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Renfrew is a large town on the south bank of the Rive Clyde some five miles north west of the centre of Glasgow. Today its area is defined by the river to the north, the M8 motorway to the south, the Braehead Shopping Centre to the east, and the line of the White Cart Water, with Glasgow Airport beyond it, to the west.
At the end of the 1800s Renfrew was a key part of the industrial conurbation of Clydeside, whose shipyards produced up to a third of all ships built worldwide. Renfrew itself in 1900 had a number of shipyards along the shore of the River Clyde; the Babcock and Wilcox boiler works on a site that eventually extended to hundreds of acres; a soapworks beside the White Cart Water; and a harbour operated by the Clyde Navigation Trust.
Meanwhile, the Renfrew to Yoker Ferry provided an essential link across the Clyde. The town and ferry were linked to Paisley by tram, and from the 1920s the ferry became the western terminus for Glasgow's extensive tram network. The town was also well served by rail services to Glasgow and beyond.
Open land to the south of Renfrew was used by early pioneers of aviation, and in World War One a military airfield was established here. In 1920 a service linking Glasgow with London began flights, and in the 1930s the airfield became the base of the Scottish Flying Club and an air ambulance service. During the war the airfield was used to assemble Lockheed aircraft shipped across the Atlantic in pieces. After the war Renfrew's airfield became Glasgow Airport, with services to London and Paris as well as to places like Campbeltown and some of the Hebridean islands. A new terminal was built in 1954, but in 1966 the airport closed and has since been redeveloped for housing. The airfield at Abbotsinch, less than two miles to the west, then became known as Glasgow Airport and has since become one of the two busiest airports in Scotland.
The Renfrew Ferry has operated for centuries. From the early 1900s car ferries were used on the crossing. With the building of new links across the Clyde such as the Erskine and Kingston Bridges and Clyde Tunnel, the car ferry was replaced by a passenger only service in 1984, which continues today. There have been other changes, too. Land to the east which was once the estate of Elderslie House became the site of Braehead Power Station in 1926. The power station was demolished in the early 1980s and in late 1999 the Braehead Centre, a vast shopping and leisure centre, opened on the site. Other changes included the building of the M8 motorway along the south side of Renfrew in 1979, and the closure of many of the shipyards along the Clyde, some of which have been redeveloped as housing.
Today's Renfrew retains a very attractive town centre. The magnificent Town Hall stands at its heart. This was built in 1877 and the turreted tower is 160ft high. It is worth noting that although Renfrew has a Town Hall, Renfrew is not the administrative centre of Renfrewshire: this is a role which falls to Paisley, two miles to the south.
Another focal point within the town is the mercat cross, whose plinth serves as the town's war memorial. Close by are the Victory Baths, built by Paisley Architect Thomas Graham Abercrombie in 1921 and Renfrew's police station, built in 1910. Many of the buildings in the town are in the traditional red sandstone you find throughout Clydeside.
Heading west from the centre of Renfrew brings you to the impressive swing bridge over the White Cart Water, built in 1923 and traditionally referred to as a "swing bridge" even though it actually lifts. A railed enclosure in the grounds of a hotel near the Renfrew end of the bridge protects two stones. These are St Convals Chariot and the Argyll Stone. The former is meant to have served as a raft when St Conval crossed the Irish Sea. The latter has a socket which suggests it was one the base of a stone cross. In recent centuries it has been known as the Argyll Stone because, reputedly, the 9th Earl of Argyll was sitting on it when arrested here for leading a failed uprising against James VII/II in 1685.
Other signs of a much older history include the street name Castlehill. This indicated the site of a royal castle first built here as early as the 1100s and later associated with Walter, the 6th Steward of Scotland and Baron of Renfrew, who in 1315 married Marjory, daughter of Robert the Bruce. Their son became Robert II and founded the Stewart dynasty. The nearby Orchard Street indicates the location of the orchard of the old Royal Castle, of which no physical trace now remains.