The Hill of Airth rises 16m from the Pow of Airth which forms the northern end of the rich Carse of Falkirk. Airth Castle sits on the southern brow of this escarpment projecting feudal power over the area and dominating the landscape. It is a familiar feature to those approaching from Falkirk. To its east a small peninsular thrusts out from the coast of the Forth Estuary to provide an advantageous crossing point. The narrow coastal strip then diminishes in breadth as it is displaced by a sweeping bay suitable for an anchorage with a shelving shore where early ships could be beached. At the waist of this coastal strip the hill approaches nearest to the shore and here the late medieval burgh was founded, replacing one on the hill itself.
Airth is so named from the hill – ardd being Celtic for hill. Its presence made it an obvious focus for early settlement and as the seat of local government. Over the last two decades several prestigious objects of the Roman period have been found on and around the Hill suggesting that it was the residence of a native leader both before and after the Roman invasion. Produce from the fertile lands was augmented by the exploitation of the littoral – fishing, oysters and wild fowl. The site loomed over the main route north from Falkirk across the River Carron and along the Lang Dyke to Stirling. It also commanded the crossing of the Forth Estuary.
The battlemented south-west tower and the extensions are three storeys high though the extensions are slightly lower in height than the tower which has an attic. There is a square tower at the south-east corner which houses a stair well and is surmounted by a round turret. at the south east corner. In the early 19th century the architect David Hamilton was commissioned by the then owners, the Grahams, to fill in the arms of the L which he did with a triangular block, now the familiar face of the present hotel. This is a gothic ‘castle’ with round towers at each end, battlements and a central range with turrets and a grand doorway.
In 1128 lands in the vicinity were gifted by David I to Holyrood Abbey upon its foundation and the bridge on the main road over the Pow became known as the Abbeytown Bridge. From the bridge the road ascended the hill to the castle and then headed north along the ridge, forming the main road of village. The settlement at Airth was raised to the status of a Royal Burgh in the reign of William the Lion towards the end of the 12th century. At that time it lay on the plateau immediately to the north of the castle with the parish church to the east of the castle. That it was a wealthy burgh is reflected in the early arcading of the nave of the church which dates to this period. The carved waterleaf capitals of the columns display an amazing degree of sophistication for the time. Indeed, it is likely that the church was the only stone building in the parish. The castle would have been made of timber with outer defences composed of earthworks, including a large ditch.
“The Acts and Deeds of the Illustrious and Valiant Champion Sir William Wallace,” also known as “The Wallace,” is a long romantic poem in the chivalric tradition attributed to the fifteenth-century Scottish makar called Blind Harry and composed around 1470. It has some basis in historical fact with descriptions of the Battles of Stirling Bridge and Falkirk interwoven with lesser incidents which it is impossible to corroborate. Whilst these were obviously exaggerated for effect, they must have contained sufficient kernels of truth to be accepted at the time. Blind Harry’s poem relates that Scotland was battling an English military occupation designed to crush the independent nation of the Scots. After Wallace’s victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 the English soon recovered and there was a renewed occupation of Scotland with an emphasis on garrisons at strategic strongpoints. Airth Castle was occupied by an English force of about a hundred men under their commander, Thomlyn of Ware. Wallace with about fifty of his men, among whom were Jop, Kerlie and Steven of Ireland, were in the area of Perth but his presence was sorely needed in the west, in Dumbarton. The English garrison at Stirling denied Wallace a direct route and so after traversing the Ochil Hills he approached the north bank of the River Forth near Airth.
There Jop captured a fisherman and a lad who were from Airth and the fisherman explained that he had been forced to swear loyalty to Thomlyn of Ware and had been compelled to work for him. With Jop’s grip on his collar and a knife at his throat the fisherman quickly answered questions and offered to help Wallace. The fisherman then ferried Wallace and his men over to the southern shore and the vessel was destroyed so that it could no longer be used for English benefit.
After moving through the Moss, Wallace and his men with the fisherman found refuge in the Torwood. There a widow related to Wallace that his uncle, the Priest of Dunipace, was a captive in Airth Tower. Wallace swore to release his uncle by noon the following day and after a meal he and his men rested until evening. The fisherman informed Wallace that the tower was protected by ditches full of stagnant water. Again he acted as a guide and being well known to the English garrison was able to lead Wallace and his men by familiar ways, by the ditches, round the back of the Tower, and over a bridge right into the hall of the Tower. Wallace led the rush into the hall where the surprised English were just rising from supper. Swords flashed in the torchlight and death was visited upon the invaders. Wallace himself dispatched Thomlyn de Ware, cleaving him through his head and neck. The doorway into the hall was held by the Scots blocking that exit to the steadily dwindling numbers of the English garrison, in desperation some tried to flee by way of the windows but to no avail, the entire force of the invaders perished, Wallace himself doing great justice at the stairwell.
The Priest of Dunipace was bound in iron bands in a cave, with its floor covered in water, beneath the Tower, and he heard the commotion above, not realising that he was the cause of the turmoil. He lived the happiest moment of his life when his nephew burst in and freed him from his oppression.
The bodies of the English dead were disposed of in the ditches outside the Tower, the womenfolk and children of the dead garrison were put into the prison cave and the Scots settled in and set watch until dawn the following day. They gathered all weapons, goods and gear of value and as the day progressed disposed of unsuspecting patrols of English soldiers, who returned to the Tower unknowing of the fate which had befallen their comrades and was about to befall themselves. Wallace and his men remained a second night in Airth Tower with Steven of Ireland and Kerlie on guard and, before light the next morning, retired to Torwood with the Priest of Dunipace and their spoils. After fulfilling his oath to rescue his uncle and resting for a night within Torwood, Wallace and his men resumed their interrupted journey. A servant of the widow’s son was sent back to release the womenfolk and children from the prison cave at Airth Tower as now they could no longer give warning that Wallace was in the area, he having left for Dumbarton. (Blind Harry’s poetic account may be found in the Appendix).
That there was action at Airth can be demonstrated. John Reid has drawn our attention to a reference in an English court record from 1300 in which Sir Henry le Tonk sought compensation for the loss of his black warhorse, as well as the white horse of his squire “lost in the fight with the Scots at Erthe on 28 September.” (Reid 1999, 56). Artefacts of the period have also come to light. A wheel pommel from a medieval sword was found a short distance to the north of the castle by a metal detectorist in 1997 and is now in Falkirk Museum. Silver long-cross pennies of the period were also relatively common finds from the general area.
Illus 4: 13th Century Sword Pommel from Airth.
|1450s||Agnes Airth (daughter) married John Livingston of Manerston|
|Henry Livingston (son)|
|James Livingston (son)|
|1460s||Alexander Bruce (purchase)|
|1489||Robert Bruce (grandson) killed at Flodden|
|1513||Robert Bruce (son)|
|1619||Earl of Linlithgow (purchase)|
|1632||Earl of Menteith & Strathearn (purchase)|
|Robert Davidson (purchase)|
|Thomas Hope of West Kerse (purchase)|
|1645||John Hope of Craigiehall (purchase)|
|1648||Alexander Bruce (son of John Bruce – redeemed through purchase)|
|1665||Jean Bruce (daughter) married Richard Elphinston of Calderhall)|
|Elizabeth (daughter) married William Dundas|
|1717||James Graham (purchase)|
|1746||William Graham (son)|
|1790||James Graham (son)|
|1805||Thomas Graham (brother)|
|1836||William Graham (son)|
|1883||Thomas Philip Graham (son)|
|1898||Helen Christina Graham (daughter) held in Trust|
|1935||A F C Forrester (purchase)|
We would normally have expected Wallace to have raised Airth Castle to the ground in order to deny its use to the English and it is curious that Blind Harry does not mention that happening. In any case it is evident that it was soon restored.
Illus 5: The Statue Niche on the Lady Aisle of Airth Church.
Illus 6: Hypothetical Plan of Airth Castle and its immediate setting in 1530.
It seems that the building set on fire in 1488 was of timber, for the tower erected to replace it is typical of the late 15th century. This square tower measures 33ft by 28ft and is low with squat proportions. It consisted of a basement, two main floors and an attic set back by a slabbed walk from a parapet wall. The crenellated parapet is set on a single continuous corbel-course containing water spouts. There is a suggestion that there was a small turret on the parapet at the south-east angle.
The basement was probably originally vaulted with the main entrance at ground level on the north side. From here a spiral staircase in the north-east corner ascended to the floors above. The hall would have occupied the first floor and a small mural chamber in the south-east must have been a gardrobe. Before long the tower became known as the Wallace Tower in honour of the national hero (by a coincidence the earliest known manuscript of Blind Harry’s poem dates to 1488). Later still, probably after the publication in print of a “modern Scots version” or Blind Harry’s poem in 1722, the staircase became “Wallace’s Stair.”
