Larbert House

Today Larbert House is well known as it stands within the grounds of the Forth Valley Hospital, which are much frequented by walkers.  The Georgian house forms a prominent feature on a small hill overlooking Larbert Loch with Larbert Parish Church in the background 700m to the south-east.

Larbert estate was a relatively late formation.  Alexander Chalmers bought half of the Lands of Larbert from Lady Dunipace in 1745 and purchased the other half of the estate from William Mackie in 1751.  Roy’s map shows a road running diagonally across the lands from south-west to north-east, and this must have been closed off shortly thereafter.  It also shows Newlands on the site of Larbert House.  This is the first appearance of that name and it is unusual in that it occupies good arable land, whereas normally such a place name would refer to improved land.  We can conclude that the house was established at this time to form the centre of the new estate.  It was only in 1832 that Househill to the west was acquired by a later owner.

Illus 2: Roy’s Map showing Newlands to the north-west of Larbert village.

Alexander Chalmers was succeeded in 1760 by his son, Robert, who was an accountant in the Excise Office. In April 1782 he disposed of his lands to William Ferguson of Raith, Fife. He only retained the estate for a few years, as he sold it to Thomas Milles Riddell, younger of Ardnamurchan, in February 1789. He soon changed its name to Mount Riddell. The new house occupied the summit of a small hill and faced south-east towards Larbert Parish Cross. Its architecture reflected the new spirit of the late eighteenth century in Scotland. Stylistically it was up to date and its two broad bowed bays are reminiscent of the work of Robert Adam in 1789 on the private façade at Rosebank near Cambuslang in Lanarkshire. It consisted of a tall two storey main block with a low pitched piended roof. The south-east façade was dominated by the bows and by the quality of the masonry. This is droved and striped ashlar on finely finished faces. The horizontal texture is emphasised by a broad string course and a deep eaves course. The bandcourse separating the two storeys is provided with fluting and the occasional circlet, whilst the wallhead cornice is deeply moulded. To the south of the main block, slightly set back, was a tall single storey wing bearing the same bandcourse and cornice which continue around the re-entrant. The position of the main door at this period is uncertain. It may have been in the centre of the main façade or more probably in the southern façade, thus accounting for the unusual height of that wing.

Illus 3: Reconstruction of Larbert House c1790.

The list of subscribers for clothing for the British army in Flanders published in February 1794 shows Thomas’ father, Sir James Riddell, and his mother in law, Mrs Campbell, living at Mount Riddell:

By the Family at Mount Riddell

Sir James Riddell, Bart.      L2.2.0

Lady Riddell                      2.2.0

Mrs Campbell of Balimore  1.1.0

Thomas Milles Riddell, Esq 2.2.0

Master Ja. M.M. Riddell     1.6.0

Mr Donald McDonald        0.5.0

Servants                              0.3.0               

(Caledonian Mercury 20 February 1794, 4)

Perhaps it was the presence of the extended family that caused the mansion to be extended within a decade or so of its construction.  Pavilions were added to the south and north, the latter via a recessed link bay.  The two-storey pavilions were lower in height than the main block and continued the earlier theme, each having a shallow bowed bay and a heavy cornice.  The masonry is similar, but the string course is plain.  The rusticated quoins framing the pavilions emphasise their ends.  The northern link bay was of two storeys and did not have any string course.  The result was an almost symmetrical and very grand south-east façade.

Illus 4: Larbert House c1800.

Thomas’s son, James Milles Riddell, inherited the estate in 1798 aged just eleven, and almost immediately also inherited his grandfather’s baronetcy.  His brother, Campbell Drummond Riddell had been born at the Mount Riddell just two years earlier.  Before long it was decided to let the house:

“FURNISHED HOUSE, &c IN STIRLINGSHIRE, To LET for three years from Martinmas last, and entered to immediately, THE MANSION HOUSE of MOUNT RIDDELL, with the offices, garden, and farm, lying in the parish of Larbert, and county of Stirling, near to the great road leading from Edinburgh to Stirling, about four miles west from Falkirk, and eight miles east from Stirling.  The house contains an elegant dining-room and drawing-room, with a good kitchen, and many excellent bed chambers, and every other thing necessary for the accommodation of a large family.  The house and offices are in good repair and the whole are completely furnished.  There is also a pigeon house, and a capital garden, which is well stocked with fruit trees of the best quality, and which are in full bearing.

The farm contains from 70 to 80 acres Scots measure, and the whole are divided into inclosures of a proper size.  Part of the ground is at present under crop, which, with the stocking in the farm, and many other articles, the tenant may have an opportunity of purchasing at a fair and reasonable price.

