Evidence of area’s justice

The old sheriff court at the top of Hope Street in Falkirk.
The old sheriff court at the top of Hope Street in Falkirk.

When the new Sheriff Court opened in Camelon in 1990 its architecture provoked a mixed response.

Some folk thought the design smacked of a past era, but for me it was all the better for that since it represented the continuation of the administration of justice which began far back in the past when offenders were marched up to Callendar House to face the wrath of the mighty Earls of Callendar.

More than a few were then strung up on the ‘dule tree’ near the house, though later victims were often ‘terminated’ on the town gallows at the Cladhan or the Steeple.

With the end of the power of the barons, trials were usually conducted in Stirling but in 1833, with the population growing, the post of Sheriff-Substitute for Falkirk was created.

From time to time the Sheriff and his retinue would turn up in Falkirk using a variety of rented buildings like the Red Lion Inn, Wilson’s Buildings or the Assembly Rooms, now somewhere within the Howgate.

In 1852 Sheriff Handyside, fed up with carting the portable bench and dock around the district, purchased the Temperance Hotel in Bank Street for £445.

It became Falkirk’s first court house and served for the next 16 years. The building was later Young’s Pram Store and is now the Roxy Café.

The Commissioners of Supply who were responsible for justice in Stirlingshire decided that a populous town like Falkirk should do better and the brand new Sheriff Court and prison at the top of Hope Street was the result.

Designed in the Scottish baronial style and sporting the coats of arms of many of the leading families of Stirlingshire, the building remains one of Falkirk’s most attractive.

It was officially opened on October 21, 1868 and later on a new police station in similar style was added on the south west side. The Sheriff Court survived for 120 years until the new building in Camelon.

It is now a funeral home and I must say it was a relief to see it safely in the hands of people who give it the care and attention it deserves.

One last intriguing part of the story concerns that first courtroom in Bank Street.

There is a persistent legend that there was an underground passage from the back of the building (in O’Conner’s Close) to the cellars beneath the steeple.

This was to allow those found guilty to be taken to the jail cells there without having to face an angry Falkirk mob.

Now, it has to be said that our area is not short of stories of tunnels and most of them are baloney.

However, this one has the ring of possibility about it and a few years ago I was allowed to go down below the floor of the steeple with a lamp to see what could be seen!

I found no passage but there was a wall to the north with a lattice of bricks and a space behind which seemed to go ... well, somewhere!

I never managed to get to the basement of Young’s but I was assured by a man who worked there donkey’s years before that there was indeed a doorway in the cellar which seemed to go . . . somewhere.

Can you solve the mystery? You never know what, or who, we might find there!

The story of Falkirk’s court houses is very well told in an excellent article by Allan Meek in the very first edition of Calatria published back in 1991.

Ask Ian

How does Dorrator Road get its name?

The road leads down to the cemetery, and beyond the crematorium are the lands of Dorrator on the banks of the Carron.

John Reid [author of the invaluable reference book ‘The Place Names of Falkirk and East Stirlingshire’] believes the name means a fort (or walled town) near or on the water and may refer to a settlement connected to the great Roman fort of Carmuirs which is not far away.