In the year that the old fortification at Airth was burnt, 1488, the sergeant of Stirlingshire was relieved of certain sums of money he was normally bound to collect in respect of the ferry and fishing cruives at Airth. This relief continued until at least 1492 and it has been concluded that the reason for it was a major alteration to the coastline resulting from natural siltation. The loss in economic activity was more than replaced in 1505 with the establishment of a royal dockyard at Higgin’s Neuk. The resulting activity must have provided a fillip for the local economy. It was, however, to be short-lived. In 1513 the disastrous battle at Flodden led to the sale of the Scottish fleet. During the battle Robert Bruce of Airth was killed. He was succeeded by his son of the same name. It took over a decade for Scotland to recover from the devastating effects of Flodden, but around 1540 the tower at Airth was substantially extended to the east.
Illus 9: Plan of Airth Tower with the mid 16th century extension.
The new extension was also of three storeys, with a steeply pitched roof. Typical of this period, the basement had a corridor running along its entire length, with three barrel-vaulted chambers to its south. The central chamber was much narrower than its neighbours and may have had a doorway at its south end opening onto the terrace. The eastern chamber had a large fireplace set in an arched opening in its gable with a small turnpike stair to its south, showing that this was the kitchen. The stair allowed food to be taken up to the ante-room on the first floor, preparatory to its introduction to the lofty hall which occupied the bulk of this level. The large windows which presently illuminate this room are the result of alterations in the early 19th century. Originally there were only two much smaller openings provided with roll-moulded margins.
The extra height of the new hall meant that on the second floor there was a slight difference in floor levels with the tower. New doorways were broken through the east wall of the tower to allow inter-communication. The main entrance faced north onto a courtyard.
Meanwhile the town of Airth was also flourishing. The houses occupied either side of the road heading north from the castle and a mercat cross indicated the status and privileges of its markets. This structure was referred to in the 16th century as the “heidless croce.” In fact the Headless Cross is surmounted by a relatively plain sundial. Over the decades the houses had migrated northwards towards the harbour and the area between them and the castle was quarried to provide building stone. The stone for the castle was delved on the spot. As well as houses there were workshops, warehouses, stables, yards, gardens and a village well.
Illus 12: Plan of Airth Castle showing the Wallace tower of 1488 in black. The mid sixteenth century extension in grey, and the 1581 in red.
The fortunes of the Bruces of Airth reached their zenith under Alexander Bruce who succeeded his father in 1552. An inscription on the north wing of the castle indicates that he was responsible for its construction in 1581. It takes the form of a rectangular panel with deltoid terminations and is placed in the west wall of that wing just to the south of the new main entrance door next to the re-entrant angle. It bears, in raised letters, the text “LAT THAIM/ SAY 1581.”
The new two-storey wing was built onto the east side of the earlier courtyard, extending northward from the end of the previous dwelling, producing an L-shaped plan. The basement plan of the north wing was similar to that of the 1540s extension having, on the side facing the court, a longitudinal corridor covered with a segmental barrel-vault giving access to three barrel-vaulted rooms to its east. The northern of these with its massive fireplace was now the kitchen, superseding that of just forty years earlier. The principal floor was occupied by the family’s state rooms – an inner bedchamber to the north and a reception area to the south. These rooms formed the heart of the private residence with two ornate dormer windows overlooking the churchyard to the east and presumably matched by a similar pair facing the courtyard. The surviving dormer pediments are framed with a roll and deeply undercut cavetto moulding, set on a moulded cornice supported on bracketed corbels. The finials are missing, but the tympana provide an indication of how ornate the whole composition may have been. They are carved in low relief – the south one with a conventionalised stem foliage and the north one with a latticed strap-ornament containing the Bruce mullet in the spaces with a fleur-de-lys at the apex. In the lowest courses the mullets have only four points.
Originally the gables of the north wing probably terminated in crowstepping, but these were replaced with mock battlements in the 19th century.
At the junction of the old dwelling and the north wing a stair tower was placed in the re-entrant angle. Not only did this tower provide common vertical and horizontal communication between the new and old parts of the building, it also sympathetically unified them architecturally. It is an impressive feature and drew more comments from the early commentators than the rest of the building. Its turreted and castellated profile rises above the wallheads of the converging wings and provides a pleasing contrast to their domestic appearance (see the first illustration in this account). Its external angle is boldly provided with a corbelled-out turret extending through two storeys and originally terminated in a conical roof set on a moulded eaves-course (the roof was removed sometime after 1960). A similar slightly shorter turret occurred in the re-entrant angle at the junction of the tower with the block to the west. It has subsequently been modified, presumably as part of the early 19th century work, by the removal of its roof and the rebuilding of its curving west wall to make it straight and so flush with the surface of the tower wall below. The parapet of the tower is roll-moulded and projected on a continuous double corbel-course capped with a cavetto-moulded drip course. It curves round the northern angles of the tower as open semi-turrets containing gun-loops, some of which are twin-holed. Cannon gargoyles project from their bases.
In keeping with contemporary practice the stairway of the new tower was broad for the first two floors, continuing upwards as a smaller turnpike in the south-east turret. On the third floor is a small chamber with a gardrobe in the north-east angle and a “study” in the south-west turret. It was in this lofty space in the very year of its building that the second son of Alexander Bruce spent a turbulent night. He was not overcome by the fumes of the fresh paint but rather was wrestling with God.
Robert Bruce had been born in 1554. In 1572 he graduated from St Andrews University and he then went to study law in Paris. His career looked set and his father infefted him in the estate of Kinnaird. Robert later wrote about that night in the new chamber:
“As touching my vocation to the ministry, I was first called to grace before I obeyed my calling to the ministry. He made me first a Christian before he made me a minister. I repugned long to this calling. Ten years, at the least, I never leaped on horseback, nor alighted, but with a repugning and justly accusing conscience. At last it pleased God, in the year 1581, in the month of August, in the last night thereof, being in the place of Airth lying in a room, called the new loft chamber, in the very night while I lay, to smite me inwardly and judicially in my conscience and to present all my sins before me, in such sort that He omitted not a circumstance, but made my conscience to see time, place, and persons as vividly as in the hour I did them. He made the devil to accuse me so audibly that I heard his voice, as vividly as ever I heard anything, not being asleep but waking. So far as he spake true, my conscience bare him record, and testified against me very clearly. But when he came to be a false accuser and laid things to my charge which I had never done, then my conscience failed him and would not testify with him. But in those things which were true, my conscience condemned me and the condemner tormented me, and made me feel the wrath of God pressing me down, as it were, to the lowest hell. Yea, I was so fearfully and extremely tormented that I would have been content to have been cast into a cauldron of hot melted lead, to have had my soul relieved of that insupportable weight. Always so far as he spoke true, I confessed, restored God to His glory, and craved God’s mercy for the merits of Christ; yea appealed sore to His mercy purchased to me by the blood, death and passion of Christ. This Court of Justice holden upon my soul turned (of the bottomless mercy of God) to a Court of mercy to me, for that same night, ‘ere the day dawned, or the sun rose, He restrained these furies and these outcries of my justly accusing conscience and enabled me to rise in the morning.”
Illus 15: Engraving of Robert Bruce taken from a miniature once in the family’s possession.
As a result of his remarkable religious experience he decided to study for the Church and his mother insisted that he renounce his estate, which he did. He was fortunate in studying under Andrew Melville and was licensed by the presbytery of St Andrews in 1587. He immediately took up the post of minister of St Giles in Edinburgh and was appointed as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland which was called in February 1588 to prepare defences against a possible invasion by the Spanish. In October the following year he was appointed by James VI as a Privy Councillor and when the king unexpectedly went to Norway to bring home his bride, Anne of Denmark, Robert was one of the principal leaders placed in charge of the country. Upon his return to Scotland James VI wrote to Robert Bruce declaring that “he was “worth the quarter of his kingdom.” It was Robert Bruce who got to crown the Queen on 17 March 1590. Just six years later, in 1596, he was banished from Edinburgh for opposing the King’s religious policy.
Then, in August 1600 the supposed Gowrie Conspiracy took place. Bruce was one of those who doubted there was a real threat, so he did not offer prayers of thanksgiving for the King’s safe delivery. For this, he was banished from Edinburgh and forbidden to preach publicly anywhere in Scotland under pain of death. He left Airth Castle on 8 October 1600 and after a period abroad he settled first in Inverness and then at his home at Kinnaird. He restored the church at Larbert and preached from there where he attracted huge crowds. After the king he was probably the most famous man in Scotland. He died peacefully at Kinnaird in August 1631 and was buried in Larbert Churchyard.
