Helensburgh: the early years: intro.

May 14, 2008

Helensburgh, on the north bank of the River Clyde, is today a prosperous residential town, a popular home for Glasgow commuters and famed for Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s The Hill House, built in 1904 for the publisher Walter Blackie, just one such Glasgow commuter. It is also now home to large numbers of naval personnel from HM Naval Base Clyde at Faslane on the Gareloch. 

 

A comfortable, settled sort of place which you might think had been there for ever.  However a glance at an 18th century map shows nothing like Helensburgh – just a settlement, too small to be termed a village, called variously Malligs, Millrigs or Milligs, forming part of the parish of Rhu (or Row as it was then spelled.)  Where Helensburgh’s tree-lined streets and desirable houses now sit was then just scrubby grazing with a few simple cottages for farm workers and fisher-folk.

 

The area had traditionally been part of the estate of the Macaulays of Ardencaple, but the Chiefs of Macaulay fell on hard times and the Milligs lands were sold to Sir John Shaw of Greenock in 1700.  Shaw did little with the land and his heirs sold Milligs to Sir James Colquhoun of Luss in 1757.  At this time Colquhoun was actively buying land in Rhu to add to his extensive landholdings on Loch Lomondside.

 

The mid-eighteenth century was a great period of improvement in Scotland and landowners were taking more care to ensure that their land was properly cultivated.  Attention was being given to crop rotations and fertility, to enclosure and to the beginnings of scientific agriculture.

 

There was also, all across the nation, from the Pentland Firth to the Solway, a positive spate of new towns and villages being built by local landowners. These proprietors saw prospects of better income from feu-duties on houses, factories, shops and commercial premises than they did from rents of agricultural land.  The new towns would also help agriculture by providing local consumers for farm produce and could also perhaps absorb the rural workers displaced by the new, more scientific and less labour intensive patterns of agriculture.

 

 

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Rest and Be Thankful: intro.

May 8, 2008

Officially it is the A83 Trunk Road. For centuries however travellers have known it as the Rest and Be Thankful and have welcomed the chance to draw their breath and enjoy the view as they crossed the summit at 860 feet on the road that leads from Loch Long to Loch Awe via Glen Croe and past the picturesque Butterbridge into Glen Kinglas. There can be few roads in Scotland so well documented by travellers over the centuries or so affectionately named as the Rest.

 

 

 In the beginning, of course, there wasn’t a road at all.  There was just a track, a path, made by generations of travellers, and beaten out by herds of black cattle being taken by drovers from Argyll to the trysts and cattle markets of the Lowlands.

 

The making of a road, in any sense that we would now recognise it, had to wait until the eighteenth century. Some work was done in the 1730s on roads in Argyll by local government agencies  – the Commissioners of Supply.  However the real impetus for road building came after the 1715 and 1719 Jacobite Risings. General George Wade was sent to Scotland to examine the military situation in the Highlands.  His report made a number of recommendations, including the construction of forts at various points and the development of a network of roads to link these strong points. 

 

In 1743 it was decided to construct 44 miles of military road from Dumbarton to Inveraray, via Loch Lomondside, Tarbet, Arrochar, Glen Croe and thus down to Loch Fyne. Major Caulfeild, Wade’s Inspector of Roads and successor as mastermind of the Highland roads network, was ordered to survey the route and work started that summer – although progress was interrupted by the outbreak of the 1745 Jacobite Rising.

 

 

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Conrad and the Clyde: intro.

May 4, 2008

The Clyde is not the first river one thinks of in connection with Joseph Conrad – the Congo perhaps, or one of the fever-ridden mangrove-swamp streams of the East Indies – but not the Clyde.  Not even the most prejudiced Edinburgh imagination surely can see Glasgow’s river as the “Heart of Darkness”.

But Glasgow and the Clyde had their part in Conrad’s life and work and this connection with the Clyde, its ships and its people, is less well known than it might be.

As a writer of the sea Conrad could hardly fail to depict the Scots who built and manned so many of the world’s ships.  As a mariner trained in sail Conrad had no particular love for the steam engine; as his friend the Glasgow-born artist Muirhead Bone wrote in an obituary appreciation:

 

He had none of a Kiplingesque enthusiasm for material powers – with him it was Man and the Elements, with the apparatus always a bit inadequate.

 

So perhaps, despite the splendidly named Captain MacWhirr in Typhoon (1903), we need not look to closely to Conrad for the archetypal Clyde-trained Scots engineer – otherwise a staple of imaginative writing from Kipling’s McAndrew to StarTrek’s Scotty.

 

 

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Battle of Glen Fruin: intro.

April 27, 2008

On 7th February 1603 a force of some four hundred men of Clan Gregor, Clan Cameron and other “brokin Hieland men” came down to Glen Fruin, in Dumbartonshire, to raid and to pillage. Glen Fruin lay in the lands of Colquhoun of Luss and there was a long history of enmity between the MacGregors and the Colquhouns, as indeed there was between many residents on the borders of the Highlands and the notoriously lawless Clan Gregor.

