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Rothesay

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

This edition is copyright © The Editors of the Gazetteer for Scotland, 2002-2016.

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Rothesay (perhaps from Gaelic Reogh-siudh, ` King's seat'), a post and market town, sea-port, and royal burgh, is the chief town of Buteshire, and stands at the head of Rothesay Bay, on the E side of the island of Bute, 9 miles WNW of Largs, 11 NW of Millport, 22 NNE of Brodick, 19 SSW of Greenock, and 40 W by N of Glasgow. The situation of the town is both beautiful and sheltered. The bay enters between Ardbeg Point on the W and Bogany Point on the E, which lie 15/8 mile apart; and from the middle of a straight line joining these two points, it stretches inland for about a mile. Its shape resembles what mathematicians call a semi-ellipsoid. All round it is screened by a gentle and varying slope, rising in the E to Ardencraig (433 feet) and in the SW to Barone Hill (530); while from the town and harbour there stretches on either side, round the entire circuit of the bay, a curving line of elegant villas, picturesquely set with their gardens and shrubberies against a background of trees or slopingground, and only interrupted on the W side of the bay, where Skeoch Wood borders the road for some distance. At some parts, though beyond Rothesay proper, this line of houses is doubled; and within the limits of the burgh the steep slope in the SE of the town is occupied by houses that rise above each other in terraces. As the old song has it- ` The great black hills. like sleepin' kings, Sit grand roun' Rothesay Bay; ' and the views commanded from points upon its shores are singularly fine. The stretch of water outward from the bay has been described by ` Delta ' as ` fairer than that of which Naples makes her boast.' The coast of Cowal, immediately opposite, is adorned with the mansion and pleasure-grounds of Castle-Toward, and is overhung in the distance by lofty mountain masses, stretching away to the rugged peaks of the Duke of Argyll's Bowling-Green; to the NE are seen the pleasant hills of Renfrewshire; and northward one looks into the stern Highland recess of Loch Striven. `Sweet Rothesay Bay ' itself is beautiful. In any weather and under any circumstances it would attract the eye, but it looks its best under a bright summer sun, with its blue waters dotted with skiffs and white-sailed yachts, and ploughed by the keels of gaily-crowded steamers.

The town, as seen from the bay, is picturesque, the villas especially adding to the ornamental appearance. The commercial and business parts of the burgh are chiefly congregated at the head of the bay, immediately behind the harbour and quay, or along the line of the High Street, which, contrary to the usual precedent, does not extend along the shore, but directly inland. An open space between the inner harbour and the coast end of High Street is known as Guildford Square. Thence towards the W bay runs Victoria Street, and to the E bay Albert Place and East Princes Street; while the bulk of the best of the town lies to the W of High Street and S of Victoria Street. The buildings in Guildford Square and in the principal streets are fairly handsome; but the less important streets are remarkable neither for fine building nor for breadth of roadway. The cleanliness of the streets is, however, commendable; and considerable improvements have lately been effected in relieving the more closely built parts of the town. About œ30, 000 has been spent within about 40 years in these improvements; and Russell Street, formerly the Old Vennel, bears the name of one of the most active promoters of the scheme, Mr Thomas Russell of Ascog. The outskirts are open and cheerful; and the villas and houses there are both neat and comfortable. The houses are built for the most part of greenstone, which lacks the lightness and polish of sandstone; but their regularity and tidiness compensate this failing. To the N of the harbour a space of rough foreshore of about 4 acres was, in 186970, at a cost of œ5000, converted into a broad esplanade, laid out with ornamental gardens and gravel walks of from 50 to 15 feet in breadth. An octagonal band-stand in the centre, with iron columns and a dome, measures 18 feet in diameter, and 30 high; and was presented to the town in 1873 by Mr Russell of Ascog. Esplanades have also been constructed along the shore on both sides of the bay. There is a public park in High Street, leased from the Marquess of Bute. It makes no attempt to be ornamental. Athletic sports are annually held in it; and the Highland Games Committee have erected a grand stand at a cost of œ300. From Guildford Square to Kamesburgh or Port Bannatyne, 2½ miles to the NNW, a tramway line, with frequent cars, was opened in 1882.

