Town’s heart and soul for 200 years

How the Old Parish Churh looked back in 1850
How the Old Parish Churh looked back in 1850

In 1796 the Reverend Dr James Wilson must have been thrilled to bits to have landed such a plumb job as Minister of Falkirk Parish.

With the Great Canal fully operational and nearby Carron Ironworks leading the Scottish Industrial Revolution, the district was set fair for a long period of growth in population and prosperity.

As one of the leading men he would have a major part to play in shaping the new world that would emerge. But his jaw must have hit the floor when he first caught sight of his church building.

Perfectly set in the very centre of the community it was literally falling to bits.

The pre-Reformation mediaeval building dating from the 1450s was a crumbling, damp and dismal place with earthen floors, rickety lofts and stairs and a roof that every day threatened to collapse on the shivering worhippers who crammed in for the three-hour Sabbath service.

Those were the days when the ‘heritors’ or principal property owners were legally obliged to maintain the fabric of the church, but it was also the time when such men were very reluctant to spend a farthing if they could possibly avoid it! For decades the Falkirk Kirk Session elders had pleaded with the heritors to do their duty and fix the building, but each time they managed to get away with doing the minimum or nothing at all. The only significant building work in the previous 300 years had been the addition in 1738 of a handsome octagonal bell tower designed by William Adam, father of the famous family of architects. And that had only come about because the previous structure was about to take a tumble.

Dr Wilson saw it as his first task to get the old building replaced with one a thriving community like Falkirk deserved. He began working on individual heritors and managed to persuade many to support the plan.

Even Lord Thomas Dundas, the Governor of the Canal Company and the second most important of the landowners, said he would pay his share if a new church was to be built. All was going well until ... enter stage right, the formidable William Forbes of Callendar. He was the ‘Mr Big’ as far as the heritors were concerned and most believed nothing could be done without his approval - and he was completely opposed to the proposal and demanded surveyors check the possibility of repairs and extensions.

A committee was formed to take matters forward and, just like today, that brought further disagreement and delay. It was the start of 10 years of confusion as Forbes tried every trick to get his own way.

The surveyors said the building could be repaired, but it would be very expensive and a new build was a better option. After the Presbytery weighed in with their point of view, Forbes eventually changed his mind and agreed to a new build but not on the present site.

He offered land on the corner of Hope Street and Newmarket Street where the former Sheriff Court now stands and a supply of stone at no cost.

This did not please the Minister who wanted worship to continue on the site first used by Christian missionaries in the 7th and 8th centuries, so he and the Session refused the offer. Eventually the whole case ended up in the Court of Session in 1807 where Lord Hermond ruled in favour of the majority of the heritors and the Session.

At some time during all the wrangling it had been decided that a full scale demolition would mean losing the William Adam bell tower which was still only 60 or so years old.

A plan emerged to retain it and the 15th century square tower on which it sat, but to take down everything else - the nave, chancel and transepts of the old cruciform building. The new sanctuary would be a big rectangular box butted onto the north side of the tower. This plan drawn up by the architect James Gillespie Graham was the one approved by the Court of Session and after one last unsuccessful protest, Forbes bowed to the inevitable.

In 1810 work on the new Parish Church began and centuries of history slowly disappeared as ancient stone walls were removed and a fine new building with seating for 1500 was erected. On September 8, 1811, and before a ‘large concourse of people’ it was finally dedicated and Dr Wilson’s 15 year battle ended in triumph. He served the parish for nearly 20 years afterwards, but the beautiful building he was so instrumental in creating is his lasting memorial.