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Kirkintilloch Town and Parish
Tis Sixty Years Since


If any person who knew Kirkintilloch fifty to sixty years ago and left it then, were to return to it now, he would scarcely know the ancient town. Some of the old familiar objects still remain, but very few. The old court-house and jail with the steeple and bell are still unchanged, and the Townhead “Brig” over the canal has not been dispensed with; the canal itself having still the old familiar aspect. Everything else, speaking generally, has been “transmogrified embellished, or replaced: even “Luggie Brig" he would find as an old friend with a new face.

Thatch roofs are now a thing of the past; only a few being left; and the old buildings are replaced by handsome houses and shops; few empty spaces next the streets being now unoccupied. Pavements are universal with well-made kerbs; and the sewerage of the town may be said to be perfect. Some handsome new churches have been erected, and many elegant villas at Bellfield and other suburbs. Water is brought in abundance from the Campsie hills by gravitation.

The present generation can scarcely conceive the appearance and condition of the town, say about 1838.

Most likely the first houses would be built around the Cross near the old fort, and the east road from it to the river Luggie for watering of cows probably, would determine the line of East High Street; West High Street would no doubt be always the road to Glasgow; and the Cowgate is almost sure to have been from its name, the “gate” or road along which the cows were driven to pasture; although all these names are too old for their origin to be handed down even by tradition.


Townhead, from the Canal Bridge.

As the place began to increase and new buildings were erected, the magistrates would no doubt see that these roads or streets were kept a certain width clear of buildings or obstructions, but in all other respects everyone must have been left to the freedom of his own will to build his house high or low as he chose, and with either the front or the gable, or one of the corners facing the street, just as he fancied. As regards side streets, they were out of municipal control altogether, and seem to have been originally formed, and the houses built, as the proprietors found it convenient for their own purposes. At all events such was the opinion generated at the sight of the town about the period named—to use a phrase much used by boys at that time, the place seemed to have “hung as it grew.”

Many of the houses had thatch roofs, and there were neither pavements nor drainage. Huge open gutters or “sheuchs” on either side of the streets, received all the sewage, and the odour from them in warm weather was anything but agreeable. Water-closets had not then been invented, and every house had its own “midden” or dunghill, which was only emptied when it was full to overflowing.

It is said that the city of Cologne at one time afforded seventeen distinct smells, and Kirkintilloch although deficient in number, might rival it in the distinctness of its smells. Little wonder that fevers and other diseases were rife, or that cholera committed its ravages.

All this is completely changed now, and is only referred to as a matter of history. Nor are the people at that period to be blamed: the evils were the growth of centuries of habit; and sanitary science was unknown and undreamt of, most towns in Scotland being in the same state.

The towns of England seem to have been no better, for John Shakespeare, father of our great dramatist, was in 1552 sued along with others for-piling up a dunghill in Hanley Street, Stratford-on-Avon: and in 1558 he was, among other persons fined “fourpence” for not keeping their gutters clean. David Garrick, the celebrated actor who in 1769 conducted a gala or festival in honour of Shakespeare, wrote of Stratford-on-Avon as “the most dirty, unseemly, ill-paved, wretched looking town in all Britain.”

“I asked the magistrates of Inverness one day, when the dirt was almost above one’s shoes, why they suffered the town to be so excessively dirty and did not employ people to clean the streets? The answer was—‘ It will not be long before we shall have a shower.—Burt, 1630.”

When the municipal authorities of a certain Scotch town, anxious to improve its sanitary condition, were endeavouring to persuade the inhabitants to remove the heaps of ashes and refuse which lay before their doors, one old dame—indignant at this encroachment upon her rights—seized the broomstick, mounted guard upon her rubbish, and exclaimed in tragic tones to the councillors, “Na, na, gentlemen, ye may tak my life, if ye will hae’t, but ye shanna touch my midden.”

