A Kilbarchan Weaving Agent Robert Climie (1772- c1836)

By the 1820s Kilbarchan was well established as a weaving community with over 800 looms in the village. Most weavers worked in silk and cotton to produce long shawls and square shawls, many in a fine, patterned gauze fabrics. The weavers were self-employed doing contract work for Paisley and Glasgow Manufacturing Houses. These manufacturing houses employed local weaving agents, to engage the weavers. The weaving agents, usually local men (or women), were well versed in the technical skills required in the weaving trade and must have been skilled hand loom weavers prior to becoming weaving agents.

One of these agents in Kilbarchan was Robert Climie. He lived in Church Street with his wife and family and worked as the weaving agent for John Miller and Sons, shawl manufacturers in Paisley. Robert Climie’s business correspondence with Thomas Patten of John Miller and Sons in 1828 still exists. The correspondence, which gives detailed information of the work and responsibilities of a weaving agent, was discovered in the 1990s in the loft Mount Pleasant, a house to the north of the village, where Robert’s surviving family lived after his death.

Robert’s first responsibility was to appoint weavers for particular pieces of work. He had then to arrange delivery to the weaver of the dyed coils of yarn to be woven, and his ‘weaver’s ticket’ which was a contract between the weaver and the manufacturer for a specific piece of work. On occasion, a considerable number of weavers were required. In March, 1828, Robert was instructed to find ‘half a hundred weavers’ for ‘shades and spots’.

Robert was also required settle any disputes between the weaver and the manufacturer. One dispute over rate of payment involved a weaver, James Stewart, who was ‘rather reluctant to engage’ because he had expected a higher rate for his work. Another dispute occurred when Jo. Scobie complained about the quality of yarn supplied to him by the manufacturer. Diplomacy and tact was required to resolve these situations. Robert Climie was also required to check the weaver’ work and rectify any errors before arranging for carriers to transport the woven webs back to Paisley.

Futher detailed information on the documents on Robert Climie’s work as a weaving agent is available in the Weaver’s Cottage in Kilbarchan

© 2013 Helen Calcluth


The Old Peesweep Inn and the Peesweep Club

By Bill Speirs of Johnstone History Society

The Old Peesweep Inn

The Old Peesweep Inn

The Peeesweep Inn sat on the Gleniffer Road at the northeast corner of the crossroads east of Lapwing Lodge. All that remains to indicate the site is the raised patch of ground where the inn and its garden once stood. The inn was built between 1810 and 1840 when one traveller described it as “an old fashioned and bien howff where a farle of oatcake and a gill of mountain dew could be had”. It was still occupied as a private residence in 1931.

In 1856 the inn was documented as a lowly one storeyed building with a kailyard behind and a rowan tree at the front, perhaps to keep witches and evil spirits away in this isolated spot. The proprietor of the Peesweep Inn in the 1850s was David Stevenson, with his wife Barbara, their daughter Janet, and sons David and Thomas.

Before the death of their father in 1866, the two brothers had moved to Johnstone where both became successful business men. Thomas had various commercial interests in the town with his main commercial and residential premises at 74 High Street. He served on the Johnstone Town Council for 10 years, and was Provost, a position he held with considerable distinction, for several years from 1882.

Soon after David Stevenson, sen., died his son-in-law, William Muir, who had married David’s daughter Janet in 1864, took over the proprietorship of the Peesweep Inn. William Muir as landlord at the Inn, however, fell foul of Her Majesty`s Constabulary who had been making frequent complaints on account of “Sunday trafficking” (a lock-in in modern parlance) despite repeated warnings to desist. Eventually, in April 1889 the Peesweep Inn was unanimously refused a licence. The Justices had had enough. There would be no more beers, wines or spirits sold there ever again. William Muir left the inn before 1891 and moved to the Bent, a neighbouring farm, with his wife and family. The inn was subsequently occupied by John Pollock, a roadman, and in 1901 by Robert Woodrow, a railway surface man and their families.

