I needed an active getaway and I needed it quickly. The Isle of Bute is an island in the Firth of Clyde, less than 50 miles west of Glasgow. Quickly accessible by public transport and easy to navigate without a car, the island is a perfect spontaneous getaway from the city. And so, I set out to spend a few days hiking and wild camping on Bute by myself. This guide contains everything you need to know for your own solo trip to the Isle of Bute this summer!
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Disclaimer: Always check local travel guidelines and restrictions, especially when it comes to visiting Scottish isles and other remote areas post-Coronavirus.
Earlier this year I decided to count the number of Scottish islands I had visited and only got to 15 in total – considering that there are over 790 islands in Scotland, that was a pretty disappointing number.
There are so many islands on my Scotland bucket list, but the Isle of Bute seemed to be an easy box to tick – plus a very beautiful on top of that! I had planned to hike the West Island Way as a warm-up for my treks of the Speyside and the Hebridean Way later this summer, but couldn’t find a weekend to take off. When another trip for work got cancelled and I found myself with a week of spare time and a sunny weather forecast, I took it as a sign. I went on a spontaneous hiking trip to the Isle of Bute.
The great thing about Bute and the West Island Way is that neither requires an incredible amount of planning. Yet there are a few things to consider before heading out for an adventure, and this guide will answer all the questions you might have about visiting the Isle of Bute on a hiking holiday.
Check out my step-by-step guide for planning a walking holiday in Scotland for tips on more challenging trails.
How to get to the Isle of Bute
The easiest way to get from Glasgow to Bute is by rail and sail. Why bring your car to an island, that is so easy to navigate by foot and public transport?
From Glasgow Central Station catch the train to Wemyss Bay. It leaves once an hour and the journey takes approximately 50 minutes. In Wemyss Bay, you won’t even have to leave the train station, but simply follow the signs towards the ferry to Rothesay. Train arrivals and ferry departures are scheduled so that you won’t have to wait too long until you set sail. The ferry to the Isle of Bute takes around 40 minutes.
You can buy tickets separately, but I recommend getting a Rail & Sail ticket at Glasgow Central Station. An open return, which includes the return journey within a month of purchase, costs £20. For some reasons the open return ticket can’t be bought at the ticket machine, but only in person from a ticket desk – so make sure you plan in some extra time for that before departure. Upon boarding the ferry, simply show your train ticket, which counts as your ferry ticket – they will take that off you. Hold on to your return ticket until you need it!
There are multiple ferry crossings every day – 1-2 an hour – and you can find the complete timetable here. In order to follow my itinerary, take the 8.57 am train from Glasgow Central and the 10.05 am ferry from Wemyss Bay.
How to get around
Most of my island break on Bute I spent walking to my destination, however, I also got the bus a couple of times, to spare my feet and see different parts of the island.
While I usually use Google maps to navigate public transport in Scotland, I found it to be very unreliable when it came to bus times on Bute. So instead, I used the locally recommended travel platform Traveline. It was easy to use on my phone and always knew when the next bus would come.
Bus times are not super frequent on the Isle of Bute, so you have to plan accordingly. Morning and late afternoon are the best travel times, as that is when locals use the buses to commute. Fares are cheap – I paid about £4 from Kilchattan Bay to Ettrick Bay and around £3 from Rhubodach to Rothesay. You don’t require small change, but it’s best to carry coins and small denominations with you.et
For visitors, walking is an ideal mode of transport on Bute, since it’s only 15 miles long and 3 miles wide. The West Island Way leads from the south to the north of the island, taking in serene bays, sandy beaches, the forest in the north of Bute and the two larger towns on the island, Rothesay and Port Bannatyne.
Some of the beaches along the west coast, like St Ninian’s or Scalpsie Bay, are not serviced by buses and no walking routes lead there either. However, there are many taxi operators on Bute, and since the island is so small, you shouldn’t have any problems finding a driver, willing to take you outside the main towns.
Walking the West Island Way
The West Island Way is a 30-mile long-distance trek across the Isle of Bute. It consists of three sections which can be done in two stages or more if you fancy a less exhausting adventure.
I decided to walk stage one on my first day on Bute, and then some of stage two on the next day. While the official starting point of the trail is in the south of Bute in Kilchattan Bay, I decided to walk stage one “backwards”, from Rothesay to Kilchattan Bay and on to Glencallum Bay.
