Gartcows lies about a half a mile south-west from the centre of the town of Falkirk.  The good quality of its soils on a gently rolling hillside made it ideal for providing agricultural produce to the townsfolk.  The lower fields were cultivated in the 18th and 19th centuries with oats, wheat and potatoes being grown in rotation.  The upper fields were used to graze milk cows from an early date and the grounds were carefully enclosed to secure the beasts and to provide timber.

The name of Gartcows is found as early as 1640 (Reid 2009).  The first element is the same as garth meaning an enclosure and the second may be “coll” or hazels – that is to say enclosure surrounded by trees.  This would certainly suit what we know about its later history – it is said that the enclosures here secured the left flank of the Hanoverian army as the manoeuvring began for the Battle of Falkirk on 17 January 1746.  The northern part, lying nearest the town is shown as enclosed by trees and hedges on Roy’s map of 1755.

Gartcows lay in the Barony of Callendar and was part of the sixteen shilling eight penny land of the town and lands of Falkirk feued out in the early 17th century.  The owners were thus feuars of the town and amongst their right was that of “the liberty of casting feal and divot upon the common muirs of Falkirk according to use and wont…”  On the west and north it bounded with the Lands of Easter Bantaskine, and on the south by the common muir.  To the east was a parcel of land belonging to Park Hall, though this land changed hands frequently.  In the 1630s Gartcows belonged to James Leishman and after his death was bought by John Freeland around 1640.  Over the years it was sub-feued, which causes much confusion in the records as each portion might pass under the name of Gartcows.  It is said that the first ever meeting of the Falkirk Horticultural Society took place at Gartcows in 1733 when it was possessed by “the yet famous Captain Johnstone.”

Gartcows was also known by the name of Kirkcows – and again confusion is caused by the transference and poor use of either name.  By the end of the 18th century there were two main holdings – that to the south seems to have passed by the name of Kirkcows, Upper Gartcows or South Gartcows – it was in the hands of John Kincaid as heir to his brother James.  That to the north, known simply as Gartcows, was owned by George Thomson.  It was up for sale in 1767:

These TWO PARKS or INCLOSURES of the lands of GARTCOWS, lying near the town of Falkirk, with the houses, barn, stable, and a large garden, belonging to George Thomson merchant in Falkirk.  The yearly rent of which is 27l.6s. sterling…

NOTE. There are some hundred trees planted round the two inclosures, which are now about twenty years old, and all thriving”

(Caledonian Mercury 27 May 1767, 4).

Gartcows was bought in August 1772 by William Gibb.  William Gibb (1736-1791) was one of the first of a new breed of civil engineering contractors that the age brought up.  He had been born at Bo’ness, the son of William Gib, maltman in that town, and his wife Janet Ker.  His father died when he was just six years old and soon afterwards the family settled in Falkirk where he was subsequently apprenticed to a stone-mason.  In the 1760s  and 1770s William Gibb, along with a joiner called John Moir, a relative of his wife’s, constructed such features as the Kirkintilloch Aqueduct on the Forth and Clyde Canal, and Carron Bridge next to the ironworks.  Moir appears to have lived just to the north of Gartcows adjacent to Jenny Moir’s Burn – named after a member of the family.  William Gibb owned a brewery in the new village of Laurieston and in 1781 put it up for sale.  Not finding a buyer he leased it to John Livingstone and established a malthouse and distillery at Gartcows, but it was a financial disaster.  In 1785 the dwellinghouse had to be sold along with the malthouse and distillery in order to pay his creditors and he was left with very little to show for all his work up to that time.  Gibb, now 50 years of age, had the courage to make a fresh beginning at his old occupation of builder, as in September of that year he carried out some repairs for the Stintmasters of Falkirk on the Steeple.  John Moir stood by him and together they built the Kelvin Aqueduct on the Forth and Clyde Canal.  The foundation stone was laid on 15 June 1787, but it was only completed in 1791 – over budget and behind schedule.  The contract involved Gibb and Moir in a loss of £2,600, but William Gibb died suddenly of a seizure, in Glasgow, on 10 January 1791.

