Bute

We've had several trips visiting Bute in recent years:- sometimes just Bute and sometimes combined with visits to Arran, Inchmarnock and other odd places on the way. It offers the advantages of some water sheltered from the open sea, and a shorter drive than many of our haunts further north. There are a number of places we've used to put in (and a possibility we've not tried) and the choice at least partly depends on how much you've picked this area for a short drive, and how keen you are to avoid crossings. Largs (as a put-in) offers a shorter drive, but a paddle across the shipping lane of the lower Clyde (and back). Wemysss Bay is a similar drive, but a thirty minute ferry trip to Rothesay - used for access to Kames bay or Kilchattan (or across the island to Ettrick bay). Colintraive is harder to reach by car, but drops you straight into the Kyles of Bute or a very short and frequent ferry onto the island, which is useful for shorter weekends and/or poorer weather forecasts. If things go wrong and the weather turns foul, it is a lot easier to get to the Kyles of Bute ferry and fetch a car across to escape than to get to Rothesay, ferry to Wemyss Bay and organise a retrieval from there. Not that any of our trips have needed either of those options, but one should always plan for escapes. Toward, whilst also avoiding the Clyde crossings, offers hardly any shorter drive than Colintraive and would be much harder to get back to for an escape. The advantage of Toward might be on odd days when tide times work from there when they don't work from Colintraive.

Waiting out the wind near the Bute ferry. Photo: Andy Waddington
Looking across to Colintraive from Bute - on this occasion we were waiting for the wind to ease off a bit. Photo: Andy Waddington

At 60 km from a launch at Colintraive or Toward (and a bit more than that starting from Largs), the full circumnavigation is perfectly possible in a non-bank-holiday weekend if the tides work for you, but don't expect to be off the water and home in time for tea ! You need to be coming up one of the Kyles with the flood, and heading down the other with the ebb which won't often work for a nice "nine to five" day. However, as the five trip reports linked below (one more coming shortly) show, there are plenty of options for shorter trips in a weekend, or longer ones if more time is available. Round Bute itself, the southern tip and most of the western side is away from roads (and more exposed) and on the east side, which is most populated, the other side of the Kyle has only a very minor road. A point to note is that the Pilot warns of weather from Loch Striven, which is steep-sided and has a reputation for generating severe squalls which sweep down and out into the Kyle. One of our groups can certainly vouch for this, although the effect was more of heavy rain than gusty winds. The eastern Kyle can also canalise southeasterly (or northwesterly) winds and if you are faced with wind-against tide here (or both wind and tide against you) it may be worth sitting it out for a few hours as one group had to do after struggling very hard to cross Balnakailly Bay. Similar considerations would also apply to the west Kyle in a SW (or NE) wind.

Sitting out a cloudburst which had swept down Loch Striven. Photo: Clive Hall
Sitting out a cloudburst which had swept down Loch Striven. Photo: Clive Hall

As well as tides in the Clyde, which (if based on Largs) you are crossing at right-angles, there are quite strong tides in the Kyles of Bute, so for a circumnavigation, you'll need to plan to head up to the north of the island on the flood and head back down the other side on the ebb. As noted below, the meeting point of tidal flow up each of the Kyles is not always at the same point which can complicate things. Away from the northernmost part of the island, tidal streams are not a major concern.

Using the put-in at Largs Marina, there's the usual eating places of a decent-sized town, plenty of space to leave cars, a chandlers for last minute bits of gear and a slightly awkward concrete slipway to launch from, but not the quietest place in the world to camp, since though there is no traffic at night, it is almost next to the railway at NS 2095 5747.

If visiting Inchmarnock, or heading clockwise round Bute, it's best to head straight across from Largs to Great Cumbrae Island before heading down Fairlie Roads, keeping well clear of traffic servicing the big Power Station and Iron Ore terminal at Hunterston. Although traffic for Greenock and Glasgow sticks to the wider main channel, and some traffic will come to Hunterston from the south, the deepest channel, needed for the biggest ore-carriers, comes round the north side of Great Cumbrae and down Fairlie Roads. Aside from huge ships, this bit of water can be very busy with yachts, especially if you happen to pick "Fairlie weekend" with a vast selection of 1930's to 50's yachts circumnavigating the island. But even a "normal" weekend can be busy with boats from the Water Sports Training Centre on the island so keep a good lookout and aim to stay in a fairly tight group.

at a bit over 171000 tonnes, these guys can't stop on a dime...
At a bit over 171000 tons, the world's 5th largest cruise ship can't stop on a dime even at the relaxed speed she's sailing down the Clyde. Photo: Andy Waddington.

