Good grammar has always been important in Falkirk

The old Falkirk High School in Rennie Street
The old Falkirk High School in Rennie Street

Last week’s official opening of the garden in front of the old infirmary was also an opportunity to rededicate the memorial gate marking the loss of 94 former pupils of Falkirk High School in the Great War.

At that time the school was located in Rennie Street in the building completed in 1889 to replace the original ‘Grammar School’ of Falkirk in Park Street, which has survived and is presently being refurbished.

The schoolmaster, James Burns, complained bitterly that the Parish school in the Back Row (Manor Street) was in “a miserable state - damp, low-roofed, small in size and a very bad situation”.

He and his assistant were also responsible for a second building in the Pleasance and Burns described how he organised his 200 pupils there: “133 write in the following order: – 54 write on tables, 24 write on forms, kneeling on the floor: 45 stand, who have neither tables nor forms, but I endeavour to give them fifteen or twenty minutes by making them change places with some of those sitting at table or lying at forms. I have sufficient forms for 130 only and there are 72 who have no seats”.

At the time education was the responsibility of the church funded by the leading landowners and they were reluctant to put their hands in their pockets. However, the disgraceful situation caused an outcry and a public appeal raised £1500 with Park Street the chosen site.

Some people objected that the location was ‘an out of the way, low and unwholesome place’ - but the project went ahead.

On May 18, 1846, the children marched from the Pleasance to their new school which soon began to offer higher education classes adopting the title of the Grammar School.

It quickly gained a reputation for excellence but that didn’t save it in 1873 when, under the Education Act, it was reduced to the status of an elementary school.

Once again pupils capable of higher study were forced to travel to the cities, but in Falkirk the redoubtable minister of Erskine Church, James Aitchison, campaigned tirelessly for a change of heart. In 1886 he was successful and the old Grammar School was redesignated ‘Falkirk High School’.

The success of the school brought a big increase in numbers and the building across the road, which had opened in 1878 as a centre for adult study under the name the School of Arts and Science was put to use. But even that did not solve the problem.

The answer was a new school in Rennie Street which opened in 1889 and is the place most Falkirk bairns of my generation call Falkirk High – widely recognised as one of Scotland’s finest secondary schools.

When the powers that be decided to modernise many schools in the 1960s the result was a new Falkirk High in Blinkbonny Road, but the Rennie Street building was not lost. For nearly 40 years it served as a new secondary school, Woodlands High, before its final ignominious and mysterious end in a fire after the pupils had been relocated to the new Braes High School in 2000.

New houses now fill the old place and one section is named Aitchison Place, a worthy tribute to the man who fought for higher education in the town and much else besides.