Raising a glass to Aitken’s brewery

Aitkens Brewey
Aitkens Brewey

A year or so ago I wrote an article about my experiences working in Aitken’s brewery during my summer holidays in the 1960s.

I was so concerned to expose the secret pint swilling that made my stay there so memorable that I didn’t manage to say much about the history of the brewery itself which operated in Falkirk town centre for two centuries and cloaked the town in such a wonderful aroma on brewing days. It was way back in 1740 that the first James (or maybe John) Aitken began brewing his ale and porter in the town. At that time the firm occupied a site on the south side of Newmarket Street where the Royal Hotel and the Pavilion (or Gaumont) picturehouse stood at a later date. There is a legend that Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highland soldiers, fresh from routing the redcoats in January 1746, arrived in the High Street hell-bent on a bit of pillaging or worse. However they caught a whiff of Mr Aitken’s brew and proceeded to spend the next eleven days on a mammoth ale tasting session much to the relief of the locals.

The firm soon built a reputation for the quality of its beers and stouts and successive generations of Aitken’s (nearly all called James, including one famous Provost of the burgh) extended and developed production so that by the mid 19th century the firm occupied land on both sides of the street and began to export all over the world and especially to the Empire where they regularly won awards for excellence. There were occasional hiccups like the time when the firm received complaints about the taste of the stout only to find that the water they were using was draining down through several lairs in the Parish Church graveyard. Jokes about the beer having ‘body’ were not encouraged.

In 1900 a rebuilding programme brought the familiar red brick brewery building with its 180 foot chimney which dominated the skyline until it was demolished by Army engineers in 1970. The site was extended down Hope Street to the railway line and a siding was built to bring in raw materials and carry away the finished product whether in wooden barrels or bottles from a big new bottling hall.

One report at the time of the opening of the new building says that “The engine room is the most interesting place, and is tastefully arranged and decorated; it contains a large and powerful steam engine”.

In 1910 a 518 foot bore was made to improve the supply of water and 17 years later a second well was sunk this time to a depth of 700 feet from which the water was drawn at a rate of 240 gallons per minute. The firm continued to prosper, owning many pubs throughout the country, and by the 1950s the bottling hall was producing 1200 dozen bottles per hour and there were over 200 employees. The sight and sound of the bottles rattling along the production line through the Hope Street windows will stay long in the memory.

In 1960 Aitken’s became part of Caledonian United Breweries which was then swallowed up by Tennents to form Tennent Caledonian a few years later and soon the Falkirk operation was scaled down. Brewing came to an end in 1968 and the site sold to Falkirk Town Council for £141,000. The buildings were demolished in 1970 and to be honest the town has never been quite the same since.