Portkil Fort was First World War Base

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IN November 1914, a service of thanksgiving, followed by an award ceremony, was held at Portkil Fort on the Rosneath Peninsula to mark an act of heroism that had taken place there.

It was a memorable occasion in the life of the Fort, which was an important base in the First World War.

Portkil Fort, to the east of Kilcreggan, was built around 1900, but was not the first fort to be built at the site.

The Volunteer Movement, which preceded the Territorials, was set up as a national initiative in 1859-1860, in response to growing fears over growing French military power and political ambitions.

They established an artillery unit and battery at Rosneath and another at Helensburgh in 1860, but the Rosneath unit moved to Portkil several years later.

Local historian Alistair McIntyre says that for much of the second half of the 19th century, there had been considerable debate about the risks of a seaborne attack on the Clyde, and the best means to combat it.

With batteries like those at Portkil and Helensburgh falling into disuse, a plan was put into effect in 1887 to defend the firth with a submarine mining system, stretching across the water from the fort at Fort Matilda to Portkil Bay.

This system was scrapped in 1904, after Portkil Fort had been built, and a former commander of the Clyde Volunteers, Colonel Lamont, wrote in his memoirs: “The good work of many years has been voted a mistake, and thousands of pounds of public money have been wasted.”

The position of Portkil Fort was carefully selected. It was hidden behind a ridge, and would have presented an almost impossible target for any hostile vessels advancing up river, while at the same time, it was well placed to operate cross-fire with Fort Matilda.

The Fort was manned by a unit of the Clyde Royal Garrison Artillery, highly trained volunteers who had been under the administrative control of county Territorial Force Associations since their formation in 1908.

One of the principal objectives in setting up Territorial forces everywhere at this time was to align the Volunteer Forces, artillery and infantry units, more closely with the Regular Army. With the onset of hostilities in July 1914, the Clyde RGA came under Army command.

The men of the Clyde RGA were fit and powerfully built, a necessity because of the need to handle the heavy ordnance that was associated with static defences.

When war broke out, Portkil was staffed mainly by men from the local companies based at Helensburgh and Dumbarton. But soon recruitment was extended to the remainder of Dunbartonshire.

In 1916 the Portkil garrison consisted of four officers and 87 other ranks. But the situation of the war was rapidly changing, and Portkil Fort was beginning to experience a decline in its fortunes.

Early in the war many members of the garrison, as with other units of the Clyde Royal Garrison Artillery, volunteered for foreign service, and by 1915, replacements had been recruited and trained.

Significant numbers of these replacements also volunteered for service abroad, while at the same time other Clyde RGA soldiers were being redeployed elsewhere. In March 1916 some were posted to Sheerness to form a Siege Battery.

Because of these pressures, recruitment to the Clyde RGA was extended by April 1916 to include men in the age range 41-47 who were considered unfit for general or overseas service.

By August, with conscription now in force, the War Office was stressing the urgent necessity of finding suitable candidates for commissions in the Clyde RGA, and among those whose names were put forward were gunners, privates, and cadets.

Alastair said: ”In addition to recruitment problems, both Portkil and Fort Matilda were now feeling the effects of another factor in the equation.

“With the installation of an anti-submarine boom across the estuary in 1915/16, stretching from Dunoon to Cloch Point, the emphasis on static marine defences now switched further down river.

“Portkil lost two of its most powerful guns to the new battery at Cloch Point in October 1916, and Fort Matilda likewise had two guns re-deployed elsewhere in February 1917.”

At that ceremony in 1914, Bombardier Davidson and Gunner Murphy, of the Clyde RGA, received Royal Humane Society certificates, presented by Lord Inverclyde, the Lord Lieutenant of Dunbartonshire.

The two men had risked their lives by going to the rescue of a stricken comrade, who had been suffered cramp while swimming in the firth off the Fort.

Portkil was finally de-gunned in 1928. Today, while many of the original structures are still in place, in most cases they have been incorporated into private housing. However the local recruiting station for the RGA, the Artillery Hall in Lomond Street, Helensburgh, survives to this day.

The top picture shows a group of Portkil soldiers photographed near the Fort on April 20 1916. The photo is below is thought to be of the departure of troops from the Fort for the Western Front being given a rousing send-off from Kilcreggan pier by their remaining and replacement comrades, and was probably taken in mid-1915.