Great Cumbrae

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Great Cumbrae


Cumbrae Slip from Largs pier.jpg
Cumbrae Slip from Largs pier
Main village: Millport

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Grid reference: NS169566
Area: 4½ square miles
Highest point: The Glaidstane: 417 feet
Population: 1,434  (2001)

Great Cumbrae is an island of Buteshire; the larger of the two islands known as the Cumbraes in the lower Firth of Clyde. On Great Cumbrae are found the Cathedral of the Isles and the University Marine Biological Station, Millport. It is mainly considered a holiday island today and in that role it has the National Watersports Centre and an 18-hole golf course which sweeps almost to the summit of the isle. The road around the island road is much favoured for family cycle runs.


OS Triangulation Pillar at the island's summit

The island is 2.4 miles long by 1.4 miles wide, rising to a height of 417 feet above sea level at "The Glaidstone" - a large, naturally occurring rock perched on the highest summit on the island. From here an orientation point which indicates the locations of surrounding landmarks.

In clear conditions, views extend north over the upper Clyde estuary to Ben Lomond and the Arrochar Alps. To the west, the larger islands of Bute and Arran can be seen, while on the other side of Knapdale the Paps of Jura may be visible. Looking south, Ailsa Craig is visible, around 40 miles distant beyond Little Cumbrae. Ailsa Craig roughly marks the halfway point to County Antrim, which itself may be glimpsed if visibility is good. To the east, the views are not so extensive, being restricted by the higher ground of the Renfrew Hills only a few miles distant, however the town of Largs and village of Fairlie and the deep water coal terminal and power station at Hunterston can be seen.

Millport, the island's only town, is spread around a bay which makes up the entire south coast of the island. The usual island population of 1,434 (as in 2001) increases substantially during the summer tourist season due to the high proportion of second homes.

The land on the island is primarily owned by the farmers, with the other major land owner being the Millport Golf Club.

Flights across the Atlantic from British and many European airports often pass over the island.

Crocodile Rock, Millport


The island is on the Great Cumbrae fault line that runs north east to south west. Fault lines have formed some interesting rock formations which have become popular with tourists, including Crocodile Rock, Indian's Face, Lion's Rock and Queen Victoria's Face. Several have been enhanced with colourful paint.

Cumbrae's western coastline has fine examples of raised beaches. These occurs perhaps most notably in the area surrounding Bell Bay - where the island's highest waterfall, Horse Falls, plunges over the old sea cliffs.


The island has been inhabited since the end of the last ice age.

Legend has it that St Mirren, on his return to Scotland from Ireland around 710, arrived in Cumbrae and, following the example of St Patrick, rid the island of snakes. The Cathedral of the Isles is reputed to have been built on the site where St Mirren preached. Cumbrae to this day remains snake-free. St Mirren then went on to found a community in Paisley.

It is claimed that the Norwegian King Haakon IV used the island as a base before the Battle of Largs (1263).[1]

Cumbrae has long been linked to Christianity in Scotland. At one time the island had many standing stones. The Aberdeen Breviary of 1509, printed in Edinburgh, tells of two of the island's early female missionaries, Saints Beya and Maura.

For many centuries the island was under shared ownership, with the Marquess of Bute in the west and the Earl of Glasgow in the east. In 1999 the final feudal landowner, Le Mans winner Johnny Dumfries, now Bute, of Mount Stuart House, put the island up for general sale, with first refusal given to his farmer tenants.

Tourism grew in the 20th century, and Millport became a popular stop for Clyde steamers and families going 'Doon the Watter for the Fair' (Glasgow Fair holidays). Today most visitors are daytrippers, mostly due to the growth of foreign package holidays in the 1960s. It is still possible to experience a traditional day out on the PS Waverley which operates from both Glasgow and Ayr during the summer.

The Great Cumbrae Prayer

It is said that in the old prayer book in the kirk in Millport is a prayer along the lines:

Lord we pray for your blessings upon the island of Great Cumbrae
And also for its neighbouring islands of Little Cumbrae and Britain.


Approaching Millport on the Waverley

During the summer, the population grows by several thousand every weekend. Hiring a bike and cycling around the island's 11 mile-long encircling coastal road is a popular activity for visitors, as the roads are quiet compared to the mainland. There are informal walks all over the island. Fintry Bay, around 3 miles from Millport on the west coast, has a small café.

