Although a very modest house in the context of Scottish "castles" in general and the SCA's membership in particular, Blackhall has a history which stretches back 850 years, and has connections with some of the most important figures in Scotland's emergence as a cohesive, independent nation.
Its beginnings lie in David I's decision, at the end of his long stay at the English Court, to bring to Scotland a number of Norman knights, amongst them, in around 1140, Walter Fitzalan from Shropshire, who became one of his favourites. David granted him the lands of "Kerkert" and "Strathgryffe" (most of Renfrewshire) and, in 1160, made him "High Steward of the King's Household", a title which passed to his heirs, who adopted the surname Stewart.
Walter Fitzalan built what was probably the first Blackhall, before he founded Paisley Abbey in about 1163. This "hall" is mentioned in the foundation charter for the Abbey, where it is described as having been built upon a rock.
Walter died in 1177, to be succeeded by his son Alan, who confirmed all his father's grants to Paisley Abbey, mentioning the "hall" which his father had built. Alan died in 1204, in turn succeeded by his son Walter, who was appointed Justiciary of Scotland in 1231. In 1238, he was appointed Ambassador to France, with the task of negotiating the marriage of Alexander II to Mary, daughter of the Count de Courcy. Walter's son Alexander was born in 1214. He was Regent of Scotland in Alexander III's minority and led the Scots to victory at the battle of Largs, in 1263, which finally ended the threat of invasion from Norway.
Alexander's son James, born in 1243, was one of the six regents of Scotland after the death of Alexander III. His son Walter, born in 1293, fought with distinction at Bannockburn, and defended Berwick against Edward II of England. His marriage in 1315 to Marjory, daughter of Robert the Bruce, was to bring the crown of Scotland to the Stewart family.
There is relatively little evidence of Blackhall's status in this period. Work seems to have begun on the castle at Renfrew some time in the late 13th century, however, and its completion may have led to some diminution in Blackhall's importance. As late as 1298, however, James, the fifth High Steward, was signing documents at Blackhall, although the Ragman Roll of 1296 lists a "Thos le Wright" of Blackhall, presumably a steward or tenant.
Robert, the son of Walter Stewart and Marjorie Bruce, and seventh High Steward, was a major force in the land, and came to the throne, as Robert II, the first Stewart king, on the death of David II, his uncle, in 1371, and was succeeded by his eldest son John, Earl of Carrick, as Robert III, in 1390.
Although its owners had done well for themselves, little of this success rubbed off on Blackhall! The dearth of references to it during the 14th century presumably reflect its humble status in the royal property portfolio. In 1396, however, Robert III gave it to his natural son Sir John Stewart, who had already received the lands of Auchingoun in 1390 and was to receive the lands of Ardgowan in 1403. Thereafter, successive lairds seem to have used the titles Ardgowan and Blackhall to describe themselves without differentiating between the two properties. Perhaps the two places were used equally, with the latter giving access to the expanding settlement of Paisley.
Barony courts seemed to have been held at Blackhall regularly during the 16th century, according to the Barony Court book which was in the Ardgowan papers in the 19th century, but which now seems to be missing. In the first years of the century, the young laird, John's son James, was a favourite of James IV and regularly attended the royal court. After Flodden (1513) John's brother James was in charge of the king's ships in Dumbarton harbour. By 1539 another James inherited the lands, despite the fact that he was a minor. He was confirmed in the lands of Ardgowan with its tower house and Blackhall with its "place".
The Stewarts continued to live at Blackhall, at least periodically, throughout the 16th and most of the 17th centuries. In 1613, the property was inherited by Archibald Stewart, a brilliant advocate who was knighted by Charles I and made a member of the Privy Council. He was succeeded by his grandson Archibald, who, in 1667, became the first Baronet of Blackhall, when Charles II created him a Baronet of Nova Scotia.
