Falkirk history made way for progress

How the street looked before the Howgate shopping centre was built
How the street looked before the Howgate shopping centre was built

If you are under 30 then the Howgate is the big shopping centre in High Street. But for the rest of us it is one of Falkirk’s disappeared streets which for centuries led the way out of the town to the farmlands to the south and west.

The name tells us that it was the ‘gate’, or road, that runs along the ‘how’ or shallow valley of the West Burn which once flowed down past the infirmary and along Cockburn Street.

When it reached the point where the roundabout is today it turned along Burnhead Lane and towards West Bridge Street.

Near the roundabout there were stepping stones to allow pedestrians to cross the water, which was eventually piped underground in 1870 after repeated flooding caused problems for the tanners and residents.

It is still there, flowing under our feet, but there’s a bit on the surface outside the infirmary known for a couple of centuries as Jenny Mair’s Burn.

Jenny was born in 1780 and owned a little cottage nearby and used to sit on a chair by the side of the burn passing the time of day with anyone who came along.

I’m sure she would be delighted to know that we still remember her and that the little bit of water which bears her name has been beautifully restored as part of the refurbishment of part of the demolished Royal Infirmary.

From the roundabout the Howgate climbed up to the town where it entered two other lost closes – Sword’s Wynd, named after one of Falkirk’s ancient families and Robert’s Wynd, which once housed at least two public houses – the celebrated King’s Head and the Guildford Arms.

As far back as 1641 James Sworde was Procurator Fiscal and Baillie of the Falkirk Regality Court and many of his descendents held high office in the town, as well as owning farm land in Mungal.

My favourite one is Andrew who married a widow called Isabella Brock in 1819. When he died a few years later he left her loads of money which she used to buy land at the bottom of Hope Street where she built a new house.

This she named ‘Brockville’ in memory of her first husband James Brock and so it has remained, though no longer home to the mighty Falkirk ‘Bairns’ (more’s the pity).

In one of the Sword’s Wynd buildings the Scottish Temperance League was established in the Victorian era which must have been very welcome in Falkirk High Street, I don’t think!

More popular was the nearby Waverley Public Wash House and Baths run by Mr Dewsnap – “a much desiderated convenience and a marvel of moderation in respect of tariff”.

I remember the Howgate in the 1950s with the line of old houses with forestairs on one side and a number of shops on the other.

There was a plumbers merchant, a furniture shop and a ‘jenny a’ thing’ second hand shop as well as Munnoch’s upholstery factory.

Across the road was Mitchell’s Dairy where the cows were milked and at the very top the red brick printing works of George Inglis which was just about the last building left standing before it all disappeared.

In the 1970s the houses were demolished and the ground was used as a car park before eventually centuries of history vanished below the shining ‘streets’ of the new Howgate Centre.