A tale of two halves

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Rothesay’s Guildford Square is the departure point for island tours. JONATHAN WELCH











Jonathan Welch looks at two very different tour operations run by West Coast Motors

As we’ve travelled around the country visiting operators and suppliers we’ve made a point of trying to show some of the tours that are helping to entice visitors back to the UK’s towns and cities. In turn, these tours not only attract visitors but often have links with other local attractions and help to drive tourist footfall, showing how well the bus industry can work with local partners and is often a key member of the community it serves.

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For this instalment, we turn to two very different environments. One is gritty and industrial. The other, despite being so close by geographically, could not be further away. The connection? Both City Sightseeing-branded tours are operated by West Coast Motors, part of the Craig of Campbelltown group which also operates Glasgow Citybus and Borders Buses.

The departure point for the Glasgow tour is George Square, at the heart of the city. JONATHAN WELCH












My first trip was in Glasgow, aboard a part open-top Scania. Following the hiatus of lockdown, Glasgow’s City Sightseeing tour resumed on 26 April, and although the city was still in the midst of its own local lockdown it gave operations a chance to get underway again, as well as provide a visible presence on the streets to advertise the service’s return.

“The first few weeks were not busy, but it was good for staff familiarisation,” West Coast Motors’ Communication Director Sharon Morrison told me. “The buses hadn’t been out since October 2020. It felt good to get back out there. As the city started to reopen, we started to see the tourist market slowly coming back. We managed to operate between July and October, but because of the long break we had to make sure all of our drivers and on-street staff were up to speed in relation to Covid-19 safety guidelines and PPE. The route had to be altered to take account of street closures which were put in place to create more space for pedestrians in the city. We also took the opportunity to install new ticket machines, so all drivers and ground staff had a period of familiarisation with everything before we restarted.”

CBW travelled on one of West Coast Motors’ Scania OmniCity open-toppers. JONATHAN WELCH












In terms of coronavirus precautions, Sharon added: “We’re all cleaners now. We have on-bus sanitisers and a cleaning regime in place. It’s been a good thing for morale, as it’s helped us get back to doing what we do best. Now we have to make sure we are at the top of our game.”
Another task done while the vehicles were off the road was to ’wallpaper’ the interiors with images depicting Kelvingrove, the Finnieston Crane (Glasgow’s last remaining dockside crane), and others, giving the buses a unique and interesting look. “When others were wallpapering their homes, we were wallpapering our buses,” Sharon joked.

At the time of my visit earlier this year, the city was still quiet but with the first signs of things starting to get back to normal, albeit with visitors from the domestic rather than international market. “We’ve seen a lot of local people who want to explore what’s on their doorstep. We’re working with other local attractions and the hospitality sector to showcase Glasgow and strengthening our relationships with our partners to promote the city.

“We started carrying a fraction of our normal numbers, but it has grown steadily since April. People are still cautious, and we expect that to continue for a while yet. We were initially running every 30 minutes but increased our frequency to every 20 minutes once the school holidays started, ready for the ‘staycation’ market as well as locals getting out more.”

Although often overlooked in favour of Edinburgh, Glasgow has a wealth of architecture and culture. JONATHAN WELCH
















On board

The service starts from George Square, located right in the heart of Glasgow’s city centre, a stone’s thow away from Buchanan Bus Station and Queen Street railway station and making the buses easy to find for those unfamiliar with the area. I was greeted enthusiastically by Bianca, one of the on-street team, who explained a little about the tour and introduced me to our driver for the trip. By luck of the draw, my tour was one which used a recorded commentary: every second bus has a live guide on board, offering a choice of experiences to suit different preferences. The usual wide choice of common languages is available on the commentary, with some voiced by members of staff, who come from a range of backgrounds and nationalities. The English commentary features the well-known voice of historian and broadcaster Neil Oliver. Despite the initial slow pick up in passenger numbers, all of the staff I spoke to seemed happy to be back at work and keen to chat about the tour before we set off for the hour-long journey around the city.

By coincidence, I happened to see a documentary on BBC Scotland a few weeks after my trip, which featured a segment about some of Glasgow’s earlier open-top tours. We take it for granted these days that most cities will have some sort of tour option, but back in the 1980s and 1990s, Glasgow had a reputation as being a somewhat post-industrial, run-down place. The idea of an open-top sightseeing tour was met with some amusement, it was recalled, and whilst much has changed the city’s vibe is still very different to its near-neighbour in the east. Leaving George Square, an introduction to Glasgow’s heritage helped set the scene.

Heading east, we passed one of the city’s modern ‘industries’ in the name of Strathclyde University, swiftly followed by Glasgow Cathedral. Glasgow Green and the People’s Palace mark one of the more attractive areas of the city, the Green being a popular summer venue, and has played host to concerts including Michael Jackson’s only UK gig, attended by some 65,000. It is also home to the World Pipe Band Championships, and finishing point for the Great Scottish run.

A personal favourite stop has to be the Riverside Museum, home to Glasgow’s transport museum, though many may appreciate the previous stop at the Clydeside Distillery for a more refreshing experience. The area around Kelvingrove and Glasgow University also presents a side of Glasgow that visitors might not be aware of, laying somewhat further out of the centre across the M8, which bisects the city as a reminder of a time when the car was set to be king.

Glasgow might not have the cachet of it’s twin at the opposite end of the M8, but it has a different appeal, and for those unfamiliar with the city – or even locals looking to learn more about their home – a tour here could be even more of a benefit than one in a more well-known location.

