A LECROPT GIRL – True story of Helen MacLean
The present Lecropt Church and Churchyard are familiar to all who travel northwards from Bridge of Allan; but not many know that behind this scene is an old kirkyard, now enclosed within the policies of Keir House. This kirkyard is all that remains of the village of old Lecropt which had its church, manse, school, schoolhouse and cottages.
In the old kirkyard we pause by the grave of Helen MacLean, the subject of our story. She was born in old Lecropt village in 1797, and spent a happy childhood there. When she was a child, her father, Daniel MacLean, gamekeeper at Keir, was killed by the kick of a horse in front of Keir House at the age of 40. Her mother was left alone in 1801 to bring up a family of seven young children. Daniel, or his father, had left the Island of Mull, on the break-up of the Clan System following the Jacobite Rising of 1745, and had gained employment at Keir.
The name of Helen MacLean, and those of her family, are in the 1803 Lecropt Census.
In 1806 the Laird of Keir sent Helen with a message to Sir Robert Abercromby, the Laird of Airthrey Castle. His brother, Sir Ralph Abercromby, was the distinguished soldier, famous for the part he played at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801.
Sir Robert gave the little girl a shilling for delivering the note, a big sum in those days. After leaving Airthrey Castle, the child had to pass through the village of Pathfoot. Only one house of this once thriving village of shoemakers, now remains. For over two hundred years, this house bore the lovely old Scottish name, Blawlowan, so descriptive of that sheltered corner. Now the name is changed to East Lodge. Behind Blawlowan there was a tannery for supplying leather to the Pathfoot cordiners or shoemakers.
THE SHILLING GIRDLE
As Helen drew near the village an auctioneer was selling the contents of one of the cottages, all in the open air. He held up a girdle. She remembered how often her mother had expressed a wish to possess a girdle, so when the auctioneer called out, “Going at a shilling!” the child held up her hand. The man was very surprised to see one so young bidding, and he asked, “But have you any money?” “Yes sir,” she replied, and held up the Laird’s shilling. “That’s a good girl,” he said, “always have your money ready, and you’ll get on in the world.” So she gained her treasure.
We picture Helen trotting along the hill, with her heavy load; across the Red Burn which ran down towards the lovely Coneyhill Glen (now Coneyhill Road). This burn worked the distillery at the top of the Glen. The owner was Mr Edmund of the original Coneyhill House, now called Old Manor.
There was a row of cottages where the Allan Water Hotel garage stands today. Many of the occupants were weavers. Helen would probably call in at one of the cottages for a rest and to tell her story to some friends who lived there.
Before the Well Road was made, the old road to the village was called The Loan. It ran down what is….. ….the lower lodge. At the top of the Loan, near Springbank, was a Meal Mill.
Perhaps as Helen crossed the Old Bridge she would see the stage coach at the Bridgend Changehouse. She knew all the stories about the remarkable man, James Steuart, who used to live there. The people always referred to him as “The Paip.” There was a second little hog backed bridge across the Mill Lade; then up the brae, later called the Station Road.
Halfway up the hill, the road wound left to Knockhill, after passing this house, and crossing the burn, the road went up the hill to the right, to Old Lecropt Village. There were no gates or wall around the Keir Estate at that time.
A LONG WALK
It was a very long for a little girl of nine, but how happy and excited she would be as she gave her mother this desired gift. The old girdle speaks to us today of its life in two villages which have completely disappeared, Pathfoot and Old Lecropt.
On another occasion Helen was sent a message to Stirling, with the stern command that she was not to go near the top of the town. Her mother had heard of the grim event that was to take place in Stirling that day. However when the girl saw the crowds climbing the hill, her curiosity was so strong that she followed them. Being small she was able to wriggle to the front of the crowd, and there she witnessed one of Stirling’s public executions. She was in such a highly nervous state on her return, that her mother knew at once she had disobeyed. For months afterwards the girl suffered terrible nightmares.
In his statistical account of the Parish of Lecropt, the Minister writes in 1794, “The school is well taught and the fees moderate; for Latin and Arithmetic 2/-; for English one merk Scotch or 1/1 and a quarter; for writing 1/6; book-keeping and mathematics are also taught.” Lecropt was one of the first Scottish schools to teach Science. Astronomy was specially mentioned. To this school in the old village, Helen went for her education.
An old Register sill in existence and dated 15th of April 1805, shows she also attended the Monday Evening School. The time of the year is significant, 15th April, when the nights were getting long and light. Evening school would be impossible in the winter time with long bad roads or mere farm tracks, and no lights. Our sympathy goes out to these young people when we think how dismal their books were, both in presentation and subject, compared with the delightful children’s books of today, and yet how we admire them for being so willing to devote their scanty leisure to self improvement.
Helen’s great friends at both day and evening school were Susan and Mary Rutherford, daughters of David Rutherford, manager of the Bleachingfield of Keir (called later Keirfield) from 1792 to 1842, under the Master, “the gentle John McVicar.”
