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United Kingdom
Lochranza castle.jpg
Lochranza Castle, Arran
[Interactive map]
Area: 225 square miles
Population: 12,534
County town: Rothesay
County flower: Thrift [1]

The County of Bute is an island shire off the west coast of Scotland. Buteshire consists of the Isle of Bute and the Isle of Arran, and smaller islands such as Great Cumbrae and Little Cumbrae. Although Arran encompasses most of the shire's land, it has a sparse population and the main settlements are on Bute.

The islands of Buteshire lie in the Firth of Clyde between Ayrshire and Argyll. Of all the islands and skerries in the county, only four islands are inhabited (Bute, Arran, Great Cumbrae and Holy Island) and only six are larger than 100 acres.

The largest and most populous islands are the Isle of Arran and the Isle of Bute. Great Cumbrae and Holy Isle are also served by dedicated ferry routes. None of the inhabited isles in the shire is connected to any other another by regular ferries, nor by bridges nor causeways.

The geology and geomorphology of the area is complex and the islands and the surrounding sea lochs each have distinctive features. The influence of the Atlantic Ocean and the North Atlantic Drift create a mild, damp oceanic climate.

The larger islands have been continuously inhabited since Neolithic times, were influenced by the emergence of the kingdom of Dál Riata from AD 500 and then absorbed into the emerging Kingdom of Alba under Kenneth MacAlpin. They experienced Norse incursions during the early Middle Ages and then became part of the Kingdom of Scotland in the 13th century.

The county has a rich diversity of wildlife, including three species of rare endemic tree.

Islands of Buteshire

The following table list the islands of the county which have an area greater than 100 acres, plus adjacent smaller uninhabited islets, tidal islets only separated at higher stages of the tide, and skerries which are only exposed at lower stages of the tide.

Island Gaelic Name[1] Location Area (acres) Population Last inhabited Highest point Height (feet) Surrounding islets
Arran Eilean Arainn Arran 106,752 5,058 Goat Fell 2,867 Eilean na h-Àirde Bàine, Hamilton Isle, Pladda
Bute Eilean Bòid Bute 30,189 7,228 Windy Hill 912 The Burnt Islands: Eilean Mòr, Eilean Fraoich and Eilean Buidhe, Eilean Dearg, Eilean Dubh, Sgat Beag and Sgat Mòr
Great Cumbrae Cumaradh Mòr Bute 2,886 1,434 The Glaidstane 417 The Clach, The Eileans, The Leug, The Spoig
Holy Isle Eilean Mo Laise Arran 625 13 Mullach Mòr 1,030 None
Inchmarnock Innis Mheàrnaig Bute 657 0 1980s[2] 60 None
Little Cumbrae Cumaradh Beag Bute 773 0 1990s[3] Lighthouse Hill 404 The Broad Islands, Castle Island, Trail Isle

Towns and villages

Rothesay pier


Geology and geography


The Highland Boundary Fault runs past Bute and through the northern part of Arran, so from a geological perspective some of the islands are in the Highlands and some in the Central Lowlands.[4] As a result, Arran is sometimes referred to as "Scotland in miniature" and the island is a popular destination for geologists, who come to see intrusive igneous landforms such as sills and dykes as well as sedimentary and metasedimentary rocks ranging in widely in age.[5] Visiting in 1787, the geologist James Hutton found his first example of an unconformity there and this spot is one of the most famous places in the study of geology.[6][7] A group of weakly metamorphosed rocks that form the Highland Border Complex lie discontinuously along the Highland Boundary Fault. One of the most prominent exposures is along Loch Fad on Bute.[8]

Along with the northern parts of Great Britain, the Firth of Clyde was covered by ice sheets during the Pleistocene ice ages and the landscape is much affected by glaciation.[9] Arran's highest peaks may have been nunataks at this time.[10] After the last retreat of the ice sea level changes and the isostatic rise of land makes charting post glacial coastlines a complex task but the resultant clifflines behind raised beaches are a prominent feature of the entire coastline.[11][12]

The soils of the islands reflect the diverse geology. Bute has the most productive land, its soils a mixture of boulder clay and other glacial deposits in the eroded valleys, and raised beach and marine deposits elsewhere, especially to the south and west which result in a machair landscape in places, inland from the sandy bays, such as Stravanan.[13][14]

The Firth of Clyde, in which the Buteshire islands lie, is north of the Irish Sea, hemmed in by the Renfrewshire and Ayrshire coasts to the east, and the long arm of Kintyre (part of Argyllshire) to the west. It has numerous branching inlets so that even the adjacent parts of the mainland of Great Britain are cut into peninsulas almost as isolated as the islands. Apart from Ailsa Craig, all its islands, unless concealed in sealochs or clinging to the coasts, belong to Buteshire.

