When the great land holdings of Abbotskerse were broken up after the Reformation the area we know today as Polmont, Brightons, Redding and much of the Braes area came into the hands of the Earls, later the Dukes of Hamilton. Indeed the present Duke and his predecessors have Lord Polmont as a subsidiary title. The pasturage and mineral wealth of the area was exploited in the Hamilton interest for nearly two centuries before the local residents were strong and numerous enough to persuade the church authorities to separate them from Falkirk in 1724 and create a new parish of Polmont. At the time, and for decades thereafter, the village was little more than a collection of cottages on the southern slope of the escarpment which sweeps down to the carselands of the River Forth. Here a new church was built and probably a school of some kind, close by the mills and smiddy which served the farmers of the parish.
The original Church The present ruin
During the 19th century, long before the bridges at Queensferry and Kincardine spanned the Forth, all traffic from east to west and north passed along a road just to the south of Polmont village. The Laird of Whyteside who was the feudal superior of the land agreed to allow building to take place along the line of the road provided the new settlement was called ‘Bennetstown’ – the family name! It soon became the commercial heart of the village with small workshops, houses, schools, stores and inns.
Brightons Main Street around 1900
A mile to the south, the settlement of Brightons had grown up around a famous sandstone quarry which was in operation as early as the 17th century. From here stone was carried by the Union canal to help build Edinburgh’s new town in the 1830s and Falkirk’s fine new public buildings twenty years later. The canal encouraged the development of industry and this was given further impetus by the arrival of the Edinburgh to Glasgow railway in 1842. The halt near Brightons was given the name Polmont Station and slowly but surely the original village, by then known as Old Polmont, Bennetstown, Brightons and Polmont Station began to merge into one coherent settlement.
The wealth generated by industrial success brought to Polmont the usual crop of fine mansion houses and elegant estates. There was Millfield built by John Millar, secretary of the North British Railway Company and later the home of the Stein family whose fortune came from the manufacture of refractory bricks for the expanding iron industry of the Falkirk district. And there were Polmont Park and Polmont House, mansions dating back to the late 18th century, and Polmont Bank which served as a nursing home and a hotel. All four were demolished to make way for the post-war housing and commercial developments which have so changed the character of the old village. Others like Parkhill the home of the Gray-Buchanan family survived though today, converted in to flats.
The growth of the village was such that by 1844 the original church was too small, “damp, ill-arranged and most inadequate” according to the Minister, and the present twin-spired building was erected in its place. The old church, now a picturesque ruin covered in ivy, stands in the kirkyard.
What provision was made for education in the early years of the new parish of Polmont is uncertain but by 1789 a building was provided by the heritors along with a new master, Thomas Girdwood, who remained in post for well over half a century and served as clerk to the heritors for an incredible sixty-two years! Towards the end of his time, in the 1850s, a new school was erected at a cost of ?365 but by that time there were several other establishments offering education of one kind or another. The community centre on the main street was originally a school for ladies, financed by the proprietors of Polmont Park, and there were other girls’ schools at Ivybank, and in the Back Row where Miss McPherson taught sewing!
Perhaps the most famous educational establishment in the parish was Blairlodge Academy opened in 1843 by Robert Cunningham, a Church of Scotland minister, who also played a significant part in the Free Church breakaway in Polmont in the same year. The new school was for boy boarders and flourished under an innovative and dynamic headmaster J Cooke-Gray who took over in 1874. Modelled on the English public school system it attracted the sons of some of Scotland’s wealthiest families, and inevitably, cricket and rugby were the principal sporting activities of the three hundred pupils. But there was an admirable practical strain to the curriculum and an emphasis on science which was unusual for the period. At the turn of the century Blairlodge was the largest school of its kind in Scotland and was the first to use electric lighting on such a large scale – it had nearly nine hundred bulbs at the same time as the people of Falkirk were being shown electric light as a novelty in a church bazaar! The pupils who left Blairlodge entered the privileged world of the Colonial Service, Oxford or Cambridge or into the upper echelons of the commercial world. After the death of Cooke-Gray in 1902 the school experienced financial difficulties and when it was forced to close in 1908 by an outbreak of an infectious disease, possibly measles, it never reopened. The buildings were purchased by the Prison Commissioners in 1911 and shortly afterwards opened as Scotland’s first Borstal. It is now of course Polmont Young Offenders Institution.
Polmont today is a dormitory village with many new houses standing in what were once the grounds of the lost mansions. The people travel to the petrochemical complex at Grangemouth or commute daily to Glasgow and Edinburgh to work, and village life and community spirit is much more difficult to generate and sustain.
Ian Scott (2005)