Rosneath is one of the older settlements in the Helensburgh area, and its name is said to be derived from the Gaelic “Rosneveth”, meaning “headland of the sanctuary”, which in turn probably relates to St Modan. It should however be noted that there are other possible derivations of the village’s name.

As with many of the early saints, not much is known about St Modan, although the present-day church in Rosneath is named after him. Some sources say that he was the son of an Irish chieftain who built a chapel at Dryburgh in the Borders in the year 522. After a period as an abbot, he resigned and became a hermit, moving to the Dumbarton area.

The guidebook to the present Rosneath Church says that he died near there in around the year 700 – which, if both dates so far mentioned are correct, would have given him the amazingly long lifespan of about 180 years! Another possible explanation is that there were actually several Modans on whom the legends of his life are based.

Moreover, the Aberdeen Breviary of 1509-10 states that “his most sacred relics rest and are profoundly venerated in a chapel in the cemetery” of the parochial church of Rosneath.

These relics would almost certainly have disappeared during the Reformation in the second half of the 16th century. However in 1880 a tombstone was found four feet below the ground in the old graveyard; it was later removed into the present church, and its guidebook claims that “there is good reason to believe this is the actual gravestone of Modan”.

A couple of centuries after Modan’s death, the Firth of Clyde was not a safe place to live. These were generally unsettled times – not only might hostilities break out between neighbours, but the Vikings had also appeared!

In particular in the year 870 Olaf the White, the Norse King of Dublin, besieged Dumbarton Castle for four months until the residents were starved into submission; many of them were then taken to Ireland as slaves. It was only defeat at the Battle of Largs in 1263 that ended the Viking era.

A Castle is Built

Helensburgh Advertiser: The original castleThe original castle (Image: Helensburgh Heritage Trust)

It would seem likely that events such as these made it sensible to have strongholds, and led to the building of castles, including not only at Rosneath but also across the mouth of the Gareloch at Ardencaple, as well as at Faslane.

It was only in the 18th century that the first roads were built north of Dumbarton and so, at the time of the building of these castles, the sea was the highway.

So what form did this early castle at Rosneath take? Many early castles were timber structures built on top of an artificial mound; these are also known as mottes.

However these are generally associated with specific campaigns, whereas the castles round the Gareloch were perhaps being built partly as a defence against the Vikings and hostile neighbours, and perhaps also because they were on the border between the kingdoms of the Scots and the Britons, both of which had emerged during the Dark Ages.

It is reckoned that the British Kingdom of Strathclyde came to an end in the first half of the 11th century, and of course borders at that time were not fixed as they are nowadays. Thus it is perhaps possible that even from its earliest days Rosneath Castle was built out of stone.

Rosneath Castle was not located in the village itself, but around a mile away to the south-east of the village where a point of land juts out into the Gareloch, where the caravan park now is. As Ardencaple Castle was located on the other side of the entrance to the Gareloch, just about a mile to the north-east of Rosneath Castle, they must together have constituted something of a deterrent to anyone wishing to attack the Gareloch.

In his book ‘Annals of Garelochside’ (1897), historian W.C. Maughan said that “there is reason to believe” that Rosneath Castle was a royal castle before the end of the 12th century.

Helensburgh Advertiser: The drawing room as it appeared in the 1940sThe drawing room as it appeared in the 1940s (Image: Helensburgh Heritage Trust)

Maughan also stated that “it is not easy to trace back the various owners of the lands [around Rosneath], which seem frequently to have changed hands”.

He continued: “They were possessed in 1264 by Alexander Dunon, who became indebted to King Alexander III, and his property was burdened until he could deliver over 600 cows at one time. Afterwards they became the property of the Drummonds, ancestors of the [Dukes] of Perth, who agreed to assign over to Alexander de Menteith the whole lands of Rosneath as an assythement [or damages] for the murder of his brothers.”

William Wallace at Rosneath


Rosneath next features in history during the Wars of Independence at the end of the 13th century. While trying to fight off the attempts by King Edward I of England to take over Scotland, William Wallace is mentioned twice in connection with Rosneath – although it is difficult to know which event came first (assuming of course that both are accurate).

The less well-documented is commemorated in the name of ‘Wallace’s Loup’ or ‘Wallace’s Leap’, but its location can be found on maps, immediately to the north of Parkhead, which is just off the road leading to the caravan park.

The story goes that while on horseback Wallace was being so closely pursued by his English enemies that he had to make his horse jump down from “the summit of a lofty rock”. This killed the horse, but Wallace himself got into the water and was able to swim to safety across the mouth of the Gareloch.

The much more detailed story is quite different. It deals with Wallace’s capture of Rosneath Castle, and is recounted in Blind Harry’s poem, ‘The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace’ – nowadays more simply known as “The Wallace”.

The poem was probably written sometime around 1480, nearly 200 years after Wallace died. There is much debate about the historical accuracy of the deeds recounted in the poem, and it is often regarded as being akin to a historical novel. On the other hand, it would be foolish of us nowadays to dismiss the potential veracity of oral history.

Blind Harry wrote in mediaeval Scots, but fortunately more modern translations do exist, and so here is the tale of Wallace’s capture of Rosneath Castle from one of these.

Then to Dumbarton Cave with merry speed,

March’d long e’er Day, a quick Exploit indeed.

Towards Rosneath, next Night they past along,

Where English-Men possest that Castle strong.

Who that same Day unto a Wedding go,

Fourscore in Number, at the least, or moe.

In their return the Scots upon them set

Where Fourty did their Death Wounds fairly get.

The Rest scour’d off and to the Castle fled,

But Wallace who in War was nicely bred,

He did the Entry to the Castle win,

End slew the South’ron all were found therein.

After the Flyers did pursue with Speed;

None did escape him, all were cut down dead.

On their Purveyance seven Days lodged there,

At their own Ease, and merrily did fare.

Some South’ron came to visit their good Kin,

But none went out, be sure, that once came in.

After he had set Fire to the Place,

March’d straight to Faukland in a litle Space.

As the last lines of the poem show, Wallace set fire to the castle, presumably to prevent it from falling once more into English hands.

Part 2 next week...