The Semple Tombs in Castle Semple Collegiate Church

by Elizabeth West, Lochwinnoch Historical Society

Collegiate Church

Collegiate Church

Thanks to the care of Historic Scotland, the Collegiate Church on the Castle Semple Estate is one of the few buildings in this area which dates back to the start of the sixteenth century. The Semple family was one of the old Scottish families rewarded for their support of the king at the battle of Bannockburn by the granting of lands in the Lothians and at Largs. Continued support of the monarch resulted in a knighthood being conferred on John Semple by King James I in 1430. Sir William Semple of Ellieston received the charter of the Baronies of Ellieston and Castletoun in 1474 and another John Semple became the first Lord Semple in 1488.

Lord Semple constructed a home at Castleton on the site of Castle Semple House and moved from the tower house at Ellieston in Howwood. In 1504, he founded the Collegiate Church alongside Castleton, “Built to the Glory of God and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for the prosperity of his Sovereign Lord King James IV, and Queen Margaret, his Royal Consort” and the souls of his ancestors and descendants.

The following year King James IV visited Lord Semple but, sadly, only eight years later, both John and his King died at the Battle of Flodden. The finely carved tomb of Lord Semple and his first wife, Margaret Colvil, is set into the wall of the Collegiate Church.


lochwinnoch3Another Semple gravestone propped upright inside the north wall of the ruined church is in memory of Gabriel Semple. The inscription reads ‘HEIR LYIS GABRIEL SEMPEL BROTHER TO CA ROBERT SEMPEL OF CRAIGBAIT QVHA DECEISIT YE 4 OF MAI AN 1587’. This Gabriel was the grandson of Gabriel Semple, a younger son of the 1st Lord Semple. It is said that other Semple burials lie in lead coffins under the floor of the church.
© 2011 Elizabeth West, Lochwinnoch Historical Society


Bridge of Weir Mills 2

The three oldest of Bridge of Weir’s mills were covered in the last issue of the Advertizer. These evolved into a variety of mills, which were the mainstay of the village. The mills were situated along a few hundred metres of riverbank, through the heart of the village. Other large cotton mills on the Gryfe were built on pre-existing mill sites, removing all trace of earlier mills in the process. However at Bridge of Weir the old and new mills survived side by side. This was due to clever water management of local man Peter Speirs.

From the late 1770s the big new story in Renfrewshire was of cotton mills. These were far beyond the scale of earlier mills, and much bigger than any buildings in the area. By the 1790s Renfrewshire had half the water powered mills in Scotland. Interest gradually moved to sites which were quite remote from the centres of Paisley and Glasgow. Peter Speirs of Bridge of Weir placed the following advert in the Glasgow press:

“Site for a cotton mill at Bridge of Weir, apply Peter Speir at the Mill of Gryfe. This mill can never be in back water.”

This advert effectively marked the founding of the village of Bridge of Weir. The highest cotton mill in the village was at Burngill. This was the second cotton mill to be built in the village, founded in 1792 by merchants Robertson and Aitken. By the 1840s it was 44 metres long and 4 storeys high. A water wheel four metres in diameter drove 6,240 spindles, employing 100 villagers.

The remains of Burngill’s dam can still be seen just upstream of the railway viaduct. The sluice gate lies on the south bank of the Gryfe, just under the viaduct arch. After powering Burngill’s mill wheel and supplying the old waulk mill (later Burngill tannery), the tailrace exited from a rock tunnel. This tunnel can still be seen down in the gorge on the upstream side of the modern bridge over the Gryfe.

.Bridge of Weir Mills 2

The next cotton mill down the river was Bridge of Weir’s earliest cotton mill, the “Old” cotton mill, and was built in 1790. It was powered by the Red Dam, which originally powered the old lint mill. The Old cotton mill was built by Paisley yarn dealers Cowan and White. This mill was six stories high and occupied a narrow and rocky site. The Red Dam was washed away by a great flood in 1861, but the lower walls of the Old cotton mill can still be seen from the river walkway, looking from the Houston side of the Gryfe.

