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The History of Stirlingshire
Chapter XIX. Larbert


Larbert, notwithstanding its significant etymology, is no field of action; rather a quiet and stirless sort of village, with a parish population of about 5,000. But half a century ago, when the late Mr. Ramsay, of Barnton, drove his "four in hand" for the conveyance of travellers between Stirling and Edinburgh, and vice versa, the dull monotony of the place was at intervals, relieved by a passing excitement. This hamlet, in its water power, offers rare resources for manufacturing; and the wonder is that some busy mill has not ere now been erected here. The Caledonian Railway also runs within gunshot; while an abundance of female labour might likewise be had from the adjoining districts.

Entering the churchyard, the ruins of the "old kirk" first arrest attention. The house, which was of oblong form, and severely plain, was built by Robert Bruce of Kinnaird, who for many years officiated as pastor. But nothing whatever of the old sanctuary remains save the walls of the session-house, within which lies the dust of several members of the ancient families of Elphinstone and Dundas. Contiguous to the church entrance, stood the "Deil’s Stane;" so called from its having borne those foul images of mortality, the skull and cross-bones. How infinitely more worthy of a Christian country the spiritual symbolism which heathen philosophy and art delighted in – a butterfly arising from a chrysalis? Here moulder the ashes of Bruce, who was buried directly underneath the pulpit. It was this manly, resolute, and learned Scot who had the somewhat extravagant compliment from James VI. of being "worth half of the kingdom;" a kingliness of character, however, which, with the fickle monarch, afterwards led to Bruce’s imprisonment and temporary banishment. A simple stone, rudely sculptured, marks the spot of his sepulture. Thus runs the inscription: - "Christos in vita et in morte lucrum." An iron railing, chaste in design, has lately been placed round the grave.

Another tomb-stone indicates the last resting-place of the Rev. Francis M’Gil. The brief career of this talented young minister was marked by few eventual incidents, but the acceptance with which he laboured among an affectionate and appreciative people in the assiduous discharge of his pastoral duties, made his premature death a bitter heart-grief throughout the united parishes of Larbert and Dunipace. Ordained in 1843, he died, January, 1847, in his twenty-eighth year. On the north side of the monument we have the last text from which he preached, - John ix. 4. There are other incriptions which speak eloquently of the deceased clergyman’s worth in the pulpit and family, but this laconic epitaph might, of itself, have sufficed: - "Obdormivit in Christo."

The Rev. John M’Laren, with an assistant, is presently minister here and at Dunipace. After a hard and bitter contest, through another presentee, he succeeded Mr. M’Gil, and soon won, as he has retained, the sincere respect of all classes of his parishioners.

In the north-west corner of the churchyard an iron railing, of good height, surrounds the burial-place of the Carron family. Within the enclosure stands a tasteful obelisk of granite to the memory of Joseph Dawson, who was manager for the company, from 1825 to 1850; and immediately behind this is a structure, chaste and simple, to Joseph Stainton, who preceded Mr. Dawson in office, while on the south side a mausoleum, in the form of a small Greek temple of elegant proportions, has been erected over the grave of William Dawson, late manager of the works. At one end is a gate of beautiful bronze work, having an open lattice in its upper half, through which a view may be had of the interior. In this shrine, or cella, which is lighted from the roof, a marble statue, representing the "Angel of the Resurrection" was placed a few months ago. Carved out of a speckled block of white marble, the statue rests on a low basement of bluish grey Sicilian, harmonising in style with the architecture of the mausoleum. The figure, which is on a scale somewhat larger than life, has been designed in a sitting posture, body and limbs being draped in a loose robe, through which the contours are freely expressed. The right hand grasps a straight trumpet, which is held in a diagonal position across the breast, while the left rests easily on a closed book lying upon the lap. The head is held erect, with an upward look that indicates expectancy, and with this the whole attitude happily corresponds, the disposition of the lower limbs bespeaking readiness to rise on the giving of the watched-for signal.

