From the twelfth century A.D. until shortly after the Reformation, Falkirk lay in two separate baronies: Callendar and Abbotskerse. During that time each of the two portions of the town would have been administered by their respective barony courts. In 1600 the town, by then united under the barony of Callendar, was created a Burgh of Barony thereby allowing its administration to be conducted by a Baron Baillie Court under the auspices of the baron of Callendar. The principal baillie was a hereditary office and, in this instance, was nominally the Lord of Callendar. In practice, the court was normally headed by baillie-deputes appointed by the Lord of Callendar although the court books do record occasions when the baron presided. One of the results of the Jacobite Risings in the first half of the eighteenth century was a diminution of baronial powers, although baronial courts still prevailed. However, the loyalty of the Livingstons of Callendar to the Stuart cause, with their participation in the 1714-15 Rising, brought about the forfeiture of their lands, titles and offices. The court did not cease immediately following the forfeiture: the last recorded sitting was on 13th April 1725. It is apparent though that it did eventually fall into abeyance and Falkirk was left without an administrative body. This vacuum was filled to some extent by a group of men known as the Stentmasters.
The office of Stentmaster was not peculiar to Falkirk for they appear to have operated in many Scottish burghs, if not all. A stent was usually an assessment of property, sometimes of trade, and occasionally both. The sum assessed might be used for a variety of purposes but in Falkirk its purpose was to raise revenue for bringing water to the town. While in most burghs there seems to have been 15 men appointed to be Stentmasters at any one time, in Falkirk there were 24. Anciently, they were elected by the merchants and tradesmen of the town; four were chosen by the merchants, the hammermen, wrights, weavers, shoemakers, masons, tailors, bakers and brewers each elected two. In the nineteenth century this was extended to allow each of the four quarters of the town, ‘Vicars Loan, Eastburn Bridge, Randygate, Westburnbridge’, to elect a representative.
How the Stentmasters came to be operating as a quasi municipal administration is not known. When, in 1793, their powers were called into question they had to defend their role before a sheriff-substitute. Then they could not even say how long the body had been in existence, merely stating that, as far as they were concerned, the period was ‘altogether unknown’ although they had records of accounts dating from 1751. However, the records of the Baron Court show Stentmasters active in the town in 1701. As to when they effectively began to attempt to manage the affairs of Falkirk they claimed to have done so for a ‘period beyond the memory of man’. When asked by the sheriff what their duties were they replied that not only did they looked after the water pipes, the town well and ensured the water supply but they kept the steeple and clock in good repair, employed someone to ring the town bell every morning and evening, employed the town drummer to perform the duties of town officer and publish by ‘tuck o’ drum’ any ‘advertisements’ issued by them.
Most famously in 1814 the Stentmasters promoted the replacement of the ruined steeple by the fine building we have today. They failed to raise the ?1,500 they needed and had to borrow two thirds of the total. When, in 1837, they were involved in a further court case it is evident that they had broadened the scope of their duties. As well as those formerly listed, they then also had responsibility for the streets and market-place. They also controlled ‘encroachments on the public streets by any of the inhabitants or others’ and they appointed a billet master to organise quartering of troops within the town. Furthermore they had responsibility for the town’s two fire engines and ‘relative pipes’ as well as several pieces of communal property.
Although the function of the Stentmasters really came to an end with the creation of a Town Council in 1833 they continued to play a part in the affairs of the town until the Council was given real powers in the Falkirk Police and Improvement Bill in 1859. In November of that year the Stentmasters held their last meeting at which their books, documents and funds – and debts- were handed over to the council.
John Reid (2005)