The Semples of Beltrees, 5 Robert Semple, 5th Laird of Beltrees

Robert Semple, 5th Laird of Beltrees, was born in 1656. He married Mary Pollock, eldest daughter of Robert Pollock of that Ilk in 1678. Robert and Mary lived at Thirdpart and attended the Parish Church in Kilbarchan. Their three daughters, Jean (1679), Elizabeth (1680) and Grizel (1682) were christened in Kilbarchan. Their son and heir, Robert, was born in 1687.
Robert Semple had securely inherited Thirdpart in 1682 on the death of his father, Francis. Unfortunately, he also inherited his father’s debts. On 13th of June, when his son was only five months old, Robert, as heritor of Thirdpart resigned the feu to his infant son, presumably in an attempt to ensure the ownership of the estate for the family.
Robert’s main interest in life appears to have been addressing the legacy of debt left to him by his father. A list of debts, signed by Robert Semple, was compiled on 13th April, 1686, to be paid off by his factor, James Semple. The list included thirty items, totalling what appears a considerable sum in 1687. The largest debts were £300 to be paid to Robert Chapman, a merchant in Glasgow and one hundred pounds Scots to Mr John Stirling, a former Kilbarchan Parish minister. Many smaller amounts were to be paid in merks.
Robert also attempted to restore to family the lands at Carberry in Ireland. These lands had been granted to his great-grandfather, Sir James Semple, by James VI in 1606, and were later violently appropriated by Cromwell’s forces. Due to rebellions in Ireland, neither Robert the 3rd Laird of Beltrees nor Francis the 4th Laird had pursued the recovery of these lands. In dire straits, Robert Semple, the 5th Laird, did go to Ireland around 1703 in an attempt to regain the lands, but no subsequently legal claim took place.
In 1697 the family were staying at Pollock House, the residence of Mary’s brother. Whether this was a temporary or a semi-permanent arrangement is unknown. In 1704 Robert Semple of Beltrees was listed as a Commissioner of Supply for Renfrewshire45. Commissioners of supply were responsible for the upkeep of roads and bridges.
In his lifetime Robert saw the return of a Stewart monarch to the throne, the Church of Scotland firmly returned to Presbyterianism, and the Union of the Parliaments in 1707. Perhaps surprisingly, after the numerous shifts in monarchy, government, religion and politics, this situation survived in its entirety for more than two hundred years.
Robert was still alive in 1710, when he and his wife received a letter from his son, Robert, but is known to have died before 1717, when his wife married her second husband, John Cochrane. Hopefully, for Mary, this marriage was less financially troubled than her first one must have been!
© 2018, Helen Calcluth, Renfrewshire Local History Forum