But the tomb-stone here of real note is that over the remains of James Bruce, the Abyssinian traveller, who achieved, in part, what mankind had been struggling after for three thousand years – the tracing to its source of the Bahr-el-Azrek, or Blue Nile. Down in a sheltered enclosure to the south of the churchyard stands the spiral monument, wrapt in utter stillness, and which, adorned with various emblematical figures and Greek inscriptions, was erected by Bruce to the memory of Mary Dundas, his wife, who died February 10th, 1785. On another side we also read that "In this tomb are deposited the remains of James Bruce, of Kinnaird, who died on the 27th April, 1794, in the sixty-fourth year of his age. His life was spent in performing useful and splendid actions; he explored many distant regions; he discovered the fountains of the Nile(?); and traversed the deserts of Nubia. He was an affectionate husband, an indulgent parent, an ardent lover of his country. By the unanimous voice of mankind, his name is enrolled with those who were conspicuous for genius, for valour, and for virtue."

"Rear high the cenotaph of stone and lime;
‘Tis all ye can do; he hath done the rest.
Fame in his heritage; impartial time
Shall know him when the walls are ruin-drest."

Some twenty-three years ago, a loudly called-for addition was made to the burial ground, by the yet thinly tenanted "acre" that adjoins the manse garden on the west. Among the first entombments here was that of a local lad, Tom Aitken, who was cut off suddenly in the springtime of his life, while showing unmistakeable signs of genius and high achievement. His nature was winning and gentle, yet full of force and character.

"’Twas in the flush of fiery youth he went,
His work unwrought, his laurel wreath unwon."

The intense and wide-spread excitement which prevailed in the earlier part of the present century from the cruel trade of body-snatching, must be fresh in the memory of many still alive. In grave spoliation for purposes of dissection, only one "subject" was known to have been taken from the Larbert burial ground. It was that of a girl named Moir, whose corpse was lifted shortly after interment. But the young "Athenians" were not allowed to carry her far. On their route to Edinburgh, they had, for the night, to conceal the body in a dung-heap at Polmont; and the proprietor’s carts proceeded in the morning for a portion of the manure, the diabolical theft was opportunely detected. Nor did the upturning of the corpse create any great surprise. Its presence, at least, was no matter of prolonged bewilderment. The student enterprise was caught at a glance. Night again came, and watch was laid for the return of the "burglars"; and, just as had been anticipated, forward drove the Surgeon Square party for the body. No sooner, however, had they left with their charge, than Mr. Scott, of Gilston, rode smartly on in front of them; and, by the time they reached Linlithgow, the whole strength of the town was turned out for their defeat. Rough, indeed, was the usage they received. Not only was the corpse most unceremoniously taken from the conveyance, but the machine itself was drawn to the roadside and broken to fragments. The body of the young woman was afterwards brought back to Larbert and reinterred. For some months after this, the watch-house – still standing in the churchyard – was regularly occupied. Latterly, however, burial ground watching became a mere farce.

A curious class of friendly societies arose out of the resurrectionist panic which thus set in, about 1829, on the detection of Burke and Hare. They were called mortcloth and safe societies. The mortsafe was a heavy metal case, or a wooden-house with a stone, which was put over the coffin of the dead for some weeks after interment, and watched by a party of members, to all of whom both mortcloth and safe were free; but, at the same time, were let out on a charge to non-members.

We have spoken of the old kirk of Larbert. But what of the new? Of the common Tudor style, it is yet a model edifice, and charmingly situated on the north bank of the Carron; whose lullabying waters, now in pools, now in shallows, wimple peacefully down through the gleaming arches of the adjacent viaduct. Soothingly sweet, too, almost beyond rivalry, are the melodious tones of its Sabbath bell.