In places the effect of glaciation on the seabed is pronounced. For example, the Firth is 1,050 feet deep between Arran and Bute, although they are only 5 miles apart.[15] The islands are all exposed to wind and tide and various lighthouses stand around the edges of the Firth.


Castle Island from Little Cumbrae

Buteshire enjoys a mild, damp oceanic climate, benefiting from the Gulf Stream waters flowing around its islands. Temperatures are generally cool, averaging about 6°C in January and 14°C in July at sea level.[16] Snow seldom lies at sea level and frosts are generally less frequent than the mainland. The shire is blessed by plentiful rain: 51 inches a year falls on Bute, the Cumbraes and in the south of Arran, while mountainous north Arran receives 75 inches a year. The Arran mountains are wetter still.



Machrie Moor standing stones, Arran

Mesolithic hunters arrived in the islands during the fourth millennium BC, possibly from Ireland. Neolithic peoples followed. A particular style of megalithic structure developed in Buteshire and Argyll and the adjacent coasts that has become known as the "Clyde cairn", which are rectangular or trapezoidal in shape with a small enclosing chamber faced with large slabs of stone set on end and sometimes subdivided into smaller compartments. They are concentrated in Arran, Bute and Kintyre and it is likely that the Clyde cairns were the earliest forms of Neolithic monument constructed by incoming settlers although few of the 100 or so examples have been given a radiocarbon dating. An example at Monamore on Arran has been dated to 3160 BC, although it was almost certainly built earlier than that, possibly c. 4000BC.[17][18][19] There are also numerous standing stones dating from prehistoric times, including six stone circles on Machrie Moor, Arran and other examples on Great Cumbrae and Bute.[20][21][22]

Bronze Age settlers also constructed megaliths at various sites, many of them dating from the second millennium BC, although the chambered cairns were replaced by burial cists, found on for example, Inchmarnock. Settlement evidence, especially from the early part of this era is however poor.[23][22] The Queen of the Inch necklace is an article of jewelery made of jet found on Bute that dates from circa 2000 BC. During the early Iron Age Brythonic culture held sway, there being no evidence that the Romans extended their influence to these islands.[17][24]

Early Scots rule

Map of Dál Riata at its height, c. 580–600. Pictish regions are marked in yellow

During the 2nd century AD Irish influence was at work in the region and by the 6th century the kingdom of Dál Riata was established. These Gaels spoke a language quite distinct from the Brythonic tongue which had hitherto prevailed throughout Great Britain; a form of Gaelic that still survives in the Hebrides. Through the efforts of Saint Ninian and others Christianity slowly supplanted Druidism. Dál Riata flourished from the time of Fergus Mór in the late fifth century until the Viking incursions that commenced in the late eighth century.[25] Islands close to the shores of modern Ayrshire would have remained part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde during this period, whilst the main islands became part of the emerging Kingdom of Alba founded by Kenneth MacAlpin.

Norse rule

The Islands of the Clyde historically formed the border zone between the Norse-dominated Suðreyar and Scotland. As such many of these islands fell under Norwegian hegemony between the 9th and 13th centuries and this Norse influence would see almost constant warfare on the western seaboard of Scotland until the partitioning of the Hebrides in 1156.

The 13th century curtain wall of Rothesay Castle, Isle of Bute

Latterly, the Outer Hebrides remained under the control of Godred V of the Isle of Man while the Inner Hebrides south of Ardnamurchan and the islands of the Clyde became part of the Kingdom of the Hebrides ruled by Somerled. This began a process whereby the islands of the Clyde became Gaelic in language and culture rather than Norse. After Somerled's death in 1164 his kingdom was split between his three sons, Ragnall Somerleiðsson in Islay and Kintyre, Dughall in Lorne and the other Argyll islands, and Angus holding Arran and Bute.[26]

Nearly a century later in the 1230s invading Norse forces took Rothesay Castle, hacking through the walls with their axes. In 1263 warriors commanded by Haakon IV repeated the feat and occupied the islands. However the ensuing Battle of Largs between Scots and Norse forces marked the end of Norse power in Scotland; Haakon retreated to Orkney, where he died in December 1263, entertained on his death bed by recitations of the sagas. Following this ill-fated expedition, all rights that the Norwegian crown "had of old therein" in relation to the islands were yielded to the Kingdom of Scotland under the 1266 Treaty of Perth.[27][28][29]

Restored Scottish rule

The last seagoing coal fired steam Clyde Puffer

After the Treaty of Perth, all of Buteshire's islands remained part of Scotland.