Perhaps the most important guests who frequented the Peesweep Inn were a number of notable gentlemen from Johnstone, Paisley and Glasgow who called themselves the Peesweep Club. The Peesweep Club was formed in 1849 and the members met during April or May each year at the inn. They took part in various sports, some aquatic when there was sufficient water in the nearby Hartfield Loch (also known as the Peesweep Dam). After the initial round of sports the members would adjourn to the hostelry for dinner which would include the sma’ still whisky “that streams in the starlight when kings dinna’ ken”. The meeting would finish with a group photograph of the members, occasionally gathered posing round a wagon in the yard. Baillie Thomas Stevenson of Johnstone, who had been brought up at the inn, was one of the members and would surely have got a warm welcome from his sister, Mrs Muir, the landlady.

Despite its loss of licence the Peesweep Inn probably continued to be a meeting place for the next thirty years. The Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire Hunt met at there on a dismal day in 1893 when the “rain fell copiously” and the surroundings were “bleak and barren-like”. In 1912 bannocks and Dunlop cheese, home baked scones, fresh butter, eggs, and milk were all available at the inn which was then a favourite destination on evening rambles for various walking clubs, such as the Pickled Ingan Club, the Peep o’ Day Club and the Kail Stock Club, but alas no Peesweep Club.

©2013 Bill Speirs

Water and Wind Power

Renewable energy, including wind and water power, is seen as a modern concept. Yet, in the days before heavy industrialisation, wind and water power were crucial for the development of Renfrewshire. Beyond mills for grinding grain and processing textiles, wind and water were used, particularly in mining.

Although the highlands of central Renfrewshire consist mostly of igneous rocks, coal and lime is available along the valleys of the Black Cart to Castle Semple, and of the Gryfe towards Bridge of Weir. The most ambitious landowners were keen to exploit these minerals on their estates. However, in the west of Scotland climate any hole made in the ground for a quarry or coal pit quickly filled with water. An early solution was to construct tunnels, known as ‘levels’ from the bottom of the quarry or pit to the nearest low point in the landscape. Once the level was completed, mining could carry on for many years, without fear of flooding. Early examples include the Corseford area with tunnels draining to the Black Cart. One of these still spouts water near the weir on the Black Cart at Elliston Bridge.

Once the quarry or pit became too deep to drain naturally, the water had to be pumped out. One method was to use horse gins, such as on the Speirs estate at Elderslie, where one or more beasts walking in a circle turned a wheel, lifting buckets of water on a rope. However, keeping and feeding horses was an expensive task. This encouraged the motivation to find an innovative source of power which could run day and night at little cost. The novel solution was to use water to drain water. By damming and diverting a burn along a lade, a fall could be created to drive a waterwheel. The wheel then powered a pump to drain the workings. The wheel could also be used to raise the coal or lime.

By the early eighteenth century water power was being used at Craigends, where ‘the water was taken out of the coal pits by a water engine, and great lime work was also carried on’. A lade from the Locher drove a water wheel, and a lime kiln and coal pit can still be seen.

Coal and lime working had been carried out in the Spateston area for a long time but any more organised working was plagued by flooding. The solution was an enterprise in 1776 between Houston of Johnstone and McDowall of Castle Semple to set up water powered drainage. Power was provided by the Swinetrees Burn, which flows from the foothills of Walls Hill. At Corseford, the water was dammed and carried to the water engine for a great distance on an elevated wooden channel.

