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Dr Brian Smith


Growing up in Lochwinnoch I often heard the names Semple, McDowall and Harvey associated with the Castle Semple Estate. But their relationship to one another, when they owned the estate and who they were was shrouded in a tapestry of bits and pieces of seemingly unconnected information. McDowall owned Garthland but was also linked to Castle Semple – how? How long did they own the estate? In the following articles I have attempted to piece together at least part of the story of these three families and their link to Castle Semple and Lochwinnoch. This is not original research but merely a collation of facts from different sources.


The Semple’s rise began 800 years ago around 1220. However, before discussing the Semple’s it is worth having a short resume of the Stewart dynasty. Their status and influence was derived from the patronage of the House of Stewart. This resume will shed light on how the families became close.

The Stewart Dynasty



King David I (1124-1153) awarded the title “Steward of Scotland” to Walter FitzAlan (1106-1177) around 1150. He was the son of a Breton knight, Alanfitz Flaald, who served as steward to the bishops of Dol in Brittany. FitzAlan served as steward for three successive kings; David I, Malcolm IV and William I. Walter FitzAlan repelled an invasion of Renfrewshire in 1164 by Somerled, the Lord of the Isles. He was granted many tracts of land at Lochwinnoch, Renfrew, Mearns, Strathgryfe, North Kyle, Pollock, Cathcart, Dripps, Eaglesham, Innerwick, West Partick, Inchinnan, Stenton, Hassenden, Legerwood, Birkenside and Paisley – almost the whole of Renfrewshire. The stewardship became hereditary and the 3rd High Steward adopted Stewart as the family name.


Walter FitzAlan founded Paisley Abbey in 1160 and the “cappelam at Lochinauche” became a dependant chapel to the Abbey. Successive Stewarts were substantial benefactor’s to the Abbey. They bestowed on the Abbey the lands at Moniabroc near the Clochoderick stone, the lands between the Maich and Calder rivers as well as fishing rights in Lochwinnoch.


In 1124 King David gave Annandale to Robert de Brus. The House of Bruce reigned from 1306-1371. Robert I (the Bruce 1306-1329) had a daughter, Marjorie, who married (in 1314) Walter Stewart, 6th High Steward of Scotland and a direct descendant of Walter FitzAlan. Marjorie died in 1315 after a riding accident near Paisley Abbey. Her unborn son was saved. When King David II (her brother) died in 1371 with no issue the son (at the age of 55) of Walter Stewart, 6th High Steward, and Marjorie Bruce became Robert II, the first Stewart King and the start of the dynasty. As a consequence of this accident the Abbey claims to be the cradle of the Royal House of Stewart. It is the resting place of six High Stewards of Scotland (including the first, Walter FitzAlan), Marjorie Bruce, the wives of KIng Robert II and of King Robert III himself.


The High Stewards land holdings in Renfrewshire will have ensured a close relationship with the Semples who were prominent in this area. The Semples were great supporters of Bruce. This relationship proved even more beneficial when the High Steward and Crown merged under Robert II. The Semples were sheriffs of Renfrew and from 1309 Robert de Sempill was made the Steward of the Barony of Renfrew held at that time by Walter, 6th High Steward (1309-1327) whose son would become Robert II, the first Steward King.


The area we know as Renfrewshire was originally part of Lanarkshire. Sometime between 1413 and 1414 it was dissolved from the shire of Lanark to become a distinct sheriffdom in its own right. Renfrewshire was born.

After the rise of the Stewarts (1371) to the Scottish throne the Barony of Renfrew was created in 1397 by Robert III. In 1404 the Barony of Refrew, Earldon of Carrick, the King’s Kyle and other estates were merged together as a principality to be held by the heir apparent to the crown. The current holder of the title Baron of Renfrew is Prince Charles. His other Scottish titles include Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Lord of the Isles and Prince and Great Steward of Scotland. When Charles visits Scotland he must use the title Duke of Rothesay.


The Semples

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The Sempill (Semple) family first came to prominence during the reign of King Alexander II (1214-1249). Over the years they acquired substantial land holdings in what is now Renfrewshire as well as Ayrshire and Lanarkshire. In 1220 Robert de Sempill, a vassal to Walter, 3rd High Steward of Scotland, was a holder of land at Elliotstoun on the south side of Lochwinnoch by feudal tenure on condition of homage and allegiance.


