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The Maxwells of Pollok

20 minute read

Introduction to The Maxwells

The Maxwells, particularly the Stirling Maxwells, have had a significant impact on the local area. Most people will have benefitted in some form from their generosity whether that is attending an event in Pollokshaws Burgh Hall, attending the Sir John Maxwell School (before it was closed), walking through the splendour of Pollok Park or spending a day wandering around the Burrell Collection. Like many landowners in Scotland, the Maxwell’s have not avoided controversy. Through this post, I will explore everything from witchcraft through to slavery and (at the time, legal) child marriage.

The Maxwells are the oldest proprietors in all of Renfrewshire having owned land in the area since the 1200s. It is believed that the Maxwell name came from the son of a Saxon Lord – Maccus, son of Unwin. Maccus was bestowed lands near the castle of Roxburgh by Alexander I, and he also had a salmon pool near Kelso Bridge, and it was called Maccus’s wiel/weel (wiel meaning a deep pool in a river). His descendants took the name ‘de Maccuswel’ which was later changed to Maxwell. In Dumfriesshire, the de Maccuswel’s built a church, castle and village mill and were granted the barony of Caerlaverock where they built a fortress (Caerlaverock Castle).

Sir Aymer de Macuswell of Caerlaverock

The de Maccuswel/Maxwell’s acquired the Upper and Nether Pollok Estates and the barony of Mearns through marriage. Sir Aymer de Macuswell of Caerlaverock (c. 1190- 1266) married Mary McGeachan (daughter and heiress of Roland McGeachan/McGauchen of Mearns (also known as Roland De Mearns) and so began the Maxwell’s of Pollok. Sir Aymer was the Chamberlain of Scotland, Sheriff of Dumfries and Lord Great Chamberlain of Scotland to King Alexander II.

At this point, the lands of Upper and Nether Pollok stretched far and wide across South Glasgow, and it was Aymer and Mary’s second son John who founded the Pollok branch of the Maxwell family with his brother Herbert inheriting the adjacent lands of Mearns.

One of the reasons why it is so difficult to get to grips with the Maxwell family tree is because of the number of heirs with the name John. In total there were 18 John’s who inherited (not including the most recent John Ranald Maxwell MacDonald) out of the 27 people heirs/heiresses who have stayed at Pollok.

During their time at Pollok, the Maxwells built three castles and the Georgian mansion, Pollok House, which still stands within the estate.

It should be noted that throughout this piece I will refer to each of the Maxwells using the dates of which they inherited the estate running through to death, not birth and death dates, and any relevant titles, I won’t be covering every heir. Still, I will include a list at the end for anyone who is interested.


The Castles of Nether Pollok

Back to the beginning with Aymer and Mary’s son John – Sir John Maxwell of Nether Pollok, 1st knight of Pollok, (1270-1306) who served as the Governor of Dumbarton Castle and Lord Great Chamberlain of Scotland to Alexander III. It is believed that he was responsible for the building of the first castle which was situated where the Stable courtyard currently sits, right beside an area where the White Cart river formed a pool. The castle was built upon a rock that was washed by the White Cart. The pool that formed here is believed to have led to the name Pollok, as the world ‘poll’ means pool in Gaelic.

There was a second castle built around 1367/68 by Sir John Maxwell, 4th Knight of Pollok. This second castle was believed to have been built on higher ground in the current woodland garden to the east of Pollok House to evade the flooding. In this area, there is a mound with a fallen beech tree atop (planted in 1759 and unfortunately set alight and destroyed by vandals in 2017). It could have been that this castle was built to celebrate the marriage of Sir John and Lady Isabella as their armorial bearings were found in the castle ruins. The second castle was demolished between 1737 and 1752 by Sir John (1686-1732), 3rd Baronet.

