Castle Semple “The Temple”

Anybody travelling from Glasgow to Ayr by train, or driving on the A737 from Johnstone to the coast will be puzzled by an octagonal stone building on top of Kenmuir Hill, between Howwood and Lochwinnoch. The building is the most prominent feature on Castle Semple Estate, and commonly known as the ‘temple’. The prominence of the building has generated much speculation about its purpose.

Dating from shortly after the building of Castle Semple house in the early 1730s, the purpose of the ‘temple’ has been romanticised and lost. Ideas range from a place for viewing hunts to a local lovers’ meeting place.

The tradition that it was a hunting lodge dates from the 1780s, when the estate’s deer park was moved to Kenmuir Hill. However the deer weren’t for hunting, but were captive, to impress visitors. The whole of Kenmuir Hill was surrounded by walls and ha-has (boundary ditches with a stone face on one side, which could not be seen from a distance, giving the impression that the deer were free to roam).

The original purpose of the temple was simply a landscape feature or ‘folly’, designed to be seen from the mansion house and by visitors arriving at Castle Semple. It also served as a summer house with panoramic views. The design of the building probably comes from James Gibbs ‘Book of Architecture’, published in 1728, a sort of architect’s scrapbook of ideas. Gibbs described his designs as ‘summer houses in the form of temples of an octagonal form’.

According to a survey of 1780, the summit of Kenmuir Hill around the temple was originally planted with trees, forming twelve radiating avenues, a feature which was fashionable on estates at the time. The inspiration dates back to 1733, when surveyor John Watt, who originally laid out the estate for the McDowalls of Castle Semple, took sightings from the summit of the hill to distant features. These included Misty Law, the castles at Barr and Elliston, and church steeples as far away as Glasgow and Renfrew. But did the mapped trees ever exist on such a rocky, exposed hilltop? In fact they are indicated on Ordnance Surveys and a few survive in late Victorian photographs and sketches.

Inside the octagonal temple, the main floor (now gone) was elevated above a basement and accessed by an external stone stair, also now completely gone. Some of the basement windows were false and always blocked off, and the remainder were barred. The basement was entered from a low door under the stair. Inside the ruin are the remains of a fireplace and a very fine ashlar chimney in the roof. In the centre of the roof was a cupola matching the original on top of Castle Semple House. Externally, the panels between the ashlar details and window surrounds were originally harled and limewashed, and the building would have stood out on the skyline even more than it does today.

In the 1830s, Andrew Crawford of Lochwinnoch described the temple as being badly damaged by fire, following a lightning strike. However it was repaired, and the roof and glazed windows were still intact in late Victorian photos. However the condition of the temple deteriorated with the decline of Castle Semple House, and the breakup of the estate. It is only thanks to the quality of construction that it is still upstanding today, despite the loss of its roof. On a sunny day the walk to the summit is worthwhile and provides panoramic views of the area, and down Castle Semple Loch past the site of the McDowall’s mansion.

© Stuart Nisbet 2014

Field Trip – Derek Alexander – Saturday, 11th April, 2015 Lurg Moor Roman Fortlet

Total Station Survey Computer Data

Total Station Survey Computer Data

Lurg Moor Roman Fortlet is situated on moorland above Port Glasgow and is part of the western flank of the Antonine frontier. It probably housed a cavalry patrol and is the only visible Roman remains in Renfrewshire.

After a long uphill climb and negotiating a few barbed wire fences we arrived at the sight of Lurg Moor Roman Fortlet. Evidence of the turf rampart and ditch round the fortlet and the entrance causeway were clearly visible on the ground, but there was no evidence on the ground of the wooden barracks and stables built within the fortlet.

The weather was disappointing, very cold, with a few blinks of sunshine, and with strong winds blowing across the site from the west – but we carried on regardless! Out of interest Derek gave us instruction on the use of a Plane Table.  We then conducted a Total Station Survey of the site.

Plane Table with Total Station in background

Instructions in use of Plane Table

Total Station Survey at Lurg Moor, 2015

Derek at work on Total Station Survey






 lurg plane tableitems for website

Another Excavation at Paisley Abbey. 2015

Trench 2: volunteers at work

Trench 2: Volunteers at work

From 31st August to 7th September, 2015, twenty members of Renfrewshire Local History Forum acted as volunteers, assisting the fourth excavation led by Bob Will of GUARD on the grass area opposite Paisley Abbey. In the previous excavations the remains of medieval structures associated with the Abbey had been uncovered, including the outer surface of the Paisley Abbey Drain, a beautiful cobbled area and what was considered to be a slate oven used by the monks..

