The Castles of Rosneath

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The Very Early Days

Rosneath is one of the older settlements in the local area, and its name is said to be derived from the Gaelic "Rosneveth", meaning "headland of the sanctuary", which in turn probably relates to St Modan. It should however be noted that there are other possible derivations of the village’s name.


As with many of the early saints, not much is known about St Modan, although the present-day church in Rosneath is named after him. Some sources say that he was the son of an Irish chieftain who built a chapel at Dryburgh in the Borders in the year 522. After a period as an abbot, he resigned and became a hermit, moving to the Dumbarton area.


The guidebook to the present Rosneath Church says that he died near there in around the year 700 – which, if both dates so far mentioned are correct, would have given him the amazingly long lifespan of about 180 years! Another possible explanation is that there were actually several Modans on whom the legends of his life are based.


Moreover the Aberdeen Breviary of 1509-10 states that "his most sacred relics rest and are profoundly venerated in a chapel in the cemetery" of the parochial church of Rosneath.


These relics would almost certainly have disappeared during the Reformation in the second half of the 16th century. However in 1880 a tombstone was found 4 feet below the ground in the old graveyard; it was later removed into the present church, and its guidebook claims that "there is good reason to believe this is the actual gravestone of Modan."


A couple of centuries after Modan's death the Firth of Clyde was not a safe place to live. These were generally unsettled times – not only might hostilities break out between neighbours, but the Vikings had also appeared! In particular in the year 870 Olaf the White, the Norse King of Dublin, besieged Dumbarton Castle for 4 months until the residents were starved into submission; many of them were then taken to Ireland as slaves. It was only defeat at the Battle of Largs in 1263 that ended the Viking era.


A Castle is Built


It would seem likely that events such as these made it sensible to have strongholds, and led to the building of castles, including not only at Rosneath but also across the mouth of the Gareloch at Ardencaple, as well as at Faslane. It was only in the 18th century that the first roads were built north of Dumbarton and so, at the time of the building of these castles, the sea was the highway.


So what form did this early castle at Rosneath take? Many early castles were timber structures built on top of an artificial mound; these are also known as mottes. However these are generally associated with specific campaigns, whereas the castles round the Gareloch were perhaps being built partly as a defence against the Vikings and hostile neighbours, and perhaps also because they were on the border between the kingdoms of the Scots and the Britons, both of which had emerged during the Dark Ages. It is reckoned that the British Kingdom of Strathclyde came to an end in the first half of the 11th century, and of course borders at that time were not fixed as they are nowadays. Thus it is perhaps possible that even from its earliest days Rosneath Castle was built out of stone.


Rosneath Castle was not located in the village itself, but around a mile away to the south-east of the village where a point of land juts out into the Gareloch, where the caravan park now is. As Ardencaple Castle was located on the other side of the entrance to the Gareloch, just about a mile to the north-east of Rosneath Castle, they must together have constituted something of a deterrent to anyone wishing to attack the Gareloch.


In his book "Annals of Garelochside" (1897) historian WC Maughan said that "there is reason to believe" that Rosneath Castle was a royal castle before the end of the 12th century.


Maughan also stated that "it is not easy to trace back the various owners of the lands [around Rosneath], which seem frequently to have changed hands. They were possessed in 1264 by Alexander Dunon, who became indebted to King Alexander III, and his property was burdened until he could deliver over 600 cows at one time. Afterwards they became the property of the Drummonds, ancestors of the [Dukes] of Perth, who agreed to assign over to Alexander de Menteith the whole lands of Rosneath as an assythement [or damages] for the murder of his brothers."


William Wallace at Rosneath


Rosneath next features in history during the Wars of Independence at the end of the 13th century. While trying to fight off the attempts by King Edward I of England to take over Scotland, William Wallace is mentioned twice in connection with Rosneath – although it is difficult to know which event came first (assuming of course that both are accurate).


The less well-documented is commemorated in the name of "Wallace's Loup" or "Wallace's Leap", but its location can be found on maps, immediately to the North of Parkhead, which is just off the road leading to the caravan park.


The story goes that while on horseback Wallace was being so closely pursued by his English enemies that he had to make his horse jump down from “the summit of a lofty rock”. This killed the horse, but Wallace himself got into the water and was able to swim to safety across the mouth of the Gareloch.


The much more detailed story is quite different and it deals with Wallace's capture of Rosneath Castle. It is recounted in Blind Harry's poem "The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace" – nowadays more simply known as "The Wallace". The poem was probably written sometime around 1480, nearly 200 years after the death of Wallace. There is much debate about the historical accuracy of the deeds recounted in the poem, and it is often regarded as being akin to a historical novel. On the other hand, it would be foolish of us nowadays to dismiss the potential veracity of oral history.


