DAY three of our recent four-day adventure promised to mostly involve walking both sides of the Gare Loch, at the mouth of which sits Helensburgh. Blazing sunshine was unlikely but it was expected to be dry, though rain clouds would sweep in overnight to make the next day a write-off. While this meant that the Lemming and I had to adjust some of our plans for the week, it left those for day three untouched.
In accordance with said plans, we awoke early, leaving our hotel before breakfast. We caught a bus at an early hour despite our best efforts at self-sabotage — we contrived to misunderstand something as simple as a bus stop and thus waited in the wrong place — and arrived in Helensburgh to find Colquhoun Square bathed in fleeting golden rays. Despite the sun’s intermittent efforts to break through a blanket of grey cloud, these rays were doing precious little warming though.
The cross in the photo is Helensburgh’s Centenary Cross, donated in 1903 by Sir James Colquhoun in honour of the hundredth anniversary of the ‘burgh’ bit of the town’s name being true.
The actual anniversary was the previous year but these things take time to organise. For one thing, you have to decide where to put it. The initial answer to that was slap-bang in the centre of Colquhoun Square but this quickly proved to be a road hazard; it is said that Lord Strathclyde almost overturned his carriage trying to avoid it. It remained in place for just six years before they removed it to the square’s northwest corner, where it still stands today, close to Helensburgh Parish Church.
Helensburgh Parish Church
This church was opened in 1825 and has gone through a bewildering array of mergers, names and even denominations. It used to be one of five Church of Scotland churches in Helensburgh but has since swallowed all the others in what, with historical retrospect, appears to be some kind of cannibalistic, winner-eats-all struggle for survival.
The church has a few years to go before it reaches the age of 200 but Helensburgh as a whole enjoyed its bicentenary in 2002. Accordingly, a second cross was erected in the opposite corner in 2005.
Having examined the Centenary Cross, we retreated to the nearest café to fuel up on breakfast and hot beverages while we waited for the temperature to rise. I don’t know that it did to any appreciable extent but I certainly felt better for a hot plateful of bacon and eggs. The Lemming and I then made our way down to the seafront.
As one might expect from a seaside resort, there was a promenade, onto which faced several shops (from which we purchased drinks and munchies), pubs and takeaways. No sooner had we commented on a surprising lack of hotels than these gave way to bed & breakfasts.
After the B&Bs came a succession of fairly large houses, a reminder that wealthy merchants and shipbuilders flocked to the Clyde’s northern bank in the nineteenth century. One house we passed looked like it used to be the gatehouse to an estate and this was confirmed moments later when we saw what stood behind it:
Designed as a miniature French Renaissance château in the François I style, this is Cairndhu House. Its name means ‘black rock’ and it was built in 1872 for flour merchant and local politician John Ure (1824-1901), to a design by Helensburgh architect William Leiper (1839-1916).
As Chairman of the Committee of Health for the City of Glasgow, Ure was responsible in no small part for the cleaning up of that city and went on to serve as its Lord Provost (the Scottish form of Lord Mayor). Upon his death, Cairndhu House passed to his son Alexander (1853-1928), a lawyer and MP who rose to become Scotland’s Solicitor General and who was ennobled as Baron Strathclyde in 1914 (this was an entirely new title, so ‘Lord Strathclyde’ cannot possibly have nearly collided with Helensburgh’s centenary cross, though Mr Alexander Ure QC might well have done).
In 1940, WW2 saw Cairndhu House, along with nearby Ardencaple Castle, become a naval headquarters for degaussing base HMS Vernon. It remained a military asset for the next seven years, returning to private hands in 1947.
After over a decade of trying, Cairndhu House’s new owner, Graham Cooper, eventually secured planning permission to convert it into the Cairndhu Hotel in 1950. This proved a successful business and Cooper sold it on to Rhu Hotels Ltd in the 1960s. They wanted to demolish the house and replace it with a more modern hotel plus a petrol station and three blocks of flats but planning permission was understandably refused. Sold again in 1971, the house remained a hotel until 1984.
Cairndhu Nursing Home
The hotel reopened as Cairndhu Nursing Home between 1993 and 2010 but the death of an elderly resident, 85-year-old Marjory Black, in 2007 pretty much doomed that enterprise.
