WHERE was I before I was rudely interrupted by the dreaded lurgy, that peculiarly nasty infectious disease? Rattling round the towns of Scotland, that’s where – and I’m now well enough to get back on the road again.

When I set out to chronicle the history of the ancient towns of Scotland I gave you a list of the likely contenders for a column. I have already written about Ayr, Paisley, Dumbarton and Dumfries and still to come are Elgin, Stornoway, Hamilton, Lanark, Kilmarnock, St Andrews, Arbroath, Brechin, Montrose, Forfar, Kilwinning, Irvine and Renfrew.

Today I am writing about Falkirk, which I somehow omitted from the original list but am now including as the fifth in this series. I remind you again that the National Records of Scotland’s population figures confirm that Scotland is a “townie” nation, with more people living in towns and villages than in our eight cities combined.

To be included in the list, towns have to be “ancient”, which I interpret as being founded before the Reformation. The columns all deal with towns up to the year 1900, as I will be revisiting them in a series on 20th-century Scotland that I am planning for later this year.

READ MORE: Alan Riach: The 1970s saw literature reach across the cultural divide

Today, I will be writing not just about the town of Falkirk but its surrounding area – for reasons that will become obvious. I will be dwelling on the early history of Falkirk which, like all the other ancient towns I’ve chosen, has played a role in the history of our nation. As I wrote before, all the ancient towns had to have histories that have been thoroughly researched by proper historians so that a history writer like myself can base my column on their facts.

So at the outset let me acknowledge the outstanding work of the Falkirk Local History Society and Falkirk Council’s keepers of the archives at Callendar House. I have also watched the development of Falkirk’s Townscape Heritage Initiative (THI) and all I can say is that every town in Scotland should have as good a THI.

It is often thought that Falkirk was founded by the Romans during their occupation of central Scotland in the early years of the first millennium. It is likely that because of its strategic significance at the centre of the country there was some sort of prehistoric community in the general area of the town.

There is standing proof of a prehistoric settlement on a hilltop near Falkirk and Dunipace, in the shape of the famous Torwood or Tappoch Broch (below).

The National: Torwood Castle. Credit: Nigel J C Turnbull

A scheduled ancient monument, it dates from the Iron Age and the fact no Roman remains have been found at the site indicates that the Celtic people who built it did a good job of defending their small fortification. Or maybe the Romans just missed it …

The broch was first excavated in 1864 and further archaeological examinations since have shown that what was originally thought to be a burial mound has a much more interesting history with “cup marked stones” particularly indicating some sort of ritual use.

The Roman invasions of Scotland in the first and second centuries left plenty of evidence of their presence across south and central Scotland, and as far north as the Grampians. The biggest surviving example of Roman occupation of Scotland is the Antonine Wall, a Unesco World Heritage Site.

There is no Roman mention of a settlement where Falkirk now stands, but there are of plenty remains of the Antonine Wall all around the town. The wall was created in 140-142 by Quintus Lollius Urbicus, the governor of Britain, on the orders of the Emperor, Antoninus Pius, who was an administrative type and probably felt he needed some sort of military accomplishment, such as setting out the northern boundary of the empire.

From Old Kilpatrick on the Clyde in the west to Bo’ness on the Forth in the east, the mainly turf wall stretched through what is now Falkirk district – almost half its length runs through the Falkirk local authority area – with forts and fortlets built at places such as Rough Castle and Mumrills on either side of the town, and residences for legionaries’ families at Camelon.

READ MORE: Dumfries: The scene of one of Scotland’s most infamous murders

The Rough Castle site is well worth a visit even though it was the second-smallest fort on the Wall, as it has the best-preserved remains of Roman occupation. There is a surviving section of the wall rampart, as well as the remains of defences and ditches and a length of the “military way”. The wall lasted only until 165 AD, when the Romans retreated to the stone-built Hadrian’s Wall.

Like much of the rest of Scotland in that period of history, Falkirk disappears into the Dark Ages and, like so many areas, only re-emerges thanks to the advent of Christianity in the person of Saint Modan, an Irish missionary who preached across central Scotland in the sixth or seventh century.

He is said to have founded a church in what is now Falkirk and it is from that early church, or a later version of it, that the town takes its name. As Falkirk THI explains on its website: “The name Falkirk originates from the Gaelic ‘Egglesbrech’, meaning ‘the speckled church’. Over the years this was translated into Scots as Fawkirk and then the modern Falkirk.

“Some historians have argued that the town’s name relates back to the early town church which was supposedly made from speckled stone. However, others argue that the early church was not made from this.”

READ MORE: The Scots, Vikings and whisky-makers who made Dunbarton

There is no doubt the small settlement grew around the church, whether speckled or not, and by the 11th century it was seen as important enough to have some sort of religious institution paid for by King Malcolm Canmore, probably as a result of prompting by his wife, Saint Margaret. Some records suggest that Anglo-Saxon relatives of Margaret settled in the area.

