Glencairn House in Dumbarton may be 70 or more miles from Glencairn, but it does nevertheless have tenuous links with the parish.
The Cunynghame family had, over the years, expanded their estate at Kilmaurs (Ayrshire) to include Kerelaw Castle (near Stevenston), Finlaystone (Renfrewshire) and Kilmaronock (Dumbartonshire) as well as Maxwelton (Dumfriesshire). Rather than modernise the old tower at Kilmaurs Place, Finlaystone on the Dennistoun estate was said to be the favourite family residence from an early date; sometime in the 15th century. This would have been after William Cunynghame married Agnes Dennistoun, through whom he acquired Finlaystone, Kilmarnock, Maxwelton and other property.
At some stage the Cunynghames, now Earls of Glencairn, acquired a house in Dumbarton, which was an important and prosperous trading port. Several members of the family held the sought after office of Governor of Dumbarton Castle. Other lairds and merchants also had substantial houses in the Burgh.
In 1623 James Cunynghame (7th Earl) built a fine town house in a prestigious position. This will have been on the site of a previous house and may even have incorporated part of the former building. John Irving describes it as follows: "On the opposite side of the [High] Street, looking straight up College Street is ‘Glencairn’s Greit Hous at the Cross’ built in 1623. Though now untenanted and somewhat decrepit, it still stands as a good specimen of a nobleman’s town house of the period. The fine dormer windows, the quaint outside stair, and the wide pend giving access to the backyard, all remain much as originally designed and give a fair idea of the amenities of such dwellings."
James Cunynghame had got embroiled in the long-standing feud between his family and the Montgomeries (Earls of Eglinton) and another feud in which blood had been shed, and he needed to find surety for good behaviour. This may have been why the Earls of Glencairn sold Maxwelton and broke up the Kilmaurs estate early in the 17th century.
Glencairn’s Greit House was eventually sold to the Earl of Argyll whose family were burgesses, Town Councillors and Members of Parliament.
A painting of the house by Constance Kirk shows the outside steps leading to a front door at first floor level; two additional chimneys between the dormer windows and a panel, perhaps for a coat of arms. Above the door is a wrought iron bracket for a lamp. This was in 1907, by which date the house, which had been converted into flats with shops below, was unoccupied and it remained in a poor state of repair until 1923 when Peter Thomson sold the building to Dumbarton Town Council for £ 600. The Council spent £ 4,000 on restoration by removing the outside steps and two chimney stacks. The first floor windows disappeared and three large archade type windows were made at ground level to make a gas showroom. The house is now used for Council offices.
The cobbled pend is on the left of the photograph which was taken in 1970. The Quay Pend still leads to the back of the house and down to the bank of the river Leven. The date 1623 is still to be seen under one of the carved dormer pediments.
The Council’s zeal for restoration soon evaporated so that most of Dumbarton’s historic centre suffered from wholesale development. Glencairn’s Greit Hous, with its distinctive crow-stepped gables, which 380 years ago was one of Dumbarton’s newest buildings, is now the oldest building in the Royal Burgh
Sources: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.
Kilmaurs – Parish and Burgh. D. McNaught 1912.
History of Dumbartonshire (revised edition) John Irving 1920.
© A.B. Hall