Saturday 17 February 2024

"Daft Lochnagar" and the strange will

“Daft Lochnagar” was a familiar character around Inverkip and Gourock.  With eccentric habits and dressed in old, greasy clothes he lived in cheap lodgings and travelled around a lot.  He was obsessed with Scottish music and played the fiddle as often as he could.  He also bought and cooked all his own food, worried that someone was trying to poison him.  While outwardly he looked like a poor tramp, in reality he was related to the Shaw Stewart family who owned the Ardgowan Estate in Inverkip and land elsewhere in Scotland. 

His name was William Maxwell Shaw Stewart.  Born in 1796 he was one of the five sons of Sir Michael Shaw Stewart, 5th Bart (1766-1825) and his wife (who was also his cousin) Catherine Maxwell, youngest daughter of Sir William Maxwell of Springkell.  William’s eldest brother, Michael Shaw Stewart (1788-1836) inherited the Ardgowan Estate on the death of their father in 1825.  His other brothers were Houston Shaw Stewart, who later became Admiral Shaw Stewart, John Shaw Stewart, Advocate and Sheriff of Stirlingshire and Patrick Maxwell Shaw Stewart, MP for Lancaster and later MP for Renfrewshire.  He also had three sisters, Margaret Shaw Stewart who married the 11th Duke of Somerset, Helenora and Catherine.

William died in 1869 in Hamilton.  When his will produced, it was decided among the family that William had not been of sound mind when it was written, and a court action was raised to set it aside.  Over £30,000 and various land holdings were involved.  The strange contents of the will made it into many newspapers and periodicals, both in Britain and abroad.  More of that later, but, what about the man, what kind of life had he led?

Ardgown Estate, Inverkip - home of the Shaw Stewarts

William Maxwell Shaw Stewart had been “always a bit of a gowk” (an awkward or foolish person) since he was a child, as his brother the Admiral testified in Court after his death.  In 1811 when his brother was a lieutenant in the Navy, William was sent to sea with him as a midshipman.  He lasted two weeks before being sent home.  It was thought that he might be better suited to the Army, but after a couple of weeks, he was advised to leave by his Colonel.  His father, Sir Michael, through friends, got him a position with a business in Liverpool with Cropper, Benson & Co, shipping agents, but once again he only lasted there for a short time before being sent home to Ardgowan. 

Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane

As a last resort he was sent to Australia.  Sir Michael was friendly with Sir Thomas Makdougal Brisbane (1773-1860) who had just been appointed Governor of New South Wales and in 1820 William was sent to Australia on the staff of Governor Brisbane.  Once in New South Wales, William was awarded a government land grant and his father provided funds for more land to be added to this.  He called his 2060-acre Australian estate Lochnagar (near Black-Creek, later known as Branxton, New South Wales).  However, it was said that he spent most of his time playing Scottish music on the fiddle and was described as “unsettled and peculiar”.  

He returned to Scotland, just after his father’s death, on the ship “Lady Rowena” (interesting information about the ship here) in 1826.  His brother Sir Houston Shaw Stewart described what his life was like on his return from Australia as “he did not engage in any employment except playing the fiddle, particularly dance reels and strathspeys and Gow’s music”.  After his return to Scotland, his Australian property of Lochnagar was advertised to let.  It was advertised as having 2000 acres of excellent land, "the greater part of which is arable … covered with blue gum, and other valuable timber.”  The advertisement goes on to list  “14 well improved dairy cows, with calves by their side and now in the family way to become the property of the Tenant, with liberty to sell, or dispose of all, or any of them.  Four excellent working bullocks … an excellent dwelling-house, bedroom and parlour.”

Aware of his son’s difficulties, Sir Michael had left his share of his estate in the hands of trustees so that William had no control over his inheritance.  He fell out with his family and moved to Comrie, Perthshire where he was known as “Daft Lochnagar” due to his eccentricities.  One of these was to throw open all his windows on Sunday mornings and play the fiddle while the people passed by on their way to church.  A tall man, he was said, in his younger days, to dress “peculiarly, although with a picturesque effect” and it was said that he roamed about the countryside “playing his fiddle”.  He became a bit of a miser and was suspicious of everyone.  He had his own coach and carried around with him his cooking utensils and food, his caged singing birds, and his fiddle.  If he decided to remain anywhere, he took the cheapest lodgings he could find.

