THE village of Shandon takes its name from the Gaelic name ‘sean dun’, meaning old stronghold, a mediaeval fortification on the hill slope above Balernock.

Today there is little to see there, but another place name not far off, Tom a’ Mhoid, hints at the status of the onetime occupant of the fort as it translates as “hill of justice”.

This dates from the days when the lord exercised the power of pit and gallows over those in his domain.

Some believe that the Earls of Lennox had one of their early residences there.

Historian and Helensburgh Heritage trust director Alistair McIntyre has researched the area, and this is his second series of articles on what he has found.

Just down the hillside, near Carnban Point, a truly palatial residence was built in Victorian times, worthy of the mightiest prince, certainly in terms of its size.

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This was West Shandon, erected in 1851 for leading Clydeside engineer and shipbuilder Robert Napier. Napier had already had a presence there for quite some time.

He had acquired a site in 1833, with the first residence being initially referred to as Westburn of Carnban. By the time of the 1841 Census, the name West Shandon was being applied to the then structure, to avoid confusion with the nearby Shandon House.

On that occasion, a number of family members were present, including Napier’s wife, Isabella, as well as servants, although Napier was not at home.

This sizeable household would seem to imply that the habitation, as it was at the time, was relatively substantial.

Around this time, Napier was also buying large acreages of land in the vicinity. With the start of work on the new West Shandon, designed by the architect J.T.Rochead in the Scots-Jacobethan style, it quickly became clear that Napier’s ambitions for the site were breathtaking in their scope. No expense was spared.

As local stone was not considered suitable, supplies of the finest sandstone were sourced at Bishopbriggs, and brought in via the Forth and Clyde Canal, an enormous undertaking in its own right.

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This was in an era before the advent of the famous Clyde puffers, so the craft used to transport the stone, and other materials, would probably have been gabbarts, small sailing vessels, with the capacity to beach at high tide, while remaining upright on the ebb.

The stone would then have been removed to the site by horse and cart. Construction was not complete until 1863. The total outlay was £130,000, a vast sum at the time, though that figure included fittings and furniture, along with the extensive collection of Old Masters paintings, china and glassware, antiquities, and extensive library.

There were also walled gardens and greenhouses, and large vineries. This would have demanded an equally impressive number of staff just to keep the place running.

Many people eulogised about this new feature in the landscape. David Napier, in his “Life of Robert Napier of West Shandon” (1904), refers to the house as “one of J.T.Rochead’s happiest creations”.

However, not everyone was so favourably impressed. Hugh McDonald, a favourite son of Glasgow, made some critical comments in his classic work “Days at the Coast” (1857).

While freely acknowledging Napier’s first-rate talent as engineer and shipbuilder, he was less impressed by his tastes in architecture.

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He wrote: “This castle of his - a grim-crack house-of-cards kind of affair - is an eyesore to every ‘voyageur’ on the loch which it disfigures, and to the scenery, of which it is totally out of keeping.

“Had it been couched on a spacious lawn and half-hidden by stately trees, it might barely have been tolerated, but projected naked on the loch as it is, it is really too much for the patience of any mortal who possesses even a spark of taste.”

Many people came to see West Shandon. According to Napier’s biographer, “Almost every person of note who came to the West of Scotland called upon him.”

Napier’s biography names only one visitor - Princess Louise - who called shortly after her 1870 marriage to the Marquis of Lorne with her husband.

The author stated: ”Her Royal Highness was so delighted with her host that she sent him her photograph as a souvenir.”

Napier was in the habit of giving female visitors a so-called “Shandon Salute”, which entailed giving them a kiss on the cheek, and this seems to have been given to all.

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Napier appears to have been a model host. The author of “The Story of Helensburgh” (c.1894) - anonymous, but generally understood to be George McLachlan, the long-serving Town Clerk of Helensburgh - commented: “To multitudes, it was a delight to visit Shandon House (sic), and be conducted by the owner through his rare collection of paintings, antiquities and curiosities, many of them full of historical and antiquarian interest.

