In the first in a new three-part series exclusive to the Advertiser, Stewart Noble from the Helensburgh Heritage Trust looks at the town’s very earliest days…

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So, just imagine that you have bought a large area of land with the potential to be developed into a town. What steps do you need to take along the way to achieve this?

Perhaps you should draw up some form of checklist.

What might be on this checklist? Well, a plan showing how the land might be used would be a good starting point. You might also give the place a distinctive name. A major attraction would be to give this new settlement the powers to govern itself – perhaps it should become a burgh. Then the boundaries of the town should also be carefully delineated. And, of course, an imposing coat of arms would just round the whole scheme off.

These were some of the issues facing Sir James Colquhoun of Luss in 1776 – some, obviously, more of a priority than others.

More than 20 years earlier, he had bought some land where Helensburgh now stands, but had done nothing with it. In those days it was known principally as Milligs, but such names as Millig and Malig were also used.

This land had previously belonged to Sir John Schaw (or Shaw) of Greenock, and Sir John had bought it in 1705 from the Macaulays of Ardencaple Castle after they had fallen on hard times.

However, before dealing with the checklist, let’s firstly jump back to 1752.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Sir James Colquhoun (1714-1786)Sir James Colquhoun (1714-1786) (Image: Helensburgh Heritage Trust)

Buying the land

It has generally been believed that it was in 1752 that Sir James Colquhoun had bought the land on which Helensburgh now stands from Sir John Schaw. However it is not quite as simple as that, because Sir John Schaw died on April 5, 1752, quite possibly before the sale of the land had been concluded. So who actually was the seller?

Sir John’s daughter, Marion, was his only child; by marriage she had become Lady Cathcart. When I was writing the relevant chapter in the book ‘200 Years of Helensburgh’, I said that it was she who had sold the land to Sir James – and other earlier writers had also identified her as the seller.

However I have since discovered that Marion had died 19 years before her father. Sir John’s only sibling was his sister Margaret, and she had died two years before him. However, Sir John’s wife, Margaret Dalrymple, died after him in 1757.

Did Sir James Colquhoun actually buy the land from Sir John Schaw himself, or did he buy it from Sir John's heirs? If the latter, who were they?

Helensburgh Advertiser: Timothy Pont drew this map of the area around 1600, but very little will have changed by 1750Timothy Pont drew this map of the area around 1600, but very little will have changed by 1750 (Image: Helensburgh Heritage Trust)

There are two bits of evidence which appear to answer these questions: the inventory of Sir John Schaw’s estate, compiled after his death, and the writings of William Fraser.

Let’s have a look at Sir John’s estate first. Unfortunately the documents available from the National Records of Scotland through its website shed only a little light on the subject.

They do, however, show that Sir John Schaw had not made a will before his death, and consequently, as an alternative, a testament dative and inventory were produced, as well as an eik (a supplement to the inventory).

His grandson, Charles Schaw of Sauchie, 9th Lord Cathcart (Marion’s son), was responsible for producing these, and he had also been appointed as Sir John’s executor under the testament dative.

Crucially, the lands of Milligs do not appear as part of the inventory of Sir John’s estate. The inventory consists principally of his house and its furnishings, as well as a considerable list of people to whom Sir John had lent money.

It therefore seems safe to conclude that an agreement for the sale of the lands of Milligs had already been concluded between Sir James Colquhoun and Sir John Schaw before the latter’s death.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Charles Schaw of Sauchie, 9th Lord Cathcart (1721-1776), in a portrait by Joshua Reynolds, in the Manchester Art GalleryCharles Schaw of Sauchie, 9th Lord Cathcart (1721-1776), in a portrait by Joshua Reynolds, in the Manchester Art Gallery (Image: Helensburgh Heritage Trust)

However records of land transactions held in the Register of Sasines, although not conclusive, seem to point to the 9th Lord Cathcart as having been the one who actually sold the lands of Milligs to Sir James Colquhoun.

Secondly, let’s look at the writings of William Fraser. In 1869, he produced a book entitled ‘The Chiefs of Colquhoun and their Country’. This book was written after the author was given access to the archives of the Colquhoun family, chiefly at Rossdhu, but also elsewhere. Four years later William Fraser had produced ‘The Cartulary of Colquhoun of Colquhoun and Luss’ – a very detailed record of the documents which he had consulted for his earlier book.

