There is considerable beauty of scenery, and much that is of great historical interest in the parish of Cardross , which is partly bounded by the waters of the Firth of Clyde, and by the river Leven issuing from Loch Lomond through modern Day Renton (place of manor house of King Robert the Bruce).
No doubt the name is derived from "Ross," a point or headland, and "Car," a moorland ridge, and the church formerly stood on the high ground above the Leven, near its confluence with the Clyde.
It is bounded on the south by the Clyde, on the west by the Parish of Row, and on the north it marches with Luss and Bonhill parishes. Its extreme length may be about eight miles, and its breadth varies from one and a half to three miles. In former times the parish appears not to have extended much farther along the shores of the Frith of Clyde than the site of the present church. Some lands in Glenfruin, and on the Gareloch, and even as far as Loch Long, then belonged to it, although these were detached from it in 1643, when the parish received an addition on its western boundary.
Cardross was part of the lordship of the old Earls of Lennox, but portions of it were held by their vassals before the wars of the succession. In the middle of the thirteenth century Earl Maldoven of Lennox granted to Donald Macynel a land in Glenfreone called Kealbride, which is held on a fourth part of a "harathor," bounded by the Lavaran and the burn called Crose, as they run from the hill and fall into the Freone; the reddendo, the twentieth part of the service of a man-at-arms. The grant is witnessed by the Earl's brother, Amelec, of whose large appanage Glenfruin formed a part. Before 1294, John Napier held Kilmahew of the Earl, giving three suits at his head court, and paying what is exigible for a quarter of land in Lennox.
Malcolm, Earl of Lennox, resigned into the hands of the King, Robert I., a plough of land of Cardross (modern day Renton), getting in compensation the half of the lands of Lekkie in Stirlingshire. The King, about 1322, gave over the lands of Hoyden, within the Barony of Cardross, to Adam son of Alan, and he had a specific object in view in acquiring land in the parish. For upon a bank overhanging the river Leven, near its junction with the Clyde, the hero of Bannockburn built a manor house, and surrounded it with a park, which was called the King's Park of Cardross. At the first milestone out of Dunbarton, along the Cardross road there is a wooded knoll, which bears the name of Castlehill although there are no traces of any ruined buildings to be seen. Having divested himself of the cares and vexations of government, the monarch found relief in the chase, and indulged in hunting excursions, and made short voyages along the neighbouring waters of the Gareloch and Loch Long, and the broad estuary of the Clyde, while he was kept in security by the neighbouring castle of Dunbarton. Within the walls of his residence, in view of the fine hills, which throw their dark shadows over the placid waters of the river leven at Renton , the patriot king breathed his last on 7th June, 1329.
By the advice of his physicians he retired to Cardross, a beautiful retreat situated upon the Clyde, about six miles from Dunbarton, where, amid the intervals from pain and sickness, his time appears to have been much occupied in making experiments in the construction and sailing of vessels, with a view, probably, towards the establishment of a more effective naval force in Scotland. We learn this fact from the accounts of his High Chamberlain, which are yet preserved, and the same records acquaint us that in these kingly amusements he often enjoyed the society of Randolph. [The King's expenses at Cardross. The following are a few of the entries from the "Cardross Kings Park Household Book,—Items: Wood for the scaffolding of the new chalmer, 3s.; making a door for do., 6d. To 100 large boards, 3s. 4d. To Giles the huntsman for his allowance for one year, six weeks, three days, 1 chalder 35 bolls meal. Grant to do by the King's command, 26s. 8d. To a net for taking large and small fish, 40s. To two masts for the ship, 8s. To persons employed in raising the masts three times, 3s. To working 80 tons of iron for the use of the ships and the castle at 4d. per stone, 26s. 8d. To bringing the King's great ship from the Frith into the river near