Walter Campbell of Shawfield and Islay ‘...the most zealous improver of all’

Dr Margaret Storrie writes about Walter Campbell, whose final resting place is in the Round Church, Bowmore.

Walter Campbell Memorial Bowmore Round ChurchA hefty shove opens the door into the Round Church. How often have you walked past the marble obelisk on your right? Two hundred years ago on 19 October 1816, 75-year old Walter Campbell of Shawfield and Islay died after almost forty years as laird. Born a third son, his two elder brothers predeceased him, and at the age of 36 he unexpectedly succeeded on 13 May 1777 to estates at Woodhall near Bothwell, Islay, part of Jura, Skipness and Muckairn in mainland Argyll. An advocate, he was unusual in his Campbell family in never becoming a member of parliament and instead of its London summer season, always spent several months in Islay. His long lairdship was one of immense change not only in his Scottish domains, but encompassing wars and their aftermath in America (1776-1783 and 1812-15) and in Europe (1793-1815). His grandfather Daniel Campbell had ‘a genius for making money and had accumulated a large fortune’ but his heir, Walter’s bachelor brother, also Daniel, ‘had largely helped to diminish it’ during his Grand Tour and subsequent lairdship, leaving debts of £90,000 (about £6 million today), as well as a magnificent library, art, a large and colourful wardrobe, wines, guns and so on.

One of Walter’s first actions was to change the entail and release capital to clear someof the debts, develop new ventures and tofinance his extended family of siblings,let alone his own burgeoning one. Likemost of the Shawfield Campbells he wasprobably at least six feet tall, looking rud-dily healthy in Raeburn’s portrait. Withlairdship went sundry honorary titles andduties; he also collected excise and cus-toms duties and served as Rector of theUniversity of Glasgow between 1789 and 1791. Throughout, his Factor on Islay was Neil MacGibbon, a Writer to the Signet in Inveraray. On occasion Walter attended the annual autumn Stent meeting of the self-appointed Gentlemen of Islay (NOT an elected ‘parliament’) which raised monies for a surgeon, schools, roads, post and pacquet or ferry. He also participated in the activities of the Hebridean Agricultural Society of Islay which he set up at Bowmore early in the 1800s, three decades before the Islay Jura and Colonsay Agricultural Association and the first such in all of the Highlands and Islands. Meetings, demonstrations and produce prizes were often followed by more social activities of singing and dancing. Presidents included the other nearby improving MacNeill owners of the smaller islands of Colonsay and Gigha.

Early in 1791 Walter Campbell claimed that his ‘efforts in the island of Islay have succeeded equal to my sanguine expectations’; as well as the two ‘excellent’ quays at Port Askaig and Bowmore, half subsidised by government, between forty and fifty miles of ‘good’ roads with bridges and milestones had been laboriously constructed (Islay’s carriage roads were the best in the Hebrides), regular sailing pacquets, (once weekly return Port Askaig to Kintyre, and two all year round between Bowmore and Greenock), post and stage waggon established and the villages of Bowmore and Portnahaven were hives of activity. The government then extended the road from Bridgend to Portnahaven and one along the Jura coast to a new quay at Lagg. In his own words, Shawfield’s great object had ‘ever been, by trade, manufactures, fishing and farming, to retain at home and render usefully employed’ the islanders, and there had been no emigration.

Walter Campbell of Shawfield IslayExports had increased: Walter Campbell pursued ‘the Islay and Colonsay plan of enlarging the size and improving the shape of their cattle by careful selection of breeders’ and importing ‘handsome bulls’. Touring the Highlands in 1803 James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, averred that ‘Campbell of Islay and he only hath long disputed the field with the duke [of Argyll] for the best breed of Highland cattle . . . it is truly amazing the prices that these two houses draw for their cattle’. The same was true of Islay’s sturdy horses or gearran. Another export was linen yarn. Grants were available for good flax seed and premiums given to tenants with improving leases introduced in 1779. Spinning wheels and training grants to encourage employment of women and girls were delivered – widows’ names jump out of the listings. A replacement lint mill was taking shape near Skerrols, and gradually hecklers, carders and weavers were to be found in rural cottages and in the village of Bowmore. The estate had advertised for skilled incomers to settle in the island, with the promise of house sites and free rents of village lots and peat banks; Islay’s textile workers becameas assertive as mainland ones;

All ‘experts’ were profuse in their descriptions of the potential of fisheries around the coasts of Scotland. Herring, cod and other white fish could be taken in ‘prodigious quantities on three great banks’ off Islay. In 1777 Walter Campbell brought Nairn fishermen to demonstrate what could be achieved by more efficient fishing from Portnahaven. House sites and lots were offered, along with expensive boats (timber was scarce), a salt house (to keep salt dry) and barrels (for curing). A proposal to take the collected catch over in one efficient vessel to nearby Ireland was, however, resisted, the men much preferring to enjoy their frequent outings to Ballycastle. Attempts to create year round employment at both herring (autumn) and cod (spring and summer) fishing were also rejected; as elsewhere on the western seaboard, it was difficult to encourage islanders or other landspeople, even veteran sailors, to become full-time fishermen. Grain (for distillers in Campbeltown) was exported, along with silver and lead from the Ballygrant area.

