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Castle Semple


Just as the Semples had acquired their lands through royal patronage, the McDowalls had similarly been granted lands in the south-west of Scotland. They were made Lords of Galloway with estates around Garthland Tower near Stranraer. Three generations of McDowalls dominated eighteenth century Glasgow and the west of Scotland as merchants, estate owners and through that were patrons of parishes, MPs, Lord Lieutenant of Renfrewshire, Provost of Glasgow and Rector of Glasgow University.

William McDowall, the First of Castle Semple (1727-1748 )

McDowall, born in 1678 (died 1748 aged 70), was the fifth son of William McDowall, 17th of Garthland in Galloway. In the 1690’s, like other sons from West of Scotland families, he sailed to the West Indies to

make his fortune. He first settled on the island of Nevis. During his first ten years in the Leeward islands he was a trainee plantation and slave overseer on the estate of Colonel Daniel Smith. At the end of his training he moved to St Christopher’s (St Kitts) acquiring land and rose through the plantation system. As well as running his own plantations he acted as “attorney” for other estate owners, effectively managing them as well. It was there that he met his lifelong friend Major James Milliken,

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originally from Ayrshire.The fortunes of both men were enhanced considerably through marriage; James Milliken married the widow of a well-established Bristol plantation owner and McDowall married her daughter, Mary Tovey of Nevis.

Most of his business interests were in London and Bristol and in 1724, aged 46, he returned to Bristol, his wife and 6 year old son would join him some 3 years later. He decided to focus his interests in Glasgow. His first sugar ship to dock in Glasgow was The McDowall in 1728. Colonel McDowall and Major Milliken are often thought of as the originators of the Clyde sugar industry. It had actually started a century earlier however they were responsible for increasing it substantially.


Colonel McDowall was the new money of the day being a “merchant prince” owning sugar plantations in the West Indies. He never actually served in the regular Army. His military status was through his role in the St Kitts militia and rank was decided by the other plantation owners based on ownership and influence in island politics. His status among the landed gentry depended less on his wealth, and more on his supposed military rank.


In 1727 he purchased Shawfield Mansion in Glasgow which stood on Argyle Street at the junction with what is now Glassford Street. He also sought to purchase a country estate as an investment. In 1727 he bought the Castle Semple Estate from Lord Semple “being one of the best inland estates in Scotland “. Through the agency of his cousin the Laird of Garthland a price of £5005 was negotiated. This was considered a cheap price.


William had amassed considerable wealth and at the time he purchased the Castle Semple Estate was considered to be “the richest commoner in Scotland”. His commitments included;

  • The maintenance of shipping to transport goods and provisions to his plantations in the West Indies and to return with cargoes of sugar. In 1726 he purchased a slave ship, The Fair Parnelia, but it overturned on its first voyage from Africa, drowning 272 Africans held below deck.

  • Arranging a supply of plantation managers and labourers (Slaves).

  • The construction and management of Sugar Houses in Scotland to refine the imported molasses.


Prior to his buying Shawfield Mansion it had been badly damaged during the 1725 rioting over the Malt Tax. William had to have the house largely rebuilt. In addition, the old Semple home, “Castletoun”, had fallen into disrepair and was no longer a fitting residence. Seven years after he had taken ownership, William replaced the old building in 1735 with the much larger and finer Castle Semple House.

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As principal land owner, William McDowall was responsible for the Kirk and parishioners of the extensive Parish of Lochwinnoch. The old church building at the foot of Johnshill had been neglected and, under McDowall’s stewardship, was partly rebuilt in 1729. This included the construction of a new gable on the south-west face which remains standing today (Auld Simon). He found the contrast between having the power of life and death over his sugar plantation slaves versus having a responsibility to provide for his tenants in Scotland a challenge.