The chief modern public edifice is the County Buildings, occupying a conspicuous site with its chief front to Castle Street. This ornamental erection is in the castellated style, and contains accommodation for the town and county officials, a court-room, and a prison- the last, however, closed in 1883. The court-room contains a fine portrait of the late Marquess of Bute, painted by Graham Gilbert, and presented by public subscription to the corporation. The edifice was originally built in 1832 at a cost of œ4000; was enlarged in 1865-67; and now represents a total cost of about œ12, 000. The new Public Halls form a handsome pile fronting Princes Pier, and were built in 1879 by ex-Provost C. Duncan at a cost of œ20, 000. The largest hall can seat 1350 persons, and there are various small chambers and committee rooms. Other halls in the town are the Victoria Hall in Store Lane, with accommodation for 500; the Music Hall in Watergate Street, which can hold 400; the West End Hall in Bridge Street, and the Good Templars' Hall in Bridgend Street, each capable of containing 300. On the summit of Chapelhill-so called from its having been the site of a chapel of St Bride, the last remains of which fell in 1860-is a castellated building containing the museum of the Archæological and Physical Society, opened in 1873. The building was erected by the corporation originally as refreshment rooms. The Royal Aquarium, erected in 1875-76 on the site of the former battery at the E end of the town, is the property of a joint-stock company, and cost œ15, 000, the site being presented by the Marquess of Bute. Designed by Mr J. R. Thomson of Rothesay, the building consists of two one-story wings, stretching from a low dome-covered tower, the whole having a ' rustic ' base, and the entrance being by a broad flight of steps. The frontage is 102 feet, and the height 22 feet. It contains a promenade hall measuring 45 by 48 feet, a main corridor 90 by 15 feet, various side rooms, a camera obscura, and a seal-house. The tanks are chiefly in the corridor; and the rock-work about them is supposed to represent the geology of Bute. Half a mile S of the town is the Robertson Stewart college hospital, built in 1873 for œ1500 by Mr R. Stewart, a native of Bute, and merchant in Glasgow, and enlarged subsequently by his sons. Other public buildings are the churches and schools noted below. Rothesay has several fountains, viz., the Albert Memorial erected by public subscription in East Princes Street in 1863; the Ballard Fountain on the Esplanade, presented by Mr Ballard of Brighton; the Ewing Fountain in Guildford Square, erected by bequest of Mrs Catherine Ewing in 1862; and the Thomson Memorial (1867), at the junction of Ardbeg Road and Marine Place. In July 1884 a statue was unveiled on the Esplanade to the late Mr A. B. Stewart, convener of the county, and merchant in Glasgow, who has conferred many benefits on the neighbourhood. The old parish church, in High Street, is a plain building erected in 1796, and contains 955 sittings. New Rothesay church, at the W side of the bay, was originally erected in 1800 as a chapel of ease at a cost of œ1300, and contains 830 sittings. It now is a handsome Gothic edifice, with a fine spire. The Established Gaelic church is a chapel of ease, erected for about œ600. The Free parish or East Free church and the West Free church are both elegant buildings with conspicuous spires. The Free Gaelic church is on Chapelhill. The U.P. church, at Bridgend, was built about 1840, and contains 647 sittings. A new iron church for the Craigmore U.P. congregation was erected in Crichton Road in 1884. St Paul's Episcopal church, in Victoria Street, has 434 sittings, the Baptist chapel (1855) in Ardbeg Road 400, and St Andrew's Roman Catholic church (1866) in Columshill Street 200. The burgh is well provided with schools. The Rothesay Academy and Thomson Institute occupies a fine Gothic pile with an ornamental tower, designed by Mr J. R. Thomson. It was erected in 1869, and partly endowed by the trustees of the late Mr Duncan Thomson, as a first-class secondary school. Originally the property of the East and West Free churches, it was handed over in 1873 to the burgh school board. It is conducted by a head classical master, and has an English and a mathematical master, besides assistants. The public, former parochial, school in High Street is a handsome building erected by the school board, and having accommodation for 769 boys and girls. Bute Industrial school gives elementary education and industrial training to 120 boys and girls from all parts of Bute; it is managed by a committee of ladies and gentlemen. Bellevue, in Barone Road, in 1882 was converted by Lady Bute into a Roman Catholic orphanage for 16 girls, under the charge of the Sisters, ` Servants of the Sacred Heart. ' There are also private adventure schools.

