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"And thus Bonhill must be a happy place,
Tis peopled with a cheerful busy race."

Bonhill is the name of both the ancient Parish, which covers most of the Vale - with the very significant exception of Renton - and the hamlet, then village, and eventually town that grew up around the Parish Church of Bonhill. The Parish is described in the Place Names pages and this page concentrates on the town.

bonhill parish church

A village and then town would probably have evolved anyway at what is now Bonhill from the late 18th century onwards, as a result of the textile finishing industry finding the Vale such a congenial spot. However, the fact that this was the first church in the valley of the Leven, and that the church was from the 13th century onwards the centre of the Parish, undoubtedly played a key part in the development of Bonhill.

More importantly, it also meant that over the centuries the history of Bonhill is illuminated from time to time in a way that no other part of the Vale is, with the possible exception of Balloch. Every hundred years or so a Royal charter or an Earl's grant tells us of some part of Bonhill being given to someone or some church organisation. While this is pretty sparse information, it's enough to get started with.

We don't know why Bonhill was chosen as a Parish or whether the Church was there before Bonhill became a Parish. We do know that the first written reference to Bonhill refers to the Parish of Bonhill. This was in 1270 when a charter of Maldowen, the 3rd Earl of Lennox makes mention of “Hachenkeroch in the “Parish of Buthelulle”. Thus not only is Bonhill identified in 1270, so too is Auchincarroch.

bonhill main street

The origin and derivation of Bonhill offers many choices. There is firstly, a belief in the Gaelic “bog n'uill”, meaning the foot of the rivulet i.e. the Burn. Or you can have the foot or base of the hill. The spelling gradually changed. Starting with the written Buthelulle it then became Bollul. That lasted until about 1550 when it became Bonyle, then Bonuil or Bonill, and finally settled for Bonhill by about 1700. Locals to this day tend to call it Bonill or B'nill so perhaps this has stuck.

The Church probably dates from the 13th century and it is likely that it stood in the general area where the present church stands. It would have been a very small building as befitted the small population of the Vale in the Middle Ages. It stood amongst a small farming community. In the early 1300's there is reference to Nobleston - the “50 shilling lands of Bonhill”. Just over a century later in 1453, Isabella Countess of Lennox, from her long-term home in the Castle of Inchmurrin, established St Mary's Collegiate Church in Dumbarton, which was a semi monastic “community” of priests.

To pay for the upkeep of this Church Isabella gave them certain lands in what became Bonhill and also the patronage or living of Bonhill Parish Church. One of the lands, which she gave, was the farm town (town is something of an exaggeration) of the Church of Our Lady, or Ladyton, as it soon became known.

Bonhill Parish Church
Bonhill and the Church (Click to enlarge)

Long before that, in 1330, the Earl of Lennox gifted the salmon fishing at the pool of Linnbrane to the monks of Paisley Abbey. The adjoining land on the east bank of the Leven was where the monks laid out their nets to dry and this became known as Dalmonach, or “the field of the monks”.

All of this information is at best sketchy, but already three place names - Nobleston, Dalmonach and Ladyton - have been identified which were to gain considerable significance in Bonhill in later centuries.

All of these places had Church connections, but that's not surprising since the Church's role was pre-eminent in all aspects of life in the Middle Ages. The Reformation of the 1560's saw the demise of the monks, priests and many of the land ownership arrangements that operated in typical Parishes such as Bonhill. Two of the most notable impacts of the Reformation at a local level were that the local gentry in its various forms grabbed what had been church land, and also that the churches lost their ministers.

Bonhill Church escaped the clutches of a local landowner and reverted to independence from patronage, but it seems to have lost its minister for a time. A Statute of 1579 gave the Kirk Session and the Heritors (the larger local landowners) the duty of looking after local poor relief, but the lack of any information on the subject suggests that little was done. By 1603 there is the first reference to a Protestant minister being in place at the Church.

We can infer some aspects of the development of Bonhill from events that were taking place and documented elsewhere. For instance, there is a ford across the River Leven at Bonhill - its still there although it has not been used in almost two centuries. From about the late 1500's this ford provided Bonhill with southbound through traffic, the main part of which was drovers taking their cattle from Argyllshire and the Lochside to market in Glasgow.

Even as early as 1664, this trade was being called “past memory of man” by the drovers, who at that time were in dispute with the Keeper of Dumbarton Castle who was levying a toll on droves across the ford at Dumbarton, which passed close to the castle. Although that toll was lifted in 1684, the damage had been done, and the Keeper admitted that the drovers were using other fords and other routes to get to Glasgow, while by-passing Dumbarton.