The premises will be shewn by Thomas Crookshanks, ploughman at Mount Riddell; and any person wishing to know further particulars, may apply to Messrs F. Walker and F. Brodie, No 15 George Street, Edinburgh.”

(Caledonian Mercury 22 March 1804, 4).
Illus 5: Grassom’s Map of 1817 showing Mount Riddle.

The family continued to live there.  On 17 November 1808 Miss Mary Milles Riddell, second daughter of the late Thomas Milles Riddell, died at Mount Riddell aged 18 years.  In 1812 Campbell Riddell was living there when he applied for a game license.  Like many sons of landed families Campbell Riddell entered into the service of the Commonwealth and became a Colonial Treasurer in New South Wales, Australia.  James lived at the family’s estate of Strontian in Argyllshire before moving to Edinburgh.  Mount Riddell was therefore put up for sale:

 “ESTATE OF MOUNT RIDDELL, IN STIRLINGSHIRE, FOR SALE.  To be SOLD by Private Bargain, THE LANDS and ESTATE OF MOUNT RIDDELL, lying within the parish of Larbert, and county of Stirling.

The estate consists of 304 acres, Scotch measure, or thereby, all arable, and in good order, and divided into inclosures of from two to fourteen acres.

This property, which is situated in a beautiful and populous part of the county, is distant from Stirling about nine miles, twenty-seven from Edinburgh, twenty-one from Glasgow, and three from Falkirk.  The mail coach and other public conveyances pass daily; and from the town of Falkirk there is a post twice a day.

The house is large and elegant; the offices commodious; the garden in excellent order, and the plantations thriving.  The public burdens, including minister’s stipend, are very moderate.

Upon application at the Mansion House, directions will be given for shewing the lands.

The title-deeds and plan of the estate are in the hands of Henry Jardine and Francis Wilson, writers to the signet…”  .

(Caledonian Mercury 15 May 1817, 4)

By 1819 Mount Riddell was in the possession of Sir Gilbert Stirling, who in 1822 commissioned David Hamilton the famous Glasgow architect to remodel the house, which was now known by the name of Larbert House.  The main alteration was to the south façade.  The south pavilion was extended westward by one bay in polished ashlar and given a bowed end in the same style as that on the east.  The east end of the existing south wall was re-clad in polished ashlar to form a similar bay and the cladding was wrapped around the south-east corner to form a pilaster, masking the previous rusticated quoins.  Each of these two bays had two ground floor windows with consoled cornices, and plain windows above.  This left a slightly recessed central section into which was slotted a porte cochere with paired fluted Doric columns and a coffered ceiling.  A further range of rooms was added to the west side of the earlier buildings.

Illus 6: Larbert House c1905.

Sir Gilbert Stirling had amassed a fortune and had invested well in the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Garnkirk and Glasgow Railway.  He had enough money to make major changes to the setting of the house.  Larbert House Pond was created by placing a small embankment across the shallow valley to the east of the house.  When flooded this artificial loch covered 5.9 acres and was provided with a small central island and a boathouse in a spur at the south-west corner (later moved to the north-west corner).  It was soon well-stocked with fish.  At the foot of the bank to the loch was a small track which led from the fields to the stable block with a new facade, also said to have been designed by David Hamilton.  The track and its users were effectively hidden from the house by the embankment and so it must have been decided to continue this concealment as the track crossed the main drive.  This was achieved by making a deep cutting across the drive and retaining its sides with stone walls of random rubble.  Two single brick arched bridges were placed over the cutting, separated by a gap of around 15ft where the retaining walls were of ashlar.  To the west was a ramp up to the stables.  This curious device was subsequently infilled and forgotten about, only to be rediscovered in 2016 when it became known as the “tunnel.”

Illus 7: 1897 Ordnance Survey Map of Larbert House.

Illus 8: The Stable Block in 2007 prior to renovation.

The large stables complex consisted of a quadrangular range of buildings which included stables, coach houses and offices. It measures approximately 32m by 33m with an internal courtyard 18.2m by 20.3m.  The main façade is two-storeyed and faces north in the general direction of the house.  This façade is symmetrically disposed around a central pedimented arched vehicular entrance. The masonry is droved ashlar with plain backset margins to the voids and a broad eaves band surmounted by a moulded cornice.  The central bays have low-arched ground floor windows and square upper. The two end bays are slightly advanced and here the lower windows have consoled square hood mouldings.  The rear ranges are depicted on Grassom’s map of 1817.

