Callendar House was the seat of power in the Falkirk area for almost a thousand years. The original structure occupied a prominent position at ‘Palace Hill’, just behind the Antonine Wall at the east end of what is now Callendar Park. It was a huge wooden hall, some 80ft long by 30ft wide, with a central line of massive posts supporting a thatched roof. Part of the floor was paved and a central hearth provided warmth and status to those allowed to sit by it. The structure was dated by radiocarbon methods to c981AD. This surely was the great feasting hall of the Thane of Callendar!
In the 14th century the site of the old hall was abandoned, probably shortly after the Livingston family took the barony, and a new structure was built to the south-west to reflect the latest in technology and style. This was a stone tower house with walls 8ft thick using lime mortar made from the oyster shells dug out of the nearby Neolithic shell middens. It was a modest building, with only a single room on each floor. On the ground floor was the store, lighted only by narrow arrow slots. It was separated from the floor above by a vault, so that apart from a small trap door there was no connection between the two. The main entrance was on the first floor, reached by an external wooden stair. The baron’s room was on the second floor, with an aumbry for his valuables. The garret would have held part of the garrison, for this was a castle with an outer defensive wall surrounded by a moat. A strong tower protected the entrance to the enclosure, which would have contained stables, stores, kitchens, workshops, barracks, and so on. Over the following centuries the castle was slowly extended, though the walls were somewhat thinner than the original. In the 16th century the entrance was placed at ground floor level and gave access to a platt and scale stair rather than a narrow turnpike stair as previously used. Gun loops and pistol holes were incorporated into the building.
It was hardly a grandiose building when Mary, Queen of Scots, visited in the 1560s and reputedly stayed in the Lord’s old bed chamber on the second floor of the old tower. In the following century the castle was held for the King against Cromwell and was simply bypassed as being too much unnecessary trouble. The garrison under Lt. Galbraith then sent raiding parties to harass the Parliamentary forces and finally Cromwell had to lay siege to it. On 15 July 1651 it was stormed and 62 defenders were killed. Cromwell slept in the ruins that night and the castle was then slighted to prevent its reuse.
It was 1660 before the Earl of Callendar was able to return to commence the process of rebuilding. Rather than demolish the tower he restored it because it was part of his family heritage. The area around it was now cleared and a new mansion in the revived Continental Classical style extended east from the tower. At the time this house was said to have had more glass in its facade than any building in Scotland. The central section was of fine ashlar masonry with a chamfered plinth course, moulded stringcourses and a parapetted wall head. The doors and windows had fine moulded surrounds. The two wings were harled and whitewashed with plain windows to provide contrast.
In 1783 Callendar House was bought by William Forbes and he added a two-storey wing with octagonal turrets to either end. As soon as these were completed he gutted the old building and refitted it, adding two dominating octagonal stair towers to the front facade. The building now presented a true Scottish Baronial style. This, however, was out of favour in the following century and his son and grandson reworked the exterior. First a ceremonial entrance hall was added with a grand staircase, and then circular towers and bartizans broke up the vertical relief. The roof too was given a more interesting shape by using mansard profiles, dormer windows and wrought ironwork. Finally two massive bay windows were inserted into the south front along with a stone balcony and stair. This work, by architects Wardrope and Brown, produced a French Chateau. And so it remains apart from minor changes. The building was purchased by Falkirk Burgh council in 1962 from the Forbes family and lay empty for over twenty years before the 1980s restoration scheme which brought it back to something approaching its glory days.
Callendar House from the north and the south around 1860
The early 1920s. Morning Room, Library and Drawing Room
The evolution of the house from the tower to the present structure is shown on the following drawings:
late 17th Century
Internally the building is now the headquarters of Falkirk Community Trust, but there are many late 18th century and early 19th century features still to be seen – most notably the kitchen. The tower house can also be found, if you know where to look!
In the grounds to the south east is the large classical style Mausoleum of the Forbes family which dates from 1816.
Geoff Bailey (2006)