Bridge of Weir’s Hidden Tunnels

Bridge of Weir is one of at least eighteen planned and unplanned villages in the old County of Renfrew which originated as cotton spinning settlements. The short stretch of the River Gryfe running through the village supported at least ten separate mills, thanks to the development of an ingenious system of dams, tunnels and lades. The last of Bridge of Weir’s mills disappeared with the demolition of Clydesdale Leather Works in the past decade. Although all the mill buildings may be gone, fieldwork is showing that most of the system of lades and tunnels which powered the mills still survives.

The village originated at a narrow rocky gorge, which provided a suitable bridging point of the Gryfe. The village straddles a geological boundary, between the plateau lavas of the Renfrewshire hills, and the flatter Carboniferous plain of the Cart Basin below. There is no actual waterfall, simply a succession of rapids, dropping nearly ten metres over a distance of some 500 metres. Traditionally the main fall powered a grain mill, the Mill of Gryfe. By the 1770s lint and waulk mills had been added.

The site was brought to the attention of cotton spinners by the enterprising Mill of Gryfe owner, who placed adverts in the Glasgow press in 1790. By 1794 the village had three large cotton mills. By the 1840s a dozen individual mill sites were in use, varying greatly in size, all powered by the Gryfe.

The key to the water system was a succession of five dams. The top dam served Burngill cotton mill and leather works. When the railway came, the viaduct had to negotiate not only the river, via a five-span skewed viaduct with segmental arches, but also the cotton mill and lade. The legs of the viaduct straddle the underground lade system which still survives in a brick-lined tunnel. The tunnel passes under the mill site and exits at an arch visible from the upstream side of the Bridge of Weir. Remote investigation with a camera has revealed that this leads into the original 1792 tailrace tunnel, cut through solid rock, with a vaulted masonry roof.

Burngill Tailrace

Burngill Tailrace

Further down, the second weir powered lint and cotton mills, but the dam was washed away in a flood many years ago. The next two dams or weirs are at the main fall on the river and served an upper and lower lade system. The start of the upper lade and a sluice gate still survive by the river path. This powered at least six mills, including two grain mills, two cotton mills, a saw mill and a bleachworks.

Corn Tunnel

Corn Tunnel

The water from each mill discharged directly into the lower lade, which was also fed by its own dam, and then carried on to serve the big cotton mill. Brick tailrace arches can still be seen beside the rubble lade wall. Inside, remote photography again reveals long brick tunnels, leading back under the former mill sites. Further down the rock-cut lower lade are the walls and windows of an eighteenth century grain mill.

The lower lade leads to the site of the Laigh Gryfe cotton mill, the lowest and biggest in the village. The mill was burnt down in 1898, but a leather works rose from the ashes in 1905. This was built on the footprint of the 1794 cotton mill, from its lower walls. Until recently, two storeys of the original cotton mill survived facing the river. The leather works survived until 2002, when it was demolished.

When the site was redeveloped, despite its importance to the origins of village, no investigation was carried out of the eighteenth century mill walls, buried lade, wheel pit and tailrace. Fortunately photos survive of the brick arched tailrace which exited to the river. A short distance below the mill site is the fifth dam which served the cotton mill at Crosslee via a very long lade.

The full lade system may yet return to service as it has the capacity to generate a substantial amount of free power from the flow in the Gryfe.

© 2014 Stuart Nisbet                                                                                        {Click on images to enlarge}

John Cuninghame, Laird of Craigends (1759 – 1822), 1

John Cuninghame, Laird of Craigends, when he was in his mid-fifties, wrote a personal diary covering the years 1814-15. More than one hundred years later, in 1919, the diary was published by James Durham, his great-grandson. As one would expect, the dairy includes entries about his estate and business duties including haymaking, sheep shearing, pruning vines, checking his hothouse, buying Highland cattle at the June Thorn Fair in 1814 and at Johnstone Fair the following year, engaging and dismissing staff, collecting rent from his tenants, attending to his property in Port Glasgow and going to Paisley to ‘bank my West India income’. There were also entries noting his public duties such as attending heritors and session meetings to distribute the poor funds, inspecting Hardgate Toll and attending meetings concerning local toll roads in need of repair or alteration.

