How about a Scottish Mansion by the sea? Visit Kilcreggan and Cove.
The Clyde is a steel blue and grey, reflecting the industrial ghosts that still haunt it’s shores. The remaining Titan crane by James Watt docks stands as a stalwart reminder, a towering monolith over the new industries of Inverclyde. Mortgage advice lines and customer service centres that headset shackle their staff to desks in great flat-pack prefab offices, like so many battery farmed hens. Flatscreen monitors keep everyone from noticing the intimidating grandeur of what was built on the back of making things. The unfortunate thing about Inverclyde is that there are vast demonstrations of human ingenuity combined with painstaking creativity hidden amongst the dross of intentional “progress,” and worst of all regeneration plans. Yet across the river, hidden in another world, is a chance to see something remarkable, beautiful and with a great story. Let me take you to Argyll and the villages of Cove and Kilcreggan.
Getting to Cove and Kilcreggan isn’t trivial. If you’re travelling by car you’re in for quite a winding mystery tour of a journey. From Helensburgh westward you are in Argyll and officially in the Highlands of Scotland. This is a beautiful part of the country but the Highlands definitely make their presence felt. Be it loch or munro there are barriers to direct travel everywhere. This can make for a great drive and it’s not too long but it’s long enough to require a bit of planning… perhaps. My preferred method of travel, partly because I don’t drive, is the train to Gourock and then the ferry across the Kilcreggan. I think that this is also the way of truly appreciating what the villages are and what makes them special. It connects you to their history before you even get there. Most of all it keeps you connected to the Clyde.
If you read the previous post you’ll know all about the steam passenger ships, the paddle steamers, of the Clyde. If you haven’t you should go do that now, it’s right here. Now you have though it’s time to live it a little. The regular ferry isn’t a paddle steamer anymore, more’s the pity, but it’s still quite an enjoyable little tub that provides some great views. This is especially true on a nice day when you can sit outside on the top deck. At the right time of year you may be greeted by inquisitive seals, porpoise and every now and then Orca (Killer Whales) that venture up to the bend. The journey isn’t long and the completion brings you to Kilcreggan pier, the oldest wooden pier on the Clyde still in regular use. The pier retains its original signal discs from 1888 that were used to regulate the order at which paddle steamers could dock, something quite necessary when they had 39 ferries a day calling there.
The pier isn’t just a tagged on moment of interest either, it’s part of the story behind Kilcreggan and Cove’s entire existence. As great cranes shifted goods and dockyards built new ships in the industrial towns of Port Glasgow and Greenock, the little fishing village of Gourock was becoming a holiday favourite of those who had become wealthy on the backs of all that Industry and shipping. The paddle steamers were also starting to take them over to the small town of Dunoon in Argyll and demand for more permanent places to call home on vacation were becoming the trend for those with the money. In 1849 the Duke of Argyll, to capitalise on this growing interest, feued a stretch of land on the Roseneath peninsula, just across the water from Gourock and a little closer to Gourock and Glasgow than Dunoon is. Plots on this land were quickly snatched up by some of the most well to do of the city. In order to make this venture workable though it was entirely necessary that good transport links be provided.
There was rail on the other side of the river, predominantly serving the dockyards and shipbuilders, but getting that or any other rail to Roseneath was always a near impossibility, especially for just a few rich folk on their holidays. The answer was, of course, the paddle steamers. These ships were already the favoured form of transport for the target audience and developing the required infrastructure was significantly less costly. This saw the development of Kilcreggan pier which was opened in 1850. The pier was described as:
a substantial pier with commodious waiting-rooms and other conveniences.
This description is certainly true and to look at the pier today, in relation to the tiny vessel it accommodates and the equally small communities of Kilcreggan and Cove, it can be easy to wonder at it’s somewhat over elaborate nature. Most of the facilities of old are now out of use and the broad walkway can feel a little stark, almost soviet, with it’s concrete surface. When considering how many people used to frequent those 39 ferries a day though the pier begins to make sense and the story comes to life. The ladies in their fine cotton and silk dresses escorted by yachting enthusiast gentlemen, all hats and Harris tweed, picking up a carriage from the end of the pier to their respected grand houses.
