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Isle of Cumbrae

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Cumbrae -
8 minutes to Utopia

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The ferry crossing to the Isle of Cumbrae takes just 8 minutes - there you find Utopia...

“The Cumbraes offer something different in Scotland’s many faceted island experiences. One of the real beauties of them is observing other islands like Arran and Bute from their shores and hills, and despite being so accessible, they offer a real feeling of getting away from it all.” (Jackson in the Scottish Islands Explorer 2022)

Millport Yoga and paddleboarding offers a chance to enjoy the Isles of Cumbrae, which are only an eight minute ferry ride from the mainland town of Largs, an hour by road or train from Glasgow.

In the nineteenth-century the paddle steamships brought tourists, of which surviving ship is the P.S. Waverley, as people came “doon the watter” from Glasgow for their dose of Utopia.


Barbara Sellars writing in the Scottish Islands Explorer magazine describes her day on the Waverley:

“The sense of occasion surprised me but perhaps it shouldn’t have. When I told my neighbour I was booked on this trip, his own enthusiasm for the ‘grand day out’ was evident.”. 


The ‘Millport Isle of Cumbrae official guide eulogises on what visitors can expect on approaching Millport the only town and main harbour on Cumbrae:

“The glorious setting of the town straightaway charms the sense,

The background of the green hills,

The longline of white houses,

The golden sands, with the azure sea as the foreground.”


Archibald Templeton wrote and published his own history of the Cumbraes stating:

“There must be, one imagines, a new warm heartbeat as he sees the green fertile Cumbraes and their sparkling waters and white rimmed sands.”

Templeton further quotes the master of tropes himself Sir Walter Scott in Lord of the Isles as he pictures Robert the Bruce passing from Arran, where he supposedly saw the spider in the cave:

“where the Cumbrae’s Isles with verdant link close the fair entrance of the Clyde”


The name Cumbrae itself is a trope, which is disputed by islanders and authors alike. What does the name Cumbrae mean? According to William Waddell in his book The Great and Little Cumbraes 1841 it is Gaelic for shelter or refuge.” However, according to Alistair Moffat in his book of the history of Scotland published this year, it means ‘Islands of the Britons’ and also akin to the Welsh Cymry from combrogi, compatriots. This interpretation is confirmed by Derry in his book Islands where in his chapter on ‘What is an Island’ a table lists Cumbrae as “Island of the Welsh-speakers.” The reality is Cumbrae is close to Wales and the Strathclyde, and its easy access to the mainland means it is the closest island and refuge for islanders and visitors alike.


That Cumbrae is a central meeting point on the maritime highway is evidenced by the Glaid Stone at the highest point of the island, which in Scotch means bright fire, in Norse hot embers and in Welsh means a height.


Making the Utopia- An Accessible Version of Iona

From Saint Maura to Boyle, nephew of the Earl of Glasgow, people have sought isolation on Cumbrae. As Lloyd-Jones suggests in his book Argonauts of the Scottish Isles peaceful islands emanate calm, peaceful spirituality. Boyle founded the College of the Holy Spirit, which became Cathedral of the Isles, in the nineteenth century as a religious retreat.


It could be argued that Cumbrae is an alternative Iona as Saint Columba set up a church in Millport whose emblem altiora videnda means “looking to the highest.” He was followed by Saint Maura who established a healing centre on Cumbrae.


Then Saint Beya, who was an Irish princess betrothed against her will to the son King of Norway, came to Little Cumbrae. She was ‘The Maiden’ to many visitors and suitors, so Little Cumbrae became a pilgrimage site. Indeed, the Victorian guidebook writer William Lytteil suggests that Little Cumbrae, known as Wee Cumbrae to islanders, is perhaps named from Beya or Wey. St Beya established a church in 714 on Little Cumbrae called Ailen-na-ingen, meaning “Island of the Virgins” confirmed in the Annals of Ulster.


As Ewan Macgregor alludes to in an episode of the American TV series ER. it is still a place of pilgrimage for suitors to the Isles looking to start afresh, or just clear their heads.

That Little Cumbrae was a place of peace and purity perhaps explains why the earliest Parliament in Briton met on Little Cumbrae with representatives from Bute, Arran, Cumbraes, Islay, Jura, Kintyre and the Isle of Man. The Little Cumbrae lighthouse was the earliest on the Clyde acting as a beacon of light at the entrance to the Clyde estuary.

In 1885 Sir John Murray transferred his floating laboratory “the Ark” from the Scottish marine station at Granton to Millport. This then became the centre for marine research on the west coast of Scotland, Millport Marine Biological Station in 1897. Derry describes the shores around Millport as the

“most productive and biologically diverse of anywhere around Britain.

Indeed, the marine station is active all year round in attracting biology students from universities throughout the UK.


The natural health-giving properties of Cumbrae are further evidenced by the Millport mineral well opened on 14th May 1929 described by the Millport

“panacea for all diseases, the Marienbad of Scotland,”

claiming to cure foot neuritis, rheumatism and nerve troubles.

Let’s Work Together

Glasgow Street,


Isle of Cumbrae

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