James Aitken’s brewery was one of Falkirk’s longest lasting and most successful companies. Founded in 1740 it survived until the late 1960s before the huge Newmarket Street site was cleared to make way for what is now the Asda supermarket.
The original member of the Aitken family (James or John according to different sources) who started brewing in the town is said to have transported the water required in carts from Linlithgow though other reports talk of the supply being carted from only ‘over a mile away’. All the evidence we have for this period is anecdotal and includes a romantic tale of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s highland soldiers spending ten days in Falkirk after the Battle of Falkirk (January 1746) where the attractions of the new brewery kept them occupied and saved the town from serious damage!
The firm soon built a reputation for the quality of its ale and porter and successive generations of Aitkens extended and developed production using water drawn from wells bored on the Newmarket Street site. By the mid 19th century the firm occupied land on both side of the street and the company began to export large quantities of their beers and stouts to the Empire where they regularly won awards for excellence.
In 1900 a major rebuilding programme brought the familiar huge red brick brewery building with its 180 foot chimney which dominated the Falkirk skyline until it was demolished by army engineers in June 1970. The site was extended to the railway line and a special siding was constructed to bring in raw materials and carry away the finished product whether it be in wooden barrels or bottles. One report at the time of the opening of the new building says that “The engine room is the most interesting place, and is tastefully arranged and decorated; it contains a large and powerful steam engine and a gas engine of similar calibre; the first is used for general power throughout the brewery while the latter is used specially for driving the dynamos”. The main builders were John Gardner of Falkirk. In 1910 a 518 foot bore was made to improve the supply of water and 17 years later a second well was sunk this time to a depth of 700 feet from which the water was drawn at a rate of 240 gallons per minute. The firm continued to prosper owning many pubs throughout the country and by the 1950s the bottling hall was producing 1,200 dozen bottles per hour and there were over 200 employees. (See separate entry for Bottling Plant and Boiler Room)
But the post World War II period ushered in an age of amalgamations and mergers. Aitkens were not exempt and in 1960 became part of Caledonian United Breweries. This group was itself swallowed up by Tennents to form Tennent Caledonian a few years later and, following the refurbishment of Tennent’s Wellpark Brewery in Glasgow, the Falkirk operation was scaled down. Brewing came to an end in 1968 and the site was sold to Falkirk Town Council for £141,000. There was talk of a new Library and Sheriff Court but eventually the site became a supermarket with associated carparks. The buildings were demolished in 1970.
Ian Scott (2006)