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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 August 2006, 15:07 GMT 16:07 UK
Rothesay targets the muesli market
By Paula Dear
BBC News, Rothesay, Isle of Bute

Esplanade gardens, Rothesay
Bute's blooms have won prizes
Pic: BrianJollyImages

As part of a series of features studying the UK's seaside towns, the spotlight falls on Rothesay, Isle of Bute, western Scotland.

Twenty-two years ago, when my family left Rothesay, it was going through one of its lowest periods of decline.

Returning this summer it was clear something was happening again in this island town. It may not be immediately obvious to the eye, but it's definitely in the air.

In its early 20th century heyday, this classic Victorian seaside resort attracted as many as 100 paddle steamers a day in peak season, carrying mainly working-class Glaswegians.

It experienced a slump in the 1960s, familiar to many seaside towns, reaching a trough by the early 1980s. But the town, indeed the whole island, is now slowly going through something of an organic-style renaissance.

BournemouthNewcastleRhylNew BrightonWhitstableWeston-Super-MareBournemouthScarboroughRothesay

Could Rothesay really be shifting its image from one of sticks o' rock and fish suppers to hummus wraps and muesli?

Gazing through the window of the town centre's amusement arcade, it's evident the two-penny shuffle machine I spent hours playing as a child is still there, in the exact same place.

The 1940s Waverley paddle steamer, which recently enjoyed an expensive refit, is chug-whumpfing its way across the bay and the Zavaronis - family of late child star Lena - are still plying fried fish and ice cream.

Much appears to be the same on the surface, yet so much has changed. I cast around trying to remember where that shop was, the one selling nothing but hilariously-shaped Rothesay rock. Gone.

But while some buildings remain boarded up, others have been given new life. In another hopeful sign, scaffolding covers the dilapidated Esplanade Hotel - a prominent eyesore that has irritated locals for years.

Lunch at the Craigmore pier tearoom - previously a homely but rather drab affair - now involves freshly painted, white walls and a salad drizzled with raspberry dressing.

Stick of Rothesay Rock
Population: 7,228 (2001 Census); about 5,000 in the main town Rothesay
Famous resident: Lord Richard Attenborough has a home on the island
Interesting fact: The current Marquis of Bute is former Formula 1 racing driver Johnny Dumfries

Rothesay is being re-packaged for tourists, investors and incomers alike. The marketing strategists are dispensing with Rothesay toon, great for a holiday "doon the watter", and replacing it with the natural and historical asset that has long been staring them in the face - Bute, the island.

With that they are beginning to attract the more moneyed, cultured, outdoorsy families who love good food, and "empty nesters" on short breaks.

The regeneration list is long - restoration and building, new housing and a property boom, new jobs, new eateries and hotels, a new tourist centre, new ferries, plans for improved pier facilities and hopes to tap the growing marine market by attracting more yachts and small vessels.

Even the Victorian loos on the pier have been restored to their former glory.

'Maw, paw and weans'

Better signs have been designed for those heading off on walks, and a special bus shuttles tourists to the island's prime attraction, Mount Stuart.

But there's still a lot to do, as any local will admit. And the island is not awash with middle-class, "heritage trail" tourists munching on hemp seed flapjacks... the changes are more subtle.

As hotelier Sara Goss Melvin puts it, there's still room for everyone on Bute, including "maw, paw and the weans" (the archetypal Scottish working-class family).

Scalpsie Bay, Bute. Pic: Brian Jolly

"But we get good people here, interesting people," said the 35-year-old of their "boutique-style hotel", a first for the island.

She had returned to Bute from a stint living abroad and despaired of the damp nylon-sheeted accommodation to which visitors were often subjected.

It took Sara and her husband, Paul, two years to get the Boat House hotel to its current ultra-modern state.

And they're not the only ones to take on the traditional seaside B&B - another couple on the island have restored Balmory Hall, a former Salvation Army home, into a five-star lodge in keeping with its past as an opulent mansion.

[from left] Bobbie Docherty, Vicky Ogilivie, Michaela Dunn
Rothesay is "crap" for young people, say these teenagers

But what sparked this change in the islanders' outlook?