The most lucrative coal reserves in the county were at Quarrelton, where the famous ‘100 foot’ coal was worked intermittently from the medieval period. By the 1690s drainage was provided by a pump situated over a shaft at the lowest point of the coalfield. The Craigbog Burn nearby was insufficient to power a water wheel, but was supplemented by an innovative scheme which diverted the Old Patrick Water three kilometres away. This fed a reservoir near Johnstone Castle. The water machine was situated near the former ‘Bird in Hand’ hotel, from where the lade still exits down the ‘Colliers Level’ in Linn Park. On a 1733 map of Quarrelton, covering five acres of Brownockhill farm, there were a dozen coal pits clustered around the water engine. In the early 1700s the engine was maintained by millwright, Neil Small from Kilwinning, who was paid for ‘maintaining, guiding, ordering and repairing the water wheel, pumps, gins and other machines for winning and out-taking the coal of Quarrelton and for draining the water therefrom’.

Other less obvious uses of water power were to grind Barytes at the mine at Muirshiels above Lochwinnoch. A previous article in the Advertizer showed how water was also used to pump water from the drained Barr Loch at Hole of Barr.

 Where a suitable burn was not available, wind power was also used. At the limeworks on the White Cart at Blackhall near Paisley in the 1780s ‘the water was taken from the lime quarry by a wind miln carried on by William King’. Another example was at the limeworks at Boghall, on the west side of Windyhill, near Milliken, where a windmill is shown in Ainslie’s 1796 county survey. Such innovations allowed the early industrialisation of the area before the advent of steam power.

© 2013 Stuart Nisbet

Blind William Jamieson

 ‘Near the house of Barochan, and within the Barony, was born the learned Mr William Jamieson. preacher of the gospel and professor of history in the university of Glasgow; a miracle for learning considering he is deprived of the sense of seeing (being born blind) yet his learned works give sufficient proof of his being a very able scholar.’[i]                                               George Crawfurd, 1710

William Jamieson was born in the Barony of Barochan in Killallan Parish in Renfrewshire in the mid-seventeenth century. As a parishioner, he would have attended Killallan Kirk. He is most likely to have been a relative of the Jamiesons recorded in the Killallan Poll Tax Records of 1695. Two farmers, both named John Jamieson, were tenant farmers in the Barony of Barochan, one in Corsliehill and the other nearby in Goslet. The rental value of each farm was 20lib. per year. Neither family had either farm or house servants and probably lived little above subsistence level.

William Jamieson became a preacher who was well respected in academic circles. What was even more remarkable, he was blind from birth! His genius appears to have been acknowledged early in his life when he was given financial support by William Cunninghame of Craigends, a local laird, in the neighbouring Parish of Kilbarchan. In his diary and expenditure book (1673-80) William Cunninghame records at least three transactions ‘to a blind scholar in Barochan’s land called William Jamieson, in charity’ –  one of six shillings in August, 1675, and two others in April 1674 and October 1676 of the considerable sum of thirteen shillings and fourpence.[ii] It is likely that the main laird in Killallan Parish, Fleming of Barorchan, also supported William Jamieson. However, no documentary records exist to substantiate this supposition. Fleming of Barorchan was a friend and probable drinking companion of William Cunninghame. An entry in Cunninghame’s diary records ten shillings ‘spent at Kilbarchan with Barochan’ [iii].

Although he was not from a wealthy family William Jamieson received his education at the University of Glasgow, perhaps funded by the local lairds. As a young man, he was well versed in Latin.

His friend and contemporary, Robert Woodrow (1679-1734), the Scottish church historian and minister of Eastwood Parish, records the circumstances of the death and execution of Archibald Campbell (c.1629 -1685), the 9th Earl of Argyle, who was captured at Inchinnan after his involvement Monmouth Rebellion. (The rebellion was an attempt to depose the Catholic King James II.) The day before the Earl, an assertive Protestant and regarded by some as a Christian martyr, was executed for treason in Edinburgh in 1685 he wrote his own epitaph in verse and William Jamieson turned the speech into ‘Latin elegiacs’. The full texts of both the Earl’s epitaph and Jamieson’s Latin version were recorded by Woodrow[iv]. The Argyle Stone in the grounds of the Normandy Hotel in Renfrew marks the site where the Earl rested after his capture.          