To the west of the stables was a walled garden covering over 3 acres and inclining to the south-west.  Initially there was a small range of glasshouses inside the centre of the north wall, but by the end of the century this had been extended to cover the entire wall.  Visitors to the estate in 1845 saw that:

The collection of flowers is good, and contains several fine plants.  There is a pretty phlox omniflora, but we cannot particularise.  The dahlias are capitally grown, and many of them, for size and colour, superb.  But it is the more tangible part of the produce that pleased us.  The melon pit, 24 by 9 feet, and heated by a flue, is kept with great care and promises an abundant reward.  The too-much-neglected process of rearing potatoes from the seed is here prosecuted with every prospect of success, and from the light gravelly soil we should expect potatoes free from the disease so extensively complained of lately.  Some potatoes, planted at regular distances of a yard, are also expected to realise superior produce.  The walls are spread with well-trained apple, pear, peach, and cherry trees.  A fine fig tree, twelve feet high, is in full and luxuriant bearing.  The British Queen strawberry and Kean’s seedling we never saw in more profuse bearing; some of the former bore double.  A fine tree of the morilla cherry deserves mention, from its large, rich-flavoured fruit.  Under glass there is upwards of eighty feet in length, containing a peach house and two vineries.  The vines grown are, the black Hamburgh, Hampton Court, black Damascus, and St Peter’s.  They are warmed by hot water and the back wall was perhaps most thickly covered with fruit.  The vegetables are immense – one Drumhead cabbage, with outer leaves, measured fourteen feet in circumference.”

(Stirling Observer 4 September 1845, 1)
Illus 9: Inside the Walled Garden looking north to the wide range of glasshouses, c1930.

Illus 10: Ha-ha Wall with a crossing point over the ditch.

Immediately to the north of the walled garden was a ridge, aligned roughly west/east. This was planted with trees and became known as the Lady’s Wood. At its northern foot a long sinuous ha-ha was constructed to keep beasts grazing the open parkland beyond out of the wood. The ha-ha wall is on the south side, hidden from the house by a bank of earth on the north side of the ditch. Set just back from the wall was a path for the occupants of the house to promenade along and this may account for the name. Periodically there are walled paths crossing the ha-ha returning to the house.

Illus 11: The Ice-House looking south.

In the small area of north-facing woodland c20 m NNW of the house an ice-house was constructed. The brick chamber is egg-shaped with a loading hatch at the apex and is buried under a mound of earth which projects from the natural hill slope.  The facade is of plain stone rubble construction topped by round capping stones.  Two buttress walls project forward at right angles to the main face.

Sir Gilbert Stirling did not marry and on his death at Larbert House on 13 February 1843, his large personal fortune was left to the heirs of his cousin, Sarah Mary Emily Robertson.  She was married to Major Francis Day Chalmer of the 7th Dragoon Guards.  Their eldest son, Gilbert Stirling Chalmer, born that year, on 18 January 1843, inherited the estate of Larbert when he came of age.   Meanwhile Major Chalmer acted as the head of the household and the estate.  His young wife, Sarah, died at Larbert House on 23 April 1850, having borne him several more children.

Illus 12: Curling on Larbert Pond, c1900.  Note the open parkland between it and the house.

Sir Gilbert Stirling had an interest in curling and acquired a painting by George Harvey called “The Curlers” in 1835.  As Harvey was from St Ninians it may have been a local scene.  Sir Gilbert’s large pond was ideal for this purpose.  Being shallow and exposed it readily froze.  It may have been due to his influence that the Larbert Curling Club was established but the first record of a match at Larbert House is in 1844 when the clubs from Larbert, Airth and Bruce Castle met there for five hours. 

In 1847 the Larbert Curling Club played Camelon Curling Club on Larbert Loch for four hours.  That year they also played the Falkirk Curling Club on Callendar Loch.  Larbert and Camelon were the opposing teams again in 1849 when they competed for a silver medal given by the Royal Caledonian Club at the beautiful pond at Larbert House.  Major Chalmer was not a curler himself, but he readily gave permission for the activity and with his family often spectated.

Inevitably there were abuses of the privilege of accessing the pond and unauthorised players turned up or individuals tried fishing there.  In 1867 the following notice was issued:

“NOTICE – ANY PERSON or PERSONS found TRESPASSING on the GROUNDS or POND belonging to LARBERT HOUSE without leave will be Prosecuted.  Permission will be granted to Members of Curling Clubs on application, which may be made to Mr JOHN FORREST, Larbert, Secretary to Larbert Curling Club.  NO BOYS, on any pretence whatever, will be allowed either on the Grounds or Pond, which is reserved for the especial purposes of Curling.

(Signed)  F.D. CHALMER.

Larbert House, 2d Jan., 1867.”