But business entries are far outnumbered by numerous entries about his health and the weather. Although John Cuninghame was a devout Christian, either a minor ailment or inclement weather seems always to have occurred on a Saturday justifying his non-attendance at church the following day. He suffered from numerous minor ailments and, more seriously, from gout. The ‘running off of the last of the wine’ (58 dozen and two bottles) in March, 1814, may have contributed to his gout! However, despite his painful illness he still frequently managed to go hunting with friends at Formakin, Barrochan Mill and Kilmacolm on his favourite horse, Empress.

John Cuninghame of Craigends and his wife Margaret were married in 1800 and by 1815 and had eleven children. Their family social circle, as one would expect, was largely confined to local gentry of his own class and Mr John Monteith, the Houston and Killallan minister. Mrs Monteith, ‘a kind good woman’ was a close friend of Margaret. She even stayed over at Craigends to help when new babies were born.

Other family friends mentioned in the diary include the Flemings of Barochan, Lady Stewart at Torr, the Porterfields of Duchal, the Alexanders of Soutbar, Sir John and Lady Maxwell of Pollock, the Napiers of Blackstoun, Mr Douglas (Kilbachan parish minister) and the Napiers of Milliken, who at that time were renting Alexander Spiers’s Glentyan House in Kilbarchan. On a visit to Glentyan, John Cunninghame was introduced to William Milliken Napier’s new bride, Elizabeth Stirling, whom he described as ‘very agreeable, tho’ not such a beauty as I had been led to think she was’. These families frequently visited each other for dinner. The main modes of transport used to visit friends were horseback or private horse and chaise for short distances, post horses on occasion for longer journeys and boats on the Johnstone Canal.

John Cuninghame had a keen interest in the lives of his children. This personal involvement of a father with his children seems more in keeping with the present day than the early nineteenth century. Entries in the diary record the birth of his youngest son, Boyd, on 11th March 1814, with intimate details on problems with the wet nurse, and an entry on the nineteenth of March saying ‘Mrs C slept well. Baby going finely’. The diary details John Cuninghame’s arrangements for the younger children to go on holiday to Largs ‘for ‘sea bathing’. He and his wife journeyed to Largs at the end of May to book a holiday house at the cost of £11 for the season. He also noted calling the doctor when the children had chickenpox, when Lillie cut and bruised her cheek and when Willie fell from a horse. Another entry mentions taking his eight year old daughter, Fanny, to Paisley to have a haircut. His older boys were educated in Edinburgh under ‘the care and instruction’ of Robert Smith until December 1814, when he became the minister in Lochwinnoch, and was replaced by David Brown. John Cuninghame mentions sending a watch to his eldest son, thirteen year old Willie, in Edinburgh.

The diary surprisingly makes no mention of politics or the Battle of Waterloo. John Cuninghame’s Diary is simply a very ordinary day to day account of the family life of a country laird who suffered from ill health, loved his family and attended to his immediate estate and public duties. He died in 1822 and was buried in Kilbarchan. His gravestone is displayed high on the wall inside the entrance tower of Kilbarchan old Parish Church.

© 2014, Helen Calcluth

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

The Old Peesweep Inn and the Peesweep Club

By Bill Speirs of Johnstone History Society

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 lime works on the White Cart at Blackhall near Paisley in the 1780s ‘the water was taken from the lime quarry by a wind mill carried on by William King’. Another example was at the lime works 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.’                                                                                       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. 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’ .

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 in the 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! .  

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.

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. 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.

© 2013 Helen Calcluth                                                                                                         (Click on image to enlarge)


Barytes Mines above Lochwinnoch

Although 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                                                                (Click on images to enlarge)