In the second part of his look at the origins of Helensburgh, Stewart Noble from the Helensburgh Heritage Trust looks at how the town got its name - and at how he went about ensuring that from the start, it had a special status...

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At the start of 1776 - a full 24 years after he'd bought the land on which Helensburgh now stands - Sir James Colquhoun 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."

A new and distinctive name

After Sir James Colquhoun had placed his advertisement he started to think of a new name for the place.

Writing nearly 70 years later his great-grandson, another Sir James Colquhoun, gave the following account to Helensburgh Town Council.

"My great-grandfather was much puzzled what to call the intended burgh. Many names were suggested to him, but none that he liked or approved of.

"At last, being in company with a gentleman, a friend of his, he took occasion to mention the difficulty to him and to ask for his assistance. 'I see no difficulty about the matter,' his friend replied. 'Name it after your good Lady; call it Helen's Burgh.'

Helensburgh Advertiser: Lady Helen Colquhoun (nee Sutherland), 1717-1791Lady Helen Colquhoun (nee Sutherland), 1717-1791 (Image: Helensburgh Heritage Trust)

"This is the name, said my great-grandfather, and it was accordingly called."

It is not known when Helensburgh got its new name, though it first appears in print in 1785. The new name was in common use after 1792, but names such as Milligs continued to be used after that date for some time.

Lady Helen lived from 1717 to 1791, and her grandfather was the 16th Earl of Sutherland, who had died in 1733.

READ MORE: How do you go about inventing a Burgh? The story of the town's earliest days

The eldest son and heir to the Sutherland earldom is known as Lord Strathnaver, and this was the title of Lady Helen's father. However he died in 1720, 13 years before his father, and so obviously never succeeded to the earldom.

Consequently the correct description of Lady Helen is that she was the granddaughter of the 16th Earl of Sutherland and the sister of the 17th Earl of Sutherland. The Sutherland family seat is still today at Dunrobin Castle, just outside Golspie in the north of Scotland.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Dunrobin CastleDunrobin Castle (Image: Colin Horn/

Lady Helen is sometimes wrongly described as being a descendant of a Duke of Sutherland. The first Duke was created in 1833, over 40 years after Lady Helen's death. After his death an enormous statue of him was erected on the hill of Ben Bhraggie above Golspie, and many people today regard him and his wife as being responsible for some of the worst of the Highland Clearances.

The granting of Burgh status

Sir James did not live long enough to see Helensburgh being granted its burgh status in 1802; he had died 16 years earlier.

Burgh status was an important step in the development of Helensburgh, as can be judged from the fact that it involved the drawing up of a Royal Charter from King George III in favour of yet another Sir James, this time the son of Sir James and Lady Helen.

The charter gave the townspeople (men only, of course) powers over the running of the burgh. A town council was set up, with a provost at its head, two bailies under him, and then four councillors.

Unfortunately the first pages of the Helensburgh Town Council minute book are blank, and so the history of the burgh council for its first five years is not known. Consequently the first recorded provost of the town was Henry Bell, the steamship pioneer and hotelier, in 1807.

Helensburgh Advertiser:

The charter also gave the burgh the powers to hold a weekly market and four annual fairs. The area of the land falling within the boundaries was also specified – more about this later!

Anyone expecting to see this charter in the form of an imposing-looking document will be sorely disappointed. The original version has disappeared, but a copy is held by the National Records of Scotland, while another one is appended to the first minute book of Helensburgh Town Council – and this includes a short section which is not in the copy held by the National Records.

Furthermore, both copies are written in Latin, but the one in the Town Council minute book does at least have a translation into English – except for the last couple of pages! A full English translation is, however, available on the Helensburgh Heritage Trust website.

However even the English translation is far from easy reading. It is somewhat repetitive, and it also includes terms which are not in everyday use today, such as multure, knaveship and sucken.

Many, but not all, refer to obligations with regard to the use of the local mill – which in turn shows how important this must have been to the new burgh.

Helensburgh in 1802 was a very small place, and consequently it is something of a surprise to modern eyes that it was actually granted burgh status. At that time Helensburgh was part of the Parish of Rhu (which was spelt Row in those days) and from the 1799 Statistical Account of Scotland we learn that the whole parish had a population of only 1000 (486 males and 514 females).

Rev John Allan (junior), the parish minister, wrote in the Statistical Account that there was "one village in the parish, lately built, which contains about 100 souls" – presumably this was Helensburgh.

Helensburgh Advertiser: The steamship Comet in front of the Baths Inn in Helensburgh in a painting by Neil MacleodThe steamship Comet in front of the Baths Inn in Helensburgh in a painting by Neil Macleod (Image: Helensburgh Heritage Trust)

It was only 10 years after the granting of the burgh charter that the population of the town really started to grow, and this was down to the introduction of steamships. The first of these was the Comet, which hotel owner Henry Bell introduced in 1812 to bring guests to his Baths Inn in speed and comfort from Glasgow. His Baths Inn still stands, and is now the older part of Queen’s Court at 114 East Clyde Street,

The Boundaries of the Burgh

The burgh charter outlines the area covered, which is to include " the eight pound Lands of Milligs, ..... the lands of Kirkmichael & Drumphad [and] ...... the twenty-six shilling and eight penny lands of Stuckleckie".