Meanwhile Robert’s father, Alexander had died on 16 March 1600 and the estate was inherited by his grandson John. John Bruce had been served with the Lands of Airth in 1597. The grant provides a good snapshot of the state and size of the estate and the local economy:
“The king grants to John Bruce, nephew of Alexander B. of Airth… lands of Hill of Airth with the coals and fishings, in the barony of Airth-Bisset, sheriffdom of Stirling (moreover, in special warranty thereof, half of the lands and barony of Calder [etc]); an oxgang of land called Roishill, with coals, fishings, feus &c., and the superiority of three roods of Roishill, in the barony of Elphinstoun, sheriffdom of Stirling, which is to be feued from the said Alex.; moreover 3 pieces of land called the Mylneholme, the Reidcruik, and the Cruikis, alias the Dokkis (lying between the remaing lands of the said Alex.), in the parish of Airth, sheriffdom of Stirling; which is to be feued from Robert Lord Elphinstoun and Alexander, Master of E., his son; with an oxgang of land in the town of Powknaif (occupied by James Watt therein), with free fishing on the Water of Forth, with the fishing of salmon and the grilses in the Water of Foirth and the Pow of Airth near Dokkis (with the freedom to draw nets upon the Dokkis, in the said parish and sher.; the Hill of Airth with two oxgangs of land thereof; which is to be feued from the said Alex. B. … Upon which above writ the king has newly granted to the said John , with the fishings, the said two oxgangs of Hill of Airth, the salmon, grilses and smoltis in the Forth and the Pow of Airth …, and erecting part of the lands near to the seashore, opposite the said John’s lands of Airth,- into the free Port of Airth, with authority to the said John to construct a mill and saltpan upon the seashore, the ferry boats on both sides of the Water of Forth, with the hevin-sylver, large customs, anchorage, and other duties levied at a free port;-moreover erecting the Town of Airth and all those parts of the land relating to the said John, into a free burgh of barony with free port; with power to the said John to elect baillies, burgesses, officers etc., and the power to the said John to set prices and have a market cross, and a weekly market with two free markets annually on 24 July and 8 October, with customs … Upon which writ the king has incorporated a free barony of Airth, with sasine given upon the Hill of Airth…”(taken from Reid 1999, 65).
Illus 16: Plan of Airth Castle and its immediate setting in 1630.
The main sources of income were coal, fishing and salt-making, all of which were exported through a vibrant port. Agricultural produce, milling and the ferry also provided employment. Trade was flourishing and Airth became a burgh of barony three years before Falkirk was granted that status. Yet within two decades the Bruce family was forced to sell the lands in Airth. It is not clear exactly what the problem was. Alexander had already alienated substantial parts of the estate to various family members, but it seems to have been John’s financial debts that caused the crisis. It was bought in 1619 by the Earl of Linlithgow and in 1632 sold on to the Earl of Menteith and Strathearn. The following year he had it erected into a free earldom, taking the title of Earl of Airth. However, he too seems to have overstretched his resources and the lands were soon sold again.
The church continued to serve the parish and in 1591 the Elphinstone family added a burial aisle on its south-west side. This was followed in 1614 by the construction of the Bruce Aisle on the north side for the Bruces of Powfoulis. Presumably the Lady Aisle, which became known as the Airth Aisle, was used as the burial place of the Bruces of Airth.
Although it is likely to have existed for centuries, the first notice of the Mill of Airth appears in 1618 when it was in the possession of Lord John Bruce of Airth. For a substantial part of the 17th century it was occupied by the Logan family. The weir for it lay on the Pow to the west of Airth Castle and the lade ran along the foot of the Hill. A minor road ran along the west side of the mill and up the Hill below the church to reach the High Town. Below the church it was lined by several houses.
John Bruce’s eldest son, Alexander Bruce, was forced to make a living as a soldier and served under Prince Rupert in Germany. In 1635 he was commissioned as a captain in Holland. Whilst there he met and married a wealthy heiress called Anna van Eck. Using part of her fortune he was able to buy back the lands and barony of Airth and received a crown charter in May 1648. It must be assumed that his father had placed a right of redemption on the sale in 1619.
Despite redeeming the family inheritance Alexander Bruce remained abroad for many years and so missed the dramatic events of 1650 and 1651. In September 1650 the Scots army fighting for the king was defeated at Dunbar by Cromwell’s army. Almost a year of manoeuvrings and incidents followed which saw the siege of Callendar House and a major skirmish at Larbert Bridge. The Scots defended a long front along the north side of the River Carron with rearward strong points at Torwood Castle, Letham House and Airth Castle. The port at Airth appears to have been given protection from a seaborne incursion. In the end Cromwell went around the eastern flank by crossing the Forth at Inverkeithing and so Airth was spared any action.
It was not until May 1665 that Alexander Bruce returned home, only to die that September – the last of the Bruces of Airth.
In the 19th century a record was made of the inscription on a slab of black marble in the church which went missing by the end of that century. The date may be incorrect, but the transcription reads:
“Brusiois hic situs pietate an clarior armis Incertum; est certum regibus ortus avis. Heer lies a branch of Busses noble stemm, Airth’s Baron! Whose high wurth did sute that name. Holland his courage honoured, Spain did feare – The Swedes in Funen bought the trial deare. At last his Prince’s service called him home To die, on Thames, his bancke, and leave this tombe, To bear his name unto posteritie, And make all men love his memorie. Alexandro Brussio Ex Robertii Brossii, Scotorum Regis Filo Natu secundo progenitor Baroni Airthensi. Primum in Belgio per Annos XLIII. Dein in Anglia pro Tribuno Regio. Viro cum strenuo tum pientissimo. Aetatis anno LVI. Vitague simul defunct. A.D. XVII. Kal Oct. ob. CIC, LIC. XLII. G. Lauderus, affinis, M.P.”
“It is uncertain whether Bruce was settled here through piety or, more famous, by arms. It is certain that he sprang from royal ancestors.”
To Alexander Bruce, descended from the second born son of Robert Bruce, King of Scots, progenitor of the Barons of Airth. At first he was in Flanders for 43 years, then in England on royal service, a man as diligent as he was very religious. He died aged 56 on the 15th of September . “G. Lauder, brother in law, (MP – placed this in his memory).
The original burial place of Alexander Bruce was probably on the south side of the churchyard opposite to the Lady Aisle. At the top of the escarpment here a 2.45m long retaining wall continued upwards to a cavetto moulded coping at a height of 1.0m and contained an armorial stone at ground level with a shield supported by woodhouses and charged with a saltire for Bruce having a mullet in the dexter chief. Below the shield was a ribbon containing the initials “A.B.” To either side were small square stones containing symbols of mortality. The wall was subsequently re-used by the Logan family in 1773.
Alexander Bruce’s wife died in 1673 leaving only a daughter, Jean to succeed. Jean or Jane Bruce had married Richard Elphinstone of Calderhall. It would seem that Anna van Eck stayed at Airth Castle from 1665 until her death as she is buried at the church next door. Her burial place was a vault under the Airth Aisle approached by a flight of eleven steps. It measured 17ft 3in by 8ft 6in. On either side of its doorway were the letters “RE.IB,” for Richard Elphinstone and Jane Bruce, with the date “1682.” On the walls of the vault (which has now been filled in) were cut the names of those present:
“Alexander Bruce of Airth, 1665.
Anna Vanaeck, Lady of Airth, 1673.
Jane Bruce, Lady Airth, died upon March 20th, 1683.
Richard Elphinstone, Laird of Airth, died June 27th, 1683.”
From which it appears that Richard and Jane moved the remains of her parents into the new vault. In the 19th century their journey resumed and they are now at rest in the Graham family tomb just to the north of the later parish church in Graham Terrace.
When the new front was placed onto Airth Castle in 1807 the armorial tablet from above the old entrance was moved to the stable block and it was only in 2006 that it was incorporated into a wall inside the castle. It measures 3ft 6in by 3ft and contains a shield charged: quarterly, 1st and 4th, a chevron between three boars’ heads erased; 2nd and 3rd, a saltire and chief, a mullet in dexter chief. Above it are a helm with a wreath and mantling and a worn crest representing a griffin. At the base of the shield are two sets of almost illegible initials – “R [E]” and “I [B]” for Richard Elphinstone and Jane Bruce.
Illus 17: Armorial stone of Richard Elphinstone and Jane Bruce in Airth Castle.
