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A History of the Parish of Neilston
Chapter II. — Invasion by the Romans


The Romans, under the command of the famous General, Caius Julius Caesar, invaded our shores 55 B.C., and with that event begins the recorded history of our country. A large part of Scotland is said to have been travelled through six centuries before that date by Pytheas, a native of Massila, the modern Marseilles. But his narrative having been lost, his opinions are only known through quotations by other writers. Caesar’s operations were confined mostly to the south-east of Britain, and therefore do not so much concern us. It is not until the arrival of Agricola, 79 A.D., that the veil is lifted, and we get an authentic glimpse of the geographical and ethnological conditions of Northern Britain. This famous commander, having finished his campaign in the south, marched in person from Wales, to subdue the northern tribes, who were giving trouble. He was the first commander to lead the legions of Rome across the border into what is now Lowland Scotland. In the course of his progress northward, he found the country along the western shores inhabited by several native tribes, and an account of them is given by Tacitus, his son-in-law, who was also his biographer. On reaching the district which is now Renfrewshire, on his way to the great ford across the Clyde, Agricola found it “inhabited by the Goidelic Dumnonians (except in the east, where, in the Mearns, as the name implies, was a tribe or clan or settlement of Mreatae). The Dumnonians were related to the Damnonians of Cornwall and Devon, who were probably their superiors in the arts of civilization, in consequence of their more frequent intercourse with foreigners.” The inhabitants here named Dumnonians by the Romans were Goidels, i.e., Gaels,and we are given a description of them by their historian, as they were found on his arrival amongst them. They were a rude, uncivilized, very barbarous, yet brave and warlike people, living mostly on the milk of their flocks, wild fruits, and the flesh of such animals as they captured in hunting. They do not, however, seem to have lacked courage, as they are said to have been very hostile. No doubt they would give strenuous and stubborn resistance to the invader of their territory at first; in fact, we are left in no doubt of this, as Tacitus informs us that, on the part of the Romans, the struggle with them was at first for existence, and afterwards for conquest; adding, that the Britons exhibited such fierceness, that even a long peace had not softened them. During the occupation of the district by the Romans, no doubt the native tribes in their vicinity would be held in a state of comparative subjection, but as they were the most tolerant of conquerors, the restraint may have been compatible with considerable freedom.

The Picts from beyond the Clyde and Forth line would appear to have given the Roman invaders a great deal of trouble by their harassing raids. So much so, indeed, as to subsequently necessitate the erection of a fort on what is now Oakshaw Hill, Paisley, to protect their camp, and a great wall, the Wall of Antonine, across the isthmus between these rivers (the remains of which may be seen to the present day), in order to keep them within their northern boundaries. These border Picts are spoken of as being naked, painted, and tattoed, after the maimer of the New Zealander in later times, with representations of animals, etc., and the Romans seem never to have succeeded in conquering them. The Piets appear to have lived in the rudest of houses, little better in many instances than holes excavated in the ground; or rude huts, erections of wattle and clay; or shelters scooped out of the hillsides; weems or earth-houses, as they have been named.

In connection with these primitive dwellings, it is interesting to note that quite a group, a town indeed, of such was discovered in our neighbourhood little over a hundred years ago in quarrying near the site of the Castle of Williamwood in the parish of Cathcart. A description of this interesting discovery is given in the New Statistical Account, which I here copy :—

“In removing the earth from the quarry, a great many subterraneous houses were discovered, ranged round the slope of a small swelling hill. Each house consisted of one apartment from eight to twelve feet square. The sides, which were from four to five feet high, were faced with rough undressed stones, and the floors were neatly paved with thin flagstones, which are found in the neighbourhood. In the centre of each floor was a hole scooped out as a fireplace, in which coal-ashes still remained and seem to indicate that their occupiers had left the place oil a sudden. That coal and not wood or peat had been employed as fuel, seemed at first an argument against the antiquity of the houses, until it was remembered that many seams of coal crop out on the steep banks of the river in the immediate vicinity, which may have been picked out for firing2 bv the aboriginal inhabitants, as is still done to a limited extent by a few of the poorer classes in the neighbourhood. Near the fireplaces were found small heaps of water-worn pebbles, from two to three inches in diameter, the use of which it is difficult to conjecture. They may have been used as missiles for attack or defence in the rude warfare of ancient days, or more probably they served the purpose of an equally rude system of cooking, by which meat was prepared for being eaten by heated stones placed round it as is still done in many of the South Sea Islands.

