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History of Falkirk

As a centre of population Falkirk has occupied an important place for centuries.  Even before the dawn of recorded history its position on a high ridge of land between the moorlands to the south and the wet carselands to the north must have appealed to the primitive inhabitants of the country as a desirable place in which to erect their rude huts and to throw up their defences against the possibility of attack.

Then too, the ridge of Falkirk was on the direct route between Edinburgh, Linlithgow, Stirling and the North, and it would be early seen that it was advantageous to have a settlement which was not more than a day's journey between those other ancient places of habitation, Linlithgow and Stirling.

Traces of the occupation of the district by these early settlers are still occasionally dug up, but the recorded history of the Falkirk district cannot be said to begin until the year A.D. 82, when the Roman general Agricola launched his invasion of Caledonia.  Agricola did not find the wild Caledonians an easy prey, meekly prepared to resign themselves to suffering the Roman yoke, and he was compelled by sheer force of circumstances, to build a line of forts from the Forth to the Clyde in order to keep them in check and to protect his Legions from retaliatory raids.

This chain of forts strung along the waist of Scotland was reinforced sixty years later by the building of Antonines's Wall, the ditch and rampart fortification which ran right through the site of the present town.

The records left by the Romans make no mention of a town at Falkirk, but it is probable that there was a settlement there which may have been abandoned at the time of the invasion by the withdrawal of the native Caledonians to the shaggy woodland fastness to the north. There were, however, Roman forts at Roughcastle and Mumrills, on either side of the present site of the town, and the Romans, during their occupation, also built residences at Camelon, just north of the wall.

Roman stones at Dollar park.  Click picture to see larger image...
Roman Stones at Dollar Park

Sir John de Graeme's Tomb.  Click picture to see larger image...
Sir John de Graeme's Tomb

There was, however, nothing like an attempt on the part of the Romans to colonise the district.  Their occupation of the area was a purely military one.  The Roman residences at Camelon would in all likelihood be built for the convenience of time-expired men and for the women and children of the serving Legionaires.  Nor is it likely that Camelon was ever used as a port by the Romans, although it is possible that Camelon in Roman times was the highest point to which small ships could come.

For a period, after the Roman garrisons were withdrawn, the Falkirk area disappears from the pages of history. There is a mention - but the evidence for the truth of it is somewhat scanty - that St Modan, who became the patron saint of the town, came from around Loch Etive and planted the first Christian church in the district round about the year 700.

It was this, or a later, Christian foundation which gave Falkirk its name, which means the "speckled church" or "the church built of mottled stone". Incidentally, Falkirk can make the unique claim of having a name for itself in no fewer than six languages - Gaelic, Welsh, Norman, French, Latin Lowland Scots and English - a fact which in itself indicates the vicissitudes through which the town has passed.

Falkirk again comes clearly into the light of History in the year 1080, when Robert, son of William the Conqueror, has his army turned back at Egglesbreth, the Welsh name by which the settlement on the ridge of land above the carse was then known.  The town again emerges from the mists of the past in the record that Malcolm Canmore built a church there in 1090, probably at the prompting of his saintly Saxon Queen, Margaret.

By that time the district as far west as the valley of Carron was thoroughly Saxon. Among the Saxon families which lived in the area was one names Levings, the original members of which came over among the early immigrants, and were granted lands in the Lothians.  This family was destined to occupy a high place in the affairs of their adopted country and to become overlords of the district containing the settlement which was to become the town of Falkirk.

About 1150 one Malcolm received the great local estate of Callendar - a name, incidentally, which is of far older lineage than that of the Perthshire town.  After the fall of John Baliol, however, the estate was taken and given to the Levings whose family name had then become Livingston.

The Livingstons continued as lairds of the lands of Callendar until their forfeiture at the first Jacobite Rebellion in 1715.

In July 1298, the first battle of Falkirk was fought on a site which has been a subject of historical dispute. It has generally been believed, however, that the fields of battle extend from what is now the High Street of Falkirk to Bainsford. During the battle the "schiltrons" of Sir William Wallace bravely held their own until they were mown down by the English archers.  The Scottish schiltrons were circular formations of spearmen with their weapons pointed outwards. Between the closely formed spearmen stood a few archers of the Scottish army, and behind was a squadron of horse numbering about a thousand.