Section 1: Rothesay to Kilchattan Bay
Approx. 10 miles, 4.5 hours incl. lunch & scenery stops
I got off the ferry, walked up the High Street of Rothesay, climbed Russell Street (later Barone Street) and turned right onto a quiet single track road as I left the town behind. Luckily, this was the only section of the trail I had to share with (a few) vehicles.
I soon reached Loch Fad, a long freshwater loch, throwing at me a reflection of the mountain range on the neighbouring Isle of Arran – it almost looked like both were on the same island!
From here the West Island Way cuts across a variety of fields, circles around more lochs and leads along old farm treks. It is very easy to follow thanks for the way markers. I stopped for my lunch break at an intersection of treks, where the trail took a sharp turn to the right. However, I suggest, walking a little further to the top of a little summit: it is windier up there, keeping the midges away, there is a bench to rest on and the views are gorgeous!
The trail then turned further west, away from the centre of Bute, towards Stravanan Bay. After crossing some farmland, I reached the beach – the first of my hike – with a beautiful view over to the Isle of Arran. Again, this would have been a nice place for a rest, but I decided to push on.
The next section of the trail leads along the Bute Golf Club, but even though it was a beautiful day, there were no golfers around – good for me, as it meant I didn’t have to watch out for flying golf balls! From there it was not much further to Kilchattan Bay, a beautiful village by the sea. I asked a friendly local to fill up my water bottles for me, so I would not run out of water overnight and continued without a break towards Glencallum Bay.
Section 2: Kilchattan Bay Circuit
Approx. 5 miles, 1.5 hours to Glencallum Bay and 1 hour back to Kilchattan Bay
Walking Kilchattan Bay Circuit the “wrong” way round, means that it started with a steep ascent into the woodlands behind the village. With newly filled up water bottles (almost 4 litres) this was no easy feat and it took me a little while to get to the top. Until I reached the coastline, the West Island Way crossed mostly farmland, sometimes filled with sheep or cows, other times quiet enough for a little break in the sun.
A highlight in this section of the West Island Way is certainly St Blane’s Chapel – which I somehow managed to miss… By the time I realised, I could not be bothered backtracking my footsteps and simply continued on my walk – the scenery definitely made up for it! It made my day, when I finally got back to the coast, overlooking the cliffs in the south of Bute from high up on the trail.
After a little while, I spotted the lighthouse at Glencallum Bay below me and the trail gently descended towards the beach. I found an even spot for the night, pitched my tent and went to explore the lighthouse without my big backpack – I felt so light! I cooked dinner by the beach, just as the last sunrays of the day dipped the bay into a golden hue. I was the only person camping at the bay, and somehow I felt like it all just belonged to me!
Section 3: North Bute Circuit
Approx. 13 miles, 6 hours in total (I walked around 4 hours from Ettrick Bay to Rhubodach via Balnakailly Bay)
The next morning, I finished the Kilchattan Bay loop trail and reached the village, just as the little tea room opened its doors. I knew I had an hour to kill before the next bus would arrive and seized the chance to enjoy a cup of coffee since I hadn’t brought my own.
To continue on to section three of the West Island Way – the North Bute Circuit – take the bus from Kilchattan Bay to Rothesay and continue to walk towards Port Bannatyne.
I, however, decided to slightly stray from the trail. Instead if getting off in Rothesay, I stayed on the bus until Ettrick Bay, saving myself a few miles crossing the island. By the time I reached the bay, I was starving and sat down for early lunch at the little tea room overlooking the beach. While not necessarily vegan-friendly, cafes and tea rooms like this usually always have some dishes on the menu that are suitable for vegans. I went for a plate of baked beans on toast and potato scones to fuel up before the next stage of my walk. Note, that Ettrick Bay Tea Room only accepts cash.
After a very satisfying and filling lunch, I rejoined the West Island Way behind the tea room and continued to walk north on a bit of tarmac road. Admittedly, the next stage of the trail was not the most exciting, as it stayed on the road for quite a while, and there were hedges on both sides of it, blocking the views. Soon, however, the West Island Way continued across boggy farmland, evading protective mother cows and unfazed bulls.
By the time I reached a distinct individual tree, my legs were tired from avoiding puddles and walking on such uneven ground, and I sat down for a little break.
After crossing a couple of wooden bridges over more bog, the trail eventually led up a small hill and into a lush green forest. The trail broadened again, too broad to be in the shade of the trees, but easy enough to follow and walk on. Soon you get used to the trees around you, and you can only guess what lies behind it my looking at your map.
