AIRTH GAMES & LOCAL HISTORY
Airth Highland Games has a long history, going back to 1871 in fact. It may be that their origins are even further buried in the mists of time than that for there is a local legend that they stem from the games and sports played by Prince James's rebel soldiers camping in Airth in 1488, on their way to the battle of Sauchieburn. This is highly possible as the battlefield is only about seven miles away and because of its position, Airth has always had soldiers tramping through it on their way to one battle or another.
It is unlikely that the games were started by somebody sitting down and saying “Let's have a highland games”, what seems to have happened is that like all the best traditions, they grew out of some other institution to meet the needs of people at the time. We will never know exactly when and how this process took place, but we can make some fairly accurate guesses from what we understand about village life in Scotland at the time when the games emerged. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the area around Airth was heavily industrialised, far more than it is today. Carron Ironworks was just down the road and Airth itself was the place where the first steam engine in Scotland had been built for draining a coalmine; rightly, the district has been called the cradle of the Scottish Industrial Revolution. But Airth was an ancient village too, and had clung to many of its old customs. These did not necessarily suit the disciplines of factory and mine; much of the old Scotland still survived, for instance, in the love of people for festivals and fairs. Greatly to the annoyance of the coal owners and the landowners, their efforts to regulate and control were stubbornly resisted, and nowhere was this more true than in determination of ordinary folk to enjoy themselves whenever they could. Airth's schoolmaster, for his part, found the same deplorable fondness for having a good time amongst the rising generation of miners, iron moulders and farmhands. He was forever bemoaning the mass exodus of scholars every time the harvest had to be gathered or the tatties lifted, or if there was hare coursing or a curling match in the vicinity.
Even the official holidays seemed to get extended by the people – so that children, for example, would frequently not turn up at school because a holiday had just taken place or because it was about to. There were many holidays, it seems, now mostly forgotten, like the Airth Sacramental fast in July and the three days of the Free Fair in September. But one we know a little about was the Annual Fair held on the last Tuesday of July, and it is important to us because it is this fair that the modern games have descended (Airth Games were always held on the Tuesday until the start of the second World War in 1939).
One of the ministers of Airth writing his account of the village in 1842 mentions an annual Fair. This was clearly a big event. Like the weekly market, it was held on a Tuesday, although its main purpose was for the hiring of shearers. It was an occasion for great enjoyment too, with music and jugglers and sideshows – and a good deal of drinking (the village had no less than eleven pubs at the time, as well as shebeens, all of which outraged the Minister Mr McGachan). Probably there were races and competitions with the farmers making up teams of their labourers to compete with each other. As the time went on, however, workers were taken on in more formal ways and the reason for having the Annual Fair declined; by 1890 a contributor to a magazine called the Stirling Antiquary stated that no hiring had taken place at the Fair for twenty or thirty years. But a Fair still existed, now known as the Whistle Fair or “The Auld Whistle Fair” reluctant to loose one of their precious holidays, Airth folk had simply concocted another excuse for an annual beano; The Whistle Fair was described by a writer in Stirling Journal in 1939, using the memories of somebody who saw it at its height and when it was beginning to be turned into a games as we know it today. It was all pretty casual; itinerant vendors and cheap-jacks gathered in the neighbourhood of the Mercat Cross in the High Street (the Cross was constructed in 1697) and when the stalls were cleared and the needs of the inhabitants supplied, young and old competed in foot racing and throwing events. The writer goes to say that “Village myth has it that Games were held in Airth for over a century before the official record begins 68 years ago, originating from the old Whistle Fair”. Tantalisingly, that old record is lost, yet we now have a first date for the commencement of the games in 1871.
Airth is a village which is steeped in the past, a quick glimpse through the pages of history reveals how this village, though small in size, has nevertheless made a valuable contribution to the exciting and colourful moments of historical romance which make up Scotland's past.
As you approach Airth from Falkirk there is no mistaking Airth Castle (now a luxury hotel) perched high upon its rock. Its tower is reckoned to date back to the 16 th century or even possibly the late 15 th century. Part of the castle was burnt down in the troubles which preceded the battle of Sauchieburn. Legend tells us that Sir William Wallace, that great champion of Scottish rights, came to the rescue of his uncle, a priest from Dunipace, and who was cruelly imprisoned by Thomlin Weir, a captain in the English army. Wallace set out to rescue his uncle and ruthlessly put to the sword 100 men who made up the garrison. Adjoining the castle is the old parish church where members of the families of Bruce and Elphinstone are buried.
Airth is almost unique in Scotland as it has two mercat or market crosses still in existence. One of rude hewn simplicity of the old, long gone village of Airth . The site of this cross is approximately half way between Airth Castle and the site of the old village of Airth or High (Haigh) Airth. The cross is now in a position close to the original site, being relocated due to new housing.
The mercat cross (erected 1697) in the High Street, is a very fine example of its kind, indicating that Airth had the jealously guarded right to hold a market. Raised to the status of a burgh of barony on Christmas 1597, the charter allowed Airth a market once a week and two fairs each year. The baron was also given permission to erect a tollbooth. This of course annoyed the people of the Royal Burgh of Stirling who regarded this step as an infringement of their rights.
The village has long association with the River Forth and it was on the banks of the river that a royal dockyard was created. It was used during the years 1507-1513 in the reign of James IV to build ships of war at the pool of Airth. History reveals that a primitive form of dry dock was used. Strong timbers would be used to form the “stocks” for the vessel and a clay dam would prevent the river from penetrating the working area. When the ship was ready, the dam would be breached, at high tide, to enable it to float out into the river. The shipping fleet was destroyed in 1745 by Bonnie Prince Charlie when some ship to shore skirmishes took place by batteries set by Jacobites to drive off the government ships. A number of smaller vessels from the village were burned by loyalist troops and that proved damaging to Airth's subsequent development as a port. However, as late as 1820 sloops built in the shipyards at Airth were among those recorded as operating in the middle of the Forth .