NS3875 : Helenslee House / Keil School

taken 9 years ago, near to Dumbarton, West Dunbartonshire, Great Britain

Helenslee House /  Keil School
Helenslee House / Keil School
The building is by J.T.Rochead, with later modifications and additions by John Honeyman; see its listed building report: LinkExternal link (at Historic Environment Scotland).

Honeyman's work was carried out in order to make the building into a suitable mansion house for Peter Denny, and included the ornate western entrance and the taller part of the building at the back. Peter Denny belonged to a family that was pre-eminent in the local shipbuilding industry: see NS4075 : The Helenslee Family Memorial and NS3975 : Statue of Peter Denny. A little further down the hill, NS3975 : Levenford House was built for James Denny, of the same family (NS4075 : Memorial to James Denny).

[As an aside, it is worth mentioning a fact that will now be little remembered: in his "Dumbarton Ancient and Modern" (1893), Donald MacLeod, writing about Helenslee House, records that "near the residence there is a fernery, which contains possibly the finest collection of New Zealand ferns in Great Britain". The fernery (now long gone) is described in more detail in that work; for example, it was about 51 feet long by 30 feet broad, and its floor was sunk below the level of the surrounding ground. It contained about sixty species, ranging from small ferns to a Dicksonia tree fern that stood 15 feet high. Compare the comments at Link on the Victorian "fern craze".]

From the mid-1920s, Helenslee House was the main building of Keil School. The school had its beginnings elsewhere, and started as the Kintyre Technical School, based at Keil House, close to Keil Point (NR6707, at the southern tip of Kintyre, near Southend). At the time of writing, the ruins of the original school buildings can still be seen there: NR6707 : Keil School ruins, NR6707 : Keil school, NR6707 : Remains of Keil School, and NR6707 : Keil ruins.

[The name "Keil" had long been associated with that area; for example, it appears, "as Keill", on Roy's Military Survey of Scotland (1740s-50s). The name has its roots in the nearby Cill Choluim-Chille (St Columba's Chapel), as is clear from the following intermediate form: NR6707 : Kilcolmkeil Churchyard, Southend. For the chapel, see, for example, NR6707 : Gravestones inside St Columba's Chapel and NR6707 : St Columba's Church. The name Cill Choluim-Chille contains two forms of the Gaelic word "Cill" (church, or monastic cell, from Lat. "cella"), one of them being part of the Saint's by-name ("Dove of the Church").]

The school was founded at Keil House in 1915 as the result of bequests by Sir William Mackinnon and his nephew, Duncan Macneill. However, the buildings at that original site were destroyed by fire, and Keil School relocated, in 1925, to the building shown in the present photograph, Helenslee House. Except for a period during the Second World War, when the pupils were evacuated to a safer area, the school would remain here until it finally closed.

[Helenslee House itself was damaged by fire in January 2013, some time after the present picture was taken; while trying to bring the fire under control, several fireman were injured by a ruptured hose.]

During the time when the school was located here, the south-western corner of the building housed the school's Willox Library and the teachers' common room. Those of its rooms that were used as classrooms were given geographical names (Dumfries, Galloway, Wigtown, Renfrew, Clackmannan, etc.), a practice that would be extended to some of the ancillary school buildings (with classrooms called Nairn, Moray, Argyll, Perth, etc.) that were later built in the extensive school grounds.

The most notable features of the main building were its entrance, with pillars, the tiled main corridor (these floor tiles were probably an original feature of the building), and an impressive staircase. The ceilings were high, and part of the ground floor was subdivided to create a mezzanine floor, accessible by means of a spiral staircase; that floor was used partly for classrooms, and partly to provide accommodation for boarding pupils.

Elsewhere in the grounds, existing buildings were adapted; for example, to the north, the mansion house's stable block became the school's technical block, and later accommodated boarding pupils: NS3875 : Former stables and technical block. Likewise, the mansion's lodge, on NS3875 : Helenslee Road, would become the caretaker's house: NS3875 : Former lodge of Helenslee House.

