Falkirk lies in the heart of Scotland’s central belt, midway between the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow in the Forth Valley, historically within the county of Stirlingshire.
The Falkirk District has an array of historical sites, from its position aside the Antonine Wall during the Roman occupation of Scotland, its location as the site of two key battles between Scotland and England, and from its time as the engine of Scotland’s industrial revolution. More modern feats of engineering have also ensured Falkirk’s ongoing and enduring role in Scotland’s inland waterways.
Here are ten of the top historic sites in Falkirk.
1. The Antonine Wall
The Antonine Wall is the largest relic of the Roman occupation of Scotland. Built around AD 142 as a defensive wall on the north west frontier of the Roman Empire, the wall stretches across the country, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Antonine Wall was approximately 3-4 metres high and 4-5 metres wide, and consisted of a stone base, a strong timber palisade fortified with turf, and a deep ditch. The Wall stretched for nearly 37 miles between the towns of Bo’ness on the Firth of Forth and Old Kilpatrick on the Firth of Clyde, at the neck (the Isthmus) of Scotland.
Substantial lengths of the Antonine Wall can still be seen at various sites across the Falkirk area including: Rough Castle (one of the best preserved Roman forts), Polmont Wood, Kinneil Fortlet in Kinneil Estate, Callendar Park, Tamfourhill in Camelon and Seabegs Wood.
2. Callendar House and Park
Callendar House is an impressive 14th century French chateau style house, set in the historic landscape of Callendar Park which contains a section of the Roman Antonine Wall. The house has hosted many historical figures, including Mary Queen of Scots, Oliver Cromwell and Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Today the house holds permanent gallery displays on The Story of Callendar House: a history covering the 11th to the 19th centuries, The Antonine Wall, Rome’s Northern Frontier, and Falkirk: Crucible of Revolution 1750-1850. The Victorian library of the house is also home to the Falkirk Archives. In the house’s restored 1825 working Georgian kitchen, costumed interpreters give a glimpse into what it was like working in a large Georgian household, sharing samples of early-19th century food with visitors.
Callendar House has been used as a film location for the successful Outlander TV series, and is also home to an impressive children’s play park and a golf course set in beautiful woodland.
3. Blackness Castle
Blackness Castle is situated on a promontory that juts out on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth, at the port that served the royal burgh of Linlithgow in medieval times. The castle is shaped like a ship – indeed from the seaward side it looks as if a stone ship has run aground, prompting Blackness Castle to be known as ‘the ship that never sailed’. The castle’s three towers help add to this effect.
Built in the 15th century as a residence for one of Scotland’s most powerful families, the Crichtons, Blackness Castle went on to become a royal castle in 1453, after which it was then used as a garrison fortress and state prison. By the late 19th century the castle was used as an ammunition depot, but was decommissioned after the First World War, becoming a visitor attraction.
Blackness Castle boasts spectacular views across to the Fife coast and Forth bridges and has featured in films and TV series based on Scottish history, including Outlander.
4. The Battle of Falkirk Muir Monument
The Battle of Falkirk Muir – often known as ‘The Second Battle of Falkirk’ – took place on 17 January 1746 on the south-west edge of modern-day Falkirk. Here, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobites defeated the Government forces pursuing them. (The battle was the last significant Jacobite success of their rising of 1745 as they later failed to capitalise on their victory).
The site of the battle is currently marked by a monument, situated on the South Muir on the edge of the Bantaskine estate, erected in 1927. There are plans to build a visitor centre overlooking the site of the battle.
5. The Falkirk Wheel
The Falkirk Wheel opened in 2002 and is the world’s only rotating boat lift. It lifts boats 35 metres high, thus linking the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal – the first time these two canals have been reconnected since the 1930s.
This engineering wonder was designed to replace a series of 11 lock gates built in the 19th century to cope with the 35 metre difference in height. These locks had required 3,500 tonnes of water per run, taking boats most of the day to pass through. The locks were dismantled in 1933 and replaced by housing, closing the canals.
In 1976, the British Waterways Board decided that the Forth and Clyde Canal, fragmented by various developments, was to have its remaining navigability preserved. The Lotteries Act of 1993 eventually resulted in the creation of the Millennium Commission to apportion funds raised by lottery ticket sales for selected “good causes” – this being one of them.
The concept of a wheel as a boat lift to re-join the two canals was first considered in 1994, and work started on the £84.5million Millennium Link project in 1998. Queen Elizabeth II opened the Falkirk Wheel as part of her Golden Jubilee celebrations on 24 May 2002. A visitor centre is located on the east side of the lower basin.