Reviewing his army, Wallace, the most heroic figure in Scottish history, is said to have remarked with dry humour "I have brocht ye to the ring; hap git ye can" - an invitation to a dance which turned out to be a sorry occasion for the Scots.  The Scottish horse, which should have ridden the English archers down, fled from the field, and despite one of the most gallant stands in the history of warfare, the schiltrons were broken and defeated.

Edward, however, was unable to complete the destruction of the Scottish army, and was compelled to lead his own forces south again, Falkirk once more faded from the pages of history, although it is certain that all the magnificent array of English chivalry which marched to the slaughter of Bannockburn in 1314 have passed through the town.

In 1488 a great conspiracy of nobles against James III, was hatched in the town of Falkirk, and this was followed by the little battle of Blackness. Previously, in 1450, the King had ennobled the Livingston family, and Sir James Livingston, the 6th Baron of Callendar, became the first Lord Callendar. He was followed in direct succession by five heirs, the last of which, in 1485, accompanied the girl Mary, Queen of Scots, to France, where he died.  His son John was slain at the Battle of Pinkie, and the succession then went to his brother, William, whose daughter was fated to play a part in the romantic history of Mary's unhappy reign.  Mary Livingston was one of the "Four Maries". When the young Queen Mary returned from France she found in Callendar House a place of peace and rest during her journeys through her unsettled realm, and it also formed a safe retreat for her when she was in danger during the period of plotting engineered by her half brother, Moray. It is recorded that the fair and gallant young Queen acted as god-mother to a Livingston infant in 1563.  The small, square apartment in Callendar House, in which she is said to have slept, still bears the nae of the Queen's room.

Second Battle of Falkirk Memorial. Click picture to see larger image..
Second Battle of Falkirk Memorial

Falkirk was never a Royal Burgh, but it became a Burgh of Regality with Lord Livingston as overseer, in 1646.  For a century nothing of note seems to have occurred until the second battle of Falkirk in January, 1746. This was a far different battle to the one in which Wallace's schiltrons has made such a heroic stand.

Prince Charles and his Highlanders were on their way back from England, and on the heights above Falkirk they signally defeated the English troops under the command of General Hawley, who must have been a most negligent and inefficient commander indeed.  It is recorded that the English lost about 400 dead and 700 prisoners, while Prince Charles' Highlanders only lost about forty men.

Despite these dramatic events, Falkirk was slowly developing as a municipality.  An old rhyme runs "Glasgow for bells, Linlithgow for wells, and Falkirk for beans and pease" - an allusion to the predominantly agricultural basis of the burgh.  The time was to come however when the town was to become a centre for far more than the sale of pulses. About 1710 Duncan Shaw, a great cattle drover of Crathinard, Glenisla, recognised the great cattle trysts of the town developed.

These trysts were held every year - the first in August, the second in September, and the last and largest in October. Nimmo, the historian of Stirlingshire, writing in 1777, states that "at one of these trysts which usually lasted two days, sometimes above 50,000 head of cattle have been assembled and sold off".  Originally the trysts were held on the common lands to the south of Falkirk, and later at Roughcastle.  The construction of the Forth and Clyde Canal, however, formed an obstacle to the movement of cattle and sheep, and the trysts were again transferred - this time to Stenhousemuir, where cattle, sheep and horses continued to come until the beginning of the present century. Gradually, however, these cattle fairs began to dwindle in importance, and half a century ago they practically ceased to exist.

Their place was taken by industry.  These is some word of the Dsrien Company contracting for Falkirk smith and cutlery work as early as 1695, but there was no really important industry in the district until 1760, when an Englishman, Dr Roebuck, founded Scotland's first iron foundry of any consequence in Scotland at Carron to the north of the town.  In doing so he set Falkirk on its career as a centre of the light castings iron trade, Falkirk Foundry starting up in 1819, followed by Abbot's and about a dozen others considerably later.  Tanneries came next, a distillery, timber yards, chemical works - Ross's works at Lime Road were started in 1845 - and Falkirk gradually changed from an agricultural market town to a busy centre of industry.

