Skating on thin ice when hockey lost its lustre

Falkirk Ice Rink in happier times.
Falkirk Ice Rink in happier times.

When I meet up with other older Falkirk bairns to reminisce about our youth, a number of places are sure to get a mention.

Pubs and dance halls, cafes and picture houses are always popular topics along with the once famous ice rink. Each time I pass down Grangemouth Road and see the familiar building my mind goes back to the 1950s and 60s when it was a magnet for skaters, curlers, dancers and fans of the once invincible ice hockey stars, the Falkirk Lions.

For over a century the ice sport of choice had been curling which depended for its success on the weather.

If it was cold enough the great and good would head for the loch at Callendar House or the purpose built curling ponds at Cobblebrae or Bells Meadow. Here for decades fierce battles were fought with other enthusiasts of the ‘‘roaring game’’ from Camelon, Stenhousemuir or, the hottest stars of all, Banknock. Until 1907 there were no indoor venues in Scotland but the opening of the rink at Crossmyloof in Glasgow offered a new solution to the vagaries of the Scottish weather.

Things really began to change in the 1930s. It started with a surprise victory for the British ice hockey team in the 1936 winter Olympics in Germany.

This prompted a rush to create new venues and, in Falkirk, an alliance of curlers, skaters and hockey enthusiasts made the case for a local ice rink.

Surplus cash from a trust in the process of being wound up had to be used on a project of benefit to the community. A rink seemed like a good business venture and a welcome addition to the town’s facilities so George Strang’s farm at Randyford was purchased for £40,000 and by the end of 1938 the familiar building was ready.

On November 30 the Earl of Stair, president of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, threw the first stone and Falkirk Ice Rink was officially open for curling, skating and hockey.

It was hockey that really brought the new rink to national prominence.

The mighty Falkirk Lions along with the Paisley Pirates, Ayr Raiders, Fife Fliers and the rest kicked off a golden age of ice hockey in Scotland.

Wednesday nights in the 40s and 50s brought up to 4000 fans to watch the Lions rattle in the goals - or rattle into their opponents.

Legendary names like Falkirk born Johnny Carlyle and Red Imrie joined a host of great Canadian players like goaltender ‘‘Happy’’ Finch and attacker Nelson McCuaig to carry the Lions to the very top of the sport.

But the rink was more than a sports arena. There were dance nights galore with Joe Loss, Victor Sylvester, Ted Heath, Jimmy Shand and, if I remember correctly, Dr Crock and his Crackpots.

Curling and skating continued but despite public support things were not well in the ice hockey world.

Professional leagues were in the hands of financial power brokers and for reasons that are beyond my understanding the sport declined sharply so that by the mid 1950s the Lions had adopted amateur status.

Attendances fell everywhere and by the late 60s it was all over.

The great nights rapidly faded into memory and the financial viability of the rink itself was called into question.

It closed down as an ice venue in 1977 and the curlers and skaters were left to find new homes outside the district.

The building survives of course and has had a number of different uses over the years but none of them with the magical appeal of Falkirk Ice Rink in its prime.