The information presented herein has been adapted from part of an extensive Planning Study financed primarily by the Heritage Lottery Fund whose support for a comprehensive survey of the Isle of Bute, through its Landscape Partnership Scheme, is hereby gratefully acknowledged.

Clickable Index to Background Material



1. Solid Geology: The underlying solid geology of Bute determines the pronounced change in landform running between the north and the south of the island. This landform change is also reflected in the neighbouring land masses immediately north on the Cowal Peninsula, and across the Firth of Clyde along the north Ayrshire coastline and islands.

The Highland Boundary Fault (HBF) which occurred during the Caledonian Orogeny approximately 430 million years ago, runs southwest from Stonehaven, down to Helensburgh and out along the Firth of Clyde, divides the largely metamorphic rocks to the immediate north from the sedimentary rocks to the immediate south all along this fault line. This broad division in geology is also displayed across Bute, and is visible as a narrow 'trench' running southwest from Rothesay Bay to Scalpsie Bay. The Loch Fad valley and Loch Fad and Loch Quien waterbodies define this trench.

North of this valley the landform displays a more marked highland character with bare rounded and craggy uplands which host thin acid soils. To the south, the landform is of lower elevation, forming a dissected plateau of low rounded hills with fertile soils. Geology to the north of the HBF displays a further change in character between the larger areas of the harder Quartz-mica-schist, grit, slate and phyllite and a thick band of slate, phyllite and mica-schist, which runs parallel to the HBF. The glacial erosion of this softer rock has created a deeply eroded hollow valley between Kames and Ettrick Bay.

South of the HBF and Loch Fad valley, the predominant geology is represented by upper Devonian Old Red Sandstone. This is the same as the north Ayrshire coastline and Cumbrae. The Old Red Sandstone gives rise to fertile ground in many places and covers a triangular area between Rothesay, Kilchattan and Scalpsie. The glacial erosion of this softer rock has created the valley between Kilchattan and Stravannan Bay. To the south of this, at the southern tip of the island, there are intrusions of basalt and spilite that impose a more fractured, dramatic landscape reflecting the underlying ridges and terraces of lava.

Across the islands there are various narrow intrusive bands of basalt and dolerite rock. These generally have a northwest to southeast orientation. This reflects the overriding orientation of these igneous intrusions of the main land mass of the Argyll Peninsular, immediately to the north. Two longer intrusions are located to the west of Rothesay and are orientated west to east, which appear to be an extension of the major intrusions which run eastwards through the Central Belt. [Top/Index]

2. Drift Geology: Patterns of deposited drift geology over Bute are typical of the surrounding coastal and peninsular landscape of southwest Scotland. On Bute, the drift geology can be broadly divided between the boulder clay and moraine deposit drifts on the lower glacially eroded valleys and basins, and the raised beach and marine deposits to the west and south of the island. The broad strips of flat sandy raised beaches are quite extensive, particularly along the west coast of the island, and in the glacial hollow to the north between Kames and Ettrick Bays and the south between Kilchattan and Stravanan Bay. [Top/Index]


There are four main forces that have influenced the geomorphology of Bute:
  • vulcanism and the intrusion of igneous rocks in the southern part of the island as well as numerous intrusive dykes across other parts of the island;
  • faulting and rock movement, principally along the Highland Boundary Fault;
  • glacial erosion, the carving of deep glens and deposition of morainic material;
  • marine erosion and sea level change, giving rise to the formation of raised beach systems.


With records starting in 1800 and continuing till 1875, and predating the founding of the Royal Scottish Meteorological Society by 55 years, Bute appears to possess the oldest, accurate, continuously maintained climatic data in Scotland. The early recordings, until 1839, were made at Mount Stuart, followed by a station at Loch Fad. In this 75-year period the annual average precipitation was 48.56". For the years 1940-1970 the Met Office recorded an annual average precipitation of 55.09". The monthly averages were as follows:

Jan. 5.2"; Feb. 3.7"; Mar. 3.4"; Apr. 3.6"; May 3.1"; Jun. 3.4"; Jul. 4.4"; Aug. 4.7"; Sept. 5.6" Oct. 6.0"; Nov. 5.2"; Dec. 5.8"