6. The Kelpies
The Kelpies are 30 metre high horse-head sculptures – the largest equine sculptures in the world and a monument to horse-powered heritage across Scotland.
The sculptures depict kelpies – mythological shape-shifting water spirits, said to possess the strength and endurance of ten horses. This quality is seen as analogous with the transformational change and endurance of Scotland’s inland waterways. The Kelpies’ forms are inspired by Clydesdale draught horses and represent the lineage of the heavy tow horse of Scottish industry and economy, pulling the wagons, ploughs, barges, and coal-ships that have helped shape the geographical layout of the Falkirk area.
Located between Falkirk and Grangemouth, they are found in The Helix Park, which was created as a space for communities in the Falkirk area. The sculptures were designed by sculptor Andy Scott and completed in October 2013. Scott wanted them to act as proud equine guardians and form towering gateways into The Helix, the eastern entrance to the Forth and Clyde canal, and indeed to Scotland itself.
7. Bo'ness Mining Memorial
The Bo’ness Mining Memorial depicts a winding wheel. It was unveiled on 26 May 2007 as a memorial to the past history of mining in the area which began in the 11th century, and the contribution of coal in the development of Bo’ness itself.
The long association with coal in Bo’ness dates back 900 years to the monks at Carriden collecting coal from exposed outcrops, and the industry and mines that developed and in operation up until the 1980s. Over the years more than 200 mines of various types spread throughout what is now the town of Bo’ness.
At one time, Bo’ness harbour was the most important port on the Forth, both for the export of coal and the import of pit props to ‘support’ the growing mining industry.
8. Wallacestone Monument
The Wallacestone Monument commemorates the first Battle of Falkirk, which took place on 22 July 1298 – one of the major battles in the First Wars of Scottish Independence. Led by King Edward I of England, the English army defeated the Scots, led by William Wallace – with the Scots losing the advantage they had gained earlier at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Soon after the battle, William Wallace resigned as Guardian of Scotland.
The exact site of the battle generates much debate, yet the Wallacestone monument replaces a much older stone which allegedly marked the site from which William Wallace is reputed to have stood and watched the approaching English army from Linlithgow, and where he commanded his army from at the subsequent battle. The memorial lies 3 miles south of Falkirk itself in the village of Wallacestone, high above sea level. The commemorative stone, erected in 1810, contains a Latin inscription “Here he stood”, and is the focal point in the village. The site provides a panoramic view of the Forth Valley and beyond.
9. The Faw Kirk Historic Graveyard at Falkirk Trinity Church
Falkirk Trinity Church stands today on the site of the historic ‘Faw Kirk’, the first church erected in the town of Falkirk, which is believed to have given rise to the town’s name.
The graveyard at Falkirk Trinity Church contains historical memorials from the era of William Wallace, the Battle of Falkirk 1298 and the second Battle of Falkirk in 1746. It is the resting place of Sir John De Graeme, William Wallace’s close friend, finest knight and right-hand man. De Graeme was killed in action during the Battle of Falkirk on 22 July 1298, and it is said that his body was carried from the battlefield by William Wallace himself to Faw Kirk Graveyard where he was laid to rest.
Despite De Graeme’s resting place deteriorating due to weather exposure and vandalism, in 2011 the Scottish Government’s town centre regeneration fund ensured the grave was restored in to a lasting memorial. A replica of the broadsword Sir John De Graeme carried into war has since been fitted to the tomb, intertwined in the grave’s 18th century wrought-iron enclosure.
10. Falkirk Tunnel
The Falkirk Tunnel was built in 1822. It was originally used for transporting coal, but now carries the Union Canal beneath Prospect Hill in Falkirk, connecting Falkirk to Edinburgh.
The canal was meant to be an overland route. However, ultimately navvies had to carve and blast the tunnel through the hillside as local landowner, William Forbes of Callendar House (Falkirk’s richest and most powerful landowner), campaigned to Parliament against the overland route which would have ruined the view from his house.
In a bid to be involved in the tunnel’s creation, two men named Burke and Hare relocated from Ireland to Scotland. They infamously went on to kill 16 people, providing their bodies for medical experiments. The Union Canal was also used by doctors to smuggle the corpses of patients to Edinburgh University, with the bodies being hidden in containers labelled as industrial chemicals.
Once a dark and eerie place as if a James Bond-style villain’s lair, in 2016 a programmable colourful LED lighting system was installed inside the atmospheric tunnel, inspired by its history, design and stories. This lights the way for those boating or paddling through the tunnel’s 630 metres of rock, highlighting the old candle holders, dynamite stores and shafts.