Below the old cotton mill was the main fall in the village, which had traditionally powered the Mill of Gryfe. In the 1790s this dam fed a higher and a lower lade. The high lade drove a group of mills. Apart from the original Mill of Gryfe, these included later cotton mills, Gryfe Grove cotton mill, Shanks cotton mill and a sawmill. The brick arched tailraces of some of these mills still survive.

After driving these mills, the water exited into the lower lade, where it was then used to power the Laigh Gryfe cotton mill. This was the third, lowest, and largest cotton mill in the village, built in 1794 by Black Hastie & Co. In 1806 the mill was sold to the Freeland brothers, who became benefactors in the village. By the 1840s Laigh Gryfe mill was more than 60 metres long, containing 18,000 spindles. It was driven by an iron water wheel, 6 metres in diameter, and employed 260 villagers.

Laigh Gryfe cotton mill was burnt down to its lower stories in 1898. It was sold to the owners of Burngill tannery, and another tannery rose from the cotton mill foundations. This became known as Clydesdale Works, which survived until demolition in 2005.

©2011 Stuart Nisbet

Bridge of Weir Mills 1

The village of Bridge of Weir lies at the junction of three old parishes. The main part of the village, on the south side of the Gryfe, lies in Kilbarchan parish. To the north of the Gryfe are Houston and Kilallan parishes, which were united into the single Houston parish in 1760.

Water mills on the River Gryfe, upstream of Bridge of Weir, appeared in a previous issue of the Advertizer. This article looks at the early mills in the village. Once the Gryfe actually reaches Bridge of Weir, it powered another dozen mills, through what became the village. These mills originated from three early mills, a waulk mill, a lint mill and a grain mill, which were powered by three waterfalls on the Gryfe.

Above and below the ‘bridge’ of weir, the Gryfe falls steeply through a succession of rapids. The highest mill in the village was Burngill waulk mill, on the Houston side of the Gryfe. This mill was powered by a dam located just upstream of what is now the railway viaduct. Burngill waulk mill was operating by 1770, run by the enterprising Speirs family.

In most of Scotland, waulk mills were used for softening or ‘fulling’ cloth. Here the waulk mill was used for washing and dressing leather. Burngill waulk mill started the Bridge of Weir leather trade. Although Bridge of Weir became widely known as a cotton spinning village, the leather trade lasted longer, both predating and outlasting the cotton industry. Burngill waulk mill grew into a large leather works. It continued in the Speirs family until 1869, when it was sold to the Muirheads of Glasgow.

A second dam in the village was the ‘Red Dam’, a short distance downstream of the ‘bridge’ of weir. The Red Dam powered a lint mill on the Ranfurly side of the Gryfe, at Rowntrees. Lint mills were much smaller and simpler concerns than Bridge of Weir’s later cotton mills. Rather than spinning yarn, lint mills simply broke and softened raw flax, to prepare it for the hand spinning process.

Rowntrees lint mill has been the most elusive mill in the village, and its history has only recently been rediscovered. The mill was operated from the 1760s, by flax dressers John and William Lang. In 1792 it was described as ‘being of excellent construction, and the best frequented of any in the West of Scotland’.

A third dam, at the main fall in the village, was just below the Red Dam. This dam powered a grain mill, known as the Mill of Gryfe. This mill was by far the oldest mill in the village, probably dating from medieval times. It was located on the Houston side of the Gryfe. By 1727 Patrick Barr was the owner and in 1754 his daughter Elizabeth married into the Speirs family, who were later responsible for starting most of the cotton mills in the village.

The mill of Gryfe was used as a grain mill well into the nineteenth century. Apart from its dwelling house, the buildings were mostly demolished in the 1920s, as part of the later tannery expansion.

18th Century window of Mill of Gryfe

18th Century window of Mill of Gryfe

The article  ‘Bridge of Weir Mills 2’ will show how from the 1780s, these three old Bridge of Weir mills evolved into much bigger cotton mills, and became the main employers in the village.

This article is based on a longer article in the Renfrewshire Local History Forum Journal. Copies can be obtained by joining the Forum.