His Trustees were Thomas Smith, James Kincaid and John Glen who had already proceeded with the sale of Gartcows in 1785, starting with the distillery:


TO be SOLD by public roup, at Gartcows, by Falkirk, upon Friday the 15th day of April 1785,

The whole DISTILLERY UTENSILS, belonging to William Gibb at Gartcows; among which are a singling Still, containing upwards of 700 gallons, or working content; a doubling still, upwards of 200 gallons, with worms in proportion; and a very large copper Boiler; all of which are almost new , having been little used; and the other utensils are in the most complete and substantial condition – At same time will be sold, the whole LABOURING UTENSILS, Horses, Cows, and Victuals at Gartcows, belonging to the said William Gib.

The roup to begin at ten o’clock forenoon, and continue till all be sold off.

The Trustees for the Creditors of the said William Gib request those Creditors who have not yet signed the deed of accession, as formerly advertised, to do the same as soon as possible, and which lies in the hands of James Henderson writer in Falkirk for that purpose; and to lodge with him exact notes of their claims against Mr Gib, and how constitute.”

(Caledonian Mercury 4 April 1785, 3).

 “The Lands of GARTCOWS, with the Houses and Pertinents, lying in the parish of Falkirk and shire of Stirling.  These lands consist of about fifteen Scots acres, and are most delightfully situated upon the south side and within five minutes walk of the town of Falkirk.  The grounds are completely inclosed, and divided into four parks, and well sheltered with rows of trees, which are very thriving and valuable, and the grounds are in excellent heart and condition.  There is a very neat and commodious dwelling house upon the lands, with garden and suitable offices, as also a large malt barn and still house, lately built in a very substantial manner, and well calculated for carrying on an extensive malt and distillery business, being at all times plentifully supplied with water.

(Caledonian Mercury 1 June 1785, 4).

The house and fields adjacent were bought by Thomas Graham, those to the west by William Wyse, though Graham soon acquired these as well.

South-east of Kincaid’s holding there was one other that had been part of Gartcows.  It had belonged to Thomas Neilson, smith in Falkirk.  On his death it fell to his daughters, Margaret and Helen, and they sold it to Thomas Smith, bricklayer.  He repeated Gibb’s mistake of building a dwellinghouse, brewhouse, malt kiln, barn and other offices and operating it as a distillery.

Thomas Graham died and his brother sold Gartcows House in 1786:

All and Whole the Lands of GARTCOWS, with the pertinents, as last possessed by Mr Graham.  These lands contain about 15 Scots acres, are pleasantly situated upon the south side, and about a quarter of a mile distant from the town of Falkirk, are completely inclosed, and subdivided with stone dykes and thriving hedges, with rows of ash and other valuable trees.  Upon the premises there is a neat finished dwelling-house covered with blue slate, containing a kitchen and four fire rooms, besides closets, a barn, stable, and out house, with a pump-well and other conveniences…. If the lands are not sold, they will be let in lease for such a number of years as may be agreed upon.” 

(Caledonian Mercury 29 March 1786, 4).
Illus 2 : The 18th century Gartcows House looking south.

The house may well have been built by William Gibb and was indeed substantial.  Its thick walls were harled and whitewashed.  It appears that occasionally the building was referred to as Kirktown or Kirkton – having once been Kirkhows.  All that remains today of the stone structures from the 18th century is the very tall boundary wall fronting Major’s Loan.  At the north end of the surviving wall is a vertical join with setback margins, typical of a doorway of the early-mid century and presumably part of a lodge at the original gateway.

Illus 3: The Boundary Wall on Majors Loan with the remains of the 18th century Lodge.

The new owner was John Heugh.  He is believed to have been born in Slamannan and in his youth he sailed for Calcutta as supercargo, but the ship was wrecked in the Indian Ocean and all on board narrowly escaped with their lives.  On reaching Calcutta he struck out for himself as best he could, and amassed a considerable sum of money.  With a view to further increasing his wealth, he removed to Burma and acted as commissary to the British troops then stationed there.  Leaving Burma, he settled in the Cape of Good Hope, following the same line of business.  

Illus 4: John Heugh snr.

