When people in the West of Scotland hear mention of Rothesay they remember sea side holidays of their childhood or reminisce about relatives who once made the annual pilgrimage doon the watter every July for the Glesga Fer. To these people, Rothesay represented more than a place to holiday. It was a release from the grime and squalor of Scotland’s once industrialised central belt, however, the town’s heritage as a tourist resort goes much further back and it is with this legacy that Walk Rothesay tour guide Alec Mack has taken an increasing interest of recent times.
‘The innovation of steam power over the course of the 19th C. first manifested itself in the industrial sphere of urban Britain’s mills and factories, however, it was not long before this new technology was being harnessed for more recreational purposes’ he explains. ‘The latter half of the century witnessed the appearance of passenger ships and railways enabling the more wealthy of the population to travel the length of the country in a matter of hours where once it would have taken days. Far from being the working class proto-majorca of recent memory, these early visitors were extremely affluent and this is reflected in the grand architecture we still see around us today’.
This period saw the construction of many of the buildings and villas that form the modern townscape and, grand and imposing as they are, it is only by inspecting the finer details that the story of the town starts to emerge. For instance, the preponderance of ironwork adorning much of the architecture is the influence of Rothesay’s iron man Thomas Russell. Having been made a partner in Glasgow’s famous Saracen Foundry by his wealthy father, Russell was keen to exploit his home town as a shop window for his wares. The Iron toppings on the French Baroque roof of the Victoria Hotel are a good example of this (the Duncan’s Hall is the only other building to sport such a roof).
There are also fine instances of architecture from other periods too. The town’s castle is unusual for being round and, dating from circa 1200 AD, it is one of the oldest castles to be found anywhere. The town’s Mansion House built towards the end of the 17th C. isn’t quite so old, but its harled walls and crow stepped gables give a good indication of what the burgh houses of Medieval Rothesay would have once looked like, nevertheless, it is not always the oldest features that are the most charming, as Mr. Mack explains.
‘Lack of investment in recent times may have been a negative thing on the whole, but that’s not to say that there haven’t been any positive consequences. For instance, the pre-WWI mosaic shop entrance of Calum’s Cabin or the Art Deco Vitrolite and chrome splendour of the For Bute shop may well have been replaced with modern materials had the tourism boom years continued longer than they did.’
‘Golfers Bar is a case in point.’ he continues. ‘Whilst other bars have ripped out their interiors in the second half of the 20th C for Formica or imitation timbers, the fact that they have chosen to retain the original Edwardian interiors has ensured that Rothesay can boast an outstanding piece of pub history comparable with Glasgow’s famous Horse Shoe’.
Important as architecture is to the Walk Rothesay attraction, due attention is also paid to other aspects of the town’s culture such as the role played during the Highland Clearances in providing a first port of call for many refugees attracted by the promise of work at one of the town’s many cotton mills or on the herring boats sailing out of Rothesay Bay. In Medieval times it was also a royal residence of the Stewart Monarchs and, given Bute’s important strategic position at the mouth of the Clyde, has been involved in just about every conflict in Scottish History.
These subjects and many more are covered in the hour and a half long walk. It is not necessary to book, simply turn up outside the Discovery Centre at 3PM on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday and Mr. Mack shall be only to happy to be your guide. There are no steps or steep gradients to negotiate ensuring that the walk is suitable for people with mobility issues. At £5.50 per person, for such a personal and informative service, this attraction represents outstanding value for money and is a must for anyone wanting to learn more about the fascinating history of Scotland’s Madeira.