Falkirk’s archives will really take you aback

The splendour of the old library in Callendar House is the ideal place to research local history
The splendour of the old library in Callendar House is the ideal place to research local history

Over the years I have collected many local books and pamphlets telling stories of churches, sports clubs, historic buildings, companies, families and individuals and each one adds a little bit to our understanding of Falkirk district’s rich history.

Almost without exception these accounts are based on the amazing collection of public and private documents, letters and memoirs, photographs and drawings held in the archives at Callendar House, carefully preserved and available to the public in the old library.

To sit in such beautiful surroundings and read through a handwritten document from the 1600s is one of the great joys of research and more people are discovering this pleasure as they hunt for lost ancestors, hidden stories, long vanished streets, or search for an image from among the 45,000 photographs in the collection.

This Saturday archivist Elspeth Reid and her staff are holding a special ‘Explore Your Archive’ day as part of a national initiative to widen interest in historical collections across Scotland.

Visitors will be able to examine material relating to four very different stories, three of which I have covered in articles in this column.

Most recent was the Redding Pit disaster of 1923 when 40 miners died in what was one of Scotland’s worst ever mining accidents.

Vivid photographs and documents help bring the harrowing story to life and the records of the disaster fund illustrate the community’s response to those left without a breadwinner.

Then there are items describing the amazing and little known story of the young virtuoso violinist Evelyn Dewar from Larbert whose brilliant early career in Scotland and Prague sadly ended with the outbreak of war in 1939.

Earliest of all are the events of 1820 when radical weavers from Glasgow marched to Falkirk in the hope of capturing guns from Carron Iron Works only to be intercepted by dragoons and defeated at Bonnymuir. The fears of many in the local community at the prospect of riot and insurrection come through letters and reports.

The fourth story introduces visitors to Fritz Ilx, who was a German Prisoner of War held at Castle Rankine for two years until 1948 and who remained in Bonnybridge for 50 years until his death in 1998.

Fritz served in the Luftwaffe until 1944 and spent time in camps in the USA before transfer to Falkirk. His papers offer a different perspective on World War II and his life in the district during and after his captivity.

As well as sampling these special stories visitors will have a chance to see the search room itself in what was the library of the Forbes family before 1963.

It was designed in 1827 by the famous Scottish architect David Hamilton who was also responsible for Falkirk Steeple and Larbert Old Parish Church. I remember visiting this room in the early 1980s when it lay in ruins and a far cry from the beautifully restored and furnished space that we can all enjoy today.

‘Explore Your Archive’ will run from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. on Saturday, November 16 and all are welcome.

For those who can’t manage along on the day there is a vast amount of information including ‘finding aids’ on the archive section of Falkirk Community Trust’s website.