One of the things I enjoy most about being a Scottish Travel Blogger is getting the chance to explore the unexplored. It gives me the chance to delve into a side of cities and towns not usually delved into. Falkirk is one of Scotland’s most historical towns and is best known for two pretty impressive engineering masterpieces, The Kelpies and The Falkirk Wheel, but if you dig a little deeper you can unearth a whole array of historical battles, inventions, and even a famous drink or two.
Here are 5 ways that you can find out more about Falkirk’s fascinating heritage.
1. Take a stroll around Falkirk’s Town Heritage Trail
Pick up a leaflet from the Steeple on the High Street and take a self-guided tour around the 25 stops of interest in the City Centre. The walk is easy, with regular stops and accessible to all, look out for the blue signs to tell you more about each site. Some of the highlights include-
The Steeple itself marked the centre of town and was the meeting place for locals who congregated to watch all the lovely goings on, like hangings, brandings and floggings. Next to the Steeple is the Cross Well, gifted to the town by the Livingstons of Callendar in 1681 to give the locals clean drinking water. The nickname of the Falkirk “Bairns” is said to have came from the Earl of Callendar who toasted the first cup of water to the “wifes and bairns o’ Fa’kirk”
Barrs Irn Bru
Well, this one was a surprise! Who knew the Scottish go-to hangover cure was made right here in Falkirk? The story of the most famous (non-alcoholic) drink in Scotland began here in 1875. Robert Barr began his aerated water (as soft drinks were called in those days) business in Burnfoot Lane and it quickly gathered pace. Customers could enjoy safe drinks with an added boost – sugar. Horse drawn lorries brought crates of glass bottles to shops in and around Falkirk; the most famous of those horses was named Carnera. Standing at a mighty 6ft 6inches it was said he was the tallest working horse in the world.
The Aitkin family produced the famous Falkirk Ale on this site, for over two centuries. Winning award after award it was exported all over the British Empire. Rumour has it Bonnie Prince Charlie and his band of merry men arrived here in January 1746 after the Battle of Falkirk, with plans to loot the high street. After smelling the sweet aroma they spent the next 10 days in the brewery on a major binge and forgot all about the High Street! After several generations of “James’s” the Aitken Brewery was sold to Caledonian United Breweries, who in turn was bought over by Tennants.
John Logie Baird
Before the Howgate shopping centre was built there stood a shop owned by radio engineer John Hart, who was a close collaborator of John Logie Baird., who’s ancestors were Camelon farmers. A lot of the earlier work on the television took place here with him regularly doing demonstrations. Baird presented one of the earliest transmitters to the people of Falkirk and it can now be found in Falkirk Museum.
The Tattie Kirk
This unusual octagonal building was once a church and dates back to 1806. Sitting just off Cow Wynd it’s thought to be named as such as the land had previously been a tight field! The reason for it’s shape was so the devil had nowhere to hide. There is also a now disused and abandoned graveyard with inscriptions depicting the horrid and disease ridden victorian age
The Cross Keys
This pub was once one of the most popular in town, indeed poet Robert Burns spent the first night of his Highland tour here before visiting the grave of Sir John de Graham in the nearby Parish Churchyard. You can also visit the grave, which sits behind the church surrounded by decorative black iron. He fought alongside William Wallace in the Wars of Independence as his right hand man and died during the Battle of Falkirk. It was William Wallace himself who carried his friend from the battlefield. While your there look down, there is a snippet of a poem from “The Wallace” by Blind Harry.
2.Take an elegant look back at the town’s history
Callendar House is a beautiful mansion set within 170 acres of parkland. The Thanes of Callendar owned land here until 1345 when King David II granted the land to Sir William Livingston. The Livingstones were a prominent family, having close ties with Mary Queen of Scots (who’s marriage certificate was signed at Callendar House) and James VI. They lived here until the Jacobite Risings in 1715 when James Livingston, the 5th Earl of Linlithgow and 4th Earl of Callendar was exiled for siding with the Old Pretender. Bought by the York Building Company, for several years it was let out before being sold to the Forbes family. In 1963 it was purchased by Falkirk Council and is now ran by Falkirk community trust.
A stunning mixture of French Renaissance and Scottish baronial architecture the main section of the house dates back to the 14th Century. Grand turrets and a picturesque driveway framed with trees make this place seriously photogenic.
Free to enter and explore you could easily spend an afternoon here examining more of Falkirk’s heritage. There are exhibitions, a beautiful Victorian library, which now hold Falkirk’s archives, a fantastic working 1825 kitchen and also an elegant tearoom with brilliant views over Callendar Park, where I had a delicious afternoon tea with fellow Scotlander Susanne. The park itself is also home to a section of the Antonine Wall as well as a family Mausoleum, ornamental gardens and an Arboretum.
3. See some historical art at Kinneal House
Another house with a seriously picturesque driveway is the 17th century Kinneal House. This was once home to the Hamiltons and was saved from demolition in 1936 when 16th century mural painting were found. The land here was given to an ancestor of the Hamilton family by Robert the Bruce in 1323 and James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran, who was Regent of Scotland, built the surviving section of the east wing. Engineer James Watt perfected his steam engine in a cottage in the grounds, which you can visit, and the house also sits beside another section of the Antonine Wall. A small museum shows 2000 years of history and also has an audio visual show.
4. Enjoy the quirkiness of the Dunmore Pineapple
If they gave out awards for strangest buildings, this would be a sure fire winner. The main building was built in 1761 by John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore who then left to become Colonial Governor of Virginia. On his return he added the pineapple, which must have been strange for the locals as the fruit was still relatively unknown and only eaten by the very wealthy. The very clever design includes individually draining leaves to save damage from frost, and leaves with serrated edges to ensure rainwater doesn’t damage the structure. The intricate detail is similar to the designs in Kew Gardens, London by designer Sir William Chambers although it is not confirmed that he was involved at Dunmore. This is definitely one of my favourite buildings in Scotland, its so unique and unusual.
5. Walk in the footsteps of the soldiers defending Falkirk at Blackness Castle
Blackness Castle was never built to be pretty, never built to be elegant, or stately, but it played an important part in the history of the area. Built in the 15th century by the powerful Crichton family, this eerie castle served as a prison, a garrison fortress and an ammunitions depot. With a strange and sinister atmosphere the walls of this castle ooze history, you can actually imagine the despair of the prisoners forgotten about in the dark and creepy cells. Visit on an overcast, misty day and the castle is probably one of the most intense places you could be. Situated on the banks of the Firth of Forth this formidable castle has an enviable view of the Forth bridges. It has the nickname “The ship that never sailed” because of it’s shape and is now maintained and run by Historic Scotland. Find out more on their website
I thoroughly enjoyed my weekend in Falkirk and can now look at the town with a whole new perspective. Next time you visit those spectacular mythical horseheads take the time to explore a little further, you will not be disappointed. We also got a sneak preview of the new, BRILLIANT film, Macbeth at the equally brilliant Hippodrome in Bo’ness. What a gem of a place! Big thanks to Visit Falkirk for organising such a fab itinerary.