Suffering from dementia and with limited mobility, she had a history of falling out of bed so guard rails were attached to her bed. She was also given a new, lighter mattress but slipped into a gap between it and the rail, where she died.
In 2014, Dumbarton Sheriff Court found the care home negligent, citing their failure to carry out proper risk assessments, and fined them £8,000. By then, the building was empty and abandoned, its windows boarded up and its roof in disrepair. It was put up for sale and, judging by the state of its windows and roof, someone bought and restored it.
So, if that was Cairndhu House, what about this Ardencaple Castle that was also commandeered by the Royal Navy? The Lemming and I detoured away from the seafront and found it standing atop a low plateau although not much remained of this once substantial castle.
Ardencaple Castle was the seat of the chiefs of Clan MacAulay. The first record of its existence dates from 1296 when Maurice de Ardencaple signed a script of homage to Edward I of England, who was invading at the time and had overrun the area.
In 1566, the castle was enlarged and strengthened but, by the 17th century, its fortunes were on the wane. In 1644, the eighth laird, Aulay MacAulay, embarked on a life of rakish excess, freely gambling and womanising, but turned out to be absolutely terrible at gambling. He was forced to sell off parts of his estate to settle his debts and subsequent MacAulays had little better fortune — a hundred years later Archibald MacAulay was again selling off his family estates.
The last laird, another Aulay MacAulay, abandoned the castle in 1767, moving to Rhu where he died penniless.
Under Argyll Ownership
The castle was then purchased by the 4th Duke of Argyll, whose third son, Frederick Campbell, engaged Robert Adam (1728-1792) — then Scotland’s foremost architect — to carry out extensive rework.
In 1852, the Dowager Duchess sold the now sprawling castle and what remained of its estate to the wealthy Colquhouns of Luss (who had built Helensburgh).
The Colquhouns held it until 1923, when Sir Iain Colquhoun sold it and it passed through the hands of several private owners until 1940 when it was requisitioned by the navy.
With complete disregard for its history, the navy tore it down in 1957, building housing for the naval base at Faslane on its grounds. Just one tower was left standing, fitted with navigational lights and beacons. You can see the two lights in the photo above.
The Lemming and I passed by the aforementioned housing and returned to the shore, where a swan was standing majestically in small bay.
Nearby and just as white was the Ardencaple Hotel, an early 19th century coaching inn; I had considered staying there but it had been fully booked. We walked past the hotel, noting that it needed a lick of paint, and continued on towards Rhu.
The village of Rhu used to spell its name ‘Row’ but changed this in the 1920s as outsiders kept pronouncing it wrongly (it’s ‘roo’). It comes from the Gaelic word rudha, meaning ‘point’, which is an appropriate name as Rhu sits at the Rhu Narrows where matching headlands on either side of the loch narrow its entrance; on the Rhu side there is also a protruding shingle spit.
Rhu & Shandon Parish Church
Poking up above the roofs of Rhu in the above photo is Rhu & Shandon Parish Church, in whose graveyard is buried Henry Bell (1767-1830), the engineer whose paddle steamer Comet heralded in 1812 the first successful passenger steamboat service in Europe.
The current church was built in 1851, replacing an earlier 1763 version. This, in turn, had replaced Rhu’s first village church, which was built in 1649 by the aforementioned gambling Laird of Ardencaple, Aulay MacAulay. Possibly he was attempting to atone for his gambling ways?
We followed the road around into the headland and then diverted onto the spit. This turned out to be a dead end — I mean obviously, the spit was a dead end, it was a spit — but there wasn’t another way off it along the shore, leastways not one that went anywhere. I didn’t mind, I had just wanted to stand at the end of it and look at the view.
Standing as we were, beside a beacon at the end of Rhu spit, Rosneath was almost within reach, just 800 ft (244 m) away. In times past, a ferry spanned that short distance — it is shown on the 1898 Ordnance Survey map, for instance — but no longer. It would be several hours before we reached the other side.
The existence of the spit not only makes the Gare Loch a calm, sheltered harbour but also one with a restricted entrance. This makes it an ideal port for the navy and there has indeed been a naval base there since WW2.
Today, HM Naval Base Clyde, where Faslane Castle once stood, is the base for the UK’s Trident-armed nuclear deterrent. It has however been necessary to erect groynes within the loch and to dredge the deep channel as left to itself, nature would eventually close the gap and turn the Gare Loch into a lagoon.