They were, after all, only in somewhat of the condition of the Saxon Princess Rowena, whose bedroom walls "were covered with richly embroidered hangings, and illuminated with large wax torches; but the walls were so full of crevices that the hangings shook to the night blast, and the flame of the torches streamed sideways into the air; comfort being unknown it was unmissed," The wells of the town were great and valuable institutions, being few in number and the only resource of the inhabitants for water. Only two of these were public wells; one in the Townhead, and another in the Cowgate; and such was their importance, and the demand on their resources, that large committees were appointed to see fair play, and that each could only draw water in turn. There was a good well at the granary near Luggie Bridge, another on the opposite side of the street at Bailie Dickson’s, and one at Braehead, the water of which had the reputation of being good but hard. A fourth was at the Peel, and it is a slur on some one that it is not open at this day as a curiosity, which it would be to many. The late Hugh Macdonald author of “Rambles round Glasgow” visited it, and thus writes of it in 1856 :—

“A well faced with stone still occupies a portion of the fosse; and while we are lingering on the spot, a boy from the neighbouring town comes to fill his “stoups” at the very fountain from whence the soldiers of Antonine may have drawn the same cool and crystal fluid 2,000 years ago”

In a drought the people had to get water from the river Luggie which served for some purposes, but bakers had to get good water carted from considerable distances.

Before the introduction of gas it can easily be guessed that walking the streets on moonless nights was never a recreation, and for children it was a painful task. To add to the horrors of the "sheuchs,” and the danger of falling in, the air was thick with rumours of resurrectionists, and stories of Burke and Hare. There was also a pretty strong belief in ghosts and witches.

With all the modem improvements, however, and the increased comforts and conveniences of civilisation, somehow or other Kirkintilloch was even a more lively and “heartsome” place then than now.

These were the days of the mail coaches and carriers carts, before railways were much in vogue; and the old town had her full share of the profit and excitement of the traffic on the roads, which were the principal mediums of conveyance for passengers and goods.

But the canal was quite as interesting as the roads, for the trade on it was also very great. All the traffic between Edinburgh and Glasgow, Falkirk, and other places on the route, passed through Kirkintilloch; and the passenger boats were objects of unceasing interest Boat-houses or sheds were erected on either side of the Townhead bridge, for the convenience of the travelling public.

There were three kinds of boats for passengers then in use viz.: “swifts,” “flys,” or “hoolets,” and "luggage boats.”

The “swift,” as its name betokens, was the fastest, and carried only passengers, with their personal luggage. The traffic paid the canal company well, and they spared no pains nor expense to get the best horses, in order to keep up the reputation for speed and regularity which the “swifts” had acquired. They were drawn by two horses in each—one in front of the other, the rider on the rear horse being always a young lad in smart livery, guiding both animals, and carrying a long whip to aid him, which he could crack like a pistol-shot.

No one in Kirkintilloch now cares a button about the arrival of a train from Glasgow unless friends are coming, but the arrival of the “swift” from Glasgow every evening was an event that interested the whole inhabitants. If the majority did not expect friends, they knew others who did, and all shared an interest in the event of the day. In fact, there was a feverish expectation pervading the whole place for an hour previously, which nothing could allay, but the arrival and departure of the object itself, after which the town settled down for the night. There was always a small crowd, more especially of boys, awaiting the arrival of the “swift,” and straining their eyes to catch the first peep of it coming round the turn; and, when she did appear, not an eye was diverted from her till she fairly drew up. But a good deal happened before that event. The Irish post-boy always reserved a trot for the avenue, and the “swift,” in approaching Kirkintilloch, put its best foot foremost—if we may use the expression—the post-boy having always in reserve not only a trot but a full gallop.

We shall try to impart to our readers some idea of the grandeur of the scene which impressed our youthful imagination so, that at the expiry of over fifty years the recollection vividly remains. Let the reader imagine himself to be standing at the canal bridge while the boat is gliding “swiftly” towards him and just approaching the foot of the hill: suddenly a loud blast of the captain’s horn is heard, plainly announcing “look out, we are coming,” just as if the Kirkintilloch people would not know, or might forget—why, they were looking out for the captain far more anxiously than he was for them. The blast however might be meant for the post-boy too; at all events as soon as he heard it, crack went his whip, and off went the horses at a gallop up the hill. They were no time in mounting that hill, you saw them at the foot, and before you had time to breathe there were the two panting animals alongside of you, the post-boy sitting like a king on his throne, and as grandly dressed. Talk of the Derby! it is nothing to it.

The “hoolets” went chiefly by night, as their name implies, but some went by day as well. They were drawn by three or sometimes four horses, the driver riding a pony alongside. They carried goods and passengers, but, going at a slow rate, seldom carried more than ten or twelve travellers in each. They were favourites with many however, for fast travelling was not coveted then as it is now, and they were comfortable, easy-going vessels with two decks, and a steward's room where eatables, and more especially drinkables, were sold. Newspapers in these days were scarce, and readers still scarcer, so that the people on board were driven to pass the time in spinning yarns as sailors call it, and cracking jokes.

