A century ago Falkirk was a very prosperous place, but that’s not to say that the working folk crammed into over crowded and often ramshackle buildings were living the high life.
For too many of them life was still ‘nasty, brutish and short’ and work in foundry, mine or factory was dirty, dangerous and ill-rewarded. The prosperity that the town and district enjoyed was limited to a small group of powerful families, the ironmasters, coal owners, bankers and men of business who earned large fortunes and enjoyed the privileges that came with it.
One of the big differences between now and then is that these people lived in Falkirk and a good deal of their disposable income was used to transform the appearance of the district and enhance the sense of municipal pride. The many handsome buildings which have survived still provide us with a great deal of pleasure by their very existence.
Some of Scotland’s greatest architects were drawn here by the prospect of high fees and in this article I want to look at one of them in particular, Sir John James Burnet of Glasgow. Born in the city in 1857 Burnett first came to our area as a schoolboy at Blairlodge Academy in Brightons, which was one of the leading private boarding schools in Scotland. It is now Polmont Young Offender’s Institution!
He studied in Glasgow and Paris and designed hundreds of buildings, including the famous Charing Cross Mansions and the Alhambra in Glasgow. In 1881 he worked with his father on the Broompark Church in Denny and a decade or so later designed Dundas Church in Grangemouth for the United Presbyterian congregation in the Romanesque style with a low square tower surmounted by a slated pyramid roof.
In 1896 he was in Stenhousemuir working on a remodelling of Carronvale House for businessman George Sherriff. It is now home to the Boys’ Brigade in Scotland.
Sherriff was one of the main drivers in 1899 behind plans to gift a new church in the village and a substantial sum of money.
The result was the amazing McLaren Memorial Church (now Stenhouse and Carron). Similar in general design to Dundas, it is beautified by a range of ‘Arts and Crafts’ touches which make the inside especially a wonder to behold.
Sir John’s final local contribution was the most controversial. Grangemouth War Memorial Committee invited him to design their permanent tribute to the local fallen of 1914-18.
The result was a tall narrow cenotaph surmounted by a very large sculpture of a British lion devouring a German eagle which Burnett had commissioned from the Glasgow sculptor Alexander Proudfoot.
In the aftermath of years of conflict and loss of life many people thought that such overt triumphalism was out of place, but the project went ahead. A further attempt to remove the ‘offending’ sculpture in 1948 also came to nothing.
All four of these examples of Burnet’s design genius are still with us and thankfully are all listed so that they should enjoy a measure of protection in the future. We will keep an eye on them just the same!