The question is why was Bute so early in undertaking these recordings? The answer lies in Bute's industrial heritage. Scotland's second cotton mill was established on Bute a mere 11 years after Arkwright patented his "Spinning Jenny" in 1768. The mills were powered by water, hence the importance of accurate rainfall records, reinforced by a continuing interest in scientific matters on the part of the Marquess's of Bute. [Adapted from "The Sea Road to Bute", Roney & Jones, 1984]

More climatic data for Bute
Rainfall for Kilchattan Bay



The physical geography, soils, open aspects, access to fresh water, defensive positions, harbours, and the natural plant and tree cover of Bute will have been the most important factors in attracting early man to settle on the island. It is these same factors, which have influenced the location of and maintenance of settlement from single farmsteads to present-day farms, villages and the town of Rothesay.


1. Stone Age: Stone Age peoples following migrating herds of deer after the last Ice Age would have searched for, investigated, and used the resources of the natural environment of Bute for shelter, fuel and food. In doing so, they started the process of shaping the landscape and its resources to their own needs, and this process still continues.

Raised beaches were likely to have been prime targets for seasonal camps for the earliest visitors and inhabitants to the island as they have been for later settlement. The removal of natural woodland would have begun with the use of wood for both fuel and for building materials. Evidence for this will be hearths, pits and postholes accompanying other archaeological material such as lithic artefacts, pottery shards, other stone tools and carbonised seeds, grain and charcoal.

As the sea level decreased in relationship to the land, caves are likely to have been used for temporary shelter and habitation, but no firm evidence of their use has been identified (Marshall 1992, 4). However, the impact of Mesolithic peoples, from about 8,000 years ago on the natural environment of Bute was probably restricted to those areas closest to the coast and within easy reach of it. This is also borne out by the paucity of Mesolithic settlement presently identified on Bute: the first site was only discovered in 1986 (ibid).

Man's impact on the landscape increased during the period of the Neolithic or the New Stone Age from about 5000 years ago, through the Bronze and Iron Ages to c. 500 AD. The Neolithic period saw the establishment of permanent settlement in the form of circular wooden (or stone) buildings associated with easily cleared and cultivable land. Again, these would have been close to the shore, on the drier and more hospitable raised beaches, and by waterways, where the soil conditions were the most favourable for agriculture. The combination of tree clearance for cultivation and browsing by domesticated cattle and sheep or goats were probably the two most important factors in the removal of original woodland on the island and the opening up of its landscape. It is quite likely that later prehistoric domestic settlement was located close to the sites of earlier farmsteads, utilising the most fertile agricultural soils established since earliest times, and to local resources.

Apart from fertile land and access to woodland (for food, building timber and fuel), stone was also needed for building. Removal of suitable stone from easily accessible outcrops and cliffs, including boulders from the shore, took place for the construction of ritual and ceremonial sites close by. Stone was needed for the many Neolithic burial chambers such as Cairn Baan, the stone circle at Blackpark and the nearby standing stones, and those near Ettrick Bay. These and other similar monuments are often situated in prominent places with good views from them, or on flatter areas of land where the views towards the monument were important. These sites are still today considered important landmarks. [Top/Index]

2. Bronze Age: Some monuments such as Bronze Age cists are often found within or adjacent to fertile agricultural land. Many of these underground, stone-built graves may have had small earth or stone mounds constructed over the top of them. With the passage of time and that of ploughs, these mounds have often been removed. These remains indicate not only the presence of Bronze Age farmers and craftsmen in the landscape but they also hint, along with the tombs and cairns of the Neolithic period, that land ownership, the division of the landscape and the demarcation of it was important and began thousands of years ago. We have no way of knowing how old some of the present landscape divisions and trackways actually are, but some modern farm or other boundaries may have prehistoric origins. During the Bronze Age there is a movement away from the predominantly peripheral situation of Neolithic sites to one where the interior of the island was being explored, inhabited and pened out. [Top/Index]