By 1771 he was back in Scotland and settled at Garbet near Castlecary.  At Gartcows he carried on farming with great activity, afterwards acquiring additional lands to the south-east of his property.  He took an active part in the affairs of the Heritors and in the maintenance of the roads around the district.  He also faithfully discharged the duties of a Justice of the Peace in the local Courts.   John Heugh was one of the fortunate founding partners of the Falkirk Bank Company, established in 1787, which existed till the year 1826, when its affairs were wound up, each £100 share yielding £1,500 to the partners in return (Love 1908).

In 1809 John Heugh agreed with William Forbes of Callendar to make a road through part of his farm lands, put up gates at the entries thereto, blast stones, take out useless fences and so on.  The purpose of the new road was to provide better access to those parts of the common muir subsumed by Forbes and to make it easier to bring stone from the quarry to the town.  This became Drossie Road.

By 1812 James Kincaid’s health was failing and South Gartcows was put up for sale:

“ALL and WHOLE the LANDS of GARTCOW, with the Houses and Buildings erected thereon, and thriving Orchard, as the same are at present possessed by James Kincaid, the proprietor, and his cottars, with the privileges and pertinent thereof, lying n the parish of Falkirk, and county of Stirling.  The lands extend to about 14 acres Scots measure, and are inclosed and subdivided.  They are in good heart and condition, and pleasantly situated on the south side of the town of Falkirk, and within five minutes walk of the town…”

(Caledonian Mercury 16 January 1812, 4).

Before long the industrial potential: was emphasised:

“There is excellent clay in the lands for making brick, and a brick-work might be carried on for many years, without injuring the property.  The land also affords a good situation for a distillery.  There is plenty of water, which can be carried over the works, and, as the roads are good, and the property lies within less than a mile of the Great Canal, the expence of carriages  would be comparatively small…”

(24 February 1812, 4).

James died and, after a delay, his brother George continued the sale:

“To be Sold “ALL and WHOLE the LANDS of GARTCOWS, with the Houses and Buildings, and a new set of Offices, covered with slate, erected thereon, and thriving Orchard, as the same are at present possessed by George Kincaid, the proprietor, and his cottars, with the whole privileges and pertinent thereof, lying in the parish of Falkirk and county of Stirling.  The lands extend to 14 acres Scots measure and are well inclosed and subdivided.  They are in good heart and condition, and pleasantly situated in the south side if the town of Falkirk and within five minutes walk of the town.

Apply to John Heugh, Esq, of Gartcows, or to James Aitken, writer in Falkirk.”

(Caledonian Mercury 29 June 1816, 1).
Illus 5: Extract from the Ordnance Survey Map of 1862 showing Gartcows.

John Heugh acquired this and Smith’s small portion of land to reconstitute the estate of Gartcows.  In 1820 he was one of the jurors in the trial of John Baird, one of the Radicals who had been captured at the Battle of Bonnymuir.  He died at Gartcows in August 1822, and exactly two years later Mrs Heugh accidentally met her death by drowning at Rothesay.  Their son, John Heugh (jnr) died at Gartcows on 20 March 1825.

Illus 6: James Aitken.

In the early 1830s Gartcows was bought by James Aitken of the Falkirk Brewery.  He had inherited the brewery from his father, John, in 1821 at the age of 20. 

In 1829 he was chosen to represent the brewers on the Stentmasters, and in 1830 he was elected preses of that body, holding office for two years.  On the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832, Falkirk was made a Parliamentary. Burgh, and received a municipal constitution with a Council of twelve, including a provost, three bailies, and a treasurer.  At the first election James Aitken was elected as a Bailie, and on 4th November 1836, he became the provost of the burgh, being the second who held that office.  Owing to   pressure of business, Provost Aitken retired from the Council in 1839.  In 1834 he was admitted as a member of the Highland Agricultural Society of Scotland, and about ten years later he took an active part in raising funds for the erection of the Grammar School in Park Street.