Walter Campbell Memorial Bowmore Round ChurchThe ‘gentlemen farmers’, extolled Shawfield’s leadership, their prosperity based on single landholdings, new crops, new methods, better breeding of cattle and horses; there were no sheep farms. Road making and upkeep, sea embankments, drainage, land reclamation, tree planting and mills all employed islanders, including scores of day labourers. One commentator confirmed all this activity in 1785 reckoning it ‘difficult to imagine the degree of improvement . . . under the care of a judicious proprietor who has studied to augment his own revenue by promoting the prosperity of his people’. Another in 1803 reported that the ‘improvement of Islay had sincebeen going ‘in an accelerated ratio’ in every way. It was North Uist man, Dr James Macdonald, however, who surpassed all accounts. Recounting his time spent on Islay in summer 1808 as ‘one of the happiest periods of his life’, his General View of the Agriculture of the Hebrides ran to 800 pages and was still being praised over forty years later. He had been careful to distance himself with a disclaimer that as he was going to make frequent mention of Walter Campbell and ‘always to his advantage’, he had in fact been disappointed never to have met him. Macdonald almost ran out of superlatives in praising the ‘leading and best managed of the Great Hebrides’ and its proprietor. Old and new, however, existed side by side particularly in the crowded townships of joint tenants.

Moreover, wartime difficulties were exacerbated by relentless population growth in Walter Campbell’s time resulting in a population of over 10,000. There were too many people on the island for available work or land and there was to be little further government assistance. Macdonald’s ‘most zealous improver of all’ had already hinted at this even in 1791. Although his tenants were ‘happier [and] more comfortable’ and his great aim had been to provide sufficient employment, ‘Alas! Life is too short, and the purse of an inhabitant of the north too light to render effective plans so extensive . . . I shall continue to exert my best endeavours, and inculcate upon my son to follow faster the same plan’. In the 1790s the large mansion at Woodhall and its surrounds had ‘lately received a complete amelioration’ and it was said that ‘few gentlemen. . . have done more than he upon his several seats’. Islay House and Square with flourishing trees and gardens in the ‘policies’ had added to expenditures on the estate. Walter Campbell had also been as prolific as the islanders. Married in 1768, he already had half a dozen children when he succeeded and went on to have five more before his wife died in 1785. His second marriage produced another three. From his first, three younger sons were each given an estate – Sunderland in Islay to Walter, Skipness to Robert and Ardpatrick to Colin, while dowries had to be found for five of their six sisters. His second family inherited from their mother. Walter’s heir, John (Jack), had in 1796 married the celebrated Lady Charlotte Campbell, daughter of the fifth duke of Argyll; they had nine children in under ten years, while trying to maintain a peripatetic aristocratic and military peripatetic lifestyle. No home was provided for the heir, and father and son never resolved their financial and relationship difficulties, even at one point thinking they might raid Lady Charlotte’s £15,000 dowry provision. Jack, however, predeceased his father by over seven years and it was his son Walter Frederick Campbell, not yet of age, who yet again inherited a much indebted estate, even if Macdonald deemed ‘this beautiful island’ to be in a flourishing condition’.

Walter Campbell of Shawfield Marble SlabIt was he who commissioned the white marble memorial to his grandfather in the Round Church. Masons were brought in to install the monument designed by John Marshall of Leith Walk in Edinburgh, referred to rather patronisingly in The New Monthly Magazine of 1 October 1819 as a self-taught ‘Scotch sculptor of some merit’. It went on to describe the figure of the Christian virtue of “Hope” as being ‘finished after his own model from nature. The attitude is feelingly conceived, and the head, neck, bosom, and other naked parts, executed with much fleshiness’ – not least in the arms! The anchor testifies to the New Testament belief in ‘Hope as the anchor of the soul’. Below the Shawfield coat of arms, the incised inscription reads ‘Sacred to the MEMORY of Walter Campbell Esquire of Shawfield, who died at Islay House On the 19th day of October 1816 aged 75 years’. By now you are probably standing on a black marble slab with gold lettering saying ‘Underneath are Interred the Remains of Walter Campbell of Shawfield . . .’ These inscriptions refute the references elsewhere to Walter Campbell dying at Woodhall and being buried in Bothwell parish church along with other Shawfield Campbells, including his heir.

Article written by Dr. Margaret Storrie and published with kind permission of the Ileach

Islay History | Standing Stones | Finlaggan | Islay Carved Stones | The Campbells | Walter Campbell | John Francis Campbell | Islay Clearances | Leaving Islay | Islay Genealogy | Islay in 1703 | 1869 Baptist Letter | Islay Shipwrecks | Exmouth Tragedy | Troopship Tuscania | Otranto and Tuscania | Dougie MacDougall | Ferry History | Cultoon and Ballinaby | Sunderland Flying Boat Tragedy | Kilchoman Bards


Social & Quick Links

About Islay - Places - Nature - History - Whisky - Accommodation - Activities - Travel - Events - Map Navigation


Norman Newton - Islay guide
A small book loaded with gorgeous photo's and practical Information. Lightweight and soft sided makes an ideal companion on Islay.
More Islay books here...