The Lairds of Dalserf

The Scots word laird (derived from lord) refers to the landowner of a large estate, usually with a manor house, in Scotland. The title ‘laird’ is inherited, but it is not related to the peerage.
It is tied to the ownership of specific property, such as Dalserf Estate, which today comprises Dalserf village and environs. In 1990, the then laird passed that estate to her cousin Christopher J. Henderson-Hamilton, the author of this article—and the present laird of Dalserf.—Ed.

My forebear William de Hamilton was the first member of the Hamilton family to appear in Scotland. We find his name in the Ragman Roll, in 1292, swearing fealty to King Edward I of England. While the family’s roots have been traced back to Leicestershire, for centuries the descendants of one branch of William de Hamilton’s family have played a prominent role in Lanarkshire, Scotland, as the lairds of Dalserf.

Royal Beginnings

In the late Middle Ages, what is now the village of Dalserf and its surrounding farms was a part of the much larger Cadzow Estate. In around 1300, King Robert the Bruce granted the Cadzow Estate to Sir Walter de Hamilton (Walter Fitzgilbert). Through the centuries, a great deal of the Cadzow Estate passed through one line of the Hamilton family to the Dukes of Hamilton. But various parts of the estate were granted to many other members of the Hamilton family as well. In around 1400, when Sir John de Hamilton was Lord of Cadzow, his eldest son, Sir James, had a charter to Dalserf and the outlying areas. We do not know the reason but, with the King’s permission, Sir James conveyed those particular lands to his younger brother Sir David, the second son. Thus separated from the Cadzow Estate, the newly created Dalserf Estate descended through successive generations of Sir David’s branch of the Hamilton family. At times the land descended through the female line, with the occasional addition of extra Hamilton blood from other branches of the family.

Margaret Hamilton of Dalserf and Captain James Birnie Hamilton of Broomhill

The earliest known residence of the Hamiltons of Dalserf was Alton (Auldtown), now a small farmhouse on the way to Ashgill. There, the remains of an arched gateway made of stone suggest the presence of a significant house in the 1600s.

In the early 1700s, the Hamiltons of Dalserf built a grand manor house on Dalserf Estate. The new family seat, called Dalserf House, stood on the banks of the River Clyde. It was within easy walking distance of Dalserf village, which was built in the 1650s or earlier, and Dalserf Parish Church, built in 1655. The Statistical Account of 1792 describes Dalserf House as ‘a neat modern building, standing on an eminence, [with a] charming prospect, both up and down the Clyde’ (p. 373).

In 1756, Margaret Hamilton of Dalserf married her neighbour Captain James Birnie Hamilton of Broomhill. At that time, marrying distant cousins was considered quite acceptable and was not at all uncommon. Captain James Hamilton lived nearby, in a tower house called Broomhill, on the Avon River. After he married Margaret Hamilton, the family lived at Dalserf House. The captain may have been referred to as the laird of Dalserf, but ownership of the estate remained with Margaret Hamilton. As in medieval times, her ­direct descendant, not her husband, would inherit the estate. Incidentally, it was Captain James Hamilton who built Millburn House, often referred to as the dower (widow’s) house, sometime in the late 1700s. Its upper floors share with the manse, or minister’s house, what is arguably one of the finest views across the Clyde.

In the late 1700s, the owner of Dalserf Estate valued privacy very highly. According to the 1792 Statistical Account, Dalserf

. . . was formerly the principle village in the parish, but is now fallen much into decay because the present proprietor does not consider it an advantage to have a village near the seat of the family, and therefore does not encourage the increase of it, by granting either lease or feu [a fixed rent in perpetuity], the houses being only let from year to year, so that a troublesome neighbour may be easily removed (p. 374).