The Semples of Beltrees, 4 Francis Semple, 4th Laird of Beltrees

Following the family tradition, Francis, too, was a poet of considerable merit. He married Jeane Campbell (his first cousin) in the Parish of Lochgoilhead on 3rd April, 1655, and had two known sons, Robert in 1656 and James in 1657, both christened in Kilbarchan Parish.
Francis was involved with the Engagers, who prioritised loyalty to Charles I above their Presbyterian convictions. The Engager army had invaded England in 1648, where it was decisively defeated by Oliver Cromwell’s army at the Battle of Preston. Whether Francis was actively involved in the battle is unknown. The Church of Scotland strongly disapproved of the Engagers’ activities and in 1649, in retribution, Francis was seated in front of the pulpit in Kilbarchan Parish Church, in full view of the congregation and had to confess and give evidence of his repentance 1649. Two years later he again had to appear before the congregation to confess the sin of visiting his relative ‘old Lady Semple’ who had been excommunicated from the Church of Scotland for her papal sympathies.
Francis had inherited his father’s debts, but continued to move in the upper echelons of society. He appears to have been over-generous to his friends, standing surety on numerous occasions. He was also a spendthrift, selling off his assets in an attempt to maintain his lifestyle.
More importantly, Francis Semple is remembered for his excellence as a poet. His lyrics for songs include the original version of Auld Langsyne, adapted over a century later by Robert Burns, and Maggie Lauder which makes mention of the Kilbarchan piper Habbie Simson,
There’s nane in Scotland plays sae weel,
Sin’ we lost Habbie Simson
Francis’s poems give us an insight into his character and lifestyle. He was a great admirer of his acquaintance, the Duke of Albany (later James II). His poems honouring the Duke of Albany were written in a serious, respectful tone. In contrast his impromptu epitaphs show his cutting wit. On the death of Lady Schaw of Greenock, he wrote,
Heir lyis interrit, forbye a witch
Ane oppressor baith of puir and rich:
How scho fends, and how scho fares,
Naebodie kens, and as few cares.
A number of his poems are humorous personal narratives, written in the rich Scots vernacular. These poems show Francis as a bit of a likeable rogue, not afraid to make public his brushes with the law, and his financial difficulties. The theme in his poem Banishment of Poverty, as the name suggests, is his perpetual pecuniary struggle. Among his many trials and tribulations Francis again mentions his local village. He writes that he first met Poverty in Kilbarchan, ‘where Habbie’s drones blew many a blast’ and says of his enemy, Poverty,
For there he gripped me full and fast
When first I fell in cautionrie
Francis died in 1682 in relative poverty, having relinquished his estate and moved to Burnfoot, a small house in Lochwinnoch Parish. Sadly, despite his undoubted merit as a Scottish poet, he unfortunately left a very large legacy of financial debt to his successors.

© 2018, Helen Calcluth, Renfrewshire Local History Forum

The Semples of Beltrees, 3 Robert Semple, 3rd Laird of Beltrees

Robert Semple, 3rd Laird of Beltrees, was born c1595 and most likely spent his early childhood years at Beltrees in Lochwinnoch Parish or in the family house in Paisley. He was well-educated and matriculated at the College of Glasgow in 1613. He married Mary, daughter of Thomas Lyon of Auldbar and had a son, Francis, and a daughter Elizabeth. In 1626, on the death of his father, Sir James Semple, Robert inherited his title and the lands of Beltrees. He lived through difficult times – the Reformation, three Civil wars, and the Commonwealth. He was a staunch Presbyterian and fought as an Officer in the Royalist army in support of Charles I and Charles II. He was instrumental in promoting the restoration of Charles II in 1660.
His main claim to fame, however, is that he was a poet of considerable talent. Unfortunately only three of his works are known to have survived. His poem, The Life and Death of Habbie Simson, gives a humorous account of Habbie Simson, the famous Kilbarchan piper. It is written in a stanza form which was later to become known in literary circles as the ‘Habbie Stanza’. This form was used a century later by Robert Burns.
Robert Semple was a contemporary of Habbie Simson and the poem can be regarded as a valuable local history resource. The poem tells of occasions and events where Habbie played his pipes, – the kirkyard on Sundays, weddings, Kilkbarchan Horse Races, St Barchan’s Day Feast, the gatherings of Spearmen, and Clark plays in Edinburgh. Robert Semple’s second surviving work is Epitaph on Sanny Briggs, written in the same Habbie stanza. Sanny Briggs is said to have been nephew to Habbie Simson.
His third work, on a more serious theme, is A Pick-tooth for the Pope or The Packman’s Paternoster. The poem takes the form of a dialogue between a packman and a priest. It was originally written by his father, Sir James Semple, and was augmented and enlarged by Robert. The poem takes the form of a discussion between a simple packman and a priest. Throughout more eight hundred lines of rhyming couplets the packman politely questions the parish priest, whom he addresses as Sir John, on modes of worship and dogma of the Church of Rome – the need for mass and prayers to be in Latin, the Pope as successor to St. Peter, and, what he regards as, undue exaltation of Virgin Mary. Despite the serious nature of the theme an ironic humour pervades the work. It was printed in Edinburgh 1669.
Around 1650, Robert and his family moved from the old hall at Beltrees to Thirdpart in Kilbarchan Parish. Robert appears to have taken an active part in village life. In 1660 he was witness to the baptism of Marie, a daughter of Alexander Hamilton, in Forehouse, Kilbarchan. Robert Semple died later in the 1660s.
© 2018, Helen Calcluth, Renfrewshire Local History Forum

