Victorian Scotland was an intensely religious place and Falkirk was, if anything, more enthusiastic than most.
Between 1875 and the end of the century more than 20 new churches were built in the district paid for by the successful iron masters and men of business who were stalwart supporters of the ‘kirk’ in its various Presbyterian forms.
It was also a time when hostility to colourful church decoration gave way to an appreciation of beautiful works of art and this brought a new flowering of the art of the stained glass designer.
Anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing Ros Mitchell’s excellent presentation on Falkirk’s church windows will know that some of the greatest artists working in the field have left their glorious mark in churches in every corner of our district. Ros who is a member of Falkirk Trinity was inspired by seeing each Sunday the fabulous work of Christopher Whall, the London designer and craftsman, who was one of the country’s greatest and most innovative artists.
The two great windows in what was then Falkirk Parish Church were installed in 1897 and show scenes from the Old and New Testaments including a masterly retelling of the parable of the Good Samaritan. They were paid for, and dedicated to, the memory of the Melville family of sawmillers and all across the district similar dedications began filling the kirks with light and colour.
The new Whall windows replaced earlier ones by the Edinburgh firm of James Ballantine which were moved to the side windows where they remain today. Ballantines had been among the first companies to respond to the new age, specialising in images that recalled classical religious paintings with simple messages and lifelike figures.
Their work is to be found across the district, most notably in Polmont Old where the two great windows on either side of the pulpit are as bright and clear today as when they were installed back in 1876. They were also responsible for the Jacobite windows in the Howgate shopping centre which had originally been commissioned in the 1860s for South Bantaskine House.
In the early 20th century a new wave of Scottish designers transformed the inside of many of the new church buildings. Stephen Adam and his great pupil Alf Webster, working from their Glasgow studio, set new artistic standards and Webster in particular was well on his way to the top of the profession when his life was cut short in World War I. Examples of Adam’s work are to be found in the former Erskine church in Falkirk, as well as in Airth Parish Church, and most notably in Larbert Old where Webster’s brilliance is there for all to see.
From the other side of the country came the most productive of all, Douglas Strachan from Aberdeen whose designs are also in Larbert Old, Dundas in Grangemouth and most famously in Stenhouse and Carron Church.
Later it was William Wilson from Edinburgh with windows in Abbotskerse and Dundas, Grangemouth and St Andrews, Falkirk which will be open this weekend as part of Doors Open days.
Another church on that list is the ultra modern Catholic Church in Camelon, St Mary of the Angels, designed back in 1960 by the innovative architects Gillespie, Kidd and Coia.
One of the outstanding features is the way in which the light especially sunlight floods the sanctuary with colour through painted glass panels.
Finally, I would recommend that you take a look at the five brilliantly painted windows in the Masonic Temple in Lint Riggs, which is also open at the weekend.