Rhu's laughing maids

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three_sisters-wTHE historic Rhu churchyard is associated by many people with Henry Bell, steamship pioneer and Helensburgh's first Provost, whose grave is marked with a large monument and statue.

But nearer the Gareloch there is a most unusual gravestone, and it has a moving story which was uncovered some years ago by Greenock Telegraph woman’s editor Evelyn Raden, who in an article in June 1966 told the sad tale of 'The Three Laughing Maids of Rhu'.

Evelyn wrote: “Now that the ferry is running across to Helensburgh again, I'll be able to revisit a favourite spot of mine — Rhu Parish churchyard. And here the 'strange, sad music of humanity' can provide the score for its own opera.

“I first walked through this ancient burying ground some six or seven years ago and it was then that I first discovered the stone. Carved in the stone was the likeness of three young girls, all holding their hands to their sides. They seemed almost to be sharing a joke.”

This fully aroused the journalist's curiosity, and when she visited the parish minister of the time, he was able to tell her the story . . .

In 1728 there were no prettier girls in Dunbartonshire than Ann, Margrat and Janet, the daughters of Robert and Margrat McFarland of Achavenal, who lived in the village of Rhu, then spelt Row.

The fashions that year had never been more enchanting. The tiny bodices, the long billowing skirts were enough to send any young woman into raptures of delight. Naturally the three pretty McFarland girls were no exception.

Like other maids in the village they craved the tiny waists so becoming to the current fashion. The ball in the village hall to inaugurate the Highland Games was an added stimulus. It was rumoured that several most eligible bachelors had vowed to dance only with 18-inch 'handspan waist' girls.

Ann, Margrat and Janet laced themselves up tightly, but the desired effect was lacking. So they took it in turns to draw in each other's stay laces. At last the bonny lassies could sport waists that were second to none — tiny, slender and becoming.

Commented Evelyn: “The agony and torture the girls must have suffered in attaining the nipped-in perfection they sought we can only guess.”

During that winter they were invited everywhere, and, of course, they gave parties themselves at Achavenal. But, alas, their popularity was of short duration.

One after the other, the three pretty sisters sickened and died. In that same fateful year of 1728 their grief-stricken father erected a tombstone to his daughters memory, and to this day you can read much of the inscription: "Here lyes intrrd Ann, Margrat and Janet McFarlands (daughters) of Robert McFarland and Margrat of Achavenal 1728".

The carving on the gravestone shows them still holding their sides as if convulsed with laughter.

  • Photo by Donald Fullarton