(FH 10 January 1867, 1)

Major Chalmer was the patron of the Larbert Curling Club and by 1861 the young laird, Gilbert Stirling Chalmer, was the president.  Gilbert presented it with a silver tankard to play for.  Major Chalmer also took a keen interest in the local community and often granted permission for youth movements and church organisations to visit the grounds of Larbert House.  In 1850, for example, the Falkirk Juvenile teetotallers walked there from the town.  He contributed liberally to new facilities such as the Larbert Village School and was also a Justice of the Peace for the county.  Every January from 1857 onwards he arranged for a supper and ball to be held in Larbert House for the tenantry and trades people connected with it.  It was catered for by the house staff and Mr Rintoul, the butler, supervised it.

There was great rejoicing at Larbert in January 1864 when Gilbert Stirling Chalmer came of age and joined the 9th Lancers.  His brother, George, who had been born at Larbert House on 16 August 1846, had joined the Gordon Highlanders and eventually gained the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.  After his death in 1895 a memorial cross was erected in his honour at Stonehaven.  Their father, Major Chalmer, developed heart problems and moved to his family home near Cheltenham in 1867 for the better climate.  He died there on 19 February 1868 aged 71.  Another military man, Captain Robert Leslie, stayed in Larbert House for a short period.

Captain Gilbert Stirling Chalmer was, in 1869, in the 1st Regiment of Horse Guards, when he petitioned for authority to acquire the whole trust estate in fee simple.  He then sold the estate, in May 1876, to John Hendrie, of Calder Park, coalmaster in Glasgow.  Sir Gilbert Stirling had been an art collector and, as well as “the Curlers”, 50 other pictures that had hung on the walls of Larbert House until this point were sold off in December 1877.  They included works of: Backhuysen, Baronet Gael, Gryeff, Hackert, Klemp, Moucheron, Roestraten, Roos, Schoevardts, Tempesta, Van Bergen, Van Bloemen, Van Goyen, Van der Neer, Vollaerdt, Wyck and Wyntranck.  Gilbert Stirling Chalmer attained the rank of major in the Royal Horse Guards and settled in his residences in the south of England, particularly that at Sysonby Lodge near Melton Mowbray, where he died in 1915.

John Hendrie continued the philanthropic character of Major Chalmer.  In 1878 he had erected, at his own charge, a clubhouse designed by Robert Baldie of Glasgow for the Larbert Bowling Club.  Visits to the ground also continued.  In August that year members of the Sons of Iron Juvenile Lodge of the International Organisation of Good Templers marched to Larbert House where the Hendries gave them buns and milk.  John Hendrie was a successful breeder of Clydesdale horses at premises leased at Kirkwood and Bankhead near Coatbridge and often appeared at agricultural shows.  In 1879 the lease expired and he sold most of his stock, moving the remainder to Larbert.   However, his business was in financial difficulties and his creditors looked at Larbert House.  In October 1879 the household furniture at Larbert House was sold.  The House itself was bought in 1883 by John Hart Noble Graham, merchant in Glasgow.

John Graham became the chief partner of one of the oldest firms of East India and foreign merchants in Glasgow called Messrs William Graham & Co.  Educated at Glasgow University, one of his fellow students and friends was Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman.  A liberal in politics and nature he continued to promote the public wellbeing.  He served on the Parochial Board and later the Parish Council, Larbert School Board, the County Council and the Eastern District Committee of Stirlingshire.  He was a Justice of the Peace and spent a lot of time on court.  In 1912 he provided Larbert with two bowling greens and a croquet lawn, the latter specifically for the women.  He was active in the local Nursing Association, as well as being a director of the Scottish National Institution for the Education of Imbecile Children, and a member of the Stirling District Lunacy Board.  For twelve years until 1915 he was chairman of the Stirlingshire Liberal Association.  In 1906 he received a baronetcy in recognition of this public work. 

John Graham’s family also took to public causes.  His daughter, Winifred, established and promoted the Band of Hope in Larbert.  Along with other groups it was given the privilege of using the grounds of Larbert House for annual meetings.  The annual gatherings of Larbert House servants and friends also continued each January, now with Alexander McRae as butler.

A conservatory had been placed on the west end of the south wing of Larbert House and was used for growing flowers.  The walled garden remained highly productive.  Strawberries were the specialty of the house and in 1901 H. Low, the foreman gardener there, patented a strawberry support for keeping the fruit up off the ground and free from earth, worms and snails.  It consisted of standards and slings but, although marketed never found favour.

In 1913 sixty members of the Stirling and District Horticultural Association were shown around: 

the party first visited the glass ranges, which were much admired.  Foliage and flowering plants in great abundance and beautiful cultural examples were noted.  On entering the fruit range, which is continuous, the party entered a fig house.  The fig trees, the company were told by Mr Henderson, were planted three years ago.  Notwithstanding the short period the trees have been under cultivation, they were laden with fruits.  Peaches were everywhere, from ripe luscious fruits down to the size of hazel nuts.  As the season has not been at all favourable for the setting of early fruits, such as peaches and early melons, it is remarkable that such successful results have been achieved.  The vineries were much admired, the heavy crops of grapes, the vigour and cleanness of bunches and foliage, bearing testimony of high cultivation.  After inspecting the garden and grounds the party were entertained to a nice tea, kindly provided by Lady Graham in front of the mansion house.  They afterwards visited the model dairy, the structural beauty and convenience of working of which was much admired…” .