It's easy to remember that not all these sailors are experts when you cross in a gusty Southwesterly and see the centre RIB scudding about checking if capsized boats need help, so don't rely on them being able to avoid you ! It's also in exactly conditions like these with waves to catch and surf that kayaks tend to get spread out... though you will typically be surfing on the crossing back from the southern tip of Bute, rather than on the way out.

The south of Great Cumbrae has a resort atmosphere, but it is probably too early in your trip to stop for an ice cream in Millport. Instead cut through "The Tan" between Great and Little Cumbrae islands and take a good look round for bigger shipping (and indeed submarines, which tend to be on the surface or at periscope depth). The tide can move quite quickly in the Clyde, especially on the ebb if swollen by run-off from the rivers, and if an ebb tide is opposed by a SW wind, with our route heading diagonally across the waves towards the southern tip of Bute, this water can become quite challenging. The crossing is a little over 3 km and if you've found it a tad stressful or wet, there's a nice little bay just behind Rubh'an Eun. Glencallum Bay at NS 112 526 is a good spot for second breakfast and is usually OK for driftwood if you need a fire to warm up. As we saw when passing in 2018, however, it is very exposed to the south, where there is a lot of fetch for the wind to create sizeable waves.

Glencallum Bay - warming up after a slight mishap. Photo: Andy Waddington
Glencallum Bay - warming up after a slight mishap. Photo: Andy Waddington

If you were choosing to go round Bute the other way (maybe preferring to find slightly more sheltered water for crossing the Clyde) then head up the coast from Largs marina, past the town, and up to somewhere around Meigle before heading across to Toward Point. The crossing here is a little over 5 km but as the estuary is wider, tides don't run so fast. Again, there can be big shipping to watch out for, mainly keeping mid-channel (always aim to cross the channel as quickly as possible, at right angles), but the deepest draught ships use the Skelmorlie channel which is a lot nearer the east shore. If you can see a ship coming and have binoculars, you may be able to see if it flying pennant "1" to indicate that it is using the main Clyde channel or pennant "2" for the Skelmorlie. Here, also, you're very likely to see the ferry from Wemyss Bay heading back and forth to Rothesay on a diagonal to your route, and this passes quite close to Toward Point which is also often where the sea is choppiest.

Although Bute is hemmed in and sheltered from the Irish Sea by the Kintyre Peninsula and the large island of Arran, it is more open to the south, and if the wind has a lot of south in it, there's enough fetch in the Firth of Clyde to keep you on your toes, not only on the crossings, but also on the Bute side of the Sound of Bute, until you reach more sheltered water around Inchmarnock. The crossing from Garroch Head to visit Arran is therefore best kept for calm conditions, since at a little over 10 km, it is going to take getting on for two hours. It does, however, get you to a nice roadless stretch of coast and the return can be varied by crossing to Kintyre and then up into Loch Fyne for a more sheltered route back to Bute. Loch Fyne offers more sheltered paddling if you are in this area and find that Bute itself is looking like a more serious objective than you want to tackle. It's not really an alternative if you drove to Largs, but is not so much out of your way if based at Colintraive. Otter Ferry makes a good starting point.