Blind Harry wrote in mediaeval Scots, but fortunately more modern translations do exist, and so here is the tale of Wallace's capture of Rosneath Castle from one of these.

Then to Dumbarton Cave with merry speed,

March’d long e’er Day, a quick Exploit indeed.

Towards Rosneath, next Night they past along,

Where English-Men possest that Castle strong.

Who that same Day unto a Wedding go,

Fourscore in Number, at the least, or moe.

In their return the Scots upon them set

Where Fourty did their Death Wounds fairly get.

The Rest scour’d off and to the Castle fled,

But Wallace who in War was nicely bred,

He did the Entry to the Castle win,

End slew the South’ron all were found therein.

After the Flyers did pursue with Speed;

None did escape him, all were cut down dead.

On their Purveyance seven Days lodged there,

At their own Ease, and merrily did fare.

Some South’ron came to visit their good Kin,

But none went out, be sure, that once came in.

After he had set Fire to the Place,

March’d straight to Faukland in a litle Space.


As the last lines show, Wallace set fire to the castle, presumably to prevent it from falling once more into English hands.


The Fall of the Earls of Lennox


The lands round Rosneath were in early mediaeval times a part of the powerful Earldom of Lennox. However this family came to grief in 1425 through marriage. Earl Duncan's daughter Isabella had married Murdoch, the son of Robert, Duke of Albany. It was widely believed that Duke Robert had murdered the elder brother of the future King James I of Scotland. King James inherited the throne of Scotland before the age of 11, but for his safety it was decided that he should go to France. En route he was captured by English pirates and held hostage by the kings of England for 18 years.


When James eventually returned to Scotland in 1424, he took his revenge against those whom he felt had made little effort to free him from his captivity. Duke Robert of Albany had already died, but the King's vengeance fell not only on those who had betrayed him, but also on their relatives – and that included Duncan, the Earl of Lennox. He was executed and lost his lands.


However Duncan's daughter, Isabella, who was also the widow of Murdoch, Duke of Albany, was spared execution but was imprisoned. After some years she was freed, and her lands and titles were restored to her, and so she became Countess of Lennox. She died around 1457; all her sons had died before her, and all her grandchildren were illegitimate; consequently the Earldom of Lennox died with her.


and the Rise of the Earls of Argyll


In 1490 King James IV granted Rosneath Castle to Colin Campbell, the 1st Earl of Argyll, and so began an association with the Rosneath area which lasted for nearly 450 years. In addition various other Campbell families came to be landowners on the Rosneath Peninsula.


By the 1600s Rosneath Castle was an L-shaped building, three storeys in height and with a tower in one corner. The turbulent events of the 17th century seem to have passed Rosneath by. However the Earls of Argyll were not quite so lucky. The 8th Earl was executed by King Charles II for having been too friendly with Oliver Cromwell, and the 9th Earl was also executed, this time by King James VII of Scotland, against whom he had led a rebellion – and of course his lands were forfeited. The 10th Earl was a supporter of William and Mary in wresting the throne from King James VII, and so he was rewarded not only with the restoration of his lands, but also by becoming the 1st Duke of Argyll.


Around 50 years later in 1743 the 2nd Duke of Argyll died and his lands were inherited by his brother; he was also known as Lord Ilay and his portrait could for a while be seen on the Royal Bank of Scotland's notes, being gradually replaced after 2016.


The following year he visited Rosneath Castle and found it to be an empty shell after his brother's widow had sold the furniture. He commissioned the well-known architect William Adam to undertake a major reconstruction of the castle, but this came to nothing because of Bonnie Prince Charlie's Jacobite rebellion in 1745. He finally managed to stay at Rosneath in 1757 following a major refurbishment of the castle.


The Castle is Destroyed by Fire


However the castle did not last for particularly long after that. On the evening of 30 May 1802 it was destroyed by fire. The 5th Duke of Argyll, John Campbell, was staying at Ardencaple Castle at the time. When he looked across the entrance to the Gareloch and saw Rosneath Castle burning he is supposed to have said "I thank my God that I have another house to go to."


An illustration by Alex McGibbon of the old castle can be seen in WC Maughan's book "Rosneath Past and Present", which was written in 1893. It shows a three-storey building with circular towers at the corners which continued up beyond the roofline.

Original Rosneath Castle w 


Just below it on the shoreline is another castellated building which was called the Low Barracks. These never appear to have had any military connection, but formed part of the castle outhouses and were used as servants' accommodation. They were connected to the old castle by a flight of stairs.


The Building of a New Castle


In a very short space of time it was decided to build a new castle (also known as Rosneath House) just round the point from the site of the old castle and with a view up towards Rhu Narrows. The London architect Joseph Bonomi was commissioned to design the new building, and it was finally ready for occupation in 1806, which was also the year of the 5th Duke's death.


