Kilmacolm: a family history

Kilmacolm War Memorial

In August, John and I had a day out to Kilmacolm, a village in Renfrewshire not far from Glasgow, to photograph some sites of family history. When we visited Islay last year, I wrote about my great-grandfather, John Joss Sinclair, who was born there in 1866. (See Islay: call to place). At 16 he moved to the mainland, becoming a noted ploughman and marrying a farmer’s daughter.

She was Janet Carson, of The Green Farm in Kilmacolm, who was born in 1864. She had two brothers, Tom and Bob, and at least three sisters, Susan, Bella and Maggie. The latter emigrated to Philadelphia and married Sam Bell. The pictures below show, on the left, Janet’s parents, my great-great-grandparents, with Jenny, one of the Bell children, and on the right, John and Janet with their first two children, John (born 1886) and Margaret (Meg). By 1901 another six daughters had been added to the family, so Janet’s life must have been a hard slog.

In his fifties, John gave up farm work and he and Janet, along with their three youngest daughters, moved into the Bridgend Toll House, which came with his new job as road foreman. The older children had married and moved out of the family home. Young John married Mary and had several children. Below left is Meg, with her husband Donald McPhail, around 1910. On the right, is the McClure family, Catherine (Kate), Stewart and Janet (Nettie or Netta) pictured around the end of the First World War. Netta settled in London and I think I met her only once, but I have clear memories of her much younger sister Isabella (Isa) who remained in the West of Scotland.

Three of the children emigrated, Meg and Donald McPhail sailing for Australia in 1924 – the photograph below, recently found by my aunt, shows them in later life. Two sisters went to Canada with their husbands – Isabella (Belle) and Tom Gibson, and Janet (Jen) and Bob Andrew. Both couples obtained sections of land in Saskatchewan, built houses there, and farmed successfully. Only Jen came back to visit – that’s her holding me as a baby (1957) with my grandmother looking on.

My grandmother was Christina (Teenie, later Chris), the oldest of the three girls who moved to the Toll with their parents. Eventually, they all married: Chris to Percy Stroud in 1925, Mary to Tom Stevenson in 1927, and Annabella (Annie) to Bob Maskell in 1931. In the wedding photos below, I’m fairly sure that Mary (centre) is wearing the same dress as my grandmother on the left.

Mum, also Christina, was born in 1926 and is shown here as a baby and toddler, “Wee Chrissie”, with her grandparents. For reference, Janet must be about the same age as I am now. How times have changed!

The Toll figures largely in Mum’s many happy memories of her childhood, surrounded by loving grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. In the gallery below Mum is carried by her dad in two of the photos, and is also the small girl in a wash tub.

Bridgend Toll House, shown in the gallery below in an old postcard, is long gone. The site is about a mile from the village, opposite the War Memorial from which you can see two houses which were built in its place.

Mum herself grew up in the centre of the village in a house called Low Shells, also long gone, but the empty space where it stood still retains the name. The picture of Mum sitting on one of the benches is from a previous visit in 2016.

At Kilmacolm Cross, the Cross Café and Parish Church sit opposite each other. Compare to the two old postcards underneath – completely recognisable, though no cows in the middle of the road these days.

The café has been run by several generations of Pignatellis, currently sisters Alda and Johanna, whom Mum has known since they were born. Because she was not with us on this latest trip, they sent her a box of Cross Café sweeties which we were happy to deliver!

On the other side of Kilmacolm from the War Memorial is the cemetery where we paid a visit to my great-grandparents’ grave.

As well as being the last resting place of John and Janet Sinclair, the cemetery is notable for having one of the few headstones designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Art Nouveau and unmistakably Mackintosh in style, it dates from 1898 and commemorates James Reid, who was a Telegraphic Superintendent of the Glasgow and South West Railway, and his wife Margaret. They were the parents-in-law of William Davidson, who was Mackintosh’s client at the house Windyhill, also in Kilmacolm.

We ended our day with a walk at Glen Moss Wildlife Reserve before returning home with a slightly closer acquaintance with some of my family history.

Castle Semple Country Park

Castle Semple Loch from Parkhill

Castle Semple Park, near Lochwinnoch in Renfrewshire, is based on a large estate created many centuries ago by the Sempill family. The original Castle (c. 1500) is no more, but the remains of a later mansion have been incorporated into private residences which are not accessible to the public. However, there are plenty other hints as to what the landscape might once have looked like.

The park has a Visitor Centre (including café) and a loop trail for walkers and cyclists totalling 9 miles. We cut a bit out and walked about 7 miles. Here are some highlights.

Throughout the trail there are unusual seating areas and “Lookooteries” or viewpoints. The stone structure I am sitting on is the Grotto in Parkhill Wood, a once fashionable accessory to any country estate.

Another must-have would have been a water feature and, between 1727 and 1730, garden expert William Bouchert diverted the burn behind Castle Semple to create a series of cascades for then-owners the MacDowall family. Although allegedly restored recently, you can see my puzzlement as I searched for the water flow. The burn is badly overgrown!

Close by is the Collegiate Church which was founded in 1504 by John, Lord Sempill. A collegiate church was not controlled by a bishop, but was served by a college of priests whose chief duty was to pray for the souls of the Sempills. John Sempill was killed at the Battle of Flodden in 1513 and his son extended the church to house his father’s tomb. Although not used for worship after the Reformation it survived as a burial enclosure.

Finally, before turning back, we climbed Kenmure Hill to the folly known as Kenmure Temple. This was built in 1758 to provide the MacDowalls and their guests with a vantage point over the estate. It seems graffiti artists have also visited!

Castle Semple is an attractive park which, although just over half an hour’s drive from home, we’ve only visited once before. It’s maybe not as spectacular as other places we visit, but we had a pleasant afternoon out and I think we’ll now add it to our repertoire of regular walks.

Linked to Jo’s Monday Walk – today she’s in the Azores – a must see!