The origin of the twin villages of Larbert and Stenhousemuir lies somewhere in those dark ages when the nation of Scotland was beginning to emerge from the amalgam of Pict and Scot, Angle and Briton. We know that the crossing point of the Carron River was important to the Romans and that the road they constructed from Watling Lodge on the Antonine Wall at Camelon crossed the river by a bridge located somewhere near the present Larbert Old Parish Church. Traces of this road were still identifiable in the Torwood as late as the 18th century and the high and dry land above the road and river crossing probably housed a settlement of some kind from the earliest days.
At some stage a Christian community was established in the area with a chapel which like its counterpart in Falkirk was handed over by the Bishop of St Andrews to the Augustinian Canons as a gift in the year 1160. This time it was the priests of Cambuskenneth rather than Holyrood who received the ‘chapels of Donypas and Lethbert’, a present they retained for almost four hundred years! Incredible as it seems, this ancient linkage between Larbert and Dunipace survived until 1962 despite the strains of both Reformation and industrial revolution which elsewhere tore apart the religious and social fabric of the nation. And despite the mutual suspicion and open hostility between the two ‘united parishes’ which surfaced from time to time over the centuries!
Of the chapel itself we know only that around 1450 a new plain building appeared on the site of the present Kirkyard and that either before or in the immediate aftermath of the Reformation it fell into disrepair. Beyond that we have little information about the Larbert area before the 16th century but we can be sure that the turbulent relations between powerful feudal families which were the norm throughout lowland Scotland did not pass by the Larbert area.
The Foresters of Garden who from the 1400s were the keepers of the valuable and strategically important royal forest of Torwood, the Bruces of Airth Castle, later also Stenhouse and Kinnaird, and the neighbouring Livingstons of Callendar shared the territory between them, at times in harmonious alliance and at others through bitter feud and conflict with much blood shed on both sides.
On the slopes of the ancient wood stand the remains of Torwood Castle, the last surviving symbol of Forester power. It was built in 1566 for Sir Alexander Forester and its size and construction confirm the status of its lord and the dangerous times in which he and his family lived. The building was acquired in the 1950s by Mr Gordon Millar who spent the last forty years of his life working mostly on his own to recover and then restore the stonework of the castle.
He was his own architect and mason, labourer and joiner and under his patient hand the building has been saved from the fate which has befallen many such ruins. If some parts of the restoration seem a little unusual that is a small price to pay for the love and protection poured out on this one place by a most remarkable man. A newly formed Trust is helping to ensure that the castle survives in the future.
One historic building which did not survive is Stenhouse, the early 17th century home of the Bruces which was a splendid Scottish baronial building. It survived until the 1960s before being demolished despite being a listed building. It stood to the north of Carron Company who were its last owners in the vacinity of the present Lodge Drive, just yards from the site of the Roman monument, Arthur’s O’on, demolished by Bruce of Stenhouse in 1743. The Bruce family also owned Kinnaird House and the present building is the third to stand on the same site – it was two of the Kinnaird Bruces who figured most prominently in the subsequent story of Larbert and Stenhousemuir.
Robert Bruce of Kinnaird was both lawyer and churchman who had succeeded to the pulpit of John Knox himself in St Giles by 1590. At first his relations with King James VI were very close and some observers regarded him as the most powerful man in the Kingdom. Later, on a point of principle, these two determined and dogmatic men disagreed so profoundly that Bruce found himself in exile abroad and then, after some years, confined to a three-mile area around his Kinnaird home. From this base he continued to defend what he saw as the fundamentals of the protestant reformation and hundreds of people flocked to the parish to hear him preach. He restored the broken down church at Larbert and until his death in 1631 continued to attract the attention of Scotland to the little country parish.
Robert Bruce and the inscription on his grave stone in Larbert Old Parish Church
A century later it was Robert’s descendant James Bruce of Kinnaird who attained international fame as the great ‘Abyssinian Traveller’. James was an intrepid adventurer who crossed the swamps, forests and deserts of Africa in the process discovering the source of the Blue Nile. His own account of these travels was thought by some to be so incredible that he was accused of fabricating the whole amazing tale. But enough people were convinced and Bruce became a living legend enjoying the favour of both royalty and Government alike. Standing over six feet, four inches tall and with a mastery of thirteen languages, it is not surprising that he impressed all the people he met – in 1773 Dr Johnson’s friend Fanny Burney said that “Mr Bruce’s grand air, gigantic height and forbidding brow awed everyone into silence – he is the tallest man you ever saw …… gratis?.”
