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The Colquhoun Square story

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AN ICONIC feature of Helensburgh is Colquhoun Square.

That the Square was intended to form a distinctive feature right at the outset of the infant town is clearly shown by its presence on the earliest existing street plans, dating from the start of the 19th century.

With both the Square and the street leading up to it from the seafront being named after the Colquhouns, the family responsible for the founding of the community, their perceived importance immediately becomes clear, this status being reinforced with the subsequent construction of the town pier opposite Colquhoun Street.

In addition, it should be borne in mind that Colquhoun Street initially marked the centre of the town, in that the east-west split stemmed from here, as reflected in street names and addresses.

The nearby and parallel Sinclair Street, however, gradually gained the ascendancy, a process boosted in 1832 with the incorporation of the latter as part of the new road over the Blackhill.

Nonetheless, it was not until around1893 that the Town Council changed the east-west split to run from Sinclair Street.

Despite this arguable loss of status, there is little doubt that Colquhoun Square has come to be regarded as one of those places that helps define the nature and special character of Helensburgh. For example, along with the seafront, it is one of the most photographed and talked-about parts of the town, always featuring in the once-annual guides to Helensburgh.

This unique quality probably goes a long way to explain the prolonged arguments and deliberations about the way forward for the Square that have taken place in recent years.

It may come as something of a surprise then, to discover that in the early years, the Square was by no means the “jewel in the crown” that it was later to become, despite seemingly being conceived with the proverbial pavings of gold.

Thus, perhaps surprisingly, there is little evidence that it was an early property hot-spot.

While feus were quickly taken off for those sites at the street intersections, the rest of the Square appears to have been slow to develop.

One exception to this was the building of a church at the north-west corner in 1825, this being the work of a Presbyterian denomination known as the Auld Lichts.

Yet, despite the status afforded by the church, which was admittedly a fairly modest affair, further progress seems to have been slow.

One clue comes from a business directory of 1834, which has only one entry for Colquhoun Square, with a Duncan Gay being listed as a joiner and cabinet maker.

By contrast, Colquhoun Street has 14 entries and Sinclair Street 28. While the directory does concentrate on business and commerce, the relative lack of entries for the Square does seem suggestive.

Given the apparently prime location, one might well ask: why might this have been so? One factor might simply be that, as originally planned, the Square initially offered only a relatively small number of plots for feuing.

A number of sources portray the quarter as being unappealing in the early years.

For example, it is often quoted that the Square was once the scene of a water-filled quarry, the circumstance being made more lurid by reports that a poor old woman drowned there.

That the Square did once host a quarry is beyond dispute, with several writers specifically referring to it as being formed of red sandstone.

Being the scene of a quarry site would hardly appear to be a strong selling point, but in this respect it should be noted that Colquhoun Square was far from unique at that time.

In fact there were many small quarries and even gravel pits in the lower part of the town, for example those at Grant Street and Lomond Street.

Writing in the Heritage Trust’s seminal work “200 Years of Helensburgh”, Alison Roberts stated that these small quarries yielded stone of varying quality, this typically being used for rubble infill and for road bottoming. In the case of the Colquhoun Square quarry, the stone is said to have been used to line a sewer conduit.

These small quarries were in contrast to the much larger ones higher uphill at places like East Milligs and Blackhill, where grey sandstone of a generally superior building quality was to be obtained.

The story of the drowning has some basis in fact. The normally reliable writer W. C. Maughan gives some specific detail, describing the elderly victim as a noted hawker, who, with her horse and cart, earned a livelihood by selling herring and shellfish from Loch Long at various points between Garelochhead and Dumbarton.

Another piece of evidence that could be used to make a case for the unattractiveness of the Square comes from a report on the condition of the streets of Helensburgh, drawn up in 1845.

It notes that the Square was “. . . in very bad order. No paths are formed round it, and it forms a receptacle for stones, lime and dung . . . in its present state it is more a nuisance than an ornament.”

Such a description is undoubtedly off-putting, but it has to be seen in the context of the report as a whole, which is similarly critical of many parts of the town. In consequence, then, the Square was no better or worse off than its neighbours.

The street report of 1845 does appear to have been of significance in that it presaged a whole suite of environmental improvements over the next decade and more, and not just affecting the condition of the roads.

