Reminiscences of the Parish
Observations on many aspects of life in the Parish of Roseneath, by George Bain, Postmaster, Cove 1906
High up in the waters of the grandest estuary of Britain, the peninsular parish of Roseneath occupies a unique place. Curving from the Lennox country, nearly hemmed about by the open Loch Long and the sheltered Gareloch and facing towards Argyle, Renfrew and Bute, it affords an immense variety of outlook.
In the eighteenth and part of the nineteenth centuries, there was a considerable resident population who followed crofting, stock raising, fishing and weaving.
It is not likely that Scott ever visited this site although it is described by him with considerable topographical accuracy in one of his stories. His use of the term "island" in characterising Roseneath must have been an accommodation to the usual designation prevalent a hundred years ago, the road connection by Garelochhead being, as one of the local worthies put it, " a mere dee-tail" as it was then considered.
The most ancient house is believed to be the Peaton House. Next come the disused oatmeal mill at Campsail, the house opposite the graveyard at Clachan, and the ferry cottage at Kilcreggan. The buildings on the various farms formed in many cases a miniature village.
The first villa built in Cove was Craigrownie Cottage in 1826 for a man who occupied one of the farms, by two masons from Helensburgh. The work was stopped for over two months by extreme drought, during which time the breadth and breeziness of their stories of personal adventure attracted notice. About twenty years later, Glendhu, at Kilcreggan, was built and shortly afterwards the intrusion of villadom went on apace.
While kindly and unassertive in manner, the people were hearty talkers and saluted anyone they knew fifty yards away. There are traditions of dialogue carried on across Gareloch in the early morning calm. A man had walked from Peaton to Cove seeking tobacco and, finding none and wishful to secure a satisfactory smoke, held on across the moor. From the steep descent above Clachan he saw the blacksmith standing outside the smithy door. "Put an iron into the fire!" he roared, and, after a call at a small shop, appeared at the smithy with half a pound of tobacco and three pipes. One of these he filled and smoked three times, then, with an emphatic "Hech!" and hitch up of his trousers, took his way again. This smith was the last of an old family line, had a well-selected bookcase, and never touched liquor except at the first shoeing of a horse when he did not fail to exact the customary treat. He excelled in bacchanalian ditties and, when local politicians called, he chanted in time with the clink of the hammer, "Wha the deil hae we gotten for a King".
In the troublesome times of the later Stuarts, Roseneath furnished a place of refuge for many people from the east of Scotland. A man named John Salter, who became a tenant in Cursnock and died there, was generally regarded by the parish folk as John Balfour of Burley, conspicuous in the assassination of Archbishop Sharp, who escaped to the continent of Europe but returned under an assumed name. He is said to have been very reserved in his habit and manner, a feature which was not kept up by Andrew and Tibbie Salter, his descendants. Some of their sayings and doings had a survival in the parish talk of the nineteenth century.
Transport and travel
As to means of ingress and egress, a sailing packet left the stone pier, Kilcreggan, for Greenock on Tuesdays and Fridays at 9.00am returning thence at 3.00pm. The "Breadalbane" ran daily from Glasgow to Lochgoil. Her course was from Gourock to the ferry at the foot of Hartfield Road, and on to Ardentinny. The Gareloch service was performed by the "Sovereign", "Monarch", "Emperor" and "Prince". The last was withdrawn after colliding with a ship coming out of Greenock East Harbour. The ship's bowsprit overturned the steamer's funnel and the steam in the cylinder escaped with a report like an explosion, causing several passengers to jump into the river. (They were rescued and the steamer taken to the pier with much difficulty. The present writer was on board.) In 1851 the "Merlin" from Rothesay took Strone Pier and Hartfield Ferry on her way morning and evening. In 1853 the "Ardentinny" began the Kilmun service. In 1855 the "Express", and afterwards the "Mail" and "Benmore" took her place.
On the Sunday after the Disruption of the Church in 1843 there was a full attendance at Roseneath Church. The only ominous sympton was that one of the elders went to his own seat instead of the elders' pew. On the second Sunday a service was held in the little school - now a cottage - close by Dhualt Bridge, on the high road, under Free Church suspices. The preacher was a son of Burns, "Dr Hornbook". The audience was such as to account for depletion at Roseneath where only a few steadfast ones remained to bear up with the well-beloved pastor. During the summer, Free Church worship was maintained in the Campsail Sawmill shed, as depicted by Principal Rainy. I remember a service of that time in the old Parish Church when the walls of the new Free Church had been raised very perceptibly above ground. The impressions retained were of the great height of the pulpit, the narrowness and nearness of everyone to another and the conventional nature of the sermon. The former parish minister of Petty, near Inverness, was chosen by the new congregation.
A conspicuous object at low water is the large boulder in the centre of Cove Bay. In the days when the parish was exposed to Highland raiding and pillage, a select number of the people who had surplus gold made a strong box in compartments to keep each man's store apart. The box was securely closed and buried in sand just outside the boulder which had a chain braced tightly round it to keep the box from moving.