The Argyle Stone

The Argyle Stone

By the 1690s Jamieson had become renowned as a lecturer of history at the University of Glasgow. In May 1692 the Senate awarded him 200 merks Scots per annum for the next two years because he had ‘no estate to subsist by’.  In December of the same year he was appointed to give a public lecture on civil history at three o’clock each Thursday in the Common Hall. These lectures were delivered in Latin![v] .  

He had at some time previously received funding also from the bishopric of Glasgow. Further funding was sought in the next decade. Letters, dated 1706 and 1709, from Mr John Stirling, Principal of the College of Glasgow, to the Earl of Mar, seeking a funding allowance for ‘Mr William Jamieson, a blind man and wonderful scholar’… ‘in our college’ are held in the National Archives of Scotland.[vi]

As well as lecturing at the university, William Jamieson wrote several books, some on the Episcopal controversy, the most noted being The Defence of the Church of Scotland written in 1713[vii]. When we take into account his blindness and lack of financial resources, he must have had an incredible intellect and prodigious memory to achieve his academic success and acclaim. Blind William Jamieson, a native of Killallan Parish, must surely be one of the most remarkable scholars of all time! Regarded as a ‘miracle of learning’ within his lifetime, he certainly must be Killallan’s most illustrious son.


[i] Crawford, George (1710) The History of the Shire of Renfrew Crawfurd, George and Semple, William1782 ,Paisley, Renfrew District Council, 1991 edition,  p108

[ii] Dodds, James The Diary and General Expenditure Book of William Cunningham of Craigends (Kept chiefly from 1673 to 1680), Edinburgh Printed at the University Press for T. and A. Constable for the Scottish History Society, 1887  pp34,57 and 82

[iii] ibid. p32

[iv] Burns, Robert ed.  The history of the sufferings of the Church of Scotland from the Restoration to the Revolution by Robert Wodrow , Blackie, Glasgow, 1832, vol. 4,  p307

[v] Innes, Cosmo ed., Munimenta Alme Universitatis Glasguensis.Records of the University of Glasgow from its Foundation until 1727 Glasgow, Maitland Club, 1854, vol. 2, p364

[vi]National Archives of Scotland, refs.GD124/15/296 and GD124/15/984

[vii] Wilson, James Biography of the Blind Printed by J. W. Showell, Birmingham and sold by the author  (who also was bilnd since birth), 1838, 4th edition, p228-32

Barytes Mines above Lochwinnoch

barytes LochwinnochAlthough the Gryfe valley downstream from Bridge of Weir contains valuable minerals, such as coal and limestone which have been worked at various times, the geology of the higher ground above Bridge of Weir is quite different, consisting mainly of volcanic rock. This rock is of little obvious value, beyond whin for rubble dykes. However, the Renfrewshire Heights contain numerous rare minerals. The only difficulty has been finding these minerals in large enough quantities to make working them worthwhile. Copper was found and worked above Gourock and Lochwinnoch, but the most elusive mineral was barytes.

Barytes has many uses, including the making of paint, paper, textiles and leather. Renfrewshire barytes is an attractive mineral of high purity, with pink and white banding. It is a dense rock, which was originally formed in vents and cracks in the surrounding volcanic rocks.

Although more than forty barytes veins have been identified in what is now Muirshiel Country Park, only two have been worked to any extent. These were on Queenside Muir, in the valleys of two nameless burns, which drop from the shoulders of Hill of Stake to the Calder Water. As the crow flies, the mines are equidistant between Bridge of Weir and Largs, and can be accessed by a track up the Calder from Muirshiel Visitor Centre.

The barytes at Muirshiels was originally quarried opencast in a series of steps in the hillside. Mines were then driven down almost vertically into the vein from the floor of the workings. Although the seam is about six metres thick, this varies greatly, and workings extended off into side vents and fissures as they were found.

