Kyles of Bute Hydro

It is sad to think that a beautiful building like the Kyles of Bute Hydro has been removed completely and that not even a heap of stones remain to mark the site. Many of us will remember it and how it gave employment to quite a few village people. Unfortunately I only have a small postcard but even from that you can see the size of the place, and imagine the magnificent view from it.

Originally it was Swanstonhill House built by a Mr John Smith - I've been unable to trace the date but I know he was resident there in 1863. He was a wealthy gentleman - a native of Port Bannatyne who did a lot to help the villagers. (Lucy Bethia Walford) "Recollections of a Scottish Novelist" (of Luss) whose father had rented Kames Castle for 3 years was so intrigued by him and she wrote a book... "Mr Smith." This novel was widely acclaimed and even read by Queen Victoria. Personally I found it deadly dull and it didn't disclose much about Mr Smith - but that's another long story.

To get back to the Hydro -The Rothesay Express of 9th January 1878 reports that:
"A company which was to open a new hydropathic has been formed, it takes the name 'Swanstonhill Sanatorium Co Ltd' with a capital of 25,000 shares of 10 each of which it is expected not more than half will be called up. The Chairman is Councillor James Hunter Dickson of Hillhead, and the Secretaries Messrs. Spear Jack, Accountants, Glasgow."
The Express reported that Swanstonhill Sanatorium is due to open on 5th June 1879

The opening is reported in the Express, 11 June 1879:
"Over 100 people were taken to Port Bannatyne by special steamer from Wemyss Bay. The steamer was decked with bunting and caused much interest sailing round the Bay to Port Bannatyne. On arrival lunch was served. Councillor Dickson of Hillhead was in the Chair. Several local dignitaries were present, Provost McKechnie was unable to be there but ex-Provost Orkney was present. Dr. Martin proposed the toast to the provost and Magistrates of Rothesay. The building with its baths and beautiful pleasure grounds is to be renamed the "Kyles of Bute Hydro"
16th June 1879: Dr Robert Connell is appointed Resident Surgeon, Miss Malcolm (late of Skelmorlie) Manageress.

Non-Residents can obtain baths by purchasing tickets at the office. Turkish - 2/6d, (24/- a day) all other baths 1/6d, (15/- a day).

1888: Miss Malcolm left and a Mr Wright was appointed Managed and a Mr Menzies followed him.

What is the difference between a Hydro and a Hotel?

The original idea was to provide holidays or convalescence on the lines of the establishments in the spa towns - with good food, absence of intoxicating liquor! medical curative baths, recognition of religion, pleasant social life with organised entertainment. The clients were mostly upper middle class and not the Paw, Maw and the weans type of holiday makers. Although there were always a fair number of children especially at holiday weekend times and of course Easter & Christmas.

There may have originally been morning prayers, I'm not certain, but until 1939 there was a short church service in the main lounge every Sunday morning. This was not continued after the war.

1909 Fire: The Hydro burnt down because there was no Fire Brigade on the island. The town did have a huge hose and Council Workers brought it out to the fire in 2 horse-drawn cabs! It was too late and although Villagers assisted nothing could be done to save the building.

1911: The Hydro was rebuilt and a west wing was added. It was reported to be one of the most beautiful and well appointed buildings in the West of Scotland.

There was a resident Orchestra which played during in the summer months, holiday weekends and from mid December until mid January. They played during afternoon tea and again at the dances each evening.

There were Hostesses (called Entertainers) who organised Bridge 4's, nightly whist, Sunday concerts, children's parties, treasure hunts, sausage sizzlers, tennis matches, table tennis, badminton, billiards, fishing trips, golf matches, suggested walks, drives, steamer excursions and also ran a library.

The service was excellent - uniformed staff (no jeans) French Service. A Head Porter + 3 others and a chauffeur for business. There was a small swimming pool, special baths with massage, heat treatment; whether Turkish or Russian there were qualified attendants.

