The Big Dig, Paisley Abbey Drain

The medieval drain Abbey Drain at Paisley was rediscovered in 1990. This stone-built drain is a tunnel-like structure with a high arched roof.  After the discovery, a deep layer of compacted mud and silt was removed and numerous artefacts, including an almost intact large pottery chamber pot, buckles, coins, a knife handle, a tuning peg, pieces of slate inscribed with polyphonic music and thousands of pottery sherds were discovered.

Since 2010, members of Renfrewshire Local History Forum have participated as volunteers in the numerous GUARD Archaeology excavations at Paisley Abbey Drain. ‘The Big Dig’ in 2019 surpassed all expectations. Two trenches were dug on the site. In Trench 1, the intact arch covering the outlet from the drain into the river was revealed. In Trench 2, the outer top stones covering the internal arched roof of the drain were uncovered.

Trench 1: Top of the arched outlet from the Drain into the White Cart

Trench 2    Outer Top Stones on the roof of the Drain

The most interesting find was a number of fragments of a glass wine bottle with the seal intact. The seal, considered to be the seal of the Cochranes of Paisley, shows a coronet and a horse and dates from the late 17th century to early 18th century.

The Forum’s involvement with the Abbey Drain began in 1999 when it organised the Abbey and Drain Conference held in Paisley Town Hall. The resounding success of the conference led to the Forum’s publication of The Monastery and Abbey of Paisley, edited by John Maldon, in 2000. The book includes the lectures from the conference with additional papers. Our interest in the Drain continued and, in August 2009, volunteers from the Forum assisted at Glasgow University in washing and sorting the pottery recovered from the Drain in 1990. Since then, Forum members have volunteered over the years at all of the six excavations led by GUARD Archaeology at Paisley Abbey Drain. In the earlier digs the Victorian remains of Abbey Close, which had been built directly on top of the drain site and, at a deeper level, a medieval wall beside some cobbled paving and an enigmatic circular feature. The Forum also assisted at Doors Open Day in 2018 and 2019 and some lucky members were privileged to have a tour down the Abbey Drain.

© 2019 Helen Calcluth

Renfrewshire’s Slave Legacy: 6

In past issues, we have seen how some of Renfrewshire’s leading landowners were awarded large sums in 1834 for the loss of Africans on their sugar plantations. This was the result of a series of connections dating back to the 1640s, when ships from the lower Clyde sailed to Nevis and St Kitts. From the 1660s, pioneers such as William Colhoun had become sugar planters. Their influence brought out young men such as William McDowall and James Milliken as overseers. These men became successful planters and came home from the Caribbean in the 1720s and purchased Renfrewshire estates. They became ‘fixers’, among fellow landowners, demonstrating the vast wealth possible from owning sugar plantations. They arranged lucrative marriages and positions for sons and daughters on sugar plantations.

Other leading Renfrewshire families who received slave compensation in 1834 included the Stewarts of Blackhall and Ardgowan. The Stewarts owned large tracts of the county from Inverkip to Mearns. Through the influence of established planters such as the McDowalls, by the 1740s the Stewarts had acquired the ‘Roxburgh’ sugar plantation on Tobago. Most of the slave-owning families were linked through marriage. In 1786 the Stewart heir, married Fanny Colhoun, the widow of Sir James Maxwell of Nether Pollok, daughter of the McDowall’s slave overseer. Later, Sir Michael (Shaw-)Stewart married the daughter of Robert Farquhar, heir of the Harvey of Castle Semple sugar fortune.

Sugar success spread quickly across Renfrewshire. In Cathcart Parish, the ‘Sugar Campbells’, the seventh largest plantation owners in Britain, purchased what became Linn Park from the McDowalls. In 1843 they were awarded compensation for the loss of 1,062 Africans. In Neilston Parish, John Wallace of Kelly & Neilstonside was a planter in Jamaica. In Kilmacolm, the Porterfields of Duchal shared in the sugar plantations of the Cunninghams of Craigends. In Inchinnan Parish, William Alexander of Southbar had plantations on Antigua, Grenada and St. Vincent. In 1834 he was awarded £21,181 for the loss of 850 Africans. In Mearns, apart from the Stewarts of Blackhall, the Allasons of Greenbank engaged in slave trading and the Hutchesons of Southfield were awarded compensation for the loss of Africans on their Jamaican plantation.