Lady Isabella Lindsay was from Royal blood, and so Sir John was granted a lot of lands through marriage with these lands later being divided between his two sons:

Sir John (1405-1429), fifth Knight of Pollok, inherited Pollok & Carnwadric, Castlebar, Mathewbar & Dykebar, Murray & Headhouse. Other son Robert inherited Dripps, Jacktoun, Allartoun, Newlands, Calderwood, Greenhills, two Aikenheads and the overlordship of a quarter of Thornton (Lanarkshire) and Hawkshawlands, Finglen & Caterhop in Tweedmuir.

A third castle known as the ‘Laighe Castle’ (low castle), was built sometime between 1518 and 1536, on the site of the first castle, beside the river. This castle was used until 1747, and some of the remains were incorporated into the stable courtyard (by Sir John (1786-1732) 3rd Baronet). You can still see some of the original stone in the east wall of the courtyard (close to the archway through to the walled and kitchen garden).


John Maxwell, tenth of Pollok (1517-1523)

Fast forward to 1517 when John Maxwell, tenth of Pollok (1517-1523) succeeded the estate as a minor but his uncle Robert, who was the rector of Tarbolton and later Bishop of Orkney, took on the role of guardian and tutor so that John could take on the estate. He married Elizabeth Houston as a minor and had one daughter – Lady Elizabeth Maxwell who became heiress of Pollok as a baby. Her great uncle, George Maxwell of Cowglen (who was the male-heir of the family) thought it wise for Elizabeth to be betrothed to his son (John Maxwell of Cowglen) who was also a baby. As they were related in the second and third degrees, the marriage required papal dispensation so in stepped Robert, Bishop of Orkney, who used his influence to promote the marriage, so approval was given in 1535. They were married at 13 (Elizabeth) and 12 (John). This meant that John Maxwell of Cowglen became 11th knight of Pollok through marriage and owned the estate between 1524-1577 which included the Laighe castle, fortalice, manor place, gardens etc. as well as the Mains of Nether Pollok, Pollokshaws (with the mill), the village of Polloktoun, the parkland and Pollokhaugh.


Sir John Maxwell (11th knight of Pollok 1517-23)

It was this Sir John Maxwell (11th knight of Pollok 1517-23) that had lands briefly seized by the crown after the Battle of Langside in 1568. He swore allegiance to Mary Queen of Scots, and a letter that Queen Mary wrote to Sir John Maxwell on the 5th May 1568 desiring him to join her at Hamilton is still carefully preserved at Pollok. Sir John’s fidelity to Queen Mary brought him into trouble with the Regent Moray, the protector of the young King James VI. The estate was escheated to the crown and given to Alexander Earl of Glencairn. On 9th September 1568, Sir John obtained a remission from his Majesty for appearing in arms against him at the battle of Langside. He eventually paid a sum of money and got the escheat of the estate back. It seems that in the negotiation he agreed that his eldest son would marry the Earl’s cousin, a dowry of £1000 was also paid, they married in 1569. Sir John 11th died in 1577 leaving Nether Pollok estate to his wife Elizabeth even though he had six sons.


Conflict between Lady Elizabeth and Sir John Maxwell 12th of Pollok 1577-1595

Elizabeth and her eldest son (Sir John Maxwell 12th of Pollok 1577-1595) appear to have had quite a lot of conflict. It is unknown whether this conflict arose before the death of his father, but he did not obtain possession of the estate of Pollok, as it was liferented by his mother. In 1578 Lady Elizabeth complained to the privy council that her son raided the Laighe Castle, imprisoned her and hurt servants. Later that same year she complained again that he came to the maltman’s house and violently took some malt from him as well as a grey horse from Mains of Nether Pollok. In 1979 she also complained that he violently removed tenants from their houses and lands in Haggs then in 1581 he complained that his mother left the castle to rot and cut the woods, orchard and produce gardens to their destruction. 1577-1595. Sir John (12th) built Haggs Castle in 1585 with his wife Margaret Conyngham, their son Sir John Maxwell Thirteenth of Pollok 1595-1647 succeeded his father at the age of 12 or 13.


