O’on remains a shadowy part of Falkirk’s history

Curses were put on Sir Michael Burke, the 'stonekiller'
Curses were put on Sir Michael Burke, the 'stonekiller'

Without a doubt the most celeb-rated building in Falkirk district’s long history was deliberately demolished over two centuries ago.

Had it survived this act of vandalism it would have been Scotland’s number one tourist attraction with nothing similar anywhere in Britain. Arthur’s Oven (or O’on for short), a very large beehive shaped temple was built by the Romans in the second century and admired by scholars for centuries.

Presumably its shape was similar to bread ovens of a later period. It stood just to the north of Carron Works in what is now Adam Crescent, not far from the mansion house of Stenhouse, the home of the vandal himself, Sir Michael Bruce.

His house and estate took their name from the O’on, the ‘stane house’, which was 22 feet high, 28 in diameter with walls four foot thick. It was described and drawn by a number of antiquaries at different times and it sometimes appears to be more like an igloo than a beehive.

Some observers described symbols like spears and eagles above the entrance and others talk about a brass finger lodged in a crack which might have been from a figure of a god. All of this led the experts to identify it as a Roman triumphal monument in the form of a temple dedicated to Mars and possibly marking a successful battle against locals.

Sometime in the later Dark Age period it acquired association with the legendary King Arthur as folk with vivid imaginations talk of Falkirk’s early history.

Some years ago the late Archie McKerracher even claimed that the O’on was the famous Round Table as there appear to have been stone seats on the inside. Another story suggests that after the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 King Edward I stopped his soldiers demolishing the O’on because of its supposed association with his hero King Arthur, and that on another visit to Falkirk in 1302 he revived the chivalrous order of Round Table Knights.

Sir Michael Bruce had a large family and not much money and when he needed a supply of dressed stone to repair the Stenhouse damhead on his estate he decided to demolish the building. No listed buildings in 1743.

The scholarly world was outraged but it didn’t deter the Laird who was called the ‘Stonekiller’ and was roundly cursed. The curses must have worked because the new dam was washed away in a spate on the Carron a year or so later. Some think the O’on’s stones are still at the bottom of the river and others believe they have been recycled within other later buildings. Several modern researchers have argued that since the Carron had probably changed its course since 1743 and that the stones might lie within the iron works but the evidence doesn’t really support this idea.

It’s unlikely to ever be built again, but it will certainly remain a powerful symbol of a shadowy part of our history.