In the final part of his fascinating look at the history of Helensburgh, Stewart Noble from the Helensburgh Heritage Trust looks at the ways the town marked its boundaries, established its coat of arms - and ultimately at how Helensburgh's management of its own affairs over the years was taken away by local government reorganisation.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

As mentioned in part 2 of this story on Helensburgh's origins, the boundaries of the town were set out in the Burgh's charter of 1802 - and extended less than 30 years later to take account of its rapidly growing population, with stones placed and regular outings made to mark where Helensburgh officially began and ended. 

Many towns in Scotland, most notably in the Borders and in Dumfries and Galloway, still hold ceremonial events to mark out their boundaries, remembering the days when it was felt necessary to protect common land and prevent encroachment by those living in neighbouring burghs.

There's no such event in Helensburgh today - but that wasn't always the case...

The Burgh's boundaries and ‘The Beating of the Bounds’

In 1851 a new school was established in the town hall, and two years later it moved to Grant Street, whereupon it became known formally as Grant Street School.

However it was perhaps better known by the nickname of the Ragged School, because its pupils came from amongst the poorer sections of the town.

Helensburgh Advertiser: The 'Ragged School' in Helensburgh, established in 1851The 'Ragged School' in Helensburgh, established in 1851 (Image: Helensburgh Heritage Trust)

David Arthur, the former principal of Lomond School, wrote in 200 Years of Helensburgh that "one interesting feature of the curriculum [at the Ragged School] was an annual event – the Beating of the Bounds".

He continued: "This exciting event probably involved each boy being provided with a birch stick and being taken to beat the boundaries of the burgh, which in turn involved beating the stones that marked the bounds."

However in 1883 a somewhat different account of this or a similar event was given by Donald MacLeod in A Nonogenarian's (sic) Reminiscences of Garelochside and Helensburgh; the nonagenarian in question was the writer’s uncle, Gabriel MacLeod.

He wrote that during "the Redding of the Marches", as it was known, the boys themselves were actually beaten by the teacher!

"Some of the boys operated on howled,” he wrote.

Helensburgh Advertiser: An illustration of 'The Beating of the Bounds', from Donald MacLeod's book A Nonogenarian's Reminiscences of Garelochside and HelensburghAn illustration of 'The Beating of the Bounds', from Donald MacLeod's book A Nonogenarian's Reminiscences of Garelochside and Helensburgh (Image: Helensburgh Heritage Trust)

“Others sulked and bore it quietly, or with a ghastly grin; none seemed to appreciate it, and all went as captives from one point to another, a tear-stricken and despondent mob, until the last point had been reached, and the last item of instruction had been duly implanted in the seat of knowledge."

However he concluded that “it is fair to add that a solatium was generally liberally made to them at the end of the day's instruction by the authorities who had required their attendance, and this operated as a salve for their wounded feelings and smarting bodies”.

The Coat of Arms

Helensburgh’s coat of arms came much later and is itself based upon the burgh seal which would be affixed to important documents.

Writing in 1857 to the Town Council, Sir James Colquhoun, great-grandson of the founder of the town, suggested a design for the burgh seal, based on the coats of arms of the Colquhouns and the Sutherlands. He also enclosed a drawing with his letter.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Helensburgh's original coat of arms, dating from 1857Helensburgh's original coat of arms, dating from 1857 (Image: Helensburgh Heritage Trust)

As it originally appeared, the burgh coat of arms had Colquhoun attributes (including a hound) on the left side, and Sutherland attributes on the right side; these included a decidedly underdressed man with a club over his shoulder!

In June 1929 the Town Council received a letter from the Court of the Lord Lyon King of Arms. According to the Council minutes the Lord Lyon was concerned about “the illegality of the Burgh using its present device of Seal”. With this in mind, a redesign took place later that year, which was subsequently approved by the Lord Lyon.

There were two principal changes in the redesign. Firstly, instead of the two sides of the coat of arms being split vertically, they were now split horizontally, with the Colquhoun attributes above the Sutherland attributes.

Secondly, the medallion with the St Andrew’s Cross at the foot of the coat of arms was removed completely; this medallion had signified that the Colquhouns had been Baronets of Nova Scotia since 1625.