3. Iron Age: Changes in society have often brought about changes in the landscape and this can be demonstrated during prehistory. Stress within the Iron Age population, caused by internal or external factors, or both, led to the construction of a number of forts or defensive duns along the raised beaches of the west coast of the island. Often rocky outcrops or cliff sites were artificially enhanced by stone walls, revetments and were partly protected by occasional ditches and used for temporary places of refuge, as warning towers more so than for permanent habitation. Such sites are typified by the forts of Dunagoil and Dunstrone. Before or during the period that the forts and duns were being constructed, crannogs (wooden roundhouses on artificial islands) were also built in the lochs (eg. Loch Quien). Although the shaping of the Bute landscape by the construction of these forts was small they remain outstanding and prominent places. The factors that influenced their use are still apparent today. The presence of crannogs also indicates that habitation was not confined only to the land, but the use of lochs and waterways was important. [Top/Index]


1. Pre-Christian: By the middle of the first millennium AD much of the landscape of Bute would have been shaped by man. The best agricultural land would already have been under the plough, pasture-land or common grazing would have been established, and woodland cover may have been of greater extent than its present day distribution.

The name 'Bute' may be derived from this period, although there are several possible interpretations. The Teutonic meaning is 'pillage, prey or spoil' which may reflect the island's frequent colonisation or attack. Conversely, in Old British the words 'Ey Budh' and in Gaelic 'Ey Bhoid' mean 'Island of Corn/Food' which could reflect the relative productivity of the island's lowland soils. [Top/Index]

2. Early Christian: Into an already tamed, inhabited and utilised landscape came Christian monks in the sixth century AD and established a chapel and monastery at St Blane's in the southern part of the island. What is interesting about this site is that it was built on or adjacent to an earlier, possibly domestic settlement, which was presumably Iron Age in date. This was also the case with the siting of the chapel of St. Ninian on the west coast of the island besides St. Ninian's Bay, which was built on an earlier pagan cemetery (Marshall 1992, 37). The reuse, or change of use, of established sites indicate that the most favoured sites were already taken and that incoming peoples and ideas had to adapt or superimpose themselves on the prevailing landscape pattern.

The distribution of the early historic chapels (see accompanying maps) was largely coastal, which perhaps reflected the distribution of the bigger farms of the time and the larger centres of population, as well as access from the sea and the dominance of coastal travel. Again this distribution of settlement and buildings was one that had early origins.

The construction of a chapel, monastery and burial ground at St. Blane's may have led to some landscape changes: - quarrying of stonework for the buildings and walls, movement of soil to create a cemetery, perhaps even the planting of trees, and the creation of an infrastructure of trackways, and reorganisation of farms providing food for the monks. In comparison with landscape changes of earlier times, these may have been small and limited in extent.

One of other main forces that shaped the Bute landscape at this time was the arrival of Vikings towards the end of the eighth century. Not only has the evidence of their presence survived in place names such as Scalpsie Bay, Rothesay Bay and Ascog Point, highlighting the naming of prominent landscape features and safe harbours, but there is also physical evidence. A hogback gravestone of Viking date survives in the graveyard of St. Blane's with a second located at Ardnahoe farm (Marshall 1992, 38). However, the Vikings left their mark more prominently when they established Rothesay Castle as a "circular fortress built on a mound at the edge of the sea" (Marshall 1992, 42).

The construction in stone of chapels and the castle reflect the permanence of the physical presence of these buildings that have largely persisted to this day, but also the ideology behind the establishment of these buildings: power, dominance, authority and control. At the time of their construction, St. Blane's and Rothesay Castle would have been the largest buildings on the island. The power invested in them and the power that emanated from them may have exerted considerable influence on the landscape of Bute, such as in the organisation of farms, their crops and animals, and in the embryonic development of the settlement of Rothesay. These forces and their legacy in the landscape are difficult to document and research, but nonetheless have been present.

