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Renfrew - The Royal Burgh


History of Renfrew

The Arms of the former Council of The Royal Burgh of Renfrew

From the Office of The Lord Lyon in Edinburgh 

'The Shield of Arms identifies the Councillors of The Royal Burgh of Renfrew. Following the reorganisation of local government in 1975, that Council ceased to exist and the Arms reverted to the Crown.'

Deus Gubernat Navem - God Steers The Ship


The origins of the  granting of the Charter that made Renfrew a Royal Burgh are not known but it is noted that King David I refers to Renfrew as 'My Burgh' in 1141, when he granted to the Abbey Church of Holyrood a 'toft of land' in Renfrew with one salmon net and the Right to fish for herring. The 'shire' was known as the Barony of Renfrew and the Burgh was the principal town. As a Royal Burgh it was owned by the Kings of Scotland  and became, in the hands of Walter The High Steward, the Burgh of Barony. The first Charter making Renfrew a Royal Burgh was granted on October 10th 1313 by King Robert III who created the Barony of Renfrew with the Stuart estates as a separate Shire and bestowed the title Baron of Renfrew upon his son,  James I. This first Charter contains the Rights to the Burgh and fishing rights and in a second Charter granted in 1575 King James V1 gave privileges to 'all religious houses and alterages'. A third Charter in 1614 gives privileges to the 'principal port on the Clyde'. Added to a list of properties are the words

 'For the better maintenance of the poor, and a grammar school in the said Burgh, for the education of the young in virtue and learning and under the direction of the Provost and Bailies'. An ecclesiastical property was set aside for the maintenance of the grammar school.


The Royal Castles

The first castle was built on land between the Rivers Clyde and  Cart as a means of defence against  Somerled, Lord of The Isles, who, with men from the Hebrides, was threatening to take all the land up to Glasgow. The High Steward of Scotland, Walter Fitzalan of the Royal House of Stewart,  lived in Renfrew, his estate granted by King David I, and he built this defensive fortress. Somerled was killed by the army of King Malcolm IV in 1164 on the site of Elderslie House.

The second castle was built overlooking the Kings Inch and the Sand Inch by James, the fifth Steward. At that time the river ran through the Blythswood Estate and close to Manse Street. Unlike it's wooden predecessor, it was built of stone and became the main residence of the Stewards and their successors.  When Robert III became King the castle assumed Royal status. King Robert was born in this castle, son of Walter, the sixth Steward and Marjorie Bruce.

A note here - Renfrew fell into English hands during the War of Independence and King Edward I gave the lands to the Earl of Lincoln [1301]. In 1310 Edward II spent one night at the castle and ordered the sacking of the Burgh as he left. In 1332 Edward Balliol was crowned at Scone as Edward of Scotland and gave the lands of Renfrew to the Earl of Atholl. The Steward went into hiding in Rothesay and later with the help of Sir Colin Campbell and 400  men, waged war against the Earl of Atholl freeing  Dunoon Castle and later Renfrew. There were many distinguished visitors to the castle, not least King James IV on frequent visits to Paisley Abbey.


More Recent Times

Renfrew Castle ended its days, not as a Royal residence but as a soap works, the land having been bought by Mr. John Paterson, Provost of Renfrew in 1710. The names of surrounding streets echo the uses of the past, 'Dog Row' - now Wilson Street - was the home of the Royal Kennels and  Orchard Street in the area of the Royal orchards. The low ground nearby is still called Kings Meadows.

Queen Victoria's Visit to Renfrew

Grandstands and ornamental arches were erected at Inchinnan Road and Hairst Street and on both sides of Fulbar Street. A special grandstand to accommodate the children from the Blythswood School was erected at the railway station and special grandstands and platforms were built at the Town Hall for the Councillors and local dignitaries. The Chief of Police for Scotland ordered that Renfrew police should be on horseback and  horses and riding uniforms were hired for the occasion! New robes were made for the Provost and Magistrates. On 22 August 1888 Her Majesty arrived at the station and was driven to Blythswood House as the guest of Sir Archibald and Lady Campbell. Later Her Majesty arrived at the Town Hall in an open carriage drawn by four horses and with a mounted escort to be welcomed by the Provost and other dignitaries. The Marquis of Lothian, Secretary for Scotland, presented Provost Wright, ex-Provost Brown and Bailie Donaldson to Her Majesty and they  in turn presented the Royal guest with a silver gilt casket. On receiving this Her Majesty handed a written reply which read

'Your loyal and dutiful address gives me great satisfaction. It affords me much pleasure to have this opportunity of visiting a Royal Burgh so closely connected with the ancient history of my Kingdom in Scotland and of seeing a district which has done so much in modern times for the prosperity of my United Kingdom'. 

Thereupon they adjourned to the Council Chambers where the toasts were proposed to The Queen, The Prince and Princess of Wales [Baron and Baroness  Renfrew] and the Royal family.

The day had been declared a holiday and two evenings of fireworks were enjoyed

 Renfrew Coffin Cover Society and Mort Cloths Society

Because people were so poor they had to pay a small sum every week if they wanted to have a fixed lid on their coffin. In the 17th century the cost of a coffin was 13 shillings. Parish coffins were sometimes lent out for use. The beadle walked at the head of the procession ringing a bell to ward off evil spirits and the coffin was carried at shoulder height. The lids were hinged so that, on arrival at the grave, the coffin released its occupant into the ground wrapped only in the burial shroud. Later Mort Cloths, black burial cloths on spokes, were used as a covering for coffins between the home of the deceased and the grave but had to be paid for in advance, being hired only at a cost of 1 groat [4 pence sterling].

The Mort Safe Society

There was a great demand for recently buried bodies for dissection - as with Messrs. Burke and Hare - and, almost nightly graves, were being robbed. The Mort Safe Company hired out heavy rectangular safes for a specified period of time to cover the graves and protect them. They were so heavy that it took  several strong men to lift them.

The Sailors' General Society

As Renfrew was a principal port on the Clyde and there was a great deal of trade with Ireland and the Continent, many Renfrew men would have been sailors and this Society, from 1339, accepted donations from them  to provide for their families in case of ill health or shipwreck.

The Royal Potato and Herring Incorporation of Renfrew

This grand title was given to a  club founded in October 1798 when a group of weavers from Paisley took a stroll beside the Cart down to the Water Neb, round by the ferry and back to Paisley. They stopped for refreshment at Mrs. Adams' hostelry in Canal Street, opposite the [now] Post Office, where they enjoyed the home cooked potatoes and herring so much they formed a club, with officers duly appointed, returning every year on the same date to enjoy them again. The cost of the meal was sixpence.


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