You know those places that are literally right on your doorstep, but you’ve never been? Wee Cumbrae – or more formally, Little Cumbrae – was one of those places for me.
The problem is, it’s a tiny uninhabited island that has been pretty much impossible to reach for years… until now.
I’ve lived in Largs all of my days. I’ll often look out towards Wee Cumbrae and wonder what it’s like over there. Well, last month when I heard Clyde Charters were doing day trips over there, setting off from Largs Marina, it was my chance to finally check it out!
Here’s how it went…
Firstly, What & Where is Wee Cumbrae? 🗺
Wee Cumbrae is the smaller sibling of The Cumbrae Isles – Wee Cumbrae and Great Cumbrae.
Together they form two of the five ‘Islands of the Clyde’ archipelago, alongside Bute, Arran, and Holy Isle.
Wee Cumbrae is comprised of only 864 acres and measures around 1.8 miles long and 0.9 miles wide. The island is characterised by its steep coastal cliffs, its peak-top lighthouse, and of course, its very own wee castle.
There is so much for the inquisitive traveler to see, including two lighthouses, chapels, tombs, caves, a waterfall, a 16th Century castle, and a Victorian mansion house. It’s also an adventure for nature lovers, with over 75 species of bird – some rare, and some endangered, and many… seagulls. – calling the wee island home. There are also many porpoises and dolphins known to swim in the surrounding waters.
Who Owns Wee Cumbrae?
The island was bought back in 2009 for £2.5 million by Sarwan and Sunita Poddar of the Patanjali Yog Peeth Trust, with big ambitions to start a yoga retreat and “make Scotland the healthiest nation in the world within ten years”.
Now, I can’t speak for the whole of Scotland, but we are now 13 years down the line and we’re still not doing too well on the world health rankings… I digress.
So, essentially the island sits mostly uninhabited, which I say adds to its mystery and intrigue. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it feels almost apocalyptic in places.
Saying that, I have recently been made aware of an island caretaker named Peter who now resides in the victorian mansion house and is working towards setting up hostel accommodation on the island.
One thing I look for when I travel in Scotland is an experience that is unique. For me, I’m looking for something authentic, rather than some manufactured, synthetic tourist attraction. For me, the Wee Cumbrae boat trip checked that box. The mostly unblazen nature of the island almost feels like you’re venturing into the undiscovered and unknown.
Who are Clyde Charters? 🚤
Clyde Charters offer unique sea tours off the Clyde Coast of Scotland, and the chance to see things that you’re just not able to see any other way. They run trips to Wee Cumbrae, the sugar boat wreck in Greenock, and Glasgow trips up the Clyde.
They use ex-Royal Navy landing craft – affectionately named ‘Tonka’ – which carries 12 passengers and 2 crew, with 440 horsepower and top speed of 17 knots.
The Wee Cumbrae charter costs £30-a-head. Some may consider that a little steep, but I’d say that was good value for money given how unique the experience is.
We were shipped down the Firth of Clyde for the scenic 20-minute voyage to Wee Cumbrae in Tonka by Skipper Ronnie who is a super friendly guy. Despite being run off his feet with enquiries, bookings, and actually sailing the thing, he always had time to chat.
(This was back at the height of the pandemic btw)
As well as being in a generally Covid-safe outdoor and breezy environment, there were more than adequate Covid secure measures in place, including masks, sanitiser, and plenty of distance between guests, allowing for an environment that felt really safe.
One thing that made the trip really special was the crew’s knowledge of the resident dolphin, Kylie’s behaviour. She frequents a particular red buoy, just off the east coast of Great Cumbrae, and as we sailed by, Ronnie took a 360-degree turn around it so she could pop up to say hello! That was an unforgettable moment, and really what made the overall trip special.
Check out the video I made of the trip (featuring the Kylie the dolphin at 00:32)
Did you know?…
My name is Daniel Jack, and alongside my cousin Adam Jack, am in the process of setting up a unique tourist accommodation experience in Millport, Great Cumbrae. Our ‘Alternative Eco-Cabin’ concept is the next generation of tourist accommodation. The cabins will look like this:
We’re working towards a launch date in Summer 2022. If you’d like to check out the concept and receive progress updates on our business start-up, please do sign up below, and I’ll send you more information:
Anyway… back to Wee Cumbrae.
The Uninhabited Island Adventure 🏝
When we arrived on Wee Cumbrae, we had 4 hours to venture. The Clyde Charters guys handed out printed maps of the island which turned out to be super useful, to cram as much sightseeing in as possible.
Let me tell you though, 4 hours flies in when you’re having fun, and Wee Cumbrae suddenly doesn’t feel so ‘wee’ when you’re climbing right over the top of it!
We started by checking out the stable areas, not far from the pier. If I’m honest, there were some almost spooky vibes about them. Inside was like a time warp back to a couple of decades ago, like it hadn’t been touched that whole time.