The original Baronet

Sir John (13th) succeeded to the estate as a minor as his grandmother died in 1592 and was married at 12 to Isobell Campbell, daughter of Hew Lord Loudoun. Isobell died in 1612, and he remarried in 1615 to Grizel Blair. He is sometimes considered to be the 1st Baronet of Pollok as he was made Knight baronet by King Charles I in 1633, however, the patent was to him and his male heirs. He didn’t have any male heirs, only a daughter Isobel who could not inherit as she was female, so this knight baronetcy was not carried over. In 1634 King Charles I appointed him one of the commissioners for constituting a High Court Commission for Scotland but the court was never properly established but showed the King’s opinion on his integrity and ability. He was succeeded by his cousin Sir George Maxwell (1647-1677) (would have been 8th of Auldhouse). Sir George comes down the line of Thomas Maxwell, sixth of Pollok. He was the eldest son of John Maxwell of Auldhouse.


Sir George the witch hunting Covenanter

Sir George Maxwell

There was some conflict in this succession as Sir James Maxwell of Calderwood had hoped that his brother Colonel John Maxwell may inherit the estate (even though they were remotely related to Sir John 13th) and when denied he vowed vengeance on Sir George. In 1647 he broke into the castle of Pollok with assailants violently with muskets, swords and pistols and vowed to kill anyone who tried to flee or resist, including Sir George’s pregnant wife. They set fires and placed armed sentries at the gates and passages. As nobody produced letters against Sir James at the court of Justiciary in 1648, he was let off. Sir James was later attacked by an acquaintance of Sir George of Pollok and held prisoner in Paisley for 11 days. The acquaintance was denounced rebel after failing to appear in court, and Sir James tried to dispossess George of the estate, unsuccessfully.

Sir George was a staunch Covenanter, his father and grandfather having been Presbyterian ministers. He permitted conventicles (illegal services led by fugitive ministers) to be held at Haggs Castle and was fined the very large sum of £4,000 for his Covenanting activities. It is said that he often went riding on the moors, claiming to be shooting when in fact he was taking food to Presbyterians in hiding.

Sir George was also a witch hunter and took part in witch trials. In 1676 he fell ill with a “hot and fiery distemper”, and an apparently mute serving girl (Janet Douglas) accused a local widow of witchcraft. The widow’s house was searched, and effigies pierced with pins were found there. The widow, her son, daughter and three other women were arrested, tried in Paisley in 1677 and sentenced to death by burning. Only her 14-year old daughter was spared. Sir George died later that year. The Anne Downie play The Witches of Pollok is based on this.

When George was imprisoned in 1665 for his religious beliefs he was removed from the charge of his estate, he made an arrangement to put it into the possession of his eldest son and reserved liferent for himself and wife of certain parts of the estate.


Sir John Maxwell 1st Baronet (1677-1732)

In 1677 Sir John Maxwell (1677-1732) inherited the estate from his father George. He applied for restoration of the title of Knight-Baronet and King Charles II granted a new patent in 1682. This Sir John is considered to be the first Baronet even though he is technically the second. For the sake of ease and understanding, I will also refer to him as the 1st Baronet from here on in. Sir John (1st baronet) was also a staunch covenantor just like his father, and he was also imprisoned for his beliefs. He was made a privy councillor by King William in 1689 and represented the county of Renfrew in Parliament from 1690-1693, in 1695, 1696 and 1698. He was also appointed one of the Lords of the Treasury and Exchequer in Scotland in 1696 by the King and made an ordinary Lord of Session in 1699 under the name Lord Pollok before being appointed to the office of Lord Justice-Clerk. After the death of King William in 1702, he was nominated one of the commissioners for considering the Treaty of the Union between Scotland and England. Still, he was removed from the office of Lord Justice-Clerk as the queen favoured Episcopalians over Presbyterians In Scotland. Later in his life, he was chosen as Lord Rector of Glasgow Uni and held this position for 27 or 28 years. During his life as 1st Baronet, he also managed to get Queen Anne extended the limitation of heirs to succeed to the title of knight baronet to heirs of entail succeeding Lord Pollok so that all heirs of Pollok whether blood or not would be able to take the knight baronet title, hence why all succeeding heirs have inherited the baronet title. As John and his wife Marion had no children, he was succeeded by his cousin Sir John Maxwell, 2nd Baronet (1732-1752).