During the latter part of the early historic period Rothesay Castle became disassociated from the coast with the accumulation of land at the head of the bay. This was used for road and the construction of buildings but also allowed the development of a formalised harbour. Changes here are still taking place as further land is taken in. [Top/Index]

3. The Stuarts and Mount Stuart: The Stuart family, from which the current Marquis is descended, can be traced back to the 12th century, when Walter Fitz-Alan became 'steward' to King David 1. This office subsequently became an hereditary title and the family adopted it as a surname. In 1315, the incumbent Steward married the daughter of Robert the Bruce, a union that produced the first 'Stewart' king of Scotland. The spelling of the name was subsequently changed to 'Stuart' by Mary Queen of Scots.

During the 13th and 14th centuries, the Stewards of Bute held extensive lands on Bute, while Rothesay Castle was used as a royal residence by the Stewart kings Robert 11 and Robert 111. After the death of Robert 111, the Stewards of Bute became keepers of the castle and in 1498, King James lV granted the hereditary titles 'Captain and Keeper of Rothesay Castle' to Ninian Stewart.

Rothesay Castle subsequently underwent a programme of building by James V, but in the time of Charles 1, the Stewart's loyalty to the King led to an attack by Cromwell, resulting in the destruction of the castle's defences. The family remained on Bute, however, and by the beginning of the 18th century their fortunes were restored by the elevation of Sir James Stuart, 3rd Baronet to the Earl of Bute, Viscount Kingarth, Lord Mount Stuart and Inchmarnock. It was within the early part of the 18th century that plans were developed for 'Mount Stuart' the family residence set within an extensive designed landscape. [Top/Index]


Up to the 19th century the castle (with its various changes and additions), and the parish church, would have been the most dominant buildings in the developing town of Rothesay. From the medieval period onward, there would have been few additional prominent stone buildings; Kilmory Castle near Kilmory Chapel on the west side of the island is possibly the main exception with that of the Old Mansion House in Rothesay (residence of the Stuart family after the destruction of the Castle in 1685). [Top/Index]

Excluding the development of settlement along the coast from Port Bannatyne, Rothesay, Craigmore to Montford, the landscape of the remainder of the isle at the beginning of this period was largely unchanged from its medieval appearance, with numerous small farms and settlements distributed across the island. The main crops were oats, barley and potatoes cultivated using an infield and outfield system. Farms generally had their own small kilns for drying the grain before grinding. Examples of such kilns can still be seen beside a number of ruined homesteads such as Glendvoidean, Lenihuline and Kingaven.

Crofting was also supported by subsistence fishing using 'fish traps' set out in stones between the low and high water marks. These prevented the escape of fish, which were then collected at low tide. An example of a fish trap can be seen off the west coast near Kilmichael. There will have undoubtedly been changes in farm boundaries, and buildings will have been replaced and added to, but in general landscape terms, these changes and their impact will have been small compared to earlier periods.

During the 18th century, significant agricultural improvements took place. These were driven by the 3rd Earl of Bute as early as 1748 in a deliberate attempt to maximise the potential of the island's fertile landscape and to keep pace with improvements to farming methods taking place elsewhere in Britain. In 1780 Peter May, factor to the Earl of Bute recorded: " The south side of the island is mostly a cornfield, and has cost Lord Bute an enormous expense inclosing and dividing the lands with ditch and hedge". This is indicative of the changes to animal husbandry, arable practice, field systems, drainage and ploughing methods that took place during the 18th century. The latter enabled previously uncultivated areas to be made productive and the enclosure of rectangular fields made a significant difference to the land use patterns and character of the island. This represented a break with the patterns of earlier times, involving the discontinuation of many ancient farms and small settlements, reorganisation of fields, field drainage, the planting of hedgerows, building of drystone walls and the enclosure of common lands, creating the landscape patterns that are familiar to us today. Coinciding with these changes was the development of the Mount Stuart house and the formalisation of the estate. This included the establishment of a designed landscape and the introduction of non-native tree species, avenues, woodlands, paths and walkways, gardens, lodges and estate boundaries. These developments often disregarded monuments from earlier times; removing and ploughing away Bronze Age mounds, taking away the stones of Neolithic and Bronze Age cairns and disassociating what remained of these monuments from their 'natural' landscapes and boundaries.