Just how Blackhall developed over this period is unclear and a matter for considerable speculation. It was probably improved periodically, as the family's circumstances allowed. It is unclear as to when the family stopped living in Blackhall but, in the Poll Tax records of 1695, the "place" is inhabited by a James Maxwell, his family and servants. A contemporary account states that "the Laird of Blackhall (resides) at Ardgowan and (Blackhall) is less regarded......by him". About this time it is recorded that a new house was being built at Ardgowan. The Stewart (subsequently Shaw-Stewart) family continued to style themselves as being "of Ardgowan (or Greenock) and Blackhall" until gifting the latter to the Burgh of Paisley in 1940.
The house itself entered a period of decline. In 1710, Blackhall is described as having gardens to the east of it. Much of the land had been enclosed, with farming the principal activity. When Sir Archibald Stewart, the second Baronet of Blackhall, died in April 1724, aged 19, to be succeeded by his brother Michael, the Barony appears to have comprised 24 families, in addition to which there was a lime-work, with water taken from the quarry by a windmill, and a cloth bleach-field carried on by a William King (who may be the "W King" whose name is engraved on a stone in the back wall of the house). It would appear, however, that Blackhall was still used for administrative purposes; in the 1780's, tenants had to bring their rents in cash and kind (one of the items mentioned is a wagon-load of coal) to the house.
An account of the building, published in 1821, gives a vivid description of it as a farmhouse. Most of the windows had been blocked up (presumably because of the Window Tax of 1695), making the interior very gloomy. A vaulted passageway ran from the kitchen at the west end, past the front door, to the staircase. The kitchen had a large arched fireplace in the west wall and a bed recess in the north-east corner. The stone vaulting in this room had fallen and been replaced by a conventional ceiling, but the passageway still had its vaulting. At the east end of the passageway was a room used for storing lumber, and the staircase leading to the first floor. At the top of the stairs was a passageway running north (formed by a partition running south from between the fireplace and the window to its right). The room created was called the dining room and contained the fireplace, a window in each of the outside walls, and two bed recesses. In the passageway was what is described as a recess "formerly shelved...(to)... deposit dishes". This was the then-blocked-up main bedroom door, because "to the north" was the entrance to the bedroom. This suggests that the original staircase in the north-east corner at that door had fallen, and been replaced by one in the north-west corner. This would have made possible the closing-up of the present bedroom door to make that recess. The bedroom is described as having "two bed recesses not of recent construction" built against its west wall. The window in the east wall had been blocked up. The top floor was divided into two rooms and the signs of decay in the roof were evident even then. The well which had served the house had been cut off when the Glasgow-Paisley canal was built, following the course close to Blackhall now occupied by the railway line.
About 1842 work was begun on a new house for the farmer, immediately adjacent. When the farmer moved out of Blackhall, the roof was removed to avoid tax. The house was then used as a cattle shed and store. By 1936 it was being used as a coal shed.
In 1940 the Shaw-Stewart family gifted Blackhall and a surrounding 2.8 acres to "the Provost, Magistrates and Councillors of the Burgh of Paisley and their successors in office" on condition that it "shall be held and administered... in all time coming as an open space for behoof of the inhabitants of the Burgh of Paisley and shall be maintained in good order and condition... " and that "the Old Manor House of Blackhall... shall be preserved and maintained...".
Blackhall lay neglected from that time, except by adventurous children and vandals, until 1978 when there was a call to demolish it, in view of its dangerous condition. The council considered this option but the public outcry was such that the order was given to shore-up the building and brick-up the windows against further damage. In 1982, Alex Strachan acquired the property and immediately set about the gargantuan task of restoring it. Leith and Rachel Stuart bought Blackhall in 1990.
Work began on 26 February 1982, and the property occupied 19 months later. The plumbing, plastering, tile-laying and slating were done by tradesman; all other work was done by Alex Strachan, with volunteer unskilled labour, "working 2 and a half days each week and all holidays". Around 30,000 bricks and 30 tons of stone, much of it reclaimed, were used. Almost all the timber, including the beams in the great hall, was also reclaimed.