We retraced our steps along the spit and back to the road, which was also the A814. We then followed this north along a narrow pedestrian footpath separated from the roadway by a broad grass verge.
Blairvadach Outdoor Education Centre
We passed several more large-ish houses and below a large retaining wall before, about half a mile from Rhu, the Blairvadach Outdoor Education Centre interspersed itself between the loch and the A-road. Having since consulted some old maps, I find that this is because the old Gareloch Road followed what is now a shoreline footpath to the centre, while the A-road follows the course of a once-private road through the Blairvadach Estate.
The outdoor centre was built on part of the estate grounds; Blairvadach House overlooks it:
The second house on that site, Blairvadach was built in 1850 for manufacturer and politician Sir James Anderson (1800-1864) who, like John Ure three decades later, served as Lord Provost of Glasgow. The house was designed in Scots Baronial style by leading Victorian architect John Thomas Rochead (1814-1878), best known for several memorials including the Wallace Monument.
In 1900, it was bought by Robert Michael Donaldson, a manufacturer with interests in the Clyde Iron Works. His family held it until the 1930s, when it then passed to the Watson family until 1939, when it was bought by Glasgow Corporation for use as a children’s hospital.
After the war, it was joined with nearby Broomfield House, which was also a children’s convalescent home. Broomfield was demolished in 1980 but Blairvadach remained although its ownership changed with various local government reorganisations, culminating in its transfer to Argyll & Bute Council who in 1988 decided to house their planning department there.
The department moved out in 2015, transferring to Helensburgh and leaving the property vacant. It was then put up for sale. The photo above still shows the posts that held the ‘Council Offices’ sign.
Blairvadach Working Camp
We continued along the A814, as it led across the old estate grounds and directly through what had been, during WW2, the site of Blairvadach Working Camp for prisoners of war.
Old Shandon Free Church
We passed the houses that now cover the site of Broomfields and then a good many others, many of them large and expensive-looking. While some were probably impressive single dwellings, others may have comprised several flats. Old Shandon Free Church certainly did.
Built in 1844 and extended in 1883, it was converted into four luxury flats in the early 1980s. The spire was removed on conversion as was the war memorial, which made way for parking spaces.
Faslane Peace Camp
Something else characteristic of the early 1980s awaited us further up the road, where a collection of rainbow-painted vans and signs championed the hope that naïve idealism would triumph over cynical pragmatism and the flaws of human nature. I refer to the Faslane Peace Camp, continuously occupied by nuclear disarmament protesters since 1982. It has been there long enough to have been supplied with similar amenities to many a camp site, though individual protesters come and go.
They were almost ousted in 1998 when Argyll and Bute Council, having just taken control of the district from Dunbartonshire, planned to evict them before concluding that it would prove too messy and expensive to go through with it. Thus, the protesters are still there, still demonstrating against the UK’s possession of a nuclear deterrent.
I think they’re mistaken but I have to admit I admire their tenacity and dedication. Granted, I’m not sure exactly what they think they’re going to achieve but I am glad that these people exist. I’m glad that we allow peaceful protest and that people exercise that right. And I’m equally glad that in this case it’s not been successful.
The Old Road
Just beyond the Peace Camp, the A81 diverted from the old line of the coast road so that it could bypass HMNB Clyde. The old road continues as a minor road heading for the base’s gates.
We took the minor road for a short distance, as much for a respite from the A-road as anything else. It was quiet and leafy and we took the opportunity to pause beside the loch for a brief rest.
Since the gates of the naval base were not where we were headed, we returned to the A814 at the next opportunity and proceeded to spend the next couple of miles experiencing a slight suspicion that the Royal Navy might want to keep us out of Faslane.
Back in the 18th century, this stretch of coast held only a handful of cottages, strung out along the coast road. A number of larger houses followed, owned by wealthy Glasgow merchants, when the 19th century steamers began to ply the Gare Loch. Some, like Shandon Hydro and Belmore House became enveloped by the base.
The Hydro — or Hydropathic Institute — was a teetotal health spa, established in a house built for the Clyde shipbuilder Robert Napier (1791-1876). The institute purchased the house after his death and added a swimming pool and Turkish baths.