(Falkirk Herald 21 June 1913, 6)

Illus 13: Falkirk Herald Notice, 18 December 1889.

The dairy was just to the north of the washing green, north of the House.  It supplied milk to the nearby village.  In the 1880s there was a series of cases of cattle disease on the farm which led to restrictions on movement being imposed in 1889.  To the north of the dairy were the kennels.  The fox hunt often met at the house.

Illus 14: Larbert House c1905 with the new Conservatory. The stair window can be seen just above it.

Alterations continued to be made to Larbert House.  The architectural firm chosen for these works was Thomson and Menzies of Glasgow.  An extra storey was added to the southern bay that connected the main block to the south wing.  The main range between the south wing and the servants’ wing was extended yet further west, incorporating a new stairwell and boiler room.  The stair window, of simplified Romanesque character, is a prominent feature.  Just to its south a large conservatory replaced the earlier one in 1904.

When Colin Menzie came through to Larbert to inspect the house in August 1899, he took the opportunity to survey a field at East Croft which John Graham intended to feu.  The tenant farmer, John Cherry, spotted him walking through his oats and, when he refused to leave, hit him.  The farmer was charged with assault and counter sued for damage to his crop – the judge rejected both claims.

In 1905 a new gate lodge was added and the avenue extended southward to exit onto the Dunipace road instead of the Stirling Road.  In 1913 the entrance to the main house was remodelled.   The earlier porte cochere was re-sited further out and connected to the house by a broad bow-cornered open-sided porch.  Over the porch was a tower with a balustraded viewing platform.   The mullioned and transomed first-floor window was framed in an aedicule having banded Ionic pilasters supporting a segmental pediment broken by a rather florid crest of the Graham family featuring a falcon.  A balustrade was added to the porte cochere and the south wing to unify the new scheme.

Illus 15: Larbert House c1915 with the new Entrance Tower.

In the sloping lawn to the south of the entrance two shallow terraces were created, presumably for playing croquet and tennis.  They can still be seen.

John Graham, like Gilbert Stirling, collected art.  For the Falkirk Fine Art Exhibition held in 1905 he loaned a work by John MacWhirter called “A Monarch.”  The painting conveyed the sense of stateliness of the birch and was said to be the star of the show.  Amongst his other paintings at Larbert House were:

in guineas
Joseph FarquharsonThrough Mist and Rain, Skye110
Thomas FaedA Wee Bit Fractious (1911)90
David RobertsThe Church of the Nativity (1911)75
Sam BoughLoch Achray and Ben Venue40
Peter GrahamTwilight after Rain. Near Juniper Green on Road to Edinburgh70
CanalettoBridge and Castle of St Angelo and St Peter, Rome58
Cecil LawsonClouds over Barsen Moor, Yorkshire62
James HollandHerne Bay, Kent56
Philip WouvermanThe Horse Fair52
James HollandGrand Canal, Venice, Sunset46
Albert MooreA Visitor40
W MenzlerMarguerite31
James DochartyLoch Lomond Head; Inverarnan30
A Van BrowerDutch Market Place, with Figures21
Adolph MonticelliChrist and the Women of Samaria26
Colin HunterSalmon Fishing. Falls of the Deee, Kirkcudbrightshire25
A Brownlie DochartyIn Glenfinlas, Autumn17
W. SteelinkSheep on the Holland Dunes Returning Home16
David CoxThe Tower, Bury St Edmunds15

Most of these paintings hung in the billiard room, library, drawing room and dining room in the southern part of the ground floor. The northern section was for the large staff of servants.

Illus 17: Ground Floor Plan of Larbert House showing the various rooms.
Illus 18: Larbert House looking East in 1995. The raggle of the earlier conservatory can be seen on the bowed end of the south wing to the right of the later one.

Curling continued on the large pond at Larbert House.  The sport had remained popular for a long time and in January 1907 a new curling pond constructed next to the Carron Dams by the Stenhouse and Carron Curling Club was used for the first time on a Saturday.  Larbert House pond had been fit for curling on the previous Thursday.  In the following month a Stirling Provincial Bonspiel was played on the Larbert House pond when 23 clubs were represented.  This was repeated in 1909.  Fishermen were still not welcomed and in 1915 William Rae, a moulder from 140 Orchard Street, Camelon, took two trout from Larbert Loch.  He was fined under a statute of the Scots Parliament dated back to 1607 – taking fish without permission from a river was poaching, but taking them from a loch or stank such as the pond at Larbert was theft.

