My last post about Kenmure Temple mentioned that on the way to visit that site I also visited the Castle Semple Collegiate Church (which will be discussed in the next post) and some other remains of Castle Semple. Although the name Castle Semple is a very familiar one to me, I had never actually considered that at one point in time there had been an actual castle as I had only ever heard it used as the name of the loch and its surrounding area.
The original castle was demolished in the early 18th Century and a new mansion house was built when Colonel William McDowall purchased the estate from the virtually bankrupt Hugh, 11th Lord Semple in the early years of the eighteenth-century. This house was partially burned down in the 1920s and demolished sometime around the 1970s, which explains why I had never thought of it as an actual castle. There are, however, various bits and pieces still in existence — the Kenmure Temple being only one, albeit the most obvious.
The dates above are vague. Many websites tell a slightly different story for the house, but then I happened to chance on a Flickr site, the owner of which claimed that their family had leased the estate and that the house had been occupied even after the fire. They had photographs to prove it, so I have no reason to doubt them and have altered the history above accordingly. There are a few photos of the castle itself on their page if anyone would like to see what the castle looked like, as I can’t find any that I’m able to use on this blog. Link to Slagheap’s Flickr photos of Castle Semple.
The grounds now form the Castle Semple Country Park, part of the larger Muirshiel Regional Park. During the three days which I spent wandering around the area, a memory kept nagging at me from my genealogy research last summer and I was fascinated to find a family connection to the Castle Semple estate.
My great, great, great, grandfather was a man named Dugald McMillan. He had been born in Clachan, Argyll, and at some point had moved south to Lochwinnoch where he married a local woman named Mary Barbour. According to the 1841 census, they lived at the West Gates of Castle Semple. According to the Castle Semple trail information, the estate was run by McDowall, as one of the largest commercial forestry operations in Britain, and when the Harvey family purchased the estate in 1814, they employed a forester as well as gardeners. That forester (in 1841) at least was my 3xgreat-grandfather. The West Gates are still in existence and I will need to return at some point to see them. It is odd to think that Dugald McMillan may well have personally planted some of the trees which now make up the Parkhill woods. He would certainly have tended them, along with those on the avenues which used to surround the Kenmure Temple. Link to photo of West Gates.
The site of Castle Semple was close to the water’s edge, and it was built on the site of an older tower. There are walled gardens still in existence further up the hill to the northeast of this site and the grounds, now called the Parkhill Woods, stretch to the north-west. A number of features of the 18th Century estate remain: an ice-house, cascades, a grotto, and a cave. There is also an overgrown maze on the top of the Courtshaw Hill which was also previously the location of the rather romantically named fog-house — a summerhouse built of turf. Presumably no remains of this building exist today.
These were all eighteenth century additions made when the estate was purchased and developed by William McDowell. McDowall had made his fortune in the West Indies, on plantations which profited from slave labour. At the time he purchased the Semple Estate, he was known as the ‘richest commoner in Britain.’ Perhaps it’s karma that so little remains of the estate he purchased through exploiting other people so cruelly — although this is hardly an unusual circumstance for the time.
The remains which I visited included the grotto, the ice-house, the maze and a water feature known rather optimistically as the Cascades. There are maps of the various routes through the woods, but the problem I found is that many of these are circular routes, or have loops in them and so often you reach points where the coloured arrows point in either direction. Twice I wasn’t sure which red arrow to follow, as there was a map at the main entrance to the woods, but not at each junction.
On my second attempt, I managed to find the grotto. It really wasn’t what I was expecting at all — the name suggested something cave-like or hewn out of a rock face. The reality was a rather ordinary small rectangular building overlooking a pond. It’s now roofless. When in use, it was situated close to a carriageway through the estate and guests could be driven out to it and would perhaps have sat and chatted or eaten lunches there before continuing onwards or returning to the castle. There was still a pond in front of it which was quite pleasant, if a little overgrown. The site remains a meeting place for the Semple/Semphill family worldwide.
From the eighteenth century onwards, society was changing substantially due to the industrial revolution. One effect of this was a change in land usage. Landscape gardening was growing in popularity and large estates such as this one were being redesigned for the rich to spend their leisure time enjoying them, whereas in the past they had been designed more around fulfilling basic necessities such as food production. The newly rich, landowning McDowall family and their presumably rich, possibly titled friends, would have come here and spent their days relaxing and playing in this artificial landscape whose creation had been funded by the toil and lives of others. There is something deeply sinister about the thought that the wealth generated from the slave trade was used to create this artificial world for a few rich people to play in, far removed from the consequences of their actions. The Clearances are yet another aspect of this changing land use and the destruction of the lives of ordinary people caused by the actions of the aristocracy should not be underestimated.
The Cascades are another feature created to make the landscape more interesting. It would seem that part of the Blackditch Burn was rerouted eastwards so that it ran closer to the castle. Perhaps there was already a small tributary that was enlarged. Whichever is the case, large stone structures were built at intervals down this waterway, creating waterfalls of differing heights. The stream is now heavily overgrown and when I visited there was very little water flowing. Whether it has permanently dried up, or whether this was due to the dryness of the summer this year, I’m not sure, but when I saw the Cascades, they were definitely not cascading.
They were not nearly, however, as disturbing as the icehouse. This was a part built, part natural building located in the steep slope at the side of the stream. A few metres further upstream was another similar building. Both had green railings stopping visitors from going inside, but I wouldn’t have gone in anyway. It’s probably fanciful, but the closer I got to the ice-house, the more I wanted to turn and run. I forced myself on and even managed a few photos, but standing at the doorway, looking at it, it felt like I was not alone, like death stood there beside me. I’m not one for believing in ghosts or spirits, but that is one of the most disturbing places I’ve ever stood, and I wonder if there is a story behind it.
Icehouses were used before the invention of electricity and modern refrigeration. This one was accessible through this now locked door and in the past, there was also a hatch in the ceiling. Ice was stored in a pit at the back of the icehouse, insulated by the thick walls and the fact that it was cut into the hillside.
The cave is very close to the ice-house and may have been used in much the same way, although little is known for a fact. It is far more overgrown than the ice-house.
The maze on Courtshaw Hill has the appearance more of some overgrown Rhododendrons than an actual planned maze. Perhaps it deserves a second visit. I was fairly lost when I found it, and it was only when I managed to get out of it that I did, in fact, realise that what I had just been walking around was the maze marked on the map. Once I found the way out of it on the loch side, there was a lovely view out over Castle Semple loch.
In my next post, I will finally discuss the Castle Semple Collegiate Church!
Think about who owns a particular piece of land. This could be local to you or a specific place that you have visited. It may require a certain amount of research and this may in turn throw up new questions or events to explore. How did they acquire it? How long has their family owned it? You may want to consider the political or social implications of this. Do they deserve to own it? What makes someone worthy of owning a particular piece of land, and by extension having some control over the lives of those who live on it? This might lend itself to a longer piece of writing — perhaps even as the basis for a historical novel or a saga. Alternatively, it might result in an essay or article for a newspaper or magazine.