In the second part of his series, local historian Stewart Noble explores the history of Rosneath Castle. Part one can be read here.

The Fall of the Earls of Lennox...

The lands around Rosneath were in early mediaeval times a part of the powerful Earldom of Lennox. However this family came to grief in 1425 through marriage.

Earl Duncan’s daughter Isabella had married Murdoch, the son of Robert, Duke of Albany. It was widely believed that Duke Robert had murdered the elder brother of the future King James I of Scotland.

King James inherited the throne of Scotland before the age of 11, but for his safety it was decided that he should go to France. En route he was captured by English pirates and held hostage by the kings of England for 18 years.

When James eventually returned to Scotland in 1424, he took his revenge against those whom he felt had made little effort to free him from his captivity. Duke Robert of Albany had already died, but the King’s vengeance fell not only on those who had betrayed him, but also on their relatives – and that included Duncan, the Earl of Lennox. He was executed and lost his lands.

However Duncan’s daughter, Isabella, who was also the widow of Murdoch, Duke of Albany, was spared execution but was imprisoned. After some years she was freed, and her lands and titles were restored to her, and so she became Countess of Lennox.

She died around 1457; all her sons had died before her, and all her grandchildren were illegitimate; consequently the Earldom of Lennox died with her.

…and the Rise of the Earls of Argyll

In 1490 King James IV granted Rosneath Castle to Colin Campbell, the 1st Earl of Argyll, and so began an association with the Rosneath area which lasted for nearly 450 years. In addition various other Campbell families came to be landowners on the Rosneath Peninsula.

By the 1600s Rosneath Castle was an L-shaped building, three storeys in height and with a tower in one corner.

The turbulent events of the 17th century seem to have passed Rosneath by. However the Earls of Argyll were not quite so lucky.

The eighth Earl was executed by King Charles II for having been too friendly with Oliver Cromwell, and the ninth Earl was also executed, this time by King James VII of Scotland, against whom he had led a rebellion – and of course his lands were forfeited.

The 10th Earl was a supporter of William and Mary in wresting the throne from King James VII, and so he was rewarded not only with the restoration of his lands, but also by becoming the 1st Duke of Argyll.

Around 50 years later, in 1743, the second Duke of Argyll died, and his lands were inherited by his brother; he was also known as Lord Ilay, and his portrait could for a while be seen on the Royal Bank of Scotland’s notes, being gradually replaced after 2016.

The following year he visited Rosneath Castle and found it to be an empty shell after his brother’s widow had sold the furniture. He commissioned the well-known architect William Adam to undertake a major reconstruction of the castle, but this came to nothing because of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite rebellion in 1745. He finally managed to stay at Rosneath in 1757 following a major refurbishment of the castle.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Rosneath Castle had its own cigarette cardRosneath Castle had its own cigarette card (Image: Stewart Noble)

Destruction by fire

However the castle did not last for particularly long after that. On the evening of May 30, 1802, it was destroyed by fire.

The 5th Duke of Argyll, John Campbell, was staying at Ardencaple Castle at the time. When he looked across the entrance to the Gareloch and saw Rosneath Castle burning, he is supposed to have said “I thank my God that I have another house to go to.”

An illustration by Alex McGibbon of the old castle can be seen in W.C. Maughan’s book, ‘Rosneath Past and Present’, which was written in 1893. It shows a three-storey building with circular towers at the corners which continued up beyond the roofline.

Just below it on the shoreline is another castellated building which was called the Low Barracks. These never appear to have had any military connection, but formed part of the castle outhouses and were used as servants’ accommodation. They were connected to the old castle by a flight of stairs.

The Building of a New Castle

In a very short space of time following the fire, it was decided to build a new castle – also known as Rosneath House – just round the point from the site of the old castle and with a view up towards Rhu Narrows.

The London architect Joseph Bonomi was commissioned to design the new building, and it was finally ready for occupation in 1806, which was also the year of the fifth Duke’s death.

WC Maughan said that “palace would be the more correct term” to describe it. “Its architecture, in the Italian style, is massive and imposing, the splendid Ionic portico, with its lofty stone pillars, being the chief feature,” he wrote, “and may be considered almost unequalled in Scotland.”

The opposite side of the building had a very similar exterior which looked out over formal gardens. However the plan for the building was never totally completed as the Duke had run out of money. Nevertheless it had more than 100 rooms.