Elizabeth Hamilton of Dalserf and Lt. Col. Robert Campbell

Although the exact date she inherited is unknown, Elizabeth Hamilton, the daughter of Margaret and Captain James Birnie Hamilton, was the next owner of Dalserf Estate. The family Bible records what must have been her marriage to Robert Campbell on 1 June 1803. They, too, had their problems with the proximity of annoying neighbours. Before Garrion Bridge was built, in 1817, the residents of Dalserf House had to contend with the commotion caused by the presence of the local ferry. The 1840 Statistical Account reports that

. . . there was a ferry at Dalserf, connecting the two banks of the river, and which caused considerable stir in the village. Standing close to the mansion-house of Dalserf, the proprietors for a good while past have felt a natural desire to have it wholly removed, and it bids fair very soon to disappear altogether from the landscape. Nothing but the presence of the parish church, which cannot be so easily removed, saves the few remaining houses from destruction (p. 748).

Cdr. James Campbell Hamilton R.N. of Dalserf and Mary Rorison

Beginning around 1828, the laird of Dalserf was James Campbell Hamilton, the youngest son of Elizabeth and Robert Campbell Hamilton. Born in 1807, his mother died less than four months later, in 1808, and he inherited the estate when he came of age. When he was forty-four, James Campbell Hamilton married Mary Rorison. They had five children together, all of whom were baptised by their uncle the Reverend William Peebles Rorison. During his lifetime, the laird rose to the rank of commander in the Royal Navy. When he died at Dalserf House, in 1869, his third child and only son, also named James Campbell Hamilton, inherited the estate.

James Campbell Hamilton of Dalserf, Lt. Royal Scots Grey

The younger James Campbell Hamilton was born in 1856. At that time, the coachman to the family was John Ritchie, the grandfather of villager Janet Murray. John passed down an account of the young laird’s fondness for fishing and hunting ‘at Birniehall, where there were three hundred acres of moor and plenty of grouse, hares, rabbits, and snipe’. John, who wore a top hat when driving the laird’s horses and carriage, told this story about delivering the family to the English [Episcopal] church in Hamilton one Sunday: ‘A young English curate took a fancy to the young laird’s eldest sister. [The laird] said, “John, if you see that curate hanging around the carriage, [shoo] him away.” ’

James Campbell’s sense of responsibility found expression not only in brotherly concern for his sister, but also in his dedication to ‘King and Country’ as a lieutenant in the Royal Scots Greys. But in 1880, at the age of twenty-four, his short life ended when he died of pleurisy in the Royal Barracks, Dublin. His faithful coachman John drove the minister of Dalserf church, Dr Rorison, to Ireland to bring the coffin home. There being no other males in the family, John Campbell’s eldest sister, Mary Campbell Hamilton, inherited Dalserf Estate. The following year, she married the English curate.

Mary Campbell Hamilton of Dalserf and The Rev. Charles Greenhill Henderson

At the end of the nineteenth century, when Andrew Shaw and his family of coal miners lived in Dalserf, a sort of interdependence had grown between the villagers and the residents of Dalserf House. Frequent interaction and mutual consideration were the order of the day, despite class distinctions. The owner of Dalserf Estate at that time was Mary Campbell Hamilton. At the age of twenty-seven, she inherited the estate after the death of her brother, James Campbell, in 1880. The next year, in 1881, Mary Campbell married the Reverend Charles Greenhill Henderson, after which the couple took the last name of Henderson-Hamilton. (The name is not hyphenated in the family Bible.)

The ministry was clearly part of the life of the family. By the time of his retirement, in 1894, Charles Greenhill had served twenty-five years as curate, then rector, of St Mary’s Episcopal Church in Hamilton. On Mary Campbell’s side of the family, her mother, Mary Rorison, was the sister of the famed Dr William Peebles Rorison, whose long service to the parish of Dalserf is described elsewhere.

