The Isle of Bute has many well preserved archaeological and historical sites. This wealth of sites is reflected in the Bute Museum collection, which is one of the finest in the country for a museum of its size.
The earliest exhibits are a collection of flint, including some microliths, from a site near Kilchattan Bay. They date from the Mesolithic period (7000-3800BC). During the Neolithic period (c. 3800-2500BC) many cairns were erected across the island and finds from these are on display. Of particular interest is the stunning collection of Neolithic pots, excavated by Dorothy Marshall from Glenvoidean, at the north end of the island. Domestic life in this period is represented by finds from the settlement at Townhead.
The Bronze Age (c. 2500-500BC) was the time of the building of the stone circles at Ettrick Bay and Kingarth. Burials of this period were in cists, which were sometimes covered by round cairns. Many of these have been excavated on the island and the wealth of grave goods recovered from them are on display in the Bronze Age cases. A magnificent jet necklace, decorated food vessels and flint tools show the skills of the Bronze Age people. A rare Bronze Age axe mould, found at Dunagoil is also on display.
The Iron Age(c. 500BC-500AD) was the time of the fort builders. The strongholds of these people dot the landscape of the island. Dunagoil Fort, at the south end of the island, was a site rich in finds. It was excavated in the early part of the 20th century and a whole case is devoted to it, giving a real insight into how the people lived. Metal weapons were being manufactured, exemplified by the crucibles and moulds found on the site. Spindle whorls, a weaving comb, bone bodkins, bowls and jewellery show the domestic and artistic side of these people.
The written record of life on Bute begins in the Early Christian period. For the first time we know the names of some of the people. Chapels are dedicated to St Blane, St Ninian and St Marnock. From these sites come a magnificent display of elaborately carved stones. These include the Inchmarnock cross, a stone from St Blanes carved with a horseman, and the remains of a cross known as the MacAlister stone which is carved with various birds, beasts and celtic designs.
The Vikings visited the island many times, taking a particular interest in the castle. A rare Viking sword hilt, found near Ettrick Bay, dates from this period. When the castle moat was excavated at the end of the 19th century, artefacts from many periods of the castle’s history were found and these form a collection, which includes weapons and domestic objects such as medieval keys and gaming pieces.
The church played an important part in the lives of the people of Bute and it is well represented in the form of church pewter and an extensive collection of communion tokens. The secular life of the last few centuries is reflected in a very comprehensive collection of ‘bygones’ from tools to toys – everything a Brandane (Bute person) might need. Farming was an important source of employment so it has its own case. There is also a case dedicated to trades and professions, including the fishing industry and the cotton mills, both vital to the 18th/19th century island economy.
The Bute tourist industry began in Victorian times and has been central to the island ever since. Model steamers, photographs and part of a paddle box from the Duchess of Fife retell the story of ‘coming doon the water,’ while Punch and Judy, ginger beer bottles and programmes for the Winter Garden concerts will rekindle memories of past holidays for many visitors.
Memorabilia of wartime Bute, from the Napoleonic to the 2nd world war, form another collection and the bell from HMS Varbel is a reminder of the island’s important role as a submarine base.
The island’s history from early man to the 21st century is all here in one room.