Famous Falkirk firsts down the centuries

Local historian Ian Scott looks back on a selection of firsts for the district

By Ian Scott
Friday, 7th August 2020, 4:45 pm
Television pioneer John Logie Baird at work
Television pioneer John Logie Baird at work

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about what was said to be the first ever use of massed archers at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 which helped turn the tide of the battle in England’s favour.

And last week I repeated John Reid’s suggestion that the 17th century engineering of the East Burn of Falkirk between Callendar Estate and the River Carron might well have been Scotland’s first ever canal.

These two ‘‘firsts for Falkirk’’ reminded me of a recent conversation I had with my friend and Braes exile Tom Leslie whom I always think of as Standburn’s High Commissioner in England!

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The Falkirk Wheel

Tom told me that the first ever electricity pylon in Britain was in Falkirk and he wondered how many other firsts there were.

He suggested the first demonstration of television as well as the Falkirk Wheel and maybe the Kelpies and encouraged me to find out more about these and any others.

A few enquiries proved the pylon story; the first erected in July 1928 at Bonnybridge as part of the planned National Grid. The idea John Logie Baird first demonstrated television in the Temperance Café in December 1925, two months before the famous unveiling in London, has been a matter of contention for many a long year.

The late Robert Shaw, a patternmaker from Larbert was adamant he had been picked out of the audience as a young lad and that his image was transmitted from one room to another to the astonishment of the audience. Unfortunately we have no other eye witness and so doubt remains.

What we do know for certain is that Baird, who had family connections in Camelon, spent a lot of time working on the television project with local radio engineer John Hart and that we can lay claim to a part at least of the great breakthrough.

Another on the list is the world’s first practical steamboat, the Charlotte Dundas, built at Carron and Grangemouth to the design of William Symington and successfully demonstrated on the Forth and Clyde Canal in 1801.

The Charlotte Dundas Trail from the Kelpies basin along the banks of the Queen Elizabeth canal tells the story of this Falkirk first.

Less attractive was the manufacture of the world’s first shrapnel shell made at Carron to the design supplied by General Henry Shrapnel around 1800.

These horrible weapons caused untold suffering all over the world and, sadly, the idea behind them continues in similar weapons today.

The Falkirk Wheel, the world’ first rotating ship lift carrying loaded boats 110 feet between the Union and Forth and Clyde Canals, has become a major tourist attraction and the massive equine sculptures, the Kelpies, must surely be a first in the field of public art.

We might say the same for the celebrated giant stone pineapple at Dunmore created at the behest of John Murray, the fourth Earl of Dunmore, in the middle of the 18th century. Not many of them around for sure!

I’m am pretty sure that the chemical geniuses down on the Grangemouth strip, as well as the inventive engineers in our local foundries, will have, over the decades, created many ‘‘firsts’’ but my state of ignorance is such that I’ll have to depend on anyone reading this to enlighten me.

One that I recall was a suggestion that a man called William Anderson working in Carron in the late 1700s invented the ball cock valve which I presume is the same thing that still operates all the world’s toilet cisterns today.

If so, it is very well worth its place in the pantheon of Falkirk Firsts.