Sam Llewellyn visits the Kyles of Bute

Sailing journalist Sam Llewellyn ends his series of anecdotes from around the UK, this month reflecting on his travels to the Kyles of Bute.
20 Nov 23

Sloop rigged modern yacht with wooden teak deck sailing on a cloudy day. A view from the deck to the bow. Panoramic view of the rocky shores of Kyles of Bute from the water. Bute island, Scotland, UK

The wind is howling down the Lochranza glen and on to the anchorage, but the sky is blue as the hook clanks on to the roller. Back the genoa, sheet in and away we tear, the castle dropping rapidly astern under the spiky grey ridges of Arran. Then away northeast, broad-reaching, keeping an eye out for the black surge of a submarine.  

The waves are short and wicked off Ardlamont point. Up there to the north northwest is the long blind gut of Loch Fyne, with Tarbert on its Kintyre side and Portavadie opposite it. No Loch Fyne today, though. A red can buoy is growing out of the sea ahead, and beyond it a green and pleasant rise of hills. We are moving well. The buoy slides past, and suddenly a great blue waterway opens northward, wind-whipped but pleasantly flat: the Kyles of Bute. 

Astern, beyond Lochranza, lie the wilds of the North Channel and the Mull of Kintyre. Ahead lies another world, kinder than the ruggedness of Arran and the tides that sluice through the narrows between Britain and the shores of Ireland.

Aerial view over the harbour in the irish town of Malahide, Dublin count

Another red buoy slides by. The shores close in. The word 'kyles' derives from the Gaelic caolas, meaning 'narrows'. It is visibly a channel now – to port the steep pine plantations of the mainland, to starboard the oakwoods of Bute golden with autumn, and above them wild moorlands dotted with sheep. Keep away from the mainland shore to be out of the wind shadow. A little port helm brings the wind on to the beam, and the deck tilts underfoot as we sheet in the main and genoa. 

There are houses on the mainland shore: the village of Kames, and beyond it the huddle of Tighnabruaich, and a scatter of moorings. But the breeze is up, and there is plenty of daylight. So away we go, tearing round the big yellow buoy off the point at Rubha Dubh. A heavy, regular thumping makes itself heard. There on Tighnabruaich pier is the paddle steamer Waverley, last survivor of the throng of steamships that once took the owners of the stone villas along the shore to their offices in Greenock and Glasgow.

Panoramic view of the rocky shores of Kyles of Bute from the water. Hills and mountains in the background. Dark storm sky. Bute island, Firth of Clyde, Scotland, UK

The wind is up, and the sea roars in the chainplates as the boatyard whooshes by. In the narrows leading up to the red Rubha Ban can off its shingle spit the mainsail backs and clatters, the jib collapses and the boat springs upright. Then a puff hits, and over she goes, the wake roaring again. Up here the puffs come howling up the kyle from Tighnabruaich, or down it from Loch Riddon to the north, and all we can do is grin and bear it.

Past the little natural harbour of an Caladh a sort of calm returns. A seal watches from a bay off the easternmost of the three Burnt Isles. There is a chorus of gulls, and the yodel of curlews, and a choice of anchorages, one in the lee of an island, and two others in the bays on the north end of Bute, with an optional walk through rusty bracken and rainforest to the painted stone ladies known as the Maids of Bute. The sun goes down, and the dinner goes on, and the world is left to the murmur of the tide in the anchor chain and the hooting of the owls in the oaks on the shore.

boat travelling in rough waters

Next morning has a different feeling; civilisation is almost upon us. Sails up, preventer on, and a goosewinged drift past the Colintraive ferry and down the funnel of the East Kyle. A long grey ship is refuelling at the Loch Striven NATO jetty, and beyond the north cardinal marking the south shore, angle-grinder sparks firework in the big yard at Ardmaleish point. Down to starboard at the foot of its bay is Port Bannatyne, with a decent marina and anchorage. Beyond the bay a big ferry is trundling towards Rothesay, capital of Bute. 

Radio the harbourmaster. Down come the sails. We hang in an eddy as the ferry trundles by in a blast of diesel fumes. The stacked lights turn from red to green and send us past the pierhead to tie up at the outside pontoons. There is shopping to be done at the Coop, and on the pier exquisite public conveniences hewn from solid marble by Victorian master craftspeople. And beyond Rothesay the warm and hospitable Clyde, spread like a deep-fried banquet across the watery world.

Rothesay town on the Isle of Bute, Scotland

Discover more

For more adventures, join Sam as he recalls the sights from previous explorations in this series, travelling across the Bristol Channel, South West, West Wales, Kintyre to Ardnamurchan, North of Ardnamurchan and Humber to London.

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