A review by Bill Pagan
Falkland is a unique Scottish town, and this book pays tribute to it, and to its families.. It is a substantial work, the fruit of considerable research, which paints a fascinating picture of the Royal Burgh, in the years leading up to the First World War. It is difficult to read about Falkland’s menfolk during these years without wondering what would happen to them during that terrible conflict.
Sadly, the book records the deaths in the war of several of the characters, high-born and low-born, who catch the reader’s attention. Falkland had a proud military tradition, with its well-used Drill Hall long before Lord Haldane’s Reserve Forces Act of 1908 established the Territorial Army.
At first, the reader may wonder whether the book will turn out to be a list of events, a mere town diary, but it quickly develops into a fascinating narrative, as one stores in memory the gallery of people, events and places which recur – such as the Lawson boys and their frequent visits to justice, followed by their inevitable birchings, ordered by regretful and sympathetic authority, with the encouragement of despairing parents.
Finishing as it does in 1913, the book cannot describe the wholesale social changes which the war brought to Falkland as elsewhere. The reader knows, however, that the book speaks of a bygone age. It is said of Covid-19 that the longer it goes on the less the future will look like the past, and that will have been as true of the years which followed the period covered by this book. After the war, a selected milk cow, the pick of the herd, would not be allocated to provide the needs of the laird’s new-born, as is described here.
In light of renewed interest in the reign of King James V, his imprisonment when young at Falkland, and the later progresses of his Royal Court to Falkland, it is particularly appropriate to read of the 1910 New Year celebrations by extravagantly dressed members of Fife’s wealthy families in historical tableaux. It must have been watched over by the sixteenth century Sir David Lindsay of Cupar, who was tutor, then courtier, then Lord Lyon to James V, still revered for his Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, whose characters, like those in the political tableau performed in Falkland in 1908, rejoiced in descriptive titles such as “Prosperity”.
Naturally, liquor and the effects of it, get occasional headlines, with locals and house staff alike being found the worse for wear. Housekeepers who “have the drink taken”, and even, though for a variety of reasons, the need to dispense with the services of a “troublesome priest”. The discussion about who qualified as bona fide travellers, who alone were entitled to purchase liquor from a hotel on the sabbath, seems quaint – but that legislation survived until 1976. Sadly, travellers were never to arrive by the proposed railway link to the main line at Falkland Road Station, long-since closed. The proposal reached the legislation stage, but that light branch line would itself by now have long been closed.
Given the nature of Falkland, and its historic buildings, and the aristocratic family which owned the most important of them, the administration of the private estate ran in parallel with the running of the burgh, with its Provost and Bailies, supported by the Council responsible for the County. That the estate and the burgh co-existed so amicably is testament to the common sense and goodwill of the estate factors and the elected burgh councillors, despite the occasional problem of motor cars speeding, of course the cars of the inhabitants of the Palace or House of Falkland. That burgh structure provided community leadership, which the twentieth century decided was no longer fit for purpose, much to the regret of many of the current generation, who have to navigate a complex maze of authorities and funders in order to provide improvements, activities and events.
Several of the incidents recorded over these years reverberate in our present world. Who would not sympathise with the estate factor’s frustrations at the failures in telephone connections, frequent, apparently, even though there was only one line to be kept live. The tone of that correspondence is uncannily familiar to us – indeed some of its content could be cut & pasted into today’s complaints about bandwidth and download speeds.
The reader sometimes feels he is eavesdropping across time, and enjoys the read all the more for that. And because the narrative is provided almost exclusively by what was written at the time, with helpful annotations when required, there is a feeling of time-travelling too: those who wrote the exchanges at the time found nothing odd in the demands of the laird or the control he exercised, nor in the local powers of Provost and Bailies and the reader is drawn into them.
Great credit is due to the author and to the others who assisted in the researches of this fascinating book, and to the author of the Foreword, which sets the context. It is so much more than a town diary, indeed it is a valuable addition to the canon of social history, and deserves to be read far beyond Falkland, Fife, and Scotland.
Bill Pagan MBE WS