John Graham threw open the grounds of the estate to the schools of the parish on the occasion of the Coronation in 1902.  Garden parties were held there on behalf of the Stirlingshire Liberal Association.  As already mentioned, he was a friend of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman from his university days.  Campbell-Bannerman became Leader of the Liberal Party from 1899 to his death in 1908 and served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in his last three years.  During the election of 1905 he stayed at Larbert House and gave an address at the Dobbie Hall.  His successor, Herbert Asquith, also stopped overnight in Larbert House on several occasions.  When in residence the estate was patrolled by policemen and he was accompanied by detectives.  He was there in November 1913 preparatory to the unveiling of a statue to Campbell-Bannerman in Stirling.  The day before the ceremony the local police cycled along the road from Larbert to Stirling ensuring that all was in order and to pre-empt a suspected terrorism event.  

During the afternoon, as Mr Asquith was motoring from Larbert House to Stirling to unveil the Campbell-Bannerman monument, his car was held up — at the mining village of Bannockburn.  In the car were Sir John and Lady Graham, and also Miss Violet Asquith and Mr Asquith.  As the motor car was seen approaching three women rushed into the road and drew up in line as if to stop the car.  The chauffeur slackened speed, but did not draw up, and one of the women then crouched immediately in front of the vehicle to the imminent peril of her life.  The car drew up promptly, but only just in time to avoid running over the prostrate form.  Miss Asquith, Lady Graham, and Sir John Graham were much alarmed; but detectives who were driving a short distance behind the Premier’s car seized the woman and got her to her feet unhurt.  The other women meanwhile had commenced an attack on the car, one throwing red pepper through the window and the other attempting to strike Mr Asquith with a dog whip.  They were also seized by the detectives.  Neither Mr Asquith nor his companions were injured by the attack, and the Premier, who was besprinkled with pepper, took the matter very coolly.  No arrests were made.” 

The women were in fact Suffragettes – three from Glasgow and one from Edinburgh.  The Suffragettes own newsletter naturally contradicts this official newspaper report on several points – notably that the prime minister did not keep his cool and that the women were indeed arrested.

During the First World War Mr and Mrs Graham were prominent in raising funds for the local Red Cross.  Garden fetes were held in the grounds.  The largest of these took place in August 1917.

Illus 19: Falkirk Herald Advertisement, 18 August 1917.

“The fete had a delightful setting. The spacious, open area devoted to the sports, the marquees, and the amusements, terminated on all sides in picturesque and sheltering woodland, and the beauty of the precincts was not the least of the factors that made for enjoyment. Though there was such a large crowd, there was no crowding, except round the ropes during the progress of the sports, and the atmosphere was that of calm, quiet pleasure. The sports were the central feature, and provided the principal source of interest for the crowd, though the miniature “Fair” – merry-go-rounds, hoop-la, swings, shooting gallery, dolly stall, etc – claimed full and continuous attention. Those attractions, however, were for the most part adapted to the wants of the children.

The school sports (confined to Larbert parish), held in the afternoon, were very successful, and were watched with great interest, as also were the munitions sports in the evening, which were productive of a good deal of fun, and also infected the onlookers with the excitement to which the keen rivalry manifested between the various works’ teams gave rise.

A pleasing and notable feature of the fete was the close personal interest of Sir John and Lady Graham, whose influence was felt in every phase of the day’s proceedings.  This was demonstrated in a special manner in the much appreciated privilege they granted by opening the doors of their residence itself to the public in order to assist the object in view.  The invitation which was extended (for a consideration, of course) to visit Larbert House, to view Sir John’s splendid collection of pictures and to partake of tea in the beautifully appointed dining-room was very largely taken advantage of, and this feature of the fete was as successful as a money raising proposition as it was unique.  This department was under the direct supervision of Lady Graham, who gave a good deal of her time (which was wholly taken up for the day by the performance of the various duties which she so willingly undertook in the interests of the effort) in conducting visitors who were specially interested in the pictures.  These, to lovers of art, provided an opportunity, of which full advantage was taken, the paintings including examples of the work of Raeburn, McWhirter, Nasmyth, Farquharson, Paul Chalmers, Sam Bough, Docherty, Clays, Daubigny, Monticelli, and Harlamoff.  Teas was served in the dining-room by the household staff, and altogether the arrangements (chiefly in the hands of Mr J Robbie, the butler) for the comfort and entertainment of the visitors were admirable.  Sir John’s garden (a bit of fairyland, it seemed) and Larbert Loch, which is so picturesque a feature of the estate, were also open to the public, and both had their hundreds of visitors.  At the loch there was boating, and a very large number took advantage of the opportunity of entering thus closely into the calm, romantic atmosphere of the still waters, with the fairy-like islet in the centre.