the castle, and carrying the rigging to the castle, 3s. To twelve men sent from Dunbarton to Tarbet to bring back the King's great ship, 28s. To thirty loads of firing to be used in the work of the windows, 22s. 6d. To conveying Peter the fool to Target (on Loch Fyne), 1s. 6d. The house for the falcons cost 2s.; a fishing net, 40s.; seeds for the orchard, Is. 6d.; green olive oil for painting the royal chamber, 10s.; chalk for the same, 6d.; a chalder of lime for whitewashing it, 8s.; and tin nails and glass for the windows, 3s. 4d."] His lighter pleasures consisted in hunting and hawking, when his health permitted; in sailing upon the Clyde, and superintending his mariners and shipwrights in their occupations; in enlarging and enclosing his park, and making additions to his palace. As even the most trivial circumstances are interesting when they regard so eminent a man, it may be mentioned that he kept a lion, the expense of whose maintenance forms an item in the chamberlain's accounts; and that his active mind, even under the pressure of increasing disease, seems to have taken an interest in the labours of the architects, painters, goldsmiths, and inferior artists, who belonged to his establishment. In compliance with the manners of the times, he maintained a fool, for whose comfort he was solicitous, and in whose society he took delight. He entertained his clergy and his barons, who visited him from time to time, at his rural palace, in a style of noble and abundant hospitality. The minutest parts of his expenditure appear to have been arranged with the greatest order, and his lowest officers and servants, his huntsmen, falconers, dog-keepers, gardeners, and park-stewards, provided for in rude but regular abundance. His gifts to the officers of his household, to his nurse and other old servants, and to the most favourite amongst his nobles, were frequent and ample; his charity in the support of many indigent persons, by small annual salaries or regular allowances of meat and flour, was extensive, and well directed; whilst a pleasing view of his generosity, combined with his love of letters, is presented by his presents to `poor clerks' for the purpose of enabling them to carry on their education "at the schools".
The scene has been often described when the King, feeling his last hour drawing near, charged his old friend and companion in arms, Sir James Douglas, to take, as soon as he was dead, his embalmed heart and deposit it in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. This was done, and Sir James Douglas duly set out with a body of chosen companions for the Holy Land, with his precious charge enclosed in a silver casket, but being attacked by the Saracens, and surrounded by overwhelming numbers, he flung the casket before him, exclaiming, "Pass onward as thou was wont, and Douglas will follow thee or die.
In addition to the Parish Church near Dunbarton, there was a chapel at Kilmahew, dedicated to St. Mahew, probably Macceus, one of the companions of St. Patrick, which gave its name to the lands. Both the Chapel and lands of Kilmahew belonged to the Cochrans in the time of David II., but in the fifteenth century they had reverted to the Napiers. Between the years 1208 and 1233, Maldoven, Earl of Lennox, granted to Walter, Bishop of Glasgow, as mensal to the bishoprick, the Church of Cardross, along with its lands and fishings, reserving the right of his brother, Dungal, who was also in orders, and may likely have held this benefice as well as that of Kilpatrick. Before 1432 this parish had been erected into a prebend for a canon of the cathedral. The rectory of Cardross is taxed in Baiamond's Tax Roll at £61 13s. 4d., and in the Libellus Taxationum at £66 13s. 4d., and the Vicar pensionar gave up his living at the Reformation as of £10 yearly value.
In the year 1467 the chapel of Kilmahew was rebuilt, and on the 10th May, George, Bishop of Argyll, with license from the Bishop of Glasgow, clad in his mitre and pontifical robes, consecrated the chapel and cemetery, dedicated to St. Mahew. He also granted, in name and by consent of Duncan Napare of Kilmahew, and James Napare his heir, to God and St. Mahew, and a chaplain to celebrate in the newly consecrated chapel, forty shillings and tenpence yearly, out of tenements in the Burgh of Dunbarton, with a croft adjoining the chapel.
