THE JOHN MUIR WAY
LINLITHGOW TO falkirk
20 May 2018
Falkirk is home territory for Neil and I, which kind of improves things in some ways: sometimes it means that the context is more understood, sometimes that there are additional meanings. On this occasion respective wives (Neil and Mo, Carol and Russ) accompanied us as far as Bonnybridge. As it happens, I had been to the Palace years ago, and had visited the Four Marys. But not Linlithgow Bridge, and as the route starts at Linlithgow Bridge, I was pretty much in new territory at the beginning of the walk.
The way is easily picked up, the purple stickies appear stuck to lamposts. Follow Lampost John is the rule. The route does not cross the bridge, just flirts with the end of it before diving down to pass under the railway viaduct, more of a bridge than the bridge itself. Certainly more impressive.
The Avon runs down from the Braes, the ridge behind Falkirk and forces its way down to the Forth near Grangemouth. It is easily driven over these days, but in former times was a crossing of a significant obstacle by commerce and by armies. There was of course a battle there, ingeniously named the Battle of Linlithgow Bridge.
The John Muir Way starts in Dunbar and follows the Forth: past Prestonpans, past Musselburgh, past Edinburgh, past Linlithgow Bridge, past Falkirk. All places where battles were fought: the JMW follows a well trod warpath, with Falkirk like Dunbar being a battleground twice. The Auld Enemy was England, but in the absence of the English, the Scots would cheerfully turn on each other, which is what happened at Linlithgow as two factions fought for control of the child king.
Here along the Avon, there are some display boards that explain what happened there. Simple. The Scots were fighting each other again.
For Neil and me, the walk along the Avon was a walk through pleasant woodland. For Carol and Mo the walk was a pleasant and unending talk, incidentally through woodland.
Fairly abruptly, the path begins to climb to get up to the Avon Aqueduct which is where the Union Canal crosses the Avon. It is of course impressive, and the country surroundings make the setting impressive. Less impressive is the bottles and litter where people camp out, presumably for other reasons than enjoying nature as intended.
Looking back to Linlithgow Bridge
The aqueduct is magic. It was designed and built by a Hugh Baird, advised by Thomas Telford, and there are helpful boards telling passers by of the why’s and wherefores. There is something of a boastful tone well-deserved: “the second longest in Britain (the longest is the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, part of the Llangollen Horshoe, in Wales). So it’s up there with the best! Mind you, the towpath is a tad narrow, barely the width of cycle handlebars, so a bit fun when cyclist meets pedestrian.
And the aqueduct is where the Union Canal, quietly and secretly, crosses from West Lothian (formerly Linlithgowshire…) into Falkirk (formerly East Stirlingshire). The Forth Clyde Valley sits as a belt across the middle of Scotland, an hourglass narrowed at Stirling. The key routes through the main populated parts of Scotland run east to west (or west to east on days with a “T” in them): the Union and Forth and Clyde canals run laterally, parallelling the line of old road from Edinburgh over Linlithgow Bridge and continuing west through Falkirk through Kilsyth to Glasgow. The line of the M9 to the north follows trhe tradition and itself shadows the River Forth. To the south, the direct line between Glasgow and Edinburgh is now, with the Edinburgh and Glasgow railway line, the main artery between the two big cities. Roads to the south are few: principally these days the A1, the (in parts ot so) Great North Road which follows the coast, and the M74 from Glasdgow to the M6 at the Scottish Border.
The Slamannan Railway reflects the period of railway mania in the 19th century where competing railway companies attempted to profit from the boom in building railways which were rapidly becoming a major competitior for the canals.
Slammanan itself sat in a coal field, with mines being a singular feature of the braes, the higher areas to the south of Falkirk. The Forth and Clyde Canal had opened a passage between, well, the Forth and the Clyde and in so doing had created the port of Grangemouth, pretty much from scratch. With its connection to the Clyde, Grangemouth rapidly shaded Bo’ness as a port, and relegated the Port of Bo’ness to an also run. The critical battleground albeit commercial rather than military was fought over therailway junctions and canals in and around Falkirk. The story is told by Thomas (Thomas, J. 1984. Scotland: The Lowlands and the Borders. Newton Abbott: David and Charles) especially pp 77-80) and reflects a kind of real life board game were competing opponents scheme to snatch a canal or port or to build a railway which will undermine the efforts of any competitor and if possible throw that competitor into a dark hole. In this case the Caledonian Railway fought for advantage with the North British Railway, with the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway being swallowed up by the North British and the Caley eating the Forth and Clyde and seizing the rails to Grangemouth. The final despperate throw was to try to make something of the wild notion of revitalise Bo’ness Port by running rails from Bo’ness up the Braes, across the canal and over the coal fields to Airdrie via the ‘Cruix and sneaking into the Glasgow back door. Didn’t work.
And the relevance? The JMW runs along the towpath towards Falkirk, easing its way under the bridge and through the canal cutting which divides Manuel House and Muiravonside. There is a pleasant looking cafe and a canal basin accessible from the B825 which was all very pleasant on a sunny day in May. It does help refreshment wise if you’re on the right side of the canal…..
What is not evident is that there are two former railway crossings just after the bridge. The first is not clearly visible, and is missable. The other is very evident: across the canal is a truncated buttress of some proportions. It is not the remains of a single track piddling branchline but is an industrial strength manifestation of serious intent.
The remains of the bridge are significant: I hailed Neil
“What do you make of the Neil?”
“That’s a big lump of maisonery there,”
“What do you reckon?”
“Need to look it up..”