The Semples of Beltrees, 2 Sir James Semple, 2nd Laird of Beltrees

James Semple was the eldest son of John Semple, the Dancer, and Mary Livingston, who was one of Mary Queen of Scots’ four Marys. He was born in 1566, the same year as King James, I and VI. James was brought up at court and received his early education with the young king, under the tutelage of the Scottish historian and scholar, George Buchanan. The two boys remained life-long friends.
James Semple of Beltrees married Geillis Elphinstone, and had at least two sons and four daughters. Geillis appears to have been a fashionable lady. Her personal possessions included velvet gowns and other pieces of luxury clothing, gold chains and rings, silverware and luxurious feather beds. However, she was still a caring mistress and in her will left 500 merks to her faithful servant, Mareoun Paden.
James Semple of Beltrees, unlike his father, the dancer, was of a serious disposition. He was a Scottish diplomat, a poet and a zealous Presbyterian. King James appointed him as Ambassador to England. In 1599, at his friend the King’s request, Queen Elizabeth of England sent a court order to her Majesties Officers to provide good horses and to ensure the safe return of James Semple to Scotland. Soon after his return he was knighted and thereafter was known as Sir James Semple of Beltrees. In 1601 he was appointed as Ambassador to France and in 1602 as Sheriff Substitute of Renfrewshire. However, Sir James, was best known for his literary works. Some of his works, mainly controversial treatises in defence of Presbyterianism, still survive.
Sir James transcribed King James I’s Basilikon Doran, which was first printed in Edinburgh in 1599. This was a treatise written to instruct his heir on how to be an efficient monarch and giving in detail a monarch’s Christian duty. The work was intended to be secret and, initially, only 7 copies were printed. Sir James showed one of these copies to Andrew Melville, a leading Scottish Presbyterian, who leaked details of the King’s controversial views on religion to Scottish Presbyteries. This caused endless trouble and displeased the King, whose animosity towards the Presbyterian Melville intensified. In 1606 the King imprisoned Melville in the Tower until, with the help of Sir James, he was eventually released in 1611. After his release, Melville was appointed Professor of Divinity in the University of Sedan in France. At Melville’s request, Sir James became involved in a controversy with Daniel Tilenus, a Silesian theologian. He published his Answer to the Defence of the Bishops and the Five Articles in 1622. This document was a vigorous reply in defence of Presbyterianism. Three other theological works by Sir James still survive today.
Sir James was also a poet, but only one of his poetical works survives. This is a long satirical poem which he entitled ‘A Pick-tooth for the Pope or The Packman’s Paternoster’. The theme was, again, the defence of Presbyterianism. It took the form of a dialogue between a packman and a priest. Sir James is said to have written the poem from his own translation of a Dutch manuscript. His poet son Robert, the 3rd Laird of Beltrees, later added to the text.
Sir James may not have spent much of his busy life at Beltrees in Lochwinnoch Parish, but his stone house with a tower still stood there in 1612. James outlived his wife and died in his house at the Cross in Paisley in 1626.
© 2018, Helen Calcluth, Renfrewshire Local History Forum

