Welcome to Rothesay
Rothesay is the capital of the Island of Bute, on the Firth of Clyde just off Scotland’s Ayrshire coast. Less than two hours from Glasgow, some 40 miles to the north-east, it is easily accessible: regular ferries arrive in Rothesay from Wemyss Bay. Rothesay is a pleasant town, lying in an attractive bay sheltered by low wooded hills, on an island famed for its gentle landscapes and peaceful way of life.
Although Bute has been inhabited for millennia it is unclear as to whether the earliest settlers would have inhabited the bay in which Rothesay now lies. From reliable evidence it would appear that the town has Viking origins. From the late 8th century onwards Vikings raided and settled much of Scotland’s western seaboard. This culminated in an all out invasion of the Scottish islands by Magnus Barfod in 1098. He claimed Bute as his own and is credited with building the first castle at Rothesay. This original fort does not seem to have been overly secure: shortly after its construction it fell into Scottish hands and may well have been destroyed.
Rothesay Castle, Isle of Bute
The development of the existing castle began in the 13th century, a project instigated by Walter, High Steward of Scotland, whose ancestral home was the Island of Bute. The scale of the castle would reflect the fortunes of the family. Steward would be corrupted to Stewart (later Stuart) and would become the family name; from 1371 onwards the Stewarts would be the ruling dynasty in Scotland. It is therefore unsurprising that Rothesay castle was conceived of a grand design. A town sprang up around the castle. One other early building worth noting here is Mary’s Chapel, just beside the Victoria Cottage Hospital. It contains the exquisitely decorated tombs of Walter the Steward and his wife Alice and also a remarkable effigy of a Norman warrior. In the graveyard outside lies a niece of Napoleon’s, who married the Duke of Lancaster.
Circumstances ensured that the progress of the town and castle would be disrupted time and time again. Rothesay was besieged by Vikings in 1230 and once more in 1260 when it fell into the hands of Haakon IV of Norway. After the battle of Largs and the final expulsion of the Norse from Scotland’s western seaboard it was again in Scottish hands, until 1297 when it was taken by the English in the Wars of Independence. Eventually Robert the Bruce secured Rothesay Castle and the town for the Scots in 1311.
From this turbulent period little more survives of the fort than the great circular curtain walls, unique in the north of Britain, and the circular moat. Much of the building which still exists came into being during and after the reigns of Roberts II and III, who both considered Rothesay Castle amongst their favoured residences. Throughout the reigns of the Stewart kings it was considered the island home of the Scottish monarchy.
The castle was damaged by the attentions of Cromwell’s army in 1659 and burned by the Duke of Argyll in 1685. What more, it fell out of favour as a residence when the Earl of Bute decided to relocate to the spectacular Mount Stuart house, seven miles to the south, in the late 19th century. As a result what remains today is largely a ruin. It is worthwhile to remember also that the castle’s setting has changed dramatically since it was a residence. It once held a commanding position overlooking Rothesay’s bay until the promenade development in the 19th century reclaimed much of the bay. Now the castle lies 250 yards from the shore, in the heart of the town; nonetheless a fascinating and striking building.
The promenade development is one example of the changes which swept through Rothesay during the Victorian period. At this time Bute became an attractive holiday retreat for those living in the growing industrial cities. The advent of paddle steamers opened up the island to a great many Glaswegians who travelled ‘doun the watter’ to sample the island’s charms.