Overall, despite the popular association of Liverpool and Bristol, with slavery, the Glasgow area received more compensation for losing slaves than Liverpool. Because many planters purchased estates around Glasgow, this had a very large effect on Renfrewshire. The leading Renfrewshire landowners covered in this series owned thousands of Africans. Most owned plantations for generations. Due to over-work, violence, disease and replacement, the number of Africans passing through their hands amounted to several times this number.

In conclusion, there are few parts of Renfrewshire where the farmland wasn’t improved through the labour of enslaved Africans, who were personally owned by the landed elite. (Readers can search the slave compensation records for themselves at

© 2019 Stuart Nisbet

                                                                                      Linn Bridge

Renfrewshire’s Slave Legacy 5 The Maxwells of Pollok

The McDowalls of Castle Semple and Millikens returned from the Caribbean in the 1720s and showed the vast income possible from sugar plantations. Thanks to their experience, they became ‘fixers’ among Renfrewshire’s main landed families, arranging positions for sons as overseers, and marrying daughters to sugar planters.

The Maxwells of Nether Pollok (now Glasgow’s Pollok Country Park) were one of the biggest landowning families in Renfrewshire. They are not often linked to mercantile pursuits, but have a long slave owning heritage.

Pollok House

The connection started with Robert Colhoun, grandson of one of Glasgow’s original merchants or ‘Sea Adventurers’ who was a St Kitts planter in the 1660s. Robert sailed to St Kitts in 1724 as the McDowall’s slave overseer. By the 1750s he owned two sugar plantations next to the McDowalls. A training position was arranged on Robert’s plantation for James Maxwell, a younger son of Nether Pollok. In 1762, due to the death of the heir, James suddenly became Sir James Maxwell the new heir to Nether Pollok. While on St. Kitts, Sir James had courted Robert’s daughter, Fanny. Sir James came home and married Fanny Colhoun, the daughter of McDowall’s slave overseer. Large sums poured into Nether Pollok from Fanny’s dowry from her late father’s sugar plantations on St. Kitts, and the Dutch sugar island of St. Croix.

The family’s slave-owning heritage continued. In 1815, Elizabeth, the granddaughter of Sir James and Fanny Colhoun married Archibald Stirling. Thanks to the family’s Jamaica sugar plantations, where Stirling had spent most of his life, he was reputedly the richest commoner in Scotland. At the abolition of slave ownership in 1834, Stirling was awarded £12,517 for the loss of 690 enslaved Africans on his plantations. When the Maxwell male line died out, Archibald and Elizabeth’s son, William, became heir to Nether Pollok. Despite the slaving heritage of the Stirlings, the family adopted the double-barrelled ‘Stirling-Maxwell’ surname, to save losing the ‘Maxwell’ title.

Sir William Stirling-Maxwell purchased much of the art which now graces Pollok House. Their grandson, Sir John Stirling Maxwell, founded the National Trust for Scotland at Pollok in 1931. The were one of Renfrewshire’s biggest landowners. Like many of Renfrewshire’s landed elite, they were also slave owners. Each acre of land in the family’s ownership was improved through the labour of one of their enslaved Africans.

© 2019 Stuart Nisbet

Renfrewshire’s Slave Legacy 4: The McDowalls and Harveys of Castle Semple

The McDowalls of Castle Semple started out in the Caribbean in the 1690s. Like their friends, the Millikens, who were partners and relatives by marriage, their careers were different from what we are told in the history books. Rather than soldiers, they went out there as slave overseers, and worked their way up to sugar planters.

At any one time the McDowalls were responsible for the control of at least 1,000 Africans, on their own plantations, and through managing others. They also dabbled in slave trading. In 1726 their overcrowded slave ship, named after Milliken’s daughter, overturned, drowning 272 Africans.

