Jack’s new book lifts the lid on Secret Falkirk

Secret Falkirk author Jack Gillon.
Secret Falkirk author Jack Gillon.

Author Jack Gillon is no stranger to the concept of writing incisive and fascinating books about Scotland’s historical heritage.

But his new book on Falkirk - Secret Falkirk - is arguably a bit special.

As author Jack Gillon relates, in 1927  Falkirk's iconic steeple was struck by lightning and 40 feet of masonry crashed to the High Street below.  However the Falkirk Herald - while applauding the fact that nobody was killed - didn't allow its report to get too carried away.

As author Jack Gillon relates, in 1927 Falkirk's iconic steeple was struck by lightning and 40 feet of masonry crashed to the High Street below. However the Falkirk Herald - while applauding the fact that nobody was killed - didn't allow its report to get too carried away.

The man himself is a long term Edinburgh resident, and has worked as a town planner involved in conservation in the capital for around 30 years.

Jack has written several books about other towns for publisher Amberley (for example Dalkeith), but even considering all this expertise and insight this effort is remarkable.

Regular followers of local historian Ian Scott’s Falkirk Herald articles will know the town has a rich and fascinating past, and Jack’s book - more labour of love than any mere textbook - clearly tries to do the subject fair justice.

However there is a poignant side to the story which possibly gives the book an extra edge.

Secret Falkirk is dedicated to Jack’s brother Norman, who sadly passed away during the book’s compilation, and it is dedicated to him.

Norman knew Falkirk well, because he had served his apprenticeship as a joiner building buses for Walter Alexander’s.

Jack says in his acknowledgements preface: “He was a bit of an enthusiast for the dancing and, like so many other couples in the 1950s, met his future wife, Margaret, at Doak’s Dance Hall in Falkirk”.

Many Bairns will know just why Falkirk folk are called Bairns, but the book starts with an entertaining explanation before plunging into centuries of copiously illustrated history.

It is a mesmerising story for anyone even vaguely interested in Scotland’s, never mind Falkirk’s past.

The defeat of William Wallace (one of whose fallen warriors lies buried in Trinity churchyard) and the pointless, valedictory victory won by Bonnie Prince Charlie on Falkirk Muir, are just two of the town’s more memorable “edited highlights”.

But have you ever heard of the Falkirk Steeple Crash of 1927?

It was a big story in the Falkirk Herald when - struck by lightning - the spire collapsed into the High Street.

In a more restrained style of journalism than you’d expect today the Falkirk Herald reported: “The occurrence naturally created considerable alarm and excitement, but, fortunately, it was unattended by any loss of human life”.

As Jack’s narrative develops it becomes clear, though, that Secret Falkirk is much more than an amalgam of notable events and people.

By understanding the many half-forgotten fragments of the town’s past it’s possible to imagine a place that was once all about agriculture - “Glasgow for bells, Linlithgow for wells, and Falkirk for beans and pease”.

The marketplace was where folk gathered on feeing days to be hired by farmers.

The opening of the Carron Iron Works changed the emphasis very considerably, not least because it was to achieve “household name” status as an exemplar of reliability and quality.

So it might come as a mild surprise to some to find that Scotland’s first major iron foundry was initially known as “the English foundry” - because it drew so many skilled workers from south of the border.

Jack recounts how both Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington both insisted on using cannon cast in Falkirk - in the Iron Duke’s case these were mighty siege cannon used to blast their way into seemingly impregnable French-held fortresses in Portugal and Spain.

The Carronade - a fearsome instrument of war - was a naval cannon designed to act like a giant shotgun, blasting enemy decks with “grapeshot”.

But a cute period illustration from a later era shows an advert for “Carron 18th century design firegrates”, so it wasn’t all about weapons of mass destruction.

Meanwhile Jack’s account of the arrival of Falkirk’s trams in 1905 is an eye-opener.

Three million people used the service in its first year of operation, because it was fast, cheap and regular.

On a more sober note, Jack recounts that unfortunately Falkirk earned the reputation of being “one of the most drunken towns in Scotland” - there were “dozens” of pubs on the High Street alone.

So the Temperance movement fought hard (possibly largely in vain) to make a difference - leading to the opening of the Temperance Hotel (one of many around the country) where alcohol was forbidden.

None of this would have bothered the owners of Falkirk brewery Aitken’s, launched in 1723.

Rebuilt in 1900 the brewery only finally wound up in 1968 when swallowed up by Tennent’s.

The industrial history alone in Jack’s book is impressive, also obviously including “Barrs aerated water works” on Burnfoot Lane - and of course the launch of Barr’s Iron Brew in 1901.

Callendar House, the Dark Tunnel, the railway stations and many other landmark Falkirk sites feature, along with sites some people will never have heard of until now - for example the Westerglen Radio Transmitter, opened in 1932, a few miles to the south west of the town.

Or how about the 19th century dynamite factory in Redding?

There is much more, and where this book may score with many readers is the sheer amount of information within a fairly modest-size volume - that and its easygoing style.

Did you know Falkirk has its own anthem, originally composed by local poet Robert Buchanan for a group of homesick Bairns forced to live in faraway Glasgow?

It was a smash hit after it was performed for Bairns in Glasgow’s splendid Trades Hall in 1866, and for many years was sung by every kind of group at every gathering - not excluding schools.

It is titled “The Dear Auld Hame (Falkirk Town)”, and Jack suggests it might not be a bad idea to revive the song for local events today”.

One stanza goes:

“We were bairns then, we’re bairns yet

“Our hearts beat aye the same

“And time can never Mem’ry flit

“Frae thee, oor dear auld hame”.

Secret Falkirk, from Amberley Publishing, is priced £14.99.