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