Welcome to Helensburgh

Helensburgh, situated on the northern shore of the Clyde estuary, is around 20 miles northwest of Glasgow. It was built to a grand Victorian design with broad tree lined avenues, an attractive promenade, a great many parks and confident embellished stone architecture. Helensburgh is the last major settlement going east along the A814 into the Highlands and a great base for exploring nearby Loch Lomond. The town has excellent rail links with Oban, Fort William and Glasgow and a number of ferry services across the Clyde, while Rhu, once a town in its own right, but now swallowed up by the expanding Helensburgh, is perhaps the major yachting centre on the Clyde estuary. Helensburgh is also notable as being one of the calling points of the last ocean going paddle steamer, the Waverley, as it makes its way west to Dunoon or Arran.

Whilst the town is of Victorian origins, and therefore a relative newcomer amongst Scottish towns, this part of the coast has a history which stretches back much further. Indeed, we can trace human settlement back to at least the Bronze Age, which began in Scotland around 2000 BC. To see prehistoric man’s handiwork near Helensburgh one can follow the Highlandmans Road, over the brow of the hill above Rhu, to where one may spot a Bronze Age cup marked boulder by the side of the Glennan Burn. In reality, however, while human beings have been active around Helensburgh for at least 4000 years, they made only a limited mark on the environment until much later.

Before Helensburgh existed the area was known as Millig. Our earliest records show that by the late 13th century these lands were the domain of the MacAulay clan. The MacAulays built their stronghold at the western end of today’s Helensburgh, which was then called Ardencaple. Originally vassals of the earls of Lennox, the family became allied to the notorious clan MacGregor in later centuries. It is believed that while an outlaw, Rob Roy MacGregor spent some time at Ardencaple Castle as a guest of the MacAulays, while in hiding from the authorities, which scoured his native Trossachs in pursuit. The fort remained the property of the family until the death of the last chief in 1786. After this time it fell into decline, passing through a number of hands until it was finally requisitioned by the Royal Navy during WWII. Sadly, in 1957 they chose to demolish all but one of the building’s towers, which has since been used merely as a navigational mark for shipping on the Clyde estuary.

At the beginning of the 18th century Ardencaple, based around the old fort, and Rhu, with its fishing vessels, were the main settlements on this part of the coast. In 1752 Sir James Colquhoun bought the land and set about transforming the area. Part of his plan was the construction of a new town, which he named Helensburgh after his wife Helen. It seems that the original plan was to found Helensburgh as an industrial zone which would benefit, Colquhoun believed, from well organised port services. In reality, the success of the ferry service he organised had a different effect, enabling those who worked on the southern side of the water, in industrial towns such as Greenock, to live on the more attractive northern shore.

In the 19th century Helensburgh built upon its initial success as a dormitory town. Whilst industrialisation touched the town only indirectly, its effect was nonetheless substantial. In 1858 the railway arrived linking Helensburgh to Glasgow and the industrial central belt, as well as growing northern towns like Oban and Fort William. When Henry Bell invented the first ocean going steamer he also built the pier at Helensburgh, in order that the ship could call there, as it made its way from Glasgow ‘doon the watter’ carrying the ever growing numbers of day trippers. An obelisk constructed on the promenade commemorates him. All of this bustle served the local economy well.

Growing prosperity was accompanied by an important period of construction which saw internationally renowned architects like Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson and Charles Rennie Macintosh being invited to design buildings for the town. Macintosh’s Hill House, which he designed with his wife, is of particular note and remains one of Helensburgh’s landmark buildings. In the 20th century Helensburgh continued to grow, partly as a means of supplying the nearby Faslane Naval Base. Nonetheless, Helensburgh remains a charming town of fine architecture, gardens, parks and promenade.