Inverclyde’s Famous Visitors
Greenock’s glory days are clearly in the past. Our industrial heritage has been systematically dismantled and our once thriving streets are increasingly neglected, becoming little more than bleak monuments to economic decline. The folk that grew up in Greenock in the post-Thatcher age could be forgiven for thinking it has always been like this, particularly as they aren’t actually taught any local history at school.
Greenock’s decline, which mirrors the managed decline of the UK in general, was not inevitable. It was for a time one of the most populated and prestigious parts of Scotland and Greenock’s current state of affairs is the exception to the rule that Inverclyde has generally figured prominently in Scottish history. Inverclyde was once essentially the northern boundary of the Roman Empire, the forts in the hills above Greenock guarded the Clyde and protected the Western flank of the Antonine Wall. In medieval times, the area was important enough to warrant specific mention in Edward I’s invasion plans of Scotland. In more modern times you find that Greenock was one of the premier ports of the British Empire through the 18th and 19th centuries, linking the Canadian timber and American tobacco and sugar industries to Glasgow, the ‘second city of the Empire’. The immense wealth generated by these industries can still be seen today, manifested in the many handsome Victorian buildings that still exist in Inverclyde.
Our shipbuilding heritage and contributions to industry are self evident and do not require further explanation. It is also no exaggeration to say that our most famous son, James Watt, was responsible for a technological advancement that greatly progressed Western civilisation. Similarly, the town was important enough to be a target of hostile foreign powers. In 1941 a two night bombing campaign from the German Air Force damaged 10,000 homes and killed 280 people. Declassified Soviet records from the Cold War also show that Greenock was considered an important target for nuclear attack should hostilities break out between the Western powers and the Soviet Union.
Inverclyde’s accumulated prestige was reflected in the people that visited the area and I would like to list a few here, not only to at least begin some kind of comprehensive record, but to also make people aware that there is more to Inverclyde than what we currently see. Given the chance for positive change, and the right attitude, Inverclyde may yet be able to build on it’s illustrious history.
Oscar Wilde visited Greenock in 1885, giving a speech to the Greenock philosophical society at the Watt Hall on Kelly Street.
Scottish-American businessman Andrew Carnegie visited Greenock in 1902 after making a donation to help renovate the building at Wallace Place, turning it into a public library. Widely considered to be one of the richest men in history, he also made a contribution towards the Watt Statue on Dalrymple Street.
English political reformer and theorist William Cobbett visited Greenock in 1832. Although he was a Protestant, he advocated Catholic emancipation in Britain.
One of the greatest chess players in history, Alexander Alekhine visited Greenock in 1923, four years before he became world chess champion.
Alexander McKenzie, the second Prime Minister of Canada, visited Greenock in 1883 to inspect the James Watt dock.
The composer Hamish MacCunn was born in Greenock in 1868, his family home ‘Thornhill’ still exists on the corner of Ardgowen and Campbell streets.
King Lewanika of Barotseland (modern day Zambia) visited Greenock in 1902.
James IV sailed from Gourock on the ship ‘Verdour’ in 1494. He sailed to Dunstaffnage Castle to subdue the highland clans and receive the submission of John MacDonald, Lord of the Isles. James IV returned triumphantly with John MacDonald, who eventually would live at Paisley Abbey.
General Charles de Gaulle visited Greenock in 1942 when the town was the home port of the Free French Navy. He broadcast to his forces from Martyrs North Church on West Burn Street.
Buffalo Bill visited Greenock Town Hall with his travelling show of Native Americans in 1892. They had a further show at the Battery Park in Gourock in 1904. When the Native Americans visited Glasgow, they were accommodated in a tenement block in Partick.
Walter Washington Buchanan, the godson of George Washington, died at his home of Bagatelle in Greenock in 1863. It was said that he was baptised in the arms of George Washington, with the Marquis de Lafayette and Tadeusz Kosciusko by his side. His childhood playmate was George Washington Parke Custis, the father-in-law of the Confederate General Robert E Lee. His grave can be visited in Greenock cemetery.
