The sound of bagpipes competing with the thunderous noise of T-Rex, tartan interwoven in the hem of denim flares and the smell of a fish supper laced with the remnants of Embassy cigarettes and El Dorado that clung to never-been-washed leather jackets, stained with memories, that if could talk, would say too much. That was 70s Bute.
20th century Bute had long been host to summers with sweltering heat, accessible beaches and cafés that stretched from end to end of Rothesay’s picturesque esplanade. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this was an island situated amidst a Caribbean paradise and it would come as no surprise that this little west-coast island became a tropical getaway for city folks and day-trippers, even acquiring the title of ‘Madeira of the Clyde’ and there is no better demonstration of the vibrancy and buzzing of Bute than in what writer Tom Wolfe refers to as the “‘Me’ Decade” of the 1970s in his New York Magazine essay “‘The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening”. It was a time where individualism reigned, sending cultural shockwaves through the Western world in the form of music, film and fashion and Bute was no exception to this sociocultural storm.
By day, the little quaint, charming town of Rothesay boasted packed cafés that included Joe Foschetti’s XL Café on Gallowgate, Café Bruna on the ‘front’ and Gerry’s Castle Café on High Street. The choices of places to go were endless and as the Glasgow Fair fortnight arrived, it brought an influx of tourists that Rothesay was able to cater to with several B&Bs as well as the CoCamps at Roseland and not to forget those who dared to rough it in Bute’s famous wilderness.
However, by night as most closed their doors, other’s began to open and so this endearing town transformed into a bustling hub of brilliant chaos, made to be taken on by the young, brave and eccentric: “I always loved going into a busy Rothesay pub, jam-packed with the doors open, and someone belting out a Dolly Parton or a Neil Diamond number, folk singing along, dancing about mad. The stale smell of smoke and beer. Magic.” Says Rothesay local, Charlie McGuire, 65.
Martin Gillies, 60, a former DJ for the ‘Moat Disco’ agrees with this: “The Moat Disco was great, where you had mods, rockers, new romantics and punks all on the same dance floor and also later came the Harbour Bar discos at the Port Royal where you could watch the floor moving up and down it was that stowed.”
A ‘night out’ was a bit of an understatement when it came to Rothesay, as binges could last up to many nights and even weekends: “Typically, me and my pals would be out Thursday,Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, every single week. I suppose that, like a lot of others, I drank way too much. It was a pub society, and there was a very strong drinking culture here, more so than on the mainland even, but when you’re young you don’t think about these things. Although, there was never a problem getting home from a night out here, no matter how drunk you got.” Says Charlie.
You couldn’t partake in a good-old Rothesay night out without owning the proper attire and this could be obtained from shops like Fraser Gillies on Montague Street or Caldwells on Victoria Street. Paul MacDonald, 57, a renowned ‘rocker’ in the late 70s, talks of his style at this time: “My music taste matched the clothes I wore. Corduroys, black or denim flares, denim jacket with a t- shirt band name on it such as Zeppelin or Sabbath and of course, doc martens.”
However, fashion trends were typically late to the island, much like everything else, and many would take trips to the mainland for their clothes shops as Charlie mentions: “I was never much of a fashion guru, but I loved a lot of the styles of the seventies. I loved having my hair long, big sideboards, flared jeans, platform shoes, college jumpers, denim shirts and jackets but things got a bit more sophisticated and you’d be going to hip shops up the Toon, as we called Glasgow.”
Although many trends did arrive on Bute and of course, better late than never, the rural island held true to its traditionally agricultural values Charlie explains: “Bute being only an hour and a half from Glasgow meant that eventually there was the same styles and fashions on display here as in the big city, but the island had its own flavour too. Being largely an agriculture environment, Bute had a rich seam of traditional Scottish country culture, and a thriving Young Farmers scene.”
Not only did Bute thrive from its agriculture, but it boomed with talent and entertainment from places such as The Winter Garden Theatre, Rothesay Pavilion and the much-loved cinema: The Regal. Bute was a place in which both national and international superstars were not only a produce of but where many of them performed. Some of these big acts included Scottish musician and friend of the Beatles, Donovan.
Charlie describes how Bute got a taste of the 70s music scene: “I remember going to see Donovan with my girlfriend at the Pavillion. Even here on Bute we got a wee taste of [the music scene] when groups like Chicory Tip and Blackfoot Sue, both of whom had number one hits, played the Pavilion. They were joined by lots of Glasgow bands like The Verge, Molls Myre and other English acts. The big event was usually the local Sub Aqua Club Dance, which was always mobbed.”
