(written 1951,final revision 1961)
PARISH OF AIRTH
by the Rev. T. DONALDSON.
Origin of the Name. The name. Airth, is derived from the Gaelic word, ard or ardhe, meaning a hill. The parish is a level plain, lying along the south bank of the river Forth. Only at one part is the level broken by a ridge which rises at its highest point to a height of some sixty feet. At the south-east corner of this ridge stands Airth Castle. This is the hill from which the parish takes its name.
Extent. The parish stretches some six miles along the bank of the river and has a depth of some two miles. It is clear that at one time the waters of the river covered much of the ground which is now tilled, and the old village stood near the Castle and the old church, that is, on the hill. The river receded, however, anil, later, men reclaimed considerable stretches of land from the waters, building dykes of turf and sods to hold back the stream from the low-lying fields.
ln this area there arc four villages, Letham, at the south-east corner,
Airth and Dunmore, near the centre and one and a half miles apart, and South Alloa in the
north-west corner. Of these four, Letham and South Alloa do not appear in the old Statistical
Accounts. The village of Letham was built to house the workers in a pit which was sunk
about 1912, and there are some hundred and fifty houses. South Alloa is older, having
grown up round two saw-mills which cut up timber brought in from northern Europe for use
in the pits. Unfortunately both the pit and the saw-mills have now been closed down. The
village of Longdyke, a row of miners' cottages and one shop, was completely demolished a
few years after the war of 1939.
Local Architecture-. Airth Castle is an imposing building. Its tower, according to MacGibbon and Ross, Castellated and Domestic Architecture, is of sixteenth century or possibly late fifteenth century date. Part of the castle was burned down in the troubles which preceded the battle of Sauchieburn. The rest of the building includes a portion built in the seventeenth century and a part is early nineteen~ In origin. Adjoining the castle is the ruin of the old parish kirk, in which at least one family in the parish still has burial rights. Members of the families of Bruce and Elphinstone are buried there. The manse became Airth Mains farmhouse when the kirk ceased to be used, but was demolished in very recent times. Dunmore House was for long the residence of the earls of Dunmore and is now owned by a Larbert family. On the estate is an extremely interesting Scottish Episcopalian church which was closed two years ago because of deterioration of the fabric. The Mercat Cross in Airth is a very fine example of its kind.
Carved on it are the armorial bearings of the Bruces and of the Elphinstones. The Cross was set up by the Elphinstones and was the site of public trials and executions and it is only in the last thirty years that the practice has been discontinued of making public announcements of deaths and funerals from its steps. The 'Captain's House,' owned by the National Trust, is a good example of the house of small windows and crow-stepped gables found across the Forth in Culross. On Dunmore estate the 'Pineapple' was built by an earl of Dunmore on his return from holding the governorship of Jamaica; the building, shaped like a pineapple, was designed by an Italian. The old smithy in Dunmore has a doorway in the shape of a horseshoe; only one other of this type is known, in Ireland. In the garden of the house which has been occupied for many generations by the Callendar family stood for long a thorn of unusual shape. The branches had been trained outwards and upwards until the part above the trunk became pear-shaped, with a completely hollow centre in which small meetings were actually held at one time. Some ten years ago, unfortunately. the roots were damaged by storm and the tree died. On the Pow burn stands a tomb about which there have been many speculations. It is known as Clubb's Tomb and appears to be of late eighteenth century origin. Whether Clubb was an eccentric, a murderer, a murdered man or a horse is a question which may be answered by one's personal selection from the available theories.
History. The parish has a long history, associated to a great extent with the river. James IV created dockyards for his ships of war at the Pool of Airth. Robert Callendar, Constable of Stirling Castle, was appointed master of works for the royal docks on which work began in 1511. Miss Alice Callendar. who still lives in the village, is the surviving member of a line which goes back to the beginning of the sixteenth century when her ancestor settled in the village to supervise his men's work. Many captains and seamen have gone out since then from the area. In the retreat of Prince Charles Edward Stewart in 1746 there was some ship to shore skirmishing in which the Jacobite troops set up batteries to drive off the ships of the government. A number of small ships of the place were burned by loyalist troops and this proved damaging to Airth's subsequent development as a port. Nevertheless as late as 1820 sloops built at Airth were among those recorded as operating from the area of the Middle Forth.