A corner of a field at Meikle Aiden in the early nineteenth century had a gaelic name said to be derived from a hungry raider who ate oatmeal and curdled milk so greedily that he crept there to die. The name has been interpreted: "The field of the satisfied man".
In 1726 a sordid tragedy occurred on the moor above Rahane, whereby John Smith murdered his wife by throwing her over a precipice. He had formed an intimacy with another woman. At the trial, the ordeal of touch was resorted to, and the result was that he confessed his guilt and was executed at Dumbarton.
Later events are the wreck of a fishing boat with the loss of four or five lives nearly opposite the letter box at Rockingham; the death of a man on the moor above Cursnock in a shooting party by the incautious use of a gun; and the fall of Cove piermaster over the pier which he did not survive. Several lives have been lost from time to time between Blairmore and Cove through the awkward management of boats.
The supernatural element does not seem to have been greatly in evidence about Cove in the late centuries. This was not the case in remote times. Stories of witch revelry seen by belated travellers were often told. A very fine boulder of grey mica, with flat level top about fifteen feet square, decorated with cup and ring marks, on the right hand side of the summit of the road going from Peaton to Rahane, was a favourite scene of these gambols. It was a notable feature until a few years ago when the County Council roadman - most callous and shameless vandal to be found anywhere - broke it up for his own purposes. Other places were the Dunans, two hills on Knockderry Farm, the high part of Shanton Glen, and Brown Knowe going from Kilcreggan towards Campsail.
By far the finest bit of legend however is connected with Knockderry. The various degrees and orders of elfdom asserted in remote times an amount of control and guidance in human affairs now unknown. The site of the present castle, owing to its easily defended position, was then accounted a very strong place. Amongst its acquisitions there was an enchanted pot, which, after serving the proper culinary uses for a day at the castle, was placed in a crevice within high water mark, and next morning was duly found at Levan. Its other houses of call were Newark (Port Glasgow), Ardmore and Ardencaple. From the latter place it returned to Knockderry performing the whole round within the week. The listless legionary watching on Dumbarton probably never suspected such an admirable co-operative arrangement in full operation under his very nose. For some unspecified reason, however, the two houses furthest up the river were, during the Roman occupation, omitted from the circuit. This useful article was finally lost sight of during one of the Norse raids.
In the middle of the nineteenth century the ruins on the site consisted of a few oblong grass-grown mounds with traces of masonry beneath. A few small coins were found, chiefly of the Stuart period, a copper one of William and Mary (initials intertwined on obverse and Scotch thistle on back) being the latest in date, in the preparation for rebuilding.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a great amount of illicit distillation took place. After these practices were finally put down by the interference of ducal authority, numerous stories of adventure and risk continued to be told for many years. A very fine specimen of the "wee still" was unearthed while some land was being reclaimed about one hundred yards from the present curling pond. There was a large cup-shaped hole with the remains of staves in it. A few yards further up the burn, there were four iron furnace-bars and a few bricks; just below these a large heap of wood ashes deeply covered with soil. The chimney was formed of planks, and rose slowly underground in the face of the bank for about thirty yards ending in a clump of whins in order to disperse the smoke where it found vent. The utensils required for manufacture had all been removed.
A man who might have been interested in this as a going concern, seeing that he lived within a mile of it, in his old age told the story of a narrow escape. On a day when he had a large jar of spirits, on which duty had not been paid, in his house and another buried outside, he got information that Revenue Officers were making for his house. There was not time to bury or remove the jar. His wife was resourceful and at once placed her largest tub with the jar inside, opposite the cottage door, piling upon it a large quantity of clothes steeped and ready for washing. The officers made a thorough search of the house and garden but passed by the tub as a matter of course without taking any notice of it.
Shortly after the origin of Cove, many people provided their winter bacon by acquiring a pig in spring and feeding it over summer. Two men left Hamlethill one morning and proceeded to Glasgow where they enjoyed themselves, purchasing each a young pig in the market. They returned safely and it occurred to them that they might as well have "just one more!" To this end they deposited their burden carefully in a shed behind one of the shops and went in for beer. A joker had got his eye upon their doings, who substituted, in a bag, two large cats for the pigs. When the bag was finally opened in the hut where pigs were kept, there was an immediate "fizz-whish" scramble and the cats sprang wildly over the mens heads. In great terror the men rushed off to their houses where they found that a boy had handed in a bag, with the pigs safely enclosed, half an hour earlier. They had an uneasy impression that the Arch-enemy was still at work.
The fishing industry a hundred years ago formed a staple subject of interest. Visitations of herring to the lochs of the Clyde seem to have come in every second or third year. One such season is within memory, when steamers had frequently to slow down in threading their way among fishing boats between Ardentinny and Arrochar and when - shop stores being exhausted - semi-starvation prevailed at Cove and the coast generally for two or three days. The sailing merits of the "Jemima" of Coulport, "Jenny" and "Lark" of Cove, "Gipsy" of Kilcreggan and"Hawk", "Katie" and "Merry Meg" of Clynder made much debate by winter firesides. Their adventures and mishaps in and about the Burnt Isles, Inchmarnock and Otter Point were graphically related. The white whale of 1904 seemed but a survivor of rare fishes caught then.