As the great and the good of Glasgow snatched up patches of land on the Roseneath peninsula the city’s architects started finding themselves making something of a roaring trade. The village centre of Kilcreggan is comprised of five tenement blocks with shops on ground level. I guess the local service workers had to have somewhere to live. Not that these tenements are overly spartan. Following Donaldson Brae up the hill takes you to Kilcreggan Hotel, originally called Woodbine. This was originally the summer residence of the obviously humble iron and steel merchant Peter Donaldson. He was a keen yachtsman who wanted a summer residence close to his favourite hobby. His uncle built Heathfield to the East on Argyll Road. Along Shore Road heading west from Kilcreggan and towards Cove is where some of the most ornate and impressive architectural works are to be found. In amongst these castles, mansions and grand houses work from one of the stand out architects of the time can be found on display in Ardsloy. Designed by Alexander “Greek” Thomson, named for his much loved neoclassic style, he was a pioneer of sustainable building who was generally overlooked by most of the world but much sought after in Glasgow.
Cove rests to the west around the tip of the peninsula and a little way up Loch Long. If you’ve taken the ferry across to Kilcreggan this is a bit of a hike if you want to walk. If you don’t fancy stretching your legs that much there’s a regular small bus run by Wilson’s of Rhu. Cove is significantly smaller than Kilcreggan in terms of the actual village but the stretch of grand houses running up Loch Long around Cove is probably the most impressive. There is also a small private botanical garden and plant nursery nestled just off Shore Road. Right by the water front you’ll find a small green area with picnic benches and tables. There’s also parking available here if you drive. Whilst being around Cove it may be worth your while to take a little look at Cove Burgh Hall.
The two villages of Cove and Kilcreggan were brought together as a single Burgh in 1865. The Burgh was administered by elected commissioners headed by a Provost. This was a reasonably informal affair at first, more like a residents committee for the part-timers who had built their wealth flaunts by the shore. Before long, as the community grew and became more permanent, the need was seen for a permanent place for community social events and meetings to take place. The effort to develop a new Burgh Hall was initiated by Charles William Cayzer.
Cayzer came from humble origins in the East of London and had found his way to the Clyde in 1871 forming his company The Clan Line Shipping Company. A company that became an eminent trader on Indian and South African trade routes. This business made Cayzer extremely wealthy and by 1890 his family resided in Ralston Hall near Paisley and purchased Clevedon House in Cove as a summer retreat. It was in 1891 that Cayzer was elected provost of the Burgh of Cove and Kilcreggan. Cayzer began raising the funds for the Burgh Hall through public subscription. With a requirement of around £2000 at the time Cayzer kicked things off with a donation of £500. The rest was raised through the wealthy residents of the burgh.
Cayzer was elected as MP for Barrow-on-Furness before work went ahead and he was taken away from Cove and Kilcreggan. Instead it would be Peter Donaldson that would take over as Provost. He also headed the commissioning and building of the Burgh Hall. Donaldson secured some further financial assistance from the Duke of Argyll through means of lowered feu rates. Design of the new hall was put out to competition and there were a total of ten entrants. The winner was 34 year old James Chalmers of Glasgow. This would be one of his first public buildings.
Chalmers preferred styles were largely classical, arts & crafts and Glasgow Style. He would go on to design and build several important and impressive buildings around Glasgow. The Cove Burgh Hall stands testament to the early steps in his personal practice and is a red sandstone Scottish Baronial beauty. The hall later, as a public building, became a property of the Argyll and Bute Council. Usage declined and it lacked it’s importance as a local administrative building. Gradually it entered into a state of physical decline before Argyll Council decided that the hall would have to be closed due to the costs of maintenance. According to the Council at the time the costs of repairs alone would be over £190,000.
In 1999, with the closure imminent, local councillors and officers met with residents of the burgh in the hall. The residents were furious at the council’s decision that seemed to be being taken over their heads, without consultation. The angry residents formed a committee headed by the late Peter Holland to investigate the possibility of running the hall with local volunteers. The committee rapidly formed a not for profit company that ownership of the hall could be transferred to and negotiated financial assistance from Argyll Council to assist with immediate repairs. The final deal was completed in two weeks with a purchase of the hall from Argyll and Bute Council for £1. The council provided £50,000 to assist with immediate repairs.
Since the takeover of the hall the facility has undergone extensive repair and modernisation. Significant sums have been raised and invested in this centrepiece of the community. Use of the hall has increased significantly and today it is becoming a rapidly developing and vibrant space. Cove Burgh Hall looks to continue on for some time yet and maybe even go from strength to strength. The local community rallied around this symbol of their tiny burgh and saved it. Now they’re making it fulfil the promise it always held.
I have often considered where I might go when I get much more back onto my own feet again. Edinburgh always seemed obvious as it’s a city extremely close to my heart. I have to admit though that Cove has something of an attraction. As a writer this quiet little place has that certain peace to it that I think many writers find attractive. There is much about Edinburgh that I love and would want in my life though. So perhaps the answer is to make my millions and buy a summer home in Cove. Keep the tradition alive. You can see my YouTube video about Kilcreggan and Cove below.