Seeing a blue bus meant you weren’t far from Falkirk

An Alexander's bus with Doak's Dance Hall in the background
An Alexander's bus with Doak's Dance Hall in the background
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My trip down memory lane this week is aboard one of Falkirk’s most iconic vehicles – a big blue Alexander’s double-decker bus.

The subject was prompted by a conversation I had recently with Mac Buckie who spent 18 years as an Alexander’s driver and wondered why this part of Falkirk’s history had not featured in these articles up to now.

Soon afterwards my friend and neighbour Steve Mackie of the Gilded Cage passed me some old documents collected by his father and grandfather who were the proprietors of the Falkirk Mail. One was a 1950 BBC radio script featuring the broadcaster Jack House who came to Falkirk to interview Thomas Mackie senior and other luminaries like Festus Moffat and Provost Wallace.

One other guest was Mary Stewart (nee Cramb), the first ever Alexander’s conductress who had interesting memories of the man who started it all way back in 1913.

Walter Alexander served his time as a grate fitter in Bonnybridge and in 1902, aged 24, began repairing bicycles from a shed in Brown Street. Despite the popularity of the electric trams which had started running round the circular in 1905, Walter was smart enough to see their limitations and to look for ways of serving the outlying areas beyond the tramlines.

It was a bold decision because the tram company itself was beginning to expand into bus services and they had more capital than Walter. In 1913 he acquired a chain-driven Belhaven charabanc and the following year, 100 years ago this month, began a service from Falkirk to Bonnybridge – later extended to Denny, then Kilsyth and Glasgow. The revolution was underway.

Mrs Stewart had worked on the trams during the war and she became his first conductress in 1922. She remembers him driving the buses to Kilsyth himself with her collecting the fares. “Walter wasn’t very sure what the fares should be but he knew I had experience on the tramways so he told me just to charge the travellers what I thought was a fair fare,” she said.

Soon the pair were going further afield. She added: “When we got to Glasgow with our 40-seater bus there were a lot of people in the wee buses waiting to go. But when they saw the big bus they all got off and got on ours.”

Mary earned £2 a week and when she gave up the job in 1925 Alexander’s had 40 buses. Around the same time Alexander’s moved into manufacturing, building bus bodies in Brown Street and expanding the service to towns and villages all over central Scotland. In 1929 the firm became part of the SMT group but operated independently retaining the Alexander’s name and identity.

By the mid-1930s the firm was running over 1000 buses including the famous ‘bluebird’ fleet. Walter was joined by his son Walter junior and together they masterminded the huge expansion that made Alexander’s a giant of Scottish industry and carried the name of Falkirk to every corner of the globe.

Despite mergers and takeovers, nationalisation and privatisation, the name Alexander’s lives on not only in the successful bus building firm, but in the hearts and minds of every Falkirk Bairn for whom a glimpse of a big blue bus meant you were not far from home.