On the sports and amusements ground there was ample provision for the needs of the inner man.  There were two large marquees for the provision of tea, at which very good business was done throughout the afternoon and evening, and there were also two refreshment stalls which had always a crowd of customers.  The two tea “rooms” were conducted by the 24th (Stirling) Voluntary Aid Detachment, under the convenership of Mrs Sherriff, commandant; and the 26th (Stirling) detachment, in charge of their commandant, Mrs Hunter….

(29 August 1917, 3)

Lady Graham died on 16 June 1925 aged 73.  She had been married to Sir John since 1891 and had been president of the Larbert Parish Nursing Association since 1895.  She was also president of the Falkirk Centre of the Girls’ Guildry.  John Graham was old and as his sons lived elsewhere it was decided to sell Larbert House.  In February 1926 it was announced to the press that Larbert House and grounds had been bought for use as an industrial colony by the nearby Royal Scottish National Institute.  John Graham died in Edinburgh in May that year, aged 88.  His elder son, John Frederick Noble Graham, resided in London and succeeded to the baronetcy.  His second son, Sir Cecil William Noble Graham, was formerly in charge of the firm in Calcutta but was resident in Larbert House at the time.

Illus 20: Estate House at the Kennels used as part of the Colony with the new Administration Block in the background.

The purchase price for the 750 acre estate was in the region of £40,000.  The intention was to convert the mansion house into a residence for private patients and to build the Colony in the grounds at a further cost of £30,000.  It did not take long to convert the house and to take in the private patients whose families paid the full cost of their maintenance and for which there had been a dire need for some time.  It opened in July 1927 and by June 1928 there were some 36 residents.  It took longer to raise the money for the Colony.  The Women’s Citizens’ Association of Scotland was to the fore in this, contributing over £12,000.

Plans were drawn up by W J Gibson, architect, for a community to house 300 patients as well as the staff. Five “villas,” each designed to house 50 patients, were constructed in a shallow crescent with a large central administration block and nurses’ home. The three to the east were intended for male residents and the two to the west for females. Work began in 1928 and by 1933 the first villas were occupied. In May 1933 50 boys walked from Bellsdyke to take up residence and in July 50 girls followed. Most of the construction work was completed when the Colony was officially opened by the Countess of Mar and Kellie on 12 September 1935.

Illus 21: Ordnance Survey Map of 1947.

Illus 23: Patients harvesting fruit in the Glasshouses at the Walled Garden.

The purpose of the industrial colony was to provide long-term vocational training for the patients.  By the opening, the five villas had been built and workshops and a hospital, as well as two blocks for helpless patients, were under construction.  The hospital and new nurses’ villas were in the newer style of the 1930s with flat roofs.  A more conventional three-storey nurses’ block was built to the east of the old stables and called Westerpark.  The two farms on the estate had been made into one.  The farms, the gardens, and poultry enclosures were being largely worked by the patients.  Almost all of the milk required for the 700 inmates of the two sites and 150 of a staff was being supplied from a herd of tuberculin-tested Ayrshire cattle.  All the oatmeal, potatoes, and most of the mutton and part of the vegetables required were being raised on the farm.  The gardens also supplied flowers and vegetables and the poultry farm was yielding a steadily increasing proportion of eggs.  Before long pigs were added to the farming mix.

The RSNH was a private institution and the grounds remained closed to the general public.  Back in July 1928 540 men of the 2nd Battalion of the Cameron Highlanders were permitted to camp beside Larbert Loch en route to Edinburgh from Fort George.  The loch was used for swimming and bathing.  Curling continued, but the public had become less concerned about their actions resulting in the following insertion to the Falkirk Herald (dated 7 January 1939):

“Through the courtesy of the directors of the Royal Scottish National Institution, the public have had the privilege this year, as in former years, of free skating on the lake in the private grounds of Larbert House.  Although a special gate on the Stirling Road is provided for the public and their cars, other field gates are opened and left open by thoughtless people, with the result that two valuable colts strayed.  Branches are torn off bushes, stones protecting the lake-side dislodged, and litter is scattered heedlessly.  Although skating is not allowed after dusk, the orders of the keeper are defied.  It will be a pity if the pond has to be closed to the public because of trouble caused by a few irresponsible individuals.  That step will inevitably be taken if matters do not improve.  In the meantime, all keen skaters could help by seeing that others do not spoil their sport.”

Despite this, the last bonspiel at Larbert was held in the early 1980s.

