanding, and any reasonably fit walker should be able to complete the Way over two days with ease. A very fit walker would no doubt be able to complete the full walk in a single day, albeit a long and tiring one!

Outside of Rothesay and Port Bannatyne, facilities are limited. Bring everything that you need with you on both days, especially on the northern circuit.

I was able to base myself in Rothesay and complete the full walk without transport – however, I had a friend in Rothesay who very kindly picked me up from Kilchattan Bay to drive me the seven miles back to town. If you are based in Rothesay and don’t want to walk back along the road, there are public transport options available. The nearby Kingarth Hotel is a very amiable place to await the bus!
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