At home the McDowalls served in all the leading positions, as patrons of the parish kirk, Rectors of Glasgow University, and MPs. In the third generation James McDowall was Provost of Glasgow, and chairman of the society opposing the abolition of slavery. After 1800 the family firm went bankrupt. However, in 1834 the fourth generation of the McDowalls still held onto sugar plantations on Grenada and St. Vincent. The Slave Compensation records show that the family were awarded compensation for the loss of 427 Africans.

For more than a century, the McDowalls used their sugar money to improve Lochwinnoch Parish. In 1818 they were celebrated for contributing the most in the county towards building new roads and bridges. The McDowalls and Millikens were pioneers in showing the potential income from sugar plantations. The income from a 150 acre sugar plantation in the 1780s was many times the income from a similar sized Renfrewshire farm.

After 1810, Castle Semple passed to the Harveys, another sugar planting family. The Harveys had two plantations on Antigua in the late 1730s and expanded south to Grenada, with a further five sugar plantations.

The Harvey name was important enough to hold onto, even when their plantations passed to relations. The family created a succession of double-barrelled names including Rae-Harvey and Shand-Harvey. By the 1830’s, Castle Semple was owned by Major James Lee-Harvey. In 1834 the family were awarded £26,392 for the loss of their slaves. It is interesting that the compensation was for the loss of a total of 1,204 African men, women and children – more than one African for every improved acre of their Castle Semple estate at the time.

A future article will explain how the McDowalls and Millikens became ‘fixers’ among Renfrewshire’s landed elite. They showed others the vast income possible from owning plantations. They also arranged positions for sons as overseers, and married off daughters to sugar planters.

McDowall’s Sugar Mill, Grenada

© 2019 Stuart Nisbet

Renfrewshire’s Slave Legacy 3: The Cunninghams of Craigends

For several centuries the Cunninghams were among the top landowners in Renfrewshire. Their core estate was at Craigends, and they had further property in Kilbarchan village. The Cunninghams also owned many other lands in the parish. These included along the Black Cart (around Over Johnstone), along the Locher (Kaimhill, Clippens and Windyhill) and, also, up the Gryfe to Bridge of Weir, Thriplee, and Craigends  Denniston, then across into Erskine parish. All of these lands were managed and improved with slave money. Along with the Millikens’ coat of arms the Cunninghams’ coat of arms graced Kilbarchan parish church.

The Cunningham’s neighbour, James Milliken, returned from the Caribbean in 1729. Two years later, Cunningham acquired the 3,500 acre Grandville plantation in Westmoreland, Jamaica, and used it to fund improvements at home. When the 11th heir, Alexander Cunningham inherited Grandville in the 1780s from his father, he also used the income to improve his lands. He abandoned his old garden and built a new three acre walled garden, with orchard, hotwall, and melon and peach houses.

The Cunninghams were not ‘absent’ landlords who managed their slaves from the Scottish side of the Atlantic. Like fellow landowners such as the McDowalls and Millikens, they preferred to have a family member in control. William, the second son of the 8th laird, (b.1693) went to Jamaica in the 1730s. Others followed, right through to the 12th Laird, William, (b.1757) who lived and died on Jamaica. His brother John, the next heir, has a large epitaph inside Kilbarchan old kirk. This remembers John as ‘kind, candid, sincere and firm, walking humbly with his God’. There is a deep conflict between the church connections of Renfrewshire’s landed elite and their ownership of Africans.

By the 1770s, lists of chattels owned by the Cunninghams give details of nearly 300 enslaved Africans working 377 acres of sugar cane. They were captured on the west coast of Africa and carried in deplorable condition across the Atlantic. When Cunningham purchased the Africans off the slave ships, he gave them new names, including ‘Kilbarchan’, ‘Craigends’ and ‘Paisley’.

By 1834 the Cunninghams had profited from Grandville plantation for a century. In the Government compensation records at the abolition of plantation slavery that year, William Cunningham, 14th of Craigends, was awarded £3,278 for the loss of 185 enslaved Africans at Grandville (more than £200,000 at today’s value). Their overseer, Taylor Cathcart, was also compensated for loss of slaves on a plantation of his own.

