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Kilsyth, A Parish History
Chapter XIII


York House—York Buildings Company—A Romantic Story— Sale of Confiscated Estates—Rise and Fail of Shares—Kilsyth Estate—State of Agriculture—Kilsyth Estate Farmed by James Stark—Bought by Campbell—Duliatur Bog—Plague of Frogs —The Young Pretender—The Company’s Undertakings—Sir Walter Scott—An Aberdeen Tinsmith—Increase in Price of Land—The Company Wound Up—The Livingston and Edmonstone Families.

York House, in the Strand, three hundred years ago, was a gay and fashionable residence. It turned its back to the street and its face to the river. It had a square tower with a pepper-box at each corner, also a main front with four circular casements, surmounted by four more pepper-boxes. It looked with pride on its splendid garden that sloped down to the river, and watched the varied life that passed up and down its gently gliding waters. The trim-built wherries, on their way to Bank-side ; the barges occupied by sleek city magnates; the great State barge, with the Queen under the canopy, paddling slowly past Whitehall Stairs—the old house saw them all. How long the house had stood gazing out on the river before the time of Elizabeth I cannot tell, but certainly it had had many tenants, both clerical and lay, before it came to be the birth-place of Francis Bacon, and one hundred and fourteen years later, in the occupancy of that company to which it gave its name^ and the object of which was the supplying the inhabitants of St. James’ Fields and Piccadilly with water at reasonable rents.

The connection of this London Water Company with the parish of Kilsyth is part of a chapter as extraordinary and romantic as any in the whole volume of Scottish history. The doings of the company can be followed with the utmost minuteness, because for the hundred and fifty years of its existence it spent on an average 3000 every year in litigation, and its history is consequently to be found written with great fulness of detail in the records of the Court of Session.

After the overthrow of the Rebellion of 1715, the Government immediately took the severest measures against the rebel nobles. Those of them who were not fortunate enough to make their escape abroad, as did Lord Kilsyth, were apprehended and executed. Their estates were also immediately confiscated. Nearly an hundred of the finest estates in the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland fell into the hands of the Government. Amongst these estates was, of course, the estate of Kilsyth, which at that time seems to have embraced not only nearly the whole parish, but also certain lands in the parish of Campsie. With so much land on their hands, the Government were at their wits’ end what to do with it. Scotland was still far from being in a tranquil condition, and the rebel fanatics still participated very largely in the popular sympathy. The Government saw clearly, furthermore, that if they exposed the estates for sale, they would be bought back for nominal sums by the representatives of the attainted proprietors, and the power of the rebel families would remain as strong as formerly. It was the age of the South Sea Bubble, the age when the belief held good that every financial evil could be solved by the formation of a joint-stock company. London was swarming with speculators. One of these was Mr. Case Billingsley, of the York Buildings Company. In the midst of their difficulties he approached the Government with a scheme, and the Government heard him gladly. The Water Company was a paying concern, but by a clause in its charter he was able to show how it could enter into other enterprises and acquire property in other places besides the immediate precincts of York House and gardens. In a few weeks he raised a sum of 1,259,575 for the purchasing of the forfeited estates in Scotland. The public had evidently complete faith in the soundness of the York Buildings Company and their new venture. In a few months the 10 shares of the company rose to 35 per share. The public confidence in the company was, however, shortlived. On the 16th August, 1720, the 10 shares were selling at 295. A fortnight later they had fallen to and in a few days more they were unsaleable.

But this is anticipating. After the company had raised the capital, the Government began to sell. The first estate exposed for sale was that of the Earl of Win-ton. It was knocked down to the company for 50,300. The next was the estate of Lord Kilsyth. It also was knocked down to the company for 16,000. The sales went merrily on till the whole of the estates were disposed of. The largest number of these were sold to the York Buildings Company. For these forfeited estates the Government received 411,082. After, however, the discharge of all debts, expenses, and liabilities, the whole sum yielded to the Government by the forfeitures amounted to the wretched pittance of only 1107.

In the year 1720, when the South Sea Bubble collapsed, the York Buildings Company found itself in severe financial difficulties. By performing mysterious and unaccountable financial somersaults, the company struggled on and maintained its existence. Being now the largest landowner in Scotland, its difficulties were not wholly financial. The sympathy of the tenants was with the forfeited proprietors. The rule of an English company was distasteful to the people. In the circumstances of the time it was not easy to get the judges to declare the law, and after its declaration it was still less easy to get it enforced. In addition to all this, the state of the country was miserable. Bere and oats were the chief crops. The farmers used the worst grain for seed, and the return was only three bushels for every bushel sown. The potato was not to be introduced for other twenty years, and the turnip was still further in the future. The ploughs were made of wood, and cost eightpence each. A wright could make three ploughs in a day. The harrows had birchwood tynes. The tynes were hardened by being hung in proximity to the kitchen fire. The carts were rude affairs, wholly made of wood. The axle was fixed in the nave of the wheels, and revolved with them. The cost of these vehicles was 2s. 6d. The roller was unknown. The clods in the fields were broken with wooden mallets. The flail was used for threshing, and the wind for winnowing the grain. The wool was oftener pulled than shorn from the sheeps’ backs. The price of a sheep was 5s.; a grazing quey, 3s. 4d.; a cow, 30s.; a horse, 4. Rent was paid in kind, and was styled ferrn or farm, hence the word farmer. Pigs were scarce, and there was a prejudice against them. Yarn, was the laborious product of the rock and spindle.

