The original settlement of Airth lay to the north of the castle on top of the Hill of Airth. In 1128 the church and church lands were given by King David I to the Augustinian Canons of Holyrood Abbey and it appears that the village was raised to the status of a Royal Burgh around the end of the 12th century though this seems to have lapsed some time thereafter. Descriptions of the mediaeval settlement suggest that it consisted of the castle, church and one long and several short streets in a grid pattern. At this time the resident family appear to have been the original ‘de Erths’ who in 1240 are said to have held lands in Elphinstone and Plean as well as Airth.
However Airth is most often associated with the Bruce family who make their first appearance in 1452 when Alexander Bruce of Stenhouse feued some land from Holyrood. Thirty years later the castle was badly damaged following the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488 and was replaced by the present structure by Alexander’s grandson, Robert Bruce of Airth. During the reign of James IV (1488-1513) the pow of Airth which had long been an important harbour was chosen as the site of the royal dockyards in which the great wooden ships of the Scottish navy were refitted using large quantities of oak carted down from the Royal forest of Torwood. These included the Margaret and the James and possibly also the most famous Great Michael.
The extraction of coal and making of salt as well as agriculture and fisheries brought a measure of prosperity to the village and in 1597 it was made a burgh of barony. The mercat cross described as ‘the heidless croce’ which stood until recently in ‘high’ Airth probably dates from this time. Twenty years later financial difficulties meant that the castle and lands were sold by the Bruces to the Livingstons and then in 1632 to the Mentieth family. A year later Willam Graham of Mentieth was created Earl of Airth, a title which survived only until 1694 by which time the estates had long since returned to Bruce hands. A judicious marriage by Alexander Bruce allowed him to acquire the estate which his father had been forced to sell. In 1717, two years after the failed Jacobite rising, Alexander’s daughter having backed the wrong side was forced to sell again and the Bruce estates passed into the hands of James Graham, Judge-Admiral of Scotland with whose family they remained for over two centuries.
The earliest surviving part of the present Airth Castle, the south-west tower, dates from the late 15th century. However there were probably at least two previous buildings. During the Wars of Independence, if we are to believe Blind Harry, William Wallace attacked the castle of Airth and rescued his uncle, the priest of Dunipace. Following the Bruce takeover of the estates in the mid 15th century the castle seems to have been rebuilt only to be destroyed thirty years later following Sauchieburn in 1488. The tower was extended eastwards in the mid 1500s and in 1581 a new east wing made it L shaped. It remained like this until the early 19th century when the architect David Hamilton created a new block by filling in the angle of the L with a mock gothic castellated structure which is the familiar face of the present hotel.
The ruined parish church of Airth close to the castle has elements which date to the 12th century but the bulk of the surviving and rapidly decaying structure is much later. There are three aisles, Airth (c1480), Elphinstone (1593) and Bruce (1614) and a square tower which was built in the mid 17th century as part of a reconstruction of the nave etc. At one time the tower had a slated pyramid shaped roof. There are several interesting grave inscriptions inside the church and many grave markers in the extensive graveyard. These include three cast iron mortsafes dating from the body snatching days and inscribed “AIRTH 1831”, “AIRTH 1832” and “AIRTH 1837”.
Towards the end of the 17th century the population began the move from the village on the hill to the lower ground next to the harbour. At that period the harbour was much closer to the foot of the hill than now appears following the extensive land reclamation of the 18th and 19th centuries. A new mercat cross dated 1697 was placed in what was now the high street of the burgh and with a thriving trade especially in coal, the port flourished. There are many fine houses in the village from the 18th century though a number have been lost in more recent times by poor stewardship of these precious assets. The driving through of the turnpike road from Falkirk to Stirling in the early 19th century destroyed the layout of the town, by-passing as it did the High Street and ignoring the established street pattern. A new church was built to the design of William Stirling in 1820 and the original church was abandoned to the elements. The 20th century saw a decline in employment in basic industries like agriculture and coal mining and more of the population now travel to work each day in Stirling, Grangemouth and Falkirk.
In recent years the land on which the original burgh of Airth stood on the top of the hill has been developed for housing with a large number of high quality and very expensive houses commanding fine views across the river Forth.
Ian Scott (2005)
For further information see: Airth Parishes pages in this website.
also in Calatria number 13 (Spring 1999):
John Reid Lands and Baronies of Airth pages 47-80
Geoff Bailey Graveyards of Falkirk District Part 5: Airth pages 1-46