This year brings great national and international anniversaries from the distant past as well as the modern era.
In June we will celebrate the triumph of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn 700 years ago and, on August 4, the world will remember the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One. Preparations are well under way to mark these life changing events and we can expect an avalanche of books, films and exhibitions this year.
In the meantime, in our small corner of the world, this very month brings the birthday of our most famous building, the Falkirk Steeple, which has dominated the town centre for the last 200 years. In June 1814 the building work was finally completed and the keys were handed over by Henry Taylor the builder to Thomas Johnston, ‘Praeses’ (or chairman) of the famous Stentmasters.
It was this body of self-elected rulers of the burgh, whose main skill seemed to be in spending money they didn’t have, who decided that the old steeple demolished 10 years earlier should be replaced by the fine building we have today.
We don’t know all that much about Falkirk’s first steeple which was probably built in the 1580s and may have stood near the junction of Manor Street and Kirk Wynd. We do know that by 1697 it was in a ruinous state and was replaced that year by a new building in the centre of High Street attached to the front of the town tolbooth.
It had a clock, a weather cock and a bell gifted by the Earl of Callendar James Livingston, which was transferred to the present steeple in 1814. In 1801 William Glen of Forganhall rented the ruined tolbooth next to the steeple and began to dig in the cellars.
Unfortunately, he disturbed the foundations so that the steeple began to lean over like its famous equivalent in Pisa. Down it came, and after lengthy legal wrangling the Stentmaster’s great project got under way.
In 1812 a public appeal was launched to raise the £1460 required and David Hamilton, the celebrated Glasgow architect, came up with the handsome classical design which we admire so much. Inside, however, it was a bit grimmer with two cells above the jailer’s room and the shop, which was rented out to a local shoemaker.
A second bell, much bigger than the Earl of Livingston’s gift, was commissioned from Thomas Mears’ London foundry which bears the message ‘May Falkirk Flourish’ and still rings out over the town today. Falkirk’s leading clockmaker John Russell was given the job of building a completely new clock which survived until the unfortunate lightning strike in 1927. It is now in the National Museum of Scotland. Finally a fine new brass weather cock was mounted on the top of the spire and everything was ready.
The happy Stentmasters no doubt basked in the glory of the moment despite the fact that only £450 had been collected and the town debt increased. We can now look forward to seeing the Steeple along with other important town centre buildings repaired and restored as part of the present THI project.
Plans are also under way for a Steeple birthday bash in September when the jail cells, which the public have not seen for many years, will be open for visitors and a special exhibition will take place in the Howgate Centre.