It was actually quite a shame that the buildings appear to have not been upkept for what seems to be many, many years. One of the other very few downsides with Wee Cumbrae is the dumping ground of old white goods, building waste, crockery, other general rubbish, and believe it or not, an old red phone box.
Admittedly, it’s hidden behind a building out of plain sight, but it wouldn’t hurt for the owners to get that sorted out, if I’m honest.
The Lighthouses 💡
There are two lighthouses on Wee Cumbrae. The first is called the ‘Wee Cumbrae Old Lighthouse’ and can be found on the highest point of the island.
It was built back in 1757, making it the 2nd oldest lighthouse in all of Scotland. (Scotland’s #1 oldest lighthouse was built 8 years earlier in 1749 and that can be found in Southerness in Dumfries and Galloway).
A funny local legend springs to mind…
The light in Wee Cumbrae’s Old Lighthouse was powered by coal back in the day. I heard they used to use Donkeys to cart the coal up the hill. Legend says that one day, a donkey had decided he had had enough, so escaped and made a mad dash for the sea.
The donkey was said to have swum back over to the shore in Millport bay (Great Cumbrae), and emerged from the sea with seaweed stuck to his head. A drunken sailor was said to be lying on the Millport shore at the time and seen what he believed to be a sea monster emerging from the ocean and invading Millport. He then alerted the people and authorities of the invasion, not realising it was an innocent donkey, much to his embarrassment…
(Thanks to Bronwyn at Isle of Cumbrae Distillers for sharing that tale with me)
Anyway, the other lighthouse on the island is known as the ‘Wee Cumbrae New Lighthouse’, which was originally built in 1793 by Thomas Smith and Robert Stevenson, so I suppose it’s not much ‘newer’ than the old one. The light was automated from 1977 until 1997.
It’s down over on the far west side of the island. This one has been inhabited by many generations of many families over the centuries but has also been unused since 1997.
We managed to venture over to the abandoned lighthouse on the other side of the island, which offered unbelievable views to the Isles of Cumbrae and Bute to the north and northwest, then the immense Arran mountains dominating the southeastern skyline (02:23 in my video).
That view was worth the early start, for sure!
The feeling of looking at these places I’m so familiar with, but from a totally different perspective was enlightening. It was one of those moments where you just take a few seconds to just appreciate living and working in such an incredibly beautiful part of the world.
A Quick Note on Great Cumbrae… ⛴
Wee Cumbrae’s bigger brother to the north – Great Cumbrae (often conflated with its main, and in fact only town, Millport) – is a 10-mile-round cyclists’ paradise, and holds many fond childhood memories for many who grew up around Glasgow and the west.
Today it’s still an awesome choice for an island getaway that is easy, affordable, and quick to get to. The ferry costs £3.40 and is only an 8-minute trip over! Cumbrae is actually referred to as ‘Scotland’s Most Accessible Island.
For what it lacks in size, it makes up for in adventure. There are some awesome walking routes, from a climb up to the Glaidstone viewpoint to enjoy 360-degree panoramic views across the Clyde, to a relaxing stroll along the palm tree-lined promenade along the beachfront of Cumbrae’s main town of Millport. After all of that, you might want to catch a refreshing pint with the locals, fireside, in one of the few cosy bars.
Anyway… back to Wee Cumbrae (again)!
We brought our 7-year-old labrador, Rudi, along with us. The trip was definitely appropriate for a dog. Just don’t forget the essential lead, poo bags, plenty of water and treats because there are definitely no shops over there!
The terrain was challenging at points. Some pathways were so boggy they were almost unpassable (and this was in July!). Luckily there was a clear heads-up from the Clyde Charter guys to wear appropriate clothing, especially footwear.
The new lighthouse was also like a bizarre space stuck in time, and beginning a state of disrepair, having fallen victim either to vandals, wild weather, or more likely both, with its smashed windows and empty beer bottles still standing with use-by dates of 2010 (They must have been drank all that time ago, or recently bought in Spar).
Returning over the peak and back to the landing point, we checked out the 16th Century Castle which is back on the very east side at the landing point. The original fortress is known to have been built in the 14th Century by Walter Stewart, who was apparently married to a woman called Marjorie Bruce, the only daughter of Robert the Bruce. There’s a wee bit of history for you there.
The current castle was then built by Lord Eglinton in the 16th Century. I always wonder what those 5-ft thick walls have seen over the centuries they have stood strong. If only they could talk…
Anyways, that was then time for our charter to return. Our dolphin friend, Kylie, made another appearance on the way back. Given that it was so unexpected, the sightings both on our way too, and from, Wee Cumbrae, combined with the stunningly scenic views really made the trip special.
Would I go again?… Some things are only to be done once, right? However, I think there were still a few more things to see over there that 4 hours just didn’t quite allow, such as the caves, chapels, and burial grounds. So yes, definitely worth a revisit, especially to see the progress being made by the island’s new caretaker.