The thanes who owned Falkirk’s Callendar House

Callendar House was home to the Callendar family dynasty before the Forbes' and the Livingstons
Callendar House was home to the Callendar family dynasty before the Forbes' and the Livingstons

The history of Callendar House is most often associated with two great dynasties – the Livingstons who were in possession of the estates for 400 years from the mid 14th century and the Forbes’ who came into ownership in 1783 and remained until 1962 when the house and parklands were purchased by the Burgh of Falkirk.

But there was another family – the Callendars – who were just as important. The name survives but their story is shrouded in the mists of dark age Scotland.

It’s frustrating that for around 700 years from the time the Romans departed our district until the first dependable records appear in the 11th century we know very little about the people who were walking the lands we live on today – what they were doing by way of agriculture and trade, who they were fighting, when exactly they discovered Christianity and much more.

We do have archaeological and place name evidence and a scattering of chronicles and annals written long after the events they describe, but that’s about all.

However, when the records do appear we find Falkirk district is part of a huge area called ‘Calateria’ or Kalentyr, Kalentar or Calentir, lying between the rivers Avon and Carron, which in turn gave the name to a powerful ruling family often referred to as ‘thanes’, a social rank or position of responsibility familiar from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

At a time when much low lying land was impassable and thousands of acres were marsh, moss and scrub, the lands of Callendar included rich woodlands and pasturage, fertile plains, river fishings and saltpans.

We know the names of some of these thanes from their signatures on charters and other legal documents. For example, in the early 12th century we have ‘Dufoter de Calateria’ and later a Duncan, a Malcolm (described as ‘Theino de Calentar’), a Patrick and an Alwyn. Many of the names were common in the old Celtic royal family which suggests that the powerful Callendars were related to the highest in the land.

It’s impossible to tell how long they were in power, but in 1990 an archaeological dig by Geoff Bailey on the site of the former college uncovered the foundations of a large wooden building which has been radio-carbon dated to the 10th century. This ‘thanes hall’, almost certainly home to the Callendars, was around 80ft long by 25ft wide and stood on land known as ‘Palace Hill’.

During the Wars of Independence the family supported the English against Wallace in 1298 and probably against Bruce a few years later but they somehow managed to survive after Bannockburn. They weren’t so lucky 30 years later when they again sided with the English against Bruce’s son, David II, in his renewed fight with the Baliols.

In 1346 all the lands of Patrick de Calantyr were forfeit and given instead to William Livingston, who had stayed loyal. William’s main concern was to secure the new possessions for his family and he did so by the traditional method of marrying Christiane, daughter of the deposed Patrick.

And so began the Livingston years which soon brought the move from the old thanes hall to a new stone tower which remains today within the fabric of Callendar House.