The Slammanan Railway ran from Bo’ness through to Airdrie and whilst the intention was for passengers and freight, specifically coal, the number of hardy souls who hewed coal up the Braes were insufficiently “interested” to take the train hither and yon. Hard life, coal mining in the coalfield. The railway was unsuccesful, and failed to provide the economic advantage that was sought.
Now, the chief industry in the immediate area is tourism, nearby Muiravonside being a neat attraction for kids but the canal itself offering the opportunity for converted coal barges to plod their way (at a maximum 4 mph) from the Falkirk Wheel to the heart of Edinburgh. Or faster.
It being the weekend, there was a fair amount other-than-boat traffic by the canal; canals, as we have noted, are popular with cyclists and there is generally a cheerful camaraderie between walkers, bikers (especially those with bells) and boaters. and we made small talk and hallo’s with cyclists and boaters willy nilly. Indeed, one family stopped as we sat on the bank by a bridge and took the group photo for us. All very civilised.
Having eaten and rested we moved on towards the Muiravonside Kirk. Carefully parked by the canal, Muiravonside Kirk is a much looked at parish. It has had considerable work done on its history prompted as much as anything by genealogical motivations. The gift shop at Callendar House further down the canal and a little bit to the right sells copies of books on the parish. Kindred spirits.
Sundays on the canal, good for boating. Sun shines, and the boats come out. This is leisurely travelling, and the walkers on the towpath are part of it all. There is ample opportunity for light conversation with passing boats; civilised. At one time, roads being less than they are these days, the canal was the fast way of travelling between Glasgow and Edinburgh, superseded by the railway just to the north, itself superseded by motorways such as the low road to the north and the high road to the south.
Close to the canal is another of those towers that so litter Scotland, the remains of Almond Castle. It carries a health warning and is in bad health. Surrounding it is the derelict site of the brickworks which were set up close to the canal.
The canal takes us under the main road between the M9 exit at Lathallan up to Bathgate and Armadale, and we walk into Falkirkshire. Pomont. Home territory.
And we bump into people walking. The canal is a good place to walk, and we talk to folks: on the John Muir Way but not doing it, We chat, about walking.
We are looking down on the railway into Polmont on the mainline from Edinburgh. The line splits here: Glasgow via Falkirk High Station, and Stirling via Falkirk Grahamston station.
We walk toward Redding and a stack of landmarks, visible and less visible. The path from Polmont takes us under the road into Falkirk and a faceful of Polmont YOI.
The site of the current HMP at Brightons had more auspicious beginnings: it was formerly Blairlodge Academy, Falkirk’s very own Public School which was founded in the 1840’s and lasted until the just after the turn of the century (1904) when the school closed following the death of the then headmaster and an outbreak of an infectious disease. it was taken over by the prison commissioners and turned into Scotland’s first borstal. How the mighty had fallen.
One of the topics that Neil and I had talked about over the piece was the lack of facilities i.e. shops on the route. We’d both started the walk with the assumption that the Way would be a means of bringing life to communities around the route. We didn’t actually put it like that: we just realised that to get a can of juice or a bar of chocolate was significantly harder than we would have thought: there’s very little directly on the route. Now, there is the whole John Muir thing about wilderness, so probably we should not have been surprised but it did seem sometimes that the route was determinedly perverse in avoiding, well, shops. The search for cigarette papers on the way into Edinburgh springs to mind. And why had Linlithgow dropped off the route? The original video attached to the JM site included a section at Linlithgow Palace…..
Anyhow, things changed: from struggling to find a cigarette paper let alone a can of juice we were faced with a mighty Tesco Superstore. Frankly this was not really a surprise: the boy, his wife and the grandweans live nearby. So we had some coffee and a bite to eat and moved on. The canal divides Tesco’s from the YOI, and the path leads under the road bridge that leads up to Wallacestone. After the bridge the line of the canal leads the eye west. To the left where the ground rises, there is a newish estate fronted by moorings, slightly used. On the right is a collection of scrap merchants and industrial buildings. And the site of one of the biggest colliery disasters in Scotland. This took place at the Redding Pit (which stood next to the canal) on September 25, 1923. By the time the rescue operation was completed in December the bodies of 40 miners had been recovered. There is a memorial to the men who died by the roundabout on the road to Tesco’s. It’s not on the John Muir Way, but worth the detour particularly as the Way passes the site of the Pit. It’s just before where the Nobel Explosives Factory was.
The way moves past the remains of industry toward the Westquarter Burn which crosses under the canal and the railway also. Shortly after crossing over a burn the path dives off to the right down a trackway, part of the John Muir Way, leading down a feeder stream which joins the Westquarter Burn after running through a culvert. It is the directest way to Callendar House, an up and coming port of call on the route.
The Westquarter Burn is believed to be the site of the 1298 Battle of Falkirk, although there is some considerable doubt about the site. The geography of the site fits descriptions of the battle, and is a reasonable guess.
So we followed the path way down the Glen and up the brae to the Callendar Policies and Callendar House. Not a great walk: around Falkirk, there appears to be a tradition of dumping rubbish as a means of decorating the countryside. Not a great recommendation for the Bairns; perhaps a comment. I don’t know. I know that I find it unacceptable, and that it saddens me. An aside: people visiting Callendar Park will see marked on a map a mausoleum. It has been systematically desecrated, and gravestones thrown down. It also appears to be a good place for drug dealing.
But the house itself is impressive, and harbours a worthy museum, and a kitchen used in “Outlander”.
And we sat on the steps and finished this part of the journey.