How did Falkirk get its name?

In the famous  memoirs of the 17th century Scottish soldier James Graham, Marquis of Montrose published in 1680, the author  talks about Sir John de Graeme and says: “His tomb is yet to be seen in a little chapel, which takes the name of Falkirk, or Valkirk, (Fannum Valli) from the Grahams Dyke near which it stands.”  He was not the only observer before his time or since to think that the town takes its name from the Roman Antonine Wall (as Grahams Dyke is properly known) but he was wrong!

When the town first appeared in written form around 1080 it was called in Gaelic EGGLESBRETH or possibly EGGLESBRECH which seems to mean the ‘speckled’ or ‘spotted’ church. Certainly that’s what the scholarly churchmen of the 12th century thought because they called the place in Latin, VARIA CAPELLA, which means more or less the same thing. By the time the early form of English began to hold sway, and certainly by the time of the Wallace battle in 1298, it had become FAU or FAW (speckled) KIRK (church).

The first time it appears as FALKIRK is in 1458 when presumably some scribe or another thought that since the way we Scots say WA’ instead of WALL and BA’ instead of BALL then FA in the towns name should be written as FAL. And we have been making the same mistake ever since. Except the children and football fans who say FA’KIRK. They are right!

Going back to the beginning, there is a good argument (especially from Falkirk historian John Reid) which suggests that although people thought that the name meant speckled church in the 11th century it may be because an earlier version sounded like that and they didn’t know any better!  John argues that other names in Scotland beginning with ECCLES (the latinised version of EGGLES) like Ecclesmachan or Ecclefechan usually mean ‘the church of Machan’ or similar. This might mean that Falkirk’s first church was the church of Brych or Brychan or EGGLESBRICH or something like it. These people probably spoke a form of Welsh, a Celtic language related to Gaelic, and when a future generation rendereit into the Gaelic of the time it became the speckled church. If this is true then our church and the community of Falkirk may be a lot older than we usually claim. Back as far as the 5th century when the monks of St. Ninian passed this way on their mission to convert northern Picts!

People interested in the complexities of the Falkirk place name debate should consult the masterly work by Professor W F Nicolaisen, Scottish Place-names published by Batsford in 1976. The section dealing with Falkirk was reprinted in our journal, Calatria Volume 8 published in 1995.


Ian Scott (2005)