The first family holiday I remember clearly was at Tighnabruaich when I was seven years old. The bay window of Mrs. Kirk’s guest house commanded a splendid view down the Kyles of Bute. Her dog, Kyle, was notorious for loitering with intent outside the bakers. My memories are of care free sunny days and picnics on beautiful yet empty beaches as well as a more disquieting one of nearly stepping on an adder which was basking on the road. I therefore jumped at the opportunity to renew my acquaintance with the area when a friend offered the use of their caravan a little down the coast from the village. Today South West Cowal is promoted rather sheepishly as “Argyll’s Secret Coast”, perhaps because parts of the A8003 are still single-track.
On day one I set out from the car park at Kames on the westernmost section of the Cowal Way. It was a curious experience. Although the principal walking route in the area and featured on Ordnance Survey maps, this stretch is poorly signposted and only patchily maintained. Beyond Asgog Loch, timber extraction operations have altered the landscape and the mapped route has been obliterated by a holiday cottage development with high fences, locked gates and private property signs; a recent dam on the burn draining the loch; and a new network of forestry tracks. Before long I found myself struggling through an area recently cleared of trees, up to my oxters in a tangle of brash.
Finally, I found my way onto a forest track and descended to Portavadie, where a deep water yard was developed in the 1970s for oil platform construction work which never came. Today it has been reborn as the Portavadie Marina, a monoculture of holiday apartments for the yachting fraternity. I suppose there was a desire to see something happening here, but the modern Portavadie is not a place. It is a corporate tourism development aimed at the leisured classes with their expensive boats and 4x4s. All it offers is a glitzy but soulless cosmopolitanism and the Brazilian tapas bar is justly deserted. Round the corner, the dystopian brick and concrete industrial village of Pollphail slowly crumbles back into the soil, surrounded by a ring of security fencing. There is nothing for walkers here, and certainly nothing to reflect Portavadie’s role as the start or finish of the Cowal Way. You will look in vain for any friendly pub or Katie Morag general store.
As there was nothing to tempt me to linger, it was brisk march back to the Kames Hotel for a steak pie and a beer in the sunshine. At the next table, some good ol’ boys from Ayrshire were enjoying a desultory argument about whether to retrace their steps to Port Bannatyne or sail on to Largs, as they supped their third pints of the afternoon. It felt like a return to civilisation.
On Wednesday I took the Colintraive ferry for a day in Bute, primarily to visit Mount Stuart, the astonishing Gothic palace with its extensive pleasure grounds which the third Marquis of Bute built with the proceeds from his family’s monopoly on Welsh coal.
However, it being a beautiful sunny morning, I decided to stop off in Rothesay for a coffee. Unlike Portavadie, Rothesay is a real place – with a beautiful setting on the bay, a medieval history, some excellent burgh architecture and a solid legacy from its Victorian and Edwardian heyday. Some aspects of the town are very trig. The Winter Gardens and the Castle are surrounded by immaculate lawns but the Bute Discovery Centre and the Rothesay Pavilion are badly in need of a facelift. The signage around the ferry terminal is unattractive and cluttered.
All the essentials at Bute Tools
Argyll and Bute Council is doing its bit by providing funding for the Rothesay Townscape Heritage Initiative, but the town centre needs new private sector investment. The shopping streets look down-at-heel, with most of the shops trading at the bargain basement end of retailing. It’s the all too familiar picture of charity shops, dilapidated facades, empty units and formica-clad cafes from another age. Nets, buckets and plastic footballs in gaudy colours sit hopefully outside the hardware store. It’s almost as if local businesses are still chasing the ghosts of a doon-the-water trade which began its precipitous decline in the 1960s.
Rothesay is not the only sturdy seaside town suffering from this malaise. Despite the prosperity of the Isle of Man, down-town Douglas shows similar symptoms. But it seems to me that the future of tourism and leisure on the West Coast lies in investment in traditional settlements and local products to attract new business rather than in the corporate sterility of developments like Portavadie Marina.
It has been done elsewhere. For example, the 19th Century Spanish resort of Donostia / San Sebastian, a neglected backwater under Franco, has reinvented itself as a chic centre of Basque cuisine. In Cornwall, Rick Stein’s culinary empire keeps little Padstow buzzing. Nearer to home, in Largs, the refurbished Nardini’s with its art deco façade demonstrates the enduring appeal of seaside nostalgia and glamour. On the East Coast, North Berwick points the way forward with its Festival by the Sea. Scotland’s seaside towns have a rich heritage and tremendous potential. We need to find the confidence to invest in them to create offers which meet modern expectations.