During this period, Dalserf Estate consisted ­of six either dairy or arable farms and two hill farms, as well as all of the houses in the village and several in the outlying area. The factor who managed the estate for the Henderson-Hamilton family collected the rents from these prop-erties twice a year: on Whitsun (the seventh Sunday after Easter) and Martinmas (11 November). The laird’s coachman, John Ritchie, painted this scene:

There were several ale houses, and the house at the entrance to the village was the Dalserf Inn. The rent day was held in it.
Farmers came and paid their rent, and tradesmen got all their accounts paid. It was a field day—boiled ham sandwiches and plenty of bottled ale. A grand day for meeting one and all!

In turn, the family seemed to take an active interest in the farming activity, judging by the inscription on a pewter cup that reads: ‘Dalserf Farmer’s Society for the best turn out of Two Wheeled Trap Horse & Harness. 1882’.

The Henderson-Hamilton family also had interests in coal mining activities on the estate, from which it gained considerable financial benefit. Dalserf village provided employees for the farming and mining jobs on the estate, as well as for other service activities necessary to the estate, such as transport and haulage, much of which was still horse-drawn until well into the 1900s. In his 1904 diary, the laird’s youngest son, James Campbell, describes riding to a local family house in a trap, a two-wheeled carriage pulled by a horse. The driver was one of Andrew Shaw’s uncles, either John or James Shaw, both carriage hirers who lived in Manse Brae. Employment could also be found in service to the families in the several big houses in the area such as Mauldslie Castle, Garrion Tower, and, of course, Dalserf House, where members of the Ritchie family were in service.

A Privileged Life

The family led a privileged life at the prominently situated Dalserf House. The Statistical Account of 1840 records that ‘In the lawn in front of Dalserf House, there is an ash tree of great size and girth, perhaps one of the finest in Scotland, and which generally attracts the notice of strangers’ (p. 729). The interior of the house was equally expansive: five reception rooms and seven main bedrooms, as well as two attic bedrooms, and further bedrooms for two maids and a cook in the maids’ wing.

Furniture, silver, porcelain, portraits and other art works reflected the tastes of at least five generations since the early 1700s. Unfortunately, most of the contents were sold off when Charles Greenhill died, in 1921, although a few pieces still remain in the family. I now have only the remnants of the cutlery, all of which was silver or silver plate. The inventory suggests that they could easily have served thirty-six at a dinner party without needing to call in the caterers.

Dressing up was a necessity in the fashion-conscious Victorian era. It was also part of the entertainment in the form of charades, impromptu plays, and pantomimes created and performed at country houses, mainly by the younger folk. The men were almost as finely dressed as the ladies. Their suits were hand-made, and many of their accessories were gold.

Two Strong Boys

Dalserf House must have been a happy place towards the end of the Victorian era. Newly married, Mary had given birth to two strong boys, Charles Campbell Henderson-Hamilton, my great-uncle, in 1882, and James Campbell Henderson-Hamilton, my grandfather, in 1884. They grew up in the village and would have been well known by the servants and other villagers. Certainly villager Janet Murray held happy memories of the young Master Jim. Her mother was in service to their mother for a while—as a cook, I believe.

For the wealthy families in the area, life in the community was evidently intended to include worship, since the west gallery in Dalserf church contains two sets of named upholstered pews, one reserved for the Mauldslie people and the other for Dalserf House. This made sense, as any house guests would have needed to be accommodated, and the servants would also have attended, even when the families were not there. When they were home, the two brothers, Charles and James, often made the Sunday carriage drive to Hamilton, presumably to hear their father preach, so their visits to Dalserf church were rare. From his diary, written in 1904, James makes specific note of the length of the sermon, sometimes as short as ten or twelve minutes, but usually much longer. He describes his occasional visits to the local church as ‘managed to escape to the kirk’. There, of course, he would have been able to listen to the preaching of his great-uncle Dr Rorison.

Both Charles and James went to Glenalmond public school (in the US, a private school), and then on to university. Charles went up to Trinity College, Oxford. Although James wanted to follow in his brother’s footsteps, his father would not allow it, and he had to settle for Glasgow University. He subsequently went on to Edinburgh University to study law.