Belmore was older, having been built in 1830 by a fisherman named McFarlane but was enlarged by subsequent owner John Honeyman, a Glasgow corn merchant.
In 1856, Glasgow draper John McDonald bought the place and substantially remodelled it; one of his apprentices, Hugh Fraser, would go on to found the House of Fraser department store chain.
Today, Belmore House is the HQ of the Faslane flotilla.
Another ancient building that once stood on the site had already long-vanished before the naval base was created; the 12th century Faslane Castle had been home to the Earls of Lennox.
In 1543, Matthew Stewart, the 2nd Earl, gave it to Adam Colquhoun but he didn’t hold it for long. In 1567, it passed to the Campbells but by 1693 was owned by Sir John Colquhoun of Luss. He decided he’d rather be an absentee landlord and feud it (i.e. granted a feudal tenancy) to Archibald MacAulay of Ardincaple.
Its possession by the financially incontinent MacAluays went about as well as could be expected and by the time Aulay MacAulay abandoned his home at Ardencaple Castle, Faslane Castle had also fallen into ruin. By 1869 all that remained of it was a small mound.
The naval base — HMNB Clyde—that sprawls across the area today began during WW2, when the bay was turned into ‘Military Port № 1’ (№ 2 was Cairnryan).
After the war, it was used as a ship-breaking yard but was significantly expanded in 1968, when it was chosen to be the home port of submarines armed with Polaris nuclear missiles. As the Cold War progressed, the base expanded further and the road was diverted to bypass it.
Today, it remains home to the four Vanguard-class submarines — HMS Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant and Vengeancem — that form Britain’s nuclear deterrent; They are armed with US-made Trident II missiles.
We trekked alongside the seemingly endless fence andeventually came to the Faslane Roundabout outside the base’s other set of gates. This is the southern end of the Garelochhead Bypass, built in 1986 to ease the routes of base-related traffic. A gated roadway ran directly across the roundabout so that lorries heading to or from Faslane didn’t need to navigate around it.
At this point, the A814 rerouted itself via the Garelochhead Bypass but we actually wanted to go to that village and so turned left onto the B872 instead.
As exciting as a roundabout with a through-route was (i.e. hardly at all), we were both pretty glad when we came to the end of the fence and found ourselves approaching Garelochhead. The clouds had temporarily cleared and we were enjoying sunshine and warmth as we approached that village. So much so, in fact, that I felt in need of an ice cream.
Well, okay. Need is a strong word. I wanted an ice cream. So I had one.
The Head of the Gare Loch
Garelochhead (Ceann a’ Gheàrr-loch) is a small village whose development was spurred by the 19th century steamer traffic from Glasgow.
Battle of Garelochhead
The arrival of boatloads of tourists was not always welcomed by the locals however and 1854 saw the so-called ‘Battle of Garelochhead’ when Sir James Colquhoun of Luss took objection to the paddle-steamer Emperor disgorging day-trippers on the Sabbath. His intransigence was particularly problematic because he owned Garelochhead Pier. Being an important local personage, he mustered not only his own employees but also the local police, who helped him barricade his pier.
Emperor’s owners, who felt that he had no right to behave thus, steamed to Garelochhead as advertised. On Emperor’s arrival there was a lot of undignified fuss, with the crew throwing out mooring ropes and the locals throwing them back. Then, while some of those aboard pelted Colquhoun’s party with missiles — bottles, potatoes, lumps of coal — others leapt onto the pier. A melee broke out as Sir James’s gamekeepers and other staff, armed with staves, attempted to repel them.
The unarmed passengers prevailed and a party of them made it to the hotel bar, much to the disgust of the protesters. Most of the villagers took no part, being content merely to watch the fracas.
In the aftermath of the incident, Sir James temporarily smashed up the pier to stop them using it again. His attempt to get a court interdict initially failed on account of his charging the public mooring dues, which by inference made the piers open to public use but he won on appeal and Sunday steaming to Garelochhead ended.
The pier is long gone — it was replaced with another in 1881 but that too was demolished in 1992 — and the Garelochhead Hotel burnt down in the 1990s as did its only rival. No steamers now call at the village; the only one left is PS Waverley and where would she land without a pier?
The railway, which arrived in 1894, still has a station in the village and just as the steamers created Garelochhead, the trains changed its composition. For, while a steamer took many hours to travel from Glasgow, the trains could do it in one and this allowed an influx of wealthy new residents who could afford to commute daily.