Indeed, there seems to have been something of a wider cultural shift around this time, a process possibly assisted by the passage and implementation of legislation, such as the Police Act of 1846.

To illustrate this point, there is an account in an 1856 issue of a newspaper called “The Helensburgh Telegraph”, in which a correspondent contrasts the ill-disciplined and unkempt nature of the burgh a decade earlier with the present orderly and rapidly expanding town.

Thus: “Behind the first row of houses was a chaos of half-feued fields and quarry holes . . . its native population was lazy, ignorant and disorderly, addicted to habits and vices of the lowest order”. Although this account is not alone in painting a fairly lurid picture of the earlier Helensburgh, one has to wonder if it does contain more than a pinch of artistic licence.

A study of official papers does perhaps hint at the sorts of change that were taking effect at the time.

For instance, town council records reveal that in 1850, it was agreed that those allowing cattle to graze in the streets beyond 7pm were to be arrested.

One gains a sense of a gathering pace away from an older, rural village way of life, to one more commensurate with the aims and ambitions of a modern town.

Colquhoun Square also appears to have felt the effects of this new era of enriched status and fulfilment, to the extent that it could now be described as completed.

Town Council records imply a date of 1851 for when this happened, although one architectural guide gives instead a date of 1843.

Here, one can perhaps sense a possible source of ambiguity: does “completion” refer to the take-up of feuing plots, actual infill by facing buildings, landscaping of open areas, or does it imply the total package?

Whatever the case, the 1850's witnessed a whole raft of landscaping improvements, including the planting of trees.

A defining feature of the Square as it is known today was brought into being during this period, namely the erection of what is now known as St Andrew's Kirk, built in place of its humble Auld Lichts predecessor.

Completed in 1853, it is no exaggeration to state that both the present building and its forerunner have borne witness to a great many of the twists and turns that affected the wider Presbyterian Movement in Scotland over the past two hundred years.

In recent decades, there has also been the dimension of rationalisation within the Church of Scotland itself.

The present church is pre-dated by two structures forming part of the same complex, the original hall, and West Kirk Cottage, both formed around 1842 as school and schoolhouse respectively.

While these buildings, both of which have later additions, are located in Colquhoun Street rather than the Square, it seems appropriate to include them, especially as Kirk Cottage is thought to incorporate some stonework from the adjacent quarry.

With a reputed opening date of 1843 for the quarry, this approximates reasonably well with the age of the building. Since the red sandstone quarry in question is understood to have been located in that very corner of the Square, it could certainly have scarcely been more convenient.

The Kirk itself is likewise reputed to have been built from local stone, but one would suspect that much of the facing would have been sourced from the better quality outcrops found further uphill.

A measure of the increasing activity that was now being witnessed by the Square may be drawn from perusal of a town directory of the mid-1860's.

Among those based there are a coal merchant, coach-builder, slater, publisher, boat-builder, joiner and carter, along with a bottling store, a bank, and the public library. Some of the buildings also incorporate domestic residencies.

Scrutiny of a map from the same period reveals that in addition to the various buildings that line the Square, there are also extensive areas devoted to storage yards and workshops.

Taken along with the directory entries, the impression that is given is one of a very varied environment, featuring commercial, service, residential and perhaps tellingly, industrial enterprises.

Could this latter element offer any hint as to the seemingly slow initial growth of the Square? Might it be that it was perceived as something of a backwater, with various industrial processes, along with the accompanying noise and dust, perhaps inhibiting other forms of development?

Once again, however, a note of caution has to be sounded, as many other parts of the town at this time included an industrial element, with little evidence of a negative effect.

Colquhoun-Square-fountainA photograph of the Square dating from 1861 shows corner plots contained within very robust, if somewhat utilitarian-looking fences. Bearing in mind the plantings that had taken place in the previous decade, the imposition of barriers might have been seen as a necessary protection against nibbling by passing draught animals.

Whatever the rationale, one writer comments that “this railing was discovered to be an admirable invention for drying household washings, and might be seen daily covered with many coloured and many shaped garments flapping in the wind”.

He goes on to add that one individual sought to benefit the neighbourhood further by installing a large iron tank, supplied with water, in one corner. This was painted red, “and for many years it remained, in its native ugliness, a feature of the landscape”.