After some time I finally reached the crossing I had been waiting for and instead of turning right to follow the West Island Way, I continued straight onto the Balnakailly Loop trail.
If you’re set to complete the West Island Way, turn right at this fork and follow the trail until you reach Rhubodach. It is important now, that you keep following the waymarkers for the trail, rather than relying on your map – unfortunately, the map shows the West Island Way to follow the main road all the way back to Port Bannatyne, but there is a walking trail through the woodlands, which is off the road!
I recommend saving the route descriptions from Walk Highlands onto your phone. They give step-by-step instructions that are easy to follow, even if you – like me – walk the trail in the other direction.
Alternative Route: Balnakailly Loop
I decided to walk the Balnakailly Loop trail because I initially meant to set up camp for the night at the northern tip of the island. Even though this plan had changed, I still wanted to see Balnakailly Bay, as it promised quite a different kind of landscape than the rest of Bute.
Setting off from the crossing with the West Island Way, the trail leads more or less continuously downhill through the forest. After a short while, you reach a small clearing with a waymaker pointing out a small path leading back up into the forest. I almost didn’t go. By that point, my feet were aching from walking across uneven, boggy grounds for too long. But I knew I’d be in for a treat, so I hid my backpack behind a tree, grabbed my camera and my water bottle and set out to climb to the top.
A mere 10 minutes later, I reached this viewpoint:
The trail, which is marked to lead to a World War II bunker, also boasts one of the most beautiful views in the southern highlands. While the Isle of Bute is rather flat, the Cowal region just north of it has that typical Highlander appearance.
The bunker is of course also worth a visit. A few steep steps below the viewpoint, you can enter the bunker, which was used as a decoy site to fool German bombers into attacking places of insignificant military value. The fact that Bute was never bombed might suggest, that this tactic did not work, but to be honest, I’m glad the island survived the war unharmed.
Back on the main trail, I kept descending towards the coast. After a while, I came across the ruins of Balnakailly Farm, believed to have been abandoned by the 1860s. The forest now became lighter and enough sunlight came through the canopy to turn the carpet into a carpet of green with purple spots – bluebells!
Soon I emerged from the woodland and was met with a fresh breeze of sea air. I continued my walk across the farmland until I reached a dirt track, which led me all the way to the ferry port in Rhubodach. From here it would have been easy to re-join the West Island Way and finish the last section of the trail. But I was tired and my feet weary, and so I sat down by the water, watched the small ferry go back and forth between Bute and the mainland, and waited for my bus back to Rothesay.
For a detailed route description of the Balnakailly Loop trail, click here.
Alternative Route: Scalpsie Bay
Back in Rothesay, I met up with Susanne from Adventures Around Scotland, who had called Bute her home for several years. She had suggested spending the night at one of the beaches on the west coast of Bute, and because there are no bus services to that part of the island, she offered me a lift.
Scalpsie Bay is famous for its inhabitants – a large colony of seals. During low tide, the seals come out to sunbathe on the rocks along the shore, and it was destiny that we would arrive at the beach just as the tide went out.
We walked all the way to the western end of the bay, where I pitched my tent at an even and sheltered spot next to a stone wall. With my camera in one hand and a rewarding ice-cold beer in the other, I spent the next hour or so sitting next to Susanne spotting seals. Some had chosen rather poor spots – rocks that stuck out so high from the water, that there was nothing much to do than waiting for the tide to come back in.
When Susanne left, I made myself some dinner, climbed across the stone wall and found a rock to lean against to read my book. From this part of the beach, I had an unobstructed view across to the Isle of Arran, and it was there, that I watched my final sunset on the Isle of Bute.
The next morning, I packed up my stuff, headed back to the car park, where Susanne picked me up. We drove back to Rothesay where I had a quick snack at the vegetarian cafe Musicker before boarding the ferry back to the mainland.
What to pack for the West Island Way
I always refer to my trusted long-distance hiking packing list which includes everything you need for a multiple-day trek and camping in the wild. Here is an overview of some essentials:
- Sturdy hiking boots – I recommend walking in ankle-high boots due to the boggy terrain along the trail (I swear by my Zamberlan boots)
- A comfortable backpack with hip belts
- Small and light-weight tent, air mattress and sleeping bag
- A few spare clothes and enough warm clothes for the night
- Small amounts of cash for buses
- Sun lotion and hat for sunny days as there is not much shade on the trail
- A map of the island
- First aid kit and blister plasters
- Plenty of water storage for overnight camping
Wild camping on Bute
The Scottish Outdoor Access Code grants you the right to camp beyond organised campsites all over Scotland (exceptions include for example part of the shores of Loch Lomond). You can wild camp in Scotland almost anywhere you see fit, as long as you do so in small numbers, staying only 2-3 nights max. in one place, and leaving absolutely no trace behind.
