The Castle Bakery: more than a century of Rothesay excellence

Charles S. Muir, Robert McMillan and Donnie Sweeney on board the Castle Bakery's last horse-drawn delivery van. The van is now on display in the 'Victorian street' section of the Riverside Transport Museum in Glasgow.
Charles S. Muir, Robert McMillan and Donnie Sweeney on board the Castle Bakery's last horse-drawn delivery van. The van is now on display in the 'Victorian street' section of the Riverside Transport Museum in Glasgow.

Our recent appeal for memories of Rothesay’s famous Castle Bakery got a fantastic response from readers.

Among those who got in touch was Anthea Hunter, whose late father, Charles Shirreff Muir, was the last of the Charles Muirs to run the much-admired business.

Anthea pointed us towards an article published in The Buteman in June 1978 to celebrate the company’s centenary, telling the story both of the firm and of the family responsible for one of Bute’s biggest success stories of the 20th century.

That article noted that the Muir family was not native to Rothesay: in fact they hailed from the village of Eaglesham, a few miles to the south of Glasgow.

They were involved in the shipbuilding firm of Muir and Wallace, but decided to come to Rothesay in the 1860s - it’s not entirely clear why they opted to move to Bute, though the island did have a thriving boat-building industry at the time, with numerous yards along the seafront (where the Esplanade gardens would be built in the early 19th century, on land reclaimed from the sea, as part of the town’s transformation from an industrial hub to a holiday hot-spot).

That change in Rothesay’s economic focus may partly explain why Charles Muir opted to open up a bakery in 1878, on a site in Montague Street which would later be occupied by the Norman Stewart Institute, the town’s library, recreational and meeting facility.

The erection of the Institute forced the bakery’s relocation to a new home at 17 High Street, where a small single-storey shop was expanded over the years to include a substantial bakehouse and even stables for the firm’s horses.

But one shop wasn’t enough to sustain a growing business for long, and over the years new branches were opened in a variety of locations - at one point the firm had eight shops on the island, including branches in Ardbeg, Port Bannatyne and Kilchattan Bay.

And it wasn’t just a local success story: throughout the early part of the 20th century the company won a host of UK prizes for the quality of its bread, cakes and shortbread, and boxes of the latter were sent every year from Bute to homes around the world as Christmas presents.

With the downturn in Rothesay’s economic fortunes from the 1960s onwards, the Castle Bakery faced a new set of challenges, and though a restaurant and tearoom were opened at the original High Street shop in 1972, by the early eighties increased competition from supermarkets and ever-rising transport costs forced the difficult decision to close the firm.

But its story is still a fascinating one - and one which lives on through the presence of one of the company’s horse-vans at the Riverside Transport Museum in Glasgow, and in the memories of those who worked for one of the biggest Bute business success stories of the 20th century.

* The Castle Bakery memories of Anthea Hunter and of Robert McMillan, who worked as a message-boy for the firm in the summer of 1960, feature in the December 11 issue of The Buteman - on sale now.

If this story has sparked any Castle Bakery memories of your own, we’d love to hear from you - drop an email to news@buteman.com with your recopllections and we’ll publish them in the second half of our Castle Bakery nostalgia trip, early in the new year.