TJ Neale visited Airth around 1820 and was told about the stone, which had already been removed. He subsequently wrote that “Over the old door of entrance was the date 1581, together with the arms of the Families of Bruce and Elphinstone, to whom the mansion formerly belonged.” However, this is evidently a conflation of two separate items and possibly of two separate entrances. Such a full heraldic achievement would be more appropriate in a new build and this is likely to have been the west wing shown on later plans as extending a short distance northwards from the Wallace Tower. The plans indicate that it was narrower than that tower and it may well have been much lower in height, perhaps designed to provide a grander entrance than the very plain one of 1581. It occupied the natural line of approach and helped to enclose the courtyard. The wing was, presumably, demolished as part of the 1807 work and the carved panel removed as a result.he castle became a hotel in the mid 20th century.
On 27 September 1683 Charles Elphinstone succeeded his father, Richard, in the lands and Barony of Airth. The town of Airth had continued to prosper and shipbuilding took place at the harbour. There were now two discrete settlements; that by the harbour and port was known as Laigh or Low Airth, and that on the Hill as High Airth. A new market cross was erected in the Low Town by Charles Elphinstone in 1697, his initials and coat of arms, and those of his father and mother with their arms quartered. The other two sides of the cross have sun dials, and one of them has the date 1697.
Another sundial used to stand on the middle terrace to the south of Airth Castle, though its original location is not known. It comprised of a head 1ft 4in square by 1ft 9in high, and a modern base, the whole standing 3ft 5in high. The head bore floral ornamentation below and a cherub’s head at each of its upper corners and had been dialled on all four faces. At the top of the south face was the date 1690. The north face, below the dialling, had a shield charged, for Elphinstone: A chevron between three boars’ heads erased. The shield was encircled by the motto FLORET QUI VIGILAT (He flourishes who watches), and at the top was the further motto SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI (Thus passes the glory of this world). On the top of the head was a square brass dial bearing the sun’s face and the motto HORA FUGIT (Time flies).
Illus 20: The Airth Castle Sundial.
Charles was killed in a duel with his relative, Captain William Bruce of Auchenbowie, at Torwood. He was succeeded by his sister, Elizabeth, Lady Airth, and she married Sir William Dundas of Blair who assumed the surname of Elphinstone upon his marriage. However, he backed the Jacobite cause in 1715 and was captured and imprisoned in London. Upon his release the couple, being in reduced circumstances, were obliged to sell Airth and in 1717 it was purchased by James Graham, an Advocate.
James Graham had done well for himself. He studied law at Louvain, became an advocate in Edinburgh, and in 1702 received his appointment as Judge Admiral of Scotland from the Duke of Lennox, the hereditary Lord High Admiral. The court in which he sat tried all maritime cases. The Judge’s first wife, Marion Hamilton, having died, he married secondly Lady Mary Livingstone, daughter of Alexander the third Earl of Callendar.
Upon buying the property Judge Graham spent a large amount of money bringing the buildings up to standard, starting with the roofs. The stair tower at the south-east angle, known as the “New Tower,” had its lead replaced and a few years later James Baird, mason, rebuilt part of the parapet. The Old Tower was re-slated and the walls harled. A range of offices was built just to the north-west of the castle and in 1718 work began on a grand new stable complex and coach house. The men employed were James Hart and John Beg, masons in Falkirk, James Baird and James Logan, masons in Airth, and their men, and Robert Leven, plasterer.
The stables were built about 50m west-north-west of the castle overlooking the main western approach. The complex consisted of a courtyard, open on the south and with ranges of two-storey buildings on the other three sides. The principal building was the coachhouse which occupied the prime central position, emphasised by the use of a piended roof with bellcast eaves. On its ground floor were three arched openings for the coaches. Above this were five evenly spaced windows. The upper floor contained a single room measuring 12.9m by 5.2m which functioned as a banqueting room with the main approach along the Lime Avenue to the north up a fine sweeping twin-flight forestair to a balconied landing. The doorway from the landing has a lugged surround and a pulvinated frieze surmounted by a pediment. The ranges on the west and east of the courtyard framed the southern façade. The central block and the side ranges were joined by slender single storey corridor buildings. The open side of the courtyard was bounded by a low dyke with moulded capstones and entrance piers.
Below the stables was the approach road, known as the West Entry, which was “levelled” or rather, re-graded to provide a steady gradient. This was to be the main approach to the house and traffic to High Airth was diverted round to the north and west. At the top of the western avenue a new gateway was erected to reinforce the private nature of the road. It consisted of four pillars joined by low curving balustraded screen walls with a central entrance. The oval-shaped finials on the pillars are carved in low relief with festoons. It was completed in 1723 for in that year money was paid for hanging the gate.
The bridge over the Pow, known as the Abbeytown Bridge, carrying the main road northwards, was replaced. It has a single arch which is rebated with chamfered arises and a span of 25ft. Set in the east parapet at path level is an inscription in a square panel with a simple border that reads “FOUNDED UPON/ WOOD AND/ REBUILT BY THE/ SHIRE 1726”.
The grounds too were laid out. The old brewhouse was demolished, the area levelled and terraced and an outer court or bowling green created to the north of the castle. Garden dykes and doorways were repaired. Fruit trees were acquired from Kinneil, including the famous cherries. The new gates were painted with linseed oil, white lead and lamp black. Water pipes were sourced for the pond. On the hill slope to the south of the castle three terraces were created and in 1726 William Gun and Thomas Bowie, quarriers, were paid for the stone, building kiln walls and fill¬ing up the back of terrace dykes with sand. The 1690 sundial was placed in an alcove on the middle terrace, but its present location is not known. The terraces extended westward as far as the Cross Entry.
Designs were also commissioned for the flat land beyond the terraces reaching out as far as the Pow. Three geometrical arrangements of paths, garden beds, dwarf hedges and plantings were submitted and a start made to the framework, though it is unlikely that any particular scheme was fully completed. In each case the plans incorporated shapely ponds fed from the mill lade – some curving and others canal-like. Perhaps that was what the pipes were for.
One of the plans, dated 1721, was by William Boutcher, a garden designer of some repute. It is captioned “Ane Exact Plan of Airth the Seat of the Honnourable Mr James Graham Admirall of Scotland…Surveyd August first & Drawn at Ednr Septr 10th 1721 by William Boutchart” implying that this was a survey of an existing garden. Certainly the church, the castle, the three terraces and the western part of the Pow are correct. However, it does not show the new stables which were well under construction at the time – though it does show the Lime Avenue that led to the grand stair there. Perhaps more significantly the garden plan would have required the eastern course of the Pow to have been diverted and this evidently did not happen. The plan, like the other two, is therefore one drawn up to improve and add to the existing features on the site. It is clearly idealised and shows features such as avenues and buildings as being parallel or perpendicular to each other even though they were not and never could have been given the topography – having said that, the contours could easily have deceived the viewer on the ground into believing that they were. There are many practical elements such as the long canal shown at the break of slope to the south of the castle which follows the line of the existing mill lade. It is shown as having semicircular ends and an exedra on the south side in alignment with the centre of the house and with the avenue to the south. It runs through a plantation laid out partly in a strong geometric design and partly in wilderness fashion, that is, with curving paths through the trees.
On the north side of the castle a broad tree-lined avenue is shows on the same axis also centred on the house. Again this was wishful thinking, for not only was the precise alignment impractical but here lay the remaining houses and storerooms of the old town of High Airth. It was to be the 1790s before a determined effort by the family removed the last buildings.
In the 1730s new additions seem to have been made to the complex at the coachhouse. Stone was quarried from Elphinstone for chimneys, five hearthstones from Longannet, lime was brought from Torphichen, and wood and nails were purchased. The new rooms included a library for Judge Graham, a room for My Lady, and a Red Room. To the west was an open veranda or colonnade. These additional structures are shown on another proposal for the development of the lower garden. This shows a shapely baroque pond on the southern axis of the castle with a raised lawn beyond providing a platform for a large obelisk. The earth for the lawn would have come from the digging of the pond. The intention was to remove some of the terrace walls and regrade the slopes, creating a central “bastion.” The stairs to either side of the main terrace were already in place and elements of them still survive. The walled garden was to be converted into a new bowling green and the old one given over to a “Grand Court.” The plan also shows the curved entrance gateway at the bottom of the West Entry with two new lodges. The lodges were never constructed, but it is possible that the gateway was moved.
The view down onto the formal gardens beside the Pow must have been spectacular. More extensive views were also available and in 1722 Johnston of Kirkland remarked that 15 shires could be seen from the residence, as well as the castles of Stirling, Castle Campbell, Edinburgh, Blackness and Bruce Castle. To the west of the geometric garden was a broad tree-lined vista which emanated from the enclosure to the west of the coachhouse where Judge Graham’s wife, Lady Mary Livingstone, had her retirement room to match his library on the other side. This avenue is shown on Roy’s map of the 1750s. It must have been relatively new then for it survived into the early editions of the Ordnance Survey maps and can still be made out in the aerial photograph from 1950. It is aligned almost exactly north/south and the only known feature on this alignment was Callendar House – which would be appropriate.
