Lunch On The Kyles Of Bute

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Rhubodach to Colintraive Ferry
Rhubodach to Colintraive Ferry

Colintraive, Cowal Peninsula, Argyll

After four days in which we had enjoyed the island in mild spring sunshine we took the opportunity of a forecast for bad weather to plan for a day off and a leisurely lunch. The Isle of Bute has no peaks to challenge the serious walker but the long and accessible coastline twists and turns around enough bays and inlets to compensate while its countless ruined churches, stone circles, historic houses and gardens and other monuments present enough diversions for the visitor who likes to potter.   I nonetheless relished the prospect of a break from this activity and conjured up the picture of freshly cooked seafood served in a cosy bar in front of a roaring fire while a storm battered against the windows.

Which in fact was remarkably close to the scene presented to us as we swept into the front room of the Colintraive Hotel out of a howling gale and torrential rain. There were just three tables: an elderly couple were starting their lunch at the table nearest to the door, tucked into the corner to our right. Their dog, a young and frisky Collie, rose from the floor to greet us as though we were the first visitors in days. At the far end of the room, staring into a log fire blazing in the stone hearth, a single, middle-aged man looked happily ensconced at his table with a glass of wine.

Between them was a window seat arranged around the third table and directly in front of the bar.   It was – happily and perfectly – vacant. The bar manager, a young Spanish woman, as I assumed from her accent, greeted us and motioned us straight to it. Given our intimate surroundings we immediately struck up a conversation with everyone in the room, agreeing straightaway that the weather was shocking and that there was no better place to be on a day like this.

The elderly couple were obviously retired and had driven from Dunoon to take lunch here: a fair distance, I remarked, as I also tried to envisage the route they must have taken around storm-swept headlands and through single-track forest roads. Yes, they agreed, but much preferable to being cooped up in this weather.

By contrast, the man by the fire said he was only here, quite literally, by accident. He was a travelling salesman whose van had suffered a blown tyre in the wilds of the Cowal Peninsula. He had had to walk to the nearest farm to phone for a taxi as he wasn’t able to get a reception on his mobile phone. The taxi had eventually brought him to the nearest hotel on his intended route, which was here.

“This just happened this morning?” I asked, commiserating.

“No, yesterday afternoon”, he said, taking a sip of his wine.

It was then I noticed the collection of mobile phones, landline phone – removed from its cradle by the bar – and tablet PC arranged on the table in front of him. His hands moved slowly, almost disinterestedly, between them as he tried at different times to locate and phone vehicle repair firms, wait for responses, contact clients to rearrange his itinerary and stay in touch with head office while checking his emails. And, in between this activity, he carried on a conversation with us. There was no sense of urgency that I could detect.

St Ninian's Bay, Isle of Bute
St Ninian’s Bay, Isle of Bute

The storm that was battering Bute had grown in intensity since early morning. At breakfast it was merely causing delays to the normal, hourly ferry crossings to Wemyss Bay, on the mainland. By mid-morning, ferries were being diverted to Gourock, further up the Clyde and around the corner, allowing them to dock out of the prevailing wind. But by lunchtime all sailings had been cancelled until further notice.

Experience told me that this would not necessarily hinder the much shorter crossing from Rhubodach to Colintraive, across the Kyles of Bute, the narrow channel of water which dog-legs around the north end of the island. The island itself shelters the Kyles from the wind, a fact I had had the chance to appreciate during a night sailing some years before.

The passage through the Kyles that evening had been calm and without incident. The lack of wind, as well as the need to proceed with caution as darkness fell, meant that we had to navigate the passage using the engine. The lights of shoreside houses glided by as we stood on deck without spilling a drop of the coffees we held cradled from the approaching autumn chill.

But as we approached the eastern mouth of the Kyles, where it is joined by the waters of Loch Striven and opens into the Firth of Clyde proper, the sea became noticeably choppier and the boat began to lurch. By the time we could see the lights of Port Bannantyne and then beyond them to Rothesay, our destination that night, the boat was agitating in a force eight gale. A sea buoy, at first just a waving red light amidst giant waves on the starboard side, suddenly reared up as two or three metres, and several tons, of crazily dancing metal directly in front of the bow, forcing us to swing the wheel round to avoid it.

The wind and the waves only abated once we entered Rothesay harbour, after about an hour of being tossed about. There we anchored and then sat quietly, staring in equal measures of relief and disbelief at the contrasts of the journey just completed.

Returning in the opposite direction, by road this time, my experience was confirmed by the relative calm of the sea in the Kyles as we approached Rhubodach and by the nonchalance of the ferry steward, once on board. I asked him if the crossings were likely to be cancelled, preventing us from returning from lunch in the afternoon.

“Unlikely,” he said, “the storm’s probably getting to its peak right now. And if it’s not, there are worse places than the bar of the Hotel to get stuck.”