Population. The population of the parish has,fluctuated remarkably little in 150 years. In 1801 it was 1,855. In 1951 it was 2,234, Between those dates it had dropped in 1851 to 1,319, at about which figure it remained until the end of the century and since then it has risen steadily being 1,515 in 1911, 1,777 in 1921, 2,226 in 1931 and 2,234 twenty years later. In 1961. however, was recorded a total of 1.726. This figure represents a decrease of 22.7 per cent. and, in the main, can be explained by re-housing in other areas.
The drop in population was undoubtedly closely connected with the reduction in the amount of mining in the vicinity but the rise Since the turn of the century is against the industrial trend in the parish. During that period mining has been reduced further and South Alloa as a port has virtually ceased to exist. Nor have new industries developed in the parish. The association must be with vast growth of industry in the nearby centres of Grangemouth and Falkirk. An interesting point revealed in the census of 1951 is that males and females in the parish were almost exactly equal in number. There were, in fact, two more women than men. In 1961 the totals were 850 men and 876 women.
Industry. The only major industry at present carried on in the parish is that of agriculture. The area of the parish in 1951 was recorded as being 5,574 acres. Of that, in 1960, 3,790 acres were in crops and grass. The actual area in crops and fallow was a little above 1,400 acres. There are 28 farms, of which ten are owner occupied. Considerable attention, naturally, on good carse land, is given to crop growing, and oats, wheat and barley, in that order, are the most important crops, but a considerable number of livestock is maintained. There are more than 1,600 catfie, some 900 sheep and upwards of 200 pigs in all in the parish. Only eleven horses remain. Mechanisation has steadily reduced the value of the horse to the farmer, and the disappearance of this animal has had an effect on the growing of beans. Until 1939 the principal crops, for which the heavy soil conditions were eminently suitable, were beans and timothy hay. Mechanisation has had a marked effect on employment as well as on the maintenance of horses. The number of farm workers, full time and casual, employed in 1945 was 76; the number today is 48. A high proportion of the farms, however, is made up of small units, 'family' concerns.
A part of the parish consists in the mosses of Dunmore and Letham. Letham moss, it has been suggested, was the result of the moss slip in the seventeenth century when great areas were covered. Clearances were attempted in the middle of the eighteenth century and later but much of the peat was dumped in the river with resultant harm to the salmon and complete destruction of the oysters. Extensive drainage schemes have been introduced and bi-lateral drainage towards the burns of the Forth has been employed, drains being placed 26 inches below the surface. Pioneers in this development of the the of peat moss have been various Dutch families (the names De Vries, De Jong and Den Kaat are still found) who left Holland in the middle of the nineteenth century. A moss litter company of considerable age sends moss to the pottery- manufacturing areas of England where it is used for packing china, to race courses where it is employed in the stabling of horses and to gardeners as well as farmers who use it, chopped, in poultry rearing.
There has been an association with mining in the parish for a long time but this is no longer local. The area is honeycombed with the old workings of pits which were, incidentally, often known by the name of the particular overseer, so that a man might describe himself - employed in 'Jock's Mine.' Many of the pits were owned by Canon Company. These have all now been closed. A few years ago another company made an attempt to extract coal from a shallow mine near Airth but this was a failure. The National Coal Board has had plans for development of a deep mine near Airth station but there has been no considerable implementation of these plans. Of the other dead industries perhaps the most well-known was the pottery of Peter Gardiner at Dunmore. Mr. Gardiner was noted for the red and green glazes he produced and for his leaf and vegetable designs. Sandstone quarrying was once carried out at Dunmore but now is discontinued, Reference has been made in previous Accounts to shipping in the parish and until about 25 years ago large quantities of timber were brought into South Alloa. There is now, however, no shipping of that type except an occasional tanker bringing petrol to a distributing and storage depot at South Alloa
Some salmon fishing is still carried on by a few fishermen in the area from Airth to South Alloa but this is intermittent work and is often carried on between shifts at other work. The whitebait industry promised to undergo a revival because factory arrangements were made at Dunmore for the processing and refrigeration of this fish. It was hoped that this revival of an old industry would be successful, but the factory and plant has very recently closed.