Sir John Maxwell 2nd Baronet (1732-1752)

Sir John Maxwell 2nd Baronet

Sir John Maxwell 2nd Baronet (1732-1752) had made plans for the building of a Georgian Mansion within the grounds when he took on the estate, but these didn’t come to fruition until 1752 and only lived in the house for two months before his death. He was also responsible for demolishing the second castle but kept the Laighe Castle as a dower house.
In 1751 he was elected Rector of University of Glasgow having previously been held by his cousin, his Uncle Sir George Maxwell and his grandfather Sir John Maxwell of Auldhouse. His first son John died in infancy, but he had another son (also called John), and it was this son that succeeded his father in 1752 and took the credit for the building of Pollok House.


Sir John Maxwell 3rd Baronet (1752-1758)

Sir John Maxwell, 3rd Baronet (1752-1758) became a student at Edinburgh University at 13 and stayed there for seven years, as well as taking the credit for the building of Pollok House he also built the bridge over the White Cart and demolished the Laighe Castle and built the stable courtyard for his use. Sir John (3rd Baronet) was an exceptional sportsman, and it is rumoured that he could pick up a coin from the ground while his horse was at a canter-gallop and could skate at a mile a minute. He died, unmarried at 38 and was succeeded by his brother Sir Walter Maxwell, 4th Baronet (1758-1762). He was the second surviving son of his father’s second wife and succeeded at 27. He married D’Arcy Brisbane and had one son but was only in charge of the estate for a short time as he died two years after his marriage leaving his wife with an infant son. Devastatingly Walter’s son, Sir John Maxwell 5th baronet (1761-1762), only lived for nine weeks after his father’s death, so the estate was passed to his uncle James (Walter’s brother) in 1762.


Sir James Maxwell 6th Baronet (1762-1785)

Sir James Maxwell 6th Baronet (1762-1785) was the 6th child of Sir John (2nd Baronet), and the 3rd brother to inherit the estate. Before inheriting James moved to the Island of St Christopher for ‘career opportunities’ where he served as an overseer and married the second daughter of plantation owner and treasurer of St. Kitts, Robert Colhoun. Colhoun had originally worked for the infamous plantation owner Colonel McDowall and had purchased enslaved Africans for their plantations from Glasgow’s best-known slave trader, Richard Oswald. James moved back to Glasgow, with his wife, when he inherited the estate. Unfortunately, the wealth of St Kitts that was brought to Pollok through this marriage and inheritance has been absent from the city histories. Sir James Maxwell’s brother in law William McDowall Colhoun became a very successful merchant as, apart from St Kitts, he also managed a plantation on Nevis and owned the 430-acre Mount Pleasant sugar plantation on St Croix.

The 6th Baronet’s son (Sir John Maxwell 7th baronet (1785-1844) succeeded his father at 17. He commissioned in the queen’s boys but retired when he married. He was what you expected of a landowner of this time enjoying foxhunting, grouse-shooting and coursing. He enjoyed riding so much that when he went shooting in Aberdeen, he made the journey on horseback which took 4-5 days. He had enjoyed Pollok for 59 years and died there early one morning in 1844 when he was on his way out to the carriage for his early morning airing.


Sir John Maxwell 8th Baronet

Sir John Maxwell 8th Baronet (1844-1918)

His son, Sir John Maxwell 8th Baronet (1844-1918) (now the 21st generation from Undwin, the father of Maccus) was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel of the Renfrewshire Militia before becoming a Member for the shire of Renfrew. He addressed the house of commons on several occasions and was elected member of Lanarkshire in 1832 before retiring from Parliament in 1837. During his time as an MP, he took particular interest in the working conditions of handloom weavers with many manufacturers taking on board his recommendations. He invited His Royal Highness Prince of Wales to visit Pollok in 1859 for a much anticipated and successful state visit. He and his wife Lady Matilda didn’t have any children, and he was succeeded by his nephew William Stirling of Keir.


