This week, Alistair McIntyre of Helensburgh Heritage Trust takes a look back at the Crimean War and how it's impact is still seen in the town today.

As the brutal war in Ukraine continues to rumble on, we may be reminded of past British military action in the region by way of the Crimean War of 1854-56.

Britain and France, alarmed at what they perceived as Russian expansionism, and fearful that this could threaten their vital interests, decided that direct military intervention was the answer.

However, the purpose of this account is not to go into the turns and twists of the war, but rather to focus on the remarkable way in which names that featured in the conflict came to enter our vocabulary in a manner not witnessed with earlier wars.

Several such names were used in a general way, but others left their mark in a more localised context. The emphasis here is on the latter.

One general example is the name “balaclava”, applied to a form of cold weather headwear still very much in vogue today.

The name derives from the Battle of Balaclava, an action made famous through Sir Colin Campbell’s 93rd Highlanders – the ‘Thin Red Line’ – but also rendered infamous through the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. The practicality of such headgear underlines the fact that winter conditions in the Crimea could be brutally cold.

Another example in this category is the girl’s name Alma, which pre-dated the Crimean War, but which became a much more popular choice in the wake of the Battle of the Alma, when the Allies got the better of Russian forces.

While not wishing to detract from the bravery and tactics of the soldiers, it should be noted that in the Crimean War, the allies had one key advantage in their use of the recently introduced rifle-barrelled musket – much more accurate and easier to use than previous firearms.

Turning now to more localised settings, the name Alma again crops up in several ways. This was the name was given to a Clyde paddle steamer which initially plied the Glasgow-Helensburgh-Gareloch run.

Launched in 1855 at John Barr’s Kelvinhaugh yard, Alma was an iron-hulled vessel of some 146 tons. The owner, Duncan Stewart, was also the master, a common arrangement in those days.

As the vessel spent the night at Garelochhead, the skipper took up residence in the village. The morning run saw her depart Garelochhead at 6.30am, with Rosneath reached at 6.50am, Helensburgh at 7.15am, and so on to Glasgow.

Those little steamers were worked hard, and she was back at Helensburgh for 1.15pm. However, The Alma was transferred to the Glasgow-Rothesay run before very long, when Stewart took up residence in that town. Appropriately enough, his new home was at Inkerman Terrace.

Unfortunately, the Alma was not as successful as had been hoped, and she was broken up at Port Glasgow in 1866. The engines were salvaged and used in another steamer, so it was not a total loss.

The Alma name also appeared in Helensburgh, but this time in connection with properties. A substantial tenement block called Alma Place was built at East King Street, Helensburgh, and almost certainly dated from around the time of the war.

This building was replaced in 1936 by an even larger construction designed by Stewart and Paterson in the Art Deco style. It is now a listed building.

There was an Alma Cottage at Lomond Street, while there is still a cottage by that name at Monaebrook Place. The town also had an Alma Crescent, later incorporated as the upper part of Charlotte Street.

Helensburgh was not the only local community to have places named after the Crimean War, Inkerman Cottage at Garelochhead being a good example. This, too, was built at the time of the conflict, by Henry Kinney, a Glasgow-based publican.

It is tempting to think that such names may have sprung from owners who had some connection with the war, but it seems more likely that names of Allied victories happened to be in vogue at the time.

As with Balaclava and the Alma, the Battle of Inkerman took place in 1854, but later in the year than the other two. It has been described as a turning point, in that it allegedly broke any conviction of the Russian army that they could defeat the Allies in open battle.

Later, when Kinney’s holding was sold to the proprietor of the nearby Garelochhead Hotel, there appeared the much larger Inkerman Place in the 1880s. This was a tenement block, comprising both housing and retail units. It still exists under that name to this day, unlike a neighbouring tenement built around the same time, and known endearingly to locals as ‘Wee Inkerman’, but demolished in the 1950s.

A somewhat later instance took the form of a very stylish bungalow overlooking Portincaple, called ‘Crimea’. Dating from 1909, the house was registered in the name of Alexander Kay, brother of the distinguished artist, James Kay. The choice of name was inspired by the fact that their father, Thomas Kay, had seen action in the Crimean War as a chief petty officer.

Soon after the war, Thomas retired to Lamlash, on Arran, where he became coastguard. A widower, he married Violet McNeish, a local girl, and in 1858, James, their eldest son, was born.

Trained at Glasgow School of Art, James was influenced by the French Impressionists, but was his own man, and developed a unique style of artistic expression. Perhaps not surprisingly, given his childhood at Lamlash, maritime and shipping settings feature prominently in his work.

Despite the new house being in the name of brother Alexander, a businessman, it was James the artist who quickly put his stamp on it.

As well as the house name, the whole spirit of the place seems to have been imbued with echoes of the Crimean War. When visitors came into the entrance hall, they were faced with a large mural on the wall before them, depicting dramatic battle scenes, painted by James.