Workings date from the 1750s and have continued intermittently since then. Like many rare minerals, the value of barytes depends on global economics. In the 1890s output was often less than 1,000 tons a year. By the 1950s Muirshiels was one of four barytes mines in S.W. Scotland, including Eaglesham in Renfrewshire, and Glen Sannox on Arran. By this time Muirshiel’s output approached 20,000 tons a year and together these mines accounted for a third of UK production.

From the mine, the barytes was carried a short distance on a mineral railway, then six kilometers down a rough track to the crushing mill on the Calder Water. The mill was built about 1850. It had three grinders in cast iron vats which processed about three tons per day. The mill ground, processed and dried two varieties or colours of barytes, pinkey-grey and white. The mine owner also owned Queenside Dam, to store water to drive the mill. By the 1940s the mill was derelict and the raw mineral was taken to a dressing plant in Kingston, Glasgow.

Social research by Brian Skillen has shown that during wartime in the 1940s, only six men were employed, living a frugal existence in a cottage at Muirshiels. The lorry which took them back and forth from the mine could barely stand up to the rough road, and eventually crashed, killing one of the miners.

The mine closed in the 1960s. Infrequent press interest shows that the working of barytes is likely to become economic again in the future. Whether it will be worked inside what is now a Country Park remains to be seen.

© 2013 Stuart Nisbet


Early Africans in Renfrewshire

We might think that folk of other nationalities coming to Scotland is a relatively modern phenomena. Ever since the Portuguese ventured down the West African coast in the 1400s, Africans were present in Scottish ports. Alan Steel has shown that in the 1490s there were a number of Africans in the court of James IV. The largest number of Africans to arrive at any one time were brought over by colonial merchants returning from the colonies from the late 1600s.

Colonel McDowall of Castle Semple was one of the earliest in Scotland to bring large numbers of Africans to Renfrewshire and Glasgow from his sugar plantations in the Leeward Islands. Although these Africans undoubtedly started out as slaves, in Scotland they had a number of wider roles.

In 1727 the Colonel brought back two young boys, one for a friend, andanother as a trusted companion for his son at the High School in Glasgow. Presumably having a black companion made the young William McDowall stand out as unusual and exotic, just like his father parading down Argyle Street with black footmen on his coach. The Colonel’s first wife, Mary, brought back a retinue of personal servants from St Kitts in 1728. Mary died shortly after of smallpox and is buried in Glasgow Cathedral. The fate of her Africans is unknown.

Apart from many servants, Colonel McDowall brought back several skilled Africans as estate workers, one of whom worked for many years as a carpenter at Castle Semple. The Colonel left little record of how he treated his servants and assistants, whether black or white. However, we can gain a little insight from his view of the tenants on his estate. As we may imagine, the gap between landowners and their tenants in the early eighteenth century was a wide one. When he purchased Castle Semple on returning from the Caribbean, the Colonel began making great changes to the landscape, which had a large effect on the daily lives of his new estate tenants. He quickly fell out with them, calling them ‘scoundrels’ and ‘enemies to the laudable spirit of improvement’. When the Colonel began draining Castle Semple Loch in 1726, he wrote ‘such is the temper of the creatures here that they choose to live upon potatoes and oat meal on their own dunghills’. If this was his view of his Scottish tenants, we can only guess what he thought of his Africans.

Were the Africans at Castle Semple content? Although their lives were presumably better than their fellows toiling on the Colonel’s Caribbean sugar plantations, they were still his chattels, and he could do what he liked with them. One example was named Cato. Cato was born in West Africa around 1700, and shipped to the Caribbean. He was subsequently brought home to Castle Semple, and spent many years working on the estate. However in 1748 Cato ran away, and the following advert appeared in the Glasgow press:

Ruins of McDowell’s mansion house at Castle Semple

Ruins of McDowell’s mansion house at Castle Semple

‘Run away from Colonel McDowell of Castle-Sempill, upon the 30th of January, a Negro man, named CATO: he is middle aged, pretty tall, ill-legs, with squat or broad feet. Any person who apprehends him, or gives any information of him to Colonel McDowell, shall have a sufficient reward paid him’ (Glasgow Journal 25th January 1748).