His difficulty with his Scottish tenants is best illustrated with the trouble he created by partially draining Castle Semple loch. He began this almost immediately on purchasing the estate. His intention was to create a large area of new fertile farmland – ever the entrepreneur. Back in 1680s, when the Semples had begun to drain the loch, they had drawn up a legal agreement that any new dry land created around the shrinking loch would become their own property. McDowall tried to enforce the old agreement to the letter of the law. Defying fairness and common sense, he attempted to prevent access to the shrinking loch by all those living around the perimeter, even to water their cattle. His desire for privacy and improvement created barriers at every turn for the local population, when going about their daily lives. For example, as part of his estate improvements he blocked the public road by destroying the bridges spanning the loch narrows at either end. The map of the estate dated 1785 (see below) shows the original bridge at Elliston which led directly to the estate forcing locals who used it to walk through estate grounds to get to the church of St John (Auld Simon).


The purpose was two-fold, to create separate enclosed fields, and to keep the local riff-raff away from his mansion. The falling water level was now too shallow to cross by boat. It was also too muddy to wade across easily, and the central canal was a deeper hazard.  Parishioners living on the south side of the Loch began requesting that a bridge be built to replace the ferry from Loch Hall to the small pier where the Skippers Path joined the lochside. This would ease their journey to and from the kirk and the market. Later a causeway was built and the crossing became the modern road from Lochwinnoch station to the village. This road split the single long stretch of water into two lochs, Barr Loch and Castle Semple Loch.


In a letter to his cousin Patrick McDowall dated 4th June 1733 he wrote “The scoundrels broke my ditches and trod down the bank of my canal”. This process of wealthy landowners denying access is familiar today, but in 1730 it was one of the earliest challenges to the public’s right to roam. The locals took McDowall to the Court of Session and unexpectedly, they won. McDowall was forced to reinstate the bridges across the narrows of the loch. This would only have fuelled his anger towards his tenants.


In parallel with draining the loch he contracted William Boucher, a landscape improver, to undertake a range of works on the estate. In common with the fashions of the day, he laid out a formal garden and fishponds. John Watt, the uncle of the famous James Watt, carried out the survey work associated with the drainage of the loch.


William’s wife, Mary, who had spent all her life in the West Indies, died of smallpox shortly after coming to Scotland. She is buried in Glasgow Cathedral. His second wife, Isabel Wallace of Woolmet near Edinburgh (a keen Jacobite and favourite of Prince Charles), gave him two sons and a daughter. James, managed the St Kitt’s estates while John looked after the Woolmet Estate. When William died in October 1748, his eldest son from his first marriage, also named William, inherited the Castle Semple Estate. Castle Semple mansion had 31 rooms, total value of content at this time £674, 3shillings, 4 and 1/2p.

William McDowall the Second of Castle Semple (1748-1776)

William (1719 – 1784, died aged 65) was 30 years old when he inherited the estate. In the same year he married Elizabeth Graham, daughter of Admiral Graham, by whom he had 12 children. Four years later he bought the Garthland lands and title from his cousin in Galloway. His title became William McDowall, 20th of Garthland and 2nd of Castle Semple. In 1768 William was elected Member of Parliament for Renfrewshire till 1774.

He continued to manage family businesses in Scotland in close partnership with the Millikens and the Houston family from Johnstone who had ships plying between the Clyde and the West Indies. Members of the family looked after the overseas interests. William was one of the founders of the Ship Bank in 1752. This was the first bank established in Glasgow to provide venture capital for traders and industrialists.

In 1760 Shawfield Mansion in Glasgow was sold to John Glassford and the Ralston Estate and lands at Cathcart were purchased. In the same year William had the wooden bridges over the River Calder in Lochwinnoch and the River Cart in Howwood replaced with fine stone bridges. Around 1770 the small tower on Kenmuir Hill was built almost certainly as a vantage point over the estate. Part of the mansion is visible to the bottom left of the photograph below. The next photograph is a newspaper clipping, unfortunately I do not know from which newspaper or the date it was published. It is interesting to note that in 1912 the building was intact with glass still in the windows. The final photograph in this set of three is one taken in 2018. Click HERE for a 360 degree view of the Tower.

