A Brief History of Mearns

A Brief History of Mearns

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"Fairest of Scotland’s thousand parishes - neither highland nor lowland - but undulating....like the sea in sunset after a day of storms....Thou art indeed beautiful as of old” - Christopher North 1785 - 1854

Today, the name “Mearns” is found in only two areas in Scotland  - in East Renfrewshire and in the north east in Kincardineshire.  One possible explanation of the derivation of name Mearns is that it came from the Gaelic “an mhaorine” meaning a stewardry. In Renfrewshire, Mearns was the name given to lands granted by David l to Walter Fitzalan, the first High Steward of Scotland. It is not known whether the land was known as Mearns before that time or if it was named when he acquired it. The land area was  more  extensive that the Mearns we know today, extending possibly into Ayrshire.

The history of Mearns can be traced back to earliest times. The boundaries and the ownership of the land changed throughout time, but the nature of the land remains the same, despite the spread of housing  and roads across the landscape.

There are no great monuments or sites of international importance in Mearns to attract visitors, but the area is rich in legends of giants, buried gold and ancient stones. The history of Mearns is the history of the people who lived and worked here, of those who left here for distant lands and those from other parts who chose to settle here.

Bronze Age

In 2002, during the building of new homes at West Acres, excavations uncovered traces of a mid to late Bronze Age settlement.  A total of 15 radiocarbon dates were obtained and indicate a date range between 1700-1100 BC. The main feature was timber round house 12.5m in diameter.  
This is described in “Bronze Age pastoral practices in the Clyde Valley: Excavations at West Acres, Newton Mearns”, author Ronan Toolis (with specialist contributions), in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 2005, volume 135, pages 471-504.  

Iron Age

There is evidence of an iron age Hill Fort at Duncarnock.  In his book, “Eastwood District - History and Heritage”, Thomas C. Welsh describes his own investigations of this site over many years.  Reverend A. Boyd Scott writing in “Old Days and Ways in Newton Mearns” published in 1939, suggests sites of three other forts. One of these has now been quarried and there is no definite evidence to support his theory about the other two.  Surveyors from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland carried out a survey of Duncarnock and have produced a new plan of the site.

Early Medieval Period

During excavation work at Titwood Mearnskirk in in 2002, an early historic palisaded enclosure was uncovered. This site was a circular fenced farm c.40 m in diameter with a longhouse in its northern half. Radiocarbon dates suggest it was occupied between 8th - 10th centuries AD. A very detailed archaeological description of this find by Melanie Johnson and Alastair Rees with Ian Ralston is reported in the Scottish Archaeological Journal, 2003, volume 25.2, pages 129-145.

Recorded History

David l, King of Scotland from 1124 - 1153, had spent many years at the royal court in England and was very familiar with the English feudal system. When he became king, he established a form of government in Scotland based on the feudal system. He made gifts of land to many of his friends and supporters who had accompanied him from England, but did not dispossess local chieftains who recognised him as their liege lord.

Walter Fitzalan, the High Steward of Scotland was granted lands in Renfrewshire and Ayrshire. He in turn gave lands to his own men, who often took the name of the lands given to them. One such was Roland, first feudal lord of Mearns, who took the title of Roland de Mearns. However, in his book “Old Days and Ways in Newton Mearns”, Boyd Scott suggests that Roland may have been a “native” chief who was allowed to retain his lands in return for loyalty to the king. However the Steward would have had feudal superiority over him. According to Boyd Scott, the family name of Mearns died out with the marriage of Roland’s only great grand-daughter to Aymer de Maxwell; thus the barony and superiority of Mearns passed to the Maxwells of Caerlaverock.

The boundaries of 13th century Mearns were very different from present day Mearns. J. A. Strang’s unpublished work, “A History of Mearns Parish”  describes an area of Ayrshire as being in Mearns.

In 1298, a charter details a land transaction between Herbert de Maxwell and the monastery of Paisley.  Herbert exchanged land in his “Nova Villa” for church land in the Aldton, the original settlement, which was almost certainly at Kirkhill where the church stood. The charter describes the boundaries of the “Nova Villa de Mernes” or Newton and the boundaries of Aldton, showing that there were two separate settlements, one around the church and castle at Aldton  and the other around the castle of Herbert de Maxwell which, Boyd Scott suggests, could have been at Robshill.

