The Story of a House, part 5

After the war, a family called Campbell made their home at 8 Kersland Street. All I know about them (from the electoral register) are their names – James, Catherine, Hugh, Mary, Jane. So, possibly a mother and father and at least three children old enough to vote? They stayed a good long time, from 1947 all through the 1950’s, until, in 1960, the house was bought by William and Fay Darling. And this, dear reader, is a very significant moment!

If you have been following this story you may have noticed that up until this point all the residents of 8 Kersland Street have been tenants. It turns out (now that I’ve procured a copy of the historic title deeds from the Land Registry) that through all these long years the landlords, the owners of the property, were named Blackie and were in fact members of the famous Glasgow publishing firm, Blackie and Son. The firm ceased business in 1991, but you may be familiar with some of the iconic childrens’ books they published, including Cecily May Barker’s Flower Fairies books.

flower fairies

The Blackie we are interested in is John Blackie Jnr, whose father – John Snr – founded Blackie’s in 1809. He had originally been in business as a weaver, but was persuaded that money could be made by selling sizeable books in monthly or quarterly instalments, by subscription. Money could indeed be made and the enterprise developed and prospered for another 180-odd years.

Blackie_John jnr

John Junior entered the business with his father and from 1831 the firm became known as Blackie and Son . But John’s sphere of influence would grow wider when in 1857 he was elected to the Glasgow City Council and in 1863 became Lord Provost and served a term in that position. He proposed the City Improvement Scheme, a major plan to improve the quality of life in the poorer areas and was also involved in bringing water to the city from Loch Katrine.

The 1861 census shows John and his wife Agnes living at Lilybank House, Hillhead with their three young sons, John, William and Albert. His profession is given as “Publisher employing 20 men and boys”, a proud declaration one feels, and by this time he would have also been involved in city politics. But… Lilybank House…?

Lilybank House was built sometime around 1830 for the merchant Robert Allen. This would have been quite early in the evolution of the suburb of Hillhead, when James Gibson was selling off plots of land for development as villas and terraces. When John Blackie took on the tenancy in 1857, Lilybank House was a small Georgian villa with a large walled garden and greenhouses.  Once he actually purchased it in 1864, he commissioned architect Alexander “Greek” Thomson to add a new wing to the south end and relocate the entrance. During his term as Provost, Blackie had the satisfaction of entertaining both William Gladstone and young Prince Alfred, son of Queen Victoria, at his newly enhanced residence.

Lilybank House has undergone various additions and alterations over the years. In 1894 it was converted to a Hall of Residence for women attending Queen Margaret College, known as Queen Margaret Hall. It was taken over by Glasgow University in 1924 and after it ceased to be a hall of residence in 1966, it has been used to house various departments of the University. It has been the subject of further refurbishment and conservation work and is now part of the Thompson Heritage Trail.

Lilybank House is of particular interest to us because it is situated in Bute Gardens, which is more or less a continuation of the other end of Kersland Street from number 8. So James Blackie Jnr would have been ideally placed to witness the streets of Hillhead emerge and grow before his very eyes, indeed it’s not unlikely that he and James Gibson would have been well acquainted with each other. Which probably explains why in 1871 Blackie purchased a plot measuring 738 and four ninths square yards of ground on the West Side of Kersland Street and, I think, other plots which I can’t identify.


Did John Blackie then take a daily stroll down Kersland Street to monitor the progress of the construction which was growing into the 4-storey tenement building which became numbers 8 and 10 Kersland Street (for he was the owner of both addresses). I’d like to think he did, it’s what I would have done, wouldn’t you?

But John did not survive long to live to appreciate his investment. His health had been undermined due to overstrain during the years of his Provostship and he finally succumbed to a sharp attack of pleurisy on February 12th, 1873, in his 68th year. John Senior outlived his son and he died the following year at the grand old age of 91.

John Jnr’s widow Agnes moved out of Lilybank House and took up residence nearby at 6 Wilson Street, now known as Oakfield Avenue, and only four streets away from Kersland Street. In her household were her coachman and two female servants, so her “private means”, including the rental from numbers 8 and 10 and possibly other properties, seems to have left her comfortably off. It tickles me to think that Agnes Blackie and her tenant Madame Stewart might have actually known each other. But I’m probably being fanciful – presumably a woman of property and a tenant would have moved in different social circles, especially as all the actual renting out and collecting moneys and property management would have been done by an agent. It’s not impossible though, is it?