From these particulars chiefly gathered from Origines Parochiales, it will be seen that the ecclesiastical history of the parish extends to a very early period. As far back as 1225 mention is made of the Kirk of Cardross, and for three centuries the Bishops of Glasgow and their Deans and Chapters held it. The old church was a small oblong building, forty feet in length and twenty in breadth, with a tower at one end. All that now remains of that ancient building is the eastern gable, in which is a small pointed doorway, and also some remains of the lower parts of the side walls. Near it was the manse, and the Clachan of Under Kirkton of Cardross. The church stood on the side of the public road which ran along the shore and thence to Ardmore and Row, and it did service as the parish kirk until the year 1644. When the old church ceased to be used for worship, it gradually fell into decay until the year 1805, when the Levengrove estate passed from the possession of Richard Dennistoun of Kelvin-grove into the hands of the Dixons, and the churchyard was despoiled of its monuments, ploughed over, and actually included in the grounds of the new proprietor of the estate. Two venerable flat gravestones are still to be seen near the walls of the church, the one outside ornamented with a shield and cross bones, and the other, inside the church, with a largo cross on its face, and, at one end, the words, "The xii. Aprel," at the other, "Heir Lyes 17." Inside the ruins rest the remains of a number of the Dixon family, but the old mansion house of Levengrove, where Robert Burns the poet on his second Highland tour in 1787, travelling on horseback from Arrochar along Loch Lomondside, was welcomed by Mr. M'Aulay, the lawyer, and his family, is now entirely obliterated from the scene. The whole of these grounds, the ruins of the old kirk, the site of the mansion, and the holy well of St. Serf, are all included in the fine park of Levengrove, which was the handsome gift to their native town of the eminent shipbuilders John MIMillan and Peter Denny, LL. D.
In the year 1644, the next church of Cardross was built, on the site which it at present occupies near the village, and is thus much nearer the centre of the parish. It was a small unadorned structure, capable only of holding about 400 persons, and, after being used down to the year 1826, was pulled down, and the present existing edifice was erected. The situation is a commanding one, with a beautiful view across the broad estuary of the Clyde down to the mountains of Argyllshire, and a belt of old trees shelters the sacred structure. Its architecture is Gothic, of a similar character to many churches built about that period, the solid square tower over the entrance being its main feature. The church is seated for 800, and within the last few years received considerable renovations through the liberality of the late Mr. Donaldson, of Keppoch ; there are also four stained glass memorial windows representing Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, given by the representatives of heritors of Cardross. The glebe consists of 9½ acres of good arable ground, and there is a large and commodious manse embowered in old trees.
There is nothing of special interest about the communion vessels of the parish church. The cups, which are in use at present, are dated February 1867. Metal tokens of the usual type in Scottish country churches dated 2nd December, 1858, were used until recently. Much older ones used to exist stamped Car on one side, and on the other Mr. E., 1767—no doubt in the ministry of Mr. Edmonstone, but of these there are none now to be found. There are also two very old-fashioned ladles for collections. From an old document it appears that on 21st September 1727, Mrs. Wallace, the widow of the previous minister, handed over the following articles which were used in the service of the church. Two silver communion cups, two large flagons, one "bason," Acts of Assembly 1690-1723, a table-cloth used at the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, with four towels, a pulpit cloth and brass plate given by Ir. Wallace to the Session. Up till the summer of 1895 the good old custom of the Fast day was kept up in Cardross Parish, but following the easy-going tendencies of modern ecclesiastical authorities, the preliminary day of worship has been abrogated.
As one of the respected old elders of the church sorrowfully remarked to the author, he remembered when the Fast day services were even more fully attended than those of the Sabbath.
The boundaries of the Parish of Cardross have been considerably altered, as we learn from the pages of Old Cardross. From it we are informed, "until 1643 the parish of Cardross was bounded on the west by the Auchenfroe Burn, which divided it from Rosneath, but on the other hand it included Bennachra, and the lands in Glenfruin, and on the shore of the upper part of the Gareloch. In that year Glenfruin was disjoined from Cardross to make part of the parish of Row, which was then being formed; and in lieu of this the lands lying eastward from Meikle Kirkmichael, and also Dalquharn, in the village of Renton, were detached from Rosneath and added to Cardross. In 1659 the lands of Bennachra were disjoined from Cardross and annexed to the parish of Luss."