Not without influence in the development of the town was the construction of the Forth and Clyde Canal. This canal - first envisaged by Daniel Defoe, author of "Robinson Crusoe", and first surveyed by the famous engineer, Smeaton, 1763 - was not completed until 1790. In view of the importance of its opening, the town of Grangemouth was founded by Sir Lawrence Dundas in 1777.  The Union Canal, linking the Forth and Clyde Canal with Edinburgh, did not come through until 1822.

It is interesting to note that a few years later the Rapid, the first of the swift boats to Glasgow, was built at Tophill at the west end of Falkirk, whilst the engine of one of the earliest paddle steamers was built at Carron as far back as 1789.  The Edinburgh and Glasgow railway had tunnelled through to Falkirk High Station by 1840, and the pattern of the town's communications was set for a considerable period.

From the middle of the 17th century to 1859, the affairs of the burgh of Falkirk were managed by the Stentmasters, a body elected by the trades of the town and latterly also by districts of Falkirk.  Their duties, while largely financial, included repairs to the market place, the streets, water pipes, cisterns and wells, the Town Steeple; and the prevention of encroachments on the public streets by any of the inhabitants or others.  They also had the duty of appointing a billeting master and a town drummer, and were responsible for the management of the general policy of the town and also for the laying of assessments on the corporations and inhabitants according to the apparent ability of the persons assessed to pay them.  The Stentmasters continued to exist side by side with the Town Council for some years, the first Falkirk Town Council having been elected in the Red Lion Inn in November 1838.   The number of members then composing the Town Council was twelve.

By coincidence I've just consulted the "Minute Book of the proceedings of the Magistrates and Town Council of the Burgh of Falkirk 1833-1868" at Callander House and the first election (in the Hall of the Red Lion Inn) was held on the 5th November 1833 - not 1838. (My great-great-great grandfather James Potter, Timber merchant of Grahamston, with only six votes failed to be elected, though was elected the folowing year 1834). 

The Town Council was established in 1833 following the Burgh Reform Act of 1833.

Simon Potter
London UK 

The newly elected Council was informed that if it encroached on the duties of the Stentmasters and the Feuars, the two bodies which had hitherto ruled the town, they would be responsible for the debts of these bodies, and the Council, therefore, confined themselves at first to duties which were merely ceremonial.

In 1859 a private Act of Parliament was obtained which enabled the Town Council to levy rates for much needed improvements.  At the same time the functions of the Stentmasters were taken over by the Council, and also the debts which had occurred during their efforts to provide the necessary services for a growing town.  The new Act applied to the whole Parliamentary burgh.  The euars as administrators - their task mainly was to collect the customs, the market dues and the rents from the South Muir on which they had rights - were not absorbed by the Council till 1990, but they were then compensated for their loss of privileges by the payment of 1,000.

Coat of Arms

Coat of Arms.  Click picture to see larger image...

The Coat of Arms of the Burgh of Falkirk is described by the Lord Clerk as follows - Sable on a bend bretessed accompanied by six billets or, three in chief and three in base, the Church of Falkirk, between two swords and two Highland claymores both in saltire, the former surmounted of a shield of 1298, the latter of a targe of 1746, all proper. On a compartment below the shield with the motto, "Better Meddle wi' the De'il than the Bairns o' Fa'kirk" is placed behind the shield for supporter, a lion rampant, affrontee gules armed and langued azure, crowned with a mural crown argent, masoned sable, and in an escorel over the same, this motto, "Touch ane, touch a'."

The bend is embattled on each side to represent the Roman Wall of Antonius Pius. Above the representation of the Church of Falkirk the two crossed swords symbolise the first Battle of Falkirk in 1298, while the targe and two cross claymores symbolise the second Battle of Falkirk in 1746.

The motties are "Touch ane, touch a'" and "Better meddle wi' the De'il than the Bairns of Falkirk".  These motties seem to indicate that the townspeople are ever ready to unite for defence and that if one of their number is interfered with the rest will at once rally round to his support.

The Old Masonic Lodge of Falkirk
Now Known as Lodge Str. John No. 16. by Thomas Johnston (1887)

Scotland in 1298
Documents relating to the Campaign of King Edward the First in that Year, and especially to the Battle of Falkirk edited by Henry Gough of the Middle Temple, Barrister-at-Law (1888)

Go to Villages of Falkirk


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