During the 18th century, agricultural improvements placed emphasis on mixed arable farming with extensive cropping in the most fertile areas. However, a deliberate switch to livestock was promoted by the first Marquis following the Napoleonic Wars. Tenant farmers were assisted in making this switch by the 'Estate' through a number of measures including paying for drainage improvements, supplying grass seed and encouraging turnip cultivation. These changes took place within the field enclosure framework established earlier.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw great change with not only the agrarian revolution, but also that of the industrial revolution, including the introduction of new means of power, traction, transport and industry. Associated with these developments were the establishment in 1820 of reservoirs and six water channels (Thom's Cuts) across the central part of the island, which provided water power for cotton mills and other small factories mainly in Rothesay. The Cuts originally totaled nearly 10 miles in length and included: Big Cut, Ambrismore Cut, Scalpsie Cut, Barone Park Cut and Barone Road Cut. The cotton industry was particularly important in the early 19th century when it employed 14% of the island's population mostly within Rothesay's five mills.

At Kingarth, a tile industry was established, which possibly led to the development of the only recent settlement in the southern part of the island, that of the linear Kilchattan Bay with its jetty. A limekiln was also constructed here providing lime for farms and the construction of buildings.

The Isle of Bute also supported a significant fishing industry during the latter part of the 18th and throughout the 19th century. This operated predominantly out of Rothesay, but also Port Bannatyne and Kilchattan utilizing the stone quays still present. Stein's Port on the east side of St. Ninians Point also served a small kippering business, the remains of which can be seen in the rubble of a shed nearby. At its peak, fishing employed over 1,700 men and involved over 500 fishing boats. This industry declined slowly during the latter part of the 19th century and by 1935, there were only 52 boats still operating.

While fishing activity declined, Rothesay and the Isle of Bute's establishment as a holiday resort for Scotland's central belt, and Glasgow in particular, led to the rapid development of Rothesay. This was supported by the establishment of a railway link from Glasgow to Wemyss Bay with paddle steamer and steam ferry connections to Rothesay. Rothesay became the focus for prestigious residential, hotel and leisure developments followed by facilities for mass visitor entertainment and accommodation. In addition to Rothesay Harbour, ferry connections between Bute and the adjacent islands/coastal towns were also established. These included the following ferry routes:

  • Rhubodach to Colintraive (Cowal);
  • Kilmichael to Blair's Quay;
  • Kildavannan to Blind Man's Bay;
  • Dunagoil to Lochranza (Arran);
  • Kilchattan to connect with Glasgow to Arran & Ireland steamers;
  • Scoulag to Largs (Ayrshire);
  • Kerrycroy to Largs.

A number of small stone piers and harbours facilitated the above services. There were also some significant iron and timber piers, which no longer remain. The former Craigmore Pier and Port Bannatyne Piers were impressive structures dating from 1876 and 1856 respectively. Kilchattan Bay also had a steamer pier opened in 1880 and demolished in1976. There are also many natural rock harbours which date to prehistory, but which continued to be used for shelter and occasional moorings by small ferries, leisure and fishing boats. At Glencallum Bay, a public house was established to entertain passengers of ferries taking temporary shelter in the Bay.

The transport of visitors to Bute was serviced initially by horse drawn carriages, but in 1879, the Rothesay Tramways Company was established. It ran horse drawn trams between Rothesay and Port Bannatyne from 1882 to 1902. In 1905, the tramway, now electric powered, was extended from Port Bannatyne to Ettrick Bay on the west side of the island. The wide sandy bay was a popular destination and the tram was initially very successful. Increasing competition from the more flexible bus services eventually caused the tramway to close in 1936. The tramway route is still, however, clearly defined by its twin-hedged corridor adjacent to the road.

The maritime heritage of Bute took an intriguing turn during the Second World War when the top-secret midget submarine training base was established at Port Bannatyne using the Kyles Hydropathic Hotel as its Headquarters.

Physical reminders of the war include the enigmatic antiglider defence posts at Scalpsie Bay, anti-tank devices in the bays and the dummy town at Rhubodach. [Top/Index]


Under the control of Bute Estate, which owns the majority of the island, there were relatively few changes to the landscape during the 20th century and indeed, comparison between the Ordnance Surveys of 1856 and 2005 indicates that there has been little radical change for over 200 years. Minor changes include the localized removal of field boundaries and the occasional field boundary realignment. Most significant are the establishment of forestry in the north of the island and the expansion of woodland around Mount Stuart.