Glen Fruin today

Alexander Colquhoun of Luss, being made aware of the invasion of his lands by the MacGregors, under Alastair MacGregor of Glenstrae, and being armed with a commission from the King to act against the MacGregors gathered together a strong force from his lands and the nearby burgh of Dumbarton and confronted the raiders at the north end of Glen Fruin. The battle was swift and bloody and resulted in the rout of the Colquhouns. Clan battles were, sadly, not unknown in Scotland, even in the seventeenth century. Although the Battle of Glen Fruin was perhaps bloodier than many, its consequences for the victors were to be more profound than MacGregor of Glenstrae could have imagined when he brought his raiders into the quiet farmlands of the Lennox.

The MacGregors, a clan once possessed of extensive lands, had by the end of the sixteenth century become a by-word for lawlessness and violence. In 1593 commissions of justiciary were granted to Archibald Campbell, 7th Earl of Argyll and Robert Galbraith of Culcreuch to pursue Clan Gregor and its adherents with fire and sword and on 17th July 1596 Alastair MacGregor of Glenstrae appeared “in maist humble manner” before King James VI and his Privy Council and acknowledged his offences and disobedience in the past and bound himself as chief of the clan to keep good rule in the country and to be answerable to the King and to justice.

To ensure MacGregor kept his word the King gave the Earl of Argyll a commission of lieutenancy over Clan Gregor. In effect this meant that the MacGregors would be answerable to Argyll, the greatest and most powerful landowner in the Southern Highlands, for their behaviour and Argyll would be answerable to the King for their conduct.

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Doom Castle

April 24, 2008

Like most of Neil Munro’s fiction Doom Castle, first published in 1901, is set in and around his home town of Inveraray.  The period is 1752 and the Doom Castle of the title is in reality Dunderave Castle on Loch Fyneside, just a few miles from Inveraray.

Dunderave Castle, the “Doom Castle” of the novel

The after effects of the 1745 Jacobite rising are still to be felt and the hero of the book Count Victor de Montaiglon comes to Scotland on a mission of revenge to seek out and kill a mysterious Scot who has been betraying the Jacobite exiles in Paris and turns up at Doom Castle, the seat of a Jacobite sympathiser Baron Lamond. He also finds in the Castle Lamond’s daughter Olivian and his pawky Lowland manservant and general factotum Mungo Boyd.

Doom Castle was warmly received when published – the British Weekly commented that “Since Kidnapped and Catriona there has been no Scottish novel of more unmistakable genius.”  Like most of Munro’s fiction it had gone out of print and I was delighted to be able to write a new introduction to it for its 1996 reprint by B&W Publishing.

Click on the cover below to go to Amazon.co.uk where this book can be ordered.

Scotland’s Great Ships

April 18, 2008

 

The idea that my co-author, Ronnie Armstrong and I had when writing this book, was that there were some Scottish ships which were so important in Scottish history or in the imagination of Scots that they had taken on iconic status. So we have chapters on the Cutty Sark and the Queen Mary, on the mighty Hood pride of the Royal Navy between the Wars and the humble puffer as well as a number of other ships which for one reason or another seemed to us to fall into this category – one of these was the ill-fated Lusitania [pictured above].
Perhaps not all the ships we discuss will be quite so familiar but all have interesting stories to tell – such as the first Cunard liner, the paddle steamer Britannia - seen below in ice at Boston Harbour.

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Click on the image below to go to the amazon.co.uk website where this book can be purchased at a discounted price.

Lord Kelvin: Victorian Man of Science: intro.

April 15, 2008

In June 1896 Glasgow was busily engaged in celebrating one of her great men.  The City and its ancient University had combined to mark the 50th anniversary of William Thomson’s appointment as Professor of Natural Philosophy.  Fifty years was certainly a long time to occupy a Professorial Chair – even allowing for the fact that Thomson had taken up his post at the remarkably early age of 22 – but this alone would not account for the celebrations.  William Thomson, or Lord Kelvin as he had been known since Queen Victoria conferred a peerage on him in 1892, was more than just another long-serving academic; he was a household name and one of the most distinguished men of science of the Victorian age.

 

Statue of Lord Kelvin in Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow

His international reputation would be attested to by the presence in Glasgow of a host of distinguished scientists and academics from Europe, North America, Australia and Asia.  A gracious letter would be received from the Prince of Wales, and the presentation of congratulatory messages from 90 universities, colleges and learned societies from around the world, ranging from Yale and Johns Hopkins to Moscow and Tokyo would confirm the academic world’s esteem for Kelvin.

 

His adopted city and his University vied with each other to honour him and the delegates’ stamina would be tested by the festivities.  A conversazione for 2500 guests was held on Monday 15th June in the University’s Bute Hall, which was “lit by electric light for the occasion” and which also housed a display of Kelvin’s scientific achievements and inventions. Outside the pipe band of the Gordon Highlanders played to greet the distinguished company.  At the conclusion of the conversazione the students of Glasgow held a gaudeamus, or student merry-making, in Kelvin’s honour in their Student’s Union, commencing at 10.45p.m.   