To the west of the vista the sinuous curve of the main road northwards from the Abbeytown Bridge can be made out on Roy’s map (it was only straightened in 1804). To the east is what appears to be an orchard and vegetable garden, and to the east of that again, below the castle, is what must have been the geometric garden.
The washhouse for the castle stood beside the mill lade half way down the West Entry along with a bleachfield. In 1730 the washhouse was re-thatched and in 1747 a new copper was bought, the walls were repaired in 1752. Over a hundred years later the boiler attracted the attention of the historians:
“We had this week the curiosity to examine a large old copper boiler, which had been sent to repair from the washing-house of Airth Castle. After perceiving that the “cauldron” had received some former “clouting,” we observed underneath one of the handles the date of its make, with the maker’s initials, “J.M., 1747.” The boiler has been in constant use as far back as the oldest inhabitant can remember, and more than probable since the above date, which is formed by small punctures made by a punch.”(Stirling Observer 10 September 1857, 3)
The enclosures beyond the gardens and orchards were used for pasture. Their names included the following: Mains Park (4.18 acres), Waterslap Park, Westermains, Library Park (6.75 acres), New High Park, Little Pond Park, Miln Park (2.25 acres), Sheep Park (6.80 acres), Sow Park, Forrester’s Park (created 1750 – 7.40 acres), (275) Parks: Cow Park, Dovecot Park, Mackie Park, Washgreen, Mitchell Park, Clackingboard, Hug Milles. These provided a wide open landscape with a few specimen trees. The latter also had to be protected from the grazing animals and in 1736 we have a note of – “pailing trees” in the Sheep Park.
Coal provided an important source of income for the estate and the road bordering its north side became known as the Coal Gate. On the neighbouring estate of Dunmore one of the earliest steam engines in Scotland was erected in 1719 to pump water out of the pits. The coal was exported from the harbour which was provided with a sluice. However, land was now being reclaimed from the Forth in the bay through a process of warping and before the end of the century the sluice proved inadequate in removing the silt.
The castle at Airth was more of a stately home than a fortified residence. It had been almost a century since it was last associated with warfare and it must have seemed unlikely that it would ever be again. Then on 14 September 1745 the Highland Army led by Bonny Prince Charles walked through Torwood on its way to Callendar House. That night James Graham, the son of the Judge, visited Callendar House with the intention of joining the cause. He was advised to bide his time. The Jacobites marched on to Edinburgh and victory at the Battle of Prestonpans and so he decided his time had come. His servant went with him. The elderly Judge appears to have been sympathetic to the cause, but not to the extent that he was going to take an active part. He left Edinburgh and isolated himself from the political fallout. Events quickly moved on and by December this part of Scotland was quiet. On 4 December he wrote to the Lord Justice Clerk justifying his actions or lack thereof:
Inter arma silent Leges; and therefore I am much of your Opinion of Staying here till matters shall turn to a more settled State. If business is rightly carried on for the support of the Government and good of the Lieges, it is of no consequence who does it; In the mean time I cannot be blamed, who have never been desired or acquainted to concur in any Measure, altho’ I told my Ld Advocate before he went off that I was ready in my Station to do what Service would be requisite: Now indeed I can blame no body considering the wretched Step my Son has taken, and that as Charity now runs very low, this would be imputed to Me, altho’ I knew no more of it than the Child unborn; However I must endure these misfortunes the best way I can, and to this end it would much contribute, if you would be so good as to pass two or three days here where there is not a Soul but my own family…
Airth Decr 4th 1745 JAMES GRAHAM”
That family included his younger daughter, Lady Mary, who married Thomas Dundas of Fingask. She had briefly been engaged to Lord Elcho and at the beginning of January 1746 they were unexpectedly reunited when Lord Elcho returned from England with the Jacobite Army and took up residence at Kersie Mains nearby. His cavalry unit were stationed at Dunmore, whilst the town of Airth was occupied by Pitsligo’s Horse. They foraged for food in the area and acquainted themselves with the landed gentlemen of the area. The officers undoubtedly dined in Airth Castle. The Hanoverian government tried to stop the Jacobites from transporting cannon across the Forth at this point and hotly disputed the crossing. As part of this action they burnt a couple of ships being built on the stocks at Airth. The cannon were eventually successfully got across and taken to the siege of Stirling Castle. Shortly thereafter the Battle of Falkirk took place on 17 January resulting in a Jacobite victory. Judge Graham still did not declare for them though he may have celebrated the success with his son. It was to no avail and inevitably the cause was lost at Culloden. James Graham junior was attainted and forced to flee abroad. He died at the Scots College in Paris where he held the rank of colonel.
Illus 27: Plan showing the immediate setting of Airth Castle around 1730.
Judge Graham died on 5 November 1746 and was succeeded by his second surviving son, William. The Judge’s library of legal books was moved into the castle, where it remained into the 1950s. In 1748 the orchards and the terraces south of the castle were put up for rent for a four year period at an annual fee of £25. The contract reads:
“the cherry or Laigh Yeard of Airth, the old and new orchyeards thereof, the firr-walk and the loan leading to the Pow braes (which Pow braes lye to the south of the said two orchyeards). As also the yeard called James Rie’s yeard, with the terras-walks or banks all lying to the south of the House of Airth“.
To help with the working of the orchards it was agreed to give the tenant the use of three rooms called “Cullinades” to the west of the library for keeping the fruit and for lodging one man servant, but no family, at the time that the fruit was watched and gathered in, and when the gardens were labouring. Cattle were not to be allowed on the terraces where the grass had to be cut by scythe or hook.
Around 1770 the old walled garden next to the castle was demolished and a new one built at the foot of the hill 400m to the west. The old garden was levelled and became “Old Garden Park” (2.54 acres). Similarly in 1789 the old orchard was grubbed up and a new one of 4.5 acres placed next to the new walled garden. The fruit trees were described as “old” at the time and accounted for the fact that the sale of fruit to the public that year had only amounted to £5.
William Graham was enthusiastic about the gardens and landscape around the castle. He was a subscriber to the important 1775 book ‘Treatise on Forest Trees’ by William Butcher, the son of William Boutcher, the designer who had drawn up detailed garden plans for his father in 1721. The book was funded by subscription. A few years later William Graham wrote to his uncle James serving in India and described the pleasure he too from the grounds of Airth:
“When everything looks charming, to be driven up the avenue when every well known object would strike your sight. The row of walnut trees with the intermediate rowans with their blushing berries on the one hand and the larch and oaks in the quarry, and chestnut trees on the other, the stack yard where the little garden stile stands, where the rose bush still flourishes and the turf seat, though a little out of repair, might still answer the purpose for which it was intended…. Everything would excite your emotion.”
William Graham was a frequent correspondent and in 1788 wrote to his sister Annie saying that “the garden wall is capped so make a list of trees for it”. This is probably a reference to part of the newly constructed walled garden.
There must have been an early doocot at Airth, but its location is obscure. Dovecot Park is mentioned in the 1820s. Prior to that, in 1808, two men, Archibald Rae and John Kemp, were paid for cleaning out the pigeon house. The 1921 Ordnance Survey map shows a rectangular doocot lying in the shelter of the hill to the south-west of Low Airth, but nothing now remains on the ground. As this land came into the possession of the Bruces in the fifteenth century it is possible that it is the original location, far enough away from the castle that the pigeons would eat the grain on the lands of the neighbours.
In 1772 William Graham took a keen interest in the tomb of his kinsman Sir John de Graeme at Falkirk parish Church. Sir John de Graeme is said to have been killed covering William Wallace’s retreat from the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 and so provided a link to Wallace and Airth. In order to protect the original recumbent gravestone William Graham had a second slab placed over it, engraved with the inscription found on the older stone.