The number of huts discovered amounted to forty-two, of which thirty-six formed the arc of a lower and larger circle, anti the remaining six, also circularly ranged, stood a little higher up the hill. If the natives of the village described above, deserted their homes hastily, as may be conjectured from the fact of the fuel remaining on their hearths, it may have been in terror of the Romans, one division of whose invading army must have passed not far from the place. About twelve querns or hand-mills were found near the site of these houses, and a grave lined with stone, containing a rude urn filled with ashes and human bones, which the discoverer avers were of almost super-human magnitude. To the great loss of antiquarian science, these houses were unfortunately destroyed.

As has already been stated, during the inter-tribal strife that followed the withdrawal of the Roman legions from our island, 407 A.D., the tribes of Britons, rallying to each others support, succeeded in establishing the independent kingdom of Strathclyde or Cumbrae. This kingdom extended at one period from the Clyde—where its existence is still witnessed to by the islands of the Cumbraes—along the western shore between the Pennine Range and the coast, as far as the Ribble in Lancashire. Rydderick Hael, the great king of the Britons, a prince of liberal sentiments and great valour, reigned over it in the zenith of its power, 573 a.d., his “strong city” or capital being fixed at Alclyde, the “Rock of Dumbarton,” or fortress of the Britons; and as this kingdom includes the Dumnonian Britons who occupied the tract of country that long afterwards became the County of Renfrew, it possesses for us more than an ordinary interest.

Concurrently with the growth of the kingdom of Strathclyde in the west, its great rival, the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, was gaining strength and power on the eastern shore of the island, and during a war of encroachment on the part of the latter, under their king, Ethelfrid, what is now modern Wales, was separated from the Strathclyde Britons, and the Northumbrian kingdom reached the western shore. At this time the island of Mona, which had always been held in sacred respect as a holy isle, by both Druid and Christian Britons, had its name changed to Anglesey, the island of the Angles, and Strathclyde for a period was itself reduced to the condition of a subject province. The venerable Bede informs us that the Anglians established a bishopric thus early at Whithorn, “Candida Casa,” which continued till 803 a.d., and adds, “The island (of Britain) at the present time (750 a.d.) contains five nations, the Angles, Britons, Scots, Picts, and Latins, and that the Latin tongue by the study of the Scriptures had become common to all.”

The decline of the Northumbrian kingdom in the eighth century afforded Strathclyde the opportunity of again asserting its independence; and within the restricted limits nearly answering to the valley of the Clyde, it continued to maintain this condition until its union with the greater kingdom of Scotland.

The Britons of Strathclyde we thus see were a persistent and indomitable people. Not only had they survived the Roman occupation with all its vicissitudes, but had also successfully maintained the struggle for independence against the aggressions of their great rivals, the Saxons and Angles. This protracted independence—for it continued for two hundred years after the conquest of the other provinces in the lowlands—had an enduring influence upon the language, the place names of the West of Scotland and Renfrewshire being rich in Celtic derivatives.

The Strathclyde Britons were, moreover, a people of tall stature and powerful build; and there is reason for thinking that their influence in these particulars can still be traced in the people of our own day in the south and west of Scotland, and even among their kindred people in Wales, into which they numerously emigrated during the pressure of the Angles on the east, and the Irish Scots on the west. The character given of them by Tacitus, “that they were a warlike people,” still continued to distinguish them, and in 912, during the 'wars that followed the M*Alpine succession, they carried the tide of battle against the enemy in the north, as far as Dunblane, which they burned. Their kingdom, still unconquered, became absorbed by union with Scotland, first under Malcolm, King of Scots, but finally and permanently when their prince ascended the Scottish throne as King David I. ; thus terminating their independence as Strathclyde by giving their prince to Scotland as its king, 1124 a.d. In the later years of the protracted military occupation of the district of the Dumnonians by the Roman legions, there would appear to have subsisted a quite friendly relationship between them and the native Britons, which could only have been engendered by a certain mutual confidence as between rulers and ruled. For after the withdrawal of the Romans, we find a section or tribe of the latter boasting themselves, with evident pride of descent, as “Roman-Britons,” and claiming to have descended from the Roman rulers. They were, probably, the Clyde Britons.