An interesting addition to the Square came about in the early 1870's, with the arrival there of the Helensburgh Lodge of the Independent Order of Oddfellows.

Occupying a sizeable building in the north-east corner, the Oddfellows, essentially a friendly society, had enjoyed a presence in the town at least as far back as the late 1840's, but prior to the move to the Square, had been quite peripatetic in their use of venues.

Once in their new base, however, the building served the Oddfellows as a hall for many years, and indeed they were still there until at least the start of World War Two. To-day, the premises are used to house the popular Buffet Shop.

Given the environmental improvements that had taken place in the Square during mid-Victorian times, it may come as something of a surprise to discover, then, that judging from photographs taken in the closing decades of the century, it had taken on a utilitarian, even bleak, appearance, with an apparent reversal of the greening process.

This state of affairs obtained despite the fact that those buildings lining the Square had tended to become steadily more monumental in character, as exemplified by the statuesque Post Office of 1893, and the massive tenement block just across the road, which, swirling round the corner from Princes Street, stopped just short of what was then the West Free Kirk.

The advent of the 20th century, however, brought with it a new and better sense of space and amenity provision, with the attainment of burgh centenary status in 1902 almost certainly providing a catalyst for change.

The year 1903 marked the culmination of this spirit of renaissance. Pavements and footpaths throughout the town centre, including the Square, were laid with Caithness flags and edged with whin or granite kerbs, while main street crossings were provided with whinstone setts.

The four open areas of the Square were laid out as a mixture of lawns and planted flowers and shrubs, each being enclosed within sets of railings.

Centenary-CrossIn addition, the offer of a Celtic Centenary cross on the part of Sir James Colquhoun was gratefully accepted, as were gifts of two drinking fountains, one presented by Provost Sam Bryden, the other by Daniel Kirkwood Comrie, a town councillor and baillie.

In the case of the latter, the choice of a fountain seems especially appropriate, as the donor was proprietor of a local aerated water company.

The Celtic cross was initially located right at the centre of the Square, at the midpoint of the intersection of Colquhoun Street and West Princes Street.

While serving as a logical focal point for the Square as a whole, the new landmark unfortunately proved to be a road hazard, given the ever-increasing volume of wheeled traffic.

The story of how Lord Strathclyde's carriage almost overturned in avoiding it has entered the annals of local folklore, but it seems likely that there would have been other near-misses as well.

Be that as it may, the Cross was re-located to the north-west corner of the Square in 1909, where it remains to this day.

In the case of the fountains, both fine granite edifices, these were initially located near the centre of the plots in the north-east and south-west segments, and were originally accessed from diagonal paths.

However, they were moved in 1907 from the centre to the outer edges of their respective spaces, perhaps to make them more accessible to passers-by on the main thoroughfares.

In 1925, the Comrie fountain, which was at the south-west corner, was moved to Hermitage Park, at the request of the family. Today, the site in the Square is marked by a community notice board.

The Bryden fountain remained in place into the second half of the century, and here it is illuminating to draw upon the excellent set of reminiscences provided by local historian Pat Drayton.

Referring to this fountain, she comments that “as youngsters, we loved to drink from that lovely old well with the lion's head and the huge, cold iron cup which was chained to the stone . . . we were too small to reach the press button near the lion's head, and had to be punted up by our companions to get even a few drops of water in the heavy cup”.

Today, the site is occupied by a handsome Celtic cross of granite, erected in April 2005 to mark the Burgh Bicentenary in 2002, thanks to the efforts of the Heritage Trust.

Sadly, public drinking fountains have tended to vanish from the landscape in recent decades, and while once found in all manner of places, including not only public parks and promenades, but also railway stations and public toilets, they have slipped away from our culture and consciousness, seemingly with little comment or controversy.

At the turn of the 20th century, for example, there were more than half a dozen along the Kilcreggan to Cove seafront alone. Today, only a handful survive in the whole district, with fewer still in good working order.

The site of the former Comrie fountain was used in 1928 as the location for the first public telephone box in Helensburgh. One of the early red versions, this would today be worth a small fortune, were it still around.

Many will still recall the row of red boxes that later stood alongside the Post Office, these in turn being replaced by the BT booths of the present day.