Millport Bay, with visitor moorings, is a popular destination for sailors in the summer. The National Watersports Centre[2] at the ferry slip provides tuition in most boating disciplines, such as powerboating and kayaking, all year round. The most dived site on the Clyde is just south of the ferry slip – a Second World War Catalina] flying boat.

A curling pond near the top of the island has not been playable for several years.

Other attractions include:

  • Cathedral of the Isles – William Butterfield, one of the great architects of the Gothic revival designed the cathedral church of the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles, within the Scottish Episcopal Church. George Frederick Boyle, 6th Earl of Glasgow acted as the founder and benefactor. Construction finished in 1849 and the cathedral opened in 1851. Formal gardens and woodland surround the cathedral, the highest building on Great Cumbrae and one of the smallest cathedrals in Europe.[3]
  • College of the Holy Spirit – attached to the Cathedral, this former seminary for ordination training is now a Retreat House and the Argyll Diocesan Conference Centre. It was the base for The Community of Celebration, or Fisherfolk, an international group of artists and musicians sharing a Benedictine lifestyle during the 1970s and the 1980s.
  • The Wedge – a private residence which has the smallest frontage in the United Kingdom – the width of a front door.
  • Museum of the Cumbraes occupies part of the Garrison, built originally for the captain of an anti-smuggling revenue cutter.
  • Marine Biology Station, Keppel Pier – has an aquarium of sea creatures from the Firth of Clyde, and a museum which tells the story of the sea and of the Clyde area. It has a hostel which provides accommodation for visiting parties of marine biology students from around the UK - primarily over the summer months.

Marine environment and wildlife

Cumbrae has a marine climate and can experience gale force winds from the Atlantic Ocean|Atlantic at any time of year; these westerly or south-westerly gales can be severe and destructive. However, while the west of the island might be in the throes of a 70 mph gale, the sheltered east side facing Largs can seem like a duckpond.

Local wildlife includes owls, polecats, rabbits, kestrels and the occasional golden eagle and sea eagle, as well as a large seabird population: fulmars, cormorants, oystercatchers and many more.[4] Other marine life includes seals, basking sharks and dolphins.

The well respected University Marine Biological Station, Millport is run by the University of Glasgow and University of London. Founded in 1885 by Sir John Murray and David Robertson, it is just outside the town and has an interesting curriculum and research programme which attracts British and overseas students throughout the academic year. A Museum and Aquarium is open to visitors. In May 2003, in the presence of Princess Anne, the station took delivery of the Macduff-built marine Research Vessel Aora. UMBSM also functions as a Met Office Weather Station and Admiralty Tide Monitor.[5]


Car ferries run from Largs pier to Cumbrae Slip

A Caledonian MacBrayne car ferry connects the island with Largs, Ayrshire.

Millport was served by Clyde steamers until the 1960s. Largs is now a regular calling point for Waverley. For nearly 20 years from 1967, passenger ferry, Keppel crossed to Millport pier. In early April 1977, car ferry Isle of Cumbrae took up the crossing to Cumbrae Slip and continued until the sisters Loch Striven and Loch Linnhe arrived in the summer of 1986.[6]

Current Developments

It is currently being proposed (March 2007) to initiate an environmentally friendly facility at Wine Bay, near the north end of the island. This would at least involve a vegetable garden and composting facilities and it is hoped that this would eventually become Self-sufficiency|self-sufficient and employ local people.[7]

A forestry project is under way on the hillside above Ballochmartin Farm, on either side of the Inner Circle road. Trees are being planted throughout spring 2007.

Media and the arts

The island was featured in the BBC Radio 4 comedy series, Millport, written by and starring Lynn Ferguson.


  1. Gazeteer for Scotland. "Great Cumbrae Overview". Retrieved 2007-04-06. 
  2. sportscotland. "National Watersports Centre". Retrieved 2007-04-06. 
  3. The building is variously described as "the smallest cathedral in Europe", "the second smallest in Europe" etc. See for example "Millport Musings" (19 November 2005) BBC. Retrieved 11 May 2008, "About Cumbrae" Westbourne House. Retrieved 11 May 2008.
  4. "Where to Watch Birds in Ayrshire". Retrieved 2007-04-06. 
  5. "About UMBSM". University of Glasgow. Retrieved 11 September 2010. 
  6. McCrorie, Ian (2006). CalMac Ferries. Caledonian MacBrayne. ISBN 9780950716671. 
  7. Largs & Millport Weekly (2007-03-15). "Beechgrove Garden for Island". Retrieved 2007-04-05.