In 1852, due to some detail about trustees in his father’s will, he acquired his share of his patrimony.  His only remaining brother, the Admiral, was on service overseas and could not do anything about this.  However, William set about acquiring some land.  In 1854 he bought property in Torhouse (Wigton) at auction, and he bought Holmhead in Lanarkshire in 1863.  He also still had income from his Australian estate of Lochnagar.

Over the years he had little to do with his family, although his brother Houston did try to get him to meet with them.  He occasionally returned to Gourock and Inverkip but did not have any contact with his family or near relatives, always living in lodgings, usually one room, described as “a class of houses wholly unsuitable for a person of his position and upbringing”.  His brother described him in later life as looking like a "ratcatcher, dressed in greasy clothes".  William proudly titled himself Justice of the Peace and Commissioner of Supply for both Renfrewshire and Lanarkshire.  William Maxwell Shaw Stewart died at Hamilton in July 1869 in the house of William Hepburn, Almada Street. 

The Strange Will

When his family decided that he had not been of sound mind when his will was written, they went to court to have the will set aside.  This resulted in a six day trial at Edinburgh Court of Session in June 1870.

Some of the contents of William Maxwell Shaw Stewart’s will were very unusual.  Of local interest - he left £100 for the Sheriff of Renfrewshire who was to be allowed this “in addition his expenses at a hotel in Greenock for breakfast, dinner, a bottle of wine, and for tea, supper, and bedroom and the usual allowance for servants”.  He also stated that "A professor of Scottish music, healthy, able in body and mind, was to be appointed at a moderate salary to teach the violin and the music of the firm aforesaid (Gow)"  he further stipulated that the teacher should reside in the parish of Inverkip and be a member of the Established Church.  The Sunday scholars of Inverkip were to be provided every Sunday after lessons with as much white bread and butter as they could eat and as much tea as they could drink, and were, besides to be supplied with a tea service, knives and forks with ivory handles the tea service bearing the names of William Maxwell Stewart JP and CS for Renfrewshire. 

He also made provisions outside of his home base - all the young women of seventeen years of age on the lands of Carnock (Shaw Stewart land) were to receive a certain sum.  The estate of Lochnagar in New South Wales was to be used as a base for the encouragement of Scottish music, especially reels and strathspeys and particularly the reels and Strathspeys published by Neil Gow and Sons.

At court several witnesses were brought in to describe William and his eccentricities and sadly, the court records show that there was a great deal of laughter and flippancy during the trial, even from his relatives.    Margaret Nelson who lived in Comrie said that she knew William in 1830 when he lived there.  She described: “He used to pass on horseback in a peculiar dress – white trousers, blue jacket, and red belt with rather a fancy bonnet.  He asked to be allowed to trim the turnips and kiss the workers.  He did not get liberty to do either … we used to call him “daft Nicolson” that was the family name of the proprietors of Carnock. I used to see him afterwards at Dalhalla near Comrie.”  She also stated that other people knew him as Lochnagar.  She also knew his first servant at Dalhalla who stated that he would spend all night playing the fiddle and she could not sleep.  It was also said that although he was “daft” he was such a miser that he could not be taken advantage of! 

Also in court, John Campbell (aged 74), a baker in Inverkip spoke about William asking him about some of the neighbours.  When Campbell mentioned to William that he had egg all down his jacket William had replied that “he lived on eggs because people could put poison into everything but eggs”.

After six days in court the will of William Maxwell Shaw Stewart was set aside.  The pursuers in this case were Admiral Sir Houston Shaw Stewart (brother), Sir Michael Robert Shaw Stewart (nephew), John Osborne (brother in law) and Michael John Maxwell Shaw Stewart (nephew).  The estate of Lochnagar in Australia was sold and the remainder of his estate distributed amongst his relatives.

For more stories about the Shaw Stewarts read: 

Patrick Shaw Stewart - Author of "Achilles in the Trenches" - war poet.

Archibald Stewart - planter in Tobago and business partner of John Paul Jones.

The Shaw Stewart Mausoleum in Inverkip.

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