Even today when men walk on the moon or sail singlehandedly across the world’s oceans, Bruce’s two-hundred year old account remains an enthralling read. But despite the survival instinct which protected him in various foreign scrapes, he died at Kinnaird falling down the stone steps while helping a lady to her carriage! Like Robert Bruce he is buried in Larbert Old Kirkyard and the handsome cast-iron memorial he erected for his wife remains to remind the present generation of his own great prowess.
It was during James Bruce’s time at Kinnaird that the greatest change in Larbert’s status came about. The arrival of Carron Ironworks in 1759 had an enormous impact on the whole of the Falkirk district but it was Larbert parish which bore the immediate brunt of the great enterprise and was inevitably changed beyond recognition. The centre of gravity of the parish moved eastwards and Stenhousemuir began to grow in size and importance. Workers flocked. to the village and to the neighbouring settlement of Quarrol, later Carronshore, and the social tensions began to show. In 1762 just three years after the arrival of the company the Kirk Session of Larbert recorded that there was “a report going round of Robert Tumbull, Innkeeper at Quaroleshore, his endeavouring to seduce some young girls into the Company of some Rude people belonging to the Carron Company.”
As the years passed more and more of the offenders called to answer for their misdemeaners were described as hands or wrights or even sailors working for the Company. But these minor moral lapses were as nothing compared to the widespread poverty and suffering which followed the rapid expansion of iron founding and coal mining in the area. At Quarrol and Kinnaird for example, the Dundas and Bruce lairds took advantage of Carron’s high demands to secure their fortunes at the expense of the wretched colliers tied to their backbreaking labours.
It was a problem that neither church nor state seemed willing or able to tackle – in Larbert as in every other part of Scotland as industrialisation increased the profits of the few, their great wealth stood in sharp contrast with the misery of those who laboured at their pits and furnaces. Instead the money went to build or improve fine mansions for both entrepreneurs and ancient local families and, in 1820, to a fine new church at Larbert, designed by David Hamilton of Falkirk Steeple fame, which has continued to grace the parish for the best part of two centuries. As with Carron Company, the establishment of the great Falkirk Trysts at Stenhousemuir in 1785 increased further the dislocation which such enormous events must have had on a small parish and the additional work and money which they brought into the area.
The early history of education in Larbert mirrors the experience of most rural parishes in the days following the Reformation. At some stage the national church’s demand that a school be provided in every parish was answered in Larbert by the establishment of classes for children in the church building itself. Later there was an inadequate schoolhouse built on the site of the present church halls and the Kirk Session records, which survive from 1690, report early difficulties with the heritors in providing enough money for both school and master. There was trouble too with the teachers and at least two were dismissed for immorality or being “slothful, negligent and drunk to the detriment of the children’s learning.”
By the middle of the 18th century the parochial school, legally maintained by the heritors, had moved to Stenhousemuir, while the Kirk Session supported the second school in Larbert village. The money for this came from funds gathered at the church door on Sundays or from the fines levied on Larbert offenders whose regular appearances for fornication, Sabbath breaking and drunkenness ensured no shortage of cash for a worthy cause! by the 1790s there were additional schools at Kinnaird colliery and Carronshore and nearly 200 children in a rapidly expanding parish of four thousand people were attending for at least part of the week.
Half a century later the numbers were more than doubled but the Minister of the parish was less than happy about the support given by some of the parents who withdrew their children at an early age because “colliers, moulders and others are enabled to turn their children’s labour to profitable account at the age of twelve years.” It was just one more facet of the new industrial world into which the people of Larbert and Stenhousemuir were catapulted from the beginning of the 19th century. Developments mirrored those taking place elsewhere in Falkirk district with agricultural reform followed by improvements in communications.
