The Glasgow, Paisley, Ardrossan Canal

The Glasgow, Paisley, Ardrossan Canal was first proposed by James Watt in 1773. In 1804 a survey by Thomas Telford led to parliamentary permission to build the first phase of the canal from Glasgow to Johnstone. Hugh, 12th Earl of Eglinton, was the chief investor in the project. He had recently built his new deep sea harbour at Ardrossan and was keen to have direct access by canal to Glasgow.  Other investors included William Houston of Johnstone and William Dixon of Govan. A canal in the vicinity of their coal and iron mines would afford them easy access to Glasgow markets. Canal access to Glasgow was expected to be considerably more efficient than transporting goods by wagons on the turnpike roads. Work began in 1805. In addition to transportation of goods, a passenger service was planned.

The first section of the canal, from Paisley to Johnstone, opened on the 6th November, 1810. Amid great celebration the Countess of Eglinton was launched. Four days later, on the Martinmas Day holiday, tragedy struck. When passengers from Johnstone were disembarking at the canal basin in Paisley, an excited crowd of holiday makers on a family day out surged on to the boat causing it to capsize. Of the eighty-five people who lost their lives on this disastrous day at least one quarter were children.

The full stretch of the canal from Glasgow to Johnstone was completed in 1811, but because of the death of the Earl of Eglinton in 1819 and the lack of further funding, construction of the remaining section to Ardrossan was abandoned.

Two more passenger boats, the Paisley and the Countess of Glasgow were added to the fleet. The cabin class fare was 1s.3d. and the second class fare was 10d. In 1814 the canal sold over 35,000 fares and the service was popular with all classes of society.  In 1815 John Cuninghame of Craigends recorded in his diary that he had sent his chaise to Johnstone to meet friends arriving by boat from Glasgow. By 1836 there were twelve passenger sailings per day on the canal.

The Glasgow, Paisley, Ardrossan Canal appears to have been a profitable project for the investors until 1840 when, with the advent of the railways, the canal passenger service had competition. The Glasgow & Paisley Joint Railway opened the first rail line from Glasgow to Paisley in 1840. Rail travel between Paisley and Glasgow was quicker by train than the two hour journey by canal boat and when the rail company reduced its fares in1843 the canal passenger service was no longer viable. Although the passenger service ended in 1843 the canal company continued to transport goods until1869.

The canal became quieter and seems to have become a repository for stolen goods. It is reported that in 1852 brass fittings, and copper piping, stolen from the Kilbarchan horse-drawn fire engine, were found in Johnstone Canal by three local men. Kilbarchan Front Committee gave the men 7s.6d. for the recovery of these valuable fittings.

In 1869 the Glasgow and South Western Railway Company purchased the canal.  This rail company continued to operate the transport of goods on the canal until 1881. In that year they began work to build a second rail line from Glasgow to Paisley, largely following the route of the canal. The canal was drained in 1882 and their Canal Line to Paisley opened in 1885.

©2019 Helen Calcluth

Kilbarchan Old Parish Churchyard

Work in progress

October, 2018
Since the church closed two years ago, the church yard has been poorly maintained, except for occasional grass-cutting by Renfrewshire Council. By the end of the summer the grass was long, more than twenty unwanted saplings were thriving in Captain Stirling’s burial enclosure, and other gravestones were obscured by bushes and undergrowth.
Our volunteer members strimmed and raked the long grass, weeded overgrown plots, removed unwanted bushes and saplings and collected all the rubbish in plastic bags for removal.

Volunteer group with Peter wielding the strimmer (and Ian as a shadow)

Interestingly, in the process, we found a number of unrecorded graves. We hope to be able to photograph all the gravestones in the churchyard when the weather improves
The committee would like to thank our volunteers who helped to tidy up Kilbarchan Old Parish Churchyard. We would also like to express our thanks to Inchinnan Historical Interest Group for the use of their strimmer.