The Semples of Beltrees, 1 John Semple, 1st Laird of Beltrees – the Dancer

The Semples of Beltrees was a cadet family of the Semples of Castle Semple. The first Laird of Beltrees, John Semple, was the illegitimate son of Robert, 3rd Lord Semple, (c1505-1573) and his mistress, Elizabeth Carlyle, who were later married. John was legitimised in 1546, at the time of the marriage of his parents.
John was gifted the lands of Beltrees in Lochwinnoch Parish and Thirdpart in Kilbarchan Parish by his father. The Semples were a privileged family and moved in court circles. In the early 1560s John, the first Laird of Beltrees (c1536-1579), spent much of his time at the court of Mary, Queen of Scots. He was said to have a happy disposition and was popular at court. However, in this period of political and religious turmoil caused by the Reformation in Scotland, the Presbyterian preacher, John Knox, scathingly named John of Beltrees ‘the Dancer’.
John ‘the Dancer’ married Mary Livingston, the daughter of Alexander, 5th Lord Livingston, in 1565. Mary had been a close friend of the Queen since infancy. She was one of the ‘four Marys’, chosen by Mary of Guise (1515–1560) to be companion ladies-in-waiting to her infant daughter. When Queen Mary returned from France to Scotland in 1561, Mary Livingston is said to have been in charge of the Queen’s jewels. She, too, was a keen dancer and also an accomplished horsewoman. In court circles she was known as ‘the Lusty’.
John Semple and Mary Livingston must have met at court where both were great favourites of the Queen. On their marriage on 6 March 1565, Queen Mary paid for the wedding dress. Soon after, the Queen further promoted the couple’s wealth with the gifts of lands in Ayrshire and Fife, and subsequently with gifts of more land in Ayrshire and Aberdeenshire. Their eldest son and heir, James (1566-1626), was educated with King James VI (1566-1625), by George Buchanan, and completed his education at the University of St. Andrews.
John of Beltrees remained unfailingly loyal to Queen Mary. His loyal support of the Queen appears to have resulted in the long-term enmity between John and Regent Morton, the last of four Regents during the minority of James VI. This resulted in what appears to have been a trumped-up charge of treason accusing John of involvement in a conspiracy to murder Regent Morton. In 1577, under the severe torture of the Boot, John was eventually forced to confess involvement. He was sentenced to imprisonment in Edinburgh Castle ‘during the Regent’s pleasure’. He was released the following year when Regent Morton was forced to resign. John, the Dancer, sadly died in 1579.
© Helen Calcluth, Renfrewshire Local History Forum

Lime Working down the Black Cart

As with the Gryfe, the river valley of the Black Cart was a focal point of the search for coal and lime. From the headwaters of the river in Barr Loch, lime works followed the Black Cart downstream.

At Kerse, the lime and coal works were drained by a pump powered firstly by water, then by a steam engine. South of Barr Loch, lime was worked at Netherhouses. At Limekiln Plantation, near Lochwinnoch, lime quarries survive in a series of tiers downhill. From the 1720s, lime was also worked along both sides of Castle Semple Loch and burnt in kilns by the lochside. One of the potential benefits of extending the Paisley Canal to Ardrossan was the lime quarries and mines along the proposed route in the Risk area.

The most intensive working of lime was further downstream, where a great ‘basin’ of lime dipped from Howwood to Spateston. A number of small early quarries led to a large scale combined venture in the 1770s, by Houston of Johnstone and McDowall of Castle Semple, at Meikle Corseford. The quarries were drained by a water powered engine driven by the Spateston Burn. More than 30 clamp kilns survive, surrounding the main quarry. Nearby is the draw kiln at Midtown. By the Victorian period, several large lime works were in operation, connected by tramways to the main railway line.

In the 1720s, several lime quarries preceded the development of the new town of Johnstone. Numerous other quarries and kilns dotted the road to Paisley, from Floors to Newton. Many were developed by Speirs of Elderslie. Near the bottom of the Black Cart in the Linwood area, limestone was mined at various depths in 19th century in conjunction with coal and ironstone.

© 2017 Stuart Nisbet, Renfrewshire Local History Forum

Lime Working

The best-known and most valuable mineral which was worked in Central Scotland was coal. Beyond coal, the mineral ghost of Renfrewshire was limestone. Lime had always been used in building, for mortar, harling (roughcast) and plaster. However, from the eighteenth century, much larger amounts of lime were sought for improvements to farmland. By adding burnt and powdered lime to the soil, crop yield could be greatly increased. Limestone was particularly important in regions with heavy clay soils, such as Renfrewshire. The lime was added liberally to both arable and pastoral land, at the rate of up to thirty carts per acre.