©2011 Stuart Nisbet




Excavation at Paisley 2011

In both 2009 and 2010 Renfrewshire Local History Forum was instrumental in promoting the excavations of Paisley Abbey Drain. Members of the Forum volunteered to assist GUARD in the ‘digs’. The Abbey Drain lies under the grassed area beside the Town Hall where the festive lights are displayed at Christmas. The excavations in 2009 and 2010 concentrated on examining the outside of the drain and both were popular venues on Doors Open Days.

Interior of Paisley Abbey Drain

Interior of Paisley Abbey Drain

The Abbey Drain was first discovered in 1879 and then forgotten about until it was rediscovered in 1991. The Drain is a large structure, two metres high in places, with an arched roof. Among the finds buried in the silt inside this medieval sewer were unique 15th century examples of polyphonic music incised on slate, tuning pegs for musical instruments, pottery and pottery shards, dice and gaming tokens, and lead seals from cloth imported from the Netherlands and Italy. This all had to be washed and sorted. Forum members assisted in a project to sort and match the pottery shards in 2009. The Abbey Drain was scheduled as a national monument by Historic Scotland in August 2010. Further information on the Abbey Drain can be found at

In September of this year (2011) our Forum volunteers assisted GUARD Archaeology Ltd. in a further excavation. Life was made easier for us this year by the use the service of a mini excavator rental in Seattle to remove nearly 1m of early 20th century in-fill on the site (these days used mini excavator for sale are more common to see). Two trenches were dug, one extending a previous trench and the other at a spot which was a possible site of old monastic buildings. We expected to find structural remains in the first trench, but the second trench was a bit of a gamble. The line of the drain was known to have a large curve and then return to its original straight alignment. But what was the purpose of the curve in the drain? Were there the remains of abbey buildings within the curve?

The results of this excavation surpassed all expectations. Both trenches were dug to a depth of more than a metre. The first trench revealed a medieval wall beside some beautifully cobbled paving. This is likely to be the remains of a hitherto unknown ancillary abbey building, perhaps the abbey kitchen or a workplace.

Medieval wall and cobbled paving

Medieval wall and cobbled paving

The second trench revealed a circular structure about two metres in diameter with a narrow break or opening at one side.  The top edge of the structure was covered by layers of carefully laid slates to a depth of about two inches. As the excavation was terminated at this level it was not possible to determine the depth of the structure or the materials used below the excavated level. Initially this feature appeared to be a well.  However, on reflection it seems more likely that it is the remains of a kitchen oven or perhaps a kiln used by the monks. Further investigation in the future may ascertain its purpose. Information on the excavation with a picture gallery can be found on the Paisleys’ Medieval Past Project page.

Circular feature

Circular feature

The Old Manse in Kilbarchan : Information from an old document

The Old Manse at No. 14 Steeple Street is one of the oldest houses in Kilbarchan. A Latin inscription on a plaque above the main door states that the dwelling house was built in 1730 in the curateship of R I (Robert Johnstoun). Robert Johnstoun was the parish minister from 1701 until 1738.

kilbarchan manse 1

The manse was a substantial building for the time and continued to house the parish ministers until early in the nineteenth century. It was occupied by the Rev. John Warner from 1739-86, the Rev. Patrick Maxwell 1787-1806, and for some years by Rev. Robert Douglas (parish minister from 1806-1846). The latter two ministers respectively contributed the accounts on Kilbarchan Parish in the Old Statistical Account (1791) and the New Statistical Account (1845). In 1811 a new parish manse was built and the old manse with a small green or bleachfield was sold to a Greenock merchant, James Stewart, in 1817.

Recently, I was fortunate to have access to an old document in the possession of the current owners of the Old Manse. This document contains information on the manse and the adjacent properties with the names of some of the owners dating back to the 1750s. Some of these owners were people who were born or married in Kilbarchan Parish between 1711 and 1740, a period when Kilbarchan Parish Records are missing. From this single document on the Old Manse and a little further research, some interesting information on Kilbarchan’s history has come to light.