How the company was to exact its rents from such poor people was a problem which at once presented itself for solution. To let their farms and pasture lands in the ordinary way and to the ordinary tenants was absurd on the face of it. The tenants would rather have paid their rents to the old proprietors than to the alien company. Mr. Case Billingsley, the speculator, was equal to the occasion. He let the estates to middlemen, and left these middlemen to sub-let to the tillage tenants. The project was fairly successful. In 1721, the baronies of Fingask and Kinnaird, formerly the estate of Sir David Threipland, were disposed of for nineteen years, at a rent of 480 6s. 3fd. The barony of Belhelvie, in Aberdeenshire, and the estate of Panmure were next let. The first for a lease of nineteen, the second for one of ninety-nine years.

The estate of Kilsyth was disposed of about the same time to James Stark, Bailie of Kilsyth, on a nineteen years’ lease, dating from 1721, at a gross rent of 800 a year, besides a fifth part of the coal wrought by way of royalty. This approximated very nearly to the value put on the estate by the forfeiture commissioners in 1716-17. Their estimate was :—

No. 8. Estate of William, late Viscount of Kilsyth.

Money—Rent payable in money,. . 702 12 2
Barley—144 bolls @ 10/5 per boll, . 75 0 0
Oatmeal—167 bolls 3 furlets @ 10/5 per boll,.....87 7 4
Total 86419 7

The company were careful in making their agreement with Stark, as they seem to have considered that the estate of Kilsyth was susceptible of considerable improvement, and held resources that might be profitably developed. The company held their tenant bound to plant two trees for every tree he cut down, and to make plantations of oak, elm, ash, and fir in certain enclosures. They kept Dullatur Bog in their own hands, reserving to themselves the right to drain and improve it as they saw fit, and they undertook to make good to Stark any damage he might sustain by the carrying forward of these operations. Stark had made a bad bargain. After being in possession of the estate for two years he became bankrupt, and prayed the company to take the lease off his hands, which they did. James Stark’s connection with the estate did not then terminate. For the next five years he acted as factor for the York Buildings Company. For the first four of these years he returned to the company 634 per annum. For the last year his return fell to 522.

Lord Kilsyth had been greatly popular in Stirlingshire, and his friends seeing the York Buildings Company getting deeper and deeper into trouble with the estate, opened up negotiations with them to get the patrimony once more restored to the Livingstons. But for Daniel Campbell of Shawfield, in the parish of Kilsyth, it is probable this arrangement would have been carried through. He represented how such a restoration would be dangerous to the State, and made a counter movement on his own behalf. Campbell was successful. He secured a ninety-nine years lease of the estate at an annual rent of 500 a year, including minerals. He was relieved of all obligations as to planting trees, and he secured into the bargain all the company’s rights in Dullatur Moss. The draining of the bog was never attempted by Campbell. It was not carried out till the formation of the Forth and Clyde Canal, when the frogs, panting for water, swarmed in millions over the parish and neighbourhood, as if the locality had been smitten by an Egyptian plague.

Landowners have always had a weakness for borrowing money, and it appears when the estates of Viscount Kilsyth were attainted, although his rental stood between 800 and 900 a year, he was owing the Bank of Scotland the sum of 166 13s. 4d., and for the payment of this apparently small sum the Earl of Kilmarnock and the Laird of Orbiston were the joint cautioners. This other anecdote is worthy of note in passing. In January, 1746, when the young Pretender’s army passed through Kilsyth on its march to Stirling, Prince Charles passed the night at Mr. Campbell’s of Shawfield. The steward was ordered to provide the best provision he had, and promised payment. Next morning the young Prince informed him that he would reckon with him when his master came to account to him for the rents of the forfeited estates of Kilsyth.

It was not enough that the York Buildings Company possessed these vast estates throughout Scotland. There was no end to their ambition. They took forests on the Spey, and set up as wood merchants on a large scale. They also became charcoal manufacturers, and sent large shipments of that material to the Continent. They also set up iron furnaces, and manufactured “Glengarry” and “Strathdown” pigs. They took the coal pits and salt pans of Tranent, and this venture they followed up by establishing a great glass-making manufactory at Port Seton. Having been unfortunate in timber, in charcoal, in iron, in coal, in salt, and in glass, the company next turned their attention to lead and copper, silver and gold, and leased the extensive mines possessed by Lord Hopetoun and other proprietors, the development of which was pushed on at great cost and with extraordinary vigour. For all these things large sums were required, but Mr. Case Billingsley and his successors were fruitful in expedients. By establishing syndicates and secret committees, by calls and recalls, by creations and annulments, by processes and devices passing all understanding, money was got and utter collapse prevented.

