Sundials of the Falkirk District

Sundials have a romance about them connected with the shadowy passage of time and the seasons.  Pithy mottoes in Latin were seen as intellectual snobbery.  There are several examples from the Falkirk area, as well as the odd one in English, such as:

  • “tempus fugit” (time flies) at Polmont Old Church.
  • “fugit hora” (the hour flees) on Airth Mercat Cross.
  • “floret qui vigilat” (he flourishes who watches) at Airth Castle.
  • “sic transit gloria mundi” (thus passes the glory of this world) also at Airth Castle.
  •  “hora fugit” (the hours fly) on the brass dial of the Airth Castle sundial.
  • “sic transit gloria mundi” (thus passes the glory of this world) at Kinnaird House I.
  • “yesterday is past: to-morrow is not thine. Qua redit nescitis horam.” (you do not know the hour of return) Kinnaird II.
  • “day unto day uttereth speech and night unto night sheweth knowledge” taken from Psalm 19.2 at Grange House.

Illus 1: The Quarrel or Carronhall Sundial (Fleming 1902).

They have attracted poetry – and two local poems are included in this paper.   They also attracted architectural embellishment.  A simple sundial can be made from a stick stuck into the ground but by the 17th century they had become important status symbols and in Scotland the lairds vied with each other for power and perceived importance.  The horizontal sundial with its flat face was replaced by ornate freestanding structures with vertical and angled dial faces.  The more elaborate the design the higher the status.  Scotland has more of these elaborate sundials in this period than any other country in Europe, including the unique obelisk variety such as the example from Carronhall.  Compared to those on the Continent the Scottish examples are plain and rely for their decoration, and good taste, on the mathematically precise geometric shapes of the dials.

The church too saw the sundial as a symbol of its Classical inheritance and its place in society.  On a more pragmatic level it was essential to have some idea of when to celebrate mass or communion.  Its sundials tend to be plainer and mounted on walls.  The alignment of the church building was a great help as it meant that a vertical dial was simple to layout and insert into a south-facing wall.  The sunny south sides of these churches were always the most important sides and it was here that the more prominent people in society were buried.  At Airth the approach to the church was from the north and so the congregation gathered on the sheltered plateau to the south and east before entering.  A stone bench was incorporated into the foot of the east gable for this purpose.  At both Airth and Polmont the sundials are beside the minister’s external entrance to the pulpit.

The importance of sundials in determining the times of church services is shown by two sundials located on farms to the south of Bonnybridge where the congregation of the nascent Erskine Church met in its early years. At Lochgreen Farm the sundial, dated 1737, is of the usual symmetrical form and is presently built into the north boundary wall of the garden.  It is possible that this may have been its original location and that the open-air services were held in this enclosure. 

At North Woodend the dial is built into a wall which receives no direct sunlight and has clearly been moved from its original site.  The gnomon is set at 45 degrees to the face suggesting that it faced east.

In a world unregulated by clocks and dominated by agriculture the labour force tended to work during the hours of daylight.  This meant long summer working days and short winter ones.  Merchants needed to have some indication of the time of day for their shipping ventures and markets.  Tides were predictable and so it is not surprising to find sundials on the mercat cross at Airth and we can assume that the same was the case at Bo’ness.  These market-places were important gathering grounds in their own right, here business transactions and sales were conducted.  Starting markets or fairs on time was necessary to prevent forestalling – the buying of goods before the official market opening time, then selling them on at higher prices.  It was natural for the emblem of the authority of the market, the mercat cross, to carry a sundial.  Unfortunately, the burgh of Airth is the only one in the Falkirk district to preserve its cross – indeed, there are two.

It was only with the foundation of massive industrial concerns such as Carron Company in 1759 that it was necessary for the ordinary workman to have set times of work and by then clocks were available.  Again, the church led the way in their introduction – now prominently displayed aloft in the towers so that they could be seen from a considerable distance.  Clocks too became a symbol of civic pride and by the beginning of the 19th century were an essential feature of town halls and tolbooths.