Regardless of what the Colonel thought of his Africans, the last word comes from his second wife, Isabella, the daughter of a prominent landowner near Edinburgh. The following was recorded by Lochwinnoch historian Andrew Crawford:

“The old Colonel brought home from St Kitts about 1727 a negro as a flunkie or footman. This blackamore was not suitable to the refined taste of Lady McDowall. She kept a constant war with her husband about this black. She advised the laird to put the Negro away. One day he ordered his carriage to be prepared for a long journey. She asked him what was his business. He replied that he would not live without his favourite Negro and he was determined to separate from her. She was obliged to be content with the black colour of the Negro skin”.

© 2013 Stuart Nisbet

The Monkey House, the Formakin Dream

Formakin House, known locally as the Monkey House, was built in the early twentieth century by John Augustus Holms. His father Archibald Campbell Holms, the son of a Kilbarchan weaver, set up business in Paisley as a textile manufacturer. Business prospered and he was able to retire at the early age of forty and purchase Sandyford House in Paisley. At the age of 55 he married a young wife and proceeded to have twelve children.

John Augustus Holms, Archibald’s third son, became a stockbroker. Like his father, he too was very successful in business and became extremely wealthy. He was a collector of art and antiquities, with a collection said to have rivalled the Burrell collection. He also had a keen interest in horticulture with a special interest in rhododendrons.

Formakin House

Formakin House

In 1902 John Augustus Holms bought land near Bishopton and appointed his friend the famous architect Robert Lorimer to build a prestigious mansion house, convert the old Formakin Mill and rebuild other old farm buildings on the site. The big idea was to create a 17th century Scottish tower house with formal gardens set in a landscaped estate with its mill, millhouse and ancillary farm buildings. The mansion house was intended to house his art treasures, probably in the baronial hall. Holms must have had a wicked sense of humour as stone monkeys sit on the rooftops of the Lodge Houses and one building has a lintel stone with the inscription DL 1694 ( DL standing for ‘damned lies’).

Swans with cygnets

Swans with cygnets

Robert Lorimer took advice on the planting and landscaping of the estate from Gertrude Jekyll, a leading horticulturist and garden designer of the day. Today part of the original landscaped estate is designated as an area of special scientific interest. Lorimer’s formal garden, with its stone summer house, its fountain guarded by four lions, and its orchard are part of the mansion house grounds. A small beautiful lake, now with nesting swans, is still a feature of the estate. The remains of the old mill lade, predating Lorimer‘s transformation of the estate, and what appears to be the rusting remains of the machinery for a gin mill can still be seen beside the old Formakin Mill.

In 1913 Holms got into financial difficulties and had to halt his building programme and sell off much of his treasured art collection. By this time he was living in one of the completed buildings on the estate and the landscaped grounds with pasture, wooded areas and gardens were much as we see them today. The mansion house itself had been roofed, but much of the internal building work was never fully completed. However, although he never lived in the house, Holms on numerous occasions held dinner parties for his friends in the half-finished mansion house.

When Holms died in 1938 the estate was sold to A.E.Pickard, a business genius and eccentric millionaire. During the Second World the mansion house and estate were requisitioned by the military. Subsequently, the buildings fell into a state of disrepair. Holms’s dream was saved in 1988 when Kit Martin began the restoration and conversion of the mansion house and estate buildings into the seventeen dwelling houses on the estate today.

© 2013 Helen Calcluth


The Barmufflock Mystery

Barmufflock Dam

Barmufflock Dam

Previous articles in the Advertiser have looked at mills on the Gryfe at Bridge of Weir. These ranged from small rural grain, waulk and lint mills, to much larger cotton mills, which were the origin of the village. By 1815 Bridge of Weir’s cotton mills employed most folk in the growing village and surrounding area.