Alistair and Ian removing bushes from overgrown burial plot.
Anne and Jean clearing Stirling Enclosure of saplings and weeds
Awaiting uplift

Danger in the Cotton Mills

The radical rising of 1820, when weavers John Lang of Kilbarchan and John Speirs of Johnstone were accused of high treason, was a time of particular danger to workers in cotton mills in Glasgow and Renfrewshire. This was because, at a time when the price paid for spun yarn had fallen, mill owners had been forced to cut spinners’ wages to keep their businesses viable. This led to some of their workforce downing tools and to the employers engaging a new cohort of spinners at the lower rate of pay.
Mayhem ensued! The cotton trade came under the control of a secret conspiracy among the former workforces. The leaders of the conspiracy had total control over the masters and by ‘violent and nefarious means’ forced them to appoint a new workforce, chosen by the conspirators, and to pay higher wages.
Particularly vicious attacks on spinners who had chosen to work at the lower rate occurred in Johnstone and Elderslie. The first victim was Alexander Fisher, a spinner in William King, senior’s cotton mill in Johnstone. Twice in 1820, his dwelling house was attacked by gun-fire. On the first occasion the shot spread window-glass into the bed where his children slept. On the second occasion the gun shot hit the ceiling with no injury to the family. But the attacks continued. In November on his way to work two men waylaid and viciously threw vitriol in his face and chest causing him the loss of sight in his left eye. Despite this, he went back to work to support his large family. Another attempt on his life was made on 14th December when Alexander was at work in the mill and two shots were fired at him. But fortunately they fell short and struck the wall.
Brothers, Peter and Arthur Dorran, were spinners in William King, senior’s cotton mill in Elderslie. They, too, were victims of attacks in December 1820. On a road crowded with men, women and children returning home from the mill, Peter was attacked by three villains and had vitriol thrown on his face. He was unable to return to work to support his family. His brother, Peter, was fired while at work in the mill.
The homes of Rae and Muir, two spinners at Watts, Logan and Company in Johnstone, were also attacked by gun-fire in December, 1820. On New Year’s Day, 1821, James Henderson, another spinner at Watts, Logan and Company, was returning home with his wife and family. James was carrying one of his children on his back when a man with the intention of shooting him pointed a pistol at his heart and fired. Fortunately, the pistol misfired and James and the child on his back were uninjured. After this incident the attacker was arrested.
These horrific incidents spread fear and terror among law-abiding citizens whose only desire was to work to support their families.

© 2018 Helen Calcluth, Renfrewshire Local History Forum

The Semples of Beltrees, 6 Robert Semple, 6th Laird of Beltrees

Robert Semple, 6th Laird of Beltrees, born in 1687, was the eldest son of Robert Semple and Mary Pollock. We are indebted to him for preserving a number of the poems and impromptu verses written by his grandfather, Francis Semple. Robert, too, is thought to have dabbled in verse. Among his manuscripts is a poem, Ramillies. This amusing poem, written in the Scots vernacular, is the story of a young girl who ran off with a sailor, after being forced by her father to marry a much older man. Its authorship is attributed to Robert.

Robert had a long healthy life, living to the age of one hundred and two! In 1722 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Alexander Cochrane of Mainshill. Elizabeth, who predeceased him, was said to have been a very elegant lady. The couple lived in Thirdpart in Kilbarchan Parish and had eight children between 1726 and 1737.
In his home village of Kilbarchan Robert Semple was well-remembered and renowned, not only for his longevity, but also for an incident in his childhood. At the age of ten, he was staying with his parents in Pollock Castle, the home of his uncle Sir William Pollock. The hanging and the burning of the Bargarran Witches was scheduled to take place on Gallow Green in Paisley on the 10th of June, 1697, and young Robert was keen to witness the spectacle. To prevent him from going, his parents hid his shoes. However, this didn’t stop him. He managed to leave the house, and walk barefoot to Paisley where he joined the immense crowd who had gathered to watch the spectacle. The memory of this eventful day stayed with him all his life and was a tale often recounted in his old age. In the last decade of 19th century an old weaver in Kilbarchan was proudly heard to say ‘I knew a man who knew a man who saw the last witch burnt in Paisley’. The man was Robert Semple!

