Window on Falkirk for the last four centuries

It is obvious that the task of telling Falkirk's story gets more difficult the further back you go.

The lack of reliable written material before the 17th century makes it a bit like doing a jigsaw when most of the pieces are missing and we don’t have a picture on the front of the box.

We know, for example, that Mary Queen of Scots (pictured) came to Falkirk in the 1560s to visit her friends the Livingstons but we have no idea what she did when she was here. Did she do a bit of shopping in the High Street or pop into the parish kirk?

Unlikely ... but we’ll never know.

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In 1600 her son James VI made Falkirk a burgh with power to hold markets but we can only guess what happened on these occasions from what we know from other places.

However, exactly 400 years ago in autumn 1617, James Johnstone, the session clerk at Falkirk Parish Church, completed the minutes of a meeting of the elders of the kirk and the document has survived as the earliest written record of the people and events of Falkirk.

The first names on the list are the Earl of Linlithgow (Alexander Livingston) and the Laird of Kers followed by the Laird of Pantasken and other leading land owners.

One of the earliest actions of the reformed church had been to insist on such detailed records and parishes had visits every few years to ensure that the books were being maintained.

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For us it was the beginning of a continuous written record (with the occasional missing section) which session clerks maintain today.

At the time the parish covered a huge area and many of the 29 elders and 7 Deacons in attendance were from fairly distant landward areas and their concerns reached far beyond the burgh boundaries.

The church demanded the obedience of everyone and accepted responsibility for schooling, care of the poor and the moral behaviour of the whole parish population.

That is why the minutes are such a treasure store of information on the life of the people. They describe a busy small community full of activity and characters whose names and actions we hear about for the first time.

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Church elders of today will not be surprised to know that the main item on that first agenda was about the state of the church fabric and how much it was going to cost to repair!

However, it was not long before the regular meetings were dominated by their determination to call to repentance all the poor Falkirk bairns whose behaviour fell short of the highest standards.

Desecrating the sabbath brought many to the notice of the session.

And in an agricultural area it comes as no great surprise to find ‘stacking of corne’, ‘shearin’, ‘picking pease’, ‘carting divots’, ‘driving cattle’ and ‘yoking a pleuch’ among the regular charges. Other Sunday diversions were ‘drinking wi’ Hielandmen’ or ‘fighting in the open fields’ or even ‘idly gazing from windows’ and ‘walking fast’.

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Excessive drinking and ‘horrid swearing’ were regular offences and there were those who fought in church over a seat, women who nagged their husbands, pipers and fiddlers who played at weddings and christenings against the orders of the session.

The guilty were usually fined or forced to do public humiliation in the church for several Sundays.

The records of Falkirk and all the other local parishes are held in the archives at Callendar House and are a window on the fascinating world of Falkirk four centuries ago and in all the years between.