From Bute at this time came the fame of international child-star, Lena Zavaroni, who was the youngest person in history to have an album in the top ten UK Albums Chart at the age of just 10 with Ma!. Paul and Charlie describe Bute’s reaction to Lena’s fame at that time:
“It was good to see Lena in Opportunity Knocks and on the TV in general but it felt kind of surreal.” Says Paul.
Charlie agrees by describing his own first hand experience with her: “I remember standing outside Chrissy Jenkin’s pub, The Athletic, on the Gallowgate, listening to this new singing sensation, Lena Zavaroni, pure belting it out one Saturday afternoon. She was incredible. When she appeared in Hughie Green’s “Opportunity Knocks” on TV it was just the biz! Everyone loved her.”
Lena went on to perform with huge artists such as Liza Minelli and Frank Sinatra, Charlie recalls:
“I remember my Dad coming home from school one day, in a state of shock. Big Charlie didn’t get into such states. Ever. But he’d been watching Lena on a tv special with his hero, Frank Sinatra, the previous night- and suddenly realised she was in his new class that day! What impressed him most was how polite, shy and unassuming Lena was. He was in awe of her. It was so funny to see him react like that.”
Lena was not the only Rothesay-born music star, with keyboardist Billy McIsaac performing on Top of the Pops with his band Slik and going on to have a big hit with the track Forever and Ever. Charlie recalls fond memories of Billy:“I knew Billy, he used to let me sit on with him on a Sunday morning in the Bute Arms, me playing the drums. Really decent guy. One night Midge Ure came over and stayed at his Mum’s in Dewar Avenue. He was on Top of the Pops quite a few times with Slik, and then a new group called The Zones.”
It would be unrealistic and rather naive to assume that Bute in the 70s was boasting all sunshines and rainbows with its flourishing tourism, endless dining and renowned entertainment because the reality is, it wasn’t. The truth of the matter is, that like any decade, it had its peaks and it had its pits and the ripples from post-war Britain and the politics of Scotland specifically, had an immense impact that arrived as waves upon its sandy shores.
Not only Bute but Scotland’s main and most well-known issue in the 70s (and still to this day) was the lack of job opportunities. This put huge strain on the island’s youth and for many, their only option was to seek work or further education on the mainland as Charlie explains: “To get on in life, you’ve pretty much got to go.”
However, the introduction of the construction yard at Ardyne relieved the pressures of work for some with long hours and great wages as Charlie states : “Ardyne was good for the the town, providing much needed jobs. It was a time of prosperity for some, but it didn’t last, unfortunately.”
Much of this, like the rest of Scotland, led to an increase in ‘Gang Culture’ and a general increase in violence which was particularly felt in the West and Central Scotland. Although Rothesay only being home to a number of small gangs that were mainly “bravado”, the real issue lay with gangs that would come “doon the watter” looking for trouble and the violence even extended to fights between locals and the Navy. Charlie recalls: “Often when the sailors came ashore they headed for the pubs and the Toon were waiting for them. There was a melee like a wild-west saloon fight in The Grapes one Saturday between sailors and Rothesay youths. There were some nasty incidents, same as anywhere, but in comparison to Glasgow it was pretty tranquil. Most guys just grew out of it got girlfriends and settled down. It was just part of growing up here in the 1970’s.”
However, the biggest cultural change in Bute at this time, was the collapse of the tourist trade and many felt the effects of a government they claim “failed to invest in the future of the town”. By the mid-70s, cheap air package holidays to Spain became affordable to Glasgow’s masses and the competition proved too much for what was once known as the “Madeira of the Clyde”.
Charlie looks fondly back on his experiences of the 70s on Bute: “I had a very mixed time of it growing up in Rothesay. There was a real community here, no real problems, but quite a lot of poverty. Some people had a struggle, and many kids didn’t get much of a start in life. But almost everyone I grew up with, from whatever background, remembers the seventies with affection and nostalgia.”
Paul agrees by saying “I would never change growing up in the 70s for the world. Although there were hardships and a lot of unemployment, the community pulled together and you could ask your neighbour for milk, sugar etc. It does say a lot though when a lot of people had tick bills to buy food and clothes. We were all on the same boat, so to say.”
It is evident that Bute since the 70s has both progressed and regressed over time, with the decline in both tourism and population, Bute has seen many of its much-loved places and faces come and go but its legacy will remain and although we have reached the end of our trip down memory lane, some of it’s diversions of tales and accounts will have to remain untouched, for the culture of a decade to be explored concisely in one piece is near impossible. Whether that’s good, bad or indifferent, almost certainly, for most, they will be thankful that their old leather jackets don’t talk.