Falkirk gained fame, or notoriety if you prefer, during the Wars of Independence when its strategic importance and vicinity to Stirling made it the site of one of the worst defeats in Scottish history.

On July 22, 1298, King Edward I of England was leading a huge army northwards, heading for Stirling. Longshanks had effectively conquered Scotland two years previously, but the rising led by William Wallace and Sir Andrew Murray (or de Moray) had seen the English forces shattered at the Battle of Stirling Bridge on September 11, 1297.

Longshanks was determined to avenge that defeat and in the summer of 1298 he personally commanded his army as it laid waste to much of south-east Scotland.

Edward had an experienced force, made up of perhaps as many as 20,000 men, with cavalry led by such commanders as Anthony Bek, the Bishop of Durham (below). Wallace’s smaller army of around 12,000 had just a few hundred horsed troops and his great co-commander Murray was dead of the wounds he had received at Stirling. Wallace set his army to confront Longshanks at Falkirk.

The National: Bishop Antony Bek leads the charge against the Scots at the Battle of Falkirk

To this day no-one can say with certainty where the battle took place. Ian Scott of Falkirk Local History Club states on its website: “Over the years antiquaries and local historians using the few clues available have suggested a number of places but without agreement.

“Tradition, for what it is worth, places the centre of the battle in the area of the present Victoria Park, and street names such as Wallace and Campfield remind us of the connection. We know from the few eyewitness accounts that the Scots were drawn up on rising ground with the town of Falkirk behind them and that they were separated from the English by a stream or an area of muddy ground, or both.

“This would fit two of the current favourite sites, the Mumrills farm area opposite the Beancross Restaurant and the land on either side of the Hallglen to Redding Road near Woodend Farm. In both cases the rising ground is present and the Westquarter Burn provides the water course and muddy ground.”

READ MORE: Charting the ancient towns of Scotland: The enticing history of Paisley

There is no doubt whatsoever about the outcome. The Scots formed into four giant schiltrons, each a massed force with spears pointing outwards, but after the Scottish horsed troops scattered – whether through poor leadership or just plain cowardice – Edward brought forward his archers, who poured arrows into the schiltrons.

The Scottish soldiers withstood the barrage until their numbers were so reduced they had no choice but to flee the field.

Satisfied that he had avenged Stirling Bridge, Longshanks took his army south while Wallace resigned his post as Guardian of Scotland and went into hiding until his eventual capture and execution in 1305.

Although not at the centre of national events, Falkirk grew slowly and surely as a market town, and the Livingston family came to prominence as the lairds of Callendar with the house of that name being visited by Mary, Queen of Scots. Falkirk was formally made a burgh in 1600 and a burgh of regality in 1646.

By the time of the Jacobite Rising a century later, Falkirk was a well-established market town and again its strategic position came into play with the second Battle of Falkirk, also known as Falkirk Muir, being fought on January 17, 1746.

This extraordinary battle is often ignored by Unionist historians, not least because of the cowardice shown by the government troops – their own commander General Henry Hawley condemned his men for their cowardly actions and executed several soldiers.

READ MORE: Ayr has a special place in Scotland's ancient history 

The Jacobite army had come north from Glasgow to besiege Stirling Castle when Hawley marched his troops from Edinburgh. Hawley famously dined rather too well at Callendar House where his hostess, Lady Kilmarnock, plied him with sufficient wine so that when the alarm sounded at the approach of the Jacobite forces he rushed away without his hat.

Hawley was convinced the mainly Highland army would flee in the face of his redcoat cavalry. But it was the numerically superior government force which scattered when the Jacobites charged, the rout only stopping because of the foul weather.

The battle had lasted just 20 minutes, and David Daiches in his magisterial biography of Bonnie Prince Charlie states that some 400 government troops were killed and wounded for the loss of just 50 of the Jacobites.

The Jacobite army then occupied Falkirk and seized large quantities of the military supplies that Hawley had abandoned. They then marched north to Culloden …

Falkirk by then was already holding regular cattle markets and by the late 18th century these were the biggest in the land. But it was industry and not agriculture that was to be the making of Falkirk.

The National: Falkirk Wheel

The town was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution with the establishment of the Carron ironworks bringing prosperity to the area. The famous “carronades” – a short cast-iron cannon – which won so many battles for the Royal Navy were made at Carron, and Falkirk’s growing reputation as a manufacturing centre attracted plenty of businesses.

Up to 20 foundries were operating in the Falkirk area in the 19th century, taking advantage of the plentiful local supplies of coal and iron ore. The town also developed other industries including a whisky distillery and chemical works.

The construction of the Forth and Clyde Canal, and later the Union Canal, boosted Falkirk’s trade massively. Then when the railways came in the middle of the 19th century, Falkirk was at the centre of a transport infrastructure that was second to none among Scottish towns.

I will show in a future column how Falkirk declined industrially, but suffice to say that its place in Scottish history is assured.