Notwithstanding the length of time the Romans occupied their camp or fort on Oakshawhill, Paisley, and its proximity to what is now our parish, I am not aware of any evidence to show that they were ever resident in the parish itself, though from its salubrious surroundings, as a health station, such may have been the case. With the Britons it is different; they have not gone without having left evidence of their former occupancy in numerous ways; in the-stature of the subsequent race; in the place-names in the parish and county; in the geographical names of the islands of the Clyde ; and in the valour and courage they have transmitted to their successors throughout the ages.

At the battle of the Standard, for instance, it is the opinion of the ablest critics that the brave tribesmen who fought for King David I. under the name of the “Levernanii,” were the men of Levernside (the sons of the noisy stream), drawn from Neilston parish. Such is the opinion of Chalmers and Hailes. And when Walter the Steward summoned the stout men of Strathclyde to his standard to aid in repelling the invasion of Somerled, “Lord of the Isles,” when he sailed up the Clyde and landed at Renfrew, 1164 A.D., they would doubtless again be in the field fighting for hearth and home; and at the battle of Largs, in 1263 a.d., when it became necessary to hurl back the invading host under Haco, the men of Renfrewshire and Neilston parish were there, and a Mure of the Caldwell family was a leader. Then, on that ever memorable day in the year 1314, when the fate of Scotland’s independence was to be finally decided, when the High Steward of Scotland again summoned the men of Renfrewshire, his own particular district, to the support of the royal Bruce, there can be no doubt that the stalwart men of the Levern valley responded to the call, and on the glorious field of Bannockburn upheld their own traditional honour, and the honour of their country, in that fateful struggle for national freedom.

We have thus seen that the men of Strathclyde were of heroic mould. But they were also men of intellectual stamina, and the two most outstanding missionary saints of the early Christian Church, St. Ninian, the apostle of the Southron Picts, and St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, were natives of Strathclyde; whilst St. Mungo of the Celtic Church, the apostle of the Britons, spent his life amongst them. But if Ireland was indebted to us for her great patron saint, born at Kilpatrick on the Clyde, she amply repaid the debt by giving us in return .the apostle of the Scots and northern Picts, St. Columba, who, coming de Scotia ad Britanniam, bore the torch of Christian enlightenment into the dark regions of the Western Isles and the northern Highlands. Nor is the region of romance unrepresented by this remarkable people. Arthur of “heroic valour” and “Round Table” fame was also a prince of the Britons, who, after his campaign in Ayrshire, may have passed through our parish on his way to the Lennox, leaving as a relic some connection with the Arthurlie at Barrhead. We thus learn that the territorial ancestors of the people of Renfrewshire and the parish of Neilston, as an integral part, were no mean race, but brave, hardy, and intellectual, according as we view them in their different phases of progressive civilization, and that during their long occupancy (for, as already shown, they were a persistent people) they passed through many vicissitudes and took part in many bold enterprises.

In the opinion of many people, much that has been written in this chapter may be considered as having little to do with the history of the parish. But as the character and genius of a people can often only be traced by a knowledge of their ancestry, an inquiry into that ancestry must have an important bearing on any question relating to them; and therefore, as Chalmers has well said, “in every history it is of the greatest importance to ascertain the origin of the people whose rise and progress it is proposed to investigate.” For as there is no adequate reason for thinking that these brave peoples were ever exterminated, but on the contrary, were gradually absorbed, they must have exercised a permanent influence upon their successors throughout the slow but progressive development through which the country has passed.

Origin of the County of Renfrew

Up till the beginning of the fifteenth century, what is now the County of Renfrew was wholly included in the County of Lanark; and from a very early period what is now the western or lower division of the County, was known as Strathgryfe. But on December 10, 1404, King Robert III., as all the lands were holden of him, caused the baronies of Renfrew, Cunningham, and Kyle Stewart in Ayrshire, his possessions as Earl of Carrick, and the islands of Arran, Bute, and Cumbraes, and other lands, to be erected into a free regality, and afterwards into a principality, for James, his son, the heir-apparent, under the title of Prince and Steward of Scotland. This title the Prince of Wales, as heir-apparent to the British Crown, still enjoys, with all the benefits attaching thereto. About ten years later, somewhere between August 7, 1413, and August 12, 1414, Renfrew ceased to be a barony, and was erected into a shire.


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