Rothesay (surveyed in 1862-3)


Rothesay is situated on the east coast of the Isle of Bute, at the entrance to the Firth of Clyde. The name Rothesay translates into English as 'Rothay's Isle', with Rotha being an Old Norse personal name. The name originally referred to Rothesay Castle, but was gradually used for the whole town. Indeed, the focal point of Rothesay is its early-thirteenth century castle, which is still surrounded by an impressive moat. The now ruined castle is the ancestral seat of the Stuart kings of Scotland, and boasts a rich historical pedigree. Rothesay Castle was the favourite residence of King Robert III, who proclaimed the town a royal burgh in 1401. Sadly, the castle was burnt down in 1685 by the Earl of Argyll. Traditionally a post and market town, the population of Rothesay in the 1831 census was 4,817, increasing to 7,104 in 1851, with 632 houses. Rothesay is the main town of Bute, and is a 30-minute ferry journey from Wemyss Bay on the mainland.

Town Planning

In his Imperial Gazeteer of Scotland (1857), the Rev. John Wilson observed that 'The town, as seen from the bay, is very beautiful.' Warming to his theme, Wilson describes the mansions and villas that belonged to the town's business class, mainly built in greenstone, and which stretch along the picturesque shoreline and adjacent hillside. Wilson writes that the main structures in the town were the county buildings and prison, which were built in a modern style in 1832 at a cost of £4,000 - about £210,000 in today's terms. The famous promenade and pier were built on reclaimed land at the end of the nineteenth century, while the excellent harbour was built in 1822 at cost of £6,000. A horse-drawn tramway was added to the promenade in 1882 (it was electrified in 1902), making it the only Scottish island to possess a tramway system.

Trade and Industry

After suffering a major economic slump and subsequent population decline during the first half of the eighteenth century, Rothesay enjoyed an upturn in its fortunes from 1760 onwards. It was the setting up of a herring-fishery and a custom-house which effected this economic recovery. A cotton mill was established in the town in 1778, greatly contributing to the town's economic resurgence. Wilson records that, in 1857, the spinning and cotton industries employed 360 'hands' (employees). Although a 300-loom factory for handloom weaving was established in 1825, the sudden decline that afflicted this industry meant that, by 1838, only 35 looms remained in the town's factory. Tanning, whisky and banking were other industries in Rothesay, while a weekly market was held in the town on Wednesdays. Fairs were also staged on special dates throughout the year.

As one would expect of an island, the port at Rothesay was central to its economic development. The harbour was built in 1822 at a cost of £6,000 - about £360,000 in today's terms. Although the harbour at Rothesay was somewhat eclipsed by the mainland port at nearby Greenock, there were imports of salt, coal, hides, cotton, lime and sandstone, while the town's exports included salted herrings, fresh fish, cotton yarn, cotton cloth, leather goods and farming produce. In addition to a small boat-building industry, the harbour also expanded as a result of Rothesay's emergence as a popular tourist resort during the early-nineteenth century. Indeed, the Glasgow tradition of boarding a paddle-steamer and 'Going doon the Watter for the Fair', helped to turn seaside towns like Rothesay and Dunoon into fashionable resorts for Victorian day-trippers and bathers. Rothesay's favourable climate also meant that it was a preferred destination for recovering consumptives, which is why it was sometimes known as 'the Montpellier of Scotland'.

Religious Life

The parish of Rothesay belongs in the presbytery of Dunoon and the synod of Argyll, with the Marquis of Bute its patron. As with most other Scottish towns during the mid-nineteenth century, there was a diverse collection of religious buildings, including a chapel of ease, four Free churches (one of which spoke Gaelic), a United Presbyterian church, a Reformed Presbyterian church, an Episcopalian chapel, a Baptist chapel and a Roman Catholic chapel.

Culture and Society

Rothesay boasted many of the cultural bodies and institutions that were popular in Scotland during the nineteenth century. For instance, there was a subscription library and public reading room, while the town's newspaper, the Buteman, was established in 1854 and published every Saturday. The town's exclusive Royal Northern Yacht Club was founded in 1824, with the club's members being rich owners of large yachts. With regard to educational establishments, Rothesay possessed two Free Church schools, four boarding schools for young ladies, a school of industry for females and a school for the poor.