OPINION: Bute needs to accentuate the positives

The signature picture-postcard view of Rothesay Bay, taken from Chapehill, next to the former Rothesay Academy. (Pic by Colin Campbell)
The signature picture-postcard view of Rothesay Bay, taken from Chapehill, next to the former Rothesay Academy. (Pic by Colin Campbell)

The Buteman’s editor offers a few thoughts on what ordinary residents of Bute can do to contribute to the island’s prosperity.

Let’s encourage people to visit Scotland’s islands by setting up a competition to win free ferry tickets. A good idea, surely? Well, not if the reaction of some of The Buteman’s online readers is anything to go by.

The ‘Brilliant Island Moments’ competition, run by VisitScotland and launched in 2013, was a huge success last year: with eight thousand tickets (actually four thousand foot passenger return trips) up for grabs, more than 63,000 people entered during its three-week run - more than double the number who participated in 2013.

So, as they say in the marketing and publicity business, doing it again this year was a ‘no-brainer’. And, in common with media outlets across the country, we published a short story on our website last Wednesday with details of how to enter.

It really couldn’t be easier: all you do is enter your details, your chosen ferry operator (CalMac or Northlink) and your preferred ports of departure and arrival.

It’s a marketer’s dream: in the space of less than a month in both 2013 and 2014, VisitScotland captured the details of a vast swathe of potential new visitors, not just to Scotland’s islands but to the country as a whole, and you can bet your boots that most of the competition’s entrants - unless they opted out of receiving any further marketing material - will have been sent a steady stream of publicity since last year’s initiative, pointing out to them the many attractions to be visited in Scotland in addition to our stunning islands.

But it would appear that not everyone thinks it’s a great wheeze. In the few hours that followed after we posted a link to the story on our Facebook page, several comments were posted which appear to suggest that corrosive cynicism is alive, well and flourishing.

Here’s one: “Haha thats if they dont get cancelled at the last minute.”

And another: “I won tickets like that a few years ago: you’ll have to travel to Wemyss Bay to collect your tickets to get to Rothesay...They would not change them to ‘Rothesay-Wemyss Bay’ tickets.”

And a third, in response to the second: “That is sooooo cal mac u couldn’t make it up hahaha.”

When VisitScotland announced the 2015 ‘Brilliant Island Moments’ competition, they helpfully provided some background info about the success of the 2014 version. In addition to pointing out a ‘record-breaking’ 63,000 entrants last year - substantially more than the 35,000 who took part in 2013 - they listed the most popular destinations from last year’s entries.

Number one: Brodick on Arran, with 9,470 requests. Number two: Shetland, with 8,989. Third was Lewis with 7,028, with Mull fourth (6,710) and Orkney fifth (6,204). Even within Argyll and the Isles, the next four most popular after Mull were Islay (4,348), then Tiree (3,402) and Colonsay (1,155).

You will doubtless have noticed by now the islands which are missing from those lists. Or, rather, one island in particular. So why, given that it’s far, far easier to get to than any of the top five, was Bute not among the most popular destination requests?

Well, okay, here’s a confession: I don’t know. Or, at least, I’m not able to say for certain. But I do know that attitudes like the ones mentioned above from our Facebook page will not help.

Let’s take the comments above one at a time. First, the ferry might be cancelled. Yes, it might. But the ferries to all those other islands might be cancelled too. And if one ferry doesn’t run on any of the above island routes, you’ll have hours, if not days, to wait for the next one - not 60 minutes, as would be the case at Wemyss Bay.

What’s more, if you’re travelling for nothing anyway, what have you lost? Sixty minutes out of your day, when one of the biggest attractions of any Scottish island to a potential visitor is that life is generally not lived at the same frantic pace as in the big city? Somehow I doubt that the possibility of a ferry being cancelled is really going to put people off visiting Bute.

Complaint number two: ‘they’ would not change them to Rothesay-Wemyss Bay tickets. Well, the clue there is in the name of the competition organiser. VisitScotland wasn’t set up to give those who already live on the islands a free away-day, thereby encouraging them to spend their cash elsewhere.

Complaint number three: that it’s all CalMac’s fault. Nope, sorry, not buying that one either. Why? Because it’s not CalMac’s competition. It’s VisitScotland’s. Simples, as those meerkats off the telly keep saying. Got a problem with that? Take it up with VisitScotland. And you’ll get the same answer as the one I’ve just given above (though probably without the same sense of naughty-child finger-wagging you’re getting from me right now).

The ability to grumble about ferries is something that’s built into the DNA of every Scottish island resident. And yes, they aren’t perfect. But it’s all too easy to use the perceived shortcomings of the ferry service as a convenient crutch to lean upon, to avoid having to look at the bigger truth.

Which, in this particular case, is that girning online about the ferries and the company which operates them isn’t going to do Bute anything but harm. Our website, and our Facebook page, just like yours (if you have either), can be read throughout the country and around the world.

And anyone who’s ever worked in the hospitality industry will tell you that one negative comment easily has the power to undo the good work of a hundred positive ones. It’s not rocket science: if you want to see more people contributing to your community, complaining about it in such a public fashion is not a great way to start.

Slowly, but surely, Bute appears to be coming round to this way of thinking. For example, it’s not all that many years since any Caledonian MacBrayne official attending a meeting here would have been well advised to bring a flak-jacket and shinguards with them.

But there is now a recognition on both sides that regular, civil, constructive discussions are the only way to bring about improvements to the island’s transport links, rather than donning your steel-toecapped size 12s and preparing for the ritual ‘CalMac kicking’ exercise which, besides providing a brief opportunity to let off steam, could be guaranteed to achieve absolutely nothing.

There are other signs, too, that Bute is beginning to realise that blaming others and plaintively crying “help!” may not be the best way forward. Take the meeting last month organised by local community councillor Martin Catlin to look at ways of increasing the island’s population.

