Mansion that’s a vital part of Falkirk’s past - and future

Lady Livingston, whose husband paid the ultimate price for his support of Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Lady Livingston, whose husband paid the ultimate price for his support of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Callendar House began its long and eventful history as a 14th century tower house, before assuming its magnificent present form - as a French Renaissance chateau - in the 19th century.

Together with the steeple and, most recently, the Helix, it’s Falkirk’s most conspicuous landmark, and has been visited (and stayed in) by many of the big names of Scottish and British history.

William Forbes of Callendar, Falkirk's richest and most powerful landowner in his day.

William Forbes of Callendar, Falkirk's richest and most powerful landowner in his day.

These include the luckless Mary Queen of Scots, the dictator Oliver Cromwell, Prince Charles Edward Stuart (and, briefly, the redcoat commander his army defeated in the 1746 Battle of Falkirk), and Queen Victoria.

Meanwhile its site is on the course of the world-famous Antonine Wall, another key element of Falkirk’s incredibly diverse history and heritage.

Back in the Middle Ages the consequences of backing the wrong side in war or politics could range from very serious to fatal, and the 5th Thane, Sir Patrick Callendar, was ruined by his support for Edward Balliol’s claim for the throne of Scotland.

The Livingston family oversaw the next chapter of the building’s subsequent history, and they were a major force in national politics - Alexander, 5th Lord Livingston, was guardian of Mary, Queen of Scots, in her minority, and the marriage agreement between Mary and the Dauphin of France was later signed at Callendar House,

The family survived the bloody turmoil of the 17th century British Civil Wars - when Cromwell’s iron-clad troopers stalked the land - but came to grief in the Jacobite Rising of 1715 (whose main event was the inconclusive Battle of Sheriffmuir).

James Livingston, 4th Earl of Callendar, was forced into exile for his support of the Old Pretender (the son of James II and VII).

In a twist of fate the Livingston name returned when the earl’s daughter, Lady Anne Livingston, was able to lease the house back from its new owners - but tragedy struck when her husband, the Earl of Kilmarnock, was executed for treason for supporting the Bonnie Prince.

In the late 18th century ownership passed to Aberdeen copper tycoon William Forbes, and his son and grandson added the classic French-style roofs we see today.

Forbes’ descendants were masters of Callendar House down to the 60’s when - by then in disrepair - it was acquired by Falkirk Burgh Council.

Now it is owned by Callendar Estate and managed by Falkirk Community Trust - whose efforts have paid off with a string of impressive awards.

As a five-star visitor attraction set in a UNESCO World Heritage site, its history is told - from the 11th century onwards - in an impressive permanent display.

Besides a regular programme of new exhibitions Callendar House also hosts a fascinating exposition of how once rural Falkirk was transformed by the Industrial Revolution.

In the restored 1825 Kitchen, costumed interpreters create an interactive experience with samples of early-19th century food (which was surprisingly good) providing added taste to stories of working life in a large household.

Meanwhile, in another take on its Jacobite era past, the House recently became a film location for the wildly popular Outlander TV series.

That Jacobite link is also honoured with the recent inclusion of the entire archive of the 1745 Association - a long-established heritage organisation dedicated to the promotion of understanding the events of the last Jacobite Rising.

Masses of local genealogical information is also stored in the Falkirk Archive, within an oak-panelled Victorian library.

But beyond the complex weave of six centuries of history Callendar House is also reckoned a great family day out.

More than “a museum” its surrounding park is a favourite picnic spot in summer, and the focus of all sorts of organised fun outdoor events - often, for example, linked to the ancient Roman presence in the area.

As part of the development of Callendar Park, a new Natural Play Trail has been developed to offer an inspiring space for children, their families and carers.

The park also boasts a par three golf coursem with nine holes ranged up to 142 yards.

Arguably Falkirk’s most versatile and wideranging leisure and heritage asset it can also claim to be among the most inclusive - because it’s dog-friendly too.