In 1845 a valuation of the estate gave the value of the various constituent parts:

Crooked Acre Park£12. 3.9
Mid Park, or Crawford’s Park14. 7.2
House Park21.13.1
Malt Barn Park 9.19.1
Cottage Park38. -.-
Curling Pond Park6. 9.7
Weavers Park7.12.8
Major’s Loan West Park9.10.7
Major’s Loan East Park18.11.4
Mutton House Park21. 7.8
Barn Park5.10.9
Farm House, Stables &c. at Upper Gartcows10. -.-
Mansion House, Garden, Orchard and Offices &c.20. -.-
Malt Barn5. -.-
Cottages, say7.10.-
(Falkirk Archives a1808/135).

Part of this was to be sold off:

TO BE FEUED, THE TOP PART of the TWO FIELDS at Gartcows, on the Road to South Bantaskine, in Lots to suit bidders.  Apply to JAMES AITKEN, Brewer, at the brewery, Falkirk.”

(FH 12 March 1846, 3).

James Aitken died at his residence, Gartcows, on 6th June, 1851.

In April 1834 Provost Aitken had married Mary, youngest daughter of John Heugh of Gartcows.  Their eldest son, John, inherited the estate. By his excellent management Falkirk Brewery gained a large export market and grew considerably.  Although he took no part in public affairs, he was deeply interested in the welfare of his native town.  Mrs Aitken of Gartcows often showed flowers at the horticultural show.  By this time Alexander Rennie was farming South Gartcows and gained a good reputation for buying and selling milk cows.  In 1859 John’s brother, Lauchlan Aitken, brewer, gave up the lease of Rosehill Farm and moved to Gartcows.  He seems to have been given the running of the estate and in March 1862, with great public spirit, he agreed with John Russel of Mayfield and Provost Kier to grant the lease of 6 acres of relatively level land to the south-east of Gartcows House for use as a public park for recreation and games. 

Illus 7: Advert from the Falkirk Herald 8 May 1862.

The Falkirk Herald reported that “It will suit admirably for cricket, quoiting, pedestrianism, & c., and will form serviceable drill ground for the volunteers.”  (FH 13 March 1862, 2).  It was the first public park in the town and was extremely well used.  The Falkirk Cricket Club was established on the back of its availability and helped to improve the turf.  Lauchlan died the month after agreeing to the lease.  Efforts were then made by the community’s leaders to raise a subscription to buy the ground outright.  They failed and after two seasons, the lease having terminated, it was ploughed up.

The public funds were urgently required to improve the sanitation of the area and in 1870 the burn was culverted from Gartcows northwards.  Aitken refused to contribute financially towards this and other localised municipal improvements.  He was preses of the stentmasters and evidently knew how to conserve funds for his own purposes

One of those purposes was upgrading the house at Gartcows.  In 1860 the Ordnance Surveyors had described it as “A neat cottage with offices attached, all slated and in good repair.”  South Gartcows, also in Aitken’s possession was only “A small farmsteading, all one storey, slate and in good repair.”   Around 1870, John Aitken had a large new house built a little to the east of the old mansion.  The architect was Mr McFadzen, a Falkirk bairn who had worked in the famous firm of Peddie & Kinnear in Edinburgh, and also erected villas on Arnothill.  At the east end of the new building, facing Falkirk, was a three-storey tower with a tall mansard roof.  The entrance gateway off Major’s Loan seems to have been moved northwards at this time, partly to increase the length of the drive and to make it more impressive.  A new lodge was built.

Illus 8: Gartcows House looking north.

Rankine, who owned the neighbouring land at Woodlands to the east, had already started to feu the area to the south of the town in small plots, though sales were rather slow.  In 1877, John Aitken decided to feu a portion of the lands of Gartcows near the railway station for the erection of houses or tenements of a superior class.  There were very few takers.  The richer land to the west of Gartcows House was then offered and a beautiful feuing plan shows a very modern approach to the layout of the proposed streets.  There were still no sales.  It was decided to create a new road southwards from the west end of the High Street to open up the area – the only other approach at this point having been down the Howgate.  Buildings on the south side of the High Street were bought in order to be demolished for the purpose, but it was to be another fifty years before the plans came to fruition.  One of the main problems with building on the Gartcows estate was the lack of provision for drainage, water supply and sewage.  By 1890 the stench from the streams passing Gartcows was so bad that the Town Council had to cover them in, despite the opposition of John Aitken.  The 55 acres at Gartcows were not selling.  Incorporation into the burgh would help because drainage, sewage, lighting and roads could be provided.  At that date only about one fifth (ie 4.5 acres) of the area of Woodlands being offered for feu had been taken up.  

