Monday 17 January 2022

Scotland By Rail - Charles Rennie Macintosh's Hill House, Helensburgh

The Hill House, boxed
acrylic, 15x21cm

This is The Hill House in Helensburgh, designed outside and in by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald in the first few years of the 20th Century. Nearly 120 years later the building is decaying badly thanks to Mackintosh's experimental modern designs and materials not being very compatible with a wet Scottish west coast climate. 

Past National Trust for Scotland President Neil Oliver described The Hill House as "dissolving like an aspirin in a glass of water"

The decision was made to cover the entire house in a protective cocoon to slow the decay by allowing the building to dry out. The cocoon isn't necessarily a long-term solution (though it might be) but it buys time to investigate all options. One idea discussed is to keep the house boxed forever. That's where my vote goes, it's an incredible structure offering a unique opportunity to view the outside and rooftops of the house. High walkways have been built within the shelter of the cocoon meaning visitors can now explore not only the inside of The Hill House but also all around its exterior including walking right over the roof.

Getting to Helensburgh by rail is easy. A lovely journey from Glasgow Queen Street along the banks of the Clyde. Look out for sunken ships, liners at anchor across the water in Greenock, glimpses of Dumbarton Rock with its Historic Environment Scotland castle (the subject of a previous Scotland By Rail post here). Trains are half hourly from Queen Street and the journey takes just over 40 minutes. Helensburgh Central is the end of the line. The walk from Helensburgh Central is an uphill mile and takes about 25 minutes, or longer if you stop to explore, which you should. 

You can make the walk much shorter by getting a different train from Queen Street and getting off at Helensburgh Upper station instead. From there the walk is only 10 minutes, still uphill. Helensburgh Upper is on a different line, the West Highland Line (previous blog post here), with far fewer trains, just five a day from Glasgow Queen Street.

Helensburgh Central station

Helensburgh Central station

Helensburgh Central station, looking east

From Helensburgh Central Station step out onto East Princes Street then turn right to head west straight along West Princes Street for one block to reach Colquhoun Square. 

Helensburgh has lots of independent shops including a zero-waste refill shop and a greengrocer, both of which you'll pass before you reach the square. 

Rossdhu Refills

Nature's Harvest greengrocer

Take time before or after visiting The Hill House to explore the shopping streets, mostly this one you're already on and down along the shore on West Clyde Street, and the streets joining the two such as Sinclair Street. I'll make Helensburgh shore the subject of a future blog post.

You have now reached Colquhoun Square.

I really really like it here. Low granite plinths are placed all along the road edges and gradually are being adorned with sculptures, artefacts and engraved words relating to the town and surrounding area.

shipwrecked sugar boat

shipwrecked sugar boat

Hermitage School pupils made these sculptures in tribute to John Muir.
Down at the shore a sculpture marks the beginning (or end) of The John Muir Way)

1920s 'Gareloch' racing yachts

1920s 'Gareloch' racing yachts

Special Old Scotch Ginger Beer!

Special Old Scotch Ginger Beer!

The Lions Club

Reid's Waters

Reid's Waters

Read more about The Outdoor Museum here. If any other towns have public art as interesting and informative and inspired as this I'd love to hear.

Once you're finished take the road heading uphill from the middle of the square - Colquhoun Street. Walk up to its very top enjoying quiet streets, beautiful houses, large and well vegetated gardens, grass pavements (really) and lots and lots of street trees including many recently planted - see Helensburgh Tree Conservation Trust.

At the top of Colquhoun Street you are interrupted by a cutting containing the West Highland Line and Helensburgh Upper station. 

top of Colquhoun Street. Turn right along West Rossdhu Drive here

Turn right along West Rossdhu Drive then left to pass over the station with its single track rails, very unusual covered walkway and decorative carved fence tops. 

West Rossdhu Drive

Helensburgh Upper station, West Highland Line

Helensburgh Upper station

Helensburgh Upper station - covered walkway

Straight away turn left again onto Munro Drive West then right onto Upper Colquhoun Street. The Hill House is up there ahead of you.

Munro Drive West. Turn right onto Upper Colquhoun Street

Upper Colquhoun Street. Can you spot the box yet?

Now you can

The Hill House:

Here it is, in its box

one sink, three taps 

how often nowadays do people repair ceramic bowls?!
(how often nowadays do people keep miniature people in ceramic bowls?)

sprays you all the way up - don't forget the ankles

Boxed and unboxed



Sun setting over the water, seen through chain mail cocoon walls. Zoomed in mail below:


How to Get There:

- Trains to Helensburgh Central are half hourly from Glasgow Queen Street and the journey takes about 40 minutes.

- Trains to Helensburgh Upper are five a day from Glasgow Queen Street and the journey takes about 45 minutes. 

- The walk from Helensburgh Central to The Hill House is an uphill mile and a bit taking about 25-30 minutes with no stops.

- The walk from Helensburgh Upper to The Hill House is also uphill but only 5-10 minutes.


Trains are less frequent on Sundays.

Check your journey in advance on ScotRail website or app -


Thank you for reading my Scotland By Rail blog. Please share with anyone who might be interested.

Let me know if there are any railway days out you'd recommend me to try. 

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for this interesting and informative article. I've always wanted to visit Hill House and will certainly do so now! Linda Lincoln