The 20th century has, however, seen some changes to agricultural practice. The historic predominance of dairying has declined, with corresponding increases in beef production. This has been influenced by the relatively high resource requirements of dairying, compared to beef. Pigs and poultry have generally declined and there have been shifts from oats to barley and from turnips to kale and cabbage. Potato production has also decreased. Traditional sheep areas in the north and south (hill land) have also decreased slightly in favour of beef. Dairying remains predominant, however, and the island retains its creamery.

Unlike many other areas in the UK, fields have not generally been enlarged and they retain the boundaries established in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, fieldhedge maintenance has declined, with the result that many hedgerows have been lost or become fragmented. The integrity of the landscape's rectilinear framework has, therefore, been reduced and several areas now appear open and featureless, despite the presence of post and wire fences along the lines of previous hedgerows. [Top/Index]


The intensity of tourist activity on Bute between circa 1860 and 1950 resulted in a significant photographic record, which captured many aspects of the island's development, social life and maritime activities. The resort town of Rothesay is the main subject and the bustling harbour, esplanade and steam ferry scenes are popular images. Circa 1880, these images capture throngs of visitors promenading and horse drawn carriages picking up along the 'front'. Busy holidays such as the Glasgow Fair show hoards of visitors and frenetic steamer activity in Rothesay Bay (over 100 steamers a day called at Rothesay at its busiest times).

Elsewhere, Victorian photographers captured popular visitor activities such as sailing, the tram ride to Ettrick Bay, beach scenes (especially at Ettrick Bay), swimming, camping and fishing.

The outstanding architecture of Bute was also a popular subject with no shortage of material on which to draw, once again Rothesay is the main focus along with Port Bannatyne and Ascog. The coastal frontages figure prominently including hotels and theatres and shops.

Historic photographs of the rural landscape are relatively few, although it forms the backcloth to many photographs of visitor activities or rural life. This perhaps reflects how much visitor activities were concentrated in Rothesay, Ettrick Bay (and Kilchattan) where access was easily achieved. In comparison, there are few historic photographs of just landscape and surprisingly few views of the scenic south-west part of the island (with Arran in the background), of the west coast generally or of the lochs along the Highland Boundary Fault. These views are now popular and well promoted within brochures, post cards and websites which cover the Isle of Bute. [Top/Index]


  • The Isle of Bute is a microcosm of Scotland's physical and social history. Its bisection by the Highland Boundary Fault creates both Highland and Lowland characteristics. The combination of sedimentary and igneous geologies produces not only topographic variety but also provides a range of raw materials for building industry and agriculture.
  • The island's natural resources and mild climate made Bute an attractive site for human occupation. Human influences, therefore, span over 5 millennia and the resultant heritage of settlement agriculture, ritual, religious and martial activities is complex and multi-layered.
  • Bute was an important religious centre and its connection to the Royalty of Scotland since medieval times has also been influential: 'Duke of Rothesay' remains the Scottish peerage title for H.R.H. Prince Charles (Heir to the UK throne). The dynastic succession of Stuarts since the 13th century, and including 7 Marquises, has resulted in careful custodianship of the island with extensive estate influence in all aspects of island life, but particularly in landuse patterns and architecture.
  • Bute's accessibility and proximity to Glasgow has encouraged its development as the Victorian holiday isle which has resulted in a remarkable assemblage of architecture in Rothesay, Ascog and Port Bannatyne, now Scotland's longest Outstanding Conservation Area.
  • This combination of influences within such a discrete area has created a cultural resource which is unique in its diversity for not just any Scottish Island, but arguably for any other portion of land of equivalent size in Scotland or indeed in the UK.

The information presented herein has been adapted from part of an extensive Planning Study financed primarily by the Heritage Lottery Fund whose support for a comprehensive survey of the Isle of Bute, through its Landscape Partnership Scheme, is hereby gratefully acknowledged.