The Falkirk Area stands at the very centre of Scotland and this position, more than anything else, has ensured that it is also at the heart of Scotland’s story. Across the district from Carriden in the east to Castlecary in the west the Roman army constructed the massive Antonine Wall in the second century AD. Fifteen miles of this archaeological treasure, almost half of the wall, lie within the Falkirk Council area along with the remains of Roman forts, fortlets and roads.
This too is the place of battles where invading armies bent on capturing the castle at Stirling faced Scots in arms for Wallace in 1298 or Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746. The ports of Airth where James IV repaired his great wooden ships in the 15th century and Bo’ness, Scotland’s third biggest port in the 17th, linked the district to the wider world and brought prosperity to merchants and landowners alike. Medieval barons built strong castles here to defend their territories against outsiders as well as from each other, and Airth, Torwood, Blackness, Almond and Castlecary remain as reminders of those turbulent days. Great families – Bruce and Forrester, Livingston and Hamilton – ruled the roost and played their part in the intrigue and lawlessness that was rife in the Scotland of the period. Mary Queen of Scots came often to visit her friends in Callendar House, the Bonnie Prince stayed the night there and, between times, Cromwells army broke down the walls and butchered the occupants in 1651. But it was not all so grim! Everywhere in the area there is evidence of a thousand years of Christianity with handsome churches beautifying every corner of the towns and villages.
The arrival of the Carron Ironworks in 1759 set of a train of events that would see the Falkirk area turn from the agriculture of the fertile carselands to the crucible of the Scottish industrial revolution. Iron foundries sprang up in every part of the district and the population increased dramatically as the 19th century progressed. The villages of the Braes expanded as the hungry furnaces demanded more and more coal and the construction of the ‘Great Canal’ from Forth to Clyde from the 1770s helped stimulate an explosion in manufacturing. The town of Grangemouth was born and the villages of Camelon, Bainsford, Grahamston and Bonnybridge expanded from tiny settlements into important centres. The River Carron which had driven corn mills for a thousand years now powered the hammers of the iron works, fed the paper mills at Denny and carried finished products and raw materials to and from the River Forth and the sea. But, as if to prove that agriculture and the land remained important, the great cattle trysts located by turns at Redding, Roughcastle and Stenhousemuir, expanded throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries to become the greatest sales of their kind in Europe, pouring tens of thousands of pounds into the local economy already benefiting from the new industry.
All over the area this new prosperity brought fine municipal and commercial buildings to town and village as ironmasters, coal owners, timber merchants, firebrick manufacturers, paper makers and the manufacturers of chemicals spent their fortunes within the communities whose labour supported them. Life for the working population was often grim, backbreaking and ill-rewarded and the gulf between the haves and have-nots continued to grow through the 19th and 20th centuries.
Over the last fifty years or so economic growth slowed down and the decline in heavy industry brought the end for mine, foundry and mill. New industries like the massive petro-chemical complex at Grangemouth helped ease the pain of change and now in the new century, service sector jobs and heritage related industry offer some hope for the future. The restored waterway, with the Forth and Clyde and Union Canals now linked by the fabulous Falkirk Wheel, is at the heart of this new opportunity. Hopefully it will lead to more initiatives based on the history and heritage of the area.
One thing is certain; if history and heritage are indeed one of the keys to success then the whole Falkirk area, with so much to offer, will have as promising a future as it has had a past.
Ian Scott (2005)