How the ‘Iron Duke’ found himself a home in Falkirk

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One beneficiary of the current refurbishment of the town centre is the ‘‘Iron Duke’’ of Wellington whose statue in Newmarket Street is due for a facelift.

The great soldier and former Prime Minister has been a Falkirk fixture since 1854, though when he first arrived he stood below the steeple in the old market place where Falkirk folk usually gather to bring in the New Year.

I can remember big crowds in the 1960s when you were quite likely to be handed an open bottle of whisky by a stranger and expected to take a swig and pass it on to the next guy!

The result of our partying was usually no more than a few sore heads and a broken bottle or three, but back in 1904 the consequences were more serious for the duke.

The young folk of Falkirk, for whom the Napoleonic Wars were ancient history, took to clambering up on the horse and crowning the duke with anything that came to hand.

The outrage of their elders failed to deter them and, after a particularly wild night on Hogmanay 1904, when parts of the statue were damaged, the indignation could not be contained.

The only way to protect the town’s reputation from such disgraceful scenes was to move the duke and his horse, Copenhagen, to a place of safety.

One might ask what a statue was doing in Falkirk High Street in the first place?

Scotland in the mid 19th century remembered the French wars with great pride and Wellington was still a hero.

This after all was the home of the ‘‘Falkirk Dizzen’’, 12 men who had fought at Waterloo in 1815.

In 1853, Provost Robert Adam, with James Russel of Arnotdale, attended a sale of work by the sculptor Robert Forrest who had recently died.

Russel had already bought ‘‘The Prodigal Son’’ for his garden at Arnotdale but now their attention was drawn to the likeness of the duke.

Apparently it had been commissioned by the town of Lanark where Forrest’s great William Wallace statue stands, but the good burghers had, for some reason, refused to take it.

Thus it was on sale at a knock-down price of £70 and the canny bairns, ever anxious for a bargain, raised enough cash to allow the purchase plus the pedestal which cost a further £42.

The Duke was unveiled on May 4, 1854, below the steeple and there he remained in relative peace until that Hogmanay night in 1904.

The Burgh Council decided that the gardens at the east end of Newmarket Street were ideal and Thomas McKie, the local road surveyor, was given the difficult job of moving the statue down the Kirk Wynd, a task accomplished without mishap in June 1905.

And there it has remained for over a century. Is it safer?

Just a few years ago somebody cut off the Duke’s head and carted it away to Stirling where it appeared underneath the statue of Rob Roy with the words ‘‘Fur Wallace’’ written on a card!

And, of course, more that a few happy Falkirk fans were up on Copenhagen’s back in 1957 when the Scottish Cup came to the town.

On the other hand, the statue’s new location in Newmarket Street meant that it remained safe and sound in 1927 when lightning sent a mass of stone to the ground below the town steeple.

It would surely have put paid to the duke once and for all!

Then we could have said with the French art enthusiast who visited Falkirk some years ago “Sacre bleu ... now Waterloo is avenged.”