As a young man Robert, 6th Laird, went to sea. In his old age he recounted an unusual event in his adventures. On one of his sea voyages he went ashore at Archangel in Russia. Robert was watching sea animals in a pond where, apparently by chance, he witnessed a sea animal snapping at the Czar, Peter the Great, and biting the cock of his hat. Destinations of his other sea voyages are unknown.
Before the age of thirty, Robert was back in Renfrewshire where he was appointed as a burgher of Renfrew in 1716. He was regarded as a man of integrity and good judgement and was well respected in the community He later became Collector of Cess for Renfrewshire and a long-serving Justice of Peace. In 1724, when Kilbarchan Parish Church was rebuilt, Robert was a subscriber and one of the five heritors who organised the rebuilding of the church. In recognition of his work, a door (now long blocked up) on the south side of church was named the Beltrees Door.
In 1758, Robert sold Thirdpart and its farms to William McDowall of Castle Semple. He still retained the title, Semple of Beltrees. Where he lived after the sale of Thirdpart is uncertain. In 1777, at the age of ninety, Robert feued land on what was then part of Milliken Estate in Kilbarchan and built Belltrees Cottage, naming it after his family’s former estate. According to his daughter, Arabella, not long before his death he was still able walk twenty miles a day. Robert Semple died in Beltrees Cottage in 1789 at the ripe old age of one hundred and two!

© 2019, Helen Calcluth, 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

Dalgarven Mill Museum of Ayrshire Country Life and Costume

A group of Renfrewshire Local History Forum members visited Dalgarven Mill Museum on Saturday, 20th May, 2017. We gathered in the coffee room, where we met Mr Rob Ferguson, who took us on a conducted tour of the museum. The Ferguson family have owned the mill since 1922 when it was still a working grain mill. Mr Ferguson and the Charitable Trust he set up have transformed the old mill into what must undoubtedly be among the very best of country life museums in Scotland.

The historic mill building has been beautifully restored and the large waterwheel, on a lade fed by the nearby River Garnock, works the machinery in the mill. All the machinery required to run a grain mill, a large collection of farm implements, old kitchen and dairy utensils, trade tools and many more country life artefacts are housed on three floors of the museum.

On the ground floor we visited the current exhibition of Early Victorian Costume, 1810-1865, entitled “Corsets and Crinolines”. This excellent display is only a small part of the museum’s extensive collection of costumes. As we explored the upper floors of the museum our group was most impressed by the extensive collection of farm equipment and country life artefacts. Much of the collection has been donated to the museum by local farmers and other residents. A number of displays show typical period dwelling rooms. The sets are so skilfully designed that the characters seem alive and the viewer almost has a sense of being a welcome visitor within the characters’ home.

As well as a tour of the museum, our group was privileged to have access to the storeroom which houses the museum’s extensive collection of period costumes, and some other very exciting items which, as yet, are not on display

After our tour we retired to Miller’s Kitchen Coffee Room to sample its excellent menu. This was a fitting end to one of the Forum’s most interesting and enjoyable outings.

© 2017 Helen Calcluth, Renfrewshire Local History Forum



Images with kind permission of R. Ferguson, Dalgarven Mill Museum of Ayrshire Country Life and Costume. Further information and images can be found at http://www.dalgarvenmill

Henry Birkmyre and his Descendants

Henry Birkmyre (1762- 1844) worked as a handloom weaver in Kilbarchan, where in 1785 he married his first cousin Agnes Birkmyre. After their marriage, Henry and Agnes attended Burntshields Burgher Church. The baptisms of three of their children, Jean in 1786, John in 1788 and Agnes in 1791, are recorded in Burntshields church records. In 1792 the family moved to Port Glasgow where Henry took up employment in a sailcloth manufactury. A fourth child, William, was born in Port Glasgow in 1802. The Birkmyres prospered in Port Glasgow. Henry soon rose to the position of foreman in Gourock Ropework Co. and was made a partner in the firm in 1814. His portrait, which still exists, is said to have hung in the company’s boardroom.