In 1789 William Graham announced his intention of buying up any old feus in the vicinity of Airth Castle that could be obtained at reasonable rates. However, he died the following year before he was able to make good on his resolution. His Trustees took up the task on behalf of his son, James. There were thatched dwellings, storehouses, yards and orchards at High Airth. Individual feus were actively purchased and initially some of the buildings were used to house part of the workforce for the estate.
|May 1794||Francis Anderson||Houses purchased from James Clerk for £21.3.|
|1795||Alexander Marshall||House and yard – £32.|
|October 1796||Alexander Watson||In prison. For Isobella Yair’s houses and yard – £30.|
|1796||Airth Friendly Society|
|1797||James Bauchop||Deceased – £120.|
|1799||William Logan||Land and houses below and on Hill of Airth – £600.|
|1800||Robert Adam||Difference between lands resold by him and new feu granted – £200.|
|1802||Mrs Addison||Late mother’s feu below Airth Church – 100 guineas.|
|May 1803||Mr Addison||Grandmother’s houses, and orchard below the kirk.|
|May 1803||John Boyd||Houses and lands in High Town – £100.|
|1808||Levelling Boyd’s old houses in the High Town. Stones used for new field walls & roads.|
|1808||Taking down an old house below the kirk.|
|1808||Taking down houses below the kirk.|
|1824||Joseph Stainton (Carron Co)||Land in High Town sold by Elizabeth Bauchope, wife of Wm Muirhead, moulder at Carron.|
An idea of the density of building still there in 1778 can be gained from the fact that in that year Francis Anderson, weaver in Airth, received an annual rent from John Young, mason at Carron Wharf, for
“two laigh houses with the garden at the back and east end thereof lying within the high town of Airth and which were purchased by me from John Bowie wright and feuar in Airth bounded betwixt the common foot road or closs betwixt the said houses and the houses belonging to John Bennet on the south and south-east parts the house that was once possessed by Rory Sutherland on the west the yard belonging to John Rae feuar and the houses once belonging to and possessed by the said John Bowie’s father on the north north-east and east parts“
Not everything went to plan and in 1796 “The Airth Friendly Society having … made a purchase from Alex Marshall of his late father’s feu in the High Town of Airth consisting of a house and yard with an intention to build a house thereon for the accommodation and meetings of the Society which would have frustrated the Trustees plan of buying up all the feus in the High Town that Mr Graham might have the command of the grounds of the Hill of Airth as entirely as possible. The Trustees prevailed with the Society to relinquish their purchase” and take a long lease of Alex Cowan’s ruinous house at the Low Town. Twelve years later Thomas Graham bought the Friendly Society House for £120 so that it could be used as a schoolhouse in place of the old church. It was 1824 before the last parcel of land was bought in the High Town and Graham’s lawyer toasted him as the “Laird of the whole High Town of Airth”. The buildings were all demolished and the stone used for dykes and for filling in the unsightly quarries. In doing so the ground level on the top of the hill was reduced in height. A new straight tree-lined avenue, known as Black Avenue, was laid out.
In 1800 a new opportunity arose to increase the privacy of the estate. A well engineered broad road was being constructed from Dalgrain near Grangemouth, carried over the River Carron on a new bridge, through Skinflats to Airth Mill. Now the Grahams helped to have it continued northwards to the Low Town of Airth by buying the necessary land and donating it together with some of their own land for that purpose. It was completed in 1803. The new road ran straight from the east side of the mill to the main street of the town, whereas the old one had meandered from the west side of the mill around the foot of the escarpment and up the hill to the church before descending again. The houses on the old route below the church were bought and demolished and the road grubbed up. A new drive had to be created from the new road to the church as it still served as the parish church. This required a deep cutting and part of the earth removed was used on the lower part of the road and the surplus in new sea dykes. In 1804 hedges and trees were planted along the old road to Abbeytown Bridge which presumably now also became a private way. Sometime later a lodge was constructed south of the bridge near Waterslap to keep the public out.
Graham commissioned the famous Glasgow architect David Hamilton to design a large extension to Airth Castle and it was agreed that it should occupy the triangular space on the north side between the two principal wings. Graham’s relative William Stirling was also an architect and acted in this capacity on site during the construction work, adding much of the fine detail. A grand castellated baronial style was chosen, though it had little in common with the more homely traditional facades that it now hid from sight. Whereas they had been made of local brown sandstone laid as random rubble, it was finished with finely droved grey ashlar. The new façade is rigorously symmetrical with strong four-storey round towers at the outer corners and a broad centre bay carried up as a battlemented rectangular tower. Massive octagonal piers clasp this tower at its corners taking the form of battlemented turrets with blind vertical arrow slots. Those at the front splay out to form the side panels of a broad single storey porch containing pointed arches. Between these panels is the porch entrance set under a pointed arch that springs from clustered shafts and is topped with an ornate balustrade having quatrefoil perforations. The doorway at the back of the porch is flanked by Gothic sidelights and approached by a broad flight of steps. Each floor above this has a large window; that on the second floor is round-headed with an Adamish setting. The straight bays between this central tower and the round end ones each contain three large rectangular windows on each floor. Those on the basement level are hidden from view by the terracing, whilst those on the upper two floors are hood-moulded and linked by sill courses. These bays too carry corbelled battlements. Only the sill lower sill course is carried round the end towers, thus emphasising their height – as does the use of square windows on their upper storeys.
The entrance hall has a plaster groin vault and a Gothick niche faces the visitor. It is flanked by two doors, that on the right merely giving access to a cupboard whilst that on the left conducts to a saloon in an angle of the old building, from which the principal rooms enter. The saloon is a two-storey segment, top-lit from a fan-shaped skylight.
A railed balcony provides for communication at second floor level with wide arched openings on the north side. The soffit of the balcony is neatly ornamented with plaster oval rosettes and husks. Indeed the deep plaster panels are a feature of the 1807 extension. New marble chimneypieces were inserted into the main rooms of the old building. The previous hall became the drawing room and the ante-room a morning room. The dining room was now in the modern building, as was a library. The drawing room was filled with lavish furniture and the family paintings. These included original portraits of three celebrated persons – the Marquis of Montrose, the Admiral Crichton and Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee (now in the National Portrait Gallery).
The basement floor of the 1807 extension is largely hidden from view by the terracing in front of the house. This incorporates three vaulted rooms separated from the house by a sunken unroofed corridor. The central room houses a bread oven and in one corner is a three-headed stone sculpture. The heads wear hoods and have large lentoid eyes. In this location the stone is hidden from view and must have come from a structure demolished to make way for the new extension – perhaps from the lost west wing.
William Stirling also made alterations to the stables. The piended roofs of the two side blocks were reconfigured so that new southern gables presented an imposing symmetrical façade. The moulded eaves courses along the sides were continued across the gables and large circular louvred openings inserted into the tympana. Below these was a central window on each floor.
Now attention switched to removing the church from the immediate vicinity of the castle. In 1806, before commencing the major alterations to the house, Thomas Graham got a provisional agreement from most of the Heritors that the church could be removed. It was 1818 before he was able to move on this promise and obtained the consent of three quarters of the Heritors and the approval of the Court of Session. In 1816 David Hamilton and William Stirling were invited to submit plans. The following year the old church was condemned after a survey by Hamilton and William Burn. Consequently, William Stirling’s plans and specifications were approved. Thomas Graham provided the site at the north end of the village – now called Graham Terrace. He also made a significant contribution towards the cost and the whole project was completed in 1820.
Although the old church was no longer used for worship, burials continued in the churchyard and in 1824 a young man helping to carry the coffin of a relative collapsed and died. His body was taken to the castle before being collected by his family. Resurrectionists also operated in the area and we have at least one reported case of a body having been stolen from the old churchyard. A watch-house was built near the coffin entrance to counter this activity and mortsafes were acquired from Carron Ironworks (see Bailey 1999). Over the following years the Graham family purchased most of the lairs or exchanged them for ones at the new church.
The old church building and its graveyard became part of their private property. The stone of the church was unsuitable for the new one and so the roof was removed. An unstable aisle wall on the north-east side was demolished and removed, opening up the internal arcading and forming a picturesque ruin or folly.
Illus 34: Plan of the area immediately around Airth Castle, c1830.
The official closure of the church meant that the drive from the turnpike road could be closed off as a private road, with access allowed for those visiting the graveyard. The early 18th century gateway at the top of the West Entry was therefore transferred to this location and over time it became the principal approach.
Graham of Airth and Strowan died at Airth Castle on 1 July 1836. His son William Graham of Airth married Elizabeth, youngest daughter of late Sir Alexander Anstruther of Thirdpart, Fife, in January 1839 and the two went on a European tour. Their first daughter was born in Rome that November. Whilst they were away the house was lived in by James Strange Esq., formerly of Hon East India Co. He died there in October 1840.
All of the work of removing the village, church, walled garden, orchards and quarries from the Hill of Airth and then landscaping the area allowed a typical open parkland landscape with specimen trees to take their place. This was used as pasture and let each year:
“To be LET, for the Ensuing Season’s Grazing, by public Roup, on Tuesday the 3d day of march 1857, THE GRASS PARKS on the Estate of AIRTH, comprising Eleven Enclosures of Rich old Pasture grass for feeding Cattle, all of which are well-sheltered, fenced, and watered.
Mr John Nicolson, Overseer, Airth Castle, will point out the fields.
Roup to begin at Airth gate at twelve o’clock Noon.”(Edinburgh Evening Courant 12 February 1857, 1).
