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Greenock is situated on the southern shore of the Firth of Clyde, In the earlier part of the 17th century Greenock was a fishing village, consisting of one row of thatched cottages. A century later there were only six slated houses in the place. In 1635 it was erected by Charles I. into a burgh of barony under a charter granted to John Shaw, the government being administered by a baron-bailie, or magistrate, appointed by the superior. Its commercial prosperity received an enormous impetus from the Treaty of Union (1707), under which trade with America and the West Indies rapidly developed. The American War of Independence suspended progress for a brief interval, but revival set in in 1783, and within the following seven years shipping trebled in amount.

Meanwhile Sir John Shawto whom and to whose descendants, the Shaw-Stewarts, the town has always been indebtedby charter (dated 1741 and 1751) had empowered the householders to elect a council of nine members, which proved to be the most liberal constitution of any Scots burgh prior to the Reform Act of 1832, when Greenock was raised to the status of a parliamentary burgh with the right to return one member to parliament. Greenock was the birthplace of James Watt, William Spence (1777-1815) and Dr John Caird (1820-1898), principal of Glasgow University, who died in the town and was buried in Greenock cemetery. John Galt, the novelist, was educated in Greenock, where he also served some time in the custom house as a clerk. Rob Roy is said to have raided the town in 1715.

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