In 1859 John Aitken had been one of the initiators of the rifle volunteers in Falkirk.  His near neighbour Alexander Nimmo of Westbank achieved the rank of colonel; Aitken was busy with the brewery and was content with the rank of sergeant.  Despite losing the public park, he still allowed the volunteers to parade in his grounds and fire off the odd volley as late as 1891.  That same year he added a stable to his house.

He had married the eldest daughter of John Gair of Kilns, the Procurator Fiscal, by whom he had a son and five daughters.  John Aitken died on 14th April, 1898 and his son, James Heugh Aitken, took possession of Gartcows.  He continued to allow the volunteers to drill at Gartcows Park.  However, he took a different approach to his father in relation to the Town Council.  In co-operation with them he arranged for mains water and an adequate installation of sewers.  Suddenly the area became viable and feus were quickly sold.  Majors Loan was soon occupied and in 1900 Rennie Street was formed to open up that area.  In 1903 Heugh Street was created, then Majors Place, and in 1905 Albert Road.

Illus 9: 1890s Ordnance Survey Map.

James H Aitken of Gartcows had moved from being a landed gentleman with a brewery to being a rich businessman.  Perhaps to redress the balance he now had a personal coat-of-arms which Fairburn describes as – a cross crosslet fitchée, In cruce salus.

The Aitkens continued the tradition of public service which the owners of the small estates near to the town practised.  During the Boer War Mrs Aitken sent tobacco to the troops from Falkirk who were serving in South Africa.  During the First World War, in 1917, three quarters of an acre of the estate was granted for use as allotments.  The grounds around the house began to be opened up for events.  September 1918 saw a Grand Sunday Afternoon Concert by the Falkirk Trades Band in Gartcows.  In August 1919 a similar event brought the Camelon Pipe Band and, on a separate Sunday, the Falkirk Trades Band returned, as indeed they did in 1920.  The Burgh Band also performed there in 1920.  Mrs Aitken’s rose garden was part of the attraction.

Illus 10: The ivy clad Tower facing Falkirk.

Things were moving fast and in late March 1923 it was publicly announced that the policies of Gartcows House, extending to eleven acres, along with the mansion and offices, had been acquired as a site for the new Infirmary. In some ways it was an anticlimax as on the ground nothing seemed to happen for some time. Two months later, in May 1923 the 52nd show of the Eastern District of Stirlingshire Agricultural Association was held in the policy grounds. It was due be held in May the following year but had to be abandoned due to extreme weather – things were normal. The show was at Gartcows in 1925 and 1926. However, under the surface there was a flurry of activity. The acquisition of the site acted as a great fillip to local groups to raise funds for the new hospital buildings and Mrs Aitken was to the fore in these activities. The Band of the 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers played at Gartcows in 1926 to help with the campaign and in September that year tenders were invited for various ground works in connection with the new infirmary. The first sod was cut in a ceremony by the Duchess of Montrose in October 1926. Mrs Aitken moved to Bridge of Earn.

The priorities in the construction of the hospital were the wards and medical facilities.  A nursing home would follow once further funds had been raised.  Meantime, as a temporary measure, alterations were made to Gartcows House in 1930 to accommodate part of the nursing staff and additions were made to the lodge.  The nurses moved in that Christmas and approved of the new premises which were much better than the wooden hut available at Thornhill.  The hospital was a huge undertaking and the large amount of money required took time to accumulate.  Things came to a head in early 1933 when dry rot was discovered in a section of Gartcows House and it had to be sealed off.  Some nursing staff were accommodated in a recently completed ward.

Illus 11: The official opening of Falkirk & District Royal Infirmary on 18 January 1932. Gartcows House can be seen towards the top on the far left.


Fairburn’s Book of Crests of the Families of Great Britain…
Love, J1908Local Antiquarian Notes and Queries
Reid, J.2009The Place Names of Falkirk and East Stirlingshire.

Geoff B. Bailey (2020)