There is a part of the canal near Auchinsterry where there is a very sharp curve—the sharpest on the whole canal —it is known as the Elbow Point, but better still as “the Deil’s Elbow.” A sailor had been entertaining his fellow travellers from Glasgow with the wonders he had seen and the places he had sailed. The boat was just turning the Elbow Point, when a passenger asked him if he had ever sailed round the Deil’s Elbow. “No,” said the sailor, “I never heard of it.” “I beat you there,” said the other, “for I have sailed round it many times, and here it is.” In the time of harvest, many Irishmen came over to the Broomielaw and took passage by the “hoolets” for the eastern counties. They often wore leggings of a material not now used for that purpose, being simply a straw rope twisted round the leg from the ankle to the knee, and very often they carried geese in their arms, brought all the way from Ireland.

The “luggage” boats carried generally only goods, and travelled slowly—they were built to carry forty tons.

The canal company had extensive stables built at regular stations all along the canal, and the horses were very frequently changed, the speed at which they were driven being such as could not be long maintained. The first stage from Glasgow was at Lambhill, next, Glasgow Bridge, then Shirva, Craigmarloch, and so on.

The canal company in 1852 leased their passenger traffic to Messrs. A. & J. Taylor who kept a boat plying, drawn by horses, till i860, when they procured a new screw steamer, the Rockvilla. It was sold after a few years to Mr. George Aitken, who carried it on with much acceptance to the public—with whom he was a favourite—till he was unfortunately drowned, when the boat was sold to go to Paisley; she carried twenty-six cabin, and sixty steerage passengers.

The glories of canal passenger traffic have been revived this year, better than ever, by Messrs. James Aitken & Co., Limited, who have the s.s. Fairy Queen built at Irvine and carrying about 250 passengers. She is two-decked, and is another Columba in miniature—one advantage being that in the event of her sinking, the passengers have just to remain on the upper deck, and they will not be immersed, the canal not being deep enough to drown them. The Fairy Queen is an elegant and commodious vessel and has a comfortable saloon, besides a refreshment room. She plies between Glasgow, Kirkintilloch, and Craigmarloch, and is well patronised, especially by picnic parties.

There is a place on the canal a little west of Kirkintilloch called by the singular name of Hungryside—the captain of one of the swifts used to say that it was wrong-named altogether, for more fat women came on board there than any place on the canal.

Besides all this, an immense amount of cartage of goods was going on. The Hurlet and Campsie Alum Company brought all their supplies by canal to Hillhead, from whence they were carted to their works at Campsie, and a large staft of horses and carts was required for the purpose.

The quantity of coals brought from the Monklands by rail and shipped at the basin was for these days very great, and vessels came regularly from all parts of Scotland for cargoes. The town people were by this means kept in regular and friendly communication with such distant ports as Aberdeen, Montrose, etc., not to mention a multitude of places nearer.

In this connection we give some statistics of the traffic by road and canal.


The fare by coach between Edinburgh and Glasgow was 14/ inside and 10/ outside—average charge between other places, 3d. per mile. Time from Edinburgh to Glasgow, five hours; and between other places, eight miles per hour. The distance by road from Edinburgh 10 Glasgow is, via Bathgate and Airdrie, 43 miles; via Shotts, 43 miles ; and via Falkirk, 47 miles.

As a result of the slow and limited means of communication with the outside world, the people of Kirkintilloch were thoroughly provincial in spirit. The parish was their country, and beyond it were folk with whom they had little or nothing to do. The town itself was divided into imaginary sections—the Cowgate and Broadcroft looked on the Townhead as a friendly people, but occupying a different territory; and Hillhead was a distant outpost.

As may be supposed, strangers had to run the gauntlet of all eyes and tongues; and if one settled down in the town, he was regarded as a foreigner or “ incomer,” as the phrase was, for many a day.

People then lived a quieter and simpler life than now, and were never in a hurry. It was a proverb in use, “Naething should be done in a hurry except catching fleas.,,

There was a great deal of quiet social enjoyment, which would be too slow for the present generation. Commercial travellers came by coach generally, and stayed a night or two, being always hospitably entertained by the inhabitants, and made lions of, for the sake of the “gran crack” they gave, and the wonderful news they brought from the outside world, even so far distant sometimes as Manchester or Birmingham.


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