Historic Falkirk: Castles, Romans, Railways and…a Pineapple?

I take particular delight in sharing the historic wonders of places that usually, and often unjustifiably, fly well under the radar. Anyone can wax poetic about Skye or the Cairngorms, but my favourite journeys are those that take a fresh look at places I thought I knew but had only touched the surface of. 

I’m no stranger to Falkirk, but until recently was no more than an acquaintance. That changed when I was invited to visit some of the area’s historic highlights, from castles and kirks to railways and sculptures, over several days in May. Some of these places I’d been to before, while others were long overdue firsts. Without further ado, let’s go history hunting in Falkirk!

 

Callendar House & the Antonine Wall

 

Like Shrek, Callendar House is an onion – the deeper you investigate, the more layers of history are revealed. The area around Callendar House has been fortified since ancient times, with a substantial stretch of the Antonine Wall, Rome’s final(ish) frontier against the Caledonians, still surviving on the grounds. At Callendar House’s core is a 14th century tower house built by the Livingstons, who received the land in 1346 from king David II (great name, rubbish king). It is now among the closest things that Scotland has to a French baronial chateau, with its 18th and early 19th century lairds bringing it into line with the hottest continental trends.

 

Callendar House

 

Inside Callendar House you’ll find exhibitions leading you through the 2,000 plus years of its history, from a build-it-yourself section of the Antonine Wall, a giant cannon from the famous Carron Ironworks, and a Georgian kitchen which offers samples of authentic 19th century recipes (they’re really good!). The kitchen in particular *spoiler alert* has gained international fame as the setting scene where Murtagh exacts his brutal revenge on the Duke of Sandringham, who comes out a head shorter, in Outlander. I’ve now been to Callendar House four times, and I’d gladly return at least as many to avail of its many, many delights.

 

 

 

On the way from Callendar House to Blackness Castle I stopped at Mannerstons Cafe and Farm Shop, a family-run hub for explorers of the area and locals alike. Lunch was so good that I failed to leave room for ice cream, a big mistake as it looked amazing (and I say that as a guy who worked at not one but four ice cream shops during my teens).  I can definitely recommend it whether you’re passing through Falkirk en route to somewhere else or staying in the area to explore nearby gems like Midhope Castle, Hopetoun House and Bo’ness and Kinneil. 

 

Blackness Castle

 

 

Each time I visit Blackness Castle I get a better understanding of just how absolutely bonkers you would have to be to attack it. Bristling with gun loops like the flanks of a war galley, boasting obscenely thick walls (15ft in places), and being on the cutting edge of pre-modern military technology, it’s undoubtedly one of the toughest towers in Scotland. In fact, it’s really three towers – called the Stem, Main Mast, and the Stern – which give the castle the uncanny appearance of a 19th century battleship. Given that it also served as an Outlander filming location (for Jamie’s torture at the sadistic hand of Black Jack in season one), you’ve got to wonder if some time travelling wasn’t involved in its design somewhere along the line.

 

 

Blackness has been the port for the royal centre of Linlithgow since the 13th century, and in the 15th century the Crichtons set to work building a bastion capable of guarding the Firth of Forth from any who deigned to sail up it to attack the heart of Scotland. Somewhat self-deprecatingly, locals took to calling Blackness ‘the ship that never sailed’, a moniker that has stuck. While sunny days are always welcome, I think Blackness is at its best when clouds and tempestuous swirls of grey churn overhead – it’s the only weather that matches the castle’s fierce character.

 

 

Battle of Falkirk Muir

 

Most people know about the first Battle of Falkirk, in which William Wallace’s army was turned into pincushions by English and Welsh archers under the personal command of an enraged Edward I in 1298. As you’ve probably inferred, there was a second Battle of Falkirk – this one fought on 17 January 1746 (and often called the Battle of Falkirk Muir to distinguish it). It was the last victory the Jacobites would claim before the catastrophe of Culloden, and while it amounted to little more than a bloody nose for the massing Hanoverian forces it is nonetheless remembered as the last bite inflicted by an old, hungry and desperate wolf before the end.

 

 

Like almost all major battles of the period the fighting at Falkirk took place across well over a mile, with the monument to the battle located near where some of the harshest combat took place in a forested river valley just south of modern Falkirk. In fact, my accommodation at Spoke ‘n’ Boot – which was genuinely my favourite place I’ve spent the night in Scotland away from my own bed, with a family vibe, perfectly executed rustic style and numerous furry (and feathered) friends about – is located right on the fringes of the battlefield. Luckily, no ghostly redcoats visited in the night – this time, at least (and rest assured, the area was cleared by archaeologists before it became accommodation).

 

 

Dunmore Pineapple & Elphinstone Tower

 

If you like quirky, you’ll love this. The Dunmore Pineapple, or just The Pineapple, is surely one of Scotland’s most unique buildings. If you were an 18th century gentleman, building a country house like this was a sure way to become the talk of the nation. That’s exactly what John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, did upon his return from Virginia where he was the last colonial governor of that state.

 

 

Why a pineapple? By Murray’s time they had long been used as architectural flourishes in towns and estates throughout Scotland. Bearing in mind their lack of refrigeration in the 19th century, getting your hands on a pineapple in Scotland was seen as a sign of extravagant wealth and prestige (they still cause a bit of a stir when they show up in the local grocers in summer). Whatever the reason for its design, The Pineapple still turns heads today.

