The volume produced to mark the bicentenary of the granting of burgh status, ‘Two Hundred Years of Helensburgh’, starts with a glance back as far as the last Ice Age and makes nodding reference to artefacts from the Stone Age and Bronze age, wondering about human activity in the surrounding area in the dim and distant past. Wallace and Bruce are also mentioned as having possible connections with the territory. It is not, however, until some centuries later that history takes note of the appearance of Helensburgh as a town in its own right.
In 1752, Sir James Colquhoun, the 26th Laird of Luss, purchased the lands of Malig from Marion, Lady Cathcart. On 11th January 1776, an advertisement appeared in the Glasgow Journal, offering “to be feued immediately, for building upon, at a very reasonable rate, a considerable piece of ground on the shores of Malig.” A nota bene mentioned that “bonnet makers, stocking, linen and woollen weavers will meet with encouragement.” Some time later, c. 1785, the town was to be called “my Lady Helen’s Burgh”, in honour of Lady Helen Sutherland whom Sir James had married in 1740.
On 28th July 1802, King George III granted a Royal Charter of Resignation and Novodamus. This created a Burgh of Barony and authorised a weekly market and four annual fairs.
An insightful comment is to be found in the ‘Statistical Account of Scotland’ of 1791:
“In Row (Rhu) the air is sharp and healthy but the climate, like that of every other parish near the mouth of the Clyde, is wet. In consequence of the heavy and almost incessant rain which falls in the harvest and winter months, the lands are for a long time drenched in water.”
It may have been hoped that the new town of Helen’s Burgh, especially in view of its elevation to a Burgh of Barony, would develop into a commercial centre of some stature. The feasibility of trade may have been hampered by the relatively shallow harbour (compared, for example, with Greenock). Subsistence farms, a granary and mill were in evidence. Herring fishing seems to have been a feature and indeed a distillery functioned, producing up to 400 gallons of malt whisky per week.
Early in the 1800s, Helensburgh became popular as a ‘seaside’ resort and hotels and private houses offered holiday accommodation during the summer months. This development would have been aided, no doubt, by the advent of the railway in the 1850s. Helensburgh was set to become the ‘Brighton of the North’. Before the First World War, Dr. J. Ewing Hunter gifted cherry blossom trees to line some of the streets. This enhancement has helped the town earn the title of ‘Garden City of the Clyde’. Other attractions today include Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s ‘Hill House’ designed for Walter Blackie, a Glasgow publisher. The P.S. Waverley continues to bring summer visitors to Helensburgh; recreation being the main use of the pier today. A more serious use of the water-front is the Naval Base at Faslane, home to Trident. The progressive development of this site has had a major impact on the economy and population growth (estimated to be in the region of 15,000).