Rothesay h as a head post office with the usual departments, offices of the Clydesdale Bank, Royal Bank, Bank of Scotland, and National Security Savings' Bank, and offices or agencies of 28 insurance companies. The chief hotels are the Bute Arms, Victoria, Queen's, Lorne, Eagle, and Argyle Arms, besides 7 temperance houses. Glenburn Hydropathic Establishment, occupying a lofty site on the E side of the bay, was the first institution of the kind in Scotland, having been opened in 1843 by the late W. Paterson, Esq., M.D., who had studied the water-treatment at Gräfenberg in Silesia, under Priessnitz, the father of hydropathy. It contains provision for the accommodation and amusement of 130 persons, together with a very complete system of baths. The salt-water Swimming Baths, built in 1882 at a cost of œ1500, and presented to the town by Mr A. B. Stewart, are situated on the shore, immediately opposite the aquarium. On the opposite side of the bay, in front of Skeoch Wood, are the ladies' and gentlemen's bathing places erected by the burgh. They have dressing-rooms, with attendants, and are screened from view by stone walls. Among the miscellaneous institutions of Rothesay are the horticultural, farmers', and archæological societies, and the Working Men's Club. The Royal Northern Yacht Club has its club-house at Rothesay, built in 1877 adjacent to the Queen's Hotel; and the Royal Rothesay Aquatic Club has its club-house at Skeoch Wood. Both clubs hold annual regattas. There are also bowling-greens in the burgh, and tennis courts at Craigmore. Rothesay has three weekly newspapers-the Liberal Buteman (1854) and the Independent Rothesay Chronicle (1863) and Rothesay Express (1877), the first two published on Saturday, the last on Wednesday; and The Visitors' List is published every Friday during the four summer months.

Rothesay is by no means an industrial town. The manufacture of linen was introduced into it about 1750, but it did not flourish. A cotton factory-claimed to be the first in Scotland-was started here in 1779 by an English company; passed later into the possession of the celebrated David Dale; and at one time employed 800 hands. For three-quarters of a century the industry flourished, and it came to employ 4 mills, with 1000 looms and 50,000 spindles; but gradually it began to decline, and at present only one mill is working, the only other existing having stopped in 1880 or 1881. Tanning similarly has lost its importance in the burgh, only one tannery existing where formerly there were three. Boatbuilding, once carried on in two yards, is now extinct, though for 30 years the industry was maintained in a yard with a patent slip belonging to the burgh. Its trade and commerce is equally insignificant. In early times it enjoyed a considerable shipping trade, but about 1700 it was superseded by the growth of Campbeltown. About 1765, when act of parliament made it compulsory that all colonial produce intended for Ireland should first be landed in Great Britain, Rothesay was made a custom-house station for the purposes of the Irish colonial trade. But the first thing to bring prosperity to the burgh was the development of the herring fishery, encouraged by a Government bounty which had for its real object the obtaining of naval reserve recruits. Rothesay became a centre of the west coast herring fishery and of the curing industry, and quite a brisk trade sprang up, employing vessels of considerable size. In 1855 the fishery in the district employed 557 boats of an aggregate tonnage of 2590, 1654 fisher men and boys, and 1102 other persons indirectly; produced 5074 barrels of cured herrings, besides those sold uncured; and the value of the boats, nets, and lines employed was œ18,842. But as it began to be more profitable to have the larger curing stations nearer the great fishing centres, the industry began to decline in Bute, and now has quite left Rothesay.