It then goes on to describe the actual boundaries of the burgh. They "will comprehend, & be bounded by, the limits after described viz. on the south side by the river Clyde, on the north by the march-dykes of the lands of Stuckleckie as at present set off & by the march-dykes of the lands of both Milligs and Glennan, on the west by the Burn of Glennan, & on the east by the way leading from Clyde to Lochlomond commonly called the Duke's way".

By 1833 the population of the town was growing so rapidly that an extension to the burgh was undertaken, more than doubling in size the area covered.

In 1868 the town built its first reservoir, and a further two were subsequently added. The final extension to the boundaries of the burgh was made in order to include all three reservoirs, as well as some other land at the top of the hill.

Helensburgh Advertiser: The site of Maligs Mill in HelensburghThe site of Maligs Mill in Helensburgh (Image: Helensburgh Heritage Trust)

However there were some strange anomalies. Thus Craigendoran and Colgrain never fell within the burgh boundary. The boundary was particularly obvious in Craigendoran Avenue, where it was marked by a strip of wood down the middle of the road. The result of this was that for a long time neither the Town Council nor Dunbartonshire County Council could agree on the resurfacing of the road, with the result that it developed a formidable array of potholes!

To mark the new 1833 boundaries, large stones having the letters 'BB' cut into them were placed in position wherever the line of the boundaries changed direction, "in order that the boundaries may be known in time coming".

Unfortunately, the description of the locations of these stones is far from clear to modern eyes – and, to give a flavour of the details, here are the first four as recorded, word for word, in the Town Council minutes for 1833.

1. The parties commenced at and proceeded from Sinclair Street, now the new line of Road to Lochlomond, eastward along the line of the old march hedge of Milligs Farm and placed the first stone at 'Craigknow' twelve feet to the west of the third street leading up west of the Mill Burn.

2. The next stone was placed Laigh on the west side of the March dyke between Milligs and Stuckleckie farms, two feet to the west of the fifth Street from the Burn.

3. The third stone was placed on the north side of the upper termination of the said march dyke, being two hundred and seventy-nine feet west of the southwest corner of the large new lodging presently possessed by Captain Johnston.

4. The next stone was placed on the north side of the continuation eastward of the dyke below the grounds formerly called the ward, at the present hedge running down to the public high way along the shore.

…. and if you want to read about the locations of the other 10 stones recorded in those council minutes of July 27, 1833, have a look on the Trust's website

Helensburgh Advertiser: Rossdhu House on Loch Lomondside, home of the ColquhounsRossdhu House on Loch Lomondside, home of the Colquhouns (Image: Helensburgh Heritage Trust)

Later council minutes record frequent outings to make certain of the clear identification of the burgh boundaries, and visits are recorded on May 22, 1840 and again on September 24, 1842.

Around the year 2000 the late Alan Day, who was also largely responsible for setting up the footpath network around the outskirts of the town, and who is commemorated on a plaque on the path behind the Hill House, tried to find out whether any of these boundary stones were still in their original positions.

He found one on the eastern edge of Garraway Glen, where it meets a field. The Glen itself is on the eastern edge of the Churchill estate, but the stone had fallen over. However around that time work was being undertaken to improve the footpath up Garraway Glen; as part of that work, the boundary stone was restored to its upright position, and there it remains.

The location of only one other boundary stone is known today. It stands in the garden at 39 Millig Street. It is impossible to tell whether this was its original location. However in recent years the owners of the garden have cleaned up the stone, removing moss and other growth.

There are, however, significant differences between the two stones. The stone in Millig Street appears to be much taller than that in Garraway Glen; it also has a flat top, whereas the one in Garraway Glen has a slightly pyramidal top.

More importantly, no inscription can be seen on the stone in Garraway Glen, whereas the Millig Street stone appears to have the number 11 engraved on its top, then the letters BB and then clearly the date 1816 – not 1833, as one might expect.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Henry Bell's grave in the grounds of Rhu and Shandon Parish ChurchHenry Bell's grave in the grounds of Rhu and Shandon Parish Church (Image: Helensburgh Heritage Trust)

This raises a question. Were some stones put in place in 1816 but only recorded in 1833? Unfortunately, whereas the Town Council minutes for 1833 are very explicit with regard to the placing of the stones, the minutes for 1816 (and also 1815) record nothing more than the names of those elected to serve on the Town Council.

We shall probably never know the answer, although it does seem quite possible that stones were put in place at two different times.

Don't miss the final part of Helensburgh's origin story next week, when Stewart looks in more detail about what the town's great and good did to ensure the town lived up to its Burgh status - and, much more recently, at how that official status was lost.