– the Early Centuries
The first Falkirk dwellers of whom we have any concrete information were the Romans who built the Antonine Wall with its system of roads and forts. One of these was located in the area of the town now called the Pleasance and its occupiers, and the civilians in the settlement or vicus attached to it, may together have made up Falkirk’s first population. With the departure of the Romans for the last time in the 3rd century AD it is reasonable to suppose that the local people remained to use what the Romans left by way of houses and other buildings. The next link in the fragmentary story comes with the arrival of Christian missionaries which might have been in the early 5th century after the arrival of St Ninian from Whithorn or in the 7th, following St Columba’s great mission from Iona. Whatever, by the time the written record appears some three or four hundred years later Falkirk has a church, probably located where the present Trinity Church stands, and a name EGGLESBRETH or EGGLESBRECH which, over subsequent years, was translated into Scots as FAWKIRK, meaning the speckled or broken church.
Presumably a new settlement began to emerge in the vicinity of the church with a few houses and shops set in narrow closes and wynds. It must have been important enough by 1298 because, following the disastrous first Battle of Falkirk, the principal Scottish casualties were buried in the graveyard. In the medieval period the settlement was part of a barony called Abbotskerse, in the ownership of Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh which also owned the revenues from the lands within the huge parish centred on the church. Much of the rest of the land currently occupied by the modern town was in a neighbouring barony, that of Callendar.
The Blaeu Map of 1624 (surveyed by Timothy Pont c1590)
The house, lands and families of Callendar have played a central part in Falkirk’s long and stormy history. Three families held sway for the best part of a thousand years. The first and most difficult to pin down were the Callendars or Calentyres who probably built a house in the grounds now used by the business park. They were succeeded in 1345 by the Livingstons and for nearly 400 years they were at the very heart of Scotland’s story. The original Callendar House was built in the 1500s and the following century, when both baronies fell into Livingston hands, the town began to expand with a number of new stone buildings appearing along what is now the High Street; in 1600 the town was raised to the status of a burgh of barony. One of the new buildings was a tolbooth and the wide area at the front of the steeple was known as the cross of Falkirk. It was here that the Mercat Cross stood from 1600 as a mark of Falkirk’s new status and here the weekly markets were held until the early years of the 19th century. It was also here that public hangings and floggings took place and where the general business of the town was conducted. A first steeple was built in the late 1500s and replaced in 1697. The present one, designed by David Hamilton of Glasgow was erected in 1814. Like the previous ones it was a lock-up and there are still two jail cells inside. The first cross well was erected in 1682 with a water supply from the Callendar estates to the south. The old well-head was replaced by the present round sandstone well in 1817.
TheWellhead of 1682
The Tolbooth and Steeple of 1697
– the Coming of Industry
The establishment of Carron Company in 1759, and, even more importantly, the construction the Great Canal between Forth and Clyde in the 1770s began the process of change which transformed Falkirk from small market town to industrial centre over the following century.
The canal passed to the west of the town and soon ribbon development along its length brought a variety of new industries like saw-milling, tile manufacture, distilling, chemicals and, of course iron founding. The population began to increase and the industrial villages of Camelon, Bainsford and Grahamston which lay outside the burgh boundary became increasingly important in Falkirk’s story.
Following the failed Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745 the Livingston link with the town was broken and the administration of the towns affairs fell by default into the hands of a group of men called Stentmasters, who represented the trades of the town. By the early 19th century another group known as the Feuars of Falkirk, descendants of the original families who had acquired rights in the expanding town in the late 1500s, also played some part in municipal organization though it was inefficient and patchy. The arrival of William Forbes to the Callendar lands in 1783 brought a new power to the area and his energetic land improvement policies generated considerable revenues for himself and a good deal of hostility among his tenantry .
Callendar House in 1783
The Forbes family remained at Callendar House until 1962 and throughout the 19th century especially had a significant influence on the growth of the burgh.
– the 19th and 20th Centuries
Falkirk from the South around 1830
The election of a Municipal Council in the 1830s following the great Reform Act failed to bring improvement because the magistrates and councilors had no power to raise the money needed to improve sanitation, repair the streets, provide lighting and adequate water supplies, or maintain the peace. After an acrimonious dispute a Bill passed through Parliament in 1859 – the Falkirk Police and Improvement Act – which went a long way to changing this situation. The Stentmasters disappeared leaving only their debts and the Feuars survived but their influence waned. They were wound up in the 1890s.
By this time, with the iron industry continuing to expand, the villages of Camelon, Grahamston and Bainsford had grown into suburbs of the town; by 1900 they had all been incorporated into the burgh which had a population of close on 33,000, four times what it had been in the 1840s.
The Town Hall (1879)
The Sheriff Court (1868)
The huge revenues from the new industries as well as from the still fertile carse lands, helped reshape the town with a host of fine new buildings – churches and banks as well as handsome municipal premises. There were many shops of all kinds and the town became the major market centre serving a burgeoning population for many miles around the town.
In the 20th century the steady decline in demand for iron goods saw a series of amalgamations and eventual closure of foundries all over the town and beyond. Even the two giants Carron Company and Falkirk Iron Works closed in the early 1980s. Housing Acts in the 1920s and 30s brought the removal of many of the worst slum houses and after the second World War there was a major programme of council house building away from the town centre an green field areas throughout the district. In the town itself buildings like the Garrison and Glasgow buildings disappeared under car parks and the old Howgate vanished in the new shopping complex.
The Howgate in the 1950s
Despite the setbacks there has been a good deal of investment and much optimism about the future with commercial and business parks restoring Falkirk’s reputation as a shopping centre and attracting small businesses in the modern technology and service sectors.
Ian Scott (2005)