His son, also called Robert became Steward of the Barony of Renfrew in 1283 during the reign of Alexander III. The barony was held by James 5th High Steward of Scotland (1283-1309). He was witness to a charter in 1283 by James, Steward of Scotland granting to the monks of Paisley Abbey the free passage of water from “Kert” at Lochwinnoch.


He had two sons, Robert and Thomas, who supported Robert the Bruce. In 1320 King Robert gave to the eldest son, Robert, the “whole land, with pertinents, which belonged to the late John Balliol, Knight, in the tenement of Largs, to be held by him and his heirs in free barony” for the princely sum each year of one penny of silver at Pentecost and to sit on the Sheriff Court of Ayr three times each year. Later, he was witness to King Robert II donating the church at Largs to Paisley Abbey for the welfare of his soul and that of his deceased wife Marjorie Bruce. Robert died sometime before 1330. Also in 1320 Thomas was given half of the land held by Nicholas de Dispensa, the King’s enemy and rebel, in the town and tenement of Longnidry and in return had to provide the half service of one archer in the King’s army. Thomas fell at Bannockburn in 1314.


Robert’s son was William de Sempill of Elliestoun who succeeded him as Steward of Renfrew sometime before 1330. He was one of the auditors of the Exchequer in 1340 and this continued till 1358. Below is an early photograph of what remains of Elliston Castle. The remains are now in a private garden and shrouded in shrubbery with little of the remaining stonework visible.


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In 1367 Williams son, Thomas de Sempill of Elliotstoun, is witness to a charter of the lands of Sanquhar being given to Paisley Abbey by Robert 7th High Steward.


On 22nd July 1375 Sir John Sempill received a Charter from King Robert II comprising the grant which his eldest son John, Earl of Carrick, had made to him of the lands of Glasford and the tenancies of Crosraguel, Ridren and Blackford and the Park of Clonquarn, Knoeglas, and Clonskeach etc in the barony of Kylbrid in Lanarkshire. He died around 1405. The daughter of Sir John Sempill, Jean, was the second wife of Sir John Stewart, the first Sheriff of Bute, who was known as “The Black Stewart” because of his dark complexion. He was the illegitimate son of Robert II. He lived to the grand old age of 90 and his lineage includes the Marquess of Bute, a title created in 1796. This is another link between the family of Semple and the House of Stuart.


Sir John’s son sat in the parliaments on 1400 and 1401. He was involved in several negotiations of state and was also held as hostage by the English for King James I of Scotland. He was one of the Commissioners appointed to treat with the English for the liberation of James I in 1421. The King had been held captive for around 18 years. In December 1423, he was given safe passage to Durham to meet King James I on his return to Scotland. In 1426 he is referred to as the Sheriff of Renfrew. He was knighted around 1430. He later sat in the parliaments which met in the early 1440’s in Edinburgh and Stirling.


Sir Robert Sempill of Elliotstoun and his spouse Elizabeth were granted the “lands of Southennan with the pertinents lying within the shire of Ayr” dated 31st October 1451 at Stirling by James II.  


In 1463, his son Sir William became Hereditary Sheriff of the County of Renfrew. In 1474 Sir William paid a composition of £66 13s. 4d to King James III for a writ to prevent his father from alienating his lands. On October 4th 1474 he paid another composition of the same amount for a charter, on his father’s resignation, of the Baronies of Elliotstoun in Renfrewshire, Glassford in Lanarkshire, Southennan in Ayrshire and Rossie in Perthshire. Sir William also held the office of Bailie to the Abbot and convent of Paisley for their lands in Renfrewshire. (In 1545 this office was made hereditary in the Semple family by a grant of John Hamilton, Abbot of Paisley, to Robert Master of Semple who succeeded his father as Lord Semple in 1553.)


Sir William married Margaret, daughter of Lord Cathcart, and was succeeded by his son, Thomas Semple, who sat in the Parliament of 24th Feb 1483-84, and several others. He moved the family seat from Elliotstoun to Castletoun at the eastern end of the Loch at Lochwinnoch. Sir Thomas, who also became Sheriff of Renfrew, fell fighting for King James III at Sauchieburn June 11th 1488. It was through King James marriage to Margaret daughter of Christian I, King of Denmark, the Orkney and Shetland Islands that these islands became part of Scotland as payment for her dowry.


