Welcome to Falkirk
If you were to draw a triangle on a map of Scotland between Glasgow, Edinburgh and Stirling you would find the town of Falkirk near its centre, in the heart of Central Scotland. The town is situated on the main railway line between the country’s two major cities, from which it is roughly equidistant. It is also the meeting place of two major canals, the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Union Canal, now linked by the unique Falkirk Wheel, the world’s only rotating boatlift and the British Isles’ most impressive feat of modern civil engineering. Falkirk’s central location helps to account for the historical importance of this ancient town.
The Falkirk Wheel
This area has drawn people since the stone ages as is evidenced by countless archaeological finds, from ‘shell middens’ at Inveravon, which date to around 5500 BC, to pottery deposits at Mumrills from around 2000 BC. Remains of stone circles, round houses and early forts provide an image of an increasingly organised, yet violent, society in the Falkirk area before the arrival of the Romans.
While the Romans never wholly dominated Scotland their presence would have been conspicuous. The Antonine Wall, built by the Romans around 143 AD for the 37 miles between Old Kilpatrick in the west to Bo’ness in the east, was a huge undertaking, especially considering (with the benefit of hindsight) that they would only govern the small portion of Scotland south of the wall for about 20 years. Nonetheless, the Antonine Wall is still considered one of the greatest engineering legacies from Roman Britain. It ran straight through Falkirk, where one of the best preserved sections can be visited in the grounds of Watling Lodge.
Whether there was a settlement on the ridge where Falkirk now lies during the Roman era cannot be confirmed or denied by contemporary sources. Our first clue about the origin of the town is a church built on the site of today’s Parish Church, on Manse Place, by St Modan in the 700s. It is this church which provides the name for the town, derived from the Scots Fawe Kirke meaning ‘speckled church’.
By 1298, the year of the town’s most notorious event, Falkirk would probably have been little more than a small village by today’s standards. Its central position meant that it was not, however, an insignificant place: in 1080 the army of William the Conqueror was turned back at Falkirk and ten years later a new church was in construction. The present building was finished in the early 19th century. The town also had a castle, built on the sight of the remarkable Callender House by the local Livingston family.
In the late 13th century Scotland was plunged into a war for its very survival. Edward I, the self styled ‘Hammer of the Scots’, ignited the Wars of Independence through political interference culminating in an all out invasion. After initial success, the campaign began to get bogged down, especially after the unprecedented Scottish victory of Stirling Bridge in 1297. The following year Edward personally took control of the campaign. His invasion force was the largest to enter Scotland since the time of Agricola. On the 22nd of July, 1998, Wallace and Edward met across a battlefield at Falkirk for the first and last time. Hopelessly outnumbered and abandoned during the battle by the cavalry of Red Comyn, the Scots were soundly defeated. One of Wallace’s supporters who fell that day, Sir John de Graeme, is buried in Falkirk Parish Church. Despite defeat, Wallace escaped with much of his army and would continue to fight a guerrilla campaign until his death in 1305. When an English army next passed through Falkirk it did so on route to outright defeat in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
Interestingly, Falkirk was the site of a famous battle in not just one but two of Scotland’s most important wars. In January, 1746, the Jacobite Army of Bonnie Prince Charlie met the government army led by General Hawley on the high ground overlooking the town. Records tell us that this was one of the most one-sided battles in Scottish History: the government troops lost over 400 men while the Jacobite forces lost only 40. Sadly for the Jacobites, this was another false dawn, just three months before their ultimate defeat at Culloden, near Inverness.
At the time of this second historic Battle of Falkirk the town’s central location had helped it become the location of perhaps the largest cattle market in Scotland. At the Falkirk Tryst, as they were known, beasts driven from all over the country were sold on the ground to the south of the town from August to October every year. Despite this early fame as a market town, it was the coming of the industrial revolution which would lead to the greatest period of development that Falkirk has ever known.
The industrial revolution first touched Falkirk when an English entrepreneur, Doctor Roebuck, opened the Carron Ironworks, to north of the town around 1760. By the mid 19th century there were several foundries operating in and around Falkirk which were crucial to the industrial development of Scotland. Locally a distillery, tannery, timber yards, chemical works and coalfields further stimulated local development.
The Forth and Clyde Canal and the Union Canal were built to enable the transport of industrial produce, until the coming of the railways in the mid 19th century made them obsolete. Due to growing interest in opening up the canals for use by leisure craft, they were redeveloped as part of the ‘Millennium Link’ project, the centrepiece of which is the 35 metre high Falkirk Wheel. In ‘post-industrial’ Falkirk the hope is that this remarkable and unique structure, as much outdoor sculpture as a feat of engineering, will lead to the rediscovery of all that this historic and attractive old town has to offer.