A Visit to Old Mid Calder

Konect Calders November 2009

by Helen-Jane Shearer

We might feel that traffic is too busy through Mid Calder sometimes, especially when there is a delivery lorry having problems getting round the tight bend between Market Street and Bank Street and we happen to be in a hurry.  

But compared to two hundred years ago it is a very quiet place. For Mid Calder used to be one of the most busy and important towns in central Scotland, being the crossroads for several routes where the River Almond was forded, from the Highlands down to England. It’s hard to imagine that the quiet village that is bypassed by the A71 today was once a very busy thoroughfare. Whilst its history dates back around 800 years, its early growth and prosperity was based on the cattle droving trade from the late middle ages.

Tens of thousands of highland cattle were driven down from the highlands to feed the English market every year. There was a major market, or tyrst, in Falkirk, and from here one of the main routes south was via Mid Calder, through the Pentlands at the Cauldstane Slap, through West Linton, Peebles and down to England.

There were several different tracks through Mid Calder to cope with the sheer volume of herds going through. Before bridges were built over the Almond, there were several different crossing points, some of them where bridges were later built such as the North Bridge. One crossing was the ‘‘stepping stones’’ that crossed near St Mungos well at Kaimfoot, and a local track from Kirkliston via Drumshioreland Moor entered Mid Calder along Powies Path.

Fair in Mid Calder, early 20th century (exact date unknown)

The peak months for the droving trade were August to October. Historians have calcluated that in 1840 when the trade was at its peak, 150,000 beasts passed through the tyrsts at Creiff and Falkirk, and 90% of these would have passed through Mid Calder.

The volume of trade meant growth and prosperity for the village. There were regular markets held in Market Street, the right being granted to the Barony in 1669, as well as fairs, one in March and one to coincide with the height of the droving season in October.

As well as the sale of animals and produce, they were important for labourers and servants to offer themselves for employment, and the fairs attracted people from many miles around. Even after the demise of the droving trade, the fairs continued until around 1920 as hiring fairs.

All this activity gave rise to no fewer than nine public houses in the village. The minister of the parish, John Sommers, writing an account of the parish in 1838, writes, ‘‘Every householder is at liberty to sell porter and ale during the fair. There are nine public houses or dram shops in the village.... So many individuals being interested in the sale and consumption of ale and spirits has, no doubt, a most pernicious influence on the morals and habits of the inferior classes of the community, and has frequently been productive of consequences the most deplorable and distressing....’’

In addition to the droving trade, Mid Calder benefied from being on the turnpike road from Edinburgh to Glasgow and Ayr. It also had several mills, including West Mill - later known as Wallace Mill - which sold flour and oatmeal to a wide market. We have several indications of the village’s financial prosperity; in 1865 a new manse was constructed for the minister, out of the pockets of the congregation; the value of the stock in the local Grocer and Wine merchant, when it changed hands in 1895, was comparitively high by today’s standards and the level of turnover the shop must have sustained speaks for the class of customer; and In the middle of the nineteenth century there were seven schools in the village, of which only one was partially funded by the parish, all the others being funded privately.

Market Street circa 1895

Market Street, Mid Calder, circa 1895

Stock in the village store in 1895:
sheep dip, salt fish, starch, salt, castor oil, black lead, polishing paste, paint, boots and shoes, globes and mantles, candles, clay pipes and lids, school bags, whisky, sherry, claret, Pears soap, tinned fruit.

From: Mid Calder’s Past J.R.D. Campbell, 2001

The development of the railway network in the middle of the 19th century led to a dramatic decline in both trade from the drovers and the turnpike traffic. Lord Torphichen did not want the railway to come near to Calder House, so in 1848 the station was located three miles away at Kirknewton. This decline in commerce would have spelt economic hardship for the village, but almost at the same time shale oil was discovered and the economy of the village was sustained by this new industry.

When Mid Calder missed out on the railway , a local family set up a shuttle service to provide the link between the station and the village. The service was initially by horse-drawn carriage and ran from the Pend in Mid Calder (which was used at the time as stabling for the Torphichen Arms). Motor taxis replaced horses in the late 1920s, and a small bus ran a scheduled service at peak periods. The route to the station in Kirknewton went over the hump back railway bridge near Raw Farm in East Calder, and it was not unknown for heads to hit the roof of the taxis when the driver was behind schedule.

This piece was compiled from the following sources:
Campbell, J.R.D. Mid Calder’s Past 2001
Hendrie, W.F. The Calders in old picture postcards European Library Publishers, 1997
Lawrence, M. A Lothian Village The West Lothian History and Amenitiy Society
Sommers, J., An Account of the Parish of Mid Calder, with miscellaneous remarks 1838