Larbert house, for many years the residence of the Stirling-Chalmers family, lies concealed on the north. The estate, though small, is finely wooded – a really pleasant loophole of retreat, and was lately the property of Mr. John Hendrie, coalmaster, Glasgow. Here, also, in the valley of the river, on the former site of a snuff-mill, are the Carron Company’s grinding works for the polishing of smoothing-irons, and other metal articles requiring high finish.

Stenhousemuir, once known simply as Sheeplees, has now a population of fully 2,000. The houses of the orderly little hamlet, chiefly one and two storeyed, have an exceedingly clean and comfortable look; and belong, for the most part, to the occupants who are employed at Carron. Southwards, the village view is beautiful, embracing the Falkirk braes, with a lovely undertract of country; and on the east, the thick woods of Callendar, with the hill of Cocklerue, which stands 911 feet above the level of the sea. The only public works in the immediate vicinity, in addition to those at Carron, are the foundry of Messrs. Dobbie & Forbes, and an extensive timber-yard belonging to Mr. James Jones. In February, 1861, a penny savings’ bank was started in the village by several local gentlemen, the present membership of which is about 400; while the weekly deposits average 20 pounds. In 1862, its capital on hand was 353 pounds; in 1867, 675 pounds; in 1872, 1,028 pounds; in 1877, 1,884 pounds; and in 1879, 2,105 pounds.

A handsome public hall, which has been erected near the south-east end of the tryst ground, speaks of the local volunteers. Through the purchase of shares, individually, to a gross capital of 400 pounds, these riflemen got themselves furnished with the above fine building, which includes an excellent officers’ room and armoury. An extensive library, consisting of popular modern works, has also been added to the other advantages of this "enterprise" on the part of the Carron corps.

At the east end of the muir we have the Free Church – an unassuming building with burial-ground attached, of which the Rev. Finlay Macpherson is pastor. The Rev. John Bonar, latterly of Glasgow, who was first and former minister here, came out of the local parish kirk at the Disruption of 1843, and many of the inhabitants must still have a vivid recollection of the services given by that earnest divine the Sabbath following the leave-taking at Larbert. The people, of whom there were a considerable number, met under the shade of the grand old thorn, near Torwood glen, which may still be seen in a green and fruitful maturity, marking the spot of the excommunication of Charles II., Duke of York, by the persecuted but undaunted Donald Cargill; and the scene was undoubtedly impressive as the long grey locks of the impassioned preacher ever and anon rose and shook in the breezy air.

The estate of Stenhouse, the property of Sir William C. Bruce, Bart., lies about a mile to the east. The founder of this family was a brother of Robert Bruce of Kinnaird. His eldest son, William, a man of splendid parts, was created a baronet of Nova Scotia by Charles I., in 1629. Stout in heart, strong in limb, and sound in brain were several of those forerunning Bruces. There was even the Sir Michael, for example, of Arthur’s O’on notoriety, whose eldest son would be a soldier. As he left the parental roof – "Andrew," said the father, "if I thought you’d turn your back upon man, I’d shoot you where you stand." Then followed the mother’s gentle yet not less valour-inspiring counsel – "Never take an affront, Andrew, nor ever give one." How like the heroic precept which the Spartan mothers were wont to give their sons as they set out for the battlefield – "Either bring home your shield, my boy, or be brought home upon it."

As to the origin of the Falkirk Trysts, still held here, little definitely is known. Their establishment, however, was beyond doubt subsequent to the Union. Duncan Shaw, of Crathinard, who is said to have originated the markets, acted at one time as a cattle-drover. He appeared at Falkirk in 1710 with a specially large drove, a number of which he was commissioned by neighbours and others to sell. An Englishman, apparently wealthy, offered to purchase the whole. The bargain was struck, and the animals driven away; but the purchaser also disappeared without paying. Shaw on his return sold Crathinard to Farquharson of Invercauld, and paid his neighbours what was due them, as well as his other creditors by whom he had been entrusted with part of the cattle. He then took a lease of Cranthard, in Glenisla, from the Earl of Airlie, and transported his numerous family thither, some on horseback, and the children in baskets slung on ponies – the usual mode of conveyance in those days. Six years afterwards he again met his customer at a market in Forfar. The delinquent professed great penitence, paid his old debt, and purchased Shaw’s present stock, for which he gave ready money then and there. Shaw treated his retainers so liberally on this occasion that it became a common saying, when there was a good market, that there had not been one like it since the time when Duncan Shaw’s men drunk their bickerfuls of whisky.