The document clearly states that John Warner, Minister of the Gospel at Kilbarchan, possessed the Old Manse ‘with court, offices houses and garden and roads and passages to and from it’. Other owners of adjacent properties in the eighteenth century were John Park, Annabella Sempill, John Barbour, and Agnes Hair, who was the relict (widow) of Humphrey Barbour, and in the nineteenth century the Ramsay family who owned the manse and the surrounding land.
John Park was a Kilbarchan weaver who owned adjacent property. He must have been a prosperous weaver as he was stated as owner of a little yard at the foot and south end of the manse garden and houses which he let to his sub-tenants and cottars, lying within the Vicar Lands of Kilbarchan.

Annabella Sempill, relict of the deceased Ebenezer Campbell, a merchant in Kilbarchan, was stated to have at some time owned a house, a barn and backhouses on the east of the manse. Annabella Sempill’s birth is unrecorded in parish records, but further research revealed that she was born in 1729 and died in 1812. She was the daughter of Robert Sempill, the last Laird of Belltrees, who sold his lands of Thirdpart in 1758 and retired to Kilbarchan. He lived in Belltrees Cottage and is known for his longevity, surviving to the grand old age of 102. He is famed for having witnessed the burning of the last witch in Paisley when he was a child. Annabella married Ebenezer Campbell, the son of an Ayrshire clergyman, and had four daughters, all born between 1751 and 1756. Ebenezer was still resident in Kilbarchan in 1762, but later went to Jamaica where he died.

John Barbour and Humphrey Barbour are mentioned in the document as formerly owning bleachfields adjacent to the manse. Initially it appeared that this John Barbour was John Barbour of Law (d. 1794), the son of Baillie John Barbour (1701- 1770). Both father and son were prosperous linen merchants in Kilbarchan. The document also mentions a house and yard on the east side of the manse garden formerly belonged to the deceased Humphrey Barbour, Merchant in Kilbarchan, and thereafter by Agnes Hair his relict (widow).

However, this presented a bit of an enigma. John of Law had a younger brother, Humphrey, who was born in 1743 and died in 1817. But his wife was Elizabeth Freeland, not Agnes Hair. So who was this Humphrey Barbour named in the document? As he was a merchant who owned a bleachfield he was, presumably, another member of the linen Barbour family, but where did he fit in?

There is no mention of the births or a marriage between Humphrey Barbour and Agnes Hair in Kilbarchan Parish Records. Were they born and married in the years 1711 to 1740 when Kilbarchan Parish Records are missing? Further research has revealed an alternative primary source which verifies their existence. A four page pamphlet entitled ‘Answers for Agnes Hair relict of Humphry Barbour merchant in Kilbarchan, defender, to the petition of John Barbour merchant in Kilbarchan and William Blackwood in Oldyeard of Lochquinnoch, pursuers’ was written in 1752. A further connected reference to Humphrey and Agnes appears again in 1766 in Decisions of the Court of Session. In a dispute (Ann Murray v Elizabeth Drew 18.6.1766) concerning the legality of a bill of exchange, mention is made of a legal precedent in 1753 where Humphrey Barbour some days before his death delivered two bills to his wife, Agnes Hair. The Lords had found that these bills were properly conveyed to Agnes Hair and she won her case against John Barbour.

From this evidence it can be concluded that Humphrey Barbour (born and married between 1711 and 1740) was a younger brother of Baillie John Barbour and in 1752 after Humphrey’s death, Baillie John Barbour was disputing the right of his sister-in-law, Agnes Hair’s entitlement to the two bills Humphrey had delivered to his wife.

John Ramsay and later his heir James Ramsay are recorded in the Old Manse document as owners of both the Old Manse and adjacent properties and old bleachfields on the north east of the burn from the mid-1800s until the 1930s. The Ramsay family ran a very successful business as fleshers (butchers). What is now the dentist‘s surgery was their butcher’s shop and the manse garage, behind the premises of Kilbarchan Chiropody, (formerly the Bull Inn) was their slaughter house.

