Mediaeval Times

As you saw on the website’s opening page, Balfron’s story begins with a legend.

While the men-folk were at the Ibert – the place of sacrifice above the village – they heard screams from the settlement below and rushed only to discover that the children of the village had been taken by wolves. This gave Balfron its name “bail’-a-bhroin” – the town of mourning.

Excellent bedtime story as this might have been, the first documentary evidence of Balfron – one of the charters of the Abbey of Inchaffray – alludes to the village in 1303 as “Buthbren” and not by the name by which it was later known.

Other evidence of early life in the parish is a (possible) Roman road on the lands of Camoquhill to the north-west of the village, a Bronze Age standing stone – field-marker – “The Carlin Stone”, just off the Kippen-Fintry road, and, of course, the Mediaeval earthworks at Woodend Motte in Balfron village and Keir Knowe to the east of the parish.

In 1263, the year of the Battle of Largs, Balfron probably had a fleeting visit from Norsemen heading for Stirling Castle as this extract from Hakon’s Saga shows:

“Those warriors undaunted
They wasted with war-gales
The islands thick-peopled
On Lomond’s broad loch.
Alan, Dougal’s brother, went almost across Scotland and slew many a man. 
He took many hundred neat and did much ravage:
As is here said:
Sturdy swordsmen of the earl
Far in Scotland pushed their forays,
Feeding everywhere the wolf,
Burning dwellings far and wide”

Balfron makes its first documentary appearance on 3rd October 1303 when the jus patronatus and tiends of the parish church of Balfron – known, at that time, as Buthbren – were granted to Inchaffray Abbey in Perthshire by Sir Thomas de Crommenane, knight, and Robert Wishard, bishop of Glasgow, “in compassion for the plunderings, burnings and innumerable afflictions which the abbot and convent of Inchaffray had suffered through war”.

The Abduction of Jean Key

Balfron seems to have had a relatively uneventful interlude until the adventures of the outlaw Rob Roy encroached on the district. Of all the stories connected with the Macgregor clan, the most notorious is the tragic abduction of the widow Jean Kay (or Key), an event which actually happened in the Parish of Balfron and gave the village its literary appearances in Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Rob Roy’ and Robert Louis Stevenson’s appropriately entitled ‘Kidnapped’.

Robin Oig, youngest of Rob Roy’s sons had married, but his young wife had died. His older brother, James, suggested that he should court the young widow-heiress of Edinbellie to the east of the village of Balfron. At 17, Jean had married John Wright Junior of Easter Glinns but he had died only months later while she was still only 18. She now lived with her widowed mother. Robin always maintained that he received a letter from her at Edinbellie asking him to make the pretence of abducting her as it was too soon after her own husband’s death for her to appear to go willingly. At the subsequent trial, this was put down to a plot by James who had had her write a backdated letter while she was still held captive by the brothers.

In any case, Robin had gone to Edinbellie to propose as, financially, he desperately needed a good marriage. Furious at being turned down, James, his older brother, and Robin with a large band of outlaws had made a night raid on Edinbellie and abducted Jean Key-Wright.

A minister was brought from Glasgow and married the couple, but even after that Robin was willing to allow Jean to return to Edinbellie. James, however, threatened that he would shoot Robin rather than shame the Macgregor name and the young heiress remained in captivity.

Cunningham of Ballindalloch issued a warrant for forcible abduction, this being a capital offence, and both Robin and James were captured. James, a prisoner in Edinburgh Castle, escaped with Jacobite help, through the County of Cumberland, to Isle of Man and Ireland and eventually on to France where he died two years later in 1754, the same year Robin Oig was executed.

Jean Key never recovered from this traumatic experience and died of smallpox in Glasgow five months after her release from captivity.

Balfron’s Industrial Revolution

In 1790, the sleepy hamlet of Balfron was transformed by the Industrial Revolution.

Robert Dunmore, son of a Tobacco Lord from Glasgow, was at one time a very rich man and besides possessing Kelvinside and Gilmorehill, which were made over to him by his father, he owned Bankeir, Newlands, Blairskaith, Bahvill, Ballindalloch, and other lands.