James was a strapping lad. His elder brother, Charles, was, by comparison, sparingly built. Where James was a keen walker, Charles was a runner, and a very good one at that. In 1899, Charles won the mile at Glenalmond, where they were both at school. He ran the mile for Oxford University on several occasions, coming second in 1904. The following year, Charles came first, setting a new record time of 4 minutes 17.8 seconds.

Diary of a Laird’s Son, 1904

James Campbell’s diary of 1904 gives a fascinating insight into the lives of the landed gentry at the turn of the twentieth century. Perhaps the most interesting page from our point of view must be 1 January:

Friday 1

Lovely day, not quite so cold. Heard from G[race Cawthra]. P & M [pater/father; mater/mother] went and called at Carfin and Milton Lockhart. Off in Shaw’s trap to Corehouse. [All were local family houses.] Got there 4.30. All there, also Miss Smith Cunninghame and Mr & Mrs Gower. Played a violent game called Puff Billiards before dinner. After dinner we had a sort of impromptu dance in the Hall. Had reels, lancers &c. I got a severe blow on the beak from George’s elbow which was most painful. Mrs Cranstone looking almost well again.

Saturday 2

Frost again. It got cloudy from 11 to 1 but cleared up and was a lovely evening. Tried curling in the lake in the morning but did not learn much. Left at 2.30. Found Kate Hozier just leaving Dalserf and so walked as far as the bridge at Mauldslie.

Sunday 3

Thaw. Dull windy day. Drove to Church at Hamilton in the Brougham [carriage]. Walked around Clyde with the dog in the afternoon. Wrote to G[race].

In the diary there are many references to the use of horse-drawn transport, including an alarming episode related to James by Katie Hozier, daughter of Lord and Lady Newlands. Apparently, the carriage team ran away with the family on board. Although no one was hurt, he reports that at least one of the more delicate members of the Hozier family, Mrs O’Hara, was still in shock two days later.

Most of the entries in the 1904 diary, however, describe the activities of the young author. James Campbell was twenty in that year, and there was a lot going on in his life. He was in his second year at Edinburgh University, attached to Strathearn and Blair, an Edinburgh law firm, as a trainee advocate. The family had a house at No. 8, Frederick Street, in the heart of the city. For James, this address was most convenient for walking to the Law Courts and his law firm’s offices.

Student life for James in Edinburgh was very enjoyable, judging by his description of dances, balls, theatre visits, and so on. James took part in stage plays and pantomimes with his friends and fellow students, and attended public theatres and concerts. Shakespeare was popular, as was Gilbert and Sullivan. While in town, James played golf at Murrayfield, and he shot on the Army ranges. Dining with friends and relatives was commonplace.

One of those friends was the young Francis C. B. Cadell, for whom James sat many times for his portrait. Cadell was later to become famous as one of the Scottish Colourists. James and Bunty, as Cadell was known, were clearly great friends. James dined often with Bunty’s family at their house in Edinburgh, and Bunty was a frequent visitor to Dalserf. James himself enjoyed sketching local landscapes, no doubt encouraged by his friendship with the artist. He was also developing a great interest in photography although, regrettably, none of his work survives.

Other friends were the Campbell Renton family, relatives with whom James’s family were very close. James made trips from school to their home, Mordington House, near Berwick, and both families visited each other frequently at holiday time. Grace Cawthra, another family friend, also visited the Campbell Rentons, and she and James exchanged letters nearly every week. From the many entries in the diary, James seems to have been exceptionally fond of her.

James would often travel home to Dalserf by train for the weekend. The service between Edinburgh and Glasgow was frequent and reliable. He would alight at Overtown, from where he would be collected by horse and trap, the whole journey from Edinburgh to Dalserf taking under two hours. When at home, James enjoyed shooting on local farms, and on the family’s hill farm at Birniehall, perhaps accompanied by his dog Castle. He was a good shot, both on the ranges and on the moors, and often came home with something for the pot.

