Avon Hall’s restoration reveals tiny time capsule

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Victorian Grangemouth was a very wealthy place and few men were as rich and powerful as the great timber merchants.

In the 1870s two of the most important, John Fairley and Daniel MacLaren, decided to build themselves fine villas appropriate to their status.

The sites chosen lay side by side on Bo’ness Road and the appointed architect was MacLaren’s cousin, the young but highly promising James Marjoribanks MacLaren, by then working in London.

There he had absorbed the influences of the new Arts and Crafts movement and began to impress with his innovative designs.

The new Grangemouth villas, Avondhu (for MacLaren) and Avon Hall (for Fairley), combine Scottish baronial solidity with strong French influences – an “auld alliance” of ideas. They were completed in 1879.

James M MacLaren was born near Callandar in 1853 and educated at Stirling High School to which he returned much later as the architect of its major transformation. Today it is the Highland Hotel in Spittal Street.

It was this innovative design that attracted the attention of the young Charles Rennie Mackintosh whose subsequent career may well have been influenced by what MacLaren brought to the Stirling design.

Later MacLaren was to design the planned village of Fortingall in Perthshire.

Avondhu served as a hotel for decades and was restored some years ago. Avon Hall remained in the hands of the Fairley family until the 1950s when it was acquired by the BP and used as a reception and residential centre.

More recent times saw the house fall into disrepair until rescued by the present amazing restoration by Bellair, a company with a high reputation for saving historic buildings like the Falkirk Business Hub.

During the restoration the joiners removed a door jamb and lo and behold a little glass bottle was discovered in a specially cut niche! It appeared to contain some small items plus two sheets of paper with writing – a message in a bottle from the past placed there 140 years ago when Avon Hall was under construction.

Alistair Campbell of Bellair gave me a call and along with intrepid archaeologist Geoff Bailey we met up to open the bottle.

We soon discovered that it had once contained linseed oil and that those who had hidden it had not cleaned it out properly! The result was that one sheet of paper had soaked up the oil, dried out and crumbled into small pieces as we tried to move it.

However the other sheet was in a good state and the message was clear.

The joiners of 1879 who worked for the builder John Farquhar had decide to record their names for posterity along with a collection of small mementos of their trade – a stubby joiner’s pencil, a stick of charcoal, a square nail, a little piece of French chalk, a bit of ‘‘stopping’’ (like plastic wood) and a one inch brass woodscrew.

There was also a postage stamp with the young Queen Victoria’s face on it and, strangely, the mouthpiece of a cigarette holder.

On the paper our ‘‘correspondents’’ had added a little poem which runs as follows:

Dear friend who may this vial find,

Pray to us do not be unkind

And publish this both far and near

That if alive we may it hear

And if we’re gone to our long bed

Pray take a lesson from the dead

I’m not sure what the lesson we are invited to learn could be but at least we have honoured their memory by telling the story of their work on this beautiful house now restored to the state in which they left it when they downed tools in 1879.