I didn’t have my work hat on that night, by the way - I just went along as a resident of Bute with an interest in seeing the island grow and prosper - but I found it by far the most positive, constructive and encouraging meeting I’ve attended since I came to live in Rothesay 12 and a half years ago.

Blame was not the name of the game that night: it was all about what we as an island community can do to make this place better and more appealing as somewhere to live, work and visit. Yes, ordinary people and community groups will need to work with other agencies - transport operators, landowners, enterprise companies and government at all levels, to name a few.

But that meeting, more than any other in the time I’ve been living here, was about what those at the grassroots can do. And while few of us are in the fortunate position of being able to invest large sums in the island’s economy, there is one thing we can all do: namely, start talking up the island more. No-one who lives on Bute has to think for long to come up with a big list of the things that are great about it.

The scenery is an easy one. Easy walks is another - I’ve never understood the attraction of climbing up a mountain, for example, not least because in the case of most of Scotland’s tallest peaks, almost everyone who wants to scale them has to spend half a day travelling just to get to the bottom, never mind the top.

Accessibility is another one everyone knows about, if they just stop and think. Ferries every hour, and every 45 minutes at peak times, virtually all of them with easy transport connections at Wemyss Bay, itself less than an hour from Glasgow. And a stunning drive if you fancy going the long way round.

Then there’s Bute’s built heritage: Rothesay is the largest conservation area in Scotland outside Edinburgh’s New Town, and one which has been substantially improved as a result of the Townscape Heritage Initiative cash pumped into Guildford Square and the surrounding area over the last few years. And where else is there a castle slap bang in the centre of the town?

And the jewel in the crown: Mount Stuart. Nowhere else in Scotland - or, indeed, in Britain - will you see a house quite like it. We took a call just this week from someone who had been on a guided tour there last summer and wanted to know the name of the head guide, so that he could seek her out again in 2015 and introduce a whole new group of visitors to her passion for the building and its history. (Incidentally, Jean Pattison, my bill is in the post.)

The island’s economy might have to fight hard to keep its head above water at times, but Bute’s business scene has far more going for it than other places of a similar size. Walk down the high streets of many a Scottish town much larger than Rothesay, and you won’t see as many independent retailers as Bute: two butchers, two fishmongers, a baker, a greengrocer, ladies’ and gents’ fashions, a bike shop, home electricals, ironmongery, computer supplies and umpteen more isn’t bad for a place of this size.

Amid all of the above, I haven’t mentioned, until now, the very, very best bit about Bute: its people. It’s so obvious that most of us don’t notice until someone points it out, but the people of this island really are the friendliest, most welcoming and most community-spirited you could possibly hope to meet.

Look at the way the island rallied round its own just a few weeks ago after the Roberts family lost their home in a devastating fire, raising several thousand pounds and donating parcel after parcel to help them get back on their feet. Visitors to Bute might not immediately see that kind of community spirit, but it’s there nonetheless - and it’s an attitude that can’t help but seep out whenever we find ourselves talking to a visitor.

Take Calum’s Cabin, too. Set up in the saddest of circumstances, this is a Bute charity which now welcomes almost a hundred families a year to the island, giving them the chance to escape, even if only for a few days, from the serious illness affecting their day-to-day lives.

And they all go home at the end of their break treasuring those happy Bute memories and passing word to their own circle of family and friends of how much there was to do while they visited, and how warm, friendly and accommodating this wonderful place is.

And I know, too, that those who come to the island for particular events - be they shinty, football or cricket matches, triathlons, cycling weekends, jazz festivals, Highland Games or whatever - almost all go away raving about the warm welcome.

Which makes it kind of unfortunate that this whole piece started out as a bit of a rant against those few Facebookers determined to put a negative spin on a positive story. Because social media has the potential to do so much good, for Bute as anywhere else: take the regular ‘ScotlandHour’ event on Twitter, in which participants add the ‘hashtag’ #scotlandhour to their Tweets about a particular event.

Just a few hours after our ferry ticket giveaway story went live on Facebook, that month’s ‘ScotlandHour’ on Twitter, on the theme of ‘festivals’, was not short of mentions of ButeFest.

Those Twitter mentions were a deliberate move by ButeFest’s organisers, of course. But anyone who is on Twitter, and who makes a habit of searching for #scotlandhour, would have seen the frequent mentions of ButeFest - and just might have been motivated to find out more, maybe buy a ticket and perhaps even come and visit to scout out the island before this July’s festival.

Of course, the ease of access to, and the instant nature of, any form of social media is its biggest plus point, but also, potentially, its biggest pitfall: anyone can say what they like, however, negative or positive, without having to think too much about it in advance.

I’ve known for years how easy it is for a spelling error to jump off the printed page of The Buteman, when it was nowhere to be seen on my computer screen 24 hours before, and I generally take a bit more care over what I say on social media.

The same applies to this piece: I’ve thought long and hard over whether to make it public, since parts of it - at least from the perspective of a Bute resident, if not as editor of The Buteman - come dangerously close to doing just what I’ve criticised others for, namely grumbling in public. And it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop asking searching questions where they need to be asked, or that I have any plans to fill The Buteman with nothing but all-singing, all-dancing, happy-clappy tales about how absolutely everything in the garden is rosy when it isn’t.

But if it makes you stop and think twice in future about trotting out the same old tired complaints about why life on Bute may not be less than perfect, and about the impression of the island which those tired old half-truths present to people who might actually be thinking about visiting, or even living on, the island, it might just do a little bit of good.

* What do you think? Send us your views on this important topic - email news@buteman.com (click on the email address at the top of this story to get in touch) or click on ‘Have Your Say’, again near the top of this article, to see your comments here.