How the Bairns got their name is part of Falkirk’s fascinating 3500 year history

Remarkable discovery...the Carriden Cross accurately dates our Christian roots.
Remarkable discovery...the Carriden Cross accurately dates our Christian roots.

The History of Falkirk in 10 ½ Objects will be staged in the Second Floor Gallery at Callendar House from January 26 to May 4.

Based on a talk I have given to many local societies over the last five years, it tells the 3500-year history of Falkirk and its area in just 10 and a half objects.

Stenhousemuir Pottery was renowned the world over, including its ET-like face masks.

Stenhousemuir Pottery was renowned the world over, including its ET-like face masks.

In last week’s article, we looked at the Denny Bow, Glenhead axehead mould and the Bridgeness Tablet. This week, the story continues...

The fourth of our 10.5 objects is the Falkirk Tartan.

In 1933 some council workmen were digging sand from a large quarry adjacent to Bellsmeadow in Falkirk when, at a depth of 7ft, one of them hit a ceramic pot with his spade.

Silver coins cascaded out of the vessel and it soon became apparent that they had discovered a hoard of Roman coins – the largest in Scotland. In all, just under 2000 silver coins were deposited in the National Museum of Scotland.

Cross Well played a key role in shaping Falkirk's history, including spawning the Bairns nickname for townsfolk.

Cross Well played a key role in shaping Falkirk's history, including spawning the Bairns nickname for townsfolk.

The coins range in date from the Roman republic to the early third century, from c. 83BC to 230AD, some 313 years. But the thing that they all have in common is a high silver content.

This suggests that rather than being collected for their face value the coins had been selected as bullion – to be melted down to make jewellery, a commodity greatly valued.

The find spot is significant. It lay 400m north of the earlier Antonine Wall near Wormit Hill, a part of Falkirk that is believed to have contained a native settlement. The early third century was a troublesome time for the Romans and the appearance of other hoards in Scotland at this time suggests that they were bribing selected chiefs to maintain peace.

Why it was not recovered is a mystery. It would be easy to conclude that its recipients were killed in warfare, but disease and changing political affiliations are also possibilities.

The orange earthenware jar in which the coins were found is a common storage pot from inside the Empire, but the method of sealing the neck was unusual.

Here, a piece of woven woollen textile had been preserved because of the sterilising nature of the corrosion of the silver alloy.

It was found to be a tartan – the earliest so far found in Scotland. The original colours are not known but, after almost 2000 years, the cloth appears as shades of brown and yellow.

These colours inspired the creation of a new tartan in 1990, the Falkirk District Tartan.

The fifth of our 10.5 objects is the Carriden Cross.

While I was recording the gravestones in the old churchyard next to Carriden House, I saw what at first appeared to be rustic decoration on the back of one of the small and unimportant grave markers.

It took me a few minutes to realise that, far from being an 18th century design, it was a broad interlace pattern from 800 years earlier.

I had made a remarkable discovery – the first, and so far only, early Christian Celtic Cross in Falkirk.

The Carriden Cross is made of local sandstone and was re-used in the 18th century as a grave marker with the initials of the deceased cut into the back, just as earlier, in the 12th century, stone was robbed from a Roman bathhouse only 50m away. The other identifying features of the 10th century cross are the two inward curving arcs on the top of the stone.

These are part of the typical thinning of the shaft or arm of the Celtic Cross.

The cross is the earliest definite physical evidence that we have for Christianity in the area, a fitting symbol of the age and worthy of its place in our list.

The sixth of our objects is Stenhousemuir Pottery.

Today pottery is used extensively in everyday life.

Yet even though it made its first appearance in the Falkirk area in the Neolithic, almost 4000 years ago, for most of the time since then Scotland has been aceramic.

Beakers appear in the Bronze Age, mainly in connection with a drinking cult and funerary rights. And for 20 years in the mid-second century pottery was prolific, being used by the Roman invaders.

However, the indigenous population only adopted the use of pottery in daily life in the 13th century AD.

Most of this medieval pottery was imported from England, but small production sites began to appear in Scotland too.

In the 15th century large pottery kilns appeared at Stenhousemuir just north of the River Carron. Ready access to that waterway was important and the goods made in Stenhousemuir made their way along the east coast and up the rivers, destined for royal palaces at Stirling, Linlithgow and Edinburgh, as well as Arbroath, Melrose and Jedburgh Abbeys.

The atrocious condition of the roads at the time meant that transport by water was more practical and cheaper than by land

The products of Stenhousemuir included jugs with a large number of tiny holes perforating their bases – watering cans for the monastic herbal gardens.

Water jugs were common, as were large drinking mugs, frying pans and bowls.

The green glaze that helped to make these vessels less porous was made by coating them with a lead paste, fused in the kiln.

But the most notable feature of Stenhousemuir Pottery is the face mask. This takes the form of the alien from the film ET.

The products were sophisticated and reached a high status market for well over a century.

The site represents the first large scale production of ceramics in this part of the world and marks the start of the goods-based economy.

The seventh of our 10.5 objects is the Cross Well.

In the summer of 1681 central Scotland suffered a severe drought. In Falkirk both the West and East Burns dried up, as did the Adam’s Gote.

There were few private wells so the streams provided practically all of the water used by the town’s folk for drinking, cooking, washing and sanitation.

As a result, public health deteriorated. So to avoid future recurrences, the town’s patron, Alexander Livingston, the Earl of Callendar, arranged for water to be led into its heart from a spring in Callendar Wood which flowed throughout the dry spell.

In the spring of 1682 previously prepared wooden pipes, made by boring out the centre of straight tree trunks, were laid in the ground and joined together by iron collars.

The pipeline entered the town by the Cow Wynd and the gravity-fed water led to a large underground cistern in the High Street.

On top of this was a square structure that housed a pump to raise the water out of the reservoir and deliver it through a lead pipe issuing from the mouth of a carved stone demi lion.

The lion was matched by another on the top of the well. It was red and wore the Earl’s coronet, with a shield bearing his coat-of-arms.

The inhabitants were thus reminded whose largesse provided the water.

The Earl of Callendar formally opened the Cross Well on May 29, 1682, and dedicated it to “the Wives and Bairns of Falkirk” in perpetuity, and this, it is said, is why the natives of the town are known as Bairns.

The Earl established a public body to look after the wellhead and pipes, giving it the authority to raise a tax, known as a stent.

The organisation became known as the Stentmasters.

Before long they were also looking after other aspects of burgh life.

When the Steeple was accidentally damaged in the late 18th century it was the Stentmasters who raised money to have the new structure built. It opened in 1814 and the well was rebuilt in 1817 at its foot.

Thus, the well represents several important aspects of life in Falkirk – the first structure to supply water for public consumption, the first time representatives from the public were given powers to raise taxes, leading to the formation of the council, and giving name to the Bairns!

Next week, our history of Falkirk concludes – just in time for the exhibition opening on January 26.