The pressure of financial difficulties eventually rendered it imperative that the York Buildings Company should part with some of their valuable possessions in Scotland. In 1779, eight estates were sold. Amongst them were Winton, East and West Reston and Panmure. In 1782 a very important cluster was disposed of. It consisted of Kilsyth, Fetteresso, Dimnottar, Belhelvie, and Leucbars. In the year following, the sale of Callendar, Fingask, Clerkhill, and Dowieshill, terminated the connection of the company with Scotland, in so far as the holding of land was concerned. The aggregate result of these sales was 361,000. Shortly after the realisation the common agent of the company in Scotland was Mr. Walter Scott, W.S. He was assisted in his office by his son Walter, who afterwards became Sir Walter and the author of the Waverley Novels, and who in his Tales of a Grandfather does not omit to make mention of the Buildings Company of whose affairs he received thus early a personal knowledge. In the redisposal of the estates there were many episodes well worthy of being remembered. One connected with Stirlingshire may be given. The Earl of Linlithgow was anxious to purchase an estate for the representatives of the old family. When such offers were made in the interests of the old proprietors there was never any competition. In this case it was different. A new purchaser appeared in the field in the person of Mr. William Forbes. He had been a tinsmith in Aberdeen. After he had learned his trade he went to London. He was moderately successful. Seeing that copper was soon to be used for ships’ bottoms, he bought all the copper he could lay hold of, and soon sold it to the Admiralty at a handsome profit. The copper sheathing, being fixed with iron nails, was unserviceable. Forbes bought the copper back again. Having shown that if the copper was fixed with copper nails it would answer the purpose and prevent the ravages of the ship worm, he sold it once more to the Admiralty at a handsome profit. Being unknown in Edinburgh when he bought the Callendar estate for 83,000, the agents asked his security. To their amazement he produced from his pocket a Bank of England note for 100,000!

In 1782 the Kilsyth estate was purchased by Mr. Campbell of Shawfield for 22,800. He made a fine thing of it. In the year following he sold it to Sir Archibald Edmonstone, the first baronet, for 41,000. The estate at that time included the East and West Baronies and the lands of Bamcloich in the parish of Campsie.

The estate of Kilsyth is a good illustration of the increase that has taken place in the price of land in Scotland. In 1650 the rental of the Kilsyth estate was 300 a year.. In 1719 it was 864 as has been seen. In 1727 it was 500. In 1782 it was 1117. In 1795 ft was 2234 1s. It had exactly doubled in thirteen years. After other thirteen years it had doubled again. In the year 1880 it was 6 783, and in 1890-1, the arable and mineral rental without feus is 16,280.

The estates of Lord Kilsyth in Berwickshire, after being subjects of a litigation in which the company were successful, were finally disposed of in 1809 to Archibald Swinton for 879.

The remaining history of this extraordinary company is easily told. In 1818 they ceased to exist as a Water Company; On the New River Company agreeing to pay the York Buildings Company a perpetual annuity of 250 18s. 6d., the latter bound themselves to stop supplying water. Their estates sold, their mining and forestry difficulties at an end, and their old business abandoned, in 1829 they applied to Parliament and obtained an Act dissolving the Corporation.

"Thus,” writes Dr. Murray, “after an existence of one hundred and fifty years, the company came quietly to an end. Jt had commenced life modestly, and it expired unnoticed and without regret. The design of purchasing the forfeited estates was a magnificent one, and if wisely carried out might have resulted in much benefit to Scotland, and great profit to the company. It had, however, been originated in a mere humour of stock jobbing and this taint clung to it ever after. The conduct of the company’s business often showed considerable ingenuity, but most of its schemes were wanting in honesty, and it seems strange that one generation after another of directors should all have been inoculated with the evil principles which sprung into life in the Great Bubble year. It over-weighted itself with a capital vastly too large for its requirements, while instead of making calls upon the stock-holders or borrowing upon mortgage, it burdened itself with an enormous annual charge for annuities, and used its capital as a means of gambling, calling it in and re-issuing it as suited financial requirements, and accorded with the state of the money market, and so dealing with it as to convert its own shareholders into creditors. These operations were a source of great loy, as were also its various trading adventures, while the rents obtained from the estates were utterly inadequate to meet the annuities and other annual charges. Death brought relief by the lapse of annuities, and the rise in the value of land ultimately enabled all debts to be discharged. In this respect the company is almost unique in the history of commercial disaster. Without any call upon the stockholders, the whole liabilities, principal and interest, were discharged, and the company passed away in a good old age, if not with honour, at anyrate with the credit of having paid everyone, and something left to divide amongst its members.”

When the Kilsyth estates became the property of Sir Archibald Edmonstone, the Edmonstone family had exactly changed places with the Livingston family, for in the early part of the 17th century, 14th October, 1614, an ancestor of Sir Archibald mortgaged his family estate of Duntreath to Sir William Livingston of Kilsyth, the grandfather of the last viscount. “This mortgage,” says Mr. Edwin Brockholst Livingston, “was paid off by his successor; so that the Edmonstones, more fortunate than their old neighbours, not only now possess their own family estates, but also those formerly belonging to the Livingstons of Kilsyth.”


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