David Rutherford was a very clever scholar and a man of great integrity. He was one of the makers of modern Bridge of Allan. One of his sons, Charles was the village chemist with his shop at the top of Union Street. It was also the Post Office in 1856. The other son was one of Bridge of Allan’s first doctors.
The cholera plague came to this village, and Dr. John Rutherford gave his life for the people while battling with the disease, to which he became a victim. He is buried in Old Lecropt Kirkyard, and his memorial stone can still be read.
Schooldays passed, Helen had to leave home, and she went to Stirling Castle to be Lady’s maid to Miss Helen Graham, only daughter of General Graham, Deputy Governor of the Castle from 1801 to 1831. It was a post given to a soldier who had given very distinguished service to his country. Indeed General Graham’s life story is full of thrilling adventures in many wars.
SCOTTISH JANE AUSTEN
Miss Helen Graham and our Lecropt Helen were about the same age, and became great friends. A few years ago Miss Graham’s Diaries were published, and they showed she had considerable literary ability. This gift she is believed to have inherited from her mother’s sister, Miss Susan Ferrier. She was one of our earliest Scottish woman novelists, and has sometimes been called the Scottish Jane Austen. At the…. ….is being broadcast by the BBC.
Miss Graham, delighted in the views from Stirling Castle, and describes them beautifully. Then one of her special pleasures was to drive out in her carriage to Airthrey Well, as she called Bridge of Allan Spa. She speaks of the view there as enchanting, and the lights and shadows exquisite. In further praise of the Bridge of Allan Spa, she adds, “Where can there be a more beautiful country? Hills, wood, water, vale, what more can there be desired? Besides being famous in the pages of Scottish history.”
General Graham was very friendly with Sir Robert Abercromby, and the family frequently visited Airthrey Castle. Speaking of one visit, Miss Graham said, “The day was beauteous, so we saw Airthrey in the greatest perfection, and a lovelier place can scarcely be.” Both the Laird of Airthrey and General Graham were keen gardeners – a peaceful pursuit for old soldiers after the stormy years of battle. However, the General required the greatest courage and determination in his successful effort to form a garden on the exposed Castle Rock at Stirling.
Life in the Castle was full of interest as so many distinguished visitors came. Mrs Graham’s father, Mr James Ferrier, was a great friend of Sir Walter Scott, and Sir Walter’s son came to the Castle on holiday.
Helen had many stories to relate about her life in Stirling Castle. One night, when retiring, she saw a man’s hand on the window ledge. It was a soldier, who returning too late, tried the mad prank of climbing the Castle Rock. She grasped his hand and drew him into safety. Sometime later, when returning from a visit to her mother at Lecropt Village (nothing but walking the miles at this time), she found the drawbridge had been raised. With dismay she stood wondering what to do, when the drawbridge was lowered. She sped across, and found the soldier on duty was the man she had pulled through her window. So one good turn deserves another, but both would have been in serious trouble if found out.
Sometimes Helen would walk from Stirling Castle and climb the Sheriffmuir Road to visit friends in the little clachan of Jerah, on the Ochil Hills, near Dumyat. Often she met the drovers, for that was a famous Drove Road for men driving their animals from the Highlands and Islands to Falkirk Tryst. Some years later, Helen’s brother, John, married Agnes Robb, a daughter of the Jerah family.
With real self sacrifice Helen left the Castle to care for her sister who was ill. She lived at Cock-ma-lane or Hungry Kerse – a row of cottages which stood where the first of the Cornton Road houses stand today.
Her sister died, and with her two nieces Helen went to live in one of the cottages, which stretched from the Mill at the Bridgend to the river Allan. The field there was called Hornshaugh at that time. Later it was known as Cameron’s Haugh. Willie Horn had the brewery nearby, behind the Inverallan Inn. This building, now empty, still stands, and is opposite the Bridge Inn. Helen’s neighbour, with whom she was very friendly, was Mr Lewis Haldane, brother of Principal Haldane of St. Andrew’s University. Both men were born on a farm in the Carse of Lecropt in the 18th Century.
It was in Hornshaugh that there were great celebrations when the Reform Bill was passed in 1832. Ex-Provost Drysdale writing in 1894, says this event was his earliest recollection, and adds, “There were bands of music and banners of various devices, for at that time every village had a flag. Bridge of Allan’s flag got for the occasion was of blue silk.”
When the old bridge was heightened, and strengthened in 1842, this row of cottages had to be demolished, and the small bridge over the Mill Lade was taken into the new roadway.
Helen kept up her interest in Keir House, after her early associations when at Lecropt. She was very excited when King George IV came as a guest to the “Big House” in 1822. The Laird sent an escort to accompany the King from his previous of abode, and the chief outrider in escort was William Jardine. The Jardine family, great friends of Helen’s, lived in a fine old 18th century farmhouse, which stood where the New Bridge breaks onto the former Station Road. It had orchards stretching to the situation of the present Railway Station. The King was so pleased with the services of William Jardine that he presented him with a handsome gold watch. Helen MacLean would have been very pleased if she could have known that William’s son, Edward Jardine, bequeathed the King’s watch to her grand nephew.