This year’s excavation, as part of Doors Open Day, aimed to investigate the survival of other archaeological remains on the site. Our members were busy all week – digging, washing finds and recording the remains of structures. Fortunately, the weather was fine and the excavation had an excellent response from an interested public. Visitors on the Saturday of Doors Open Day included more than two hundred children who visited the site with their parents.

Three trenches were dug on the site and we reached the foundation level of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings in Abbey Close. Unfortunately, time did not allow for further excavation. However, at the foundation level of the houses, pottery finds from the Medieval period were found. These included (from left to right) glazed tiles, plain roof tiles, ridge tiles, a coin possibly dated to the sixteenth century, and part of a pot handle. This confirmed that the Abbey Close houses had most probably been built on the site of the medieval abbey buildings.

Medieval Pottery Finds

Medieval Pottery Finds


Part of Medieval Pot Handle

Alma and June washing finds

Maggie and Conor recording and drawing

Maggie and Conor recording and drawing

The Great Drain Archaeological Dig

PaisleyAbbeyCome and discover more about Paisley Abbey as GUARD Archaeology’s research continues and Paisley’s fascinating story unfolds. Led by GUARD Archaeologist, Bob Will, a team of local volunteers will be seeking to uncover more secrets about Paisley’s historic past.

The team will be on site from Monday 31st August until Sunday 6th September 2015. The project is being run in conjunction with Renfrewshire Council and the Renfrewshire Local History Forum.

The Great Drain of Paisley Abbey is the best preserved monastic drain in Scotland with a unique assemblage of archaeological evidence. This ranges from medieval pottery and fragments of slate inscribed with music and poetry, to seeds and animal bones, revealing much about the medieval monastic community and its links with Europe when it was a leading centre of the Benedictine Order of Cluny.


Taken from GUARD Archaeology’s post at

Locherfield Bleachworks

In a spell of dry weather in the summer of 2014 the flow of the Locher Water (between Kilbarchan and Bridge of Weir) was reduced to a trickle. This revealed the footings of what appeared to have been an old weir or dam with the timbers preserved by decades of immersion in water. The weir or dam, constructed in the early 1860s, was associated with Locherfield Bleach Works which was owned by Hardie, Starke & Co. Forum members have been investigating the site and its history.
This field survey into the remains of the bleach works is continuing and a second weir has been revealed on the bank of the river further downstream where a large spill tunnel exits into the river.

Excavation at Greenbank House

On Sunday, 27th of July, 2014, the Forum had a stall at Archaeology Day at Greenbank House and Gardens. The event was run by the National Trust for Scotland. Derek Alexander of NTS organised the dig. Four of our members and interested teenager, Conor Brett, were volunteers in a small excavation of three trenches in different parts of the gardens.

Trench 1 was the site of a saw mill and Trench 3 was an attempt to find building foundations.

Maggie examining a five inch layer  of greyish ash at sawmill site Trench 1

Maggie examining a five inch layer of greyish ash at sawmill site Trench 1


Maggie, Conor and Bill in Trench 2

Maggie, Conor and Bill in Trench 2

Eaglesham Orry

eagle1Renfrewshire Local History Forum has introduced a new series of archaeology fieldtrips in the ‘Old Renfrewshire’. Our first archaeology walk in the series took place in Eaglesham and was led by Susan Hunter, a member of the Forum and of the Association of Certificated Field Archaeologists.

Susan started the walk at Glasgow Street at the bottom of the Orry, an A-shaped green area in the centre of the Eaglesham village covering 15 acres, bordered on the north by Montgomery Street and on the south by Polnoon Street. The Orry was gifted to the inhabitants of Eaglesham in the late 18th century by the 10th Earl of Eglinton as part of his planned village.

Susan pointed out areas of archaeological and historic interest as we made our way up the length of the Orry – the sites of old lades, tunnels and reservoirs on the Kikton Burn, old field boundaries , Moat Hill which was an early meeting place for judicial and other assemblies, Mid Road Bridge which was rebuilt by the feuars in 1835, and sites recently identified by geo-phys surveys where old buildings formerly stood.

However, the highlight of the day was the site and archaeological remains of the New Orry Cotton Mill built in the middle of the Orry, probably in 1791. The mill was the principal employer in Eaglesham for more than seventy years with as many as 200 employees in 1845. The main building was an impressive five storeys high. The mill’s history ended when it was destroyed by fire in 1876.