Glasgow’s Scottish Events Campus is home to the SSE Hydro and ‘armadillo.’ JONATHAN WELCH












A similar distance to the west in the Firth of Clyde is the Isle of Bute, home to another of West Coast Motor’s open-top tours, operated from the firm’s small depot at Port Banntyne and starting from the island’s principal town, Rothesay. The tour has been running for a number of years, and makes four round trips of the island per day, each lasting around 90 minutes at a leisurely pace.

The island is connected to the mainland by two ferries: the four-minute journey from Colintraive to Rhubodach, and the main half-hour service from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay, where passengers disembark almost into the arms of the waiting open-top tour bus. Relatively small in terms of area, the island’s population has declined in recent years to around 6,500, and fishing and tourism account for a large proportion of its industries, though as we learnt on the tour, a more recent development has been the opening of the cheese factory, which is also growing to be a significant employer.

Joining the tour for its 0930 departure, I had chance to speak to driver and guide Paul before departure. “I drove for Shearings for 38 years,” Paul explained, “and have been working here for around eight years now. I’ve been doing the open-topper for five years.” Paul’s background as a tour driver showed, as did his enthusiasm for the tour and the island. As we proceeded around the route, it was interesting to note that he seemed to know many of the people we passed, toots of the horn being reciprocated with friendly waves, adding to that feeling of closeness that exists on remote island communities.

West Coast Motors’ Depot Manager Allan Smith explained that Paul is the regular driver, alongside Iain who covers days off and holidays. “They are both very good and have their own ways of doing it. They are mines of information,” he said. “They both get lots of really good compliments.”

Explaining the background to the tour, Alan continued: “It’s been in operation for around 10 years. West Coast Motors took over the City Sightseeing operation in Glasgow, and then decided they would like to try it on Bute. It’s not something that had been done before.”

Being the only double-decker on the island at present, and considering the rural nature of the route, Allan said the company works closely with the local council and Mount Stuart estate before the start of each season to make sure things like tree-lopping are carried out before the tour starts in late May. “We used to take the bus out and do it ourselves, but that kind of thing is frowned upon by Health & Safety now! We have a good relationship with the council, and we can call and ask them to go out and have a look if needs be, if things start getting too close to passengers.” The season runs until October, with services operating daily in June, July and August and Friday to Sunday at other times.

Scalpsie Bay is a good place for a walk and to explore the island’s scenic coastline. JONATHAN WELCH











The gates at Mount Stuart provide a test for any driver – coach drivers with expensive mirrors beware! JONATHAN WELCH











Personal touch

Rather than stay downstairs and use the microphone, Paul came and joined us on the top deck for an introduction before we set off, telling us a little background to the island’s history and pointing out some of the points of interest around us. I’d seen Rothesay Castle, which dates from the 1200s, before and wondered at the seemingly odd location, but it made sense when Paul pointed out that much of the land between it and the harbour was reclaimed in what must have been a huge undertaking for a small island, and the castle itself had once stood on the shoreline. Interesting too to consider how different – and possibly more picturesque – the castle and Rothesay might have been were it still on the seafront.

As we made our way along the shoreline the slightly grey morning started to brighten and we stopped at a turning area which many motorists would easily overlook, but which is home to a small remembrance garden. The garden and its information plaque stands memorial to the crews of WWII x-class submarines based here in Port Bannatyne during the war. The midget submarines played an important role during the conflict, with two of the type are credited with crippling Germany’s Tirpitz, putting the ship out of action for a long period of time.
Highlighting the importance of tours like this to the local economy, as we headed into the countryside we stopped to say hello to a field of alpacas, and besides explaining how they came to be on the island, and the value of their fleece, Paul pointed out that visitors are able to take them for walks!

Another sign of island life was the honesty-box shop in an old telephone kiosk, selling stationery, stamps, postcard, books as well as local produce, while further on we stopped again, this time for Paul to hop off and introduce us to his two ‘ladyfriends’, Jean and Jill, two pigs and a litter of piglets. They were clearly expecting the visit, and were not slow in taking the food Paul had to offer! There can’t be many ‘city’ sightseeing tours featuring pigs!

As we headed down the west side of the island, Paul pointed out the change in landscape as we crossed the Highland Boundary Fault, a geographical feature which separates Scotland’s Highlands from the Lowlands, and runs diagonally across the country from Stonehaven in the east.

Possibly the major attraction on the island is Mount Stuart House, the impressive country house and its gardens a magnet for visitors in ‘normal’ times, and this was one of our final destinations as we headed north again. The run through the grounds gave passengers the chance to appreciate the gardens, before turning past the house itself. Covid-19 rules meant that we could not stop, as visitors were only permitted with pre-booked tickets. The low-hanging trees and scenic gardens gave the chance to grab some more video footage for CBW’s YouTube channel, despite the drizzle that had been on and off since the start of our trip. Having again greeted someone he knew, Paul faced probably his biggest challenge on our journey, the exit from Mount Stuart, where the gateposts are just wide enough to fit the bus through, and I’m sure Paul was thankful that I resisted the temptation to thump the floor with my heel as he squeezed his mirrors through!

Although often overlooked in favour of Edinburgh, Glasgow has a wealth of architecture and culture. JONATHAN WELCH












One thing that was apparent in both Glasgow and Bute, and elsewhere across the industry, was how pleased front-line staff have been to get back to work, and how much they genuinely seem to enjoy their jobs. The demographics of tourism may be different and could stay that way for a while, but is is good to see the industry waking up and enjoying the return to its previous form. Loadings may yet take a while to return to normal, and although neither of the trips I took could be called cheap, I think that most people will realise their value, bringing in tourists, driving footfall to the various destinations and venues, and giving a good, safe way to see more of our own country – something which many people have overlooked for too long in favour of cheap flights to far flung destinations.

Look out for more on West Coast Motors in CBW in a few weeks’ time.