Among other involvements in slave-owership, Robert Dunmore and his partners were shown as in possession of the Hermon Hill estate in St Mary Jamaica 1782-1788 and as mortgagees-in-possession of Union estate in St Mary 1785-1792.

He built Ballindalloch Cotton Works and an adjoining ‘planned village’ taking the population of the village from around 50 to an amazing 900 in just one year. Dunmore’s “planned village” straddled the main street from the mill to the Clachan and included the ‘barrack houses’ at Hillhead which accommodated the mill apprentices.

To complement the spinning and weaving, a bleachfield was created and on the other side of the river in the Parish of Killearn, Endrickfield Printworks was built by John Monteith & Co., in co-partnership with Robert Dunmore, for the printing of calico. Although the works were in Killearn Parish, the workers lived in Balfron, in that part of the village which still retains the name Printers Row. This would be when Ballindalloch Bridge would be “re-christened” with its more familiar name of “The Field Bridge”.

The Balfron ‘Radicals’

Weavers were the first to suffer from the mechanical advances of the Industrial Revolution. Their “four-day-week” , albeit with long hours, had designated them as quite an elite within the community. Their three free days were spent mostly indulging in the social facilities of the village which consisted of, as shown in the Old Statistical Account, “a tolerably good inn and two respectable public houses”.

They were noted also for their intelligence and interest in politics of the day. Their habit of frequenting the local inns for refreshment, company and harmless grumbling about the world’s troubles grew into the more sinister talk of insurrection. Various “Radical’ movements had sprouted up throughout the land, groups in which the weavers played an integral part.

A Provisional Government was formed and around two hundred armed Radicals paraded in Balfron awaiting instructions. In April 1820 a proclamation was posted calling for the Radical Insurrection. Similar events were occurring in Stewarton, Camelon, St Ninians, and other “Radical” strongholds.

A network of government spies had infiltrated the ill-organised “Radical” movement, not only as informers but principally in the role of “agents provocateurs”. They ensured, by false promises of a huge groundswell of support, that the ramshackle insurgents’ groups led by Andrew Hardie and John Baird made for a bleak moor near Falkirk where, instead of meeting up with the promised army of the “Provisional Government”, they were confronted by detachments of the 10th Hussars and the Stirlingshire Yeomanry in a skirmish referred to as the Battle of Bonnymuir.

Their brave fight had its unavoidable conclusion, given the weight of numbers and experience of the government side, and the “Radicals” were overwhelmed.

At the subsequent “show” trials in Stirling, the names of George Gillies, Moses Gilfillan, Andrew Reid, Andrew MacFarlane, James Gunn, Robert Drew, Joseph Gettie and William Crawford, all of Balfron, had “true bills for high treason” found against them for their part in the insurrection. William Crawford was one of twenty actually convicted for treason along with Baird and Hardie, but later released. The two leaders were ignominiously executed, becoming martyrs for constitutional reform and commemorated by a monument in Sighthill Cemetery, Glasgow.

One name which stands out from the list of local “Radicals” is that of Moses Gilfillan. The unusual nature of this name provides an intriguing supplement to the story of the Balfron Insurrection. He was one of the men who opted to escape the unpredictable hand of the authorities. Had he been John Smith or James Brown, no more trace would have been found of him but letters and “legend” in the Gilfillan family had it that Moses had emigrated to the “New World” and had “made good”.

The Massachusetts Census of 1830 shows a Moses Gilfillan in Boston, the only time his name appears. Family lore advocated that Moses’ sons had attended the same college as the U.S. President and had been educated with him. James Gilfillan, it was believed, became a United States Treasurer.

United States Treasury records show that James Gilfillan, born in Belchertown, Massachusetts, in 1836 was Treasurer from July 1st 1877 to March 31st 1883, spanning the Hayes, Garfield and Arthur administrations. It is a tribute to the character of those Balfron weavers that their quest for justice and equality could not be extinguished by the harsh and treacherous hand of the laws of the time. Our Moses Gilfillan eluded the fate that befell so many and, in so doing, escaped the deep recession which would soon ravage his fellow-artisans.