For the next forty years Matthew Jarvie secured the grazing at Airth Castle and Powfoulis, from year to year, for the cattle of Learmonth & Co, fleshers, as well as a long-term lease of Dunmore Park. One of the famous specimen trees was the elderly “Monarch” ash whose limbs were strongly bound with iron, shackled and bolted. It was blown down by the storm of October 1860 (Stirling Observer 11 October 1860, 3). Gillespie (1879) tells us that this was not the only tree to be supported, “Yet the most extraordinary of the trees is an ash, which contains some four hundred feet of wood, and stands girdled about the trunk and branches with several iron hoops.”
The slopes of the Hill were planted with trees and from a distance it looked like a dense forest. Again Gillespie gives us an idea of the variety of trees and other plants:
“In the summer, the avenue leading to the Castle is totally overshadowed with thick foliage. But everywhere on the Airth estate are oaks, ashes, walnuts, chestnuts, and elms of remarkable beauty; while across the ruins of the old garden are many rare specimens of the bay, Portugal-laurel, and holly. … Here we found growing in abundance the Pyrethrun Parthenium, and the less frequent Cistopteris Fragilis, a fern of very tender but graceful texture, also the Arum Maculatum, a plant which is rare on both sides of the Forth. In a ditch not far from the highway, we likewise observed the Veronica Anagallis, and by the roadside that aromatic favourite, the Agrimonium Eupatorium.”(Gillespie 1879, p230).
The castle was kept in good repair. In the summer of 1859 it was undergoing extensive repairs and so the Graham family was absent. The only person living there was the coachman who heard a noise in the night. Going up the “Wallace’s Stair” he was tumbled down headlong. He had been attacked by three burglars and struck one in the face with a cudgel. He was severely kicked but escaped, making his way to the residence of Mr Reid the gamekeeper. By the time they returned, the burglars had gone with £5 in cash and a pair of new black cloth trousers. (Scotsman 3 June 1859, 2).
The house was full of historical treasures and so the robbers made off lightly. Amongst the pictures at Airth Castle were the following portraits:
- James II of England, when High Admiral of the kingdom.
- The son of James II, commonly called the old Chevalier.
- James II’s wife, Princess Clementina Sobieski of Poland.
- Prince Charles Stuart, the young Chevalier.
- Charles’ brother, Cardinal of York, and last of the Stuart line.
- Marquis of Montrose, who lost his life for the Stuart family. This had been given to Dr Wright, his son’s tutor, and then to Mr Graham by Mr Edmonston of Carnwath.
- Lord Dundee, commonly called Claverhouse, who fell at Killiecrankie.
- Admiral Crichton of the family of Cluny.
- James Graham who went on board in the 45 with Prince Charles and never returned.
The Jacobite theme is obvious. There were also pictures by Tenniers, Wooverman, and other old masters. A fruit piece by John Donaldson, late of Alloa, was considered to be an important work of art. There was also a Judith, holding the head of Holofernes; Mercury charming Argus; Mary washing the feet of our Saviour; a picture of our Saviour painted on wood, with Publius Lentilus’ letter to the Senate of Rome; the Wise Men making their offering, by Titian – painted on wood. An old chest, having the letter “D.” upon it, with the date 1630, was supposed to have been the property of Claverhouse.
William Graham was a great supporter of the Stirlingshire Volunteers established to protect Britain from possible invasion. Many meetings were held at Airth Castle and military insignia were prominent.
Airth estate included the farms of Eastfield (75 acres) and Waterslap (73 acres) as well as property in the village. William Graham’s brother, Robert, looked after the estate in his absence. His mother and sisters provided coal for the poor and the tenants drove it to the recipients free of charge. So, from 1860, Robert arranged for annual dinners for the tenants in the Crown Hotel, Airth. The hotel was also the scene of the annual meetings of the Airth and Bruce Castle Curling Club whose patron was John Nicolson, the estate overseer. Thomas Graham donated curling stones as prizes. Forty years later its name had changed to Airth Bruce Castle and Dunmore Curling Club. John Marshall, the headmaster at Airth negotiated with Colonel Graham over the siting of the curling pond at the north end of the village.
As time went on the Grahams were spending less and less time at Airth and so in 1873 the castle was put up for rent:
“AIRTH CASTLE, TO BE LET furnished for such period as may be agreed on, with entry at 1st July, AIRTH CASTLE, in the Parish of Airth and County of Stirling, with Garden and Pleasure Grounds attached, and the Right of shooting over the estate consisting of upwards of 1000 acres. The Game, which has been carefully protected, consists of Pheasants, Partridges, Hares, & c.
The House contains two Large Drawing-Rooms, One Large Dining-Room, and a Parlour, with 10 or 12 Bed-Rooms, and ample accommodation for a large family. The Stabling and Offices are extensive and suitable.
Airth Castle is beautifully situated on the eminence of Hill of Airth – 100 feet above the sea level – on the South Bank of the River Forth, from which it is about one mile distant, and is well sheltered with fine old timber. The Woods and Shrubberies adjoining the Castle extend to about 36 acres, and there are extensive views from the grounds of the Ochil and Highland hills and of the valley of the Forth and carse of Falkirk.
The Airth Estate adjoins Dunmore Park, the property of the Earl of Dunmore, and the Castle is within two miles of a railway station, and is distant about five miles from Falkirk and eight miles from Stirling.
The House and Grounds may be seen on application to ALEXANDER MITCHELL, Overseer on the Estate at Airth…”(Scotsman 8 May 1873, 2).
Colonel Thomas Philip Graham of the Scots Guards had inherited the estate from his father in 1883 and for a while Captain William Morier of the Scottish Rifles stayed in Airth Castle. When Thomas Graham died at Florence in 1898 he was survived by two daughters, Helen Christina and Agnes Graham. The property fell to Helen, who was the elder, and the estate was run by trustees on their behalf.
A number of tenants rented the castle, including some branches of the family. In 1900 J Frederick Noble Graham, an East India merchant, lived at Airth Castle and was nominated for the Airth Parish School Board. In 1906 Robert McLaren and his wife were in residence. They leased it at £120 per year, which was about average for a home of this character considering that Carronhall was let for £60, Stenhouse to Mr Verol for £105 (he soon left because of the problem of smoke from Carron Ironworks and it was reduced to £65), Carnock House £80 and Westquarter to Mr Orr for £150 but recently empty. Larbert House brought £250 including the furniture and shootings. Robert McLaren was the senior partner of Robert McLaren & Co, ironfounders, Glasgow. A full range of staff was employed, including a butler and a chauffeur. In 1907 the Falkirk Archaeological and Natural History Society paid Robert McLaren a visit and in the dining room was shown a portrait of Nelson receiving colours after the Battle of the Nile, which was painted by order of George III, and presented by Nelson to Lady Hamilton, at the sale of whose effects it was purchased by Mr McLaren’s grandfather. Many of the tenants indulged in shooting and a pheasantry was established just to the west of the garden terraces.
Coal was still being worked to the south-west at Letham and it was known that there were reserves of coal to the north-west. However, the Hill of Airth had been worked out and the old coal workings had filled with water which was now used to supply not just the estate but also the village, though the water pressure was quite low.
Airth Castle was a distinctive feature in the landscape and by 1900 there was a football team in the villages called Airth Castle Rangers. Not surprisingly there was also one called Airth Castle Thistle, and later still the Airth Castle Rovers. There was also an Airth Castle Cricket Club.
An unexpected and exciting event occurred in September 1913 when a biplane landed in the parks at Airth. It was flown by Captain McLean who was en route from Irvine delivering the government biplane No. 272. The flight to Airth had taken one hour and ten minutes. He stayed in Airth Castle as the guest of Robert McLaren before flying on the next day. Large crowds were attracted to the field where the plane had landed and the machine had to be guarded against souvenir hunters. Unfortunately this was a prelude to the First World War. Just as memorable for the staff was the last annual staff dance at the Castle before the war. Over 50 guests were served with supper at midnight after an evening of songs and recitations with Mr Campbell, the chauffeur as MC. At the end of the occasion Mr Lancaster, the butler, thanked the McLarens.
The McLarens moved to Blair Castle near Culross. Then the castle lay empty again and was advertised;
“AIRTH CASTLE – To let by the year or on lease, with entry at Whitsunday next, Airth Castle (furnished) and shootings, extending to fully 1100 acres. The Castle contains 5 public rooms, billiard room, 13 bed and dressing rooms, 2 bathrooms, and ample servants’ accommodation. There are also a garage, 7-stalled stable, coach-house, & c. and gamekeeper’s, gardener’s and chauffeur’s houses. Large walled garden, tennis, & c. There is an excellent water supply.”(Scotsman 22 January 1916, 3).
