I enjoyed Roy Beer’s article last week about the ongoing hunt for the site of the First Battle of Falkirk.
It is good to know that my friend and fellow enthusiast John Walker has not given up on finding the location of this calamitous clash which saw the Scots under Wallace perish by the hundreds if not thousands on July 22, 1298, 720 years ago this Sunday.
In the absence of a place to gather on such anniversaries the focus of attention over the years has been on the graveyard of the Old Parish Church, now Falkirk Trinity, and on the tomb of Sir John de Graeme.
He was a local man – the remains of his castle are still visible up in the Carron Valley – and he was an early supporter of Wallace, said to be the leader’s right hand man.
He died during the battle and we are told by the poet Blind Harry that he was carried to his grave where Wallace declared:
‘‘My dearest brother that I ever had,
My only friend, when I was hard bestead.’’
The tomb has seen many changes as new generations of Scots sought to honour Sir John’s part in our country’s story.
The original carved effigy is badly worn but you can just about make out the figure of a man with arms crossed over his chest.
Over the centuries new flat slabs with inscriptions were put in place, each a few inches above the other.
The last of these was paid for by William Graham of Airth in 1773 just a few years before Robert Burns passed by: “This morning I knelt at the tomb of Sir John the Graham, gallant friend of the immortal Wallace”. In 1860 the Sir John de Graeme Lodge of Oddfellows launched a public appeal which led to the erection of handsome iron railings and they then decided to place a replica of Sir John’s sword on the tomb.
The Auchterarder Masonic Lodge possessed what was said to be the original and the members agreed that it could be brought to Falkirk so that a copy in bronze could be made by Falkirk Iron Company.
However, fearing that it might be damaged the lodge sent a messenger to protect the sword until it was ready to come home.
He was quite a fearsome looking character so the old blade was safe enough in his care.
The replica was mounted on the tomb in 1869. By the early 1950s it had lost its handle and point and it was not until the 700th anniversary in 1998 that it was replaced.
Sadly it wasn’t long before the new sword was wrenched from the tomb and we had to wait until the restoration of the graveyard in 2011 before the tomb was repaired, sword and all. Another memorial to Graeme was raised in the form of a drinking fountain in Victoria Park paid for by exiled Falkirk bairn Robert Dollar in 1912.
At the time it was believed that the battle was fought in Grahamston and the inscription tells us that this was the spot where Sir John met his death.
Unfortunately the heraldic stone lion on the top was knocked off a few weeks ago and my worry was that it would stay that way.
The good news is that a new group called the Friends of Sir John de Graeme, is on the case and there is every chance that the memorial will be back to its best in the not too distant future and well before the next anniversary.