Balfron’s Tourist ‘Boom’

By the time Rev. Alexander Niven wrote the New (2nd) Statistical Account for Balfron in 1841, there was already a hint of the village’s new role as a holiday resort. He wrote: “Now the post arrives and departs daily, and we have our London letters on the third day. Now we have daily carriers for goods, and a neat light daily coach in summer for the accommodation of travellers.” Already Balfron must have been attracting what we in the 21st century would call tourists but it is unlikely that the people of that time could have foreseen the significance of their “light daily coach” in the development of their village.

At this period in transport history, however, the priority was not the carriage of passengers but the cheaper and more efficient transportation of coal from the workings on the east coast to the consumers in the industrialised west. The development of travel by rail, pioneered south of the border, seemed to be the answer and soon the race was on to find the best east-west rail route from the coalfields.

With this in mind, some local dignitaries got together to form the Forth & Clyde Junction Railway Company. Three years later, in 1856, Balfron Station was built on the line stretching from Balloch in the west to Stirling, where it was hoped that a link with the Stirling & Dunfermline Railway would complete the route to the coal seams of Fife.

The FCJR was never a highly profitable venture and it was taken over by the North British Railway and LNER before – almost at the end of its lifetime – British Railways.

Railscot – FCJR information page

However, the railway provided a lifeline for those incarcerated in the industrial grime of Scotland’s central belt. As the paddle-steamers moored at Broomielaw could sail away from the factories and smoke of the city for the magic trip “doon the watter”, so the railway gave many people the opportunity of a “fresh-air fortnight” in the country.

By the end of the 19th century The Stirling Journal comments on the new summer timetable of the FCJR because the termination of certain services at New Killearn and Blanefield would mean the “Balfron tourist trade would be affected”.

Tourism was clearly established by that time. Many people recall the long train journey from Glasgow and the excitement of arriving at Balfron Station to be taken to the village by horse-brake or, as children, leaving the adults and the luggage to make that journey while they skipped across the fields and woods past the manse and into Balfron by that route.

Throughout the years of the LNER and into the era of British Railways, improvements in road transport and the strengthening demands on wages and conditions by the powerful railway Trades Unions left the rural branch lines floundering behind the competition.

Prior to the First World War, buses were beginning to make inroads into day-to-day transport life, but the surplus of easily-converted vehicles made available after the war provided the opportunity for a new mode of public transport on a scale fit to rival rail travel.

The glut of military lorries and vans meant that when the three Rankin brothers set up business in 1921 with services to Glasgow and tours to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, passengers were spoiled for choice of vehicle — from motorised charabancs, modified from an Alabama ambulance, to Thornycrofts, Lancias and, for the Trossachs Tour, a silver-grey Rolls Royce.

It was a relatively “happy-go-lucky” transport system, unfettered by the manic preoccupation with rigid timetables – and often a singular failure to maintain them – prevalent in today’s transportation industry. The traditional rural friendliness which still survives was tempered still further by eccentricities which would be treated as intolerable nowadays, such as the carrying of a shotgun under the driver’s seat so that, if the opportunity presented itself, pheasant might well appear on the weekend dinner menu.

At the beginning of the 1930s Rankin Brothers sold out to Alexanders of Falkirk and throughout the early thirties, Balfron’s attraction to Glasgow holidaymakers continued, but by the outbreak of World War II the tourist tide had already begun to ebb.

The introduction of the popular family car forced a gradual reduction in services and, in the long run, provoked the demise of Balfron as a tourist centre.

Pocket History of Balfron and Balfron’s Lost History Trail leaflets available from Balfron Library.

Balfron’s Famous “Sons”.

Alexander Thomson – architect

The most famous person to be born in Balfron was probably architect Alexander “Greek” Thomson – so famous, indeed, that he gets a page on our website to himself.