A Leisurely Lunch
Garelochhead may have lost its hotels but it did have shops and a café, although the latter looked to be up for sale. We enjoyed a leisurely lunch, and then set off only to be called back by the proprietor — in a moment of confusion we had thought we’d paid when we hadn’t! With much embarrassment, we settled the bill before leaving again.
The sun and blue skies that had welcomed our arrival obviously disapproved of our unintended attempt to steal a meal, for they abandoned us, leaving the sky once again cloaked in cloud. Everything was therefore just a little greyer but we didn’t care; the view still had much to recommend it.
We crossed the McAulay Burn, which empties into the loch at its head, pausing only to look back down the Gare Loch; from this point we’d be heading south towards Rosneath and Kilcreggan.
What looked like a billion oystercatchers were gathered at the loch-side, doing whatever it is that oystercatchers do — catching oysters presumably — while preparing to fly to southern England for the winter. We let them be and followed a path until it joined up with the B833, which would lead us all the way to Kilcreggan if we let it.
Mambeg & Rahane
We set off along the road beneath the wooded slopes of Cnoc na h-Airighe (‘hill of the shepherd’s summer hut’), a 219 m hill. Houses came but intermittently, such as the hamlet of Mambeg (if three houses make a hamlet).
We left the trees behind as we approached another cluster of houses at Rahane and, espying a handy spot by the shore, we paused for a breather and to look back up the lake. We’d only come a couple miles since Garelochhead but there were distant mountains to be seen, popping up behind Garelochhead.
We continued south, past a turnoff for Peaton, until a brightly coloured object caught my eye. It lay beside the road next to a muddy ditch and as I stopped to examine it I realised it was alive, albeit barely.
It was a golden-ringed dragonfly (Cordulegaster boltonii), Britain’s longest insect and the only member of its genus found in these islands (mostly in the west and north). A voracious predator, the adults emerge to fly between May and September, sometimes lasting to October if the weather remains mild. It was now early November and the dragonfly was dying, having reached the end of its ravenous, prey-devouring life.
Having picked the dragonfly up, the Lemming found it difficult to put down again as it was clutching to his be-gloved fingers as though its fading life depended on it. He succeeded eventually in persuading it to let go and we continued on our way along the B833.
Before we could arrive at Rosneath and the Narrows, we first passed through Clynder, a small settlement adjoining Rosneath. Clynder takes its name from the Gaelic an Claon Dearg, meaning ‘the red slope’ and referring to the russet vegetation that covered its moorland slopes. At one time, the hillside was home to several apiaries, whose bees benefitted from the heather; today, the hillside is planted with conifers.
A handy bench in Clynder afforded us a rest that we didn’t really need but it was the first bench that we’d seen for miles; it would have been a shame to squander the chance. We sat there for a few minutes, looking out over the water, and then pressed on into the village of Rosneath.
Rosneath is itself a small village. Its modern name in Gaelic is Ros Neimhidh meaning ‘blessed headland’ but the historical etymology of the name Rosneath is disputed. Possible origins ventured have included Ross-neoth, meaning ‘unwooded headland’ and Rossnachoich meaning ‘Virgin’s Headland’.
Unlike many settlements in the region, which owe their existence to 18th and 19th century developments, Rosneath goes back much further. It was founded by St Modan, a 6th century Irish missionary and upon his death, his relics were enshrined were in the local church. Thus, Rosneath’s church — inevitably named St Modan’s — became a minor site of pilgrimage.
Almost a millennium after St Modan’s arrival, Rosneath gained a castle, built by the Lennox family in the 15th century. In the 16th century, it was confiscated from them by the Crown and given to the Earl of Argyll, chief of Clan Campbell. It was subsequently developed as a secondary residence (their main home being Inverary Castle) but caught fire and burnt down in 1800.
By 1803, the castle was rebuilt — or more accurately, a new castle was built nearby — now in the Romanesque style. Its use as a residence experienced a brief interruption when it was used as a hospital during WW1 but it returned to use as a home for the Campbells after the war, specifically as a dower house for Princess Louise, the Dowager Duchess, though she spent most of her time at Kensington Palace in London (she was a daughter of Queen Victoria).