Prince of Wales visits Pollok House in 1859


William Stirling of Keir

In 1865 William Stirling of Keir became Sir William Stirling Maxwell 9th Baronet (1818-1878) after combining the surnames, he was the first of the Stirling Maxwells of Pollok. William Stirling was the only son of Archibald Stirling of Keir. He studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating BA in 1839, and later an MA in 1843, before embarking on a tour of Europe. He took a particular interest in Spanish art and culture, and it was William who amassed the large collection of Spanish art than adorns the walls of Pollok House. Like Sir James Maxwell, much of the Stirling Maxwell fortune was gained through slave labour. His grandfather, Archibald Stirling, made his fortune through sugar plantations in Jamaica. His father, also Archibald Stirling, was also planter and slaveowner in Jamaica. After the British Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833, the younger Archibald Stirling was awarded £12,517 in compensation (over £50 million in today’s money) for the 690 enslaved people across his estates: Hampden in St. James, Frontier in St. Mary, Kerr or Keir Settlement in Trelawney, and Grange Hill in Westmoreland, all in Jamaica. He returned to Scotland and married Elizabeth Maxwell (daughter of Sir John Maxwell (7th Baronet) and sister of Sir John Maxwell (8th Baronet of Pollok) – Sir William’s aunt and uncle. As well as inheriting Pollok he also inherited the family estates in Scotland (Keir) and the West Indies in 1847. Sir William served as Conservative MP for Perth 1852-1868 and 1874-1878, Rector of the Universities of St Andrews (1862), Aberdeen (1870) and Edinburgh (1872) and Chancellor of the University of Glasgow. He was nominated a Knight of the Thistle in 1876.


Sir John Stirling Maxwell

Sir John Stirling Maxwell

His son is possibly the most well known of the Maxwell family – Sir John Stirling Maxwell 10th baronet (1878-1956). He was a conservative MP for the College Division of Glasgow between 1895 and 1906, Chairman of the Forestry Commission (1929–1932), Chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland, Trustee of the National Galleries of Scotland, Chairman of Ancient Monuments Board, Lieutenant in the Royal Company of Archers, an active Freemason, founder member (and vice-president) of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS)and later President of the NTS from 1943 until his death. SJSM was very keen for the local people to have access to green spaces and so in 1911, he gave access to Pollok Estate to the people of Glasgow (and beyond). SJSM also gave land to locals for allotments (previously Bankhead allotments now Sir John Stirling Maxwell Allotment Gardens), gave land for the building of Pollokshaws Burgh Hall and Sir John Stirling Maxwell School) and was also involved in trying to resolve the problem of finding a home for the art treasures presented to Glasgow in 1944 by Sir William Burrell. SJSM made quite a few additions to the house (entrance hall, wings, pavilions) and the surrounding gardens and brought back many of the plants (particularly Rhododendrons) from his Himalayan expeditions.


Dame Anne Maxwell MacDonald (1956-2011)

After he died in 1956, the estate was inherited by his daughter Dame Anne Maxwell MacDonald (1956-2011) on her father’s death the baronetcy became dormant as there was no male heir, but Anne was recognised by Lyon Court in 2005 as its 11th holder and thus succeeded her father and became known as the 11th baroness. She gave the house, including its collection of internationally-famed paintings and 361 acres of parkland, to the City of Glasgow in 1966. It was opened as a museum in 1967 and management passed to the National Trust for Scotland in 1998. In 1969 she became the only Glaswegian woman (excluding the Queen mother) to be given the freedom of the city. The Maxwell MacDonald family kept two flats on the second floor of Pollok House, but the family have moved out of the area being spread out across Scotland and London.


Southside Slavery Legacies project 2020

South Glasgow Heritage and Environment Trust are currently working on the Southside Slavery Legacies project, including a potential heritage trail and walks, as well as blogs on our website, and published articles.