“The present writer remembers when he was a young lad, how courteously and kindly he was received by the great engineer, and the interest taken in his prospects.”

As Napier grew older, he devoted more and more of his time to showing visitors round his house and policies.

One possibility is that among the visitors may have been explorer and missionary David Livingstone.

J.Arnold Fleming, the author of “Helensburgh and the Three Lochs” (c.1957), confidently asserts that Napier “was a generous benefactor of David Livingstone, whom he entertained as his guest when in this country.

“In gratitude for such kindness, this great explorer fetched to Shandon exotic plants that flourished in the greenhouses which Napier constructed to receive them.”

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Elsewhere, he noted: “David Livingstone, when passing through Helensburgh on his way to being the guest of Napier at Shandon, would recall that here Zachary Macaulay was educated.”

It is certainly the case that Napier did support various causes close to his heart, and Livingstone’s endeavours may well have been amongst them.

Several sources imply a friendship between the two. Napier’s biographer - who was related to him - quotes a letter sent by Livingstone.

Napier had evidently invited Livingstone to witness the launch of the Ozman Ghazy, a vessel built and launched on the Clyde in 1864 for the Turkish Navy.

In reply, Livingstone sends his apologies, but commented: “I should very much like to see an ironclad performing under your superintendence. If possible, I shall be at the trial trip of Ozman Ghazy on Wednesday.”

Revealingly, the letter goes on to mention the death of Livingstone’s mother, along with some personal details. Such comments imply friendship.

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Former navyman Charles Addis, who was based at Faslane in the 1960s, carried out a good deal of investigation into the history of Shandon.

This led him to understand that David Livingstone planted a Giant Sequoia tree at West Shandon, while Napier planted a Cedar of Lebanon, possibly on the same occasion. He noted that the trees were originally fitted with explanatory metal plaques, but in the fullness of time, these were purloined by tourists as souvenirs, rendering proof of association virtually impossible.

There remain several Sequoias in the vicinity to this day.

Something else that hints at a link was a visit to West Shandon by Henry Morton Stanley, whose name is forever linked to Livingstone through their famous meeting in Africa.

Stanley was one of those larger-than-life characters who leap out of the pages of history. Of Welsh stock, and born out of wedlock as John Rowlands, he emigrated after a difficult childhood to the United States in 1859, at the age of 18.

Disembarking at New Orleans, he met up with businessman Henry Hope Stanley when searching for work. Stanley helped set him on his feet, and in gratitude, Rowlands changed his name to that of Henry Stanley.

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The Morton middle name was added later. His life thereafter was a colourful one, and by the time he met Livingstone, he was famous in his own right.

The visit to West Shandon took place in November 1872. Stanley arrived in Helensburgh by train from Glasgow, where a carriage was waiting. He arrived at West Shandon for lunch, when toasts included “Dr Livingstone”.

Back in Helensburgh, Stanley had dinner at Ardlui House, hosted by Provost Thomas Steven. He also found time to deliver a lecture at the United Presbyterian Church in the town.

With the death of Robert Napier in 1876, the house and contents were sold off. The aggregate proceeds from his estate were put at over £400,000.

The story of West Shandon always seems to focus solely on the great engineer, with virtually no mention of his family who remain effectively invisible.

Napier’s wife, Isabella Napier, was his cousin, and was born at Rosneath in 1793, the daughter of John Napier and Ann McAllister.

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The family appear to have been fairly affluent. The wedding took place at Dumbarton in 1818. Robert and Isabella went on to have seven children: Ann, born 1819; James, born 1821; John, born 1823; Jean, born 1825; Isabella, born 1827; Robert, born 1829, and David, born in 1832.

The couple experienced family misfortune: David died as a baby, while Robert died aged 19 years.

Although little has come to light about Isabella, the marriage appears to have been a successful one.

Following her death in October 1875, Robert seems to have been grief-stricken, with his own demise taking place the year after.

In 1877, following extensive alterations and additions, West Shandon took on a new life as Shandon Hydropathic Establishment. Such enterprises were very fashionable at the time, and for many years, the venture was a highly successful one.

To be continued.

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