Lochwinnoch Online

Renfrewshire, Scotland

James Young Keanie – Lochwinnoch's Master Builder

In a previous article I revealed how two members of the Donald family from Lochwinnoch became Provosts of nearby Johnstone during the 19th century.

The village was also the birthplace of a third political dignitary who became civic leader of its larger neighbour which was once known as the Workshop of the British Empire because it was a hive of industrial activity like cotton-spinning, engineering, lathe-manufacturing and mining for coal, ironstone and limestone.

James Young Keanie was born on February 27, 1871, in Lochwinnoch where his father owned a small building business. The family is associated with addresses at Calder Street, Church Street and Braevar, Braehead, where James grew up in an industrious environment learning as much about the construction trade as he could.

The company moved to Johnstone around 1896 to build homes for thousands of workers pouring into the "bustling wee toon" to work in factories like John Lang's, Fyfe Donald's, Clifton and Baird and many more. The thriving firm specialised in private housing which was much in demand for factory managers and company directors as well as other members of the professional classes looking for bungalows, villas and high-class accommodation in a semi-rural environment readily accessible via regular bus and train services to their offices in commercial centres like Paisley and Glasgow.

By this time James was well in his thirties and married to his sweetheart, Isabella Logan Hunter, whose family owned the Calder chair and furniture works in Lochwinnoch and Beith. The couple lived in what was known as the Belgravia of Johnstone at elegant Laigh Park House, Park Road, in the Quarrelton area.

During the following decades, Keanie's, as the firm was known locally, erected around 4000 homes in the Johnstone and Paisley area. The firm was based in Floors Street, close to the site of a long-demolished textile-mill once owned by Lochwinnoch resident Henry Macdowall of Garthland House. At its peak, Keanie's employed around 700 workers.

During his time as a young man in Lochwinnoch, James became enamoured with curling, having watched exciting bonspiels on the frozen waters of Castle Semple and Barr Lochs.

Throughout his life, he was a member of Lochwinnoch Curling Club and represented Scotland on ten occasions against England in international competitions.

He was very interested in local politics and served first as a Johnstone town councillor from 1914 till 1923 then as Provost between 1923 and 1925.

He was a member of Houstoun St Johnstone Masonic Lodge No. 242 for much of his life, regularly attending meetings and installations at the temple in Collier Street, next door to the municipal buildings where he worked so assiduously as a councillor and Provost.

Freemasonry is a non-sectarian, non-denominational system of morality open to all men believing in a Supreme Being known as the Great Architect of the Universe. It involves the construction of a spiritual temple and one not built with human hands but by the dreams, aspirations, hopes and moral questing of the brethren.

This sacred temple is the source of a divine light from where the spirit of universal tolerance, understanding and devotion to truth and justice flows into our world and makes it a better place for every man, woman and child, irrespective of race, religion, creed, colour and social or ethnic background. As part of his life's mission (known among Freemasons as the Great Work), James Young Keanie was a member of Johnstone East Church in Walkinshaw Street, Johnstone, which he supported financially as well as by acts of worship, generosity and kindness towards his fellow humans.

Sadly, Mr Keanie did not keep good health and he died at Laigh Park on May 24, 1931, shortly after returning from a visit to Italy and France to raise his spirits. He was aged just 60.

His funeral took place from his home to Abbey Cemetery, Elderslie, where his coffin was lowered into the grave near the burial ground entrance by six men from Keanie's work force wearing traditional boots, dungarees, overalls, jackets and cloth caps.

Officiating minister at the committal was East Church minister the Reverend Brother William Runciman, who was also a member of Lodge No. 242 and served as Provost of Johnstone from 1931 to 1934.

The grave is marked by a masonic tombstone known as an ashlar. This is a large smooth, rounded rock symbolising the transition of the natural man from a world of spiritual darkness and ignorance to a state of divine illumination and enlightenment where he is elevated to a pillar of goodness and righteousness in the temple of the Great Architect of the Universe.

Poignantly, Mr Keanie lies alongside his wife, Isabella, who died on November 17, 1966, in her 94th year, and their son, Norman Young Keanie, who passed away on April 14, 1988, in his 85th year. The tree-canopied tomb lies just half-a-mile away from Keanie Park, which is situated on land which his family provided for Johnstone Burgh Football Club more than half-a-century ago.

It is a worthy resting place for a man who devoted his life to crafting a world of fairness, equity and justice for all people during his earthly pilgrimage as a civic leader and master builder. In Masonic parlance, James Young Keanie marked well.

Derek Parker

Derek Parker worked as a countryside ranger at Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park from 1985 to 1999