Pier History

When Maligs Town was created in 1776, it was envisaged as a centre for trades and crafts such as bonnet-makers and weavers, so from a purely commercial viewpoint, provision of a suitable pier or harbour might have seemed to make economic sense.

The idea of a harbour, as opposed to a simple pier or jetty, might have particularly appealed, given the exposed nature of the seafront, especially to winds from the south or the west.

Around the time that Helensburgh came into being, there seem to have been several landing places in the vicinity, if not actually proper piers.

There was a ferry-house at the mouth of the Glennan Burn, one at Drumfork Ferry to the east, and yet another near the boundary to the west, at Neddy's Point, now Kidston Park. However, several sources imply that there was nothing on the site of the present pier at that time.

With the elevation of Helensburgh to burgh status in 1802, the matter of an adequate pier moved up the political and commercial agenda.

Helensburgh Pier
Helensburgh Pier

Several sources give the date of building the first known structure on the site of the present pier as 1816. This was of very rudimentary design.

Gabriel MacLeod, whose family moved to Helensburgh in the early years of the 19th century, recalled that it consisted of a “rude stone quay of the most primitive description, with an area striking off from it to the east at a right angle, the whole contrivance being a frail ruckle of stones”. Some improvement works were carried out in 1822, but these appear to have been limited.

In the 1830s the pier was said to be in such a bad state that a large cart had to be used if passengers were to come ashore without wet feet. It was claimed that many travellers so disliked Helensburgh Pier that they preferred to take the steamer to Rhu Pier and then walk back to Helensburgh! It was even described as one of the most wretched in Scotland.

Pressure was building for a major improvement of facilities. With the arrival of the railway in 1858, the population was growing rapidly, while in addition the heyday of the Clyde passenger steamer was approaching its zenith.

As well as the coming of the railway, there was an increase in the demand for steamer services, especially in the form of ferry provision, as commuting to work was now becoming a realistic option.

Work on a new quay began in 1859, and in January of the following year, the Dumbarton Herald was able to report that the new facility was a great advance on the previous.

This was an era of heavy usage of the pier. The Dumbarton Herald of June 1866 commented that there were sometimes no fewer than three steamers at Helensburgh at the same time.

In 1871, a new wooden landing-stage was installed at the end of the pier.

By the 1960's, it was becoming clear that the glory days were long gone.

Just along the seafront from Helensburgh Pier, its previously dominant counterpart at Craigendoran had suffered a spectacular collapse in its fortunes.

In September 1978 the paddle steamer Waverley made a call at Helensburgh, the first by such a vessel for many years.

This was made possible through the efforts of a conservation body, the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society, and since that historic occasion, the vessel has continued to make regular summer calls at the pier.

Shallow in draught like all paddle steamers, the large size of the vessel does nevertheless require dredging of the approaches, while the enormous running costs mean that her continuing survival necessitates generous grant aid and donations.

Helensburgh Pier
Helensburgh Pier

It would certainly be a sad day if the survival of the pier itself were ever to be in doubt. What changes, and what comings and goings it has witnessed over the years — as well as all manner of people, including the high-born, like HRH Princess Louise, the famous, like General Booth of the Salvation Army and even the infamous, like Madeleine Smith.  

History and photographs courtesy of the Helensburgh Heritage Trust