The document also reveals that John Ramsay was a shrewd businessman. When Milliken Estate was sold in the 1880s he purchased all or part of Over Johnstone Farm from the owners of Milliken Estate and in 1888 and 1889 sold off plots for building. By the 1891 Census Nos. 1-11 Easwaldbank and Reston Cottage in St Barchan’s Road had been erected on these plots and were occupied mainly by local weavers and tradesmen. The probable builders were Matthew Blair and John Gardner. They certainly were the builders of No 8 Easwaldbank. This plot was purchased by them jointly in 1889 and in 1891 the building housed a number of families including John Gardner and his family.

kilbarchan manse2

The document on the Old Manse is of some significance because it has given clear indication of lines of research into information on little-known residents in the village in the eighteenth century and the building of Easwaldbank. If anyone in Kilbarchan holds any old documents which might similarly add to the village history please contact Helen Calcluth or Russell Young, or e-mail The Advertizer.

© 2011, Helen Calcluth

Mills on the Gryfe: The Upper Gryfe

The River Gryfe rises on the slopes of Creuch Hill, on the boundary between Greenock and Inverkip parishes, almost into Ayrshire. The river falls quite steeply north for two miles, before it becomes dominated by two dams, completed in 1872. These have the imaginative names of ‘Gryfe No.1’ and ‘Gryfe No.2’ reservoirs. The reservoirs lie directly east of Loch Thom, but instead of following Loch Thom’s circuitous Greenock cut, the water from the Gryfe reservoirs flows down a deep tunnel to supply Greenock with drinking water. In the Victorian period this scheme was a great source of concern for Bridge of Weir residents, as it siphoned off much of the Gryfe’s flow.

Before the Gryfe reaches Bridge of Weir, it is joined by several lesser burns. The largest is the Green Water, which runs parallel to the Gryfe for many miles, before merging at Duchal. Before reaching Bridge of Weir, the Gryfe catchment supplied at least nine mill sites, including grain, waulk and lint mills. Several of the grain mills are ancient. Although often referred to as corn mills, in this area they invariably ground oatmeal.
Bridge of Weir is best known for cotton mills, but they were preceded by a much smaller type of textile mill, the lint mill. In the traditional linen industry, the preparation or dressing of raw flax was very labour intensive. In the 1790s the Old Statistical account noted that although “there are great quantities of lint raised in the Shire of Renfrew, the great expense of dressing it is a discouragement”. From the 1730s a government body, the Board of Trustees, encouraged and funded new lint mills. The lint mills mechanised the ‘breaking’ and ‘scutching’ of the raw flax, to remove the fibre from the stems.

One of the earliest lint mills in Scotland was on the Green Water at Duchal Steps. In 1733 John Wilson in Duchal Steps was granted the cost of building the lint mill there. There was a great deal of sharing of expertise and John Honeyman was brought to Duchal from Clayslaps lint mill on the Kelvin (below the modern Kelvingrove Museum). His brother Thomas Honeyman was working at Barochan Lint Mill in Renfrewshire. In 1730 there was another very early lint mill on the Gaton Burn at Nittonshiel. This was located in the centre of what later became Quarriers village.
Another early type of textile mill was the waulk mill. In waulk mills, cloth or leather was soaked in vats, mixed with soap and other chemicals. The wet fabric was then pounded with water-powered hammers to clean and soften it. Some sites had two or more mills. Recent work by locals has shown that Mathernock had waulk and grain mills as early as the 1580s. By the 1780s, Semple’s History of Renfrewshire, describes a waulk mill and an ‘ancient’ corn mill there. Waulk mills were connected with the tanning and dying trades and a dyster was living at Mathernock waulk mill in the eighteenth century.

A later type of mill which was common in the area was the threshing mill. Threshing mills were added to numerous farms from the 1830s. Mathernock had a threshing mill, which was initially driven by a horse gin, turned by one or two horses walking in a circular rink. Later the threshing mill was driven by water which was stored in a pond above the farm.