Camping:

Being a populated island, a certain amount of care and consideration is needed in choosing a place for the night, unlike some of the wilder places SOC may visit. Looking back over the trip reports, for trips to and around Bute, camping spots seem to have been picked avoiding the island itself almost every time ! The two-day circumnavigation in 2016 camped close to Garroch Head on the southern tip of the island (and did not have a wonderful night, kept awake by wind and snoring bulls) with one member paddling back a bit and finding a nicer site slightly up the SW coast. One member on a circumnavigation also camped at Bruchag Point (just north from Kilchattan bay) which had a rocky landing, but was sheltered from the strong SSW wind at the time (see photo of the cruise ship, above). Glencallum Bay at NS 111 527 which we've used for lunch might be an option sheltered from weather with not too much south in it, but in a strong southerly it is very exposed. Other nights have been spent on Inchmarnock (a very good place with lots of interest, used on at least four trips, thrice at the northern end, and once at the southern), an old boatyard at the bottom of Loch Striven (picked rather urgently in failing daylight after spending part of the day waiting for the wind to ease off) and just back from Ardlamont Point at the southern tip of the mainland Cowal peninsula. A night on Arran was part of a somewhat longer trip only briefly visiting Bute. However, there have been plenty of lunch and tea stops which would have been in perfectly good places to camp - perhaps only the narrow eastern Kyle of Bute from Colintraive down to the mouth of Loch Striven, and a section of coast occupied by the built-up area around Rothesay really offer nowhere to pitch a tent or three, though keeping out of sight of farms and houses is definitely harder on the east side.


The ASKT campsite on North Bute - midges at Mayday. Photo: Andy Waddington

The Argyll Sea Kayak Trail has designated a number of camping spots, one of which is at the north end of Bute at NS 0140 7471, with a shelter, fire pit and composting toilet. This is within an SSSI, so no felling is allowed, but Bute Forest aim to maintain a firewood supply for visitors. When we visited on Mayday weekend in 2018, there was, in fact no dry firewood, no composting stuff for the toilet and no way without superhuman finger-strength of closing the toilet door from inside. Despite being early in the season, the proximity to woods and a stream meant the midges were already out. One felt that both the campsite design and the maintenance were a bit below par. Another is at Toward Quay, landing on the north side of the slipway at NS 1106 6778. If the clubhouse is open, Toward Sailing Club provide Toilets and Showers. We've not used Toward, and no-one else was visiting when we used North Bute, so we're not sure how "high usage" they are, but it would be fair to suggest that this section of the trail is more likely to attract less experienced and wilderness-orientated paddlers than, for example, the exposed sections of the trail on the west coast with their fast and complex tides and limited escape options. The Toward Sailing Club is also accessible by road (and could be used as a put-in/take-out - it has a parking area specifically for Sea Kayak Trail users).

Camping on the east side of Ardlamont Point, looking across to Bute. Photo: Clive Hall
Camping on the east side of Ardlamont Point, looking across to Bute. Photo: Clive Hall

Resources:

  • Bute and surroundings are within the Clyde coastguard area, 01475 729988. Marine safety information is broadcast on marine VHF radio every four hours (inshore waters forecast) from 02:20, with the main bulletins (including the full shipping forecast) at 08:20 and 20:20. Listen on channel 16 for an announcement to say which channel to hear the full broadcast (which channel depends on the best line-of-sight transmitter).
  • The inshore waters forecast area is Mull of Galloway to Mull of Kintyre.
  • XTide for Greenock predictions as far as you like, including the facility to print an annual tide calendar.
  • North Bute (pdf) guidebook page from the Argyll Sea Kayak Trail
  • Maps:
    OS Landranger 1:50000 sheets 62 "North Kintyre & Tarbert" and 63 "Firth of Clyde"
    OS Explorer 1:25000 sheets 362 "Cowal West and Isle of Bute", and maybe 363 "Cowal East"
    1:50000 BGS Geological sheets 29W "Kilfinan" and 29E "Dunoon and Milport"

Previous trips:

Tides:

