History and heritage of Bridge of Weir

Unlike many of its adjoining towns and villages, Bridge of Weir’s history as a settlement only dates back as far as the 17th century.

Nevertheless, it has achieved a lot over the course of three short but immensely industrious centuries.

Although not much is known about the area prior to its establishment as a water-powered centre of production and village, one of the area’s most notable sites actually dates back to two hundred years prior. Built by the Knox family in around 1440, the structure was composed of a thick-walled keep alongside a courtyard, houses and outbuildings. Despite passing into the hands of the Earl Of Dundonald in 1665, it soon felt into dereliction.

Originally dubbed “Port o’ Weir” before it’d take on its more familiar name, the “weir” aspect is attributed to the fact that there was a salmon weir stationed on the stretch of the River Gryffe that runs through it.

In the words of Franchise Groome’s  Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland, the village owed “its existence to the establishment of two large cotton mills in its vicinity in 1792 and 1793. Over time, this would prove to be a drastic understatement.

Looking to get in on the booming industry that was taking off in nearby Paisley, in 1770, the Speirs family established the Burngill waulk mill. As opposed to manufacturing cotton here, this operation oversaw the washing and dressing of leather. In doing so, it would kickstart the area’s association with this age-old process that has been a fixture of the town ever since.

Two decades later, he would place an advert in the Glasgow press which read “site for a cotton mill at Bridge of Weir, apply Peter Speirs at the Mill of Gryffe. This mill can never be in back water.”

With that, the world was alerted to its potential as a place of industry and the manufacture of both leather and cotton became a staple in the area for generations. From Rowntrees Lint Mill– which was described in 1792 as being “of excellent construction, and the best frequented of any in the West of Scotland”–  to Cowan and White’s six-story cotton mill and the Laigh Gryffe mill, the late 18th and 19th century saw merchants from all over looking to harness their share of the Gryffe’s power. So much so that by 1840, there were a dozen separate mill sites of varying size and significance which all drew from that same body of water.

At the height of this period, it was believed that the mills provided employment to over 700 people but unfortunately, the cotton production would steadily peter out.

Over time the Burngill Waulk Mill became a fully fledged leather works and was still owned by the Speirs family. Eventually, it began to fall on hard times. With its originators eager to sell, 1870 saw Andrew Muirhead, a leather merchant from nearby Glasgow, purchase the Burngill Tannery for the sum of £500.

With his family’s roots in the industry dating back to 1758, Muirhead rechristened the site as The Gryffe Tannery. Decades on, Andrew’s youngest son, Arthur, would take ownership of his family’s legacy by launching his own company known as Bridge Of Weir Leather in 1905. In doing so, he pivoted away from the equestrian leathers that Gryffe Tannery was known for and towards upholstery for automobiles, ships and eventually aeroplanes. Although he set out with just 20 employees, the business would continue to expand and by the onset of the second world war, they had over 100 people on the books. During both of the wars, Bridge Of Weir Leather and other local manufacturers were enlisted to produce materials for the army including boots. However, this is by no means BOW would be best known for.

Just as he’d envisioned, Arthur’s company became renowned for allowing people to travel in comfort. On account of this growing reputation,  this meant that when the first Ford Model T production plant away from American soil was established in Manchester, it was Bridge Of Weir leather that they enlisted for its upholstery.

Over the years, everything from the seats of The House Of Commons and the QE2 to top-of-the-range McLaren sports cars have been fitted with the fine craftsmanship that can only be found in Bridge Of Weir. By 2014, it was reported that around 90% of the leather produced there is exported to countries around the world.

In addition to Arthur and his family’s massive contribution to the industrial wellbeing of the town, he also built 40 homes for employees as well as buying land that was gifted to the village.

On the subject of philanthropic gestures, no-one has left a legacy of aiding those in need within the community quite like William Quarrier. A successful shoe merchant from Greenock, William Quarrier’s experience of encountering impoverished and destitute children on the streets of Glasgow led him to purchase land at Nittingshill Farm near Bridge of Weir. Alongside architect Robert Bryden, they built what became known as the Orphan Homes. Although it began with just two cottages and a central building, this would gradually grow to the point that it boasted 40 cottages, a school, workshops, Mount Zion Church and a training ship where boys could learn skills for a career in the navy.

Between 1878 and the mid-1980s, over 30,000 children were housed in Quarrier’s children’s village until changes in the care system allowed them to be sold off to private owners.

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