“Cumbria?” chimed two of my neighbours simultaneously. “No”, I repeated. “Cumbrae. Cum-brae.”
“Oh,” said Mike. “I think I went there once. As a boy. Maybe.” The same mystified look I get off everyone outside Scotland descended on the other. How could they not know about Cumbrae? Scotland’s most accessible island is alive with gin, wildlife, beaches and staycation-making epic landscapes.
Heading back there recently I found a community fighting not only for its place on the map, but also its very survival. I also found something elusive in these fraught times – Zen.
First things first, Cumbrae is not a single island; it’s a glorious Firth of Clyde twin. Grand-sounding Great Cumbrae is a fertile wee emerald, rich in farmland and rolling hills; more Borders than Highlands. It’s fringed with beaches too. Brutish sibling Little Cumbrae is a rugged monster bursting from the Clyde, defiantly Hebridean: all gnarly cliffs and rock-slashed coast. Together, quite a combo. I scarcely have time to take anything in on the 10-minute ferry hop from Largs, but there is enough to fire up my imagination: isles this small and perfectly formed are straight out of Treasure Island.
Cumbrae may not trip off the tongue around the UK today, but in Victorian times the Cumbraes boomed. Scott Ferris, of Mapes of Millport, explains: “Glaswegians used to batter ‘doon the watter’ on paddle steamers for their holidays here long before they jetted off to the Spanish Costas. That was the real boom time for the Cumbraes.”
I’m visibly reminded that those days are long gone when the Waverley, one such vessel, funnels by right on cue behind us – she’s just back in the water after another lifesaving refit. The world’s last ocean-going paddle steamer will take the nostalgic on scone-fuelled trips back in time all summer.
It’s early summer when I visit, but on a slate-grey, low-slung day, Cumbrae is blissfully quiet. The crowds only really descend when the sun warms the Clyde and they scurry from Glasgow, less than an hour away, to Largs by train.
Day trips are not enough to sustain a fragile island community; not one under such duress anyway. Many Scottish islands face difficulties in retaining their communities (particularly younger people) amidst a boom in second home ownership, but other factors make it even harder here, as Scott explains: “This is a community under pressure. We’ve got the likes of Airbnb coming in, the Marquess of Bute controls our coastline, and then we have the pressures from new wind farms and fish farms.”
I’m reassured, though, to be staying at the recently revamped Old Bank. It’s no faceless Airbnb, but an independent B&B where I find the community spirit Scott lauds in passionate locals who charm me to my room. It mercifully scores low on tartan twee, with driftwood lamps and calm colours adding to the maritime vibe – two of the doubles peer out over Millport’s sandy, seal-studded bay.
The Old Bank sets the tone for the bijou island ‘capital’. Last time I was in Millport it was in seemingly terminal decline, beyond faded grandeur. A heritage initiative, though, is bringing back the brightly painted facades of the palm-fringed Victorian main street. Some buildings are still under scaffolding, finishing off their rebirth. The effect is spectacular: instantly retro, but vibrant, verging on Firth of Clyde hipster. That vibe ripples through their dynamic tenants: an artisan baker, deli and traditional sweet shops catering for modern tastes, as well as Cumbrae Rock.
I’m drawn by the new Isle of Cumbrae Distillers in particular. The polar opposite of a massive international conglomerate, it’s run by five ladies who gelled in the pub over a mutual love of gin. I meet three of them, busying away under the scaffolding, working on their low-fi ‘visitor experience’. “We just wanted to bring something different to Cumbrae, inject the island with a bit of our spirit,” says Bronwyn Jenkins-Deas. “I hope you can taste our passion and spirit in our spirit.”
Isle of Cumbrae’s Distillers’quintet have succeeded in distilling their passion, but it’s a positive spirit I encounter all over. From bar staff and shop assistants, to the people who say “hello” as I stroll, and the waitress at the Garrison House Café. She serves me a ‘protein burst’ of houmous and falafel, and a berry health kick with oatmeal and yogurt. “We’ve still got all the baked potatoes and cakes by the way,” she reassures me. Cumbrae is an island today increasingly as comfortable with quinoa as it is with Scotch eggs.
The Garrison House’s Museum of the Cumbraes provides context. Nearby lies the ‘world’s narrowest house’. Cumbrae seems intent on getting into the Guinness World Records, as well as on the map. They are at it too at the Cathedral of the Isles, the Gothic Revival concoction of William Butterfield. This wonder may recline hidden in the wild garlic-kissed trees, but it claims to be the smallest cathedral in the UK.
You could spend days just pottering around Millport. I do, but I also cycle around the island with an e-bike from Mapes. It’s only just over 10 miles around Great Cumbrae; no need to hurry then. I eke off, but am soon detained by Arran. Its papier-mâché peaks rise up like an Alpine postcard across the water. I cycle on, but am arrested by Bute.
Reaching the red sands of Fintry Bay I’m halted again. This time by porpoises skipping in and out the water just metres away. These nutrient-rich waters attract bigger marine mammals too, from dolphins through to whales, with all manner of birdlife in a mix that would have Attenborough calling his documentary producers. The machinations of man intrigue me too. The Fintry Bay Café offers creative pan-Asian cuisine, deckchairs and hammocks swinging by a fibreglass panda. There is a hulking double-decker bus too. I ask the guy who serves me proper coffee if they’ve thought of glamping. “Aye! Well no glamping exactly, more just somewhere cool to ride that still looks and feels like a bus.”
Most people come to Cumbrae and cycle. You should walk too. I march off on my last morning on the four-mile signposted Inner Circle. After easing up around fields dotted with sheep and cattle, the farmland strips back to offer the highest point in the Cumbraes – all 417ft of the Glaid Stone.
From here the Firth of Clyde unfurls like a map. The Vikings could have done with a reccy here. It was in these waters that they lost the Battle of Largs in 1263. I say lost, but in Euros parlance it was more a score draw, the Vikings being sent home to think again as they were playing away and their king died on the return voyage.
Little, or ‘Wee Cumbrae’, as the islanders call it, had drawn me for days, off-bounds in stiff southerlies. A weather window opens on my last evening so I bash over with John Teale, skipper of Sea Clyde’s new RIB, who promises I’ll “love the peace; love the nature.” I do.
The island is mostly used as a yoga retreat, but there is not a soul here. I have my own ghostly castle and wander along the craggy coastline. Gulls squawk and oystercatchers, curlews and gannets add to the ambient soundtrack that eases my shoulders and slows me to tidal pace. And then I find her. As the reborn façades of Millport blink back in the gloaming there she is. An upturned wooden boat. Zen.