As for the buildings that were built for the school: immediately adjacent to the main building, on the right (north), was a gym hall / assembly hall (NS38687507), now demolished. To the rear (the west) was a large dinner hall and kitchen block (NS38637509), linked to the main building by a covered walkway; these have also been demolished, so that the building appears much as it would have done in 1925 (except that much of the uppermost part of the building has been removed since the school closed).

(Just to the north of the kitchen block was a heavily-built structure whose interior was below ground level; it was suggested to me that it had been an air raid shelter.)

Other structures, further from the main school building, were built or adapted, some as classrooms, others to accommodate boarding pupils (see, for example, NS3875 : Helenslee Road).

As a result of financial difficulties, Keil School closed in 2000 (in fact, it had very nearly closed in the 1980s for the same reason). As the photograph indicates, a new housing development is taking shape here; for views of that development, see NS3874 : Keil Mansions and NS3874 : New housing development in Dumbarton.

The road in front of the building is now called Keil Gardens. On the grassy area that can be seen in the foreground, on the right (compare NS3875 : Keil Gardens), there was formerly a statue of the above-mentioned Sir William Mackinnon; after the closure of the school, it was moved to Kinloch Park in Campbeltown: NR7120 : Statue of William MacKinnon, Campbeltown. The statue, like its subject, was well-travelled; it had been brought to Helenslee from Mombasa in the 1960s. The listed building report for the statue provides further details: LinkExternal link (at Historic Environment Scotland).

- - - -

The following account, which is my own work, and written mainly for historical interest, is an informal snapshot of school life, as it was in around the 1980s. To readers who would prefer a fuller and more scholarly account of the school's history, without all the odd digressions, I can recommend the book "Keil School: A History" (1993), by Roddy MacAskill, a copy of which I now own. I should add, though, that the following very informal account of school life was written before I acquired my copy of that book, and is not drawn from it.

Pupils were of three kinds: day pupils, going home at the end of each school day; weekly boarders, going home between Saturday lunchtime and Sunday evening; and full boarders, typically from overseas, who were resident at the school except during the Easter, Summer, and Christmas Holidays. Boarding pupils were divided into "houses", depending on where they were accommodated; each house was assigned one of the teachers as its housemaster (there was likewise a housemaster for the day pupils). There was also a matron and a caretaker. Some of the teachers had their residence in the main building itself, others in separate buildings in the grounds; however, that is not to say that all teachers lived on-site.

There was a prefect system of sorts: there were "chiefs" and "deputy chiefs"; however, their powers for punishing misbehaviour did not extend beyond assigning the offender a "copy" or, in worse cases, a "double copy" (for these, the pupil had to copy out, either once or twice, respectively, a set piece of text). In the time period being described here (and, more specifically, before 1987), teachers could still use the tawse, though it had by then fallen out of use in most schools.

In the early 1980s, the important examinations that pupils would sit at Keil School were: O-Grades (fourth year); Highers (fifth year); and A-levels (sixth year). That is a simplified view; it leaves aside, for example, a small number of subjects for which an "Advanced Ordinary" examination could be taken; if I remember correctly, "Electricity and Electronics" was one such subject. For what it is worth, I was led to believe that the reasoning behind offering A-levels rather than SYS (Sixth Year Studies) in sixth year was because it was felt that A-levels would be more useful to those pupils who would apply to a University in England, while being no less so than SYS for those applying to a University in Scotland. In the 1980s, O-Grades (note, NOT called "O-Levels"!) were being gradually phased out, to be replaced by Standard Grades (themselves now obsolete).

Boarding pupils who wished to do some homework or other study could use their dormitories. Day pupils could use the school's library (the Willox Library see above) for this purpose; in addition, there was a collective "common room" provided for the Fourth Year day pupils. The day pupils of Fifth Year likewise had their own common room, and those of Sixth Year had another (these were typically smaller, since, with some pupils leaving after Fourth or Fifth Year, their numbers would be thinning out).

In an alcove just off the house's main corridor (whose floor had colourful patterns formed by presumably original tiles), there were two old and very tall wooden boards, each with a long list of names on it. One board recorded, for each year of the school's history, the name of the Senior Chief; this was the head prefect, always chosen from the Sixth Year. The other board listed, for each year, the name of the School Dux, who was, for some reason, always chosen from the Fifth Year (this was perhaps because some pupils would already have left for University before Sixth Year). These lists extended back to the school's very earliest days; once a year, a new name, in gold paint, would be added to each of the boards.