Sir Robert Muir – eminent pathologist

 Born in Balfron on 5th July 1864, Robert Muir was the son of Revd.Robert Muir, minister at Balfron at the time. The family having moved away from Balfron, the young Robert was educated at Hawick Academy and Edinburgh University where his degrees included Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery with first-class honours.

He became assistant to the Professor of Pathology at Edinburgh University and pathologist at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. After spells at Oxford, St.Andrews and Dundee Universities, he became pathologist at Glasgow’s Western Infirmary and Professor of Pathology there from 1899 until his retirement in 1936. (He was also Dean of Faculty at Glasgow 1946-1949.)

 He was recognised as the father-figure of pathology in UK, gaining a variety of accolades including a knighthood.

Sir Robert Muir died in 1959. He is best remembered for his publications: “Manual of Bacteriology” and “Textbook of Pathology” – now in its fourteenth edition.

(OK, let’s come clean! WE had never heard of Sir Robert Muir either until one of our members came across an “Eminent immunologist born in Balfron” clue in a weekend crossword. Research works in mysterious ways!)

Those ‘Magificent Men’, the Barnwell Brothers – aviation pioneers

Balfron boasts innovation in another more unexpected form of transport.

Richard H. Barnwell, managing director of Fairfields, the Govan shipbuilders, lived at Auchendarroch around the beginning of the century. However, it is not Mr Barnwell’s association with the sea which is significant, but his sons’ preoccupation with aviation which links Balfron with those “magnificent men”, the early pioneers of flight.

It is hard to envisage, as we picture the horse and cart turning in the cobbled Buchanan Street of the 1900s, the sight of the experimental gliders and engine-powered aircraft struggling into the sky to the south of the village as young Harold and Frank Barnwell began their life-long love affair with “flying machines” in the grounds of the Elcho House, their family home until 1905.

In a subsequent trip to America, they met the famous Wright brothers and when the Barnwells returned to their new home in Bridge of Allan, their innovative work began in earnest. Having encountered trouble with their initial monoplane design, they opted for the concept of a biplane and on 28th July 1909 Harold flew a prototype powered by a Humber car engine. It travelled 80 yards before nose-diving into a field when Harold over-compensated on the joystick. At this stage, of course, the aviation “trailblazers” were not only learning to design aircraft but also to pilot their designs.

Two years later, a monoplane piloted by Frank reached a height of 50 feet and flew for 600 yards before incurring a similar nose-over landing.

Harold joined Vickers, the centre of aircraft design in Britain, and, in 1912, became chief instructor and test pilot. He helped to design the FB5 “Gun Bus”, mainstay of the Royal Flying Corps in the first year of the First World War, and the “Barnwell Bullet” which, because of design flaws, never saw military service .

He grew increasingly impatient with the “powers that be” and, after an illness, while test­ flying the “Vampire” FB26, which he had helped to design, a newspaper of the time reported that “the aircraft dived into the ground killing him instantly”. He was 38 years of age.

When Harold had gone to Vickers, Frank enlisted his services with the British Colonial Aircraft Company at Bristol. While working as a draughtsman, he designed a small biplane in a “penny exercise book” in 1913. This Bristol Scout “D” became known as the “Bristol Bullet” and was considered to be the best single-seater fighter of the Great War.

Frank, too, ran foul of bureaucracy. In his case it was Whitehall’s bias against monoplanes, but he overcame this by designing the “Bristol Fighter” in 1915. Its clear superiority to its competitors won over the “desk-pilots” and proved extremely popular with the crews who flew these “Biffs” or “Brisfits”.

Between the wars Frank continued to produce a variety of successful designs including the Bristol Blenheim which was to play such a vital role in the early years of World War II.

Unfortunately, Frank was not to see the result of his efforts as, on 2nd August 1938, at the age of 57, he crashed and died in his own monoplane. The sad postscript to this story is that Frank’s three sons were also killed in the war: two of them while flying Bristol Blenheims.

Tragic though their story appears, the “Intrepid Barnwells”had staked Balfron’s claim in the field of aviation.