August 25 is an important day in Falkirk’s history when we remember the one and only visit by our national bard, Robert Burns, to the town.
Last Saturday, on the anniversary, I was delighted to take part in a special event at the east end of the High Street where we celebrated the refurbishment of the old Crosskeys building where the poet spent the night and, especially, the beautiful restoration of the plaque which tells us about that event. Burns enthusiasts and local historians were joined by Provost Billy Buchanan and former provost, Pat Reid, who had made a dash from Armed Forces Day in Grangemouth to be at the event along with the council’s Pete Reid who headed up the THI team which masterminded the restoration project.
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Brian Goldie, the current junior vice-president of the World Burns Federation, spoke of the importance of the building, which is today home to Revolution Music, and of Burns’ visit to the district including his infamous trip to Carron Works. For my part I reminded the guests of the bard’s words in his journal, which he began in Falkirk, and also in the verse he scratched on the Crosskeys’ window: “Sound be his sleep and blythe his morn, That never did a lassie wrong”. Today that window is on display in the museum in Alloway.
A century ago Falkirk Burns Club held suppers in the Crosskeys twice a year, on January 25 and August 25.
Burns was just 27 when, in 1786, his first book of poems was published in Kilmarnock.
It caused a great stir and caught the attention of the great scholars of Edinburgh. To them it was an authentic voice of ordinary people and a contrast to the fancy but shallow verses popular at the time.
At their invitation he went to the capital where a second edition was published and he spoke to gatherings of literary men in their salons and houses.
At their suggestion he joined William Nicol, classics master at the High School, on a tour of the Highlands in August 1787.
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He arrived in Falkirk fresh from a visit to “that dirty, ugly place Borrowstoness” and the pair booked into the Crosskeys because the town’s premier coaching inn, the Red Lion, was full of cattle drovers and buyers in Falkirk for the September Tryst.
In the morning they walked along the High Street – “nothing remarkable” he said, except the tomb of Sir John de Graeme in the parish churchyard where he knelt in prayer.
Then it was across the ‘‘Grand Canal’’ to Camelon, “the ancient Metropolis of the Picts”, and on to his unhappy experience in Carron.
The plaque on the building was cast in Mitchell’s Grahamston Foundry and unveiled on January 29, 1889, by Sir Thomas Dawson Brodie of Carron Company. Over the years it has been painted many times and the restoration team at Matheson’s in Middlefield had to remove many layers before bringing it back to its full glory with the gilded portrait bust of the poet dominating.
The plaque and the building look fantastic now but there is more to come.
Everyone present on Saturday, including the owner of Revolution Music, John Wiggins, are keen to see a permanent window exhibition including a replica of the famous inscribed glass, reminding customers and passers-by of that day over two centuries ago.
As well as honouring one of Scotland’s greatest sons it would be another way of attracting people to our High Street and that can only be a good thing given the difficult times faced by our retailers today.