Originally the tolbooth in Scottish burghs was simply a booth or office where tolls and market dues were paid to the burgh authority but in most instances they evolved into the town-house as the centre of local administration and justice. Often they were significant edifices and a focus of civic pride and identity. As well as performing their primary function of collecting tolls and housing meetings of burghal and, as in Falkirk, baronial courts, they usually held the burgh’s weights and measures while some included cells used to hold prisoners.
The earliest mention of a Tolbooth in Falkirk comes from 1638 in a record of the baron court which begins, “Court of the Burgh of Barony of Falkirk and regalite thairof Haldin within the Tolbuith thairof“. James Love believed that the town’s first Tolbooth dated from the sixteenth century. The evidence of one being in existence in the early seventeenth century would tend to confirm that. A charter of 1663 indicates that around that time the earlier Tolbooth was replaced by a new one.
The 1697 Steeple (drawn by John Reid)
It is unknown whether or not the earliest of these had a steeple attached but, certainly, the subsequent one had as it was replaced in 1697 when it was then described as being ‘ruinous’. The replacement was built by a local mason, William Stevenson. It stood for just over a hundred years when it too was demolished. Apparently, it had developed a list towards the east and hung fifteen inches (38 cm) over its base and had a severe crack or cracks. Due to a prolonged court case Falkirk was without a steeple from 1803 until 1814, when the present one was completed.
It was designed by David Hamilton, a leading architect of the time, and erected by local builder Henry Taylor. It stands 140 feet high and contains two jail cells as well as two other rooms. The money to build it was raised by public subscription at the instigation of the Stentmasters of the town; The total cost was £1,460 of which only £450 was subscribed by 333 community minded bairns! The rest was added to the town’s growing debt.
The former existence of the Tolbooth is encapsulated in the name of Tolbooth Street which runs along the north side of the Steeple.
John Reid (2005)