Falkirk’s gates closed to fend off the plague

A scene from a 17th century town like Falkirk at the time the bubonic plague was rampant
A scene from a 17th century town like Falkirk at the time the bubonic plague was rampant

Falkirk has had many very welcome visitors over the centuries but I wonder who was the least popular.

There are certainly plenty of candidates but my money is on the unknown chap (probably from Bo’ness) who arrived in the old burgh in the Autumn of 1644 with a dose of bubonic plague which quickly spread through the population.

The authorities were well aware of the danger and ordered the gates to be shut to keep the pestilence at bay. No outside workers were allowed in without an official pass but it was all to no avail.

Once the disease arrived it was all hands to the pump to deal with those who were infected and stop it spreading. The plague had probably arrived in Scotland through ports like Bo’ness and although Falkirk had a fairly small population the people were crowded together in narrow closes and wynds off High Street, ideal conditions for disease to spread.

There was a swift response from local leaders both civil and religious. In December James Livingston, the Earl of Callendar, wrote to his Falkirk Bailie ordering immediate action to close up some houses and guard others and to ensure that those confined are supplied with meal and coals.

Since contaminated clothing had to be destroyed the Earl ordered his men to, “try what coarse cloath can be gottin in Falkirk at two shillings or half a croune ane ell, and buy it, and cause all the taylzeours to fall a-making of four tailed coats and breiches.” Special workers called ‘smeikers’ and ‘clengars’ used smoke from burning coals to fumigate and clean the suspect houses. The church thought the arrival of the pestilence was a punishment from God and days of prayer and fasting were ordered.

Celebrations were cancelled because, “banquittas, brydellies and nicht wakes are not decent when God is offendit with the land”. Weddings were allowed later, but only six guests on each side were permitted to attend.

The plague stayed in Falkirk for almost three years but we have no record of how many people died, though it must have been dozens. The church decided the dead should be buried outside the town due to fears the plague would escape from the graves. They were carried to the open, common land of Graham’s Muir and buried together in plague pits known afterwards as the ‘Pest Graves’.

A stone wall was built round the spot in 1647 to prevent cattle from eating the grass in case the milk passed on the disease. This remained the case until a man called Dunn knocked them down and let the cows in to graze in the early 19th century. Nothing bad happened and later Dr John Meek acquired the land which was then used for housing.

The name ‘PEST GRAVES’ continued to appear on maps and we can pinpoint the place fairly accurately as the junction of George Street and Russel Street. I used to live not far from there and I must say the ground was always very fertile and the crop of potatoes second to none.


My thanks to my friends John Reid and Bill Anderson for pointing out that around 1700 there was a man called James Greenhorn who held land just up the hill from what was then called at the Chapel Well. Greenhorn seems to have been a fairly common Falkirk surname and there are still families of the name in the district.