He was succeeded by his son Sir John Sempill who was created Lord Sempill by King James IV sometime in 1489. He had Castletoun rebuilt and this is when the barony of Castletoun was renamed Castle Semple. He was the first bailie of the regaility of Paisley. He was appointed by Abbot George Shaw (1472-98) to the office for three years, and further during “his gude bering”; but Abbot Robert Shaw, shortly after he succeeded his uncle in 1498, called upon Lord Semple by a summons before the Lords Auditors to give an account of his intromissions as bailie of the regaility. Lord Semple asked the Lords to confirm him in the office. The case was heard, February 14, 1509, when the Lords refused to grant the confirmation desired.


The barony of Semple was created in 1505 and included the lands of Elliotstoun, Castletoun, Shuterflat, Hartenstoum, Nether-Pennell, Barm Kilbarchan, Weitlands, Bordlands, Craiginfeoch, Southannan and the barony of Glassford.


In 1505 he founded a Collegiate Church close to the castle and dedicated it to the “honour of God, and the blessed Virgin Mary, for the prosperity of his sovereign James IV and Margaret his Queen, for the soul of Margaret Colville of Ochiltree his former spouse and also for the salvation of his own soul and that of Margaret Crichton his present wife and all of his predecessors and successors and all the faithful deceased“. It was served by a senior priest (provost), six chaplains, two altar boys and a sacristan (the church officer). The grounds around the church are thought to contains the remains of residences and offices as well as a grammar school and cemetery associated with the building.


In July 1505 the King was travelling from Dumbarton to Whithorn. On his way he visited Lord Semple at Elliotstoun to inspect the new church. He gave 14 shillings toward the cost of construction.


John 1st Lord Sempill died at Flodden in 1513. The Collegiate Church was extended to accommodate the tomb recess of its founder within the apse. Today the church is under the care of Historic Scotland and considered a remarkable example of Gothic ecclesiastical architecture. The detail in the stonework has been obscured by the ravages of time. The photograph below is a representation of the original stonework.

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Click HERE for a 360 degree view of the Church

The eldest son, William, succeeded to the title and also became Lord Judiciary and heritable Baillie of the Regality of Paisley. He was a member of the Privy Council of James V and on 25th August 1543 assented to the marriage of the infant Mary, Queen of Scots, to Edward, son of Henry VIII of England. King James bestowed on him further lands in 1523, 1529 and 1539 and from Queen Mary in 1545 and 1546. Some of these lands were grouped into the free barony of Craiginfeauch. The lands of Castletoun, Elliotstoun, Schuttirflat, Nethir-Pennel, Hairstentoun, and the lands of Levern, Bargany and Lechland, and the lands of Southennane in Ayrshire, and the lands of Glasfurd in Lanarkshire, were incorporated into the free barony of Semple. Just before his death he purchased the lands of Burnt Shields in the parish of Kilbarchan. His brother Gabriel is the ancestor of the Semples of Cathcart. His second son, David is the ancestor of the Semples of Craigbetts, a branch of whom settled in Spain and flourished there.


William died in 1548 and was succeeded, as 3rd Lord Sempill, by his son Robert who was later to be known as the “Great Lord Sempill”. Prior to becoming Lord Semple he was appointed constable and keeper of the castle of Douglas (a crown forfeiture) in 1533. He was at the battle of Pinkie in 1547 where he was taken prisoner by the English. He was a supporter of the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, widow of James V and of Mary Queen of Scots. In 1560, Castle Sempill came under attack because of his opposition to the Reformation. However, after the murder of Mary’s husband, Lord Darnley the Earl of Lennox, Robert entered into a bond of association with other Scots peers to defend Mary’s son, the young King James VI. He fought against the Queen and Bothwell at the Battle of Carberry Hill and was a signatory to the warrant imprisoning Mary in Lochleven Castle. In 1568 he fought with Regent Moray at the Battle of Langside and in “consideration for this and many valuable services to king and government” was given a charter to the lands of Paisley Abbey “upon the forfeiture of these from Lord Claud Hamilton”. The Hamilton’s were later to regain these lands.


The association with Regent Moray may be the reason behind the first bridge across the river Calder being called the Regent Moray Bridge, now more familiarly known as Bridgend.


The sketch below is of the sword wielded by Lord Sempill at the Battle of Langside. The blade is 5ft 93/8 ins long and 3ins wide at the hilt. The guard and hilt are 2ft 73/4 ins long giving an overall length of 8ft 51/8 ins. It weighed 24 and 1/4 lbs in old money or 11kg in new money.