Not to be excluded, the Dumbarton magistrates petitioned the Privy Council for a bridge in 1680, saying in support of their claim that the road between Stirling and Dumbarton, which passed through Bonhill, had “neither meat nor safety”. What became Main Street Bonhill was therefore a significant droving route from the 1500's right up until droving died out about 1900, although different parts of it were used at different times.

In the early days, the Dumbarton - Stirling road was little more than a drover's track. Between Dumbarton and Bonhill it followed a line close to the river, across what became Strathleven Estate before crossing the Red Burn and then turning east to come up what became Cordale Loan. It then turned sharply north and shortly after that split with one branch continuing down through the centre of the village, while the other track stayed higher, becoming known as “The High Road” passing to the east side of the village to join up with Hillbank in the area of the quarry.

It was only when Strathleven Estate (then known as Levenside Estate) was laid out, and Strathleven House built in the early 1700's that the line of the road was changed to run on the east side of the Estate - for the convenience of the landowner, of course. John Agnew in his book, “The Story of the Vale of Leven”, says that the old route through the Strathleven Estate remained a right of way until the early 1900's. When the Industrial Estate was built after 1945 that, of course, became academic, with access open to all.

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"For those we loved are scattered,
and some in death sleep soun',
and the old oak tree sae bonnie,
has long since been cut doon".

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A Poem by William Harriston.

(Harriston lived in Dalvait as a fisherman for a number of years up to about 1816 and wrote much descriptive poetry about the people and times.)

I'll change my measure, gentle Reader, why
Should we keep on the same unalter'd pace?
'T would be fatiguing both to you and I -
But we must surely notice well the place
Where ended our description — we are nigh
The village of Bonhill, 'tis at the base
Of yon extended eminence, whose trees
Bend o'er the chimneys, waving in the breeze.

Southward observe, of trees an ample stock,
Where Master Pearston's Cottage is conceal'd -
A Bleachfield next, the owner Master Brock
Has well the place with working people fill'd.
The Kirk in Gothic style, without a clock,
Stands near the river's brink, but Kibble skill'd
In arts, who made Dalmonach Printfield new,
Has there a Clock and Steeple full in view.

Another Printfield just beside the Kirk,
Extends by growing trade its ample bounds -
The people here perform a deal of work,
Which to the credit of the place redounds -
Tis sure enough, that spleen can never lurk,
With those whom bustling Industry surrounds:
And thus Bonhill must be a happy place,
Tis peopled with a cheerful busy race.

Now opposite Dalmonach on the west,
The Ferry Bleachfield is a pleasant spot ;
Their webs are like the snow, must be confest,
But their facilities are not forgot-
Their webs unfurl'd on the river's breast,
Adown the stream in waving folds they float -
Here sage Mackinlay with presiding skill
Can all his purposes with ease fulfil.

Below ye'll see the Ferry of Bonhill,
Where Walter Bain a worthy host resides -
Here's Alexandria, look which way you will,
Some range of trees the village partly hides -
Here's Broomley, where the Misses Alston still
In calm retirement live whate'er betides ;
No sudden turns of trade their joys can balk,
Peace haunts the sloping lawn and shaded walk.

Another Bleachfield's opposite at hand,
Where the strong current drives a ponderous wheel,
That strong machinery rules with full command,
Its every board is like a vessel's keel.
The busy lasses are a cheerful band,
They spread their webs with glee, they seem to feel
More happy though they're toiling for their bread,
Than some who toss an independent head.

Adjoining to the Green, is Leven Field,
The oldest Printing Work on Leven's Banks,
To Todd and Shortridge, who began to build
The extensive Works, are due their Country's thanks.
Leven Bank Printfield is the next, conceal'd
By an impending height — substantial planks
Run far into the river, where the lasses
Long webs unfurl to the stream that passes.

Tis here where Stewart, Paterson & Co.
Have won a hopeful garden from the Leven -
A bog that Winter's floods would overflow,
Where fishing boats in tempests have been driven:
Who knew the place but seven years ago,
Would scarcely know it now, so has it thriven;
Around Dalvawit lofty mansions rise,
Which make us view such changes with surprise.


Here calmly lives an aged man, whose name
Is Thomas Nairn, a carpenter by trade,
Who knew great Smollett ere he rose to fame,
When he was but a young unthinking blade.
The good Old Man without ambitious aim,
For tottering years a competence has made.
Of Youth's cotemporaries left alone,
The living chronicle of ages gone.

Now see, o'erlooking high these rural bowers,
Upon the left in Architecture's pride,
Here far-fam'd Tillyhewn's majestic towers
Shine forth — a palace on a mountain's side -
Fine pleasure walks are fring'd with beauteous flowers -
With foreign plants the garden is supplied,
That mix among the natives, thriving well,
Around where Master Horrocks loves to dwell.




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