In 1822 an excellent harbour was made at a cost of œ600; in 1840 a slip and building dock were added; and in 1863 a large extension of the harbour was made at a cost of œ3800. It now consists of two basins-an outer and an inner-with substantially built walls, and protected on the seaward side by a commodious quay, 650 feet long by 80 broad. The quay and harbour walls together cost œ25, 000. In July 1884 a very handsome suite of waiting-rooms and offices, surrounded with a verandah, was opened at a total cost of nearly œ2000. But about £200 is received in the shape of rent annually. The quay is one of the busiest on the Clyde. Nineteen separate passenger steamers touch at Rothesay daily during summer, some of them several times a day; and on the arrival of the large tourist steamers the quay presents a very gay and bustling appearance during ` the season.' Only some ten small vessels of from 36 tons downwards belong to the port; these, with others registered elsewhere, are engaged mainly in importing coals, slates, and building materials and in exporting turnips, potatoes, and farm produce. The steamers perform most of the other carrying trade connected with the place. For the year ending in September 1883 the harbour revenue was œ2397, of which œ1994 were paid as dues by the steamboats alone. The expenditure was œ1530. The harbour trust is vested in the magistrates and town council and 4 representatives of the shipowners.

Rothesay depends for its prosperity almost entirely upon its character as a watering place and as a centre for visiting the places of interest on the Clyde. The neighbouring seaside resorts of Craigmore, Port-Bannatyne, etc., attract many hundreds of summer visitors, and these draw most of their supplies from Rothesay. The climate of the burgh is eminently suited to the delicate, and has earned for Bute the title of the Madeira of Scotland. The temperature in winter is 13 degrees above the average of Scotland, and in summer 5 degrees cooler; and several eminent physicians have recommended Rothesay as an abode for those suffering from pulmonary complaints. The bathing facilities have already been noted. Boating is safe and convenient, and the letting of small boats is quite an important industry. Yachts find good anchorage in the bay; while those who desire to visit the various places of interest on the Clyde by steamer will find Rothesay the most convenient centre on the firth.