WC Maughan said that "palace would be the more correct term" to describe it. "Its architecture, in the Italian style, is massive and imposing, the splendid Ionic portico, with its lofty stone pillars, being the chief feature, and may be considered almost unequalled in Scotland." The opposite side of the building had a very similar exterior which looked out over formal gardens. However the plan for the building was never totally completed as the Duke had run out of money. Nevertheless it had more than 100 rooms.


WC Maughan also gave details of travel arrangements to the Castle around this time. "For the conveyance of the Duke of Argyll and his friends on the occasion of their visits to the district, his Grace's emblazoned six-oared barge plied between Cairndhu point and the castle. The barge was signalled from Cairndhu by means of three fires or smokes if the Duke and Duchess were to be transported across the channel; two smokes for relatives and friends; and one smoke for those in a humbler position in life – flashes of flame regulating the traffic after dark."


The Marquis of Lorne and Princess Louise


Princess Louise and Lorne engagementThe heyday of the new castle occurred after 1871. In that year Queen Victoria's daughter, Princess Louise, married the Marquis of Lorne. He was the eldest son of the 8th Duke of Argyll, subsequently becoming the 9th Duke after his father's death in 1900. The accompanying photograph was taken by W & D Downey at the time of their engagement in 1870.


Strangely to modern eyes, it was felt by many at the time that Princess Louise had "married beneath herself". It had been Queen Victoria's intention that all her children should marry royalty and Princess Louise, probably the most headstrong of all the children, had merely married a "commoner" – albeit the son of a Duke!


The Marquis of Lorne had bought Rosneath Castle and its estate from his father and he and his new wife paid a visit to it the year after their marriage. In the following years they often visited the property and he took a deep interest in its management and successful development.


Recalling past times, the Marquis wrote that “Rosneath Castle was the half-way house to the Lowlands; when the family travelled south from Inveraray, feudatories [or tenants] held land for the service of providing a galley or two for the crossing from Loch Goil to Rosneath, or from the Holy Loch to Rosneath.”


In 1878 he was appointed Governor General of Canada and he occupied that role for 5 years. It was during that period that Lake Louise, one of the highlights of a visit to the Canadian Rocky Mountains today, was named after his wife.


The Marquis of Lorne and Princess Louise made Rosneath Castle their principal home from 1896. From childhood she had been a talented artist and sculptor, and a painting entitled “The avenue of Rosneath Castle” by her belongs to Argyll & Bute Council and is on display from time to time in Helensburgh Library. Her husband spent a period as a Member of Parliament and was also an accomplished writer.


They were involved in many local organisations and, when staying at Rosneath Castle, they attended St Modan's Church, and many features that can be seen in the church today can be attributed to Princess Louise. She was particularly pleased when she was appointed Colonel-in-Chief of Princess Louise's Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.


Ferry Inn from across Rhu Narrows 

In the 1890s she acquired the old Ferry Inn at Rosneath. Her mother was “not amused” to learn that her daughter had bought a pub! On the advice of her friend, the garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, Princess Louise commissioned an unknown young architect called Edwin Lutyens to undertake a very large rebuild of the Inn, making it several times the size of the original building. She wished it to become her dream cottage by the sea, and it is considered to be a masterpiece of Arts and Crafts design, contributing to Lutyens’ later substantial reputation. It still stands today right beside the entrance to Rhu Narrows (as the picture shows) but, strange to say, after its completion Princess Louise never moved into it, continuing to stay at Rosneath Castle instead.


In 1900 the 8th Duke of Argyll died and consequently Princess Louise's husband became the 9th Duke. In 1911 his health started to deteriorate, and he became increasingly senile.


Early in that same year Rosneath Castle was once again a victim of fire. Unfortunately the fire extinguishers in the castle were not powerful enough for the flames, and hoses which had been kept for just such an emergency proved to have too many leaks. A human chain, helped by boys from the training ship "Empress" anchored in Rhu Bay, passed buckets of water along to fight the fire. Two hours after they were summoned by telegraph, the fire brigade from Helensburgh arrived and the fire gradually came under control.


However the upper storeys of the castle were much damaged and the Princess's studio was gutted. Nevertheless rewards were presented by the Duke and Duchess to all who had helped fight the fire.


In 1914 the 9th Duke of Argyll died, and so Princess Louise now became the Dowager Duchess of Argyll and Rosneath Castle took on the role of Dower house. As they had no children the dukedom was inherited by a nephew.


However before Princess Louise could return to Rosneath Castle the First World War intervened, and the building now became a military hospital. Her husband's death left the Princess feeling lonely, and so she spent more of her time with her sister Princess Beatrice in Kensington Palace in London. Nevertheless she continued to be a regular visitor to Rosneath, until declining health made the journey too arduous for her.