WC Maughan also gave details of travel arrangements to the Castle around this time: “For the conveyance of the Duke of Argyll and his friends on the occasion of their visits to the district, his Grace’s emblazoned six-oared barge plied between Cairndhu Point and the castle.

“The barge was signalled from Cairndhu by means of three fires or smokes if the Duke and Duchess were to be transported across the channel; two smokes for relatives and friends; and one smoke for those in a humbler position in life – flashes of flame regulating the traffic after dark.”

Don’t miss the third and final instalment in next week’s issue!

Helensburgh Advertiser: An old map showing the location of Rosneath CastleAn old map showing the location of Rosneath Castle (Image: Stewart Noble)

The Marquis of Lorne and Princess Louise

The heyday of the new castle occurred after 1871. In that year Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Louise, married the Marquis of Lorne. He was the eldest son of the 8th Duke of Argyll, subsequently becoming the ninth Duke after his father’s death in 1900.

Strangely to modern eyes, it was felt by many at the time that Princess Louise had “married beneath herself”. It had been Queen Victoria’s intention that all her children should marry royalty and Princess Louise, probably the most headstrong of all the children, had merely married a “commoner” – albeit the son of a Duke!

The Marquis of Lorne had bought Rosneath Castle and its estate from his father, and he and his new wife paid a visit to it the year after their marriage. In the following years they often visited the property and he took a deep interest in its management and successful development.

Recalling past times, the Marquis wrote that “Rosneath Castle was the half-way house to the Lowlands; when the family travelled south from Inveraray, feudatories [or tenants] held land for the service of providing a galley or two for the crossing from Loch Goil to Rosneath, or from the Holy Loch to Rosneath.”

In 1878 the Marquis was appointed Governor General of Canada, a role he occupied for five years. It was during that period that Lake Louise, one of the highlights of a visit to the Canadian Rocky Mountains today, was named after his wife.

The Marquis of Lorne and Princess Louise made Rosneath Castle their principal home from 1896. From childhood she had been a talented artist and sculptor, and a painting entitled ‘The Avenue of Rosneath Castle’ by her belongs to Argyll and Bute Council and is on display from time to time in Helensburgh Library. Her husband spent a period as a Member of Parliament and was also an accomplished writer.

They were involved in many local organisations and, when staying at Rosneath Castle, they attended St Modan’s Church. Many features that can be seen in the church today can be attributed to Princess Louise.

She was particularly pleased when she was appointed Colonel-in-Chief of Princess Louise’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

In the 1890s she acquired the old Ferry Inn at Rosneath. Her mother was “not amused” to learn that her daughter had bought a pub!

On the advice of her friend, the garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, Princess Louise commissioned an unknown young architect called Edwin Lutyens to undertake a very large rebuild of the Inn, making it several times the size of the original building.

She wished it to become her dream cottage by the sea, and it is considered to be a masterpiece of Arts and Crafts design, contributing to Lutyens’ later substantial reputation. It still stands today, right beside the entrance to Rhu Narrows – but strangely, after its completion, Princess Louise never moved into it, continuing to stay at Rosneath Castle instead.

In 1900 the eighth Duke of Argyll died and consequently Princess Louise’s husband became the ninth Duke. In 1911 his health started to deteriorate, and he became increasingly senile.

Early in that same year, Rosneath Castle was once again a victim of fire. Unfortunately, the fire extinguishers in the castle were not powerful enough for the flames, and hoses which had been kept for just such an emergency proved to have too many leaks.

A human chain, helped by boys from the training ship ‘Empress’, which was anchored in Rhu Bay at the time, passed buckets of water along to fight the fire.

Two hours after they were summoned by telegraph, the fire brigade from Helensburgh arrived, and the fire gradually came under control. However the upper storeys of the castle were much damaged and the Princess’s studio was gutted. Nevertheless rewards were presented by the Duke and Duchess to all who had helped fight the fire.

In 1914 the ninth Duke of Argyll died, and so Princess Louise now became the Dowager Duchess of Argyll and Rosneath Castle took on the role of Dower House. As they had no children the dukedom was inherited by a nephew.

However, before Princess Louise could return to Rosneath Castle, the First World War intervened, and the building now became a military hospital.

Her husband’s death left the Princess feeling lonely, and so she spent more of her time with her sister Princess Beatrice in Kensington Palace in London. Nevertheless she continued to be a regular visitor to Rosneath, until declining health made the journey too arduous for her.