Rothesay was a burgh of barony from an early period, and became a royal burgh in 1400 by charter from Robert iii., who also conferred grants of landed property and various privileges. In 1584, a charter of confirmation and novodamus was given by James VI. The ancestors of the Marquess of Bute used frequently to hold the office of provost; and from 1788 till 1839, the office was held exclusively by members of that family. Th e burgh is governed by a provost, 3 bailies, and 12 councillors. The magistrates and council are also police commissioners, and form, with 4 shipowners, the harbour trust. Prior to 1820, they claimed the right to exercise maritime jurisdiction over all the coasts of Buteshire and the adjacent arms of the Clyde, but since a decision in the court of session at that date, have given up the claim. The burgh revenue in 1883-84, including harbour, gas, water, etc., was œ17,651. The municipal constituency numbered 1711 in 1885. In 1884 the police force consisted of 7 men, and a superintendent, with a salary of œ120. Sheriff courts are held every Tuesday and Friday in session; and justice of peace courts on the first Monday of every month. Gas works were erected in 1840, and are the property of the corporation. The water supply for the houses on the lower levels is obtained from Loch Ascog, for those on the terraces from Dhu Loch-the two schemes together costing the burgh œ36, 000. The drainage of the town is carried by means of a brick conduit into deep water in front of the quay. From the union until 1832, Rothesay had a representative in parliament, but since the Reform Bill, it has been included in Buteshire. Annual valuation of burgh (1875) œ37,251, (1885) œ55,266. Pop. (1821) 4107, (1 841) 5789, (1861), 7122, (1871) 7800, (1881) 8329, of whom 4741 were females, and 618 Gaelic-speaking. Houses (1881) 1968 inhabited, 363 vacant, 6 building. The chief antiquity of Rothesay and its most interesting object is its ruined castle, standing near the middle of the S part of the town. The original portion, believed to have been built by Magnus Barefoot about 1098, consists of a circular building, 138 feet in diameter, with walls 9 feet thick and 26 high, and flanked by 4 round towers, 3 of which were 28 feet in diameter, while the fourth and only remaining one is 33. Within the court are seen the walls of the ancient chapel of St Michael, 45 feet long by 23 broad, built in the Decorated style, and traces of the foundations of other buildings, supposed to have been the residence of the townspeople during sieges. The older part seems to have been built of pink stone from Ascog; the newer part is different in material and style, and is built on to the entrance-front of the original hold. It is believed to have been erected by Robert III., and is called ` the Palace.' The entrance to the castle faces the N, and is surmounted by a shield, bearing a much defaced royal coat of arms. Since 1874, this gateway has been made once more the entrance, access to which is obtained by a drawbridge across a moat, which occupies the basin of the original moat. The restoration of the gateway, drawbridge, and moat, and the removal of contiguous tenements from the castle, were carried through by the Marquis of Bute, hereditary keeper of Rothesay Castle, at a cost of œ8000. Among the apartments within the castle are a vaulted hall (43 x 11 feet), a dungeon below the floor, and a grand hall above, to which there is access by a staircase. Still higher, there were sleeping apartments, now disappeared, among which was the small chamber in which Robert III. died in 1406. The walls of the castle are in many places overshadowed by trees, which have taken root in the crevices, and they are picturesquely covered with ivy; while the grounds surrounding it- about 2 acres-have been prettily laid out with shrubberies and flowers.

Rothesay Castle, though not unknown in history as a fort and as a royal residence, presents neither a beautiful nor a highly interesting appearance. As a fortification it was even on the ancient principles very deficient; ` even the gate is neither flanked nor machicolated, and it might have been mined or assaulted at almost any point.' As a royal palace, also, it seems to have lacked even an average amount of comfort and commodiousness. Built, as we have said, about 1098, it is said to have belonged, before the time of Alexander III., to a family of the name of MacRoderick. It underwent extension and improvement at various periods to serve as a fortified palace for the Lord High Stewards of Scotland, and for their successors the Royal Stewarts. It first comes into historical notice in 1228, when it was attacked by Olave, King of Man, and Husbac, King of the Southern Hebrides, with 80 ships, and after a siege was carried by assault with a loss of 390 men. In 1263 it was captured by Haco of Norway, and after the battle of Largs was retaken by the Scots. Under John Baliol it was occupied by the English, but in 1311 it submitted to Robert Bruce. In 1334 it was again seized and fortified in the English interest, but was once more recaptured. Robert ii. visited the castle in 1376 and 1381; and Robert III. died broken-hearted within its walls April 13, 1406. Oliver Cromwell's troops destroyed part of its walls in 1650; and in 1685 the brother of the Earl of Argyll burned it and reduced it to utter ruin, either in revenge for a raid into his country, or for some action on the part of the burghers. For long years the castle was left to decay and destruction; it became overgrown with weeds and trees, and environed and hidden by more modern tenements. About 1815, however, the hereditary keeper instituted clearances and restitution, which revealed the terraces, towers, and chapel, with various apartments. Renewed and more extensive clearances and renovations in 1871-77 have brought it to its present well-kept condition. Another interesting antiquity is the ruined choir of the abbey church of St Mary, in the present cemetery, lying rather more than ½ mile from the town. It contains a recumbent figure of Stuart of Bute who fell at Falkirk. The tomb of the family of Bute is a plain Gothic building, painted white, in the old part of the churchyard. Among the old tombstones, that of the Wallaces of Bush, reputed descendants of the great Wallace, is one of the most interesting. There is also a fragment of the monument to the Jamiesons of Kilmorie, hereditary coroners of Bute, which was brought hence from Kilmorie castle, when the family property was transferred to the present Bute family.

