Falkirk through Stories in Stone

I was in Callendar House this week at two exhibitions: 12 works by Alan Davie, the Grangemouth artist who died last year, are on display in the Park Gallery until the 31st.

I admit that I have never been a great fan of Davie’s ‘magic symbolism’ but seeing these large scale ‘creations’ at close quarters is quite an experience.

The vivid colours and strange shapes are impressive and if the observer finds it difficult to explain then Davie would have no doubt said “Good! Don’t try”. He was one of our most famous sons and it’s great to see his work coming home if only for a wee while.

The second exhibition, ‘Stories in Stone’, is linked to the current Townscape Heritage Initiative project which will help refurbish some of Falkirk’s important historic buildings.

Students from Glasgow School of Art have produced a number of models of the buildings and in addition there are many fine line drawings. As part of the same THI project Falkirk Local History Society has just produced a special edition of the journal Calatria telling the stories of many of the buildings. Several members, under the guiding hand of John Reid, have researched places like Burtons, the York Café, Mathiesons, the Town Mission, the old National Bank buildings on the corner of Newmarket Street and Vicar Street and three of the town’s best known watering holes, the Cross Keys, the Pie Office and the Tolbooth Tavern better known to many of us as the Gaff. In addition there are articles on some of the shops and houses in the Cow Wynd and Vicar Street and the good old Tattie Kirk.

These stories in stone tell us a lot about the Falkirk of the 19th century and earlier. Take the Town Mission building in the Cow Wynd opened in 1898 by the local missionary society with the support of most of the local churches. The curse of the demon drink led to “the moral prostration of the lowest ebb of humanity” and the Mission would help rescue many from these dangers. The building is now the Struthers Memorial Church.

The York Café might well be the oldest house in Falkirk, the last on the High Street with its gable end facing the street. The Barrs of Irn Bru fame were one of the families who lived here in the 19th century and it was not until 1928 that the Serafinis redesigned the front and the famous Tudor style front was born.

The original Mathieson’s bakery opened in 1872 was on the opposite side of the High Street from the building with the unicorn (without a horn these days). The success of the firm at the turn of the century led to the addition of the new building and the growth continued throughout the century. The famous tearooms and popular ballroom were a major part of the Falkirk social scene until the modern era.

Burtons purchased the former Railway Hotel in 1924. It was the second inn on the site having been ‘The Temperance Coffee House and Railway Hotel’ from 1848 just six years after the trains first arrived in the town. Interestingly for some years after 1919 it housed a ‘Goth’, that is a public house run by a Trust intended to make drinking more civilised and less damaging!

And talking of drinking, the articles on the three pubs mentioned above are fascinating but I am going to say no more or I’ll be accused once again of an over fascination with these social centres which played such an important part in the lives of our forefathers.