Princess Louise died in Kensington Palace at the age of 91 in December 1939, less than three months after the start of the Second World War. Exactly 12 months later, the contents of Rosneath Castle were then auctioned off over a five-day sale, and a copy of the sale catalogue is held by Helensburgh Library.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Parkhead, RosneathParkhead, Rosneath (Image: Stewart Noble)

The Second World War

Rosneath and its castle now entered a very different phase in its history. The combination of deep water close inshore and flat land nearby made Rosneath ideal for a substantial wartime base.

By the summer of 1941 a dock operating company of the Royal Engineers was already established in tents around Rosneath Castle. Meantime the American and British governments had been in secret negotiations about future American involvement in the war which was taking place in Europe.

Consequently, even although the USA was neutral at the time, a group of American civilian engineers arrived in July 1941 at Rosneath to make preparations for building a wartime base. Many shiploads of heavy construction equipment from the US followed in the next few months.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in December 1941 brought the United States into the war. The new facilities at Rosneath were initially used by the Royal Navy, but then in August 1942 United States Navy Base Two was established there.

Its principal use was the training of American amphibious forces in preparation for the proposed Allied invasion of North West Africa, code-named ‘Operation Torch’. This took place in November of that year, Rosneath Castle having become the American staff headquarters where Operation Torch was planned.

To enable all this to take place successfully, an enormous influx of people arrived in what had previously been the very quiet rural tip of the Rosneath peninsula. At the peak around 6,000 service personnel were housed there, and a wide range of facilities including oil storage tanks and a hospital were built.

Following the success of Operation Torch, Rosneath was now used to plan for the Allied landings in Normandy in France – known as D-Day. Some of the initial planning for this took place in Rosneath Castle between British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, American general (and future president) Dwight D. Eisenhower, and British general Bernard Montgomery.

D-Day took place in June 1944, but Rosneath remained a busy place. Surplus American ships and landing craft were transferred to the British and Soviet Union navies, and Soviet sailors became a common sight in the area as they arrived to take their new vessels back to the Soviet Union.

Hostilities in Europe finally ceased in May 1945. The following month the US Navy decommissioned their base at Rosneath and it was handed back to the British, finally being closed in 1948.

Meanwhile, in 1947 yet another fire – the fourth in its history - had severely damaged Rosneath Castle, but this time it was not repaired and so became increasingly derelict.

In 1948 parts of ‘The Fine Agricultural and Sporting Estate’ of Rosneath were sold off at auction – and Helensburgh Library also holds a copy of this sale catalogue. The sale even included the piers at Kilcreggan and Cove, with some neighbouring land, although the latter pier had been closed to steamers early in 1946.

The catalogue shows how extensive the Rosneath estate was; it amounted to 3,260 acres (1,319 hectares), or five square miles. The sale also brought to an end 450 years of ownership by the chief of Clan Campbell and his family.

In 1954 the Quibell family bought the land now known as Rosneath Castle Caravan Park. Eventually the castle had to be demolished in 1961 for safety reasons. A couple of years earlier Ardencaple Castle had also been demolished.

There had been local tales that the two castles had been linked by a tunnel under the waters of the Gareloch, but no evidence of this was found during demolition.

What remains?

So what is left today? Almost everything associated with the development of Rosneath during the Second World War has disappeared.

However the late Dennis Royal produced a very thorough account of what had happened there in his book, ‘United States Navy Base Two – Americans at Rosneath 1941-45’. The oil tanks were in use for a long time after the end of the war, and a pier and boat sheds are today operated by RB Marine for boat storage and repair, as well as ship-breaking.

Dennis Royal was also instrumental in having a cairn erected near the shore in front of the site of the castle, in particular to commemorate the Americans who were at Rosneath during the War.

Of the castle’s 19th century heyday, Rosneath Home Farm, with its tower, is a prominent landmark, even although the tower has lost its steeple. Parkhead has been converted from an agricultural steading into an attractive house and garden. The old Ferry Inn was demolished in 1960, but the much bigger extension to it, designed by Lutyens for Princess Louise, still remains as a private house at the entrance to the Gareloch.

And of course ‘Wallace’s Leap’ is still there. In some places, however, the old inland sea cliff is now covered by dense vegetation, but in other places it is still very easy to see. Your guess is probably just as good as mine in trying to work out where exactly Sir William Wallace rode his horse down from “the summit of the lofty rock” to escape from the English!