 

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The Ingenious Mr Bell

April 13, 2008

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Henry Bell was the man who first made a success of steam navigation in Europe – sadly his work did not bring him financial success but his claim to fame as the man behind the paddle steamer Comet [pictured below] is secure.

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When my biography of Bell was first published in 1995 it was the first life of Bell since the 1840s and critics made kind comments on it like “scholarly and readable” (Ships Monthly) and “not only an authoritative biography…but a major contribution to the early history of steam navigation” (Lloyd’s List). This paperback edition appeared in 2001 priced at £9.99 – however readers of this blog can buy copies direct from me at only £5.00 post free – email me for details  -brian@bdosborne.fsnet.co.uk

Click here to read my article on Bell’s Highland steamship venture

Neil Munro: intro.

April 11, 2008

The front page lead story in the Glasgow News of 23rd December 1930 was on the death of the Scottish novelist Neil Munro. Its triple-decker headline read:

Death of Neil Munro

Passing of a Great Novelist

Genius in Journalism

Politics, crime, the economy were all relegated to second place. Over the next few days the News would publish four separate appreciations of Munro from prominent Scottish writers of the day such as R B Cunninghame Graham and J J Bell.

Although Munro was buried in a simple family ceremony at Inveraray, on the same day civic dignitaries, representatives of Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities, the churches, An Comunn Gaidhealach and the press attended a crowded memorial service in Glasgow Cathedral.

          Munro’s death was treated as a major event and all the Scottish and British newspapers carried appreciations of his work and accounts of his career. All would probably have agreed with the comment of one writer who observed: “Neil Munro is dead, and a light has gone out in Scotland.”          A much-loved author had died and his death seems to have moved the nation in a quite remarkable way.

          There was little in Munro’s background or early life to suggest the high place in Scottish literature, or in the national consciousness, that he came to occupy; indeed his birth and childhood could hardly have been more disadvantaged.

          Born on 3rd June 1863 in the Argyllshire town of Inveraray, to Ann Munro, an unmarried domestic servant, Neil Munro grew up with the problem of illegitimacy and in very modest circumstances. He never knew who his father was, although local rumour has persistently suggested a member of the family of the Dukes of Argyll.  

In the 1871 Census the young Neil was recorded as living with his grandfather, a retired crofter.  Ann Munro married the widowed Malcolm Thomson, the Governor of Inveraray Prison, in 1875, but at the 1881 Census Neil was staying with his great aunt Bell MacArthur, a former agricultural worker. This family background, with its roots in the Argyllshire countryside, meant that Munro was brought up bi-lingually. Gaelic culture and the Gaelic spirit informed much of his writing, although he never published any works in that language.

          After attending school in Inveraray, Munro about the age of 13 entered the local law office of William Douglas as a junior clerk.  This was an odd appointment. Nothing in Munro’s background made a career in the law likely; his fellow clerks were from a more conventional middle-class background – a doctor’s son and a lawyer’s son.  The job was in fact wished on Munro. He later wrote he was:

 

…insinuated, without any regard for my own desires, into a country lawyer’s office, wherefrom I withdrew myself as soon as I arrived at years of discretion and revolt.

 

Nor was it just any country lawyer’s office. William Douglas was a central part of the Argyllshire establishment: Clerk to the Commissioners of Supply, Clerk to the Lieutenancy of Argyll, and later, Sheriff Clerk and Justice of the Peace Clerk.  Perhaps the string-pulling that had landed the bright young Munro such a coveted job was connected with the mystery of his father’s identity.

         

 

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From the Clyde to Rotterdam: intro.

April 8, 2008
On 10th March 1868 the Buffel, a new warship for the Royal Netherlands Navy, slipped into the waters of the Clyde from the shipyard of Robert Napier and Sons.

Robert Napier

 
Nothing too remarkable about that perhaps: Robert Napier, often described as the “father of Clyde shipbuilding,” had built warships for Denmark, Turkey, and the Royal Navy, as well as passenger and cargo vessels for most of the leading shipping companies of the age including Cunard, the Royal Mail line and P & O.  Napier’s fame was great and a reputation for high quality work had won orders from all round the world for his Govan shipyard.
 
What makes the Buffel memorable is the fact that she survives as the centre-piece of Rotterdam’s Maritime Museum.  That Buffel still is afloat after a career of 140 years is a tribute to the skills of her Govan shipbuilders, the careful restoration she received and the loving care with which she is maintained today.
 
In 1864 the Dutch Government set up a commission to consider the country’s needs for coastal defence.  As the Dutch shipbuilding industry at this time did not have the technical capacity or experience to build the type of ships the commission considered necessary the orders for the new ships went to British and French builders; two of them, for the monitor Tijger and the ram turret ship Buffel (the name is Dutch for buffalo) coming to Robert Napier’s yard.

 

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