©2011 Stuart Nisbet

The Milliken Mystery

The old Parish Church in Kilbarchan, now used as the West/Parish Church Hall, was rebuilt in 1724 on the site of the former parish church. Two aisles, with burial mausoleums beneath and galleries above, were incorporated in the building. These aisles were owned by the most important landowners in the parish, the Houstons of the old JohnstoneCastle and the Cunninghames of Craigends.


Old ParishChurch, Kilbarchan

In 1733 James Milliken, a plantation owner who had acquired immense wealth in the Caribbean, bought the old Johnstone Castle and its lands from the Houstons. The Milliken family transformed the lands, now known as Milliken Estate, and were soon to become feu superiors of most of Kilbarchan village and patrons of KilbarchanParishChurch. They also took over the Johnstone aisle, which became known as the Milliken aisle. After three generations the male line of Millikens died out and the Napier family took over through marriage to one of the Milliken daughters.

When the present KilbarchanParishChurch was built in 1901, the old church was converted into the church hall. The renovation work necessitated the removal of the Milliken mausoleum. This mausoleum, beneath the enclosed gallery above, contained ten coffins of the Milliken family and their Napier heirs and descendants. This presented a dilemma! What was to be done with the coffins?

Perhaps fortuitously, Mary Milliken Speirs, a direct descendant of the Millikens, died in 1902. When she was buried in the new KilbarchanCemetery, these old coffins were removed from the old church building and interred with her remains. The names of those interred with her are listed on the reverse of her gravestone. These must be among the oldest interred remains in a modern cemetery.

However, the inscription contains a mystery. Listed above the first Milliken heir, Major James Milliken, is a ‘Sir’ James Milliken who died in the same year as the Major. Strangely, no other record can be found for Sir James. Did he really exist, or was he added to give a pedigree to the Milliken family, who otherwise originated as ordinary seafarers from Irvine?

Mary Milliken Speirs Gravestone

Mary Milliken Speirs Gravestone

oldKWPC reverse

Reverse side of gravestone




oldKWPC reverse names

© 2011 Helen Calcluth and Stuart Nisbet

Elderslie Mills and Old Patrick Water

Renfrewshire had numerous cotton mills. The best-known mills were on the main rivers, the Black Cart, White Cart and Gryfe. However some lesser burns, including the Old Patrick Water at Elderslie, also powered large cotton mills from the 1790s.

The Old Patrick Water drops steeply from the waterlogged Caplaw Moss, down through Elderslie, and into the Black Cart between Johnstone and Linwood. Traditionally the burn powered meal mills at Elderslie Mill and Mackies Mill. The name Mackies Mill still survives as the name of a farm half way up the Old Patrick.

In the 1720s Houston of Johnstone got permission from Claude Alexander of Newton to built a dam near Craigmuir farm, just before the Old Patrick drops 60 metres over a succession of spectacular waterfalls. This dam diverted part of the burn’s flow for two miles, across to Johnstone. The purpose was to turn a “water engine” and pump water out of Houston’s Quarrelton coal field. In 1728 an apprentice was indentured by Houston of Johnstone to look after the “Water Wheel, Pumps and Gins, for out-taking his coal of Quarrelton and for draining the water therefrom”.

Elderslie meal mill was situated in Elderslie village, just above the Main Road. In 1791 the site was purchased by John Clark, a wright from Paisley, who built a much larger mill to spin cotton. In 1794 Clark also built Caplaw Dam, up near the source of the Old Patrick on Caplaw Moss, at the former Peesweep sanatorium. This dam was to store water for his new cotton mill. Caplaw Dam and its reservoir still survive up on the moors. Down in Elderslie, Clark also built another large dam to provide a 30 foot fall to power his cotton mill wheel.

Waterfall formed by a breach in the old Elderslie Cotton Mill Dam

Waterfall formed by a breach in the old Elderslie Cotton Mill Dam

Elderslie cotton mill was located on the Main Road, between the Old Patrick and the Wallace Monument. Soon after construction, John Clark sold the mill to the King brothers of Lonend in Paisley, who were partners with Robert Corse at Johnstone Old Cotton Mill. The two cotton mills were run for many years as one business. By 1823 Elderslie cotton mill had 9,400 mule spindles and the water wheel was complimented by a steam engine.

