Rothesay’s decline as a seaside resort is not unique, but its beauty most certainly is

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: John Peter Photography/Alamy</span>
Photograph: John Peter Photography/Alamy

The Glenburn Hotel in Rothesay, on the island of Bute, has one of the finest views in Britain; quite possibly the loveliest afforded from any of our big seaside hotels. The Grand in Scarborough, the other Grand in Brighton, the Imperial in Blackpool: from their best rooms, the view is of nothing but a stretch of promenade followed by the empty sea and the sky. But the Glenburn looks over a bay where ferries and fishing boats come and go, and yachts ride at anchor against a backdrop of hills that are cut into by the narrows known as the Kyles of Bute and by a sea loch, Loch Striven, sometimes described as “gloomy”, which has hardly more than half a dozen houses dotted along its eight-mile length. This is a complicated and contrasting geography, in which a Highland landscape, all fish farms, heather and sheep, can be viewed from a comfortable lowland town that once had three cinemas, concert parties with chorus girls and a fleet of electric trams.

From the Glenburn’s iron veranda, 107 steps lead down to the sea, through a terraced garden filled with Bute’s typical flora: New Zealand cabbage palms, foxgloves, hydrangea, rhododendron. Perhaps Mrs Craik, the Victorian three-decker novelist, sat here to write her poem, Sweet Rothesay Bay, which became a melancholy popular song, sung by home-going crowds on pleasure steamers and corseted women standing beside upright pianos. The hotel is of her era. In the 1840s, the fashion for hydropathy, the water cure, reached Britain from Germany and took a particular hold in Scotland – oddly, given the country’s easily accessible and free-of-charge wetness – which built many more hydropathic hotels than England, Wales or Ireland ever did.

The Glenburn was the first of them. Opened in 1843 and rebuilt on a bigger scale after a fire in the 1892, it is, in the words of the Pevsner-inspired Buildings of Scotland book, “an imposing, even intimidating palace set high on the hillside … in towered four-storeyed symmetry, classical in detail with arched loggias, verandas and flanked wings”. A brick chimney, tall enough for a small factory and built to serve the laundry and the steam heating, goes unmentioned.

Lack of demand ended the hotel’s cold-bath and wet-blanket therapies in the 1930s, but its superior atmosphere survived into the last decades of the last century, when Scottish trade unions still held their conferences in Rothesay’s Winter Gardens and the leaders of the mineworkers, the boilermakers and the amalgamated engineers put up at the Glenburn and drank late whiskies in the bar. It was known – and still is by older Rothesay people – as “the Hydro”. I saw it first as a child from the deck of a steamer, and by the time I reached 30 had enough confidence to sit on its veranda one late afternoon in June and ask for a Campari and soda. The bay stretched blue and unruffled towards the green hills. Only the rattle of a yacht’s anchor chain broke the quiet. I wondered – as many others have done – how such a lovely place could be so unvisited.

For 20-odd years, coach tours came to the rescue. They drove up from Lancashire and Yorkshire in most months of the year and filled the Glenburn’s bedrooms with pleasant couples, married since 1946, who went around the town in light rainwear, ate cones of Zavaroni’s ice-cream, and looked sceptically through shop windows at items advertised as antiques. Sometimes pleasure boats – smaller than the old steamers – took the bus parties on cruises up the Kyles; as late as 1999, I heard the voice of Gracie Fields (“Sallee, Sallee, pride of our allee”) float across the water from one of them. They weren’t sad, these people from the defunct mill towns, but there hung about them and the tours they took – Rothesay one night, the Trossachs the next – a sense of things ending. As, during Covid, things did.

A Malaysian family bought the hotel from Shearings, the coach company, in 2016 but hung on to the old trade despite plans to turn the Glenburn into a spa – returning it halfway to its origins, hot water rather than cold, by building a pool, steam rooms, saunas and beauticians’ quarters in the woods behind it. Then Shearings went bust, the coaches stopped, and the bedroom curtains were drawn against the view across the bay.

None of this is new: as a holiday resort, Rothesay has been in retreat since the late 1950s; as an administrative capital since 1975, when Buteshire was abolished as a county. The island’s population has halved from a postwar peak of around 12,000. The court, Woolworth’s and the local newspaper closed in this century. Two fishmongers have become one. Three out of four banks have gone. The last greengrocer is up for sale. Only two of the dozen Presbyterian churches that had congregations in 1960 still hold services. Of the Kyles Hydro, said to have been even more splendid than the Glenburn, only the gateposts remain. The Royal Hotel in the middle of town is a gaunt shell held up by scaffolding.

Seaside resorts on the British mainland contain similar facts, of course, but the loveliness of Bute makes its abandonment more striking. The putting green, the pretty wooden shelters on the prom, the benches all along the front dedicated by their relatives to the dead who “always loved this view … this island … this spot” (and in this way mark a double absence – both of the deceased and of the living for whom the bench and shelter were intended): all lie empty, save for a family of putters laughing at each other’s efforts. Over the railings, rusty now owing to lack of paint, the tide goes out to reveal artificial inlets in the rock and long lines of stones stretching into the sea, marking tidal swimming pools and boating stations that are now archaeological and need interpretation.

The visitors who might be here are instead crushing into Skye, defecating in Highland ditches, and hammering in camper vans and Porsches up the so-called Route 66, the road around the north of Scotland, which has been successfully marketed as a destination and a challenge. The attraction of solitariness, part of the Highlands’ appeal since the 18th century, is being destroyed by its own popularity: wiser travellers from the south should turn left earlier, towards the little resorts created in the 19th century and vacated in the 20th.

Will anyone buy the Glenburn? One evening last week I went to the hotel and at the top of the garden staircase looked out across the bay at a modern superyacht, the Elandess, which had been anchored there for several days. The Elandess is owned by Lloyd Dorfman, the British founder of Travelex, the world’s largest dealer in foreign exchange, with personal wealth estimated at $1.2bn. By the end of the week, the rumour had run around town. The yacht was awaiting Dorfman, who was coming to look over the Glenburn with a view to buying it. People smiled when they told the story; it was such good news. But it turned out to be invented. Someone who worked on the pier, tired of being asked about the yacht’s long stay, had made it up.

This week, as has happened before in Bute, the money weighed anchor and sailed away.

  • Ian Jack is a Guardian columnist

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