A Housekeeper (beds turned down at night) and a linen maid, all toilets checked, fires made up, ashtrays emptied and the place dusted while guests were at their lunch or dinner. Staff quarters - the staff employed were mostly students and highland girls, we couldn't have operated without the students.

There were 89 letting rooms - 81 of them with a sea views. A beautiful big hall - Italian marble staircase, terrazzo floor, 2 side lounges, library, writing room (later T.V. room), billiard room, large dining room, tea lounge, table tennis, badminton courts, ballroom with stage and footlights, 2 tennis courts, croquet lawn, 2 putting greens. There were acres of ground with well laid paths, shrubs, a rockery, fresh vegetables and at one time hens and pigs! There was a head gardener and 3 assistant gardeners.

The War Years (1942/1945) - The Hydro became "HMS Varbel" and was the training base for the midget submarines and human torpedoes. There were 39 men lost, 4 VC's, 8 DSO's, 15 DSC's etc were won. The Tirpitz Raid (Motto: Today we live, tomorrow who knows?).

No question of compensation for loss of business and only about 4 per bedroom for redecoration. In the post war years - the 1950's there was about 10 permanent residents, however from July to September, Christmas, New Year and Easter there were full bookings, the rest of the time it was not that busy and without fuller bed occupancy it was difficult to make it a paying proposition.

Unfortunately all the public rooms and the bedrooms in particular needed modernising. There was only 1 private bathroom, no telephones in any of the bedrooms. People would no longer accept having to walk along a long corridor for a bath! It would have cost many thousands to update the whole place. With only a limited amount of capital invested no shareholder was prepared to suggest that more capital would have to be floated. Many of the shareholders had inherited their shares from there grandparents and kept them for sentimental reasons not as a profit making concern; with little more than 100 at stake most "couldn't care less" and were off to Spain or more exotic spots on tempting package deal offers. Although the 3 Directors were business men or retired business men they only met once every couple of months or so over lunch in somewhere like the AA Club and discussed such outrageous suggestions as "should we have a license?" It was hypocrisy to resist this idea as almost everyone had pre-dinner sherry parties in a bedroom or after dinner liqueurs from a bottle produced from the depths of a wardrobe! In1957 a licence was applied for the billiard room to become a bar. It grew to become a popular spot for weddings or dances and private parties.

Gradually it became obvious to the accountants that clientele would have to be sought from further a field and it was a great pity that some dynamic business entrepreneur didn't take up the challenge and market the Hydro's great potential with ideal facilities for conferences, seminars, or business courses. Tapping the European market didn't seem to occur to the Board, although the occasional continental visitor who found the place was enchanted. In a way they were caught between 2 worlds - should they try to attract the nouveau rich? - the younger bright coupes who would enjoy the sports facilities, or contrive to maintain the old style of hotel keeping with tremendous emphasis on personal service with fully trained dedicated staff.

No decision was ever taken. The bulk of the clients were the older type - men studying the Financial Times and treating the place like a select London or Edinburgh Club, the lades talking of schooldays in St Leonard's with the mixture of families with children released from boarding school.

Seeing financial problems looming ahead the Hydro was sold in the late 1960's to Glasgow and West of Scotland Convalescent Homes who operated it for about 5/6 years. A very different type of guest arrival - not appreciating the marble staircase, the beautiful woodwork and complaining about being stuck in an old building up a hill and so far from town. They in turn sold it and the new owner removed some of the valuables and disappeared. The place became a ruin and a paradise for vandals. Sadly one of the most beautiful buildings in Scotland had to be demolished as there was a danger from asbestos and falling masonry.

A few years ago it was bought by White Morse Investments who had permission to build villas, but that never materialised.

Jess Sandeman
Jess Sandeman, who worked at the Kyle's Hydro for many years both before and after the Second World War and rose to the post of Manager, is the author of this piece which are, in fact, really notes used by her when giving a talk to the Ballianlay Rural a number of years ago. Jess, a native of Port Bannatyne, is quick to point out that she is 81 1/2 years of age. She was born in Glasgow and brought to the island by her mother when only 6 months old.

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