Elderslie cotton mill passed through various owners and, after the decline of the cotton industry, persisted as a clothing factory. The mill was typical of the tall whitewashed Renfrewshire cotton mills, and was finally demolished about 50 years ago. The nearby dam and sluice survive, although the dam is breached, forming a spectacular waterfall.

From 1793 further potential mill situations on the Old Patrick water were advertised in the press. This led gradually to further use of the Old Patrick water to supply power and process water to various other industries further upstream. The first was a large paper mill, built at Patrickbank in 1815 by Vallance and Lamb. This was driven by a 30 foot fall, and the manager’s house was at Leitchland nearby. By the 1820s the paper mill was worked by Walter Millar, with three vats for making paper. In the 1830s it was part of the Collins paper empire and the mill still had water rights to Caplaw reservoir.

By 1841 the paper mill became Partickbank print works. Much of the printworks still survived into the 1990s as part of the much larger Stoddart’s Carpet Factory which stretched further downstream. Both were razed and redeveloped with housing shortly after 2000. Only the dam and lade survive in the glen.

Slightly further upstream, at another spectacular water fall, Glenpatrick Distillery was established by the 1840s. This led to the Old Patrick being more commonly known as the Brandy Burn. Despite the demolition of all the mills, various traces of their dams and lades can still been seen when walking along the banks of the Old Patrick.

Stuart Nisbet © 2011

Who was Habbie Simson?

Natives of Kilbarchan village are known as ‘Habbies’ in memory of the Kilbarchan piper, Habbie Simson, whose statue stands in a niche on the Steeple.



But who was Habbie Simson? What do we know of his life? A contemporaneous poem entitled The Life and Death of the Piper of Kilbarchan, written by Robert Sempill of Belltrees (c1599-1661) laments his death and gives some insight into his life. The earliest extant copy of this poem was published in a broadsheet before 1700.

Robert Simson, known as Habbie, was born in the latter part of the sixteenth century. He was a colourful character who wore feathers on his hat. Tradition has it that he was a flesher (butcher) as well as a piper.  The Life and Death of the Kilbarchan Piper tells of occasions and events where Habbie played his pipes, – the kirkyard on Sundays, weddings, Kilkbarchan Horse Races, St Barchan’s Day Feast, and the gatherings of Spearmen.  These gatherings, known as wappinschaws, were military musters or training exercises held twice a year in Kilbarchan.

Habbie was also known futher afield when he played his pipes at Clark plays. These were stage plays performed on platforms in the open air. Habbie is said to have played at Clark plays in Edinburgh when the author of the poem, Robert Semple of Beltrees, attended court. Habbie was certainly a well-renowned as a piper, a celebrity in his day. His skill was acclaimed in the song Maggie Lauder written by Robert Sempill’s son Francis.

There’s nane in Scotland plays sae weel

Sin’ we lost Habbie Simson.

Further information on Habbie’s life is recorded in ‘The Poems of the Sempills of Beltrees’ published in 1849 with edited with notes by T. G. Stevenson. The notes include a brief account of Habbie’s life drawn up by Francis Sempill’s son, Robert. This account gives some details of Habbie’s boyhood. With other village boys he worked as a herd at Barrhill where according to Sempill there was a coalpit. He saved the money he earned as a herd and bought his first pipes from the village bagpipe maker for four pounds Scots. He married, probably Kathrein Pollik, and had at least one son whom he taught to play the pipes.

Robert Semple recounts a famous incident after a wedding in the village where Habbie provided the music. The wedding party retired to a little green at Pennel (Penwold on the road to Bridge of Weir) where Habbie continued to play for the dancing. The music included an exciting new tune, whip-meg-morum. During the revelry a young drunken fellow stabbed the bag for Habbie’s pipes with a knife. Habbie drew his kittoch (dirk) in retaliation and pushed the youth down. He thought that he had killed the man and went into hiding on Craigends Moss.