Skaithmuir Towerc1607quoinlost
Falkirk Parish Church1629walllost
Airth Aisle, Airth Old Parish ChurchEarly 17th centurywallin situ
Headless Cross, AirthEarly 17th centuryMercat Crossin situ
Kerse Housec1642freestandinglost
Kersie Mainsc1645quoinin situ
Airth Old Parish Church towerc1647wallin situ
Airthc1650freestandingAirth Cemetery
Denny Parish Church1670wallHallhouse
Callendar House I (summerhouse)1677freestandinglost
Carriden House1682wallin situ
Kinnaird House I1690freestandingunknown
Airth Castle terrace1690freestandinglost
Callendar House IIc1695freestandinglost
Airth Mercat Cross1697Mercat Crossin situ
Carronhall (Letham)1716freestandingFalkirk Museum (fragments)
Lairoxc1722skewin situ
Fulderhaugh1733skew?Falkirk Museum
Polmont Old Parish Church1736wallFalkirk Museum
Lochgreen Farm1737wallin situ
Woodend Farmc 1739wallin situ
Airth Castlebefore 1746walllost
Slamannan Parish Churchmid 18th centurywallin situ
Main St, Bo’ness1741wallRebuilt in wall
Cummockstepsmid 18th century skewin situ
Garden Street, Falkirk1756freestandingunknown
Callendar House1786walllost
Kinnaird II1792freestandingunknown
Russell (Dunmore Park)c1815freestandingFalkirk Museum
Arnotdale (Dollar Park)1834wallin situ
Grange Housec1880freestandingNew Grange House
Hallhouse IILate 19th century freestanding Hallhouse
Erriden, ArnothillLate 19th centuryfreestandingunknown
Abbots Grange, Zetland Park1926 freestanding Falkirk Museum
Denny & Dunipace Cemetery1926-1938floraltemporary
Dawson Park School1937 freestanding lost
RSNH1949 freestanding unknown
Abbotshaugh Community Woodlandc1990groundModified but in situ
Zetland Park2021groundin situ
North BantaskinefreestandingAustralia

Illus 2: Zetland Park Pavement Dial (courtesy CMC Associates).

Although there was a diminution in the number of new sundials in the early 19th century their popularity returned by the century’s end; once again as status symbols displaying the good tastes of the newly rich middle classes.  Today they are seen as works of art and public engagement with recent sundials installed at Abbotshaugh Community Woodland near Langlees (c1990) and Zetland Park (2021).  In these last instances the human user takes the place of the stick or gnomon to cast the shadow.

The list of sundials in the following inventory is divided into the following categories:

  • I – Churches
  • II – Mercat crosses
  • III – Wall-mounted
  • IV – Quoins
  • V – Skews
  • VI – Freestanding
  • VII – Modern

Several more sundials are indicated on the various editions of the Ordnance Survey maps, but as the indication of their presence seems not to have been systematic – several of those included in this survey are not included – it has not been considered worthwhile recording them here.

David Thomson knew the Wallacestone area very well and in 1898 published his “Memories of Wallacestone, Polmont Parish” in which he mentions that there were three sundials in Redding in his time.  Unfortunately he provides no further details, just a poem:

“Another ancient relic here
Still points us to the past;
In Redding village we can trace
Where sunbeam’s rays were cast.

The ruins of the “old house” stand,
Which show two centuries gone;
The old sundial’s hid ‘mongst sand
And heaps of cumbrous stone.”


VII – Modern

The sundials in this section are arranged by approximate date. It is a typically eclectic fusion of styles. The use of new materials such as fireclay, cast iron and concrete revolutionised the production of garden furniture which could be distributed via the railway system. Nowadays garden centres are one of the chief means of propagating this species of structure as focal points in a well-appointed garden.

VIII – Unknown


According to Armstrong “The remains of an old sun-dial and some sculptured stones are still to be seen lying about near the house” at Newton to the east of Skinflats (Armstrong 1892, 112).  Unfortunately, no further information is available.


Armstrong, W.B.1892The Bruces of Airth and their Cadets.
Bailey, G.B.2004‘The Graveyards of Falkirk District; Part 9 Bothkennar, Calatria 21, 1-46.
Fleming, J.S.1902Ancient Castles and Mansions of the Stirling Nobility.
Gibson, J.C.1908Lands and Lairds of Larbert and Dunipace Parishes.
MacGibbon & Ross, T.1887Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland.
McPherson, W.1996‘John Russell, watch and clockmaker of Falkirk,’ Calatria 9, 85-96.
Murray, G.1887Records of Falkirk Parish
RCAHMS1963Stirlingshire: An inventory of the ancient monuments.
Ross, T.1890Ancient sundials of Scotland (with illustrations),’ Proc Soc Antiq Scotland 12, 161-273.
Reid, JForthcomingNotes on the place names of the Falkirk area.
Stevenson, W.B.1940Sundials of six Scottish counties, near Glasgow,’ Transactions of the Glasgow Archaeological Society, New Series Vol 9, No 4, 227-186.

G.B. Bailey (2021)