LOCH WINNOCH – vulgarly pronounced Lochinoch, the accent being laid on the first syllable, and the gutturals being sounded – sometimes from the estate it adjoins called Castle-Semple loch, occupies the centre of the parish of the same name, in Renfrewshire. The Calder, rising on the borders of Ayrshire, pursues a winding course towards the loch, which it enters near the village of Lochwinnoch. The loch was originally between four and five miles in length, and rather more than one in breadth; but it has been considerably lessened by draining. It would appear, from the description of Hamilton of Wishaw, that Lord Semple, then proprietor of this lake and the adjoining lands, commenced to drain it in 1680, or 1700. The estate was sold by Hew, Lord Semple, in 1727, to Colonel McDowall, a younger son of McDowall of Garthland, who continued the plan of draining the lake, and, in 1735, had made great progress in doing so. Subsequent proprietors have directed their attention to the same object; and the effect has been the recovery of a great extent of fine rich meadow land. In 1773, and in 1774, a canal was constructed of nearly 2 miles in length, at an expense of £2,000, by which above 400 acres of a very deep rich soil was recovered. The loch still covers about 200 acres; but considerably extends itself when flooded, and during winter.
The family of Semple was very early in possession of the lands around this loch. Robert Sympil was vassal in Elziotstoun [pronounced: Elliotstown, z=yogh] on the south side of the lake, under the high-steward of Scotland, about 1220; and previous to 1309, Robert Sympil of Elziotstoun was seneschal of Strathgrife. In 1474, Sir William Sympil, Lord of Elziotstoun, obtained a charter of the baronies of Elziotstoun and Castletoun – now Castle-Semple – from James III. Sir John Sympil was raised to the dignity of the peerage, with the title of Lord Sympil, by James IV., in 1488. Elliotston and Castle-Semple continued in possession of this ancient family till sold, as above-mentioned, in 1727, after having been their property for about 500 years. In 1806, William McDowall of Garthland and Castle-Semple, sold his estate of Castle-Semple to John Harvey, Esquire, of Jamaica. Eastward of the lake, and on the south side, are the remains of the old tower of Elliotston, the residence of the Semple family previously to 1550. Its length is 42 feet, and its breadth 33 feet over the walls. Between 1547 and 1572, Robert, commonly called the great Lord Semple, built a tower, called the Peel – the ruins of which still exist – on a small island on the lake, now forming part of the mainland. This tower was in the form of an irregular pentagon, having a sharp end towards the head of the loch. “It was built,” says Dr. Caldwell, “over a strong arch, with bulwarks, gunports, &c., and is environed with an immense cairn of stones round all its foundations to a considerable height above high water.”
The castle at Castletown, or Castle-Semple, near the eastern end of the lake, was erected or more probably rebuilt by the first Lord Semple, who died in 1513. He changed its name from Castletoun to Castle-Semple. In Bleau’s Atlas, published in 1654, this castle is represented by a mark denoting the largest size of castles. Crawford – who wrote in 1710 – says, “Upon the brink of the loch stands the castle of Sempill, the principal messuage of a fair lordship of the same denomination, which consists of a large court, part of which seems to be a very ancient building, adorned with pleasant orchards and gardens.” In 1735, this ancient house was demolished by Colonel McDowall, who erected an elegant modern house on its site. Some workmen repairing drains in 1830 found part of the foundations of the castle still existing below ground.
In 1504, John Lord Semple founded a collegiate church near the lake, having a provost, six chaplains or prebendaries, two boys, and a beadle. This building must have been repaired or rebuilt by Robert, Lord Semple, who married Lady Ann Montgomerie, daughter of the Earl of Eglinton, as his arms and those of the Eglinton family are still extant on the old walls of the church. It is 71 feet 6 inches in length; 24 feet 3 inches in breadth; and 15 feet 6 inches in height. A portion at the east end, separated from the rest, was used as a place of burial by the Semple family, as it now is by Colonel Harvey the present proprietor. Dr. Caldwell describes its walls as being covered with ivy, and surrounded by a fine tall hornbean hedge. The roof was taken off about forty years ago, and the ivy has penetrated into the interior. In ancient times there appears to have been a village at this place, and a chapel in its neighbourhood dedicated to St. Bride. A small burn, which here falls into the lake, is still named St. Bride’s burn; and the residence of Colonel Harvey’s factor, St. Bride’s mill. On the hill of Kenmure, which is of secondary trap rock, there is an imitation of a Chinese temple, from which a very fine view of the lake and surrounding scenery can be obtained. It is supposed to have been erected about the middle of the last century by one of the family of McDowall who succeeded the Semples.
The Glasgow and Ayr railway passes through the estate of Castle-Semple, and in the immediate neighbourhood of the loch. When covered with ice, this piece of water forms an excellent arena or the invigorating game of curling, which is keenly prosecuted by the parishioners. Here, upwards of half-a-century ago, a famous bonspiel was played between Douglas, Duke of Hamilton, popularly called ‘the Sporting Duke,’ and Mr. McDowall of Castle-Semple, and their respective tenantry, when, after a long protracted contest, his Grace’s party gained the day by one shot.