Upon her death in 1939, the castle was sold, ending its link with Clan Campbell. With the arrival of WW2 it became a base for the Royal Navy but was abandoned thereafter, burning down in 1947.
I had planned to go stand at the Narrows and look back to Rhu Spit but I somehow contrived to forget this as we walked through the village. Reminded by the Lemming, I decided to forego this slight detour, though we did note the time. It had taken us over four hours to do what was once a ferry trip of minutes. Our progress had admittedly been leisurely but now we were casting a wary eye on the sky; we going to be pushing the limits of daylight if we weren’t careful.
The stated distance of three miles surprised me a little, because I was expecting something more like five. A quick consultation with the map revealed the cause of the discrepancy: the B-road veered inland, cutting off Rosneath Point and climbing 60 m as it rounded the flank of Gallow Hill. I had planned to stick to the coast, using tracks and footpaths to pass beneath the site of the castle and around the point.
We gazed out over Rosneath Bay while we considered our options.
Our options were basically to go right and follow the B833 — with its climb and its traffic and what looked like a whole bunch of blind bends — or to go left around the shore and run out of daylight, traversing woodland and muddy fields in the dark. Neither option sounded ideal. So we went straight on.
Rosneath Home Farm
Ahead of us, a minor road ran up to Rosneath Home Farm. This involved a rise of only 30 m and, though it still cut off Castle and Rosneath Points, cut off a great deal less than the B-road. On the other side of the hill, we would pick up the footpath and should make it to Kilcreggan at around sunset. This was a much better plan.
Accordingly, we left the B833 and began the gentle climb towards Rosneath Home Farm. As we got closer we saw the squat, grey tower and turrets of a castle but something about it was off. Firstly, this wasn’t where the castle was and secondly, its architecture looked all wrong.
As we got closer our doubts as to its authenticity only increased. Look those tower battlements, for instance. They’re not crenellations; they’re a decorative balustrade. This thing is fantasy ‘Gothick’. But if it wasn’t a genuine castle, we wondered what it might be.
As we picked our way through the mud and chaos of a working farm, we spotted that our way ahead was blocked by a herd of cows being driven to their cowshed. We were initially impressed with the way in which they all went in the right direction, without spreading off in all directions across the farmyard. Somewhat disappointingly, this turned out not to be due to unerring obedience on the part of the cattle nor was it due to almost mystical cow-whisperer powers on the part of the farmhands. It was because they’d blocked off the road with a length of wire that we still were too far away to notice.
A Ruin in the Making
Once the cows were in their shed and the road was unblocked, we asked the cowherd about the mysterious castle. It was, he said, built as a stable but was now sadly falling to bits, with no money spare to restore it. A little bit of research confirms that it is recorded on Scotland’s register of buildings at risk.
The castle is listed as a ‘castellated Gothick steading’ and is actually octagonal in plan. Completed in 1803, it was designed by Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840), who is better known as a portrait and landscape painter; his dabbling in architecture was very much a sideline.
Rosneath Home Farm was tied to Rosneath Castle’s estate and the steading was built at the behest of John Campbell, 5th Duke of Argyll (1723–1806), at the same time as he was building his new post-fire castle. Because who wants to keep their horses in just any old stable? Of course, the Duke wasn’t the only person ever to go a bit fanciful when building animal accommodation, as evidenced by the ‘Coo Palace’ at Corseyard Farm in Kircudbrightshire, which I passed a surprising seventeen walks ago.
Having passed through the farm we now followed the road down towards Meikleross Bay. The sun was low and our feet were weary but I know my spirits soared when we crested the hill and saw the Firth of Clyde laid out in front of us with Greenock on the far side.
Near the bottom of the hill we left the farm track and took to a footpath across — as expected — muddy fields. This rounded the southern foot of Gallow Hill and then Portkil Bay, leading to to Portkil Point where it picked up another rough road. This was Fort Road, formerly leading to a 1901 coastal defence fort, now partially converted into holiday accommodation.
Ending at Kilcreggan
We were now just a mile from our hotel and the sun was setting, so we paused to watch it from the rocky beach. Our last mile was walked in the strange, blue light of twilight and we walked up the steps to the hotel door just as the last daylight failed; the timing was perfect.
This time: 19 miles
Total since Gravesend: 2,673 miles