Helensburgh Advertiser: The revised Helensburgh coat of arms, as approved by the Lord Lyon King of Arms in 1929.The revised Helensburgh coat of arms, as approved by the Lord Lyon King of Arms in 1929. (Image: Helensburgh Heritage Trust)

These Baronetcies were established in 1624 as a means of financing the new Scottish colony of Nova Scotia in Canada. In return for a payment of money, a wealthy Scot could become a baronet, a title which he could pass to his son, and so on down the generations. Sir John Colquhoun duly became the first Colquhoun baronet of Nova Scotia.

There was, however, a snag. In order to obtain the title of baronet, the individuals concerned actually had to visit Nova Scotia. However a cunning alternative was devised! A small part of the Edinburgh Castle Esplanade was designated to be part of Nova Scotia; it remains so to this day, and is commemorated by a plaque there.

Somewhat surprisingly, part of the burgh coat of arms is in French; the words "Si Je Puis" mean "If I Can". This dates back to 1424, when Dumbarton Castle was being held by Duncan, Earl of Lennox, an enemy of King James I. The king asked Sir John Colquhoun if he could re-take the castle, and Sir John is said to have replied "si je puis", French being the language of the royal court.

Knowing that the defenders of the castle would be hungry, Sir John captured a stag and then released it in front of the castle, with some of his hunting dogs in pursuit of it. Meanwhile his men were hiding nearby.

Helensburgh Advertiser:

Hoping for a meal of venison, the Earl's men opened the castle gates and also set off in pursuit of the stag. And this, of course, gave Sir John and his men the opportunity to capture the castle. This event is also commemorated by the stag's head and the hound on the Colquhoun coat of arms.

Less surprisingly, the burgh coat of arms also contains two words in Gaelic: Cnoc Elachan. These have been translated as either ‘Hill of the Black Willow’ or ‘Armoury Hill’. This is a little hillock near Rossdhu, the traditional Loch Lomondside home of the Clan Colquhoun chiefs, and is now the site of the Loch Lomond Golf Club.

Cnoc Elachan was thus akin to a call to arms – it was a place where armed men would gather if trouble was threatening.

The Demise of the Burgh

In 1929 a reorganisation of local government in Scotland took place and, in common with other burghs, Helensburgh lost control of its schools, which became the responsibility of Dunbartonshire County Council.

This was a harbinger of things to come. In the early 1970s, the government decided that many Scottish burghs were just too small to perform efficiently, and so they were abolished in 1975, Helensburgh among them.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Preceded by the pipe band and Provost Norman Glen, the Town Council and its senior officers make their way to the last Kirking of the Council in May 1975.Preceded by the pipe band and Provost Norman Glen, the Town Council and its senior officers make their way to the last Kirking of the Council in May 1975. (Image: Helensburgh Heritage Trust)

Instead a two-tier system was set up, with Helensburgh becoming a part of Dumbarton District Council for some functions, and of the much bigger Strathclyde Regional Council for others.

As a sop, community councils were set up, with Helensburgh and Colgrain each having one – though the latter has subsequently disappeared. However with no power to raise their own taxes, and with no services to provide officially, community councils are effectively little more than pressure groups.

Some 20 years later, it was felt that the two-tier structure of local government was also in need of reform, and so it was replaced by a single tier in 1996; significantly, just a year later, Scotland voted in favour of the re-constitution of its own Parliament.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Helensburgh Community Council's coat of arms.Helensburgh Community Council's coat of arms. (Image: Helensburgh Community Council)

As part of this reorganisation, Helensburgh's traditional links with Dumbarton were cut, and instead the town became part of Argyll and Bute Council.


So, are we any better off today than we were when Helensburgh was an independent burgh with its own Town Council?

It is probably difficult to argue against the claim that larger local authorities, insofar as they are geographically feasible, are more efficient than smaller ones, and hence that the cost to taxpayers of running them is lower.

However, it could be argued that something intangible has been lost. Do we have the same civic pride as we used to have?

In addition the provost and the town councillors of the past were probably much more familiar to the citizens of the town than the councillors of Argyll and Bute are today, and so the ability and inclination of the citizens to hold them to account has arguably also decreased.

Might "Bring Back the Burghs" become a rallying cry in the future?