The 15th and 16th centuries were turbulent times in Scotland and the Maxwells of Caerlaverock were greatly involved in defending their lands in the borders. Despite the fact that Mearns was reasonably peaceful, in 1440 a charter was granted to Herbert Lord Maxwell to build a castle in Mearns. A second charter of 15th March 1449 by James II granted Herbert a licence to build the present tower structure. The licence conferred on him ‘”full power to build on his lands lying within the barony of Mearns, in Renfrewshire, a castle or fortalice; to surround and fortify the same with walls and ditches; to secure it by iron gates; and to erect on top of it all such warlike apparatus as might be necessary for the defense thereof”. No record has been found of the castle being involved in any significant military activity although it is known that soldiers were garrisoned there in 1675 to harass the Covenanters.

Documents in existence from the 15th century give details of the development of corn mills in Mearns making use of the abundant water power in the area. During this time the Maxwells were short of money and sold land in Mearns, reducing their influence in the area. Another family, the Polloks extended their ownership of land and their influence through marriage into the Maxwells of Cowglen.

In the 16th century there was a dispute over the right to the ballieship of Mearns. There was a long running feud between the Polloks of Over Pollok and the Pollok Maxwells of Nether Pollok. A court case found in favour of the Maxwell Polloks who subsequently took over the lands of John Pollok..

The second half of the 16th century  saw the reformation making an impact in the area. Also in 1586, the battle of Langside was fought only a few miles from Mearns, involving men from Mearns fighting on opposing sides. During the 15th and 16th centuries, succeeding monarchs imposed different approaches to worship and this led to great unrest and hardship for the people. Further hardship was to follow during the covenanting years when  troops were billeted  in Mearns and men put to death for their faith.  

Other more positive changes were taking place in the 17th century. In 1621 the village of  Newton became a Burgh of Barony . This meant there could be a weekly market on Thursdays, a market place and market cross and two fairs annually on 4 July and 15 October.     

There were also changes in land ownership, with Sir Archibald Stewart becoming the main landowner in Mearns in 1657.

Poll tax records and records of fines imposed during the covenanting period give a very detailed picture of the population of Mearns in the late 17th century. The details of these were recorded by Strang in his “History of Mearns”.  He lists all the settlements in Mearns  and the number of people who lived there. There were some larger settlements but the majority were small with perhaps two or three families.  The records also show that a “middle class” of tenants was emerging between the landowners and small tenants .   

By the 18th century, rich merchants and professionals began to purchase land in Mearns and built substantial homes. One such was Robert Barclay, a Glasgow lawyer, who bought the lands of Capelrig and built Capelrig House in 1769.

Also, in the 18th century, the supply of the abundant water power in the area attracted textile manufacturers and the development of textile mills brought many workers from others areas into Mearns.  The First Statistical Account in 1796 records 65 workers in bleachfields, while by 1850 there were around 500 people employed in textiles in the parish.

Despite the introduction of the mills, Mearns remained mostly agricultural. Very few farms were owned outright and most were the property of the big landlords and farmed by tenant farmers. At the end of the nineteenth century the valuation roll lists 80 farms, but new landowners were gradually changing land use from agricultural to residential use. This has continued to the present day with few working farms now left in Mearns.

Better roads, such as the development of the Kilmarnock to Ayr Road in 1832. known as the New Line, made travel easier and in the 19th century the isolation of Mearns from Glasgow was diminishing. The population throughout the area continued to increase and improved public transport meant that people could now live in Mearns and work in Glasgow. The opening of the railway station at  Whitecraigs in 1903 led to housing development in the area  but the planned development of housing at Patterton did not take place until very much later. Speculative building began with the development of the Broom Estate and was followed by the building of bungalows along the Kilmarnock Road.

By 1970 the old village of Newton Mearns was virtually uninhabitable with most buildings in Main Street in a ruinous state. The expansion of housing led to a demand for retail development and in 1970 the old village was demolished and a new shopping centre built.

The development continues at present  spreading ever further into the countryside of Mearns.

Today, in the place of feudal lords, there are speculative developers vying for the lands of Mearns.

“Men in their generation are like the leaves of the trees. The wind blows and one year’s leaves are scattered on the ground; but the trees burst into bud and put on fresh ones when spring comes around” - Homer

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