In his 1869 book William Fraser gave a comprehensive account of all the lands that Sir James Colquhoun had bought. "In the year 1757,” he wrote, “Sir James Colquhoun purchased from Charles, Lord Cathcart, for £6,500, the barony of Malligs, including the three merk land of Kirkmichael marching with Colgrain; the five merk land of Drumfad, in the moor above Malligs; the £8 land of Malligs and miln of the same, with the teinds; the £1 6s 8d land of Stuckleckie, and the easter town of Ardincaple, with the teinds and fishings; a pendicle of the mains of Ardincaple, extending to about half an acre; the two merk land of Little Drumfad or Drumfad-Leckie, in the moor above Malligs, with the teinds, all in the parish of Row; and the lands of Meallin of Auchintaal, on the east side of Garvil Glen, in the parish of Cardross...”

A merk, by the way, was equivalent to 13s 4d of the £1 Scots, which was itself one-twelfth of the pound sterling. This would have made the value of a merk to be about 1s 1d of the pound sterling (or just over 5p).

Helensburgh Advertiser: A 1777 plan for 'Maligs Town' by Charles Ross of Greenlaw; it would have stretched from William Street to Grant Street between the Glennan and Millig BurnsA 1777 plan for 'Maligs Town' by Charles Ross of Greenlaw; it would have stretched from William Street to Grant Street between the Glennan and Millig Burns (Image: Helensburgh Heritage Trust)

However, on the next page, Fraser wrote: "In a memorandum-book kept by Sir James, there is an entry in his own handwriting stating that the last instalment of the price of the Malligs was paid to Lord Cathcart on 5th of June 1756." So, although Fraser has apparently muddled the years, it seems pretty clear what happened.

My conclusion is that Lord Cathcart's grandfather, Sir John Schaw, had probably agreed the sale to Sir James, but had died before the sale could be concluded.

Sir John may also have agreed before his death a schedule of payments with Sir James Colquhoun, and these payments would have been made to Lord Cathcart.

The plan for the land

This land, of course, is what we now know as Helensburgh, but in those days it seemed to have a variety of names – Malig, Maligs and Millig were perhaps the most common.

At the start of 1776, Sir James placed an advertisement in the ‘Glasgow Journal’. It read: "Notice: To be feued immediately, for building upon, at a very reasonable rate, a considerable piece of ground on the shores of Malig, opposite Greenock…The ground will be regularly laid out for houses and gardens, to be built upon according to a plan, etc."

Helensburgh Advertiser: A plan for Helensburgh drawn by Peter Fleming in around 1803, showing the substantial harbour which was never builtA plan for Helensburgh drawn by Peter Fleming in around 1803, showing the substantial harbour which was never built (Image: Helensburgh Heritage Trust)

Nowadays we tend to think that the concept of the feuing of land was something which had its roots in the feudal system of mediaeval times. However in Scotland it survived right up to 2000, when it was abolished by the Scottish Government.

Although the feuars of land and buildings owned the properties in question, what they could do there was governed by rules laid down by their feudal superior – and in 1776 this was Sir James Colquhoun.

So, for example, the feuar might not be allowed to run a business from his home, or to explore for minerals such as coal on his land; he might also have to build and maintain a wall of a certain height. And, in addition, the feuar would have to make an annual payment of feu duty to his feudal superior.

In return for all this, Sir James stated in the advertisement that he was planning "to enclose a large field for the grazing of...[the] milk cows" belonging to the feuars. In addition, there was also "a large boat building at the place, for ferrying men and horses with chaises”.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Ardencaple Castle in Helensburgh (date unknown)Ardencaple Castle in Helensburgh (date unknown) (Image: Helensburgh Heritage Trust)

In the latter part of the 18th century it was becoming popular to lay out towns according to a regular plan, with straight streets, Edinburgh and Inveraray being examples.

Sir James's advertisement had referred to just such a plan, and an example may be seen in the shape of a plan for Helensburgh drawn up by Peter Fleming, probably some time between 1800 and 1810. Although much of the concept was actually realised, a substantial harbour just to the west of today's pier never was built.

Next week, Stewart looks at how Helensburgh got its name and how the boundaries of the town were established.

To find out more about the fascinating people and places of Helensburgh's history, see the Heritage Trust's website at