Helensburgh Advertiser: The well-known painting showing Sir Colin Campbell's 'Thin Red Line' at the Battle of BalaclavaThe well-known painting showing Sir Colin Campbell's 'Thin Red Line' at the Battle of Balaclava (Image: Helensburgh Heritage Trust)

Seemingly a confirmed bachelor, James was late in life when he married Ada Lavel, a young lady from Mauritius, probably met on one of his visits to Paris. The couple had one child, Violet McNeish Kay, who grew up to become a very fine artist in her own right.

After the untimely death of Violet in 1971, the house was sold off, and the new owner, Donald Campbell, promptly changed the house name to Dalriada, a process that has undoubtedly been repeated many times, as the Crimean War fades into history. The wall murals were likewise painted over.

Over and above the field of place-names, it is worth mentioning that the district had other links with the war. Although it is hard to come by solid facts, there can be little doubt that local people did take part in the conflict.

One solid piece of evidence is provided by Arthur Jones in his fascinating book ‘Cardross: the Village in Days Gone By’. Here, he refers to a letter sent by a serving soldier to his father at Ardoch, and dated October  27, 1854. It states: “We have been ten days battering Sevastopol, but have made hardly any impression on it, as it is surrounded by batteries.”

He goes on to ask for a newspaper to be sent to him, as he is anxious to read accounts of the victory at the Alma. He concludes by telling his father that he would send an update on the siege of Sevastopol, if he should survive the taking of it.

Collections for the National Patriotic Fund were also organised in the village during this period, and indeed this fund was perhaps also the inspiration for two Crimean War collections organised by Helensburgh Town Council in 1854.

Helensburgh Advertiser: James KayJames Kay (Image: Helensburgh Heritage Trust)

More than likely, however, townspeople did serve in the war, and it would be fascinating to have any details.

An example of a man associated with Row (Rhu), and who most definitely did see action in several of the most dramatic episodes in the war, was John Motion.

He had enlisted as a private in the 93rd Highlanders at Perth in 1849, and was one of Campbell’s ‘Thin Red Line’ infantrymen, while he also took part in the Battles of the Alma and Sevastopol, and featured in expeditions to Kerch and Yenikale. Altogether, he was in the Crimea for some 29 months.

In 1857, and still serving with Campbell, he featured in the Relief of Lucknow, during the Indian Mutiny. By that time, he was a sergeant-major, and was awarded two clasps for his actions at Lucknow. He was a fully committed professional soldier, and was said never to have had a black mark against his name.

Motion was a Fife man, as was his wife Elizabeth. This was a time when soldiers’ families often went abroad with their husbands, and in a long military career, much of the Motion family’s time was spent in far-flung places. It might seem surprising that they should ever end up in a quiet place like Rhu, but in fact there was a reason for that choice, namely the presence of the Clyde Training Ships (CTS) anchored offshore.

Born in 1830, Motion was resident in the Stirling area in the early 1880s, by which time he had seemingly retired from the regular army, and was now employed as a militia sergeant.

He comes across as the type of man who always sought work where his background could come into play, and the move to Rhu was to take up a position as drill instructor on the Clyde Training Ship Cumberland.

This must have seemed like the perfect opportunity, and he is thought to have spent the best part of 20 years serving on board the training ships.

As a married man, John did not live aboard, and he and Elizabeth set up home at Kirkpark in the village. Sadly, their domestic life seems to have been dogged by one misfortune after another: three of their children died young in the 1860s, when he was on postings to the East Indies, and in fact not one of their children is thought to have survived into adulthood.

Elizabeth died in December 1889, aged 72, while John passed away in 1911. A soldier through and through, his dying words are said to have been: “When is parade?”

Another local, but curious, reminder of the Crimean War stems from the bust of an unknown man, located under a table at the old Rhu Parish Church Hall, along with busts of Henry Bell and Billy Petrie. It was in fact the latter who suggested their transfer to Helensburgh Library.

Once there, the identity of the mystery man became a compelling challenge. In 2012, Stewart Noble of Helensburgh Heritage Trust had a closer look, and found it bore the name of the sculptor, G.E. Ewing, along with the particulars ‘Glasgow 1862’.

Armed with the information gleaned, Mike Davis, formerly of Helensburgh Library, put out a plea for help with the identification.

This quest was crowned with success when the mystery man was pinned down by sculpture specialist Gary Nisbet as a bust of none other than Sir Colin Campbell himself, later Lord Clyde, one of the most distinguished soldiers in the history of the British Army.

His life was a fascinating one, though Campbell was not his birth name. Over the course of many years, he saw military action ranging from early days in the Peninsular War, through the First Opium War, and on to the Crimean War, followed by the Indian Mutiny, when he became commander-in-chief of British forces in the subcontinent.

Buried at Westminster Abbey, Campbell’s Scottish roots are reflected by his inclusion among the statues at George Square, Glasgow.

It is something of a mystery as to how his bust should have ended up at Rhu, but there again, every good tale should have an enigmatic twist!