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The 1770’s witnessed many improvements on the estate; planned gardens to the front and rear of the house, open parklands with carriage drives, re-established fish ponds, extensive tree planting, and an additional 250 acres of agricultural land exposed by a drainage system on the loch. By 1774 he had spend around £3000 (£290,000 in todays money) installing a system of embankments and drains around Barr Loch and creating a canal in the remnants of Castle Semple loch feeding into the Black Cart. These works completely drained the Barr Loch and reduced Castle Semple Loch to around a fifth of its original area. This additional fertile land from the Barr Loch and Aird Meadows increased the estate rental income considerably. The map below shows the improvement plan of the estate, including the canal which runs from somewhere around where the first island is, past the mansion and up to the Black Cart river. The second map is an enlargement of the central area to show more detail. The back road between Howwood and Lochwinnoch does not exist and the crossing point is a bridge just above Elliston Castle.

Map of Castle Semple Estate 1785

This Map is provided courtesy of Heritage Services, Renfrewshire Leisure.

The Heritage Centre’s collection can be accessed via Renfrewshire Library’s catalogue at: .

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This Map is provided courtesy of Heritage Services, Renfrewshire Leisure.

This bridge is more clearly visible in the second photograph in the bottom right hand corner. The tower on Kenmuir Hill above this bridge is shown with landscape features surrounding it. The village at this time is clearly centered around Kirktoun. Interestingly, the field on the right of St Winnoch Road (previously called Factory Close), is called New Factory Park and the one to its right is called Old Factory Park.

Before William died in 1784, European wars during the 1750’s/1760’s and the American War of Independence had damaged the McDowall fortunes. The ensuing movement to abolish slavery would more significantly affect the family’s wealth and influence.


Of note, Kelvingrove Museum has a set of silver Communion cups inscribed in Latin, “William McDowall of Castle Semple generous man gave four of these cups for use in Lochwinnoch Church, 1756”.


William McDowall, 21st of Garthland and 3rd of Castle Semple (1776-1810)

William III (1749-1810, died aged 61, photograph below) remained unmarried, giving much of his life to politics and civic matters. He was a non-practising advocate and served as Rector of Glasgow University from 1795 till 1797. He was a Member of Parliament from 1783 until his death in 1810 and acted as Lord

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Lieutenant of Renfrewshire from 1794, again until his death. He was considered to be one of the most important figures in Scottish politics, second only in influence to Dundas. His contribution is recognised in a Memorial Plaque in Paisley Abbey.


The McDowalls were prominent in Scottish society at this time; William III’s brother, James was Lord Provost of Glasgow in the 1790’s and is associated with the foundation of the Royal Infirmary in the city. Another brother, David, was Governor General of Bombay. By the 1790s, many of the leading Renfrewshire landholding families were sugar merchants, sugar planters, or had served time as slave overseers. These included the Cunninghams of Craigends (in Jamaica), the Maxwells of Pollok (in St Kitts), and Millikens of Milliken (also in St Kitts).

By 1776, many of the McDowall enterprises had been incorporated into the larger business of Alexander Houston & Co in which he was a partner. This was involved in shipping sugar, rum, cotton and tobacccoacross the Atlantic and returning with salted herring and goods required on the plantations in the Caribbean. This business collapsed in 1795 bringing a significant reduction in the wealth of the McDowalls. It foundered as a result of the impact of the American and French revolutionary wars on transatlantic trade and the disastrous results of a slave revolt. The effect of this collapse was so severe than an Act of Parliament was passed in 1798 to cushion the blow to Glasgow’s economy. The process of liquidation and settling the company accounts took over seven years, although all accounts appear to have been paid in full but not before all the partners’ assets – including the Castle Semple Estate – had been sold.


William III’s time as Laird of Castle Semple witnessed the transformation of Lochwinnoch from a largely agricultural/cottage industry village economy to one with a greater industrial base. McDowall was prominent in the management of this change.