James McMillan worked for the tourist board for 27 years and now manages Bute's council-owned Pavilion, a grade A-listed 1930s Art Deco building in need of up to 4m of restoration work.

"Seaside resorts had lost their traditional role. It took us about 20-25 years to realise that our real product was the whole island, not just Rothesay," he said.

"There's a long way to go, but what we do feel has changed recently is that everyone's working together.

There would be three boats berthed at the pier and another two or three waiting to come in - folk were coming down with their big hampers
Joyce Zavaroni

"Are we going organic? There's definitely something of that."

The opening of the Marquis of Bute's gothic palace, Mount Stuart, to the public in 1995 was a catalyst that "transformed" the type of visitor the island attracted, he added.

It didn't hurt that Sir Paul McCartney's daughter, Stella, chose to marry there in 2003, attracting a bevy of stars to the island.

"The Stella wedding got great coverage, but I think it's had a longer term benefit as well," added Mr McMillan.

Lancaster farmers Tom and Valerie Whitaker have come to Bute for one day with their children, specifically to see Mount Stuart, but will also take in some beaches.

Valerie and Tom Whitaker
The Whitakers travelled from England to see Mount Stuart

"I've got this book about amazing things to see in Britain and Mount Stuart was in that - we like different things and we wanted something we could see in a day," said Tom.

Not everyone appreciates this renaissance though. One group of teenagers believes Rothesay to be "crap", with little prospect of a fulfilling career, nothing to do but hang around drinking and "nowhere to buy clothes". Two of the three said they planned to leave the island.

"Everyone judges you here, and there are CCTV cameras everywhere" said Vicky Ogilvie, 17.

And she finds the value system warped, adding: "They let junkies come over with heroin in their bags but you get fined for letting your dog foul in the street."

In search o' lodgins we did slide,
To find a place where we could hide,
There was eichty-twa o' us inside,
In a single room in Rothesay-O!

We a' lay doon to tak' oor ease,
When somebody happened for to sneeze,
And he wakened half a million fleas,
In that single room in Rothesay-O!

A dirrum a doo, a dirrum a day,
A dirrum a doo a daddy-O,
A dirrum a doo, a dirrum a day,
The day we went to Rothesay-O!

Excerpt from parody of an old country song, approx 1800

Rothesay may be making strides to change but proud memories of its past remain.

Retired midwife and life-long resident Joyce Zavaroni, 68, who joined the famous family when she married Alfredo (Lena's father's cousin), has fond memories of the late 1940s and 50s.

"There would be three boats berthed at the pier and another two or three waiting to come in. Folk were coming down with their big hampers.

"Every boardhouse and hotel was full, people would be camping, there was a lovely atmosphere.

"It all changed over a certain length of time and you didn't really notice it."

But things have been getting busier again recently, she adds, with some summer days this year looking "just like it used to be".

"I would hate to live anywhere else."

Thank you for your comments.

Lovely to read all this...I lived on Bute as a child in the forties and fifties...and it was indeed a wonderful place to be...no one ever worried about you if you were gone for the whole day...on your bike of course....dixpence to get into the palace or the regal cinema..then a 3d poke of chips afterwards when you were walking home....old metal roller skates were a fine form of transport too when not on the bike. Zavaronis had the best fish and chips also the best ice cream...double nougats were delicious...and those knickerbocker glories were to die for. At 15 years old, one hung over the juke box in the local cafe...entertainment like that was minimal.... The hula hoop competition (which I won once) at the pavilion...the prize being a trip to Millport with a friend.... I miss Bute...it was a lovely place to live...away from city life....and when going up to Glasgow a trip on the feryy was a treat...you got to go down to the engine room and see those huge pistons going...then tea and a scone in the restaurant...very posh... You never appreciate what you have till you leave it...and I will always miss Bute....
Liz Lazenby, Sidney B.C. Canada

