Falkirk, Scotland: the town where I was born
Nearly seven decades later, it's time I went back!
“I remember, I remember, the house where I was born”, wrote Thomas Hood in the early 19th century. I can remember neither the house nor the Scottish town in which that house still stands, having left both at a very early age in order to grow up in another town hundreds of miles away.
I was born, as Derek Alexander Clayton, at 136 Merchiston Avenue, Falkirk, at five minutes to midnight on 11th August 1952. Number 136 is the upper floor of the house on the right in the picture. Merchiston Avenue is to the north-west of the town centre, squeezed between the A9 and the Forth and Clyde Canal. I do not know how long I stayed there before being whisked away to the south of England, firstly to a children’s home in Gosport and then, at 13 months old, to Poole where I was given a new home and family, as well as a new name.
But what of Falkirk? The Romans arrived here about 1,800 years before I did. Emperor Antoninus had the idea that he would go one better than his predecessor and extend the limit of the Empire by 100 miles to the north of Hadrian’s Wall. The new wall, linking the estuaries of the Forth and Clyde rivers, was much less substantial than Hadrian’s, took twelve years to build and was only defended for a further eight years before being abandoned in the year 162, after Antoninus had died and been succeeded by Marcus Aurelius.
The Antonine Wall passed through the southern edge of what is now Falkirk, and there are sections of bank and ditch visible in the grounds of Callendar House to the south-east and in open countryside to the south-west, which is also the site of Rough Castle, one of the sixteen small forts that were built along the wall.
Falkirk was the site of the battle that ended the ambitions of “Braveheart” William Wallace in 1298. Having achieved a major success over an English army at Stirling Bridge in 1297, his luck ran out at Falkirk when King Edward I took personal command of his forces and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Scots. The exact site of the Battle of Falkirk is debated, but one possibility is Callendar Park, where there is a memorial to the casualties of the battle.
Falkirk’s growth as a town was largely due to its importance as a centre of the iron and steel industries during the 18th and 19th centuries. The cycle of rapid industrial growth, followed by decline, is often a recipe for decayed buildings, areas of wasteland, slum housing followed by tower blocks and socially deprived neighbourhoods, but this does not appear to have been the case in Falkirk. Employment has been maintained through the development of retail and services as important economic sectors, and the housing stock, much of it in the Merchiston Avenue style, has been kept at a reasonable level of maintenance. It is not a wealthy town, but neither is it a depressed one.
One area that has been encouraged is tourism, with two projects of particular interest in recent years. It so happens that Merchiston Avenue is almost equidistant between them.
The first has given Falkirk international fame, as being the only object of its kind in the world. This is the Falkirk Wheel, which provides a link for boats between two canals that meet at different levels. As mentioned above, the Forth and Clyde runs through the town, but it is joined to the west of Falkirk by the Union Canal which runs from here to Edinburgh. Both canals now operate purely for leisure purposes, but there is a vertical gap of 24 metres (79 feet) at the point where they meet. The Wheel takes ten minutes to rotate two caissons up and down between the two levels. Opened in 2002, it is the only rotating boat lift in the world, and is understandably a major tourist attraction.
By pure coincidence, there is a family connection with the UK’s only other boat lift, namely the much older Anderton boat lift in Cheshire, which operates on a different principle. This was originally built in 1875, working by means of hydraulic pressure, but was converted to electrical operation in 1906-8. The engineer who designed and oversaw the work involved in the change was Colonel J A Saner, my wife’s great-grandfather.
Falkirk’s other major tourist attraction, which can also lay claim to be called “unique” in the old-fashioned sense of that word, is the amazing giant sculpture entitled “The Kelpies”. 30 metres high and each weighing 300 tonnes, these are stainless steel structures representing the heads of two shape-shifting horses, although the mythological significance is less important than their symbolism of Scotland’s sole heavy-horse breed, the Clydesdale. They are therefore a tribute to the breed’s vital contribution to the region’s industry and agriculture in past generations.
Construction of the sculptures, which were designed by Andy Scott, took place between June and October 2013. They stand either side of a lock that gives access to an arm of the Forth and Clyde Canal close to where it joins the River Carron to the east of the town. They are easily visible from the M9 motorway in much the same way that the Angel of the North is a landmark seen from the A1 as one approaches Gateshead much further south.
The Kelpies are the most spectacular element of The Helix, a project designed to transform and upgrade land previously devoted to industry but which will now be devoted to public use.
One more surprising thing about this town that was once dominated by heavy industry is that a poll conducted in 2011 declared it to be Scotland’s most beautiful town, ahead of both Perth and Stirling. I have only visited Falkirk once since I left there in 1952. It was a short stop on a journey south after a holiday in the Highlands, and nothing like long enough to decide if the “most beautiful” claim had any merit. However, I have every intention of giving the town a much longer look at some future date.
Had I stayed put, I have a feeling that the town where I was born might well have been one in which I could take justifiable pride.