Henry sent his younger son, William, to Glasgow to be trained by city merchants. This early training paid off and, following in his father’s footsteps, William was appointed as a manager in the rope works. In 1831 he married Margaret Aitken. William was regarded as a shrewd businessman and laid the foundations of the future success and world-wide expansion of Gourock Ropework Co. He retired in 1860 and died in 1862 in Ashgrove, the family home at the bottom of Clune Brae in Port Glasgow.

Two of William’s sons, Henry (b.1832) and John (b.1836) became partners in Gourock Ropework Co. A third son William (b.1838) spent some time in India, and pursued a political career, becoming MP for the Burgh of Ayr. A younger son, Adam (b.1848), attended to the family’s business interests overseas. Under the brothers’ control, Gourock Ropework Co. became renowned world-wide as manufacturers of rope, sail cloth and canvas.

All four brothers became extremely wealthy and were generous benefactors in the local community. Henry was instrumental in founding Clune Park U.P. Church in 1878. In 1881, he diversified his interests and bought New Lanark Mills from the then owner, Charles Walker. Under the Birkmyre family, Gourock Ropework Co. owned David Dale’s new Lanark Mills for the next 65 years.

John, in 1870, appointed David Bryce, a renowned architect, to build his baronial mansion, Broadstone House on the hills above Port Glasgow. He gifted Broadstone Jubilee Hospital to the community of Port Glasgow. William, the third brother, spent time in India and pursued a political career, becoming MP for the Burgh of Ayr. He gifted Birkmyre Park (later known as the Public Park) to the town of Port Glasgow. Adam owned Shallott (now part of St. Columba’s School buildings) and various other properties in Kilmacolm. In 1897, he gifted recreation grounds, now Birkmyre Park,( see image above) to Kilmacolm village. He also had interests in Calcutta in India and in Switzerland where he died in 1906.

© 2017, Helen Calcluth

Robert Lang Campbell, part 2

In 1846, after the loss of his young wife in childbirth and himself suffering from ill-health on the arduous Mormon trek from persecution in Nauvoo, Robert Lang Campbell (1825-74), a young Mormon priest from Kilbarchan, arrived at winter quarters. Within weeks he recovered his health.

In Scotland, Robert had trained a clerk and, because of this experience, he was appointed as clerk to Brigham Young, John Smith and Willard Richard. This was a prestigious post for a young man. Later he was appointed in charge of the Post Office and was a volunteer in the Pioneers led by Brigham Young. The Pioneers surveyed the area searching for a suitable site for a permanent settlement. In 1848 they found the ideal site and Salt Lake City was founded on the 24th of July.

In 1848 Robert received the sad news from Kilbarchan that his father and maternal grandmother had died. In 1850 he was pleased to be given a mission to return to Scotland. During his time in Scotland he married Mary Stewart. In 1854, as leader of a group of Mormon converts from Scotland, Robert with his new wife again set off for Salt Lake City. The group included an older lady, widow Elizabeth Jordan (née Beveridge). In his diary Robert had recorded visiting Sister Jordan in Stevenson in 1844.

The group sailed from Liverpool and arrived at New Orleans in May. From there they sailed up the Mississippi to St. Louis, and then to Kansas. The last part of their journey was by wagon train alongside the River Platte to Salt Lake City, where Robert and his group of converts settled. As was the Mormon custom, he took a second wife Jeanie Miller. Robert with his two wives, Mary and Jean, had 21 children. In 1857 he married a third polygamous wife. This wife was his older friend, Sister Jordan from Stevenson. Robert was well respected in the community as good husband and father.

                                         Public domain: Courtesy J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah

Furthermore, Robert Campbell, the young clerk from Kilbarchan, also became a prestigious figure in the Mormon Community. He was appointed as Superintendent of Schools for the Territory of Utah and as Mormon Chancellor from 1857 until his death from cholera in 1874. His obituary in the Deseret News stated that he was “an industrious, useful, upright, trustworthy man”.