Only 10 minutes from The Pineapple is a nigh-forgotten castle, Elphinstone Tower. If you do visit, take extreme care – the masonry is crumbling in many places, so for your sake and the sake of conservation observe it from a distance. The overgrown site has a slightly Indiana Jones-y feeling to it, amplified by scattering of gravestones around the tower. A tourist trap this certainly is not, but to veteran castle hunters it’s a worthy stop while in the area.

 

 

Falkirk Town Centre

 

Of course, a trip around the historic sites of Falkirk would be glaringly remiss if it didn’t include Falkirk town centre itself. There’s treasure in these streets, as my guide from Falkirk Street Ambassador Gareth Brown amply proved.

 

 

The centrepiece of the town is the Steeple, built in1814 and towering 141ft above the High Street. This spot served as the town’s tolbooth, the centre of civic activity and spectacle. Just beside the Steeple is a bucket list item for those who love funky wee factoids: the UK’s shortest street, Tolbooth Street, coming in at 58 feet.

 

Falkirk

 

Being a fan of all things medieval, the highlight for me was the grounds of the Falkirk Old Parish Church. The kirk itself gave the town its name, being called the Faw Kirk (‘speckled kirk’) and standing here since as early as the 7th century. Wander round and you’ll find a daunting iron cage containing the fearsome sword of Sir John de Graeme, who fought alongside William Wallace and was slain at the Battle of Falkirk (22 July 1298).

 

Falkirk Trinity Church & John de Graeme's sword

 

The Kelpies

 

Kelpies

 

Horsepower has built our world, from pulling the ploughs that till the fields and being the engines of medieval warfare to bringing barges along the Union Canal to fuel Scotland’s industrialisation. They’re also central to our lore, with Kelpies inhabiting the pools and lochs of Scotland and boasting the power of 10 regular horses. The Kelpies at The Helix are sculptor Andy Scott’s tribute to these civilisation-shaping beasts of burden. 

 

 

Describing The Kelpies as monumental hardly does them justice. At 300 tonnes each and rising nearly 100ft high, the feeling of awe you get while standing under them is as close as I reckon any of us can get to knowing what Bilbo felt like in The Hobbit when Smaug awoke and stared him down. Raw power and majesty are in full force at The Kelpies, which is precisely what they were intended to convey. No wonder they are now amongst the most visited spectacles in all of Scotland, spoken of in the same tones of wonder as national icons like Eilean Donan Castle or the Ring of Brodgar.

 

 

Kinneil House

 

I’ll be perfectly honest: I’ve known about Kinneil House for years, but had always assumed the ‘House’ part marked it as a soft country house rather than a proper castle so had passes it by. Oh, how totally, utterly wrong I was. 

 

Kinneil House

Kinneil House and Estate are mind-boggingly rich in history. There’s the remains of a Roman fort on the grounds, a part of the Antonine Wall which spanned 39 miles from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde; the 12th century Old Kirk and an extraordinary early Christian stone cross; Renaissance-era interiors with designs reminiscent of ancient Greek villas; the cottage in which James Watt perfected his revolutionary steam engine; and, after all, a stout medieval tower bristling with gun loops. Simply put: if you love history (and if you’re reading this, chances are you do) I can think of few better places in all the Lowlands to spend a day than around Kinneil. Do note that Kinneil House is only open on special open days, but the grounds are accessible year-round. 

 

 

Bo’ness & Kinneil Railway

 

Here’s how I’d sum up the Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway: I don’t know a thing about trains, but I still had a great time. While I studied the political economy of the industrial age as part of my undergraduate degree, my focus – spoiled by the whole ‘castle hunter’ name – is usually at least 300 years further back. I went in expecting a neat experience, and left feeling like a big kid coming back from an awesome school trip. That excitement was palpable on the faces of the actual kids there, who were over the moon to see the blue “Thomas” tank engine chugging along the tracks. 

 

 

Taking a ride on the Bo’ness Railway is a real treat, not least because the interiors of the coaches look like something straight out of a Wes Anderson film. After returning from the ride there’s the Museum of Scottish Railways to explore, and I loved their philosophy: hands-on! They make a point to have interactive exhibitions about the history of Scotland’s railways in peace and war time, and throughout you can tell that real care and passion went into the displays. Special points to the genius who, when labelling the mail boxes in the quirky travelling post office, made sure to include destinations like ‘Hogwarts Castle’ and ‘Gotham City’. 

 

 

Disclaimer

All the content I produced during this trip was posted with the hashtag #VisitFalkirk, so take a look at that on Twitter and Instagram for more insights into Falkirk’s historic destinations. I was paid for producing this content and for writing this blog post, but as always I adhere to the Castle Hunter’s Code of only accepting those projects and campaign that I’m a) genuinely interested in doing, and b) are worthwhile for you, fellow history lovers, to follow in the footsteps of. It was a pleasure to work with VisitFalkirk and Falkirk Delivers on this campaign, and I’d happily take the time to visit all of the places in this post for the sheer joy of it (in fact, I’ve already been back to Kinneil House since!).

Thanks as always for reading. My next blog post is going to be very castle-centric and not related to any campaign, so keep an eye out for a major castle fix in the next fortnight!