As the mills were powered by water, their economic survival, and the prosperity of the village depended on a constant flow in the River Gryfe. This was acknowledged in the ‘town rhyme’, which was read out at all local events through the nineteenth century:

‘May the River Gryfe
Flow on through life,
And ne’er be wanting water;
May Bridge of Weir town
Rise in renown,
And aye be growing better’.

The mill owners were obsessed with conserving water to such an extent that the times of the meal breaks in the successive mills were staggered downstream, and their sluices opened and closed in succession.

To provide extra water for times of drought, the biggest cotton mill, the Laigh Mill, built its own reservoir, Houstonhead Dam, which fed into their lade directly above the water wheel. However this dam was too far downstream to benefit the two highest cotton mills, the Old Cotton Mill and Burngill Cotton Mill. In 1815 the three cotton mills jointly formed a plan, the “Barmufflock Agreement”, to create a new reservoir for the benefit of them all. The dam was built high above Bridge of Weir, on the headwaters of the Pow Burn, above Lochend Farm.

There was one snag – the Pow Burn entered the Gryfe below three of the mills, at the foot of Mill Brae, and would only have benefited Crosslee Mill, whose dam was further downstream. The solution was to build a lade, diverting the Pow Burn into the Gryfe above the highest mill.

Half-way down its course, the Pow Burn was diverted at Clevans Road, just above what is now Ranfurly Castle Golf Course Club House. It followed the line of modern Barrcraig Road, then fell steeply down towards the Gryfe, passing under Torr Road and entering the Gryfe upstream of what is now the railway viaduct. As the cotton mills differed in size, their contribution to the Barmufflock scheme was based on their respective number of spindles. The reservoir had another use, as a popular curling venue. When the cotton mills closed in the 1870s the dam fell into disuse.

At the same time, the Pow Burn became a source of drinking water for the village. An initial scheme was completed in 1881 and fed into tanks at Donaldfield. In 1900 another dam was built in the headwaters of the Locher Water at Ladymuir, with pipes laid down to Donaldfield.

Barmufflock Dam fell into disuse and was drained by 1913. The boggy site became well known by naturalists as a home of rare plants. The massive rubble dam still survives and the lade can be traced down through the village to the Gryfe.


© 2013 Stuart Nisbet

The Secret of Johnstone’s Washing Green

The modern bridge crossing from Collier Street to Morrison’s supermarket, Johnstone, gives a scenic view of the Black Cart Water. Looking upstream, the observant shopper might notice traces of lades and paths on the Johnstone side of the river. These are the remains of Johnstone’s public washing green, dating back to the founding of the town in the 1780s. Along the riverbank run two parallel lades and various overflows, tunnels and sluices. Apart from their use by Johnstone’s residents for washing and bleaching, the lades have a bigger story.

From the early 1780s, during the development of Johnstone as a planned town, six water powered cotton mills were built, one mill each on the Floors and Peokland Burn, and four bigger mills on the Black Cart. In 1782 George Houston of Johnstone sold the old grain mill at Johnstone Bridge to Paisley textile merchant Robert Corse. On the site, Corse built the first of Johnstone’s cotton mills, the ‘Old’ mill, later known as Paton’s mill. Corse’s mansion still survives in Mansionhouse Road, Paisley, but his mill, the oldest surviving cotton mill in Scotland, burnt down in 2010.

In 1784, landowner George Houston built his own mill, Johnstone’s second cotton mill, further downstream from Corse’s mill, at the foot of Collier Street. The water power for Houston’s Laigh mill was supplied by a lade which continued from the tailrace or outflow from Corse’s mill, passing under a special arch in Johnstone Bridge. Corse also had ‘the liberty to cut a tail lade through the washing green laid off by Houston for his feuars at Johnstone’.