Most of the parish folk travel to places of employment outwith the parish boundaries, to Falkirk's foundries and aluminium works, to Grangemouth's docks and chemical works and to Alloa's textile mills. Some, of course, are employed in the local shops and tradesmen's businesses and in Co-operative stores. Airth has seven shops including two licensed grocers, the Co-operative Society having been granted a licence very recently, and a post office.
Communications. This ernploymcnt of the people in industries beyond the parish limits has been made possible by the introduction of buses. Until forty years ago the parish was very much isolated Lying some eight miles from Falkirk and an equal distance from Stirling, it had no convenient means of public conveyance. There was, and still is, a railway station, opened in 1848, in the parish. but because it lies rather more than two miles from the villages of Airth and Dunmore, it has never been greatly used. Now no passenger trains run and the station is open only for the delivery of goods. The bus service to Falkirk and Stirling has revolutionised life for the people of the parish. Its effect has been heightened by the opening, in 1937, of the new road bridge over the Forth between Kincardine and the east end of the parish, bringing Clackmannan county and west File within easy reach.
Over and above its effect on employment, however, this opening up of the countryside has influenced life in many ways. Whereas, in the old days, marriages were for the most part contracted within the parish, at present most of our young folks find a partner from outside, with beneficial results to mental and physical health. The effect of the two wars has been along the same line. Many of our girls are now married and settled in England, in the countries of the Commonwealth, or in the United States, while some of our young men have brought home brides from Italy, Greece, Rhodesia, Egypt and elsewhere. The result of all this is that the old, narrow, parochial outlook is fast disappearing; the horizons have been immeasuraoly widened.
Housing. Most of the houses in the parish are modern and good. Conditions in South Alloa which were unsatisfactory have improved a little. Ten pre-fabricated houses have been built there and eight traditional houses were built before the war of 1939 by the county authority. The village of Letham was built within the past fifty years; in recent years 34 of the old houses have been renovated and reconstructed, very extensive changes being made. In general all its houses are substantial, comfortable and well kept. Dunmore was built by the Earl of Dunmore as a model village. Though considerably older the cottages are solid structures of stone and they all have been improved hy the introduction of hot water systems and the addition of bathrooms. It is in the village of Airth itself, however, that the most notable changes have been wrought. Before the war of 1914 most of the houses were very old and in poor repair. Very few had water indoors or indoor sanitation. Very, very few could boast of the possession of hot and cold water or of a bathroom. Lighting was by paraffin lamps. Streets in the winter months were miserable and dingy. Between 1919 and 1939, 118 houses were erected by the county authority using its new powers. Since 1945 a further 103 houses have been constructed. These in general have been of a design calculated not to clash with the good existing houses, of which Airth had a reasonable number. Some have in fact been reconstructions of existing sound houses. In addition 20 prefabricated houses have been erected in the village, all of them still being in use, and four houses for agricultural workers were built in 1954 in the area.
There has been little private building in the parish of recent years. The number of owner occupied houses is not more than 70.
Education. In the field of education there have been no startling changes. A primary school with a roll of 173 pupils and six members of staff prepares children for the later stages of education in the secondary school in Larbert. Travelling facilities have made it much less difficult to continue education and many students have seized the new opportunities. There can be no doubt that people to-day are better educated than they were thirty or thirty-five years ago when it was not uncommon to meet people who could neither read nor write: to-day it is very rare to meet such a person. Yet in the old days one might encounter men who, although they had left school at ten or eleven years of age, were widely and deeply read; one sometimes feels that such men. too, are rarer to-day.
Public Services. The provision of these services is the responsibility of the county authority and is entirely adequate. Sewage disposal throughout the parish is carried out by means of a system which was originally constructed for the use of the houses on the various estates. Some unfiltered sewage is still released into the Forth, however, at Dunmore. Letham has a separate system installed when the village was built. Electricity and water are available throughout the area. The streets of the centres of population are well lit. Bus services are good. There is no resident doctor in the parish.