Princess Louise died in Kensington Palace at the age of 91 in December 1939, less than 3 months after the start of the Second World War. Exactly 12 months later the contents of Rosneath Castle were then auctioned off over a 5 day sale, and a copy of the sale catalogue is held by Helensburgh Library.


The Second World War


Rosneath and its castle now entered a very different phase in its history. The combination of deep water close inshore and flat land nearby made Rosneath ideal for a substantial wartime base.


By the summer of 1941 a dock operating company of the Royal Engineers was already established in tents around Rosneath Castle. Meantime the American and British governments had been in secret negotiations about future American involvement in the war which was taking place in Europe. Consequently, even although the United States of America was neutral at the time, a group of American civilian engineers arrived in July 1941 at Rosneath to make preparations for building a wartime base. Many shiploads of heavy construction equipment from the US followed in the next few months.


The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in December 1941 brought the United States into the Second World War. The new facilities at Rosneath were initially used by the Royal Navy, but then in August 1942 United States Navy Base Two was established there. Its principal use was the training of American amphibious forces in preparation for the proposed Allied invasion of North West Africa, code-named "Operation Torch". This took place in November of that year, Rosneath Castle having become the American staff headquarters where "Operation Torch" was planned.


To enable all this to take place successfully an enormous influx of people arrived in what had previously been the very quiet rural tip of the Rosneath Peninsula. At the peak around 6000 service personnel were housed there, and a wide range of facilities including oil storage tanks and a hospital were built.


Following the success of "Operation Torch" Rosneath was now used to plan for the Allied landings in Normandy in France – known as D-Day. Some of the initial planning for this took place in Rosneath Castle between British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, American general (and future president) Dwight D Eisenhower, and British general Bernard Montgomery.


D-Day took place in June 1944, but Rosneath remained a busy place. Surplus American ships and landing craft were transferred to the British and Soviet Union navies, and Soviet sailors became a common sight in the area as they arrived to take their new vessels back to the Soviet Union.


Hostilities in Europe finally ceased in May 1945. The following month the U.S. Navy decommissioned their base at Rosneath and it was handed back to the British, finally being closed in 1948. Meanwhile, in 1947 yet another fire – the fourth in its history - had severely damaged Rosneath Castle, but this time it was not repaired and so became increasingly derelict.


In 1948 parts of “The Fine Agricultural and Sporting Estate” of Rosneath were sold off at auction – and Helensburgh Library also holds a copy of this sale catalogue, which contains the photo of the Castle shown below. The sale even included the piers at Kilcreggan and Cove with some neighbouring land, although the latter pier had been closed to steamers early in 1946. The catalogue shows how extensive the Rosneath Estate was, as it amounted to 3260 acres (1319 hectares), or 5 square miles. The sale also brought to an end 450 years of ownership by the chief of Clan Campbell and his family.


rosneath castle presale 


In 1954 the Quibell family bought the land now known as Rosneath Castle Caravan Park. Eventually the castle had to be demolished in 1961 for safety reasons. A couple of years earlier Ardencaple Castle had also been demolished. There had been local tales that the two castles had been linked by a tunnel under the waters of the Gareloch, but no evidence of this was found during demolition.


What remains?


So what remains? Almost everything associated with the development of Rosneath during the Second World War has disappeared. However Dennis Royal produced a very thorough account of what had happened there in his book "United States Navy Base Two – Americans at Rosneath 1941 to 45". The oil tanks were in use for a long time after the end of the War, and a pier and boat sheds are today operated by RB Marine for boat storage and repair, as well as ship-breaking.


Dennis Royal was also instrumental in having a cairn erected near the shore in front of the site of the castle, in particular to commemorate the Americans who were at Rosneath during the War.


Of the Castle's 19th century heyday, Rosneath Home Farm with its tower is a prominent landmark, even although the tower has lost its steeple. Parkhead has been converted from an agricultural steading into an attractive house and garden. The old Ferry Inn was demolished in 1960, but the much bigger extension to it which was designed by Edwin Lutyens for Princess Louise still remains as a private house at the entrance to the Gareloch.


And of course "Wallace's Leap" is still there. In some places however the old inland sea cliff is now covered by dense vegetation, but in other places it is still very easy to see. Your guess is probably just as good as mine in trying to work out where exactly Sir William Wallace rode his horse down from "the summit of the lofty rock" to escape from the English!






St Modan’s Church Guidebook (c2004)

WC Maughan: Rosneath Past and Present (1893)

WC Maughan: Annals of Garelochside (1897)

Dennis Royal: United States Navy Base Two 1941-45 (2002)

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