The first three weeks saw the interior cleared of the rocks, rubble, earth and trees which filled it to a depth of between two and four feet. This left the four outside walls to eaves level (without gable heads or chimneys) and one cross wall inside. Rebuilding started in the kitchen area.
Blackhall, as restored, has the appearance of a mid-16th century house, although elements of it may be a good deal older. The building has undergone repeated alteration and is therefore difficult to date. The house is built on solid rock (matching its early description) and, when the three to four feet of earth around the building was removed, the south foundation stones were found to be nicely chamfered to fit. The area in front of the house was cobbled but, unfortunately, this was lost when a tracked earth moving machine was at work.
The principal (south) elevation has the (only) door, a stair projection, and dormer windows. The stair projection has crow steps original to the house, with the skewput above the door bearing the remains of a coat of arms. It has been suggested that the stair projection is an insertion, which seems, given the house's probable development, logical, and is supported by its relatively poor bonding to the main structure and lack of relieving arches over the windows.
The dormer windows have stone pediments, two of which are surmounted by roof decorations, a thistle salvaged from Glen Coats House, before it was demolished, and a rose from one of the derelict Ferguslie Mill buildings. The initials A L & S carved on one of the pediments represent Alex and Lorna Strachan but are, apparently, also those of Archibald Stewart, who inherited Blackhall in 1613, and, by coincidence, those of (Alexander) Leith Stuart, the current owner.
Although the principal elevation could hardly be described as ornate, the other elevations are even plainer, and again show signs of the ongoing alterations so typical of properties of this nature. The rear elevation carries graffiti which, it has been suggested, indicates the sites of market stances from which the 18th century operators of commercial activities on the estate sold their goods.
The ruinous state of the house, prior to restoration, inevitably leads to the reconstructed interior being somewhat conjectural, although based, wherever possible, on the remaining evidence. Much use has been made of reclaimed materials, which came, somewhat ironically, from the factories and houses (Glen Coats and Brediland Houses in Paisley and Craigends House at Houston, for example) of the Victorian mill-owners whose activities contributed, by industrialising the surrounding area, to Blackhall's earlier deterioration.
Original features include the turnpike stairs to the first floor, resurfaced with concrete and finished with slate, the cross-wall between the master bedroom and the great hall (albeit that this had to be dismantled and rebuilt), one of the jambs to the fireplace and the upside-down heart on the west wall (the significance of which is unknown, although there have been a number of romantic interpretations!), both in the great hall, and the fireplace in what is now the study.
The total accommodation is much as one would expect to find in a modern "executive" house - kitchen, dining room, utility room and toilet, on the ground floor; great hall, master bedroom and (another original feature, judging by the position of the garderobe chute) en suite bathroom, on the first floor; two bedrooms, a study and a bathroom, on the second floor; and a large attic. In no sense can this be described as imposing but it is comfortable and, unlike so many of its larger and grander cousins, easy to heat!
Given that Blackhall would appear to have been one of Walter Fitzalan's first homes in his lands in Scotland, and, in its original form, predates Renfrew Castle, it can perhaps claim a share of the description "Cradle of the Royal Stewarts" applied to its neighbour. The present house, of course, dates, to a large extent, from a good deal later, but the view that part of the present structure dates from possibly the 14th century, and that what was then a "hall house" was, in the early 16th century, converted to a more convenient building by the addition of an internal cross-wall, stair tower, new ground floor door and larger windows, with further modification in the late 16th or early 17th centuries, by the addition of even more windows, is perhaps more compelling than the alternative of all trace of previous building being eradicated before construction of the new.
The "evolutionary" view can draw on:
Much of the history of the building, of course, must remain a matter for speculation. The situation today is, however, clear. The house is now in good condition, offering a comfortable family home, with its own unique sense of history, well placed to face the next 850 years.
Words: Leith Stuart (Blackhall Manor). Taken from The Journal Issue 3
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