The Best Bus Ride in Britain. An Oldtime Trip From Dunoon to the Isle of Bute in a Vintage Bus
Despite constant complaints to the contrary from the inhabitants, Britain has very good, cheap and reliable Public Transport. Nowhere is this more evident than in Scotland, where there are precious few roads weaving across the wild and difficult terrain. Along these routes you will find regular buses that receive financial support from the State to subsidize the fares, and provide an excellent and cheap way for the visitor to discover the country.
The town of Dunoon has seen better days. Over a hundred years ago the merchants of Glasgow built the grand stone houses on the shore for their families to escape the foul air of the city, generated by coal, steam and horses. In more recent times Dunoon felt the benefit of the US Navy Submarine Base on the River Clyde, the GIs spending their leisure time and US dollars on taxis, restaurants and the ubiquitous Scotch Whisky. Today the Americans have left and the town gets along on the meagre income from the elderly revisiting the seaside where they had spent their childhood vacations. Nevertheless, the town's fine buildings and outstanding views across the mouth of the River Clyde and out to sea still can charm the curious traveller and provide an excellent stopover on a tour of the region.
Three times an hour there is a train from Glasgow Central Station to the harbour at Gourock, which lies south of Dunoon, just across the river. Twice an hour a ferry from here carries the passengers over the water to indulge in ice-cream, fish-and-chips, and a selection of famous malt whiskies in the pubs of Dunoon. But the seasoned explorer will see the old town not just as a day-trip destination, but as a stepping stone to the fabulous west coast of Scotland with its islands and highlands.
The bus service uses vintage vehicles from the 1950s to carry the faithful pilgrims to seek the wonders of West Scotland. Early in the morning, and twice in the afternoon these red and cream motorised beasts climb the hill out of town, above the loch that borders Dunoon and out into the forest. Soon the winding lane becomes single track driving with passing places every hundred yards or so to allow oncoming cars to drive past the bus.The way goes higher and higher before plunging down into a dark valley clad with trees and fast-flowing streams. Dramatic hairpin bends become the norm as the way winds on providing here a glimpse of highlands beyond, and there a vista of islands lying out in a loch. Farm tracks join the route where the school kids leave to hike the last two miles home in the hills.
The constant changing of gears, alarming steep descents and continuous spiral bends bring the passengers together in their shared experience and their mutual admiration for the driver manipulating his machine along the way to the Isle of Bute. The variety of sudden scenery combined with the helter-skelter drive has an exhilarating effect on all on board, and the driver sits over the wheel in studied concentration.
An hour after leaving Dunoon, the bus pulls over into the forest and sits waiting. This is a meeting place of small Scottish buses. After a few minutes, roaring around the corner comes a similar bus to ours, but from the sign on the front it's heading for another outpost on the coast where ferries go across to further islands in the region. At this spot travellers can interchange buses to make their way all across the map. The drivers greet each other like brothers, and shuffle their loads into the correct buses. Ours will motor on now more steadily into the tiny hamlet of Colintraive, little more than a small hotel and bar, and a few farm houses... and the drive-on ferry across to our destination, the Isle of Bute.
Bute has been overlooked by tourists. They believe it's necessary to travel north to the Isles of Mull or Skye to experience true Scotland. This attitude ensures that Mull and Skye are full of visitors and those catering to them, while Bute remains unspoilt by any such developments. There are castles, prehistoric standing stones, empty beaches, a glorious Historic House open to the public, and a very good bus service!
The bus from Dunoon drives onto the ferry at Colintraive and in ten minutes reaches the island. The road stretches south alongside the strait that separates Bute from the mainland for seven miles before encircling a bay full of sailing yachts bobbing at anchor. This is the village of Port Bannatyne. There's a small marina, a boatyard, a castle, the Post Office and shop which also acts as a cafe. And then there's The Russian Tavern.
From outside the tavern buses leave every half an hour for Rothesay, the main town on the island. There is also a hop-on hop-off open top tour bus that goes around the island five times a day. Slowly it takes a circular route past Kames Castle, several prehistoric Standing-Stones, through working ancient farms, and to the spectacular Ettrick Bay, then to St. Ninian's Strand and on to Scalpsie Bay. You can stop off in the south of the Isle to admire the magnificent gothic Mount Stuart House, and wander around its 300 acre grounds planted with a wide variety of exotic species. On the coast road back towards Rothesay you'll find The Ascog Hall Fernery and Gardens where an antique glasshouse protects a walk-in tropical jungle.
Rothesay is built around the ancient castle. All of the island's needs are provided for with hospital, supermarket, schools, a concert hall and cinema. There are a variety of hotels, bars and restaurants, but the key facility is the main ferry from the island. Each hour a smart new ship sails across to the harbour of Wemyss Bay, which is linked directly with Glasgow by train.
Standing in Guildford Square in Rothesay, and seeing the vintage bus pull away returning on its route over the hills to Dunoon, it is difficult to picture in the mind's eye the amazing and exciting 90 minute journey it's just started. A magical trip indeed, and not publicised or mentioned in any of the well read guide books. Perhaps I'll see you on the bus one day!