The arrival of the Caledonian railway in the 1840s and the villages’ subsequent importance as a junction provided the impetus for a wide range of new industries which appeared as the century progressed. In the late 1830s one Thomas Jones had established a timber business in Camelon where he eventually became ‘mine host’ at the Union Inn. His son James worked for at time in Fairbairn’s nail-works and in 1864 established his own nail-making business at Port Downie extending it to include the production of other ironware. A few years later his brother-in-law Peter Forbes a partner in the business joined with Major Robert Dobbie and others to create Dobbie, Forbes and Company with premises in Larbert and three years later in 1875 James Jones opened a sawmill on a site next door to the new foundry. Under the careful hand of the ‘grand old man’, the firm expanded to become one of Scotland’s leading timber merchants with over forty different premises across the country. Everything from simple window frames by the tens of thousands to the timbers of Captain Scott’s Discovery came from the Jones yard and a century and a half later the company continues to thrive.
James Jones had not completely severed his connection with the iron industry and in 1888 he formed a partnership with Dermont Campbell, the Dobbie Forbes cashier, in a foundry that still bears their names today. By then of course iron mania had swept through the whole of the Falkirk district so that by the 1890s there were twenty-five foundries with nearly nine thousand men. The village’s first venture already mentioned was the Larbert Iron and Stove Works of Dobbie-Forbes which was by then employing over 200 hands. The firm are probably best remembered in the village for the handsome public hall which Major Robert Dobbie of Beechmount presented to the people in 1900 possibly as a memorial to those lost in the wars in South Africa. The company became part of the Allied group, later Glynwed, in 1929 and, like Jones and Campbell, remains in operation today. Other celebrated enterprises followed. In order to supplement the earnings of her husband Andrew, an aerated water and confectionery salesman, a Mrs McCowan began to sell toffee from the window of her house in Stenhousemuir. It was soon more popular than the lemonade and the family took to working full-time in the sweetie business. Together Andrew and his son Robert turned Highland Cream Toffee and the famous cow into a huge national institution and established a factory in the Tryst Road. It continues today, still very much part of the fabric of village life.
As late as 1927 when other ironfounders in the district were preparing to band together for survival, Robert Taylor started Muirhall Foundry, a completely new venture in the village. Judicious management and regular modernisation ensured survival and expansion for many years against the tide which swept all but a few from the scene by the middle of the century. Indeed Larbert was singularly successful in remaining in the iron industry with all three companies still operating at a time when the town of Falkirk, once the major centre, has none. However more recent years have brought the same fate to all three of the Larbert foundries and nothing now remains except a few buildings waiting it seems for the bulldozers and housebuilders.
Another development which in its own particular way put Larbert on the national map was the Scottish National Institution for the Education of Imbecile Children established at a cost of £13,000 in the 1860s on more land bought from the Stenhouse estate. At around the same time on a nearby site the £20,000 Stirling District Lunatic Asylum opened its doors and for more than a century the two provided through changing times for those unfortunate enough to suffer from mental handicap or illness. These were enormous undertakings with huge numbers of patients living in great Victorian baronial style buildings as was the fashion of the times. The word Royal was added during the first world war and the RSNH was born. ‘Larbert Asylum’ became Bellsdyke Hospital as a new age wrestled with the difficulties of providing adequate care and security without creating a world of isolation and despair cut off from and misunderstood by the community beyond the high walls. The modern world continues to search for a solution and, at the time of writing, the ‘care in the community’ initiative has brought about a significant reduction in the number of patients in both hospitals. Buildings are being demolished or sold and a modern industrial ‘park’ has appeared on the Bellsdyke Road. The RSNH site to the west of the main Falkirk-Stirling Road is to house the new Forth Valley Hospital due to open in 2009.
Back in Victorian Larbert the new captains of industry like Dobbie and Jones built superb villas in the village which like Polmont was distinguished by an array of fine mansions and estates. Unlike Polmont many of them have survived to serve the community in different capacities and Kinnaird, rebuilt for the third time in the 1890s, Torwoodhall, Beechmount, Carronvale and Carrongrange among others remain as a small reminder to today’s villagers of the splendour of their local heritage as well as the sweat and struggle of the working men whose hard labour paid for most of the grandeur.
Ian Scott (2005)