Once looked upon as controversial because of their bright colour, but now regarded as iconic symbols, the red telephone box of yesteryear has, like the fountain, all but vanished from the district, with several disappearing just within the last couple of years.

With a large proportion of these cast iron structures being manufactured at Scottish foundries, namely the Lion Foundry in Kirkintilloch, the Saracen in Glasgow, and the Carron near Falkirk, one thought is that with the forthcoming refurbishment of Colquhoun Square, the return of a red box might form a noteworthy feature — after all, thousands have been retained or salvaged up and down the country, sometimes assisted through the process of “people power”.

Over the years the Square has inevitably borne witness to its fair share of dramatic happenings.

One such occurred in 1924, when a disastrous fire swept through the Church, though fortunately no lives were lost. A sensitive restoration by Robert Wemyss subsequently took place.

It was particularly appropriate that Wemyss, himself resident in Helensburgh, was chosen to do the work, since the adjacent large tenement block had also been built to his designs.

Tower-CinemaWhat was to become a well-loved building came to the Square in 1927, with the arrival of the Tower Picture House in the south-east corner, close to where an old lane butted through.

While far from being the first cinema in Helensburgh, this was still the era of the silent film, and it was not until 1930 that adaptations were made to accommodate the new “talkies”.

One of the first such to be screened was “King of the Khyber Rifles”, but, even so, hints of an earlier culture persisted, with sound films being supplemented by regular variety acts.

One personal memory relates to the showing of the Ealing masterpiece “Whisky Galore”. Launched in 1949, the showing at the Tower must have taken place not so long afterwards.

A striking and indeed unique spectacle was provided by the long and winding queues which stretched far along the pavements.

Other films with a Scottish dimension subsequently came along from time to time, one example being “Geordie”, which also attracted a good-sized following, but nothing as impressive as in the case of “Whisky Galore”.

Once inside, the cinemagoer entered a world all of its own. Quite apart from the stars like Doris Day, John Wayne, and of course, Helensburgh’s Deborah Kerr, there were the usherettes, the popcorn and ice-cream — and of course the courting couples.

Strident Pathe news bulletins always presented an upbeat image of British derring-do across the world.

Eventually though, with the advent of TV, attendances gradually fell away, with the coup de grace being administered in 1968 by the great hurricane in January of that year.

Forced into closure by the consequent damage, the building was demolished in 1973. The famous tower itself, however, almost defied demolition, and it took several determined attempts before it finally toppled.

The grim course of two world wars inevitably left their marks in various ways.

While the First World War was by far the worst in terms of local war dead, direct effects on the Square itself were not perhaps so great, although there were measures such as lighting restrictions.

In the aftermath of the Armistice of 1918, a large parade was held, with the then West United Free Kirk serving as a focal point, with Civic Party outside. As well as troops, there was a pipe band and drills by various organisations present, such as Scouts.

In the case of the Second World War, there was a more tangible legacy of the conflict through the removal of the railings installed in 1903.

Part of a general drive to collect metal in support of the war effort, it was at this time, in 1941, that the fine gates outside the Victoria Halls were also taken away.

Once more, it is instructive to draw upon the memoirs of Pat Drayton, thus: “Colquhoun Square had lovely railings around the grass plots. But they were taken away and never replaced. I think it was a great pity, as they looked so smart.”

There were other privations as well, and one resident recalls a waste collection unit located at the Square, with unpleasant smells to match.

Towards the latter part of the war, and in its aftermath, the Square would also have witnessed the cosmopolitan dimension brought to the area by the conflict: as well as various British and American accents, eavesdroppers might also have heard Polish, and German voices, among others.

The decades following the war contrasted sharply with the privations of wartime.

With the phasing out of wartime rationing, coupled with increasing leisure and affluence, this was the “you've-never-had-it-so-good” era, with crowded streets and seafront equating to prosperity for local retailers and businesses.

Postcard views of the Square from this period reflect this sleek new “Golden Age” and the spirit of optimism that prevailed.

The Square itself continued to evolve in an architectural sense, and with completion in the 1980's of new and replacement housing and retail developments in yellow brick on the south side, some felt that aesthetically the area was now more complete than ever before.