The town of Rothesay was originally a village in connection with the castle, and its earlier history is directly associated with the story of that fortress, already narrated. Its later history is merely the account of the rise, progress, and decline of its commerce, and its arrival at its present position as a favourite watering-place and tourist-centre. The Queen and Prince Albert spent the night of August 17, 1847, in Rothesay Bay; and Rothesay she describes in her Journal as ` a pretty little town, built round a fine bay, with hills in the distance, and a fine harbour. The people cheered the " Duke of Rothesay " very much, and also called for a cheer for the "Princess of Great Britain. " When we went on deck after dinner, we found the whole town brilliantly illuminated, with every window lit up, which had a very pretty effect.' In 1874 the Princess Louise and the Marquess of Lorne, and in 1876 Prince Leopold, visited the ruins of the castle.

The castle of Rothesay gave title to the first dukedom which existed in the Scottish peerage, and continues the title to the British sovereign's eldest son as a collateral for Scotland to that of Prince of Wales for England. The dukedom of Rothesay was created in a solemn council held at Scone in 1398, and conferred on David, Earl of Carrick, Prince and Steward of Scotland, and eldest son of Robert iii.; and when David, in 1402, fell a victim to the ambition of his uncle, the Duke of Albany, it was transferred to his brother James, afterwards James I. of Scotland. An Act of Parliament, passed in 1409, declared ` that the lordship of Bute with the castle of Rothesay, the lordship of Cowal with the castle of Dunoon, the earldom of Carrick, the lands of Dundonald with the castle of the same, the barony of Renfrew with the lands and tenandries of the same, the lordship of Stewarton, the lordship of Kilmarnock with the castle of the same, the lordship of Dalry, the lands of Nodisdale, Kilbryde, Narristoun, and Cairtoun, also the lands of Frarynzan, Drumcall, Trebrauch with the fortalice of the same, " principibus primogenitis Regum Scotiæ successorum nostrorum, perpetuis futuris temporibus, uniantur, incorporeutur, et annexantur." ' Since that period, the dukedom of Rothesay, in common with the principality and stewartry of Scotland, the earldom of Carrick, the lordship of the Isles, and the barony of Renfrew, has been vested in the eldest son and heir-apparent of the sovereign. In the event of the firstborn dying without an heir, the right passes to the sovereign's eldest surviving son; and when the sovereign has no son or heir-apparent, it reverts to the sovereign in person as the representative of an expected prince.

The parish of Rothesay, which included till 1846 the parish of North Bute, now occupies the centre of the island, between the parishes of North Bute and Kingarth, and extends in a narrow strip right across Bute from Rothesay to St Ninian's Bay. Its greatest length, from NE to SW, is 6 miles; its greatest breadth is 2½ miles; and its total area is 6083 acres. It includes the royal burgh of Rothesay. The natural features have been already described in our article on Bute. The chief proprietor is the Marquess of Bute. The parish is in the presbytery of Dunoon and the synod of Argyll; the living is worth œ440. Landward valuation (1885) £2414. Total pop. (1861) 7438, (1871) 8027, (1881) 8538, of whom 636 were Gaelic-speaking, whilst ecclesiastically 5626 were in Rothesay and 2912 in New Rothesay parish.—Ord. Sur., sh. 29, 1873. See J, Wilson's Account of Rothesay and the Island of Bute (Roth. 1848); J. Roger's Notices of Ancient Monuments in the Church of St Mary, Rothesay (1848); J. Thoms' Rothesay Castle (Roth. 1870); and the ` Buteman ' Guide to Rothesay (Roth. 1881).

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available, or use the map tab to the right of this page.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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