This week our Eye on Millig columnist Leslie Maxwell looks back at the human stories behind some of the historic tollhouses in and around Helensburgh...

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THE SALE and recent modernising renovation and expansion of the Old Milligs Tollhouse at the top of Sinclair Street in Helensburgh as a private residence has brought focus to a fascinating class of buildings.

They actually hold a unique place in the story of local roads in this area.

Local historian and Helensburgh Heritage Trust director Alistair McIntyre has researched local toll houses and cottages, and I am grateful to him for the details which follow.

The Old Tollhouse — a listed building — witnessed more of the comings and goings of humanity over the years than most homes in Helensburgh, given its roadside location at the top of the Blackhill.

Dating from 1832, it is one of a select band of such buildings in the area that have survived, with other examples including the former toll houses at Morlaggan, Ballyhennan and Luss.

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So what is the story of Old Milligs Tollhouse, now so dramatically lit up at night and surrounded by striking new gates?

A key piece of legislation that went through Parliament in 1807 was a local act which related solely to the roads and bridges of Dunbartonshire.

It paved the way for the establishment of turnpike roads in that part of the county to the west of the River Leven.

The name ‘turnpike’ comes from a form of rotating barrier, but it is not clear if these featured as such on local roads. Possibly a broad gate was more likely, perhaps with a stile or small gate for pedestrians.

These barriers were controlled by the toll-keeper. Pedestrians were generally exempt from any charge, but those on horseback, those with carts or carriages drawn by beasts of burden, and those conducting livestock like cattle or sheep had to pay a fee for use of the road.

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But why was such a system brought in? The motivation most likely stemmed from a growing awareness that existing roads were inadequate for the transport needs of a rapidly developing economy, and that the system which had hitherto underpinned their maintenance was simply not up to the job.

By 1816, a number of toll barriers and toll houses were in place at various locations.

They initially consisted of Dalreoch, Drumfork, Garelochhead and Morlaggan, all on the Dumbarton to Arrochar road, while on the road from Dumbarton to Luss, similar provision was made at Dalreoch, Auchendennan and Luss.

Dalreoch and Drumfork were both double tolls, with the former serving both the Arrochar and Luss roads, while Drumfork served the Arrochar road and the one from Drumfork Ferry to Duchlage, just south of Luss.

This road had been built around 1786 by the fifth Duke of Argyll, and in consequence was known as the Duke’s Road. Since it cut across country, it was classified as a 'cross road', as distinct from the two north-south highways.

The County Act of 1807 ran for 21 years, and so in 1828 another county act was put through Parliament.

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So long as acts like this had an MP willing to act as sponsor, passage through Parliament does not seem to have been too onerous, the main obstacle being the expense.

It cost several hundred pounds, and some counties never adopted the turnpike system — Argyllshire being one example.

The Act of 1828 paved the way for a number of changes. The Loch Lomondside road was now made turnpike north of Luss.

The toll bar at Garelochhead was discontinued as the tollhouse was not custom-built and was not well located for catching all passing traffic, so a new one was set up at Shandon.

Morlaggan was set aside, and a new toll point set up at Strone, near the present – and soon to be expanded – RNAD jetty at Glenmallan.

Tolls on roads were always unpopular, and people would often go out of the way to avoid the check-points where possible. There was thus an element of cat-and mouse between the authorities and road users.

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Another change concerned Helensburgh. With the growth of the town, a new road had been completed over the Blackhill shortly before 1832. This offered a link to the Loch Lomondside road at two points, one near Muirlands, and the other at Arden, both as they are today.

It was decided to make the new road turnpike, this being at the expense of the Duke’s Road. The Drumfork toll continued to function, but thereafter only served the Dumbarton to Arrochar road.

Without the benefit of income from tolls, the Duke’s Road probably deteriorated fairly quickly, coming to be known in time as the Old Luss Road.

So in 1832, the Blackhill road witnessed the construction of a custom-built toll house at the top of Sinclair Street, linked to a toll barrier.

As with the Duke’s Road, the one over Blackhill was classed as a cross road. It remained in use as a turnpike road until 1883, when toll roads were abolished nationally.

Some counties with tolls discontinued them before this date, but Dunbartonshire retained tolls until the end.

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The toll-keepers were appointed through what was an annual auction, or roup, of tolls.

Each year, prospective tollkeepers met at the Dumbarton Arms Inn, otherwise known as the Elephant Inn — the Dumbarton coat of arms prominently features an elephant with a protected fighting platform, a ‘castle’, on its back.

The right to operate a given toll from Whitsun to Whitsun was put up for bids. The highest bid was usually the successful one, though sureties were required. In practice, some tolls saw frequent changes of tacksman, as they were termed, while others tended to go to the same person in successive years.

A number of those taking part in the bidding process were essentially businessmen. A good example is Allan Lawson, who often held the tack for several different tolls at the same time.

As such, he would not normally have been toll-keeper himself, and would have arranged for other people to actually operate a particular toll. Such persons would of course have been paid less than the bid price.

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At the other end of the spectrum, a few tolls were operated by widows, who no doubt depended heavily on the income generated. One example is Elizabeth MacLellan, who for many years operated the toll at Strone.

The toll house was essentially a 'tied house', as the successful bidder had the use of the house over the next year.

As in any auction, those taking part had to make a judgement on just how much to bid. Net income comprised takings from the toll minus the bid price — and obviously it was possible to make a loss as well as a profit.

Milligs Toll House saw quite a few tenants over the years, including in 1850-51 William Bryson, 1851-52 Alex Walker, 1852-53 William Bryson, 1853-54 Allan Lawson, 1855-56 a Mr Jardine, 1863-64 John McKay, 1865-1869 Robert Wright, 1873-1875 William Brock, and again in 1882-83 William Brock.

There, at the time of the 1851 census, was head of the household William Bryson, aged 31, a gardener born in Old Kilpatrick, his wife Margaret, 33, from Maybole, and their four young children, aged from one to nine.

William gave his occupation as 'gardener', rather than toll-keeper, so perhaps his wife acted as toll-keeper? With such a young family, that might have been tricky. Much would have depended on activity at the toll.

William was again tacksman at Milligs in 1852, while he held the tack for Drumfork in 1863, so he evidently had a consistent interest in this type of work.

With the abolition of tolls in 1883, there was the question about what to do with the tollhouses. Many were sold off, but others were retained by the road authorities for use as tied houses for roadmen.

In the case of Helensburgh, the tollhouses at Ardencaple, established in 1856, and Drumfork were sold off, but Old Milligs Tollhouse was retained.

* To be continued...