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In the reign of Queen Mary, Robert Lord Semple, obtained a Commission of Justiciary over the whole barony and sheriffdom of Renfrew, but, having abused his office by cruelly oppressing Glen of Bar and his family, the Privy Council, on the complaint of Glen, suspended his commission, October 10, 1564.


The Great Lord Sempill engaged in long-running feuds (1488 – 1586) with the Houses of Eglinton and Glencairn – the Montgomery and Cunningham families respectively. It is said there were so many lives lost that it was more like a civil war than a family quarrel. These were dangerous times and around 1570 Lord Robert built a small, but safe and impregnable retreat, the Peel Castle, on an islet in the loch. This remained a place of relative safety for the family for some 150 years until it’s “dingin’ doon” around 1735 as recorded in the Legend of Ringan Sempill. This Sempill was by reputation a “warlock” and the ruins of the Peel Castle he frequented can still be viewed today.


After his first wife died The Great Lord Sempill’s had another son from his second marriage, John. He married Mary, daughter of Alexander the 5th Lord Livingstone, who was one of the four Mary’s who were Maids of Honour to Mary Queen of Scots. John Knox gave her the nickname “Lusty” and she was immortalised in the folk-ballad : “There was Mary Beaton, and Mary Seaton, Mary Carmichael and me “


Both she and John were great favourites with Her Majesty which was a means of promoting their wealth. When his father died, he became Sheriff of Renfrew until his father’s grandson became of age to inherit the title. His father’s grandson, Robert was the child of his father’s first-born son (William) who predeceased him.


This was the time of the Reformation. The Sempills had not renounced Roman Catholicism. John was castigated as “Sempill the Dancer” by the Reformer, John Knox and in 1577 was accused of treason for conspiring to murder the Regent Morton. This was a sham inspired by Morton himself. Under torture he admitted to this crime and was sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. The influence of family and well-connected friends enabled this sentence to be reduced to imprisonment and he was later released. He is the ancestor of the Semples of Beltrees. John died in 1579 and two years later Morton was beheaded for involvement in the murder of Lord Darnley. John’s son, Sir James Sempill of Beltrees was appointed Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth until 1599 in the reign of James VI. It was shortly after this that he was knighted and in 1601 was sent as ambassador to France. He died at Paisley Cross in February 1626 aged 60.


Returning to the main Semple line The Great Lord Semple’s son, Robert, Master of Semple, predeceased his father dying in 1569 aged around 39yrs old. His son, another Robert, succeeded his grandfather as fourth Lord Semple when his grandfather died sometime between 1574 and 1576. He was only six or seven years old at this time and was under the tutelage of James, Earl of Morton the Regent who had his (half) uncle tried for treason (see above). He assisted at the baptism of Prince Henry in 1594 by carrying the “lavyer with water”. He subsequently attended on the Queen at the celebratory banquet for the event at Stirling Castle. He was part of the Privy Council of James VI and was constituted His Majesty’s ambassador to Spain in 1596. He continued the family allegiance to the Roman Catholic faith and in accordance with the decisions of the ministry in 1606 was confined to Irving. The Presbytery of Irvine failed to convince him of the errors of popery and in August 1608 he was excommunicated by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland as a confirmed and obstinate papist.  This meant that he could no longer hold public office. He died on March 25th 1611. By his first wife, Lady Anne Montgomery, second daughter of Hugh, third Earl of Eglinton, he had a son, Hugh who succeeded him, and four daughters. His son from his second wife, Dame Johanna de Evieland, was Sir James Semple of Letterkenny in Ireland, and his daughter married into the house of Southwell.


Hugh the 5th Lord Semple was one of the Peers who sat on the trial of Patrick, Earl of Orkney in 1614. He was a Justice of the Peace for Renfrewshire in 1616 and for Ayrshire in 1623. He also held the office of Burgess of Glasgow in 1618. He succeeded his father in the hereditary sheriffdom of Renfrew and office of the hereditary bailie of the regaility of Paisley. He surrendered both of these to the crown and was to receive 3000 acres in Connaught, Ireland. If security over this land was not forthcoming both offices would be returned. In the event he did not receive the land and the Irish Exchequer promised to pay £5000 in their stead. In 1636 these offices were conveyed to Bryce Sempill of Cathcart by Crown charter dated 7th August 1642. Sometime later both of these heritable jurisdictions were acquired by Alexander, Earl of Eglington with a right of redemption. The Earl received £5000 compensation from the Government for these offices when heritable jurisdictions were abolished in 1747. Hugh died on 19th September 1639 in Lochwinnoch.


