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.





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

William Hair, Kilbarchan emigrant to Ulster and America

William Hair was one of the earliest Kilbarchan men known to have settled in America. He was born in Kilbarchan 1694, the youngest of the four sons of William Hair and Margaret Gardiner. His father was a tenant farmer in Birdland who paid a total of one pound and three shillings in Poll Tax in 1695. Previously the family had lived in Weitlands (Wheatlands). At this time both settlements were fermtouns, small farming settlements usually tenanted by more than one family. Wheatlands still exists today, but Birdland (variously spelled Boreland and Boarland) is long gone.

As a young man William Hair, like many Scots, moved to Ulster where he worked as a farm labourer. This move was not as successful as he had hoped and William became disillusioned. He and a companion John Paterson, who may have been a John Paterson born at Locherside in Kilbarchan Parish in 1693, set sail from Londonderry on a ship bound for Boston, America, captained by a Captain Dennis.

In 1719 William and John are recorded as single farmers from Ireland who had recently arrived in the town. However, Boston did not want to support jobless new arrivals. William Hair, now in his mid-twenties, and John Paterson were chased out of town because they were single and jobless. From there, they made their way to Providence and then inland to Brookfield, still in Massechusetts, where new arrivals were made more welcome. In 1720 they were granted a sixty acre lot of land in the north of Brookfield beside Five Mile River, where they set up a Fulling Mill. William built his house on the site. In his youth William may have had some knowledge or experience in this early-mechanised industry in one of the two fulling mills (known as waulkmills in Scotland) on the Black Cart near Kilbarchan.

William Hair was married three times and, between 1725 and 1755, fathered a large family of seven sons and seven daughters. When he married his first wife Elizabeth Owen in 1725, he was designated ‘a clothier, and first of the name in Brookfield’. Elizabeth was only fourteen years old when they married. Sadly, in the same year their first child Jane died in infancy. John Paterson and his wife Mary had a son John, born in 1724, and a daughter, Margaret born in 1726.

Both men still resided in Brookfield in 1748 when sixty-six tax-payers signed a petition to the Town Clerk of Brookfield asking for a second precinct with Parish privileges and a meeting house to be set up in the north of the town. Among the signatories were William Hair, John Paterson, sen., and John Paterson, jun. The proposal in the petition was rejected and after continued pressure the matter went to the House of Representatives, on March 25th, 1750. Eventually in 1754 an Act was passed, establishing the new Precinct. A congregational Meeting House was built and a Mr Forbush was appointed as minister.

William’s large family and their descendants, like most eighteenth century Americans, volunteered in the various American conflicts and wars which ravaged the country. Some family members were active in the frontier wars against the native Indians. William’s three eldest sons, Abraham, John and William fought for the British troops in the wars against the French in the 1750s. Twenty years later Abraham Hair fought against the British in the American War of Independence. John Paterson, jun. also fought for independence as a volunteer from Brookfield in Captain Nathan Hamilton’s company stationed at Ticonderoga Mills in 1776-7. In 1786, after Independence had been won, Hair family members supported local Brookfield man, Daniel Shay, in an insurrection by Massachusetts veterans and farmers to address economic grievances. This was known as Shay’s Rebellion.

Despite ancient wars and conflicts, descendants of William Hair from Kilbarchan still live in New England almost 300 years after William Hair arrived in Boston. Research into the family was inspired by an enquiry, to Renfrewshire Local History Forum from a descendant, Richard Hare of New York who, perhaps following the family tradition, was a USAF Captain in Vietnam.

© 2014 Helen Calcluth

Robert Semple – A Kilbarchan Man and the Bargarran Witches of 1697

In the last decade of the 19th century an old weaver in Kilbarchan was heard to say ‘I knew a man who knew a man who saw the last witch burnt in Paisley’. He was referring to a man who witnessed the burning of the Bargarran Witches in Paisley in 1697.  It seems unlikely that this statement could be true two hundred years after the event. The question is  –  who was this man who witnessed the burning of the witches?

In 1697, when the witch trial and the burning of the witches took place in Paisley, there was still a strong belief in witchcraft and a widespread fear of witches. The trial came about because Christine Shaw, the eleven year old daughter of John Shaw of Bargarran in Erskine Parish, was suffering various torments and was believed to have been bewitched by one of her father’s servants and other local people. The Presbytery of Paisley was determined to eradicate all superstitions and witchcraft and local ministers, doctors and the gentry were consulted. They were all of the opinion that the child was certainly bewitched. This led to the trial in Paisley where seven innocent people were accused of witchcraft. The seven “Bargarran witches” were found guilty and condemned to death. One subsequently committed suicide by hanging himself in his prison cell. The other six were hanged and burnt on Gallow Green in Paisley. Although this event was not in fact the last sentence of death for witchcraft, it is generally regarded as the last mass execution of Witches in Western Europe.