The first of these once great cattle markets took place on the Redding Ridge, and occurred annually. They were, however, only two in number, instead of three as latterly – held in the months of August, September, and October. Eventually came their removal further west to the lands of Roughcastle, in the neighbourhood of Greenhill; and where, along the summit of the moor, tents were erected for the convenience and comfort of dealers. It was not until the year 1785 that the trysts were held on the large common of 75 acres at Stenhousemuir, a site than which none could be more suitable and central. The wild and open character of the Bonnymuir locality no doubt influenced the Highlanders to seek more sheltered quarters from their friend the Sassenach. Yet even the present stance, eighty years ago, was rugged and moorish enough, being little better than a perfect cover of broom, and which was so strong in the growth that the herd boys from the adjacent farms had to mount their phail-huts to see, from the movement of the bushy branches, the whereabouts of their scattered cattle.

At the outset, the show of animals was limited, both as regards sorts and numbers. During 1825 and 1840, there was not a white beast to be seen at these trysts. But, eventually, Irish-bred cattle appeared, and afterwards the shorthorns; when the business of dealing in north country stock came to be worthless. Mr. M’Combie of Tillyfour, whose name will always be associated with the breeding of polled cattle, had, as a rule, the best beasts on the ground. At one of the Michaelmas markets, he sold 1,500 head; and the highest figure here for feeding animals, sixty years ago, was 13 pounds. The Williamsons of St. John’s Wells, Bethelnie, and Easter Crichie; and the Armstrongs from Yorkshire, bought largely of good cattle at the trysts; while another English dealer, Robert M’Turk, whose credit was unlimited, has been known to purchase seventy score of highlanders without dismounting from his pony. The Carmichaels were also an extensive firm of English buyers; but when cattle were selling dear, dealers from England, Wales, Ireland, and all parts of Scotland congregated at Larbert.

The locomotive, however, has swept away much that was interesting in connection with the trysts. There is no longer the stir either of dealers or "droves" that once characterised the Stenhousemuir neighbourhood on their approach. The pasture fields for miles around were wont to be literally packed with sheep and cattle; and the incessant bleatings and rowtings that were heard morning, noon, and night, from every point of the parish, together with the barking-din of the dogs, and the impassioned shoutings and whistlings of the Gaels, broke, in liveliest fashion, the quiet monotony of village life. Sellers, in fact, were usually forward by the Friday of the preceding week, and it was no uncommon thing to see them in the market the following Thursday; whereas, in these snorting steam days, they may be said to arrive at Larbert in the morning, and to depart the same afternoon for their mountains and their homes.

A description of the tryst-ground on the Tuesday, say, of the October fair, would, no doubt, form a page of attractive reading; but a spectacle so bewildering in brute bustle could only be graphically depicted by a master-pen. During the heat of business, we have seen some fifty acres fully occupied with the various concomitants of the market; and sellers know well that both cattle and sheep are the better of a good rouse up when the buyer is inspecting them. But none of the many breeds which are there brought into keen competition look half so noble as the brave west-highlander.

"The watchful eyes are fierce, yet soft,
As falcon’s o’er her harried nest;
His curving horns and shaggy crest
Are swept aloft.

Beyond the snow of Ben-y-Gloe,
He sees upon the mountain’s face
The birth-place of his hardy race,
His own Glencoe."