He was succeeded by Francis his eldest son who was born in 1622 in Augusta, Virginia, USA and died on 3rd November 1644 without issue and was succeeded as 7th Lord Semple by his brother Robert. He supported the Royalist cause in the Civil War and was fined £1000 by Cromwell’s Common-Wealth under the Act of Grace and Pardon in 1654. By this time, their long royalist association had also resulted in the family estates being significantly diminished through enforced land forfeitures.


The 7th Lord Semple (died 1675 aged 53) was predeceased by his first son, Robert. His second son, Francis (born 1660) became 8th Lord Semple September 9th 1680. While a minor he was placed under the care of the Earl of Dundonald who instilled in his charge his Protestant faith. Francis was the first Semple to become a Protestant and was therefore able to take a seat in Parliament. No Semple had done so since the reign of Mary Queen of Scots. He died without issue in 1684 and was succeeded by his sister, Anne, as 1st Baroness Sempill. In a challenge to her inheritance Sempill of Cathcart laid claim to the succession. Lord Fountainhall found in favour of Anne and this was confirmed on 14th April 1685. A charter passed on 16th May 1688 confirmed that the family estates could pass to daughters should there be no male issue. Anne married Francis Abercrombie of Fettermier in Aberdeenshire who was in consequence created Lord Glassford (an ancient property of the Semple family) for his life only. After her death in 1695 she was succeeded to the title by three of her sons.


Anne’s eldest son, Francis the 9th Lord Sempill, took his seat in Parliament on 14th May 1703. Notwithstanding very considerable offers if he would comply with the measures of the court in relation to the Union with England he remained strongly opposed. His main concern was Peers becoming elected rather than by right of inheritance. He saw this as divesting them of their peerage because of the risk on not being elected viewing the benefit of siting in Parliament as an inseparable right of the peerage. Francis was unmarried, (born 1685, died in 1716), and was buried in the Chapel Royal at Holyrood. The title passed to his brother, John.


John, the 10th Lord Sempill supported the Hanoverians during the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion and trained the Ayrshire Fencible men. Together with the Earls of Eglington, Kilmarnock and Glasgow he faced 6000 royalists at Irvine on 22nd August 1715. He died in 1716, also without issue, was buried at Holyrood and was succeeded by his brother, Hugh (born 1688) as the 11th Lord Sempill.


Hugh was a professional soldier whose military career had seen action in Flanders, Spain, and France. His first commission was dated July, 1709. He Served with distinction and was Major of the 26th Regiment of Foot, or Cameronians, in 1718. He was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel of the Nineteenth Regiment of Foot in 1731.

On 14th January 1741 he succeeded Lord Crawford as the commanding officer of the 42nd Regiment of Foot or Royal Highlanders (better known as the Black Watch). The regiment was re-designated Lord Sempill’s Highlanders during his command. He accompanied them in 1743 to Flanders, where they highly distinguished themselves. He commanded in the town of Aeth, when it was besieged by the French and made a gallant defence.

He was appointed Colonel of the 25th Regiment of Foot (King’s Own Scottish Borderers) on 25th April 1745. Again, the regiment was renamed in his honour as Sempill’s Regiment of Foot and were recalled to Britain to deal with the emerging Jacobite threat. He was Brigadier-General in command of the left-wing of the Royalist army at Culloden in 1746. Sempill assumed command of the government garrison in Aberdeen after Culloden, but was to die a few months later as a result of a botched blood-letting. He died on 25th Nov 1746 and was interred at the West Church in Drums Aisle, Aberdeenshire.


However, Hugh 12th Lord Sempill had brought his family’s association with Lochwinnoch to a close many years earlier. In 1727, 11 years after succeeding to the title in 1716, Hugh sold the estates of Castle Sempill and Elliotstoun to Colonel McDowall a younger son of McDowall of Garthland.

The current Lord Semple is the 21st holder of that title inheriting it from his mother in 1995. At this time he was a marketing professional promoting beer and tobacco brands in South Africa and Russia. He stood for the Tories in Edinburgh in the 1999 Scottish Parliamentary elections and was due to be the candidate in Paisley South in 2003, preferring instead to take a job in America. During the 2009 Scotland Year of Homecoming he led an event called The Gathering leaving a trail of debts behind him.

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