Despite the usual student problems of not attending enough lectures, James managed to pass his exams, and he was finally admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1907. James was also enrolled in the 9th Royal Scots, joining up in 1902. He rose to the rank of lieutenant by the time he resigned, in 1906, in order to pursue his career as an advocate. Although qualified as an advocate, James found himself unable to progress further, possibly because he did not have the right connections. Because wealthy families, ­despite their financial advantages, strongly urged their children to succeed, James left the law by 1910 and started training to become a chartered accountant, passing his intermediate exams in December 1911.

The Great War

James’s studies were interrupted when he enlisted in the Army after war was declared against Germany in 1914. He joined the 9th Battalion Black Watch, and was posted to England for training. During this time he met and married Margaret Rose Remington. It was a whirlwind romance, as many were during the war. They were married in London on 19 June 1915, and shortly after he went off to the front.

James’s elder brother, Charles, had served in the 2nd Lanarkshire Yeomanry, achieving the rank of second lieutenant by the time he resigned in 1906. He also volunteered and was ­assigned to the 12th Scottish Rifles, with the rank of captain. Charles fell in love with Ann Louisa Hardin Robertson-Shersby, the sister of the laird of Brownlee. Brownlee House lies across the Clyde from Dalserf, and tales are told of boating trips taken on the river by the young couple. They were married in September 1914.

Suddenly, disaster struck for these two young families and their ageing parents. As Charles was fighting in Turkey, Ann Louisa gave birth to their daughter, Elspeth, on 9 August 1915. Less than two weeks later, the new mother died of pneumonia. On 21 August, Charles was killed in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign in the Dardanelles. On 27 September, James was killed in action at Loos, in northern France. One can scarcely imagine the grief felt by their parents, the whole future of their families seemingly destroyed in the space of two months. Indeed, it was a fate suffered by so many families, on both sides of the war.

The infant Elspeth went to live with her mother’s sister, in Maidenhead, England, supported by a small allowance from Dalserf Estate. It must have been of some consolation to James’s widow, Margaret Rose, and to the grieving families, when she gave birth to a son, James Leslie Campbell Henderson-Hamilton, my father, on 23 March 1916. She then returned to London to live with her mother, with only a small allowance from the estate for her infant son.

End of An Era

Mary Campbell, mother of the two boys, died in 1917, most probably of a broken heart. The Hamilton Advertiser printed an account of her last days:

An old family friend, Dr Goff of Bothwell, had been called in to see her husband . . . but it was to Mrs ­Henderson-Hamilton that his attention was unexpectedly called, though without avail, an acute attack of pneumonia carrying her off in three days. Never very robust, Mrs Henderson-Hamilton has grieved sorely over the tragic death of her two sons, both killed in the
war within two months of one another, and her illness, ­finding her in a low state of health, terminated fatally
as stated.

The obituary helps to explain why life in Dalserf had improved during Mary Campbell’s tenure:

A kindly, gracious personality, Mrs Henderson-­Hamilton did a lot of good in a quiet, unassuming way in the parish, and interested herself in the various
local activities having for their end the alleviation of distress and illness among the poorer classes.

After her death, Charles Greenhill was ‘in very poor health in his triple bereavement’. His profound sorrow compelled him to erect stained glass windows in St Mary’s Episcopal Church, in Hamilton, dedicated to the memory of his wife and their two sons. Described as ‘one of the kindliest of men . . . a Christian, a scholar and a gentleman’, he died just a few years later, in 1921, no doubt wondering why his God had dealt them so many cruel blows.

After he died, Dalserf Estate was left in trust to the infant Elspeth Campbell Hamilton, his granddaughter, who had been taken to England to live. Dalserf House was never again to be home to a Hamilton descendant.

A whole century has passed since those halcyon days by the River Clyde, when the world seemed so full of promise for the young men. Many, like the Shaw family, decided to follow their dreams in far-flung corners of the world, as Scottish people have always done. But many remained, and Dalserf survived intact.

