A history to equal any corner of the Falkirk district

Princes Street in California circa 1914
Princes Street in California circa 1914

I have been around long enough to have heard most of the daft ideas about the origins of local names and places but even I was surprised to meet a man from San Francisco who thought the roots of his ‘sunshine state’ lay up the braes in California.

Having explained that the reverse was true I did go on to assure him that the delights of our ‘sunshine village’ were at least the equal of Fisherman’s Wharf or the Golden Gate Bridge!

The conversation did remind me that up to now my rambles down memory lane have skipped round California, Shieldhill and the vanished community of Blackbraes – all of which have played a really important part in the long history of the Falkirk district.

The land on which they all stand was once the common muir of Polmont used from time immemorial to pasture cattle in the summer months away from the land under crops. The temporary shelters built to house the herders were called ‘shielings’, which obviously gives us the name Shieldhill.

But it was animals from further afield that brought fame and some fortune to the area. From the early 1700s the Redding cattle trysts were established on the muir and by the middle of the century had outstripped Crieff to become the greatest of their kind in Britain.

The modern centre of Shieldhill was the very heart of the trysts with tens of thousands of black cattle from the Highlands driven there on the hoof for sale. However, it didn’t last for long and by 1772 the sales had moved to Roughcastle and later to Stenhousemuir.

Coal was being mined locally from a very early period but, as with much else in our area, it was given a huge boost by the arrival in 1759 of Carron Company with its hungry iron furnaces demanding 10 tons of coal for every ton of iron produced.

From then on the main occupation in the villages was coal mining and hundreds of cartloads left each week for the long journey down the hill through Falkirk to the works. Later on coke was manufactured in special ovens at the local colliery.

The village of California began as a cluster of miners’ rows in the middle of the nineteenth century and one imagines that the name was introduced (tongue in cheek) by the miners whose black gold reminded them of the American gold rush of 1849.

There are more than a few Californias in Britain with the same story to tell but ours is the only one north of the border. The settlement grew up near the old village of Blackbraes and when a mission church was built in 1865 it took that name, as did the public school which served as a further education centre from 1947 to 1963.

Both are long since demolished and the village, like Crosscroes and Redford, has vanished from the map if not the memories of those who once lived and worked there.

The name has survived in the local parish church of Blackbraes and Shieldhill which was built in 1864 as a Free Church to the design of the celebrated Falkirk Minister Rev. Lewis Hay Irving.

With the closure of the pits from the 1950s onwards the villages, especially California, might have gone the same way as Blackbraes but somehow they survived and today both have many fine new houses and a growing population who work in Falkirk, Grangemouth and further afield.

Happily ‘up the Braes’ is now a very desirable place to stay with fine views over the Forth Valley and a history the equal of any corner of the district.