Spots for wild camping on Bute are easy to come by, but it is important to keep in mind, that ideally, you should avoid camping on enclosed fields, or near farm animals and buildings. In order to leave no trace, make sure you take away all your litter (I carry a reusable drawstring bag lined with a plastic bag to carry my rubbish) and don’t cause any pollution. Only light fires if it is safe to do so and remove all traces of an open fire before you leave. If you need to relieve yourself (you know what I mean), do so in good distance to water and buildings and bury your business in a cat hole (using a foldable trowel).
I spent my first night at Glencallum Bay on the Kilchattan Bay Circuit. There is a small stream trickling down from the hills towards the sea, but since this land is used as farmland, I would not trust it for drinking. Fill up your water bottles before you leave the village to make sure you have enough.
The Bay faces south-east, which means, it’s great for a sunrise, but not so much for sunsets. The sun disappears behind the hills enclosing the bay long before night falls, so make sure you’ve got plenty of clothes with you to keep warm. The shorter way around it is about an hour to Kilchattan Bay, so you’re very close to civilisation even though you feel miles away! In Kilchattan Bay there are public toilets and a small tearoom serving refreshments.
The second night, I spent at Scalpsie Bay which faces west. This time I had the prime location for a beautiful sunset and the benefit of a stone wall sheltering my tent from the coastal breeze. There is no water supply at this end of the beach, so make sure you carry enough to get through the night. There are no public toilets or other facilities, so take the necessary precautions.
Other beautiful spots for wild camping on Bute are Ettrick Bay, the Rainbow Trail in the community forest near Rhubodach, St Ninian’s Bay by Straad and a small patch of grass near Glecknabae.
Other cool things to do on Bute
Apart from the natural beauty and hiking trails, the Isle of Bute doesn’t have an awful lot of sights to offer. However, there are a couple of things to do off the trails, which could have made for a perfect third day on Bute.
Mount Stuart House
Mount Stuart House is a majestic country house in the south of Bute. It is the seat of the Stuarts of Bute, who are descendants of King Robert the Bruce. The house was originally built in 1719, but after a fire, it was rebuilt in the Neo-Gothic style during the 19th century. It was one of the most technologically advanced houses of its time – Scottish innovation on display. It was fitted with a heated indoor swimming pool, was the first house in Scotland purpose built with electric light, it had a central heating system, was hooked up to the telephone network and even had a passenger lift!
You can visit Mount Stuart House and the surrounding 300 acres of grounds and gardens with a guided tour or independently. Learn more about the house’s history, see its beautiful architecture, and explore the woodlands that stretch between the house and the coast!
Tickets: £13 (£11 concession), Website: https://www.mountstuart.com/
The Victorian seaside town of Rothesay has seen busier days, but it is still the largest settlement on the Isle of Bute. As you come off the ferry, the first building you might notice is the large circular cast-iron structure by the esplanade. Built in the 1920s to house Bute’s Winter Gardens, it is now the Isle of Bute Discovery Centre with a cinema, theatre, and interactive displays that showcase the best of the island.
A few minutes up the High Street you can find Rothesay Castle from where the Scots used to defend Bute against the raiding Vikings. Dating back to the 13th century, it lies in ruins today, but it is nevertheless worth a visit. The castle is surrounded by a moat and has Scotland’s only circular curtain wall. The great hall has been restored and is filled with displays about the castle and its owner’s history.
Tickets: £5, Website: https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/rothesay-castle/
Finally, there is Bute Museum, dedicated to the archaeology, history, cultural heritage and natural history of the island.
Tickets: £4, Website: http://www.butemuseum.org.uk/
The Isle of Bute is a perfect island destination in Scotland, that is easy to reach and navigate, and boasts plenty of things to do. From hiking the West Island Way to wild camping on Bute’s many sandy beaches, it is easy to spend 2 days or more on the island to soak up some sun.
If you visit Scotland and only have a few days to leave the city, follow my lead off the beaten track and explore the Isle of Bute as well!
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.