Colintraive is a tiny settlement near the tip of the middle ‘finger’ of the Cowal Peninsula, in Argyll, part of the patchwork of narrow strips of land, islands and intervening lochs and inlets that makes ferry-hopping such an integral part of life in this corner of Scotland.   Its existence, and that of the hotel and bar, is due entirely to its location at this, the narrowest part of the Kyles where a ferry has operated for centuries.   In years gone by, apparently, cattle were even forced to swim across by accompanying drovers as part of their route to markets on the mainland.

The Kyles of Bute
The Kyles of Bute

A glass of wine settled me nicely into the atmosphere of the hotel, set about a hundred metres back from the ferry terminal, and its bar, with a view down the East Kyle, albeit through rain-spattered window panes. And, by and by, our first course arrived: a steaming plate of langoustines which we proceeded to pull apart to suck out the meat, covering our fingers in butter and garlic.

Our neighbour ordered another glass of wine for himself and remarked that he had chosen the same starter the evening before. He was happily accommodated in a family room in the hotel, he said, the only room left when he arrived. To be on the safe side he had booked it for this evening as well.

The salesman introduced himself. His name was Donald and he traded, he said, in small knick-knacks of the type sold in souvenir and gift shops. They sold well in towns with a good tourist base or in old-fashioned seaside resorts, of which the area had a few, some of which were up-and-coming, he explained.

Donald had taken semi-retirement from teaching and now devoted a couple of weeks out of every month to being on the road.   He covered most of Scotland and some of northern England in a Mercedes van which, he reflected, had seen better days and had a tendency to need repairs. Then one of his phones rang.

We extracted every piece of meat we could from the succulent langoustines, rinsed our fingers in the accompanying water and watched satisfied as the pile of heads, carcasses and empty claws were taken away. They were soon replaced by a seafood linguini, baked in a thick tomato sauce, and a smoked fish pie.   I ordered another glass of wine to accompany it.

The phone call was from a garage that had been contacted by the salesman’s beakdown service, Donald explained once the call had ended. They could pick up his van and return it to the garage for repair but… there were a number of obstacles, and he proceeded to list them, as though to justify his inertia.

The transporter was currently out on another call and might not be able to reach the van today. The garage was also in the opposite direction to his sales route which meant being picked up and staying a night elsewhere or having to get to the garage under his own steam in the morning. It would also be too expensive, he concluded. The elderly couple were finishing their lunch and showed some interest in the salesman’s predicament as they got up to pay. We all agreed that the offer was too impractical to accept.

A couple of road menders, forced inside by the storm, joined the conversation from the bar. One of them added a log to the fire and I gathered they were regulars. They listened to the salesman’s story with interest and were soon reeling off suggestions for garages to phone.

“Have you tried so-and-so at Tighnabruaich?” one asked, while the other thought “so-and-so might come across from Rothesay”, but each name or location was met with a shake of the head or a pursing of the lips.

The salesman said he had tried the garages in question and either couldn’t get through or had been told that they weren’t able to do anything straightaway. And at each rebuttal the road menders reflected on why that might be, how typical or untypical that was of the business concerned and whether it was worth trying them again, before moving on to the next location on the map they were moving around in their heads.

The elderly couple left, explaining that they would walk along the front with their dog before driving back in the storm. The walk would blow away the cobwebs, they said, and wished the salesman luck in finding help.   The seafood and tomato sauce was deep and rich and the linguini very filling and I remarked on how much I was enjoying it.   The salesman agreed that it did look good and that he might try it that evening.

The bar manager had by this stage retrieved her phone and was evidently working behind the scenes. She suddenly appeared behind the bar with phone in hand and announced that a garage in Dunoon was willing to come and pick up the salesman, take him onto the van to fix the blown tyre and put him on his way.

This was met with initial silence from Donald, but then a number of questions, backwards and forwards over the bar, as a result of which it was confirmed that, fortunately, none of this could be accomplished in time for him to move on this evening. Agreeing to the arrangement, the salesman confirmed his room in the hotel for his return, ordered another glass of wine and waited for his lift.

My cheese plate arrived shortly afterwards and I ordered a glass of red wine as well. Jill tucked into a croissant and butter pudding with cream and apricots. The repair truck arrived about 4pm, just as we were finishing our coffees.

Donald finished his wine, said his goodbyes and went off to collect a few belongings for the journey. We wished him luck but he said he expected to be back in front of the fire within a couple of hours and in Rothesay after a good breakfast in the morning.

At about the same time, there was a sudden influx of visitors to the bar, most apparently having got off a bus at Rhubodach and then sailed across on the ferry. They seemed used, from their conversation, to taking a coffee or glass of something here while they waited for the bus on this side to take them onto other parts.

This parting of ways and the sudden disturbance to our afternoon seemed appropriate signals for us to leave as well. Looking out the window I noticed that that the weather was also improving. So we paid, took one last wistful look around the room, and strode happily down the road to the awaiting ferry.

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