Social Life. As part of the church organisation a strong Woman's Guild exists in Ainh and a Rural Institute is well supported throughout the area. Dunmore has a bowling club and badminton is played at the miners' welfare club in Airth. The old smithy in Airth was a very popular rendezvous for men of the village but it has now been removed.
The Airth Bruce Castle and Dunmore Curling Club was instituted in 1841, and is very active. It has a remarkable record in that one member, Mr. W. Young of Bridgend farm, has won the world championship five times, the latest occasion being in 1960. In addition Mr. Young has been British champion four times and Scottish champion twice. Not to be outdone, Mrs. Young has won the world championship for ladies twice, including 1960. Dunmore Knitting Club is another popular institution with its regular meetings, and so is the Airth Ladies' Knitting Club, recently formed but already flourishing. A youth club, under the auspices of the county youth service, meets in the school and there also are held winter classes in country dancing. For much of their entertain ment and cultural activity, however, the people of the parish go outward to the town nearby. Dancing in the Dobbie Hall in Larbert is particularly attractive to the younger folk. Of the uniformed groups for young people the Scouts and Cubs are active and the Girls' Guildry has a group associated with the church. Young men find a good deal of interest in playing for and supporting Airth Castle Rovers and an amateur football club, which are very active in the appropriate season. An Orange Lodge has been founded this year in Airth, and a branch of the Independent Order of Rechabites is strongly supported.
Religion. There is one church in the parish, the parish church. It was known for some time as Airth North Church but has now reverted to the old name, The building was erected in 1821 and occupies a commanding position in the centre of the village of Airth. Airth South Church was demolished a few years ago when its congregation united with that of the parish church. Membership is a little above 300. The United Free Church building became a garage a number of years ago.
General. On the whole. the picture to-day is one of a parish which, in all material things, has advanced by leaps and bounds. Insanitary, oil-lit dwellings have given place to pleasant homes with modem amenities. Housewives have great pride in their homes, in their families and in themselves. Most homes are comfortably and tastefully furnished. Children are well cared for. Neglect is very rare. It is even possible to feel at times that the children are too much pampered, but nevertheless it is good to see parents so obviously intent on their children's welfare. Interest in gardens is strong and few areas can boast of better flowers and vegetables.
In one respect, however, the general advance in standards is more apparent than real. Many homes have been furnished by means of the hire-purchase system and many people are paying week by week a disproportionately large share of their wages to the firms which have supplied their property. This is proving to be a heavy millstone round many necks. Illness and unemployment, as a result, are even more severe in their effects. This whole problem is a very real and grave social threat.
It is still early to decide whether the development of television will make for a wider interest in cultural things or whether it will produce a merely passive receptivity. There is more evidence at the moment of the latter than of the former. In general the people of the parish are hard-working, home-loving folk, kindly and warm-hearted. There is little or no drunkenness. There are only two public houses in Airth. Nor is there more than a little evidence of sexual immorality. Gambling, however, in the form of betting on horses and football pools and recently 'bingo,' is very prevalent, and the use of profane language is all too common.
On the deep, spiritual things it is not easy to make a pronouncement. Are men losing sight of spiritual reality in the pursuit of material prosperity? Are they mistaking comfort for civilisation and culture? On the whole, our fears are probably over-magnified. The life of the workers has become fuller and the old insecurities seem to have passed away. The young grow up in a world which holds for them great opportunities. Church-going has undoubtedly declined and in some ways life seems to have become less gracious: some old, cherished chivalries have died, and there is much confusion and doubt about religious matters. Yet there is a willingness to face up to ugly facts to which our grandparents too often smugly shut their eyes; there is sincerity and honesty of purpose. Our young folks still dream dreams and see visions. We have been passing through a time of swift transition in the realms of thought, of science, and of industrial and technical achievement In such times things are said and done which the wise man regrets and the timid man fears. Yet one feels that the heart of the people is still sound: the "root of the matter" is still in them; and in due time it will spring up and blossom and bear fruit in which we can all rejoice.
Final Revision, 1961.
Tom Paterson (last updated 26th Oct 2020)