‘But yet the man was hame before him, And was not deid!’

The Life and Death of the Piper of Kilbarchan                                        

Habbie went home next day to be told by his wife that the man was live and well. However, Robert Simson (Habbie) did get into trouble with the law on other occasions.  He is documented in official court records in 1603 when he was banished from the Burgh of Paisley for ‘misbehavior and certane offences, injuries and wrongs’

After an eventful life, Habbie lived to a ripe old age.

‘And when he play’d, the lasses leugh,

To see him teethless, auld and teugh.’

The Life and Death of the Piper of Kilbarchan

He is buried in Kilbarchan churchyard. His small flat grave stone lies next to the Auchinames enclosure and bears the initials H and S. What appears to be a butcher’s cleaver is inscribed on the stone.

© Helen Calcluth

A Kilbarchan Weaver Poet: Robert Allan

Just as Paisley had Tannahill, Kilbarchan had its own weaver poet, Robert Allan. The son of a flax dresser, Robert Allan was born in Kilbarchan in 1774. For most of his life he lived and worked as a silk weaver in the old part of the village known as Tounfoot. In the eighteenth century Tounfoot was a thriving community occupied by weavers and other tradesmen. It had a female school, a poor house and a Baptist meeting house. Tounfoot was demolished in the late eighteenth century. The land at the bottom of what is now Church Street where Tounfoot stood became part of Glentyan Estate.

In his forties Robert Allan was an active Radical and played a significant part in political meetings and demonstrations. He presided over an important Radical meeting in the Relief Church and with other Kilbarchan weavers played a prominent part in the Radical demonstrations in Paisley in 1819 and 1820.

The two poets, Robert Tannahill and Robert Allan, were close friends and literary associates. Both were admirers of Robert Burns. Robert Allan was an active member in Kilbarchan Burns Anniversary Society, founded in 1806, and was much respected as a poet by the members of Paisley Burns Club who greatly admired his work. On 5th February, 1818, they elected him as an honorary member of Paisley Burns Club in appreciation of the quality of poems he had sent to them.

Although Robert Allan had been writing poems since the early eighteen hundreds, none of his poems had been published. In 1819, the year after he received his honorary membership of Paisley Burns Club, several of Robert Allan’s songs were published in the Harp of Renfrewshire and received special mention by the book’s editor, William Motherwell. In 1836 Robert published a book of his own poems entitled Evening Hours: Poems and Songs. As was common at the time, the book was published by subscription. Despite his previous acclaim as a poet and the support of the subscribers, the book was not so well received as he had hoped and was not a financial success. He was disappointed and felt his merit as a poet had not been recognised. He is said to have become ‘irritable in his temper and gloomy in appearance’. According to David Semple (1874) his disappointment influenced his later decision to leave Scotland and emigrate to America.

Two other factors may have influenced this decision. In the 1830s Robert Allan was engaged as an agent for a weaving manufacturer. From around 1840 the weaving manufacturers in Paisley, on whom the skilled Kilbarchan weavers depended for work, were entering a period of financial difficulties. The poor state of trade may have influenced his decision to emigrate.

In the past, some of Robert Allan’s friends had emigrated to America where they prospered. It is likely that James Scouler was one of these old friends. James Scouler, a calico printer at Locher, had fled to America after involvement in a secret Radical meeting which he attended in Kilbarchan in 1816. He subsequently established a large, successful printworks at Arlington in West Cambridge, Massechusetts, and was a wealthy man. In 1838 he left his business in the capable hands of his sons and made a return visit to Scotland where Robert Allan may well have met him in Kilbarchan.

Whatever the reason for his decision, Robert Allan, then in his mid-sixties, emigrated to America with his son Robert in 1841, but six days after his arrival in America he unfortunately died of a chill caught at sea. At the bottom of Church Street near the spot where his house once stood, a commemorative well was erected to his memory by Kilbarchan General Society in 1935. He is the only Kilbarchan weaver to have a commemorative monument in the village.

Robert Allan Well Memorial

Robert Allan Well Memorial


© Helen Calcluth