Illus 24: Bonspiel at Larbert Loch in 1979 with the villas of the Colony in the background (courtesy of Ian Scott of Larbert).

During the Second World War 130 ‘difficult’ adult male patients were transferred in 1940 to the Colony from Gogarburn Hospital, which had been taken over as an emergency hospital.  They were expected to be at Larbert for only a few months but remained until 1943.  Despite staff shortages due to the war, patient numbers rose to over 900.  Ground in front of the villas was levelled for use as a football pitch.  Wood was in high demand and a sawmill was set up on the wood near the old ha-ha

Illus 25: The Male Villas with Football Pitch, looking north, 1995.

After the war the National Health Service was formed in 1948 and the Colony, along with the Bellsdyke hospital, was transferred to it.  This included the existing funds, endowments, 1,600 acres of ground and the buildings.  The RSNI became a “special hospital” under the Western Regional Hospital Board.  The Colony’s hospital was converted into a 56-bed villa and in the 1950s and 60s new accommodation was built to the west, each block named after Scottish rivers and lochs.  A bowling green and tennis courts were provided just to the west of the axial drive that connected the administration block to Larbert House.  In the 1980s the concept of community care developed and health boards elsewhere were encouraged to look after their own populace and take their patients back.  Slowly the numbers at the Colony fell.

Illus 26: The Administration Block of the Colony in 1995 not long before demolition. Note the lion rampant in the panel of the tower.

The old buildings at the Colony and Larbert House were declared surplus to requirements in 1997. The House was simply abandoned with little effort given to secure its future. After years of neglect, during which internal features such as fireplaces went missing, it was set on fire on 1 January 2007 causing extensive damage including the loss of all the floors and roof. In February the following year the entrance tower collapsed and the house’s survival looked in doubt. Despite being listed, the north and south lodges were demolished. From the ashes of the Colony a huge new hospital was constructed and called the Forth Valley Hospital. Meanwhile, a local businessman, Grant Keenan, established the All Saints development company in order to save Larbert House from demolition. First the stable block was renovated and houses were erected in the walled garden, then Larbert House was restored. All in all this scheme will cost around £13 million and result in 20 luxury apartments, 18 mews and 19 detached houses. Due to the collapse of the tower it was decided to restore the 1822 south façade. A completely new north wing was added to the old servants’ wing in order to increase the number of apartments available.

Illus 27: Larbert House Pond with the new pier and Larbert Church in the background.

The Forth Valley Hospital opened to patients in 2010. The planning permission for it required the development and delivery of a plan for the Residual Estate. It was agreed to restore it as a woodland park in order to become a therapeutic resource for patients, staff and visitors. To this end a partnership was established between the NHS Forth Valley, the Forestry Commission Scotland, Central Scotland Forest Trust and Falkirk Council. A jetty was placed adjacent to the old boathouse and aligned with Larbert Parish Church. On the loch side nearby a Maggie’s Centre (for children with cancer) was completed in 2018. It is a far cry from the tranquillity of the private estate, but amongst its vibrancy the past still lurks in the shadows.

The owners of Larbert House over the last 250 years can be summarised as:

1745/1751Alexander Chalmers (purchase)
1760Robert Chalmers (son)
1782William Ferguson of Raith (purchase)
1789Thomas Milles Riddell of Ardnamurchan (purchase)
1797James Milles Riddell (grandson)
1821Gilbert Stirling (purchase)
1843Sarah Mary Emily Robertson (cousin) m. Francis Day Chalmer
1869Gilbert Stirling Chalmer (son)
1876John Hendrie of Calder park (purchase)
1883John Hart Noble Graham of Skelmorlie Castle (purchase)
1926Royal Scottish National Institute (purchase)
1948National Health Service
2006House sold to All Saints development company.

Illus 28: The quality of the original stonework can still be seen. The droving is continuous from stone to stone and must have been done once they were in place.

Sites and Monuments Records

Larbert HouseSMR 234NS 8500 8258
Larbert House DoocotSMR 34NS 8495 8236
Larbert House Ice-houseSMR 69NS 8492 8265
Larbert House StablesSMR 1573NS 8496 8236
Larbert Colony (RSNH Extension)SMR 1537
Illus 29: Larbert House in 2020.


Gibson, J.C.1908Lands and Lairds of Larbert and Dunipace Parishes.
Gifford, J. & Walker, F.A.2002The Buildings of Scotland: Stirling and Central Scotland.
Hutton, G.2000The Royal Scottish National Hospital 140 Years.
Reid, J.2007‘The Feudal Land Divisions of East Stirlingshire: the Lands and Baronies of Larbert,’ Calatria 24, 1-36.

G.B. Bailey (2020)