From the early mediæval period until 1387 all of these isles were part of the Diocese of Sodor and Man, whose bishop sat in Peel, on the Isle of Man. Thereafter, the seat of the Bishopric of the Isles was relocated to the north, firstly to Snizort on Skye and then Iona,[30] until the abolition of the bishopric in the Scottish Reformation.

The modern age

The century following 1750 was time of significant change. New forms of transport, industry and agriculture brought sweeping changes, and an end to traditional ways of life that had endured for centuries. The aftermath of the Battle of Culloden marked the beginning of the end for the clan system and whilst there were marked improvements in living standards for some, these transformations came at a cost for others.[31] In the early 19th century Alexander, 10th Duke of Hamilton (1767–1852) embarked on a programme of clearances that had a devastating effect on Arran's population. Whole villages were removed and the Gaelic culture of the island dealt a terminal blow.[32][33][34][35]

From the 1850s to the late 20th century the Clyde Puffer was the workhorse of the islands, carrying all kinds of produce and products to and from the islands. The Clyde Puffer was made famous by Neil Munro's books about the Vital Spark ("the smertest boat in the coastin' tred"). The Caledonian Steam Packet Company was formed in May 1889 to operate steamer services to and from Gourock for the Caledonian Railway and soon expanded by taking over rival steamer operators.[36] David MacBrayne Ltd operated the Glasgow to Ardrishaig steamer service, as part of the "Royal Route" to Oban.[37] During the 20th century many of the islands were developed as tourist resorts for Glaswegians who went "Doon the Watter", in parallel to mainland resorts such as Largs and Troon.[38][39]

In 1973 CSP and MacBraynes commenced joint Clyde and West Highland operations under the new name of Caledonian MacBrayne.[40] A Government-owned company, they serve Great Cumbrae, Arran and Bute as well as running mainland-to-mainland ferrys across the firth.[41] Private companies operate services from Arran to Holy Isle and from McInroy's Point (Gourock) to Hunter's Quay on the Cowal peninsula.[42]

Natural history

The Arran Whitebeam in flower

There are populations of red deer, red squirrels, badgers, otters, adders and common lizards. Offshore are seen harbour porpoises, basking sharks and various species of dolphin.[43]

Over 200 species of bird have been recorded in the area including black guillemot, Eider, peregrine falcon and the golden eagle.[43] In 1981 there were 28 ptarmigan on Arran, but in 2009 it was reported that extensive surveys had been unable to record any.[44] Similarly, the Red-billed Chough no longer breeds on the island.[45]

Arran also has three rare endemic species of tree, the Arran whitebeams.[46] These are the Arran whitebeam, the cut-leaved whitebeam and the Catacol whitebeam, which are amongst the most endangered tree species in the world. They are found in a protected National Nature Reserve, and are monitored by staff from Scottish Natural Heritage. Only 283 Arran Whitebeam and 236 Cut-leaved Whitebeam were recorded as mature trees in 1980. The Catacol Whitebeam was discovered in 2007 and steps have been taken to protect the two known specimens.[47][48]


