Like so many historical posers there’s no easy answer to this one. On the basis of the scraps of evidence we have it seems that the term was commonplace throughout the 19th century and given that there was said then to be an ‘old’ saying – ‘You’re like the bairns o ‘Fa’kirk, you’ll end ere you mend’ it probably takes the term back to the 18th century at least. The most entertaining version of its origin was one recounted in the middle of the 19th century when it was reported by John Reddoch McLuckie in his book The Old Kirk Yard Falkirk published in 1869. He says that James Livingston, First Earl of Callendar, a warlike baron who fought on both sides in the 17th century civil war along with men from Falkirk, finally returned from years of exile in 1656. Later on, as a reward to the people of Falkirk for sticking by him, he arranged to lay pipes from his policies to the High Street at the bottom of the steeple thus creating the first town well that we know about. McLuckie takes up the story:
After thanking them for the gallantry with which they had fought beside him, and reminding them of the many fields through which their fathers had followed his; having filled a bicker from the pure well stream, which was poured from the mouth of a sculptured lion, the grey-haired baron stood up in his stirrups and drank off the quaich, ‘To the wives and the Bairns o’ Fa’kirk’ giving them the well and all its fountains in a present forever.’
And with this present, a new nickname for the inhabitants! It’s certainly a nice story but there is a small problem. James Livingston died around 1674. The well-head with the sculptured lion carried the coat of arms of his successor Alexander Livingston and the date accepted for its creation is 1681. That doesn’t mean of course that the event did not take place – it could have been Alexander who made the famous speech or maybe James made the toast when the water first arrived rather than later when the well-head was built. Whatever the explanation it’s the only one we have … unless someone out there can come up with a better one. If you can let us know!
Ian Scott (2005)