At the time a ten year old boy, Robert Semple, was staying with his parents, the Semples of Belltrees, in Pollock Castle the home of his uncle Sir William Pollock. The hanging and the burning of the Barragan 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.

kilbarchan1But where’s the Kilbarchan connection?  In 1777 Robert Semple bought land on what was then part of Milliken Estate in Kilbarchan and built Belltrees Cottage, naming it after his family’s former estate. He died in Belltrees Cottage in 1789 at the ripe old age of one hundred and two. Robert Semple was the Kilbarchan man who had witnessed the burning of the witches. His longevity gives credibility to the old weaver’s assertion, ‘I knew a man who knew a man who saw the last witch burnt in Paisley’.

© 2014, Helen Calcluth

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

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

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


View of walled garden from ruined pavilion

View of walled garden from ruined pavilion

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

Bridge of Weir’s Hidden Tunnels

Bridge of Weir is one of at least eighteen planned and unplanned villages in the old County of Renfrew which originated as cotton spinning settlements. The short stretch of the River Gryfe running through the village supported at least ten separate mills, thanks to the development of an ingenious system of dams, tunnels and lades. The last of Bridge of Weir’s mills disappeared with the demolition of Clydesdale Leather Works in the past decade. Although all the mill buildings may be gone, fieldwork is showing that most of the system of lades and tunnels which powered the mills still survives.

The village originated at a narrow rocky gorge, which provided a suitable bridging point of the Gryfe. The village straddles a geological boundary, between the plateau lavas of the Renfrewshire hills, and the flatter Carboniferous plain of the Cart Basin below. There is no actual waterfall, simply a succession of rapids, dropping nearly ten metres over a distance of some 500 metres. Traditionally the main fall powered a grain mill, the Mill of Gryfe. By the 1770s lint and waulk mills had been added.

The site was brought to the attention of cotton spinners by the enterprising Mill of Gryfe owner, who placed adverts in the Glasgow press in 1790. By 1794 the village had three large cotton mills. By the 1840s a dozen individual mill sites were in use, varying greatly in size, all powered by the Gryfe.

The key to the water system was a succession of five dams. The top dam served Burngill cotton mill and leather works. When the railway came, the viaduct had to negotiate not only the river, via a five-span skewed viaduct with segmental arches, but also the cotton mill and lade. The legs of the viaduct straddle the underground lade system which still survives in a brick-lined tunnel. The tunnel passes under the mill site and exits at an arch visible from the upstream side of the Bridge of Weir. Remote investigation with a camera has revealed that this leads into the original 1792 tailrace tunnel, cut through solid rock, with a vaulted masonry roof.

Burngill Tailrace

Burngill Tailrace

Further down, the second weir powered lint and cotton mills, but the dam was washed away in a flood many years ago. The next two dams or weirs are at the main fall on the river and served an upper and lower lade system. The start of the upper lade and a sluice gate still survive by the river path. This powered at least six mills, including two grain mills, two cotton mills, a saw mill and a bleachworks.

Corn Tunnel

Corn Tunnel

The water from each mill discharged directly into the lower lade, which was also fed by its own dam, and then carried on to serve the big cotton mill. Brick tailrace arches can still be seen beside the rubble lade wall. Inside, remote photography again reveals long brick tunnels, leading back under the former mill sites. Further down the rock-cut lower lade are the walls and windows of an eighteenth century grain mill.

The lower lade leads to the site of the Laigh Gryfe cotton mill, the lowest and biggest in the village. The mill was burnt down in 1898, but a leather works rose from the ashes in 1905. This was built on the footprint of the 1794 cotton mill, from its lower walls. Until recently, two storeys of the original cotton mill survived facing the river. The leather works survived until 2002, when it was demolished.

When the site was redeveloped, despite its importance to the origins of village, no investigation was carried out of the eighteenth century mill walls, buried lade, wheel pit and tailrace. Fortunately photos survive of the brick arched tailrace which exited to the river. A short distance below the mill site is the fifth dam which served the cotton mill at Crosslee via a very long lade.

The full lade system may yet return to service as it has the capacity to generate a substantial amount of free power from the flow in the Gryfe.

© 2014 Stuart Nisbet

John Cunninghame of Craigends (1759 – 1822),

John Cunninghame, Laird of Craigends, when he was in his mid-fifties, wrote a personal diary covering the years 1814-15. More than one hundred years later, in 1919, the diary was published by James Durham, his great-grandson. As one would expect, the dairy includes entries about his estate and business duties including haymaking, sheep shearing, pruning vines, checking his hothouse, buying Highland cattle at the June Thorn Fair in 1814 and at Johnstone Fair the following year, engaging and dismissing staff, collecting rent from his tenants, attending to his property in Port Glasgow and going to Paisley to ‘bank my West India income’. There were also entries noting his public duties such as attending heritors and session meetings to distribute the poor funds, inspecting Hardgate Toll and attending meetings concerning local toll roads in need of repair or alteration.

But business entries are far outnumbered by numerous entries about his health and the weather. Although John Cunninghame was a devout Christian, either a minor ailment or inclement weather seems always to have occurred on a Saturday justifying his non-attendance at church the following day. He suffered from numerous minor ailments and, more seriously, from gout. The ‘running off of the last of the wine’ (58 dozen and two bottles) in March, 1814, may have contributed to his gout! However, despite his painful illness he still frequently managed to go hunting with friends at Formakin, Barrochan Mill and Kilmacolm on his favourite horse, Empress.