The development of mills in the village necessitated an increase in population to provide the workforce for these. The new mill owners, as in McDowall’s case, came from the wealthy landed class whose focus had hitherto been on farming. Changes to farming methods coincided with the growing industrialisation and farm-workers were encouraged to move from the farms into the village to work in the mills. Housing would be required for this new village population and McDowall developed his plan for the New Town of Lochwinnoch from the existing centre in the Kirktoun around Auld Simon westwards to Calderhaugh.


From 1788-1795 McDowall feu’d parts of Calderhaugh and during these years 53 new houses were built on what are now High Street and Main Street. Additional feus were granted in subsequent years. In 1791 a feu charter was granted by McDowall to Messrs Fulton, Buchanan and Pollock for the land and water rights to build Calderhaugh Mill (the Silk Mill flats of today). McDowall owned Lochwinnoch Old Mill and the Mill in Factory Street, now St Winnoc Road, in partnership with other wealthy villagers.


The industrialisation was dependant on water power and its control. To this end McDowall reversed much of his father’s drainage work to ensure that Castle Semple Loch provided a suitable head of water for the mills on the Black Cart. A dam was built in Muishiel to control the River Calder – Calder Dam (since removed) and water from Queenside Loch also feeds into the Calder. Specific structures were built on the River Calder for particular mills – these are described in the section on Lochwinnoch industry. The most prominent feature which remains is the Falls at the entrance to the glen. The map below is dated 1796, just 11 years after the map above and the Barr and Castle Semple Lochs have been restored to their previous size. These lochs had always been one body of water. The map below shows the causeway that was built to replace previous crossing points. This was the initial structure that forms the basis of the current road out to the railway station. The new bridge at Howwood on the back road between Lochwinnoch and Howwood has now been constructed. This is called the Garthland Bridge and the inscribed date may read either 1797 or 1767, although the bridge has been described as constructed in 1788. Given the date of the earlier estate map (1785) and the bridge is absent and the map below dated 1796 with the bridge present, this would suggest 1797 rather than 1767 as the date the bridge was completed. The bridge and road were probably under construction when the survey data for the map was compiled. The original bridge at Elliston is still present. The start of the new planned village of Lochwinnoch is clearly underway with housing stretching along High and Main Streets to Calderhaugh and Newton of Barr. Harvey Square has also been created as a preliminary to the construction of the new Parish Church. This map also shows the mills at Boghead, Calder mill (Whitton’s mill at the entrance to the Glen) the Old mill (on Calder Street at Hill 60) and New mill (the old Silk mill at Calderhaugh) as well as a bleachfield at Burnfoot. The Wee Church is shown as a meeting house. Garthland House is shown with its original name of Garple.

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'Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland' 


This map of the village was provided by Adrian Tharme

The above plan of the village is dated 1848 and is beyond the time of the lairdship of the McDowalls. Rather than place it in its proper point in time with the article about the Harveys this location allows easy comparison of the village at three dates in history, 1785, 1796 and 1848. The section in the top left is an extract from an 1807 map and it allows an estimate to be made of the date of construction of the Calder Bridge. In it the “bridge” is shown as a ford. The 1796 map shows the road from Lochlip to the bridge as a dotted line, also suggesting this crossing is a ford. By 1848 the crossing is drawn with abutments indicating a bridge. There is no record of the Harveys building this bridge and as they bought the estate in 1813 the Calder Bridge was built sometime between 1807 and 1813.


By the end of the century the Kirk at the foot of Johnshill, which had been partly rebuilt in 1729 by William I of Castle Semple, was again in disrepair. William III incorporated a new location for the replacement Parish Church into his New Town Plan and as patron of the church he was responsible for its construction. The new parish church opened in 1808 in a position central to the “new” village as can be seen above in the 1796 map. By 1848 there is significant development along Calder Street and Church street. The land opposite the Wee Church is marked as feu’d to Keanie for the tenement’s he built in this location. Also in the 1848 map the land behind Keanie’s plot is marked as “Sold to Glasgow and South West Railway” for the line that eventually reached the village in 1905.