The walk up the Orry ended at the site of the Earl of Eglinton’s dog kennels. We then visited the site of an of an older cotton mill built in the late eighteenth century at Townhead at the top of the old village. Finally, we walked down Montgomery Street to visit the churchyard to see the Covenanter Memorial, commemorating the killing of martyrs Robert Lochkhart and Gabriel Thomson, who were put to death by the Highland Dragoons after attending a conventicle meeting in 1685.

Everyone attending the fieldtrip found this a most interesting and enjoyable day. We hope over the coming months to continue this series of walks in the local Strathgryffe area.

Some members of our group gathering outside the Eglinton Arms

Some members of our group gathering outside the Eglinton Arms

Castle Semple Garden: Medieval to Victorian

View of walled garden from ruined pavilion

The estate of Castle Semple in Renfrewshire was the seat of a leading Scottish landowner since the medieval period. The Semples were part of the Royal Court from the reign of Alexander II in the 13th century. By the 1580s Castle Semple included gardens, parks and woodland, evident on Timothy Pont’s survey.

The status of the estate is reflected in charters by King James IV to John Lord Semple in 1501, granting the lands, park, tower, and the fortalice of Lochwinnoch, and lands of Castleton. In 1504 John Lord Semple built a Collegiate Chapel amongst the gardens and orchards of Castle Semple, just behind the Castle of Semple. The precincts included ten roods (2.5 acres) of land directly adjacent, for priests’ dwelling houses, gardens and fruit trees.

Castle Semple Collegiate Chapel survived the Reformation, and the priest’s gardens merged with Castle Semple’s garden. A detailed survey of 1733 shows a scatter of buildings and small enclosures directly south of the Chapel. Renfrewshire Local History Forum (RLHF) have carried out fieldwork on the site, including geophysics, which has identified several structures and at least one building, possibly a priest’s dwelling, near the Chapel and garden.

The fortunes of the Semples declined in the late 17th century. In 1726 Castle Semple was sold to Colonel William McDowall, a sugar planter recently returned from the Caribbean. At the same time, the Colonel purchased the Shawfield Mansion in Glasgow with its five acre garden, orchards and pavilions.

At Castle Semple, the Colonel demolished the old Castle of Semple, one of the largest towerhouses in the west of Scotland. On the same site he built one of the earliest Palladian country villas in Scotland. The mansion had a panoramic frontage, including four pavilions fronting Castle Semple Loch. Although the mansion was demolished to its basement in the 20th century, the four pavilions survive, each as private dwellings.

In the late 1720s, Colonel McDowall employed surveyor John Watt, uncle of James the engineer, to measure the old garden. He described the ‘old garden in which the chapel house stands’, enclosed by a wall and measuring 3 acres 2 roods.

He also brought garden expert William Bouchert to Castle Semple to lay out his new estate and policies. Bouchert carried out planting and improvements for many other leading estates, including Castle Kennedy, Auchincruive, Blair Castle, Duff House, and Rossdhu. From 1727 to 1730, Bouchert diverted the burn behind Castle Semple to feed water features, including fish ponds and cascades. Beside the ponds, an ice house and a grotto survive.

In front of the new mansion, facing the loch, an inner court was formed, enclosed on four sides by the house, the inner east and west pavilions, and a low wall to the front. A stone path crossed the inner court from the front door of the house to the wall, where three steps led up to an outer court, consisting of a flower garden and large oval lawn.

To the rear of the mansion, the Colonel retained the footprint of the Semple’s original garden and orchard, covering five acres. By 1780 the old garden was partly a bowling green. In the western half, closer to the Collegiate Church, were vineries, peach and citrus houses, a conservatory and a hot house. The hot house was described as the best in Scotland, equal to that of the Duke of Argyle.

Plan of gardens 1780

Plan of gardens 1780         

(Click on image to enlarge)

From the 1780s, Castle Semple’s garden was transferred 500m north to a new location on a south-facing slope at the old settlement of Sheills. This developed gradually into the massive buttressed walled garden with brick and sandstone details. The walls still survive, although the garden’s pavilions and outbuildings have been unroofed for a century and are in a ruinous state

In 1835 the garden was described as being laid out with great beauty, with long ranges of conservatories, hot-houses with the choicest fruits, a pinery, extensive flower-garden, shrubberies of rare plants, a fish-pond surrounded by every variety of rock plants, and every requisite for horticultural purposes.

Castle Semple estate survives as a Country Park, relatively untouched by modern development. Its gardens and policies provide a unique opportunity to study the estate of leading landowners over 700 years and RLHF are continuing research and fieldwork on the estate.

© 2014 Stuart Nisbet, Renfrewshire Local History Forum            

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