Next door to the Cunninghams, Lochwinnoch Parish was dominated by the McDowall family. Next time we will see how slave money was used to improve Lochwinnoch Parish.

© 2019 Stuart Nisbet

Renfrewshire’s Slave Legacy 2: The Napiers of Milliken

The Government’s slave compensation records from 1834 reveal that many of Renfrewshire’s landed elite owned hundreds of African men, women and children on sugar plantations. Contrary to the misconception that Scots were banned from the empire before the Union of 1707, the connections started early. From the 1640s, ships from the lower Clyde ports ventured to the Caribbean.

James Milliken was born in 1669, the year after Port Glasgow was founded. One of the reasons why Renfrewshire’s slave ownership has been hidden for so long, is that those involved tried to cover up their activities. In the history books, Milliken was allegedly a career soldier who rose to the rank of major in the British army. However, Milliken’s father was a seafarer in Irvine, and his uncle was a partner in Glasgow’s first sugar house. Through their influence, Milliken ventured to the Leeward islands c.1690, as a slave overseer (not a soldier). When the French were driven out of St Kitts from 1710, Milliken acquired the 200-acre Monkey Hill plantation. This was the family’s main source of income for the next century. The Sugar Works Chimney, at Monkey Hill, St. Kitts still stands today.

James Milliken was among the first of the new sugar elite to invest in Renfrewshire. He came home from the Caribbean in 1729 and acquired half of Johnstone estate from the Houstons. He demolished Johnstone castle, and built a mansion, renaming his new estate ‘Milliken’. He expanded his estate, and became patron of the parish kirk.

Milliken died in 1741 and was succeeded by his son James II of Milliken. In the third generation, Milliken’s grandsons went on the Grand Tour, but died in Paris and Venice in their early twenties. In 1768, the estate went to their sister, who had married a Napier, and the family became the ‘Napiers of Milliken’. By the 1780s the family were the third largest landowners in Renfrewshire, dominating Kilbarchan and surrounding parishes.

Returning to our interest in the slave compensation records. In 1834 the second Napier of Milliken was awarded £2,555 (nearly £200,000 at today’s value) in compensation, for the loss of 161 enslaved Africans on his Monkey Hill sugar plantation, St Kitts. Given the death rate and through managing plantations of associates, the family had worked their way through thousands of Africans between 1710 and 1834.

Much of the money that the Napier-Millikens poured into Kilbarchan parish and its church, came directly from the labour of their African slaves. Through their sugar fortune, and the improving ideas brought home, the Millikens were described as the earliest enclosers and improvers in Renfrewshire, and the main financers of new roads and bridges.

The Milliken’s wealth and route to fortune influenced others to invest in sugar plantations. Two years after the return of the first James Milliken to Scotland, his neighbour, Cunningham of Craigends acquired a plantation in Jamaica. More about the Cunninghams next month.


                                                                         The Sugar Works Chimney

© 2019 Stuart Nisbet                                                                                    


Renfrewshire’s Slave Legacy 1

Between the 1620s and 1807, British ships carried around six million Africans across the Atlantic, mostly to the Caribbean. Conditions there were so bad that many died. From a Scottish perspective, relatively few Africans were traded on ships from Scottish ports. However, it has recently become clear that Scots were heavily involved in another equally traumatic issue. This was the owning of large numbers of Africans on sugar plantations.

In Renfrewshire the leading landowners formed an elite group who dominated the major social and power positions in the county as MPs, Sheriffs, and Patrons of Parish Kirks. Some were among the earliest in Scotland to improve their lands. They drained, enclosed and fertilised their lands at a faster rate than the rest of Scotland. These innovations and improvements needed finance beyond the proceeds from rent and agriculture.