In 1792 William had given land to build the Burghers Kirk and manse, now the Calder United Free Church, and paid for the construction of part of the tower. He withdrew support, however, when told that the ministers would not be chosen by himself but by the congregation. The tower was not completed until 1815 when the new laird, John Harvey, donated £50 for the purpose.

William McDowall, 22nd of Garthland and 4th of Castle Semple (1810-1814)


By the early 1800s William McDowall lll was forced to put all his holdings, including Castle Semple, the old family seat of Garthland in Wigtonshire, and the St Kitts plantations, on the market due to the collapse of Alexander Houston & Co in which he was a partner. His brother Day Hort of Walkinshaw temporarily saved the family honour, by purchasing Castle Semple and Garthland for £100,000 in 1806 (around £6.3m in todays money), but didn't have sufficient means to sustain two estates. Day Hort drowned himself in the fish ponds at Castle Semple in 1809 when the repayment date fell due. Their brother James had died in St Lucia in the West Indies in 1808. On the death of William III in 1810 (also rumoured to have drowned himself) the estate passed to a nephew, William (1770 – 1840 died aged 70), the son of James who had been the Provost of Glasgow. The wealth of the family had reached the point where his nephew had no choice but to put both family estates on the market. The Garthland Estate near Wigton was sold in 1811 and the Castle Semple Estate in 1814.

During the Lairdship of William III, the family had purchased the lands of Barr including Barr Castle in 1778. These lands were excluded from the sale of Castle Semple. In 1820, William 4th was able to buy Garple House which stood on this land and, as the original Garthland Estate had been sold, this was renamed Garthland House.

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100 years later the McDowall’s were still prominent in the County of Renfrewshire. Henry McDowall was a Deputy Lieutenant of the County, he resigned this position on 27th December 1921. The property remained in the family until 1935 when it was sold to the Mill Hill Foreign Missionary Society. It latterly became St Joseph’s Nursing Home. The photograph below is the opening of the nursing home in 1985.

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The photograph below was taken on March 2015. The green tarpaulin is draped over the entrance section where the white pillared porch is visible in the photograph above. A sad end to a fine building.


Throughout the period 1727-1813 the McDowall family had significant influence in Scotland and were the principal landowners in the Parish of Lochwinnoch. From the time of the Reformation landowners were the Heritors of the Parishes with responsibility for providing a church with a bell and belfry, seats for at least two-thirds of the parishioners, a manse with a garden, a glebe of at least four acres, and a burial ground for the parish. In addition, they had responsibility for Poor Relief in the village and for contributing towards education by providing Parish Schools. The library was previously a school provided by McDowall in 1857.


The current chief of the McDowalls, Professor Fergus Day Hort McDowall of Garthland, Baron of Garochloyne, Garthland and Castle Semple, Chief of the Name and Arms of McDowall, has been resident in Canada for many years. The family still own lands around the village; the Barr castle and surrounding land, the west side of the “Engine Tees (more correctly the “Ingaunees”), fields on the Glenlora road and behind the recently demolished Garthland House, and Lochwinnoch Golf Club is also on land rented from McDowall.

Summary of McDowall Ownership of Castle Semple

from 1727 to 1813

  • Colonel William McDowall bought CS in 1727.

    • Built new mansion house with 31 rooms in 1735.

    • Partly rebuilt the old church 1729 with a new gable end – Auld Simon.

    • He died in 1748.

    • His eldest son William bought the Garthland Estate and title which was in Galloway from his cousin in 1752.

    • He died in 1784.

    • Third McDowall oversaw the estate from 1776 till he died in 1810. He purchased the lands of Barr in 1788.

    • Their businesses had been combined with Alexander Houston & Co by 1776. This business collapsed in 1795 significantly reducing the McDowalls wealth.

    • The fourth McDowall had no choice but to sell his estates in Wigtown (1811) and CS (1813). He bought Garpel House in 1820 and renamed it Garthland House. It was sold in 1935 to the Mill Hill Foreign Missionary Society.

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