Category Archives: LANARKSHIRE

ORBISTON HOUSE

A country house built from wealth accumulated through the proceeds of slavery. It was never restored after fire destroyed it a century ago, reduced to rubble more than a decade later. 

Orbiston House - Colin Currie
Orbiston House, Lanarkshire. Very view photographs of the mansion survive. This one was taken by Thomas Annan in 1870. COLIN CURRIE.

One hundred years ago, fire had broken out at Orbiston House in Bellshill, North Lanarkshire, occupied by Mr James Steel. The south wing of the mansion was practically destroyed, as had parts of the roof in the main house. The Bellshill and Larkhall divisions of the County Fire Brigade had rushed to the scene, but were hampered by the lack of water pressure, the supply having to be pumped from South Calder Water, some distance away.

It was thought that the fire had started in a defective chimney and spread at an alarming rate along the roof. Several rooms, along with their contents, were destroyed before the fire reached the main building. The damage was estimated to be several thousand pounds.

The fire was the end of Orbiston House, eventually reduced to rubble more than a decade later. It was a sad end to a fine house, one of the most prosperous of them all, built on the profits of slavery.

Gilbert Douglas (1749-1807) had acquired much wealth from being the owner of the Mount Pleasant sugar plantation and the Fairfield cotton estate in St. Vincent. In 1794, he married Cecilia Douglas (1772-1862), the only surviving daughter of John Douglas, a Glasgow linen merchant. Gilbert purchased land at Douglas Park in 1800, and a year later, a further 225-acres, known as Bogs, on the banks of South Calder Water, from General John Hamilton.

Gilbert immediately commissioned Robert Burn, father of architect William Burn, to build a ‘modern’ mansion on the site of Old Orbiston House. This was called Douglas Park and was to be the centrepiece for his Douglas Park and Bogs estate. (There are papers available suggesting that the design had been conceived as early as 1795).

Gilbert Douglas died in 1807, leaving his widow one-third of his estate and life tenancy at Douglas Park and Bogs. Unfortunately, he also left debts of £7,700, eventually cleared by Cecilia Douglas from her own personal fortune. The Scottish estate and the West Indian plantations were put in trust, his widow the principal trustee.

gilbert-douglas-grave - Spanglefish
The memorial at St Bride’s Collegiate Church, Bothwell, Lanarkshire. “To the memory of Gilbert Douglas of Douglas Park. Born 28th May 1749. Died 10th March 1807. And also of Cecilia Douglas of Orbiston, his wife. Born 28th February 1772. Died 25th July 1862. SPANGLEFISH.

Cecilia Douglas turned out to be a formidable businesswoman.

She had watched with irritating fascination a frivolous scheme that had taken place nearby. In 1825, Archibald James Hamilton, the son of General John Hamilton, had gone into partnership with Abram Combe to form an experimental socialist co-operative movement. Combe had bought land off General Hamilton for £20,000, and between them, spent another £40,000 to create a self-sufficient community. Under the banner “Liberty, Security and Knowledge” they established this ‘New Babylon” with accommodation built around a school, theatre, foundry, forge, printing press and a small factory. It ended in failure. Combe died in 1827, the project burdened with debt, local antagonism (no doubt from Cecilia) and the inability to be self-sufficient at all.

In 1830, Cecilia Douglas paid £15,000 to the creditors of the co-operative and added the remaining 291 acres of the Orbiston estate to her own, the enlarged estate now known as the Orbiston estate.

She died in 1862, a wealthy woman of 90-years-old, her estate valued at £40,365. Cecilia’s income had derived from tenant farmers and the slave economy in St. Vincent. Even the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 had increased her fortune, obtaining compensation of £3,013 (about £3 million today) for the 231 slaves on the Mount Pleasant estate. In addition, she held stocks and bonds in banking, railway, navigation, gas and insurance companies – all contributing a handsome dividend. In 1861 she became the sole survivor of the subscribers to the Glasgow Tontine, and inherited the Tontine buildings on Trongate. This had been established in 1781 to build “a public coffee-house with suitable accommodation for brokers, and rooms for tobacco and sugar samples.” The building was sold by her trustees in 1864 for £17,000.

In her will, her collection of paintings, sculptures and artefacts collected during an extended stay in Italy in 1822-23, was to be left to “some public institution in Scotland.” This valuable assemblage containing Gabnelli’s “View of the Roman Forum” and Camuccini’s “The Death of Caesar” was bequeathed to Glasgow Corporation, known as “The Douglas Collection”, and now forming part of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum’s collected works. In 2012, it was questioned whether it was appropriate to display works of art acquired through wealth accumulated through the proceeds of slavery.

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum - Art UK
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. The purpose-built museum opened in 1901. It now contains ‘The Douglas Collection’, once displayed at Orbiston House. ART UK.
still-life-herring-cherries-and-glassware-1680.jpg!Large WikiArt
Still-life. “Herring, Cherries and Glassware” by William van Aelst, 1680. Gifted by Cecilia Douglas to Glasgow Corporation. SPANGLEFISH.

Orbiston was inherited by Robert Douglas, a grand-nephew of Gilbert Douglas. He died in 1866 and left half of the Orbiston estate to a relative, John Culcairn Munro, and the other half to his son, Robert Lushington Douglas, who died unmarried in 1888.

The house was leased from 1865 onwards and proved attractive to the Victorian iron and coal magnates in the area.

William Neilson (1810-1882) lived here from 1875. He had founded the Mossend Ironworks in 1840 which grew into the Mossend Iron and Steel Company, one of the largest iron producers in Scotland, and was owner of several coal works on the estates at Carnbroe and Orbiston.