The water wheels in both mills were backshot, meaning the water fell on their upstream surfaces, turning them in a counter-clockwise direction. Houston’s mill had only half the fall of Corse’s wheel, and consequently half the power. Shortly after Houston’s mill was completed, Corse decided to double the size of his mill. To increase the fall of water, needed to provide the extra power for his mill extension, Corse deepened his wheel pit. Unfortunately this reduced the fall of water at Houston’s mill downstream, and thereby also reduced the power at Houston’s mill. If Houston tried to raise the water back to its original level, it flooded back into Corse’s mill, slowing his wheel.

Houston had boobed. By giving Corse the best site, with the biggest fall, he had not only compromised the power at his own mill, but damaged his pride. The problem resulted in years of legal dispute, ending up in the Court of Session in Edinburgh. George Meikle, the leading millwright in Scotland, was hired. His family were involved in numerous schemes, from designing new machinery for waulk mills and bleachfields to the deepening of the Clyde. The Meikle family were to water power what James Watt was to steam power.

George Meikle acted as arbitrator between Corse and Houston, carrying out experiments to manage the water supply between the two mills. By 1797 both mill owners agreed to adopt Meikle’s ingenious system, using one dam, two lades and various sluices, tunnels and ‘wasters’ (overflows) which would satisfy both mill owners. The whole scheme survives on plans and descriptions which are held in the national archives. Although today the site is overgrown, most of the scheme can still be seen from Morrison’s bridge. The curving dam on the Black Cart also survives.

Bleaching dam, from ‘Morrison’s bridge’

Bleaching dam, from ‘Morrison’s bridge’

Meikle’s solution allowed the clever management of 28 tons of water per minute to operate both mills. Just as importantly, it allowed the women of Johnstone to continue to wash and bleach their clothes by the side of the lades.

The scheme was landscaped many years ago as a small park, but more recently there have been plans to raze it. Hopefully its importance can be recognised and it can be properly recorded and preserved as part of Johnstone’s heritage.

© 2013 Stuart Nisbet


Denniston Motte

Medieval Mottes in Strathgryffe

 Mottes were mounds, usually artificially constructed, with a defensive wooden or stone castle tower built on the flat top. They were introduced into Scotland by Norman settlers in the twelfth century.  The best examples in the Gryffe area are Denniston Motte and Castle Hill Motte (alternatively designated as Ranfurly Motte) which is situated on Old Ranfurly Golf Course. Both would have been topped by towers.

Denniston Motte is a strange looking grass covered mound, 4 metres high, and appears incongruous in the surrounding terrain.  It is situated to the south of the B788 and can be seen from the cycle path from Bridge of Weir to Kilmacolm.


The site was partially excavated in the nineteenth century and revealed four rows of rough boulders a metre below the surface at the summit. This was regarded as possible evidence of stone foundations of a structure. Later, evidence of the motte’s occupation and use in the early medieval period was corroborated when a sherd of twelfth or thirteenth century white gritty pottery was found on the south side of the mound.

 It is considered possible that the motte belonged to Hugh de Danielstoun, a knight whose name appeared on the Ragman Roll in 1296. (The 1296 Ragman Roll was signed at Berwick by most of the prominent Scottish landowners to swear allegiance to Edward I after his victory at the Battle of Dunbar.) Later use of the site as some kind of meeting place was indicated by the discovery of a 15th – 16th century bronze or copper jetton or counting piece, found in a sheep scrape on the north side of the motte.

Castle Hill Motte on Old Ranfurly Golf Course is more widely known and is regarded as the best example of a motte in Renfrewshire. The mound itself is not man-made. It sits on the edge of a five metre high north-facing natural scarp and is surrounded on the other sides by a rock-cut man-made ditch three to four metres wide and up to one metre in depth. Finds from Castle Hill Motte, including Samian pottery (Roman), a bronze key, green glazed pottery, bones, charcoal and whitening material were displayed at the Palace of History  Exhibition in Glasgow in  1911.

Further information can be found in Renfrewshire, A Scottish County’s Hidden Past by Derek Alexander and Gordon McCrae and in RLHF Journal, Vol. 4.


©2013 Helen J. Calcluth