The walls of the main corridors, downstairs and upstairs, were lined by pictures of the school's First XV team (there was one picture for each year, and, like the Senior Chief and Dux boards, these pictures covered a period of many years).

Pupils had a great deal of freedom in choosing subjects: it was quite possible to take 10 subjects at O-Grade level; there were no restrictions requiring pupils to take, for example, a certain number of sciences. The annual challenge of working out suitable timetables typically fell to the maths teacher (this would involve creating not one but six separate timetables: one each for First Year through to Sixth Year). In practice, this was no easy matter; it would very often soon become apparent that at least one pupil or teacher was expected to be in two places at once, and the relevant timetable would need to be reworked.

The typical school day consisted of eight "periods" (lessons), each forty minutes in length, but these could be combined as needed to form a double period (eighty minutes), especially for subjects where practical work would benefit from a longer uninterrupted lesson (e.g., for woodwork or art, or for carrying out chemistry experiments).

The school day was divided as follows (note that this is from the perspective of a "day pupil"): morning assembly began shortly before 9 am. The first three periods of the school day then ran from 9:15 to 11:15, and were followed by a 20-minute break, and then by the next two periods, which ran from 11:35 to 12:55. Lunch and some brief NH (see below) were from 1 pm to 2 pm. The final three periods of the school day ran from 3:45 pm to 5:45. By most standards, this was a long day (ending, in the winter months, in darkness, so that those coming back from the outlying buildings in particular, the ones shown in NS3875 : Former stables and technical block often did so with battery torches, forming a procession of bobbing lights).

The intervening time from 2 pm to 3:45 was taken up by various activities; depending on the day of the week, these might involve sports (rugby, except in the summer term); NH (standing for "Natural History", but really a euphemism for outdoors cleaning or maintenance work carried out by the pupils indoors, it was "orderly"); swimming (at the now-long-gone Brock Baths), which could be dispensed with once the pupil had passed the test of swimming four lengths; or, for those who had managed to escape the other activities, various clubs, such as the Science Club or the Photography Club.

The area shown in NS3874 : Former playing fields of Keil School was used as sports fields. When the school's First XV team were playing at home, the other pupils were supposed to come down to the sidelines to give their support. A few, less enthusiastic about rugby, might do so in a halfhearted way by going down to the pitches, and then climbing up a certain part of the adjacent quarry wall (NS3874 : Quarry adjoining Keil School's playing field), to a convenient flat top where, if they kept their heads down, they were out of sight of the teachers, and might amuse themselves with a pack of cards (playing for fun, not for money). The same pitches were also employed for the annual Sports Day.

During the summer term (the one preceding the summer holidays), the timetable was similar, but was modified in that the final three periods of the school day immediately followed lunch, and ran from 2pm to 4pm; sports (cricket rather than rugby) or NH followed them, and the day ended at 5:45, as usual.
Keil School
An independent school founded at Keil House (NR67670788), at the southern tip of Kintyre, in 1915. After a disastrous fire, it relocated, in 1925, to the mansion house of Helenslee (NS38677506), which is in the Kirktonhill area of Dumbarton. The school remained there until its final closure in 2000. The building itself subsequently remained unoccupied, and it was damaged by fire early in 2013. A housing development was created around it; Helenslee House itself was supposed to be restored as a part of that development, but, as of the end of 2016, that has not yet occurred.
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NS3875, 109 images   (more nearby )
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Date Taken
Thursday, 24 March, 2011   (more nearby)
Thursday, 31 March, 2011
Geographical Context
Historic sites and artefacts 
Former (from Tags)
Period (from Tags)
19th Century 
Place (from Tags)
Person (from Tags)
Peter Denny 
Architect (from Tags)
J T Rochead  John Honeyman 
Historic building   (more nearby)
Subject Location
OSGB36: geotagged! NS 3867 7506 [10m precision]
WGS84: 55:56.4857N 4:35.0803W
Camera Location
OSGB36: geotagged! NS 3872 7502
View Direction
Northwest (about 315 degrees)
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