Looking back with Ian Scott on the history of Falkirk High School

A week or so ago I wrote about the opening of the new Falkirk Technical School (Graeme High) in the 1930s and the rivalry that arose especially on the sports field. However for Falkirk High School staff the new kid on the block had a different educational purpose while they continued to aim towards teaching those aiming for university and the professions. But it was not always like that.
The Grammar School in Park Street, Falkirk opened in 1846.  (Pic: submitted)The Grammar School in Park Street, Falkirk opened in 1846.  (Pic: submitted)
The Grammar School in Park Street, Falkirk opened in 1846. (Pic: submitted)

Falkirk High can trace its origins back to the 16th century Reformation when each parish aimed to open a school providing children with basic literacy and religious instruction. Over the centuries the offering varied in quality and quantity as the powers-that-be used every opportunity to keep their expenditure to a minimum. By the 1840s, despite growing prosperity, things were pretty grim. The schoolmaster James Burns complained bitterly that the Parish school in the Back Row (Manor Street) was in “a miserable state - damp, low-roofed, small in size and a very bad situation”. He and his assistant were also responsible for a second building in the Pleasance and Burns described how he organised his 200 pupils there: “133 write in the following order: – 54 write on tables, 24 write on forms, kneeling on the floor: 45 stand, who have neither tables nor forms, but I endeavour to give them 15 or 20 minutes by making them change places with some of those sitting at table or lying at forms. I have sufficient forms for 130 only and there are 72 who have no seats”.

This disgraceful situation caused an outcry and a public appeal raised £1500 towards building a new school. Eventually a site in Park Street was chosen though many objected that it was ‘an out of the way, low and unwholesome place’. Despite this, the school was completed and began the transformation of education in Falkirk from the crumbling, overcrowded slum provision of the past to a new world of relative comfort.

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On May 18, 1846 the children marched from the Pleasance to their new building which very soon added higher education classes and adopted the title of the ‘Grammar School’. It quickly gained a reputation for excellence but that didn’t save it in 1873 when under the Education Act it was reduced to the status of an elementary school. Once again pupils capable of higher study were forced to travel to the cities but in Falkirk the redoubtable minister of Erskine Church, James Aitchison, campaigned tirelessly for a change of heart. In 1886 he was successful and the old Grammar School was redesignated ‘Falkirk High School’.

The Falkirk High School building in Rennie Street.  (Pic: submitted)The Falkirk High School building in Rennie Street.  (Pic: submitted)
The Falkirk High School building in Rennie Street. (Pic: submitted)

The success of the school brought a big increase in numbers and the spectre of overcrowding returned. Again the answer was a completely new building in Rennie Street which was officially opened in October 1898 and is the place most Falkirk bairns of my generation call Falkirk High. Back in 1846 the new Park Street Grammar School had been a huge leap forward with modern facilities and 50 years later the town had one of Scotland’s finest and most successful secondary schools with the most up to date facilities.

The 20th century has seen much change. The sixties was an era of rebuilding and Falkirk High moved into a modern school in the usual tasteless style in Blinkbonny Road which was itself replaced by the present, more attractive building in more recent times. The Rennie Street building was not lost. For nearly 40 years it served as a new secondary school, Woodlands High, before its final ignominious and mysterious end in a fire after the pupils had been relocated to the new Braes High School in 2000.