A number of attractive shops, along with a bank, moved into the new premises. Among those moving here was the Helensburgh Advertiser weekly newspaper, though in 2009 this relocated to Clydebank.

As well as the buildings, a certain amount of hard landscaping was carried out, with some areas being surfaced with yellow paving blocks.

A fact of life, though, is that the good times are never permanent, and, ever so gradually, changing circumstances at home and abroad began to manifest their effects here, as indeed elsewhere.

For example, while more people than ever before were coming to enjoy a comfortable life-style, the subsequent increase in levels of car ownership meant that traffic congestion began to rear its unpleasant head.

In due course, it was judged expedient to make the lower part of Colquhoun Street one-way only, although volumes of through traffic, along with those wishing to park, continued to build up.

It does seem paradoxical, even ironic, that in spite of streets congested with traffic, town centre shops here, as elsewhere, have found it increasingly difficult to remain viable, and some long-established businesses have closed down.

Herein of course lies part of the problem, in that high levels of personal transport have tempted many people to shop elsewhere, with other factors playing their part as well.

Recognising the sorts of economic difficulties facing Helensburgh and other major population centres within its catchment, Argyll and Bute Council commissioned in 2010 a consultancy study to try to address the problem.

Going under the banner of CHORD — a name chosen to reflect the names of five selected communities, Campbeltown, Helensburgh, Oban, Rothesay and Dunoon — the study came up with action plans specific to each.

Costed as a whole at around £30 million, the Helensburgh section carried a £6.7 million price tag.

In the case of Helensburgh, the proposals, after due deliberation and consultation, were given official approval in 2011. Five different parts of the town were to be featured, one of them being Colquhoun Square.

Conceived as a “civic centre”, the Square was to be the subject of a number of measures, included traffic calming, partial pedestrianisation, and perhaps most controversially, a reduction of green areas, aimed at creating more flexibility for the holding of events like fairs and markets.

There can be little doubt that the Helensburgh plan genuinely sought to address some of the challenges perceived as facing the town, but as it covered a good deal of ground, there was a lot for people to take in.

Consequently, what then happened was probably a classic instance of the penny taking some time to drop, certainly in the case of plans for the Square.

Debate intensified, with a significant number of people calling for the plan to be revisited, and in particular for the Square to have its distinctive form preserved, especially in relation to the retention of green space.

What did become clear was that Colquhoun Square meant a great deal to large numbers of people.

In an almost unprecedented move, the plans, as they affected the Square, were put again to the community in June 2012, with a range of options being put to the vote in an informal referendum. However, it was made clear that the status quo was not an option.

The outcome was decisive, with some 60% of those who voted plumping for an option which effectively preserved green areas and retained West Princes Street as a through route, but without the “wiggle” mooted in the earlier approved scheme.

The biggest change with the preferred option — as indeed with the previous scheme — was that Colquhoun Street would no longer form a through route for vehicles, the aim being to make the Square more pedestrian-friendly.

This preferred option was swiftly ratified by the Council, and the whole package rubber-stamped. If all goes according to plan, the Colquhoun Square element, once started, ought to be completed by January 2014.

Meanwhile, the Square continues to play a key role in the life and work of the community. In recent years, a number of open-air markets and entertainments have been held there.

In late November 2012, an innovative Winter Festival was staged. Featuring over 20 different stalls, and with hundreds in attendance, the event was widely acclaimed as a great success.

Colquhoun-Square-wThere can be no doubt that Colquhoun Square will always form a key part of the Helensburgh landscape.

One must hope that the CHORD scheme will support and enhance this role, with additional investment also anticipated through a town centre improvement package, funded by a company planning to build a supermarket at Colgrain.

Last Updated ( Sunday, 24 February 2013 18:49 )  

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First 2018 Open Meeting

Mike-Thornley-wThe first 2018 Open Meeting will be held at Helensburgh Civic Centre at 7.30pm on Wednesday January 31. Mike Thornley will talk about the Glenarn garden at Rhu. Anyone interested most welcome.

Winter Talks 2017-18

  • Wednesday September 27 2017 — AGM; then Professor John Hume: History of local churches
  • Wednesday October 25 — Cleland Sneddon: Childhood holidays in Rosneath
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  • Wednesday January 31 2018 — Mike Thornley: The Glenarn Garden
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