  1. Mac an Tàilleir (2003) various pages.
  2. Haswell-Smith (2004) p. 21
  3. Haswell-Smith (2004) p. 18
  4. Gillen (2003) p. 28
  5. McKirdy et al. (2007) pp. 297- 301
  6. Keith Montgomery (2003). "Siccar Point and Teaching the History of Geology" (pdf). University of Wisconsin. http://nagt.org/files/nagt/jge/abstracts/Montgomery_v51n5.pdf. Retrieved 26 March 2008. 
  7. "Hutton's Unconformity - Lochranza, Isle of Arran, UK - Places of Geologic Significance on Waymarking.com". Waymarking.com. http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM3F65. Retrieved 20 October 2008. 
  8. Gillen (2003) pp. 89-90
  9. Gillen (2003) pp. 174-86
  10. McKirdy et al. (2007) pp. 297- 301.
  11. McKirdy et al. (2007) p. 28.
  12. Ritchie, W. "Beaches of Cowal, Bute & Arran" (1975) Scottish Natural Heritage. (Originally published by the Countryside Commission for Scotland). pp. 6-9
  13. "Bute's Geology & Geomorphology" Bute-gateway.org. Retrieved 20 Jan 2011.
  14. "Bute Map 6: Garroch Head to Stravannan Bay" (pdf) scapetrust.org. Retrieved 20 Jan 2011.
  15. Gillen (2003) p. 177
  16. "Regional mapped climate averages" Met Office. Retrieved 4 September 2009.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Murray (1973) pp. 113-131
  18. Morris, John H. "Sailing through Scottish Antiquities" scottish.antiquities.ukonline.co.uk. Retrieved 4 February 2011.
  19. "Arran, Monamore, Meallach's Grave" Scotland's Places.Retrieved 4 February 2011.
  20. "Machrie Moor Stone Circles". Undiscovered Scotland. Retrieved 18 July 2009.
  21. "Great Cumbrae Island, Craigengour" Scotland's Places.Retrieved 4 February 2011.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Cowie, Trevor "The Bronze Age" in Omand (2006) pp. 27-30
  23. Haswell-Smith (2004) p. 22
  24. "The Queen of the Inch Necklace and Facial reconstruction". Bute Museum. Retrieved 5 September 2010.
  25. Murray (1973) pp. 147-155
  26. Murray (1973) pp. 161-171
  27. Hunter (2000) pp. 106-111
  28. Barrett (2008) p. 411
  29. "Agreement between Magnus IV and Alexander III, 1266" isleofman.com. Manx Society vols IV,VII & IX. Retrieved 11 Jan 2011.
  30. Bridgland, Nick "The Mediæval Church in Argyll" in Omand (2006) pp. 86-87
  31. Duncan, P J "The Industries of Argyll: Tradition and Improvement" in Omand (2006) pp. 151, 156
  32. Haswell-Smith (2004) p. 12
  33. Mackillop, Dugald "The History of the Highland Clearances: Buteshire - Arran" electricscotland.com. Retrieved 18 July 2009.
  34. "Lagantuine - Isle of Arran, Ayrshire UK" waymarking.com. Retrieved 18 July 2009.
  35. "Lamlash" Ayrshireroots.com. Retrieved 20 Jan 2011.
  36. "Caledonian Steam Packet Company". Scran - part of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. http://www.scran.ac.uk/database/record.php?usi=000-000-592-411-C. Retrieved 30 January 2011. 
  37. "PS Columba". Paddle Steamer Resources by Tramscape. http://paddlesteamers.awardspace.com/Columba.htm. Retrieved 30 January 2011. 
  38. Keay (1994) p. 236
  39. "The Puffer". Inveraray Maritime Heritage Museum. Retrieved 4 September 2010.
  40. "History of Caledonian MacBrayne". West Highland Steamer Club. http://www.whsc.connectfree.co.uk/CalMac.html. Retrieved 30 January 2011. 
  41. "Summer Timetables". Caledonian MacBrayne. Retrieved 5 Feb 2011.
  42. "Western Ferries". http://www.western-ferries.co.uk/. Retrieved 6 February 2001. 
  43. 43.0 43.1 "Arran Wildlife". arranwildlife.co.uk. Retrieved 18 July 2009.
  44. "Iconic Birds at Risk" (1 Feb 2009) Glasgow. Sunday Herald.
  45. "A6.102a Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax (breeding)" (pdf) JNCC. Retrieved 1 August 2009.
  46. Johnston, Ian (15 June 2007) "Trees on Arran 'are a whole new species' " Edinburgh. The Scotsman. Retrieved 18 June 2007.
  47. "New species of tree discovered " (14 June 2007) BBC. Retrieved 18 Jan 2011.
  48. New species of tree discovered on Arran. Scottish Wildlife. November 2007, ISSN 0143-1234 p. 9
General references
  • Barrett, James H. "The Norse in Scotland" in Brink, Stefan (ed) (2008) The Viking World. Abingdon. Routledge. ISBN 0415333156
  • Coventry, Martin (2008) Castles of the Clans. Musselburgh. Goblinshead. ISBN 9781899874361
  • Gillen, Con (2003) Geology and landscapes of Scotland. Harpenden. Terra.
  • Hollander, Lee M. (ed. & tr.) (1964) Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway. Austin. University of Texas Press.
  • Hunter, James (2000) Last of the Free: A History of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Edinburgh. Mainstream. ISBN 1840183764
  • Keay, J & Keay, J (1994) Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland. London. HarperCollins.
  • Mac an Tàilleir, Iain (2003) Placenames/Ainmean-àite le buidheachas (pdf). Pàrlamaid na h-Alba. Retrieved 6 October 2009.
  • McDonald, Dan (1977) The Clyde Puffer. Newton Abbot. David & Charles.
  • McKirdy, Alan Gordon, John & Crofts, Roger (2007) Land of Mountain and Flood: The Geology and Landforms of Scotland. Edinburgh. Birlinn. ISBN 978-1-84158-357-0
  • Murray, W H (1973) The Islands of Western Scotland. London. Eyre Methuen.
  • Murray, W H (1977) The Companion Guide to the West Highlands of Scotland. London. Collins.
  • Noble, Gordon (2006) Neolithic Scotland: Timber, Stone, Earth and Fire. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 0748623388
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