Of all the villages in the Falkirk area, Camelon has most exercised the imaginative power of antiquaries and local historians over the years. A mighty Roman harbour, a great Pictish city with twelve brass gates, battles galore involving Pict and Scot, Angle and Briton and, of course, the Camelot and round table of King Arthur himself – all have had their champions and such theories continue to appear regularly even in this more sceptical age. Alas for romance, the evidence for such past glory is scant or non-existent.
The earliest events which we can talk about with any certainty involve the Romans who built the great fort at Carmuirs during their brief but eventful occupation in the second century. The military road which crossed the Antonine Wall at Watling Lodge passed the fort before crossing the Carron at Larbert – it is certainly possible that the river was navigable as far as Camelon during the Roman period and may well have been used as the point of entry and departure for men and materials during the years of occupation and campaigning.
After the Romans withdrew from the area for the last time the place we now know as Camelon disappeared from the record for close on fifteen hundred years. Only with the coming of the new age of iron and the cutting of the Forth and Clyde Canal in the 18th Century does the village emerge from the darkness and have an existence which we can identify and describe with any certainty. The stretch of the canal from Bainsford through the farmland of Camelon was completed in the early 1770s and soon attracted manufacturers and traders who recognised the benefits of a swift and dependable transport system. The Lock 16 area, and the junction point where the road from Falkirk dipped under the canal, quickly became growth points and there were no doubt storehouses, loading basins and stables serving the growing canal traffic from quite an early stage. By the beginning of the 19th century the village population was reported to be close to 600 and growing, with a considerable number engaged in the manufacture of nails.
William Cadell, son of Carron’s founder and himself the first manager of the works, opened the first nail making centre in 1790 and the trade expanded steadily with many young men drawn to the area and apprenticed to masters who taught them the secrets of a hard, heavy and ill rewarded trade. Houses, workshops, tools and nailrods were supplied to the men and to the boys, often no more than nine or ten years old, who slaved for twelve or more hours each day to turn out the thousands of nails that were required to earn a living wage.
Four nailers’ rows or squares appeared in Camelon – the Wee Square at the west end, Fairbairn’s Square, owned by George Fairbairn, a leading nailmaster of the early 19th century, George Square close to Lock 16 on the canal and Gunn’s Square in the same vicinity. Living conditions were extremely poor and the nailers and their families developed a reputation for hard living and hard drinking, which survived until mechanical nail making robbed them of a living from the middle of the century on.
The Junction Locks
The completion of the Union Canal in 1822 confirmed Camelon’s status as the fulcrum of the new communication system and soon new inns, workshops, storage facilities and houses appeared along the banks and basins of Port Downie. By 1831 the population was over 800 rising within a decade to 1,340. Sometime around 1840 two brothers from Airth, James and Andrew Ross, began building boats in a yard near Lock 16; after only five years Andrew was dead and young James who had discovered the value of pitch as a commodity in the boatyard moved into chemical manufacture at Limewharf just a few hundred yards west of Port Downie.
Crude tar from various gas works was shipped to Camelon where it was converted into naphtha, pitch and refined tar. Business boomed and James Ross directed the expanding company for thirty years until 1878 when Robert Sutherland and Robert Orr assumed control. The firm did well during the years of war but in 1929 the Lime Wharf Chemical Works became part of Scottish Tar Distillers. It survived until a disastrous fire in 1973 and soon afterwards most production on the site came to an end.
By the end of the Victorian era a number of chemical companies had followed James Ross into business in Camelon and were employing hundreds of men in the manufacture of sulphuric acid, iodine, and dozens of other compounds by then in high demand in the rapidly expanding Scottish economy. The Hurlet Works (1851), Camelon Chemical Works (1878) and Crosses (1900) flourished briefly but never attained the prosperity of Lime Wharf.
From outset the people of Camelon village looked for the two services which confirmed their status as a new community. As part of Falkirk Parish they depended on the Minister there for their spiritual needs and on the heritors for the provision of education. In 1786 a rented house paid for by subscription among the villagers, was converted to a schoolroom and five years later a thatched ‘but and ben’ was built on land feued from Forbes of Callendar. Thus in 1797 the Minister of Falkirk could report that in the village of Camelon “there is a dwelling house and schoolroom for the encouragement of a schoolmaster, but no salary.” The establishment of the School and Well Committee in 1799 to maintain what were seen as the community’s principal or only assets, was another example of the villagers’ willingness to band together to fight for the common good of all. The Committee appointed seven ‘stint-masters’ from their number and while they found it as difficult as their opposite numbers in Falkirk, to raise the sums due, the school did continue to grow and the teacher’s salary was usually paid. A new school building was provided in 1874 but it proved to be too small and a much larger building, the present Carmuirs primary was opened by the Parochial Board in 1901.
The explosion of iron founding in the district in the second half of the 19th century had a major impact on Camelon and again the Forth and Clyde canal had a great deal to do with the choice of site. The first was established in 1845 near Lock 16 and was known variously as Port Downie or Camelon Iron Works. It survived until the 1950s. It was followed by the Union (1854-1879), the Forth and Clyde (1870-1963), R and A Main’s Gothic Works (1899-1964), Grange (1900-1960s), Carmuirs (1899-1968) and Dorrator founded in 1898 which survived until the summer of 1994. At their height in the years before the first war the Camelon foundries employed over 1,300 men manufacturing the familiar range of domestic and industrial ironware including grates, stoves, pipes, cookers, gates, fences and mantlepieces.
The rapid growth in the population increased demands for a church in Camelon and, with the support of the Minister of Falkirk William Begg and William Forbes of Callendar who provided a site free of charge, a new building was erected at the west end of the village to the design of Edinburgh architect David Rhind. It was opened in August 1840. Camelon was erected into a Parish in its own right in 1853. In 1929 it adopted the name St John’s and served as Parish Church until 2004 when the congregation merged with that of the former Free Church, Irving Church of Scotland. At the time of writing plans are being made to replace St John’s with a modern purpose built church to serve the new united congregation.
Since 1900, the ‘mariners’ as the sons and daughters of the village call themselves, have played a very full part in the life of the larger community and the list of the institutions which serve the area from a base in Camelon is long and impressive. There are firms like Alexanders, both bus building and driving, and Barrs; the Mariner leisure centre and the cemetery and crematorium; the new Sheriff Court and the Falkirk Golf Club. Since 1900 no fewer than nine of the 24 Provosts of Falkirk have come from the village.
The most significant change for the Camelon area came in the 1990s with the huge Millennium Link project aimed at the complete restoration of the two canals and the creation of the Falkirk Wheel as the new link between the two. This massive project has put the area in the national, even international spotlight and could be the economic trigger which will help to regenerate Camelon in the future.
Ian Scott (2005)