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

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