Falkirk’s 19th century Bryson Street school offered an education with a difference

James Grosart's painting of Falkirk on 'Tryst Night' when the area around the Steeple would be full of cattle to be sold, above, and the inspirational teacher, below
James Grosart's painting of Falkirk on 'Tryst Night' when the area around the Steeple would be full of cattle to be sold, above, and the inspirational teacher, below

One of my favourite people from Falkirk’s past is the celebrated Grahamston teacher James Grosart who ran an ‘adventure school’ in Bryson Street in the 1800s. James showed an aptitude for learning while at school and later served as an apprentice weaver before assisting his father sailing barges on the canal between Grangemouth and Glasgow.

In 1820 he took over the school run by his older brother Thomas, who had drowned while bathing in the same canal. Rather than leave the pupils without a teacher, James, aged just 19, reluctantly took over.

James Grosart

James Grosart

It was the start of 50 years unbroken service in which the reputation of the school and the teacher spread far and wide. In those days it was possible for anybody to start a school simply by finding premises and advertising their services for a fee.

The Parish School was so overcrowded that children in the growing suburbs found it nearly impossible to find a place and parents were very willing to pay James Grosart and others. He was a natural, balancing the sheer pleasure of learning with the development of practical skills which was in keeping with the intellectual spirit of the age.

The school quickly became a mecca for people of all ages seeking instruction in a bewildering variety of subjects. One former pupil remembered Grosart’s classroom as a place of wonderment saying: “Above the entrance door was a music board, which had always some new song or hymn on it, in staff or sol-fa notation. The walls were covered by maps mostly of his own painting.

“Above the fireplace were illustrations of the principles of mechanics with a working model of a steam-engine in sections, all made by his own hands. The centre ornament of the roof was the mariner’s compass, with all the points carefully painted in true position. The remainder of the roof was covered with various constellations of the starry firmament. He managed to keep a crowded school going in full swing, from the infants in one corner to the sailors in the other learning navigation. Whoever heard Mr Grosart recite ‘Mary, the Maid of the Inn,’ and did not feel every hair standing up and their blood curdling? He seemed to throw his whole soul into it, and photographed the picture on their minds.”

Fortunately his ‘Falkirk on Tryst Night’ painting has survived. It depicts the area below the town steeple in the early years of the 19th century looking towards the south side of the High Street. The building on the far left is where Waterstones stands today. After Grosart’s death in 1891 some of his friends prepared a ‘key’ to the picture naming all the characters on show, like Dan McNee the ‘dandy barber’ standing on the steps to the right with Thomas Aitken the town drummer in front.

Post Geordie in red cloak is aboard the mail coach outside the Post Office and butchers Sandy Bulloch, Sandie Baird and James Hutton are at their tables. In the centre is the old Cross Well and to the right the ‘tron’ or public weighing machine with wee ‘Stibbie Stibbie’ and ‘Puddin Geordie’ in between at the entrance to the Blue Bell Close. Peeping out at the back is ‘Betty the Cellerer’.

The painting is now in Falkirk Museum and is a link to an important part of Falkirk’s history and to one of our greatest ever Bairns.