Among other distinguished guests to Keir were Chopin in 1848, and William Makepeace Thackeray in 1857. The latter attended a service in Lecropt Church with his host.
Another Royal Procession which passed Helen’s Bridgend home was that of Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort in 1842, when Her Majesty was on her way from Drummond Castle to Stirling Castle. Helen had a special personal interest as she watched her Queen drive over the old Bridge, for one of her nieces was soon to appear before Her Majesty.
This girl, a younger Helen, had become deaf and dumb after an attack of scarlet fever. She was sent to the special school in Edinburgh where she showed such literary ability that she was chosen to write the address of welcome when Queen Victoria visited the school.
The usual mode o travel between Stirling and Edinburgh at this date was by the River Forth to Granton. On one occasion while this young Helen was waiting for the boat to return to Bridge of Allan from Edinburgh, she was blown of Granton Pier in a terrible snowstorm. She was rescued, but contracted an illness brought on by the experience and died soon after.
About this time there was a great sorrow in the community. A ship called the ”Morning Star” left the River Forth for Australia. On board were many men and women from Bridge of Allan and district. This ship was never heard of again, not a trace of her.
By the year 1820 Sir Robert Abercromby had developed the Bridge of Allan Mineral Wells, and soon after Helen was asked to take charge of the Spa during the summer months. Each morning at 4am she climbed the hill from her Bridgend home, for all the mineral water had to be heated in copper pans. Another primitive method at this early date was the drawing up of the water. This was done by a pony walking round and round. The pony grazed by the River Allan, and the young nieces enjoyed going to seek it and leading it up to the Spa for its early morning task.
The first Royal Hotel was in the house Sunniside in Henderson Street built in 1837. For two years Helen was in charge there for she had a warm friendship with Mr and Mrs Robert Philp. Mr Philp built the present Royal Hotel in 1842. Both Mr Philp and his son, ex-Provost Robert Philp, gave outstanding service to this community, and were also among the makers of modern Bridge of Allan.
Later, Helen removed to the house Mineral Bank, in Henderson Street. At that time, this house was outside the village boundary and they had to collect their letters from the Post Office in Allanvale. Her home was opposite Fernfield, where lived her good friend, Dr. Alexander Paterson. His house was a rendezvous for both residents and visitors. All were welcome, and the doctor delighted in showing them his famous collection of orchids, also his great collection of orchids, also his great collection of curios of all kinds.
1843 was a momentous year in Helen’s life. Until then she was a loyal supporter of Lecropt Church which she loved. To leave it was a heartbreaking experience for her, but with many other members, she felt the need for more freedom in their church administration, especially with regard to the power to choose their own minister. Formerly the choice was with the Laird.
So these men and women stepped out and formed the first Free Church Congregation in Bridge of Allan. After their first open air Communion Service on Airthrey Paper Mill Brae, they worshiped in a joiner’s shop, opposite where the present Post Office stands. By 1844 they built their first church at the corner of Union Street and Keir Street. It was to this church that Robert Louis Stevenson was taken to a service by his nurse, Cummy, in May 1853. It is recorded that he behaved very well, but what a severe test the long sermon must have been for such a young child.
By 1854 the congregation built there second church, now called Chalmers Church. For her great support, Helen was given first choice of seat, and she chose the front seat in the gallery. Indeed the voluntary help given by all members greatly reduced the cost of the building. All the carrying of materials was done free of cost by the farmers and men with their own carts.
Good citizens who desired progress for the village were all very interested when application was made to raise Bridge of Allan to the status of a burgh, to have control of its own administration. After many meetings, and some opposition to be overcome, this great step forward was taken in 1870.
Perhaps the greatest joy of Helen’s old age was a visit from Miss Helen Graham, who came specially to Bridge of Allan to visit her old friend. This lady, now married, lived near London. A touching scene took place between the two old ladies, and when they parted, Miss Graham asked Helen MacLean if she would accept her father’s, the General’s favourite ring, which he always wore. This was in remembrance of the happy days they spent together as young women in Stirling Castle.
As a child, Helen knew men and women who had lived in the reign of George II, and in her old age she told her tales to her grand-nephew, Archibald MacLean, who lived into the reign of Elizabeth II. Thus we span two hundred years.
In 1881 our friend was laid to rest in the old Kirkyard at Lecropt, close by the scene of her happy childhood.
As we linger there, we ponder over the great changes she saw in her lifetime in Bridge of Allan she loved; and how interested and pleased she would have been to see its progress still continuing.
ELLA MacLEAN. Bridge of Allan, 1966 The Bridge of Allan Gazette