Winston Churchill visited Greenock in 1943 following his return to Britain from North America. Churchill had been at a secret meeting with the Governments of Canada and the United States to discuss the upcoming invasion of occupied France.
Cue scary music. The ‘Iron lady’ Margaret Thatcher visited Greenock in 1988. She visited IBM and was apparently egged on West Blackhall Street, opposite Keogh and Savage.
Emperor Haile Salassie of Ethopia stayed at Castle Wemyss during his exile in 1936. His grandsons were educated at Dollar in Clackmannanshire.
American Civil War General William T Sherman visited Castle Wemyss during a European tour of 1872. He was present at many of the most important battles of the Civil War.
The exiled King Peter II of Yugoslavia stayed at Castle Wemyss in 1943.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited Greenock as part of their Scottish tour in 1847. After visiting Greenock and Dumbarton she said, “everywhere the good highlanders are very enthusiastic”.
John MacDonald of Islay, the 4th Lord of the Isles was at Inverkip some time around 1450. He plundered the area with 80 galleys and around 6,000 men. He was later overthrown by forces loyal to his son Aonghas Óg at the Battle of Bloody Bay.
Sir Walter Scott visited Greenock in 1814, the last stop on a boat tour around Scotland that took him from Leith, Orkney, the Western Isles, Northern Ireland and finally Greenock. This was the same year his historic novel Waverley was published.
Former president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis visited Scotland three times in the late 1860s and early 1870s. On one such trip he visited Greenock on his way to Oban, Mull, Fingal’s Cave and Culloden. It was said that at Glasgow and Greenock he was met with “large cheers”, perhaps revealing the pro-confederate sympathies that existed in Scotland during the Civil War.
Robert Cunningham Graham spent most of his childhood at the family home of Finlaystone near Port Glasgow. Despite his wealthy background, he became the first socialist MP in Britain, became the first President of the Scottish National Party and helped Kier Hardie found the Labour Party. He traveled extensively and died in Argentina in 1936.
Robert Burns stayed as a guest of the 14th Earl of Glencairn at Finlaystone House in the 1780s. During this visit, Burns scratched his name into a window of the building. Burns later wrote the ‘Lament for James, Earl of Glencairn’ in recognition of the assistance he received from Glencairn in a time of distress. Without Glencairn’s support, Burns may not have continued his writing as he had planned to travel to the West Indies for a new life as a manager of slaves. It is also highly probable that Burns visited both Greenock and Port Glasgow.
John Knox preached from Finlaystone in 1556 as a friend of the 5th Earl of Glencairn, who was an outspoken supporter of the Reformation. He celebrated communion under the Yew Tree which still exists in the gardens of the estate, although it was moved from its original position in 1900.
Dr Mary Edwards Walker, the American feminist, abolitionist, battlefield surgeon and only female to ever receive the Medal of Honor visited Greenock in 1866. Her visit was part of her tour of Scotland, which included 25 lectures regarding women’s suffrage and female acceptance into the medical professions. She died in 1919, nine years before universal voting rights were granted to women in the UK.
The novelist John Galt worked at the Custom’s House in Greenock between 1796 and 1804. He is considered one of the first political novelists in the English language. His three sons played prominent roles in Canadian politics, with his son Alexander becoming a leading figure of Canadian Confederation. John Galt died at the corner of West Burn and West Blackhall St, Greenock in 1839 and he is buried at the Inverkip St cemetery.
‘Manny’ Shinwell, the London-born Jewish MP visited Greenock in 1911 as part of his job to organise the Clydeside seamen when he was vice-chairman of the Glasgow Trades Council. He was a prominant member of Red Clydeside and died in 1986 and the age of 102.
West Indian cricket legend Gordon Greenidge spent a single season at Greenock Cricket Club in 1990. Together with Desmond Haynes, Greenidge has the record for the most runs scored by a batting partnership in test cricket history.
More of Inverclyde’s Famous Visitors.