Elspeth Mary Campbell Hamilton of Dalserf

Elspeth Campbell Hamilton took over Dalserf Estate from the trust in 1938, although she never lived there. Under her careful stewardship, the many houses in the village and the surrounding farms were repaired and restored over the years to help stave off the ravages of time. Tenants became friends and the indefinable quality that is community endured.

Sometime in the early 1950s, Elspeth had the long stone building, labelled ‘Offices’ on the 1912 estate map below, converted to a private ­residence. Formerly used as an office by the factor (estate steward), the building became known as the Coach House because carriages used to be housed there as well. Around that same time, Dalserf House had to be demolished owing to subsidence caused by the underground workings of a coal mine in Ashgill. Elspeth had the foresight to rescue a collection of architectural artefacts from Dalserf House and install them in an ­extension of the Coach House. The original front door and the stone tablet above it, the oriel window from the façade of the mansion, and Adam-style fireplaces comprise part of this historical legacy.

In 1990, recognising her failing health, Elspeth decided to pass on Dalserf Estate to me, Christopher James, the only child of her cousin, James Leslie Campbell Henderson-Hamilton, my father. Elspeth, now in her nineties, lives in a nursing home in Edinburgh, but still has fond memories of her many visits to Dalserf.

Christopher James Henderson-Hamilton of Dalserf and Jennifer Surtees

Before I took over the responsibilities of laird of Dalserf from Elspeth, in 1990, I had never really expected to inherit. I had known about the estate since childhood, but aside from a brief visit while on holiday, in 1968, I knew little about the place or its history. What my wife, Jennifer, and I discovered was a vibrant and friendly community with deep historical roots, many of whose residents could trace their family connections with Dalserf back through the centuries. Somehow Dalserf had avoided being swallowed up by the development of the mining villages and industrial towns such as Larkhall and Motherwell. It may have been the result of Elspeth’s conservative management over the years, emanating from her wishing to preserve the atmosphere of the place, insulated as it is from the encroachment of modern traffic and urban development. I certainly share that wish.

The community spirit of the village was expressed no better than in the heart-warming response the villagers gave to Charles and Diana O’Niell, of Houston, Texas, on their wedding day. More recently, this spirit was clearly demonstrated again by the enthusiastic attendance
at the opening of Hamilton Hall, in November 2007. It is hoped that the hall will provide a valuable resource to the whole community for many years to come. This project, funded by the kirk and brought to fruition by the hard work of the whole village, demonstrates well the power of a strong community working together to meet its own needs.

Looking towards the future, our son, Owen James Henderson-Hamilton, has developed a great respect for Dalserf and the involvement of our family in its history over the centuries, and I feel sure that he will be up to the task of looking after the estate when the time comes. It is my sincere wish that Dalserf Estate should be kept intact as a valuable social and financial entity, providing good housing to reliable tenants and supporting sound farming practices.

Stowmarket, Suffolk
January 2009

About the Author

Chris Henderson-Hamilton, Esq., was born in 1944 in Edgbaston, Birmingham, and was ­educated at Westbury House, Hampshire, and Swanage Grammar School, Dorset. He studied electrical engineering at Southampton University, and was employed at the Mullard Radio Valve Co, where he met his wife, Jennifer Surtees, in 1972. They married in August 1977. Their son, Owen James, was born in April 1981. At that time, Mr Henderson-Hamilton was employed by Hewlett-Packard, in Ipswich. He left in 2000 to set up his own company, providing support for business-management systems to small- and medium-sized enterprises in East ­Anglia. He has recently retired from active consultancy.

Mr Henderson-Hamilton has worked, over the years, to improve the estate’s income by taking ­advantage of the mineral and other natural resources available to it. The extra income has been used
to good effect to improve the housing stock through modernisation, installation of double glazing and other projects. Most recently, this includes the complete refurbishment of two of the estate’s former farm houses.