If you would like to know more or become involved, please subscribe to our mailing list, message us on Facebook or Twitter or contact info@sghet.com


Full Timeline of the Maxwells of Pollok

Roland McGeachan/McGauchen of Mearns (Roland De Mearns).


Mary McGeachan


Sir Aymer de Macuswell of Caerlaverock


Sir John Maxwell of Nether Pollok, Governor of Dumbarton Castle and 1st knight of Pollok


Sir Robert Maxwell 2nd of Pollok


Sir John Maxwell 3rd of Pollok


Sir John Maxwell 4th of Pollok


Sir John Maxwell 5th of Pollok


Sir Thomas Maxwell 6th of Pollok


Sir John Maxwell 7th of Pollok


Sir John Maxwell 8th of Pollok


Sir John Maxwell 9th of Pollok


Sir John Maxwell 10th of Pollok


Lady Elizabeth Maxwell, heiress of Pollok


Sir John Maxwell of Cowglen 11th of Pollok


Lady Elizabeth Maxwell, heiress of Pollok


Sir John Maxwell 12th of Pollok


Sir John Maxwell 13th of Pollok, (1st Baronet but often not considered one at all)


Sir George Maxwell 14th of Pollok, (would have been 8th of Auldhouse)


Sir John Maxwell. Lord Pollok 1st baronet


Sir John Maxwell 2nd baronet

Son (technically second son)

Sir John Maxwell 3rd baronet


Sir Walter Maxwell 4th baronet


Sir John Maxwell 5th baronet


Sir James Maxwell 6th baronet


Sir John Maxwell 7th baronet


Sir John Maxwell 8th baronet


Sir William Stirling Maxwell 9th baronet


Sir John Stirling Maxwell 10th baronet


Dame Anne Maxwell MacDonald 11th Baronetess


By Jen Anderson

Published: 27th July 2020



Fraser, W. (1863). Memoirs of the Maxwells of Pollok: Volume I. Edinburgh: n.p.

Pollok Country Park Heritage Trail. (PDF document): https://www.glasgow.gov.uk/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=31480&p=0

Pollok Park Conservation Area Appraisal (PDF document): https://www.glasgow.gov.uk/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=35711&p=0

8 replies added

  1. Jim McLaughlin July 30, 2020 Reply

    Fascinating read. We live near Stirling Drive and Maxwell Drive named after these folks. Amazing scope of territory connected to these folks. My father in law was security in Pollok House whilst the family still had flats in it.

    • Fergus maxwell Macdonald December 2, 2022 Reply

      We still have flats there. A good read but I must point out some of this information about my family is incorrect

  2. Carol Bennie April 15, 2021 Reply

    Great reading. My 4th Great Grandmother was Grissel Maxwell. Daughter of George Maxwell.

  3. Alan MacDonald July 7, 2022 Reply

    It is indeed a very interesting place and the history also. I remember as a young child visiting the estate with my parents and Grandparents this was back in the 1960’s. I had only been back once since then back in the 1980’s and just most recently a few days ago. I must say it took me a while to get the picture back in my mind of how it was back in my early days when visiting. A Beautiful place indeed.

  4. Alastair Allan December 20, 2022 Reply

    A very interesting read
    I know the estate well and have always found the long history fascinating
    Great to be able to fill in some of the many gaps

  5. Stella Spencer July 12, 2023 Reply

    Thank you for an interesting read, rather hopeful someone might be able to help me with a quest, I am looking for the name of a young man who worked for the Maxwell family as a driver some time around the 30s possibly a little later. He was said to have died in a car accident when his car went into a loch. If anyone knows who this might be It would bring great joy to our family to find his name.
    He was probably born around 1889ish.

    • Bill Deans July 30, 2023 Reply

      Hi Stella

      In the 1921 Census of the Maxwell household, a James D. Robertson aged 18 years from Kilmonivaig, Inverness-shire is identified as their Chauffeur.

      I hope this is your person.


  6. malcolm dobson February 11, 2024 Reply

    fascinating history. Could you say when/how Dame Anne added Macdonald to the family surname? Was it through marriage?

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