© 2017, Helen Calcluth, Renfrewshire Local History Forum

Robert Lang Campbell’s Diary and further information at :

Robert Lang Campbell, part 1: A Kilbarchan Man’s Spiritual Journey

Robert Lang Campbell was born in Kilbarchan on the 21st of January 1825. His parents, Alexander and Agnes (née Lang) Campbell, were members of the Chartist Church in the village. Robert and his elder brother John, much to the chagrin of their father, attended Mormon Missionary meetings. At the age of seventeen Robert, who had trained as a clerk, was baptised into the Church of the Latter Day Saints on the 9th of August, 1842.

Public domain: Courtesy of L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University

He began his missionary work in the local area and Ayrshire and kept a diary recording his activities. In company with other Mormon missionaries he preached in the open air, in people’s homes and at local collieries. Sometimes the group was well received and on other occasions reception was antagonistic. In September he was accosted in Howwood by a drunk man with a broken glass who almost stopped their preaching and, on a mission to Dalry, the missionaries twice in one day got a poor reception from very inattentive sinners. In November, 1843, at the age of eighteen, Robert Campbell was ordained as a Mormon Priest. However, despite his dedication, he made time to visit Kilbarchan to see his sweetheart, Joan Scobie, and his family.

In January, 1845, Robert left his home country and sailed from Liverpool on his way to Nauvoo, the centre of the Church of the Latter Day Saints. The following November Joan Scobie arrived at Nauvoo after a journey of ten weeks, and Robert and Joan were married by Patriarch John Smith. The young couple settled happily in the town’s Mormon community, and Joan was soon pregnant. But peace and harmony was not to last.

In September of 1846 persecution of the Mormons in Nauvoo escalated, with a violent mob firing cannon at the Brethern. For days, battle raged in the town. Eventually a truce was agreed. The mobocrats were the victors and the Mormons were given ten days to leave the town. On 9th October the Mormon community set off on a long, arduous trek across rivers and prairie to winter quarters. Robert was given part of a wagon to store his effects and he and Joan set off on foot. One week into the journey Joan died in childbirth. Robert, at the age of twenty-one, was left alone and homeless in an alien land. Despite grieving, and now also suffering from a fever, Robert had no option but to continue the fifty day trek to the winter quarters.

Robert Lang Campbell’s Diary and further information at :

© 2017, Helen Calcluth, Renfrewshire Local History Forum

Black Cart Mills 7: Johnstone to Linwood

A short distance downstream from Johnstone, the Old Patrick Water enters the Cart. This burn powered Elderslie Cotton Mill, two grain mills (Elderslie and Mackies Mill), a paper mill, printworks (Patrickbank), and a distillery at Glenpatrick.

On the Black Cart itself, one of the oldest mills on the river was the Mill of Cart, a medieval grain mill. Its rubble dam still survives just downstream of where the cycle path crosses the Cart.  (See image above.) The dam was later, via an extended lade, used to power Linwood Cotton Mill.

Linwood Cotton Mill was built in 1792 by James Dunlop, who already owned Gateside Cotton Mill in Neilston Parish. Linwood Mill was, for a time, the largest mill in Britain. From the 1790s, the parish records document children born to the mill workers. Apart from the cotton spinners documented in the records, occupations at the mill included clockmakers, turners, brassfounders and wrights, all of whom built and maintained the mill machinery

Like many cotton mills, Linwood mill was burned down, and was later rebuilt. In an 1804 advert, only one of its six stories remained standing, plus a large water wheel, 14 feet diameter and 12 feet wide. The mill was then rebuilt. At this point on the Black Cart, so far down the river, the bottom of the waterwheel could be swamped at high tide, and a smaller, higher water wheel had to be used.
Beside the big cotton mill there was also a small thread bleachfield. Further down the river at Middleton there was a much bigger thread bleachfield, started by James Smith by 1782.

Less well known is Linwood’s second cotton mill. Henderson’s Mill was built shortly after the big mill, but with only a tenth of the big mill’s 400 workers. Both mills latterly changed to paper making.

© 2017 Stuart Nisbet, Renfrewshire Local History Forum