Limestone is found in thicker seams than coal, and was usually quarried from the surface. Thus traces of former workings are more abundant than with deeper coal mines. Unlike the white chalky lime found in the south of England, Renfrewshire lime is a hard, brittle, dark grey rock. It was formed under shallow seas in the Carboniferous period and often contains shells and crinoids (stems of sea lilies). Lime quarries were highly valued by fossil collectors who raided them for fish and reptile remains. Before good roads were built, the coal to fuel the lime kilns had to be found locally. Despite the relatively thin and indifferent quality of the coal in the Gryfe area, it was ideal for lime burning. In many cases it was expressly stated that the coal was only to be worked for lime burning.

In the 1790s, Kilbarchan parish had seven coal mines, all but one owned by the Milliken family. At each of these mines, the main use of the coal was to fuel lime kilns. The most familiar lime kilns were large stone-built draw kilns. Less well known, but just as common, were clamp kilns. These were long hollows dug into a slope in which the limestone was repeatedly burnt. Until recently, virtually no lime working sites were officially recorded in Renfrewshire. New fieldwork has now identified more than a hundred. Hints of early working come from place names such as Lime Craig Park (Johnstone), Kilnknowie (Corseford), and Limekilns Plantation (Lochwinnoch).

© 2017 Stuart Nisbet, Renfrewshire Local History Forum

Coal: A Hidden Secret

Collier’s House and coal pits at Goldenlee in 1750

The Gryfe area is not often associated with the working of coal. In 1912 It was claimed that Renfrewshire “is not a great mining county  it lags behind its neighbours,” yet, 130 years earlier, Semple described the county as “abounding with coal”. Thus early coal mining is one of the hidden secrets of the area.

Small amounts of coal had always been worked from outcrops, but more organised workings were in the form of numerous holes, or ‘bell pits’ (shallow shafts worked close together) at Goldenlee (Houston), Brookfield and Quarrelton.

The earliest workings followed the valleys of the Gryfe, Black Cart and Locher, where the coals were shallower, and to where the workings could be drained. From Bridge of Weir, coal was worked down the Gryfe at Kaimhill, Locherside, Sandholes, Craigends and the appropriately named Coalbog. Along Barr and Castle Semple lochs, coal works appeared at Nervelston, Blackdyke, and Lochside, then down the Black Cart from Coalhouse (Howwood), and Corseford to Elderslie. The earliest and most intensive workings were in the Quarrelton area, which had one of the thickest coal seams in the country.

From the 1770s, ambitious estate owners were seeking sources of income beyond farming. Landowners, such as Speirs of Elderslie who drilled bores on his lands of Newton, was soon working coal from several pits. By the 1790s the availability of coal was described as one of the main advantages of local parishes. At Quarrelton, Corseford and Kerse, the pits were initially kept dry using pumps driven by water wheels or horses. Gradually, larger pits including Nervelston, Thorn and Elderslie added steam engines to lift out the coal and pump out water.

To anyone passing through the area around 1800, coal workings would have been a common sight. By the Victorian period, much deeper coal was worked under the flatlands of Linwood Moss and Fulton. The only visible signs were pitheads, which came and went in a few decades, leaving little trace. This led to the perception that coal working barely existed in the area. A local supply of coal had been crucial for the growing settlements such as Johnstone, Kilbarchan, Houston and Bridge of Weir. However, the biggest use of coal was not to ‘boil the pot’, but to process another little-known mineral: limestone. This will be investigated next month.



© 2017 Stuart Nisbet, Renfrewshire Local History Forum

Black Cart Mills 8: The Candren Burn

Concluding the eight-part journey down the Black Cart:

Just before the Black Cart joins the Gryfe at Blackstoun, the last of its burns, the Candren, falls into the river. Along with the Espedair Burn, which falls into the White Cart opposite Paisley Abbey, the Candren Burn powered and provided process water for two dozen bleachfields south of Paisley, around half of which were on the Candren.

