Camelon was the ‘ancient metropolis of the Picts’

Camelon Main Street circa 1910
Camelon Main Street circa 1910

A couple of weeks ago I was in my ancestral home of Camelon attending an excellent exhibition organised by members of Camelon Parish Church as part of their ‘Our Place Camelon’ initiative.

It was a nostalgic look back over past years and a chance to recall the long and fascinating history of the communities who have lived here from the earliest times.

Two thousand years ago the Romans built a huge fort where the golf course is today and some think that it overlooked a big bay on the Carron where Roman galleys sailed in with provisions and reinforcements. ‘Carmuirs’ actually means the big fort whereas the name Camelon itself reflects the bendy shape of the Carron as it winds across the flat land.

What happened after the Romans sailed away is not clear unless of course you are Rabbie Burns! When the great man visited in 1787 he crossed the new to Camelon which he described as “the ancient metropolis of the Picts”. The Picts were Caledonians and by all accounts a very wild bunch indeed so there may be some truth in the story. One imaginative historian wrote that Camelon had 12 great brass gates but whether they were to keep invaders out or the mariners in is not clear.

What we do know comes from a much later period and like most things in Falkirk district it starts with the arrival of Carron Ironworks in 1759. The bosses there wanted to make nails and so they set up forges in places like Laurieston and Camelon. Bar iron from the works was forged by hand into tens of thousands of square nails in what were small squares of houses and workshops manned by skilled men and many very young boys. In Camelon this was done half way up the present Union Road in George Square and Fairbairn’s Square among others.

It was dirty and dangerous work and bred a generation of hard men who were quick to demand their rights and join in any argument that was going. A few ended up in Botany Bay and one at least on the gallows at Falkirk Steeple for their trouble.

The arrival of the ‘great canal twixt Forth and Clyde’ in the 1770s and even more the Union from Edinburgh 50 years later created a big industrial boom around Port Downie where the two waterways joined up. Around Lock 16 they began building boats and distilling tar and as the century advanced iron foundries and chemical works appeared – long before Grangemouth became the chemical centre of the district it was Camelon that led the way with Crosses, the Hurlet, Camelon Chemical Works and Limewharf Chemicals. By this time the village had its own Parish Church (1840) and there were schools, inns and brass bands to educate and entertain the growing population.

Such was the demand for cast iron products throughout the world that foundries appeared all over the district and Camelon was no exception. Sunnyside, Dorrator, Grange, Mains and Central all flourished until the middle of the 20th century attracting more families to the district.

By the time the village was taken into the burgh of Falkirk in 1900 the population was over 6000 and there was no shortage of work although it was often hard, dangerous and ill rewarded.

Like most of the rest of the district the village was hit hard by the decline and eventual closure of all the foundries but as the ‘Our Place Camelon’ events show there is still a strong community spirit among those who call themselves the Camelon Mariners.