Clockmaking was just one of the industries which boomed in Falkirk's 'golden age,' as Deedee Cuddihy discovers at the town's newest exhibition
The town of Falkirk may be little known outside central Scotland, but it is a perfect candidate for anyone studying the Industrial Revolution, not least because it was the site of Europe's first "integrated" or self-contained factory, Carron Iron Works, which mined its own iron ore, produced the bricks to line its smelting furnaces and transported finished goods on the neighbouring canal. Many historians set the start of the Industrial Revolution in Scotland at 1759, when the famous iron works began production.
A permanent new exhibition, covering all aspects of the Industrial Revolution and the "Golden Age of Scottish Culture", is to open this month at Callendar House, a beautifully restored historic building a short walk from the town centre. Dating from medieval times, the house was visited by Mary, Queen of Scots, Oliver Cromwell and Bonnie Prince Charlie, and bought by the multi-millionaire copper merchant William Forbes in 1785. Now it hosts schoolchildren enjoying a "Georgian experience" of domestic life in the old fire-heated, candlelit 1820s kitchen.
The new exhibition, "William Forbes's Falkirk" shows how life changed between 1750 and 1850, when the small market town emerged as one of the world's great industrial centres. As well as three re-created shops, it has working models, interactive computer displays, 37 cases of objects and 170 panels of text.
A whole room of the exhibition is devoted to the "early industrial colossus" of the iron works, and includes a detailed model of the site, stories of how the workers were treated, a touchscreen interactive on how iron is made and another which lets visitors load and fire one of the company's best-selling products - a cannon.
"The period from 1750 to 1850 was a time of radical change in Scotland and the most important period in Falkirk's history," says Jack Sanderson, head of Falkirk's museum service. "The town became a very different place, and what was happening here was happening elsewhere in Britain, because the Industrial Revolution also sparked our major agricultural and social revolutions."
The exhibition shows how people in and around the busy market town lived and worked pre-1750, at a time when water supplies were "piped in" through hollowed-out trees, when the Church was responsible for most of the social services and getting up in the morning was governed by the crow of a cock.
As life and work became more mechanised, clocks and timekeeping became increasingly important, and the Falkirk area boasted no fewer than 39 clockmakers. The first of the three "shops" in the exhibition is a clockmaker's workshop, based on one that existed in Falkirk around 1830. The others are a general store and printer's, also based on local 19th-century businesses.
Jack Sanderson spent seven weeks in the United States before developing the exhibition, visiting 54 museums and heritage centres on the east coast. The "best practice" he observed there is incorporated into the presentation and management of the shops.
An "interpreter" staffs each shop, dressed in period costume and trained to explain the "job" to visitors, while getting on with the work in hand. The clockmaker repairs clocks and watches from the museum's collection; the shopkeeper measures cloth and ribbon, weighs tea and wraps up cakes of beeswax and soap, and the printer - wearing an intricately folded paper hat common to craftsmen of the period - works on the presses, setting type and running off copies of 19th-century leaflets and handbills found in the Callendar House archives. Printed material, Mr Sanderson points out, was particularly important during the social revolution that followed the industrial one, as it was used to spread ideas and publicise meetings.
There is so much to see that teachers will probably have to limit a visit to certain sections to avoid information overload.
Other topics to which whole rooms or areas are devoted include: new technology, with a working model of a Beamish engine and a touch-screen interactive on steam power; social and agricultural revolution; and Callendar House itself. Also covered is "The Golden Age of Scottish Culture", when Scots such as Adam Smith, Robert Burns and Robert Adam came to prominence.
Jack Sanderson says: "We've aimed for what I call a coffee-table book presentation, with lots of stories about real people, lots of colour and illustration and bold text on the information panels to highlight the most important facts."
He stresses the need to book beforehand and discuss curriculum priorities with the education officer for Falkirk Council's museums service, Margaret Bowden, who says a "must-see" trail and a teacher's pack are planned.
Falkirk Museums, Callendar House, Callendar Park, Falkirk FK1 1YRT. Tel: 01324 503770 or 503781. School parties 65 pence per head. Book first, contact: Margaret Bowden