The best laid schemes o' mice and menRobert Burns To a Mouse
gang aft agley
Rounding Ardlamont Point, Para Handy's 'Cape Horn of the Clyde', the steamer wallowed a little in a freshening swell as it headed for Tarbet, the last stop for the day. Several hundred day trippers were aboard, enjoying a jaunt doon the watter for the Glasgow Fair. An accordion band played in the smoky lounge bar, barely heard above raucous laughter from the drunken mass who had lodged themselves there since the Broomielaw. Women in cloche hats and twill coats promenaded with brylcreemed men on the decks, drinking in the brisk watery air and views of hill and sea, so different to Glasgow's soot and grime. The engines throbbed constantly underfoot, their giant pistons watched from an inspection gallery by fascinated boys. A short stop at Tarbet - this was a particularly long day trip - and the steamer pulled away again from the pier, the weans throwing chips at circling seagulls. They would remember this trip for years. Those who stopped off at one of the resorts for a week's holiday, guddling for trout in the burns, playing cowboys and indians in the woods and eating icecream along the promenade, were to understand that paradise was just a short boat ride from Glasgow.
Beyond the last shipyard the Clyde enters its attractive Firth, a hilly coast dotted with former resorts. You are still close to the city, but the Highlands are within touching distance to the north and west, sea lochs biting in on all sides. This is excellent sailing country, with peninsulas, islands, hills, beaches, and little ports in abundance, sheltered from the worst North Atlantic rollers by the protective arm of Kintyre. It is such good sailing country in fact - with deep sheltered water, private roadless lochsides, but still close to a large local labour pool - that the UK bases its nuclear submarine fleet on the Clyde at Faslane and Coulport. (As did the US Navy during the Cold War, in the nearby Holy Loch.) It is a rare luxury to live in a major conurbation (2 million people inhabit the area immediately around Glasgow) yet be close to such natural beauty, and in the days before cheap jet travel to the Mediterranean and Florida, these Clyde towns were holiday resorts for the people of Glasgow, arriving 'doon the watter' by train and paddle steamer - one of which, the Waverley, still plies her trade. Today, despite the city's proximity, this coast is a relative backwater, with few tourists. The days of ships anchored all over the Tail o' the Bank are gone. The towns wear the faded glamour of other British Victorian seaside resorts. Rothesay. Largs. Millport. Dunoon. Glasgow has reinvented itself, but the Firth slumbers on. Yet its attractions remain for those who seek them out, and the superlative yachting waters accommodate beautiful islands such as mountainous Arran, compact Cumbrae, and historic Bute.
The first sight of Bute is an unconventional one - the splendidly ornate Victorian toilets on the pier at Rothesay. Rothesay is mixture of the faded and exotic, with winter gardens, an art deco pavilion, palm trees on the promenade, the hills of Argyll close at hand, a castle that would not look out of place as a Templar stronghold somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean - and Mountstuart, the stupendously ornate mansion of the Marquises of Bute who made their fortune in Welsh coal mines. But venture forth and Bute gives a different, pleasantly pastoral impression, with a choice of attractive sandy bays. And at Bute's southern extremity the bucolic atmosphere changes. There is a feeling of age and sanctity surrounding the chapel of St Blane, a popular 6th century figure from the saint factories in Ireland. The rock strata bursts through the soil, bent back at the same angle as the windblown coastal trees, with open views across the rocks and water to the hills of Arran. You can imagine visitors to St Blane putting in at the little bay beneath the prehistoric fort Dunagoil. Or perhaps not just pilgrims, but a Viking longship.
For in 1098, this coast became a formalised frontier between the lands of the King of Norway (who held suzerainty over Kintyre and the islands) and the King of Scots. To hold their own frontiers, the Scots introduced Norman knights, which is how in 1136 the Breton FitzAlan family came to be granted the lands of Renfrew. They consolidated their position by defeating Somerled, Lord of the Isles, when he attacked Renfrew in 1164. The FitzAlans provocatively built Rothesay Castle on the island of Bute, and it was attacked and captured by the Norse in 1230. However the days of Norwegian power on the west coast were numbered, their last hurrah being the Battle of Largs.
This pastoral part of Lowland Scotland, facing across the Firth of Clyde to the Highlands, is a land of heroes. Wallace and Bruce came from here. Supermodel Kirsty Hume hails from Ayrshire. Football manager Billy Shankly too (aspiring football managers may fancy sampling the local water, as the area around Ayrshire and Glasgow raised not just Shankly but Matt Busby, Jock Stein, and Alex Ferguson). And the most famous of them all, Robert Burns.
Inland, Ayrshire becomes bleaker and more rugged, with moorland and old mine workings in the east surrounding forgotten mining towns like Muirkirk and Dalmellington. To the south the primaeval, unfrequented Carrick Hills rise above huddled villages like Straiton. On the coast, the road becomes squeezed again between the sea and encroaching hills, and the countryside looks increasingly similar to the glens and coasts of nearby Northern Ireland. Offshore, the abrupt, improbable pebble of Ailsa Craig humps out the sea, halfway between Belfast and Glasgow. And dramatically sited on its low seacliff, the National Trust for Scotland's most visited attraction, Culzean Castle.