Neilson died in 1882 and the tenancy was taken over by James Addie, a partner in Robert Addie and Sons of the Langloan Ironworks in Coatbridge and the Viewpark Colliery. He left Orbiston in 1896.

It was assumed by William Neilson’s son, Colonel James Neilson (1838-1903), managing director of the Summerlee and Mossend Iron and Steel Company, as well as a director of various railway companies. He died at Orbiston House in 1903.

It lay empty for a long period before being occupied by James Steel about 1914. It was during his tenancy that Orbiston House suffered the disastrous fire of February 1919, which left the left wing of the house destroyed.

The house was owned by the trustees of Lushington Douglas who chose not to restore the house, instead leaving it in the care of Mr and Mrs Drydale, before eventually being demolished in early 1931.

In the 1920s, several acres of land were sold to Bellshill Golf Club, adding to their existing nine-holes.

The site of Orbiston House now sits within Strathclyde Country Park.

Orbiston House - Site - National Library of Scotland (1)
The site of Orbiston House or Douglas Park, as it was once called. NATIONAL LIBRARY OF SCOTLAND.
Orbiston House - Site - National Library of Scotland
A modern day aerial view of the Orbiston estate. The site of the house is now parkland. NATIONAL LIBRARY OF SCOTLAND.

Note:
Gilbert Douglas was not the only Glaswegian profiting from Caribbean slave colonies in the early 1800s. Scotland itself benefited disproportionately from slavery compensation – Scots made up 10% of the British population, but 15% of the slave owners who got payments, with Glasgow getting much of the cash. The early 1800s have been called Glasgow’s “Golden Age of Sugar.”

LOANINGDALE HOUSE

Loaningdale 1867
A drawing of Loaningdale House from 1867. It was originally called Sunnyside and featured in a book ‘Biggar and the House of Fleming’ by William Hunter.

In November 1917 a newspaper advertisement in The Scotsman announced the pending auction of the Loaningdale Estate, near Biggar, Lanarkshire. It was offered at the ‘low upset price’ of £3,500 in an attempt to be rid of the property. The newspaper described Loaningdale House as a ‘very desirable residential estate with its mansion-house containing four public rooms, twelve bedrooms and dressing rooms, servants’ accommodation, stables, coach-house and good gardens’. Britain was at war and it wasn’t the best time to be selling; every day country mansions were being offered for sale and, for those still able to afford it, there were numerous properties to choose from.  At December’s auction Loaningdale House failed to find a buyer (as it had done in 1908) and its owner, Gavin William Ralston (1862-1924), was resigned to keeping the house.

Loaningdale House went back onto the rental market, as it had been since the death of Ralston’s father, Gavin Ralston (1827-1894), but the succession of tenants came at a price. In 1901, the property was described by one tenant as being in “a dirty and unhealthy condition with bad smells.”

However, Loaningdale House had enjoyed much better days. It had been built in the early 18th century for Nicol Sommerville on the site of an old farmstead called Sunnyside. It was enlarged by Dr Black and, in 1855, was bought by Walter Scott Lorraine, a Glasgow merchant, who remodelled and enlarged the house three years later to the designs of architect Thomas McGuffie and changed the name to Loaningdale. It was described in 1867 as ‘a spacious and elegant building, somewhat in the Elizabethan style of architecture’.

Loaningdale (Panoramio)
This modern image of Loaningdale House provides no clues to its existence as Loaningdale Approved School for Boys that closed in the 1980. (Panoramio)

After his death in 1871 the property was bought by Gavin Ralston, a writer and a Master of Arts at Glasgow University. He died in 1894 and Loaningdale passed to his wife, Christina Ballantine Walker, who lived in Edinburgh but had been inclined to rent the house out.

After she died in 1908 it became the property of their eldest son, Gavin William Ralston, a barrister who practised at Dr Johnson’s Buildings at Temple. After failing to sell Loaningdale in 1917 he finally sold the house in 1921, probably to a Mr and Mrs Baird, but gained national headlines when he married Countess Makharoff in 1924. He had met his wife when touring Russia and she was just a girl of 15. It seems the first seeds of their romance were sown and when she fled the country after the Russian Revolution of 1917 (shooting two Bolsheviks in the process) she eventually arrived in England. Just 11 days into their honeymoon Ralston died of a heart-attack while walking down a country lane at Worth Matravers, near Swanage in Dorset.

Loaningdale (Zoopla)
A modern accommodation extension was built in the 1960’s. The house was put up for sale in 2015 and sold for just £520,000. (Zoopla)

In 1963 Loaningdale House became an Approved School for Boys but nearly suffered closure in 1967 when the body of a 15-year-old local girl was discovered in a nearby churchyard. She had been hit over the head with a heavy object and strangled from behind. The police began taking dental casts, including boys from the school, and it was determined that the murderer was 17-year-old Gordon Hay, a resident at Loaningdale. He became the first person in Britain to be convicted based on evidence from forensic dentistry. The school finally closed in the 1980’s and in recent times the house has been used as an outdoor education centre. The core of the house remains but has been spoilt by a 1960’s accommodation block and outbuildings to the east.

Loaningdale (Dicky Hart)
Not the most sympathetic addition to Loaningdale House, built in 1858 for Walter Scott Lorraine. (Dicky Hart)
Loaningdale House 1
Modern buildings were built to the east of Loaningdale House. It now operates as a Scottish Outdoor Education Centre (SOEC) for children and  young people.

Loaningdale House,
Biggar, South Lanarkshire, ML12 6LX