This raises a simple question. Did any of their money which improved the Renfrewshire landscape come directly from slave ownership? To date, their colonial connections have been shrouded in vague, celebratory language. For example, that they ‘spent time in the Indies’; that they married into their sugar fortune (and didn’t make it personally); and that they were career soldiers (not slave overseers or planters). When William Semple visited all Renfrewshire’s landowners in 1782 to compile his History of the Shire, he found that some were quite evasive about their origins.

The estate papers and private records of various landowners give snapshots of plantation involvement through the 18th century. In recent years, personal trips to the Caribbean by the writer have tracked down the full extent of plantation ownership by some of Renfrewshire’s landed elite. Now, a more comprehensive picture has emerged. In 1834, twenty-seven years after the abolition of slave trading, slave ownership was finally banned in the British Empire.

The British Government compensated planters for the loss of their slaves (the slaves received nothing). For the first time, Government records give us a full picture of Scotland’s slave ownership. The results are surprising. Although Scotland contained only10% of the British population, it received 15% of the slave compensation money. In Glasgow and the west of Scotland, landowners received more slave compensation than Liverpool.

In recent decades Scotland has become a much more multi-cultural society. Beyond history, we owe it to those with African heritage to be honest about past connections. Over the next few issues we will look at Renfrewshire landowners who were major slave owning families and received government compensation in 1834. We will find that landowners in almost every parish were involved. Further information on slavery compensation can be found at

© 2019 Stuart Nisbet

James Caldwell (1818-1909), Writer, Paisley

James Caldwell erected a grave stone in Kilbarchan Parish Church, beside the now blocked Beltrees Door, in memory of his parents and siblings. His father was a silk handloom weaver in Kilbarchan. Although James was born into a Kilbarchan weaving family James did not follow the weaving trade. He became a writer (lawyer) in Paisley and lived with his wife, Janet, and their large family in Craigielea Place in Paisley.

James Caldwell was a prominent gentleman in the Paisley and had a plethora of varied interests. He was a member of Paisley Burns Club and of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. In 1874 he was one of eleven members of Paisley Burns Club who attended a meeting held in the Mason’s Arms in Kilbarchan to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Kilbarchan poet, Robert Allan. He acted as lawyer for Kilbarchan General Society and is likely to have been a member. He also had a keen interest in local history and collected and transcribed old manuscripts. Four handwritten letters from the correspondence of the Paisley poet, Robert Tannahill (1774-1810) were in his collection.

He maintained his long-term interest in the history of Kilbarchan. He had in his possession The Rental Mrs Napier’s Estate, 1785. This document detailed the names and feu duty paid by the hundred and nine residents who lived in houses in Kilbarchan built on Milliken lands. James Caldwell gave this document to Rev. Robert MacKenzie who included it in the appendix of his Kilbarchan, A Parish History. James had also in his possession the Kilbarchan register of baptisms and marriages. Three years after his death in 1909, this document was edited by Francis Grant of the Scottish Record Society and published as The Index to the Register of Marriages and Baptisms in the Parish of Kilbarchan, 1649-1772.  These valuable resources are still of considerable relevance in family history research today.

A less academic interest was wood turning.  In 1873 James acquired wood from the last fir tree cut down in Craigielea Woods and turned sixty cups from the solid wood to gift to his friends. He inscribed two verses of Tannahill’s song, ‘The Bonnie Woods of Craigielea’ on one side and the words ‘This caup, made from part of the Bonnie Wood of Craigielea’ on the reverse.

James Caldwell lived to the age of ninety-one and is buried in Woodside Cemetery in Paisley.

©2019 Helen Calcluth

Kilbarchan Old Parish Church Building

Kilbarchan Old Parish Church Building

Kilbarchan Old Parish Church,

The old Kilbarchan Parish Church building, with its long history and its unique appearance, is of great significance in the heritage of the village. There has been a church building on the site since, and probably before, the late middle-ages when in 1401 Thomas Crawford of Auchinames built a small chapel, dedicated to St. Catherine, in the kirk yard. In the 12th century Kilbarchan Parish Church had come under the jurisdiction of Diocese of Glasgow and later of Paisley Abbey. After the Reformation things changed and in 1590 the church became part of the newly formed Presbytery of Paisley. In the 17th century the Cuninghames of Craigends, as Patrons of the church, had a private aisle and burial place within the building.

