Down Memory Lane

The site of the historic Mercat Cross which was party to some gruesome sights in the past
The site of the historic Mercat Cross which was party to some gruesome sights in the past

Back in April I wrote about the current Townscape Heritage Initiative (THI).

This will help refurbish the historic heart of Falkirk by repairing and improving some of our most important buildings. However, the project is about much more than the physical appearance of the town centre – it is also about bringing to life the history of the place and retelling the stories from the past which have helped shape the community we know today.

The open area below the steeple for example was once known as ‘The Cross’ where all the important activities of the town took place. When Falkirk became a Burgh of Barony in 1600 its official symbol, the Mercat Cross, was raised near the spot which is today marked by a circle and cross in the cobbles.

The Cross Well which has moved about a bit over the years is still there though sadly dry these days – another casualty of ‘health and safety’. Back in the 17th century water from springs in Callendar Estate was brought in wooden pipes to serve the needs of a growing population.

Not far away was the official burgh weighing machine called a Tron and a set of stocks where offenders were clamped at the ankles and made to face a barrage of rotten fruit from the angry inhabitants.

Some culprits were flogged through the streets to the parish boundary and kicked out. Others had their ear lobes nailed to a wooden pillar, had their noses split with a knife or had a hole burned in their cheeks with a red hot poker.

To ensure they would be recognised if they ever came back to the town, some serial offenders were branded on the shoulder with ‘my Lord’s burning iron of Callendar’. ‘Gossiping women’ who annoyed their husbands were often locked in a device called a ‘scold’s bridle’ or branx and chained to the wall of the steeple for a few hours or days.

The ultimate penalty was execution, although it was used much more sparingly than we might think. The town gallows stood below the tolbooth steeple where offenders would be held for as long as it took the authorities to decide what grizzly punishment to inflict.

Murder, forging banknotes or coins, or interfering with the mail were among the crimes that brought the death penalty and the occasional poor soul who faced the rope would be surrounded by a large gathering of Falkirk folk for whom such a spectacle was high entertainment.

The last man to face the hangman in the streets of the town was 18-year-old Francis Cockburn who murdered William Burt, a fellow Camelon nailer, in September 1827. He was executed below the steeple on May 8 the following year after having spent an hour in ‘devotional service and prayer’ in the company of two ministers.

By the middle of the 19th century the market stalls had moved to ‘New Market Street’ but the Cross remained the centre of the town for all important events and activities, much as it is today.

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