There are quite fast tidal streams in the Kyles, especially around the Burnt Isles (though you are likely to be here near slack water on a circumnavigation), so good planning is needed to avoid fighting nature, as well as being organised enough to be on and off the water when you intended. This is made more difficult by the tide, which floods up both Kyles to meet in the vicinity of the Burnt Isles being affected by weather such that one stream may run earlier or with more power than the other, moving the meeting place - often further east (presumably with a SW wind). If the meeting point is to the east, then the flood tide at the Burnt Isles will also be flowing eastwards, but if you are coming up the west Kyle on the flood heading for Colintraive, it is possible that tidal assistance will peter out early, and you may need to wait for slack or the start of the ebb to make the last mile. Equally, if you camped at the north end of Bute expecting to catch the ebb down the east Kyle, you may find the ebb building against you if you are late off, especially passing the Burnt Isles, which could entail a significant delay. Best to be on the water at the end of the flood - if you are lucky it may be with you, but if it is against you it will soon turn. The local tidal port is Greenock, which has a distinctly asymmetric tidal curve, taking just over 7 hours to rise and 5 hours to fall. Some sources therefore give LW times relative to Greenock Low water (rather than everything relative to HW). Simple logic suggests that if ebb streams run for less time, they will be stronger than the flood (especially if there is also a lot of river flow from the Clyde), though this is not always apparent in information from the Pilots. Our experience certainly points at the ebb tide between Bute and Little Cumbrae being faster than indicated, though there had indeed been some wet weather. In short, be in plenty of time for tides not to be quite as you'd expected.

Location flood stream ebb stream local high water ref.
Largs Yacht Haven     Greenock -0:05 Imray p 35
Clyde channel E of Toward Point N-going sets Greenock +6:05 c 1 kt. spr. S-going sets Greenock HW -0:20 c 1 kt. spr.   NP66 3.266
Rothesay Bay tidal flow imperceptible Greenock -0:19 (LW at LW Greenock -0:04) ASKT 7 North Bute
East Kyle NW-going sets a little before LW Greenock, SE-going just before HW Greenock, both increasing from almost nothing at Rothesay to maybe 2 kt. at the Bute ferry   NP66 4.201
Rubha A'Bhodaich / Colintraive     Greenock -0:18 (LW at LW Greenock -0:07) ASKT 7 North Bute
Burnt Isles, S passage unpredictable, up to 3 kt. unpredictable, up to 3 kt.   NP66 4.201
Burnt Isles, N passage unpredictable, up to 5 kt. unpredictable, up to 5 kt.   ASKT 7 North Bute
Tighnabruaich     Greenock +0:03 (LW at LW Greenock -0:14) ASKT 7 North Bute
West Kyle N-going sets a little before LW Greenock, 1 kt at the S end increasing to 2 kt at Rubha Ban S-going sets about HW Greenock, 1 kt at the S end increasing to 2 kt at Rubha Ban   NP66 4.201
Between Inchmarnock and Garroch Head up to 1½ kt. springs up to 1½ kt. springs   NP66 4.103
Garroch Head Overfalls form off the point where the ebb streams meet, usually calmer close inshore
Clyde channel at Little Cumbrae N-going sets Greenock LW -0:35 c 1 kt. spr. S-going sets Greenock HW -0:35 c 1 kt. spr.   NP66
  Ingoing stream weaker and shorter, outgoing correspondingly stronger and longer, if there has been a lot of rain
The Tan or Cumbrae Pass E-going sets Greenock LW -0:35 c 1½ kt. spr. W-going sets Greenock HW -0:35 c 1½ kt. spr.   NP66 3.307
  Slack water is very brief, and the flow rates can be higher close to the salient points
Millport     Greenock -0:15 Imray p 35

For extended trips, tides well SW of Bute, across to Arran, in Kilbrannan Sound and outer Loch Fyne generally turn a few minutes before Greenock and are rarely over half a knot at springs. An exception may be Skipness Point (the landing point on Kintyre if you have visited Arran) where the rate may be a knot or so (your transit suddenly seems a lot harder to maintain, just in the last two or three hundred metres approaching the point).

References / Bibliography:

NP66
Admiralty Sailing Directions, West Coast of Scotland Pilot, NP66, 13th edition, 1998
Imray
The Yachtsman's Pilot: Clyde to Colonsay, 2nd Edition, 2001, Martin Lawrence, Imray Laurie Norie & Wilson Ltd., ISBN 0 85288 506 7
ASKT 7 North Bute
Argyll Sea Kayak Trail, guidebook pages, sheet 07, North Bute (see Resources, above, for link)

There are almost certainly more recent editions of the Pilots, and a similar guide from Clyde Cruising Club will have tidal information, too.

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