I fell in love with the Island of Bute when I first visited on holiday in 1962 with my parents. I was 11 years old at the time. We stayed at the Glen Royal Hotel, Glenburn Road just out of the town, it was owned by a Mrs Rae, a widow and her daughter Linda. I continued to go to Rothesay each year until I was 16. I had a working holiday helping Mrs Rae in the hotel, helping in the kitchen, bedrooms and serving the food. Linda and I went off in the afternoons in her sportscar and after we finished work in the evenings and had such good fun. I used to love to look out of the picture windows which overlooked the Firth of Clyde and watch the steamers going backwards and forwards. The walk in the woods behind the hotel which went down into the town was invigorating first thing in the morning. Such lovely beaches at Kilchattan and Ettrick Bays. The yachts at Port Bannatyne and also the naval ships beyond there. I will always have very special memories of the time I spent there and the lovely people I met.
Audrey, , Stockport, England

Having just returned from a stag weekend in Rothesay, I can honestly say that I have never visited such an unfriendly, unwelcoming place in all my life. Although we were a large group of around 15 young men, which I can understand may prove intimidating to locals, we are all polite, well-behaved professionals made up mainly of doctors, teachers, surveyors, chemists, financial advisors and marketing managers. Refused service in six separate bars, asked to leave four of them after spending money (the most serious offence being spilling a drink), and attracting a crowd of local youths to the guest house looking for trouble. We were there for a good time and friendly banter, to spend money locally and I hope never to return.
Joe Madden, Glasgow, Scotland

I'm really pleased to see Bute getting some good publicity. I've been 100 times in the '80s and '90s. There is an interesting mix of posh and poor people and hidden and not-so-hidden pockets of alcohol and drug abuse.My best recollections being fab trout fishing, and hazy recollections of rave style beach parties and some very good fun people and a sweet girlfriend. If it wasn't for Ireland being in the way, Bute would be a outstanding surfing destination as well. And who could forget the Port Bannantyne Crew. Roll on gentrification!
colin, Edinburgh

My husband and I have been going to Rothesay for the last eight years we even spent our honeymoon there. The people are great and you would be hard pushed to find fresher or better food anywhere.
Allison McKenzie, Glasgow, Scotland

We went to Bute in February; it's a adventure to get there by train and boat (quite cheap too), there is enough to do for a day, we decided to stay the night in a really nice guest house and went to the local pub that night, we had a blast. It needs regeneration though, it was quite scruffy.
ian, glasgow

I've returned to visit my good friends on Bute for many years now, having once lived there for a year while on a sabbatical leave for research. The island and its people are friendly, straight-forward, and engaging. The three golf courses are distinctly varied and challenging while affording marvellous views across the island and the Clyde. The lochs, St. Blanes, the standing stones and circles, and Mt. Stuart are rewarding historical venues for sight-seeing. I always look forward to returning to the generous hospitality and friendship of this delightful island. Both the ambience and the people are memorable and hard to beat!
Jerry Crandall, Coos Bay, Oregon, USA

We went to Bute every year when I was a child in the 60s, staying at Kildavanen (sp?), a farm high up on one side of Ettrick Bay. I loved it then and now when we are back in Scotland from time to time we usually take time for a visit. It seems much smaller now and looked pretty sad a few years ago but it's definitely looking much better recently.
Peter Smith, Cary, North Carolina

I went on a family holiday to Bute in June - we stayed at one of the two excellent Landmark Trust properties at Ascog, about a mile from "the toon". Rothsay is a little mothy and down at heel in places still, but there are definite signs of improvement. Our group ranged from 22 to 73 and we all had a fantastic time. We did eat muesli mind (organic even, courtesy of Rothsay's Co-op)... Vive le restoration!
Helen , Ankara, Turkey

I'm born and bred Rothesay and although I leave and return many times it's still where I call home There isn't much to do on the island for the young and I can sympathise with the kids mentioned but it is what you make of it. Myself and my friends used to have a ball when we were younger. There are changes on the island - last time I was there two new business had opened, let's hope there are more to come.

We have just returned from our Honeymoon on Bute and we loved the place. From the moment we arrived we could feel the friendliness of the place. We stayed at Balmory in such comfort that we did not want to leave. The island itself kept us occupied with many walks, lovely places to eat that served fresh food, and amazing beaches. We read in the museum how the island had gone through a rough time over the past 25 years, but what we saw was an island that had found a new direction, whilst retaining old values. We'd have no hestitation moving there if the opportunity arose.
Simon, Nottingham, England

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