The plethora of high quality textiles produced in and around Paisley from the 1740s created a demand for high quality bleaching and finishing. Textile manufactories or weaving shops in the town, such as the Paisley Stocking Factory ‘put out’ work to most of these bleachfields.

The highest bleachfield on the Candren Burn was at Foxbar, followed by two at Causewayend, a mill and bleachfield at Lounsdale, then further bleachfields at Hillfoot, Bredisland, and two at Meiklerigs. Much of the burn is now culverted among Paisley suburbia, forgotten until heavy rain causes it to rise and flood property.

The burn then passes under the Johnstone Canal, where the poet Tannahill drowned, then through the site of Ferguslie Cotton Mills, to Millarston Bleachfield. Finally, it crossed Paisley Moss. After the burn passes under what is now the Johnstone Bypass (A737), it enters the Black Cart below Candren itself, near Blackstoun. Candren Bleachfield, was one of the earliest in the county, established by 1752.

By the 1780s each field on the burn covered at least two acres, though Causewayend (East) and Lounsdale, both owned by John Craig, were already three times this size. As well as using the burn for process water, most of the bleachfields had water powered wash mills, and latterly added other power driven machinery. Several small reservoirs were built along the burn to store water. The largest survives as Durrockstock Pond. The workers cottages for the bleachfields were the core of the settlements which now form Paisley’s southern suburbs.

In conclusion

The Black Cart from its source to Clyde has powered at least 50 mills and water driven industries. Some of the traditional grain and waulk mills lasted for centuries, others only a few decades. Some remain to be redis

The days of water power are far from past. Some of the bigger mills, including Johnstone Old Cotton Mill, latterly installed turbines to generate electricity from their lades. The image above shows the outlet from a turbine at Old Cotton Mill, Johnstone. Other old mill sites on the Black Cart and its burns are now attracting interest for the small-scale generation of electricity.

© 2017 Stuart  Nisbet, Renfrewshire Local History Forum

Renfrewshire Tile Works 1

In the 18th century, the most obvious improvement to farmland was the enclosure of fields. Less noticeable, but equally important, was underground drainage.

From the 1750s, huge increases in quantity and quality of crops, resulted from the drainage of flat fields and bogs. The digging of ditches and filling them with rubble was common practice on any forward-looking Renfrewshire estate. Further improvements could be made by lining the bottom of the ditch with flat stones, to form underground drainage channels.

From the 1830s, interest grew in an even better solution: the laying of manufactured clay pipes, known as ’tiles’. Initially the tiles were u-shaped, not circular, as they were easier to make. Clay was pressed flat and cut into rectangles, then folded by hand over rods, to form each tile. They were then dried and fired in kilns. Laid open-side down, the tiles often included a separate flat clay ‘sole’. They were known as drainage ’tiles’, probably because they resembled the curving red roof tiles imported from Holland.

In the 1830s and 40s the ministers of Erskine and Renfrew described tile draining as the ‘greatest improvement to agriculture in recent years, which is going forward in nearly all the farms in this parish’. The drainage had particular benefits in the growing of potatoes.

Most large estates sought a supply of clay to set up their own tile works. The landowner usually provided the tiles, with his tenants carrying out the heavy work of digging and laying the tiles at regular intervals across their fields. Apart from improving drainage, the old ridges and furrows were no longer required, and were flattened out.

The best fireclays were found around the north and west of Paisley at Walkinshaw, Ferguslie, Caledonia and Inkerman. These quality fireclays were valuable enough to be mined from the same shaft as coal, which was used to fuel the tile kilns. Although these big works usually produced drain tiles, their high quality clays were suitable for a whole catalogue of sanitary ware. Most tiles for draining fields were produced at smaller rural ‘Brick and Tile Works’ which will be discussed in next month’s Advertizer.

© 2018, Stuart Nisbet, Renfrewshire Local History Forum