Inkedhillhead 1860
This 1860 map neatly illustrates the proximity of the site of 8 Kersland Street (#1) to Lilybank House (#2), Hillhead House (#3) and 6 Wilson Street (#4).
hillhead 1894
By 1894 the whole area has been transformed, and Hillhead House is no longer there, having been demolished in 1878.

On the death of Agnes in 1887, the Kersland Street properties were passed on to William Gourlie Blackie, John and Agnes’s middle son. One gets a feeling that after the death of his father in 1873, life hadn’t been particularly easy for William. He had married Katherine Rankin in 1875 and their son William R was born in London the following year. Two daughters, Agnes Mary and Ruby Katherine, came along over the next couple of years, both born in Kirkcudbrightshire, and then it’s back to London where another son, John Herndon was born in 1880. William was only 21 when his first child was born – could it be that he left Glasgow under a cloud? Why didn’t he join the family firm? Of course it could be that he just wanted to strike out on his own…

The 1881 census shows William to be an “unemployed printer” living in Clapham with his wife and four small children. Very sadly, they lost the youngest, John, the following year when he was only 2 years old. We find the family still in London 10 years later and William is now working in the publishing industry. There are clues which put the family in Canada in 1901 – indeed Blackie’s had an office there, so perhaps William did after all come to hold down a position with the family firm. But whatever dreams took William and Katherine to Canada, they didn’t last, for the next we hear is the report of William’s death in 1905 at Ballantrae in Ayrshire, at the age of only 51.

Katherine and her daughters then seem to have lived on their ‘private means’ in various places in the south of England until Katherine passed away in 1911 at Hastings in Sussex. She was then 57.

Agnes and Ruby would have been in their early thirties when they inherited numbers 8 and 10 Kersland Street. The sisters never married and as far as I can tell had set up house together and were living in Tunbridge Wells when their mother died. I don’t know that they always lived together – at one point they seem to have had separate houses in St Leonards on Sea and at another time are recorded as residing in Stirling, where I think they may have had relatives. I’m picking up these tiny tidbits from the title deeds and, to be honest it’s a miracle you can pick up anything from them as they are written in that arcane legal language so beloved of solicitors and their ilk. Here’s a wee snippet to show you what I mean (this is one of the clearer bits!)

deeds snippet

Anyway, the years rolled by and the rentals rolled in, until Agnes Mary passed away in 1929, age 50. Ruby Katherine carried on as sole proprietor and at some point in the mid nineteen thirties came to live at 24 Hamilton Park Avenue in Glasgow, a rather nice looking terraced house not a stone’s throw away from Kersland Street. (Hamilton Park Avenue is indicated by the blue arrow on the map below, and Kersland Street by the yellow one). The tenement properties were being managed by agents, but I can’t believe that Ruby wouldn’t have been familiar with them. She could hardly have avoided them whenever she passed by on her way to the Botanic Gardens, or the shops of Byres Road.

So what brought Ruby to Glasgow? As far as I know she’d never lived there, hadn’t known her grandparents, who had died before she was even born, hadn’t known the imposing house where her father had been brought up. I think that once again geography can come to our aid here. When you place 24 Hamilton Park Avenue (then known as James Street) on our 1860 map (#5) and realise how it fits in to the general scheme of things, I think it’s not unreasonable to conclude that this property must surely have been another acquired by the far sighted John Blackie Junior, and that in taking up residence there, Ruby was doing no more than coming home.

inked ham park ave

I’d like to think that Ruby felt a sense of belonging when she came home to Hillhead and got to know the area her family came from and the various locations which were part of her own history.

Economic conditions became more difficult after the second world war and the title deeds show us that Ruby, through her agents, began selling off the various flats at 10 Kersland Street in 1949, and that this continued throughout the 1950’s, culminating in the sale of number 8 in 1960. This no doubt enabling her to maintain herself as she became older and frailer (she’d have reached her 80th birthday in 1958). Ruby eventually moved into a nearby old folks home (Henderson House) and then possibly one in Edinburgh, where I think she lived out her days and died some time in the mid sixties.

My mum used to say that before us only one family had ever lived in our house, which, as we’ve seen, isn’t right. But she WAS correct in thinking that only one family had ever owned it in the previous 90 years. I wish I could tell her she was right, but she probably knew that anyway; she knew things, did my mum…




A Wee Break

the end

I have to confess to a touch of post-holiday blues in the last week or two. If that’s what just four nights in Majorca does to you, maybe I’d be better staying at home!