The refreshment tents are invariably planted on the east side of the muir; three or four of which have banking-boxes attached where payments, by the principal buyers, are generally made. And here, there is also the horse market numerously stocked with all sorts of the animal from the finest Clydesdale to the shaggiest Shetland pet. The strip of ground that lies within the double line of tents forms an excellent run for the "coupers" in galloping out their spirited roadsters under the rousing din of hat and whip-shaft. The weekly auction sales, now common in almost every country town, have greatly affected the numbers of both cattle and sheep that were wont to be shown at these once large and widely-known markets; but horses, on the other hand, are, year after year, as numerous and varied in class and character as the tryst-ground even in its palmiest days exhibited. Twelve years ago, a series of monthly markets for the sale of feeding stock were opened, and have proved a decided success.

In the same neighbourhood we have two very handsome and imposing buildings – the Scottish National Institution for the Training of Imbecile Children, and the Lunatic Asylum for the counties of Stirling, Dumbarton, Linlithgow, and Clackmannan. The situation of the establishments is all that could be desired; while the locality is alike healthy and picturesque. About fourteen years ago, a few gentlemen, stimulated by the labours of Dr. Guggenbuhl amongst the cretins of Switzerland, commenced a small institution in Edinburgh for the education of imbeciles, which was afterwards transferred to the district of Larbert. And here we have certainly one of our most excellent charities. It is computed that, in Scotland alone, there are at least 3000 idiots, a large portion of whom are the children of poor parents who are unable to do anything either for them or with them. In this institution, of which Mr. W.W. Ireland is medical superintendent, there are now 71 male and 41 female pupils, from six years old and upwards. The buildings, however, are capable of accommodating from 200 to 250 inmates. A pretty flower-bordered walk leads up to the chief entrance; but a considerable space is allotted to play-grounds, bright with gowans and buttercups, and bearing plenty of grass for the little "feeble folk" to tumble in.

In connection with the Lunatic Asylum there are a farm of 75 acres, and pleasure grounds extending to 20. The building, which stands well to the south of the property, lies almost parallel to the Institution for Imbeciles that overlooks the western bank of the Caledonian Railway at Muirhall. It is situated, as we have said, in a quiet and thoroughly rural district, at a distance from any large centre of population, yet not so entirely removed from the healthy activity of industrial life as to render the place depressing from felt isolation. But an expenditure of 40,000 pounds should have something striking to show for itself. And the lineaments of the building lean to the massive side. With a frontage, or fašade, of 340 feet, and a wing on east and west 170 feet in depth, its appearance, as you approach it from the tryst-ground, is imposing. Internally, the house is perfect – compact, comfortable, and commodious. The dining-hall, which is formed on the ground floor in front of the centre block, measures 53 feet by 28; adjoining it on either side are

the day-rooms, lavatories, laundry, &c. The chapel stands immediately over the dining-hall, and is of similar dimensions. At present, the asylum, which is under the medical superintendent of Mr. James Maclaren, contains 153 males, and 163 females. Since its opening, about ten years ago, there have been admitted for the first time 1,066 patients, and re-admitted 186, making a total of 1,252. Stirling county, with a population of 98,218, sent 598; Dumbarton, with 58,659, sent 310; Linlithgow, with 40,695, sent 176; and Clackmannan, with 23,747, sent 139.

Medical knowledge has certainly greatly advanced of late years with regard to the treatment of the insane. How appalled we stand at the ignorance which was displayed by the old mad doctors in their management of the class, whether suffering from simple monomania or from general derangement of the intellect. Chained in filthy cells, and couched on straw, even the least refractory were treated more like vicious brutes than human beings. But while it does our humanity credit that barbarous devices for the torture of the mentally afflicted are things of the past, the feeling is common that our present system of asylum management is conducted on too grand and indulgent a scale; and the question is bound to force itself sooner or later on the country as to whether our pauper lunatics might not be cared for kindly and comfortably at far less cost.


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