John Cunninghame of Craigends and his wife Margaret were married in 1800 and by 1815 and had eleven children. Their family social circle, as one would expect, was largely confined to local gentry of his own class and Mr John Monteith, the Houston and Killallan minister. Mrs Monteith, ‘a kind good woman’ was a close friend of Margaret. She even stayed over at Craigends to help when new babies were born.

Other family friends mentioned in the diary include the Flemings of Barochan, Lady Stewart at Torr, the Porterfields of Duchal, the Alexanders of Soutbar, Sir John and Lady Maxwell of Pollock, the Napiers of Blackstoun, Mr Douglas (Kilbachan parish minister) and the Napiers of Milliken, who at that time were renting Alexander Spiers’s Glentyan House in Kilbarchan. On a visit to Glentyan, John Cunninghame was introduced to William Milliken Napier’s new bride, Elizabeth Stirling, whom he described as ‘very agreeable, tho’ not such a beauty as I had been led to think she was’. These families frequently visited each other for dinner. The main modes of transport used to visit friends were horseback or private horse and chaise for short distances, post horses on occasion for longer journeys and boats on the Johnstone Canal.

John Cunninghame had a keen interest in the lives of his children. This personal involvement of a father with his children seems more in keeping with the present day than the early nineteenth century. Entries in the diary record the birth of his youngest son, Boyd, on 11th March 1814, with intimate details on problems with the wet nurse, and an entry on the nineteenth of March saying ‘Mrs C slept well. Baby going finely’. The diary details John Cunninghame’s arrangements for the younger children to go on holiday to Largs ‘for ‘sea bathing’. He and his wife journeyed to Largs at the end of May to book a holiday house at the cost of £11 for the season. He also noted calling the doctor when the children had chickenpox, when Lillie cut and bruised her cheek and when Willie fell from a horse. Another entry mentions taking his eight year old daughter, Fanny, to Paisley to have a haircut. His older boys were educated in Edinburgh under ‘the care and instruction’ of Robert Smith until December 1814, when he became the minister in Lochwinnoch, and was replaced by David Brown. John Cunninghame mentions sending a watch to his eldest son, thirteen year old Willie, in Edinburgh.

The diary surprisingly makes no mention of politics or the Battle of Waterloo. John Cunninghame’s Diary is simply a very ordinary day to day account of the family life of a country laird who suffered from ill health, loved his family and attended to his immediate estate and public duties. He died in 1822 and was buried in Kilbarchan. His gravestone is displayed high on the wall inside the entrance tower of Kilbarchan old Parish Church.

© 2014, Helen Calcluth

Somerled & the Battle of Renfrew


Saturday 4th October 2014

Somerled & the Battle of Renfrew

The Forum is hosting the conference in Renfrew Town Hall to mark the 850th anniversary of the Battle of Renfrew.  Please see our Conference page for more information.

A Kilbarchan Weaving Agent Robert Climie (1772- c1836)

By the 1820s Kilbarchan was well established as a weaving community with over 800 looms in the village. Most weavers worked in silk and cotton to produce long shawls and square shawls, many in a fine, patterned gauze fabrics. The weavers were self-employed doing contract work for Paisley and Glasgow Manufacturing Houses. These manufacturing houses employed local weaving agents, to engage the weavers. The weaving agents, usually local men (or women), were well versed in the technical skills required in the weaving trade and must have been skilled hand loom weavers prior to becoming weaving agents.

One of these agents in Kilbarchan was Robert Climie. He lived in Church Street with his wife and family and worked as the weaving agent for John Miller and Sons, shawl manufacturers in Paisley. Robert Climie’s business correspondence with Thomas Patten of John Miller and Sons in 1828 still exists. The correspondence, which gives detailed information of the work and responsibilities of a weaving agent, was discovered in the 1990s in the loft Mount Pleasant, a house to the north of the village, where Robert’s surviving family lived after his death.

Robert’s first responsibility was to appoint weavers for particular pieces of work. He had then to arrange delivery to the weaver of the dyed coils of yarn to be woven, and his ‘weaver’s ticket’ which was a contract between the weaver and the manufacturer for a specific piece of work. On occasion, a considerable number of weavers were required. In March, 1828, Robert was instructed to find ‘half a hundred weavers’ for ‘shades and spots’.

Robert was also required settle any disputes between the weaver and the manufacturer. One dispute over rate of payment involved a weaver, James Stewart, who was ‘rather reluctant to engage’ because he had expected a higher rate for his work. Another dispute occurred when Jo. Scobie complained about the quality of yarn supplied to him by the manufacturer. Diplomacy and tact was required to resolve these situations. Robert Climie was also required to check the weaver’ work and rectify any errors before arranging for carriers to transport the woven webs back to Paisley.

Futher detailed information on the documents on Robert Climie’s work as a weaving agent is available in the Weaver’s Cottage in Kilbarchan

© 2013 Helen Calcluth