Not that I didn’t enjoy the sun, sea and sand, of course I did (just as long as I stayed in the shade in the middle of the day). And then there were the relaxed family evenings of tapas and paella and talking philosophy (armchair variety) under the stars, with the little ones running around and the teenager making sarcastic remarks on the folly of adults. What’s not to love?

majorca map

But I suppose that’s the problem isn’t it? It’s amazing how quickly you can adapt to your new surroundings and imagine a completely different lifestyle from the one you have. One involving taking your morning tea and a notebook out on to the terrace for some creative scribbling while the mediterranean sun slowly rises above the mountains. Eventually your big sunhat isn’t enough to protect you from the heat, so you retreat and cool off in the pool before a bite of lunch and siesta time. Evenings comprising more of the same…

It’s a bit of a let-down to come back to a chilly, rain-sodden Glasgow. Why do I want to live here? Can anyone remind me?


However, that was a couple of weeks ago. Today, for once, I’m looking out on a lovely sunny day – albeit 15 degrees cooler than Alcudia – and I’ve just had a wee sit in the garden where there’s a nice secluded corner that protects you from the breeze while you catch a few precious rays of sunshine (post-holiday resolution – get out in the sun whenever I can).

So – however reluctantly – I suppose I’m more or less back in the swing of things again. I’ve caught up with all my emails, had daughter Sarah to stay for a few days (wall to wall box sets and late night existential conversations – “yes it’s okay to put the fire on in August mum”), realised that I WOULD rather live in a place where I’m not kept up all night by unbearably itchy insect bites.


And then there’s my blog – I have been feeling somewhat frustrated at just how disrupted my daily writing routine could become in such a short period of time, how difficult it has been to pick up the threads again. It’s not that I don’t have plenty to write about, it’s that I’ve lacked the motivation to just get on with it. This is scary because along with that comes the thought that maybe you will NEVER write another post, or anything else. So, believe me, this rambling effort represents a huge victory over inertia and it would be nice to think that you would raise a glass with me to celebrate the unblocking of the creative juices – cheers!

Let me tell you about the inspiration that finally got me going again. Sarah lent me a book; Tim Marshall’s “Prisoners of Geography – ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics”. I know, snappy title or what? Anyway, I’m reading the first chapter “Russia” and I hadn’t got too far when it struck me forcibly that my Mum, in her prime, would have loved this book. I’ve written before about her cultural visits to Russia and various Baltic republics. She was completely beguiled by all things Russian and would read everything she could get her hands on about its history and art; myths and magic. She loved telling you all about Czar Nicholas, Catherine the Great, the treasures of the Winter Palace, the siege of Leningrad … the list goes on and on. Here’s her first impression of looking down on the country:

cartoon-russian-old-wooden-village-vector-2098183 (3)

As we lost height to refuel at Riga in Latvia I could see out the window and the country is completely flat. Roads stretch for miles as straight as a die and there are many canals. Nothing is curved – everything has straight angles. There are forests. The country is quite remarkable. And vast. I could see small groups of houses and houses on their own and some cars on a road – but usually rivers and in the distance the sea. We flew for an hour and the landscape did not vary. Rivers, canals, roads, what looked like fields and even the forests were all squared up as straight as a ribbon – quite extraordinary and fascinating. Could hardly believe I was looking down on Russia!

POG cover final.indd

“Prisoners of Geography”, while completely factual, also feels to me like a fairytale with the storyteller spreading the map out in front of you and showing you just why and how the history and politics of this great land inevitably rolled out the way they did, constrained by the shape of its geography, from the romantic sounding Carpathian Mountains to the west, right across the vast plains of Siberia to the Pacific Ocean in the east. As I read, I could so easily imagine Mum by my side nodding eagerly and pointing out the places where she’d been and saying, “Yes, yes, that’s right, that’s the way it is”.

Geography is a marvellous branch of knowledge, don’t you think? It makes sense of everything because despite whatever advances we may make in technology and science and engineering, and however invincible we think that makes us, we are always either working with the shape of the planet, or striving to overcome its restrictions. And sometimes, sadly, we are at its mercy, vulnerable to droughts, earthquakes, tsunami’s and other natural disasters. Look at a map and it will tell you everything you need to know.

africaAnyway, next time we’ll return to the small corner of the world known as Lochaber, and the further exploits of my MacFarlane ancestors and how they contended with the constraints of their geography.

Not me, sadly, but a scene from BBC’s The Durrells, where the family really DO start a new life in Corfu…