From 1917 until 1923 George S Orr, chairman of Abbots Foundry, rented Airth Castle. The next time that it was advertised it was noted that the Castle was lit by acetylene gas. One of the last tenants was Francis David Robertson Wyllie in 1930. A few years later the castle and estate were sold to AFC Forrester, a director of Robert Forrester and Co Ltd who operated collieries in the Bathgate area. The Trustees of late Colonel Thomas P Graham of Airth Castle cleared out most of the furniture, even selling 24 unused rolls of Chinese wallpaper, finely painted in colours with birds amidst flowering plants, at Christie’s in London for £357. Rather surprisingly they left Judge Graham’s library and the new owner eventually donated it to the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh. Many of the famous paintings of the Graham family ended up in the collections of the National National Trust for Scotland and are on display in Charlotte Square and Gladstone’s Land in Edinburgh, whilst some are in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
AFC Forrester and his wife, Sybil, now became the lairds of Airth and acted in a paternalistic manner to the village. He became a county councillor and promoted the growth of the housing as well as the public amenities. In July 1938 the grounds of Airth Castle were opened in aid of the Queen’s Nurses and this continued for several years. They were also the scenes of fundraising events in the Second World War, such as the Wings for Victory garden fete in June 1943 when over 600 people turned out in the good weather. The Forresters were particularly active on the home front. The Airth Home Guard unit was officially known as number 13 Platoon of D Company in the 3rd Stirlingshire Battalion and Captain AFC Forrester was the commanding officer until June 1944. They got the run of Airth estate where they kept their equipment (probably in the stables). By 1944 they were responsible for the protection of Kincardine Bridge and used to form up at the castle just before dusk before marching to the pillboxes there. Mrs Forrester was particularly busy. Before the war she had opened many fetes and bazaars and this activity increased. She was the convener of several work parties mostly associated with the Red Cross, Assistant County Organiser for the Women’s Voluntary Service, and the Airth & District Savings Group. Many of their meetings were held at the castle.
After a long occupancy, the Forresters sold Airth Castle in 1971 and it was opened as a hotel which has grown over the years. In 1984 the derelict stables and coachhouse were renovated to provide extra accommodation and in the early 1990s a large extension was added to its east, designed by GCA Architects to form a new courtyard. A conference centre facility was then added to the north with a large glass atrium enclosing the grand staircase to the banqueting hall. A health centre/gymnasium thrusts out to the west to complete the complex. At the beginning of the new millennium the mature trees along Black Avenue were cut down and a housing estate built in the fields to either side. The headless Cross was provided with a new setting in a cobbled court. High Airth had returned in a new guise.
The adaptability and longevity of some of the structures on the Airth Castle estate is incredible and best exemplified by the entrance gateway. It had been constructed at the top of the West Entry in the 1720s, and just a couple of decades later it was to be found at the bottom of that avenue. In the 1820s it was moved to the end of the East Avenue to front the new turnpike road. In 1995 it was widened and repositioned to allow coaches to pass through on their way to the hotel – and after 300 years it still stands guard.
Sites and Monuments Records:
|Airth Castle||SMR 11||NS 9000 8683|
|Airth Castle Gateway||SMR 183||NS 9020 8694|
|Airth Castle Ice-House||SMR 57||NS 8982 8731|
|Airth Castle Stable Block||SMR 10|
|Airth Castle Sundial||SMR 172||NS 9000 8681|
|Airth Castle Walled Garden||SMR 734||NS 895 869|
|Airth Doocot||SMR 3||NS 8986 8744|
|Airth Old Parish Church||SMR 154||NS 9003 8685|
|Airth Old Parish Churchyard||SMR 722||NS 900 869|
|Headless Cross, Airth||SMR 182||NS 8991 8705|
|Graham Family Tomb, Airth||SMR 1108||NS 8969 8774|
|Airth Mill||SMR 890||NS 9025 8676|
|Abbeytown Bridge||SMR 731||NS 8964 8653|
|Armstrong, W. Bruce||1892||The Bruces of Airth and their Cadets.|
|Bailey, G.B.||1992||‘The Incident at Larbert Bridge and the Siege of Callendar House, 1651.’ Calatria 3, 9-28.|
|Bailey, G.B.||1996||Falkirk or Paradise! The Battle of Falkirk Muir, 17 January 1746.|
|Bailey, G.B.||1999||‘The Graveyards of Falkirk District: Part 5 – Airth Old Parish Churchyard,’ Calatria13, 1-46.|
|Fleming, J.S.||1902||Ancient Castles and Mansions of the Stirling Nobility.|
|Gillespie, R.||1879||Round About Falkirk|
|Neale, J.P.||1826||The Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen, in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Volume 3.|
|RCAHMS||1963||Stirlingshire: An inventory of the ancient monuments|
|Reid, J.||1999||‘The Lands and Baronies of the Parish of Airth,’ Calatria 13, 47-80|
|Reid, J.||2009||The Place Names of Falkirk and East Stirlingshire.|
|The Graham Family papers are in the National Library of Scotland.|
|Thanks to A. Ronald for the Latin translation.|
Extract from “The Wallace” by Blind Harry.
“Wallace him bown'd, when he thought time should be,
Off St. Johnstone, and with him took fifty.
To Stirling Bridge, as then he could not pass,
For strong power of English men thar was.
To Airth Ferry they passed privily,
And busked them in a dern stead thereby.
A cruel captain in Airth dwelt there,
In England born, had heght "Thomlyn of Ware";
An hundred men were at his leading still,
To bruik that land they had both power and will.
A Scots fisher, which they had ta'en before
Contrare his will, gart he be to them sworn;
In their service they held him, day and night.
Before the sun Wallace gart Jop him dight,
And sent him forth the passage for to spy.
On that fisher he happen'd suddenly -
All him along, bot a boy that was there.
Jop speired him soon, "Of what nation art thou?"
"A Scot", he said, "but Southron gart me vow
In their service, agaisnt my will full sore.
Bot for my life that I remained there,
For to seek fish I came to the north side.
Be you a Scot? I would fain with you abide".
Then Jop him brought in presence to Wallace;
The Scots were blyth when they have seen his case,
For with his boat they might well passage have.
To the south land with full glad hearts they sought,
Syne brake the boat when they had landed there,
Service of it Sotheran might get no more.
Syne thro' the moss they passed with full good speed
To the Torwood, this man with them they lead.
The widow there brought tidings to Wallace
Of his true eme, that dwelt at Dunipace;
Thomlyn of Ware in person had him set
For more treasure than he before could get.
Wallace said, "Dame, he shall well loosed be
By morn at noon, or more therefore shall dee".
She got them meat, and quiet they bade
While it was night, syne ready soon they made.
Toward Airth-hold right suddenly they drew.
A strength there was - that well the fisher knew -
Of drawdykes, and full of water wan.
Wisely thereof has warned them this man.
On the back side he led them privilie
From the water as wont to come was he.
Over a small bridge good Wallace entered in,
Into the hall himself thought to begin;
From the supper as they were bown to rise
He salust them, upon an awful wise!
With shearing swaords sharply about them dang
Fiel on the floor were felled, thaim amang.
With Thomlyn of Ware, Wallace himself hath met,
Through head and swyze allthrough the cost him clave.
The worthy Scot fast sticket all the lave,
Keepit the doors, and dolefully them dight,
To scape away the Sotheran had no might.
Some windows sought, for to have broken out,
But all for nought, fell fey was made that rout.
About the fire buschet the blood so red,
An hundred men were slain unto that sted.
When Wallace sought where his uncle should be,
In a dark cave he was set dolefully,
Where water stood, and he in irons stang.
Wallace full soon he up the braces dang
Off that mirk hole, brought him with strength, and list
Bot noise he heard, of nothing else he wist.
So blyth before in world he had not been
As then, with sight when he had Wallace seen.
In the dyke out the dead bodies they caest,
Graithed the place, as that them liked best,
Made good cheer, and wise watches set
While near the day they sleep withouten let.
When they had light, spulzied the place in hy,
Fand gaining gear, and gold and jewelry.
Over all that day in quiet held them still,
What Sotherans came received with good will;
Women and bairns put in the prison cave,
So they might make to warning to the lave.
Steven of Ireland, and Kerlie, that were wight,
Keepit the post upon the second night.
Before the sun the worthy Scots they rose,
Tursed good gear, and to the Torwood goes,
Remained there whilst night was come on hand,
Syne bowned them in quiet thro' the land.
The widow soon, frae they had passed doubt,
A servant sent, and let the women out,
To pass from Airth were that them liked best -
Now speak I o' them that went into the west.”
G.B. Bailey (2020)