By 1724 the church building was in a sad state of repair. The heritors appointed James Baird, a mason from Govan, to rebuild the church. Parishioners assisted in the work. The main body of the church was demolished, leaving only the Cunninghame Aisle, with its crow-step gable upstanding to be incorporated in the new building.  A small bell tower was erected on the west gable and a to-fall was built on the south wall as a burial place for the Houstons of Johnstone Castle.  Eight years later George Houston sold his estate to James Milliken and the to-fall became the burial place of the Milliken family and was thereafter known as the Milliken Aisle. The interior of the church had lofts or balconies at the east and west gables.

In 1792 a separate one storey session house was built in the churchyard.  Apart from the building of an additional storey on the Milliken Aisle, little change was made to the main church building before 1858 when architect, Alexander Kirkland, was appointed to make alterations to the building. The main part of the church was extended on the north by twelve feet and the tower on the north-east corner of the building was added. This increased the seating capacity of around 400 in Baird’s original building to 550.  Robert MacKenzie, the minister from (1895-1934) described the building as presenting ‘an artistic though somewhat quaint and unusual appearance’. It is now a B-listed building.

Since 1858 only minor functional extensions have been added to the exterior of the building which has served as the Church Hall since the new church was built in 1901. In 2018 both church buildings were sold by the Church of Scotland. The 1901 church will be made into flats, but the future of the 1724 old Kilbarchan Parish Church building has not yet been decided. Hopefully, it too will be preserved in some form and continue as an iconic focal point in the village.

© 2019 Helen Calcluth

John Love, a Kilbarchan Weaver

John Love (born in 1806) was a typical Kilbarchan weaver. He was also a well renowned bee-keeper.

In 1841 he and his wife Mary lived in the upper storey of Mount Pleasant, the last house on the right in Shuttle Street. Mary’s brother Robert Climie, her two sisters and her widowed mother were also part of the household.

John Love and his brother-in-law, Robert Climie, had their loomshop on the ground floor of the property. Both were silk handloom weavers. John’s wife, Mary, worked as a pirn winder and their twelve year old son was learning the weaving trade.

John and Robert cultivated flowers in their large garden and kept bees. John, however, was the gardening expert and was well-renowned as a Kilbarchan florist-weaver. The garden was a floral display of roses, herbaceous plants, and grafted fruit trees. However, the greatest attraction in the garden was John’s display of ‘pinks’ (carnations). He was acknowledged as the Scottish champion ‘pink’ grower.

John had numerous bee-hives, but one bee-house was unique. It was a model of a two-storey dwelling house, complete with chimney and chimney sweep. John’s other skill was as a taxidermist. His collection of numerous, carefully stuffed specimens of natural history was on display in his house.

In the mid-1870s John, who had been a tenant in Mount Pleasant for almost forty years, was forced by a new owner to vacate the property. John and his unmarried daughter, Elizabeth, moved to Paisley where they continued to work now as worsted weavers, in less pleasant surroundings.

John stayed in Paisley for some years, and then at the age of seventy-six, moved to the island of Bute to look after a fruit garden where he grew, among other produce, strawberries and Caledonian plum trees and kept bees. However, John missed his old home in Kilbarchan.

Like many ordinary Kilbarchan weavers, he often took the time to communicate his feelings in verse. In one letter sent from Bute to a friend, John wrote the touching lines,

Yes! that is the tale I whisper,

As I muse in the firelight glow,

As I sit in the hush of the evening,

And think of long ago.

After five years in Bute, John was pleased to come back to Kilbarchan and lived with a family named George at Bleachfield House in Merchant Close. In 1891 his friend described John, who looked only in his late sixties, as ‘a yellow haired laddie of eighty five summers’. He was of middle height, nimble, fleet of foot and of an amiable disposition.  He was a healthy individual who had sought medical attendance only once in his long life. John Love died in Kilbarchan in 1896 at the age eighty-nine

© 2020 Helen Calcluth