Sir Laurence Dundas

ONE of the highlights of the new century in Falkirk District and throughout central Scotland is the Millennium Link, the multi-million pound project to re-open the coast-to-coast canal route for the first time in 40 years.

Decades ago, the canals played a major role in the industrial growth of Falkirk and surrounding areas, and the completion of the Forth & Clyde Canal in the late 1700s led directly to the establishment of the port of Grangemouth.

However, neither the canal nor the town would exist at all if it had not been for the vision, hard work - and hard cash - of this Millennium maker, Sir Laurence Dundas of West Kerse.

Sir Laurence owned the West Kerse estate, which he bought from the Hope family in 1752, and was MP for Linlithgow.

With the estate came the ancient mansion of Kerse House, now unfortunately long demolished. Some indication of its grandeur, however, can be gauged by looking at the house which is now the Grange Manor Hotel at Glensburgh. When Sir Laurence was at home, that had been the estate factor's house!

Kerse House stood on the north side of the modern Earls Road in what is now the grounds of Zeneca Recreation Club. The club building is the old summer house and the bowling greens were laid where the walled kitchen garden once stood. An ice house, converted into an air raid shelter, still survives, as do some traces of wall and scattered stone.

Sir Laurence amassed his considerable fortune by arranging to supply the army of the Duke of Cumberland in 1746 and later as Commissary General to the Duke during the Seven Years War.

He retired to Kerse in 1762 and began planning his great canal project which, sadly, he would not live to see completed because he died in 1781.

Sir Laurence, who also gave his name to the village of Laurieston, which had originally been New Merchiston, is interred in the family mausoleum at the east end of Falkirk Old Parish Church.

His son Thomas was created Lord Dundas and in 1832 his son, also Laurence, the Earl of Zetland, which led to that part of Grangemouth becoming known as the `Earl's Gates'.

The family now lives in England, but maintains a contact with and an interest in the fortunes of Grangemouth.

The Great Canal

'Charlotte Dundas' working Grangemouth Docks

THE idea of digging a canal across the narrow neck of land between the Rivers Forth and Clyde was not a new one, even in Sir Laurence's time.

As early as the 1660s, during the reign of Charles II, a route was proposed, but it was not until the mid-1760s that the engineer John Smeaton was hired by the Board of Trustees for the Encouragement of Fisheries, Manufacturing and Improvements in Scotland to begin the process of actually building a canal.

The route chosen would be from the River Carron, just short of its mouth into the Forth, to the village of Bowling on the north bank of the River Clyde to the west of the City of Glasgow.

In 1767, a public company was formed to build the canal.

Many of the most important, influential and wealthy people in the country were share holders, including six dukes, 17 earls and the lord provosts of both Glasgow and Edinburgh. The company issued 1500 £100 shares. By far the largest single stockholder was Sir Laurence, who ploughed an astonishing £10,000 of his family fortune into the venture.

Parliament approved the plan in 1768 and on July 10 that year Sir Laurence removed the first spadeful of earth at the Grangemouth end of the canal.

Sir Laurence had a great deal to gain from the building of the canal.

It would join the River Carron on his land and he intended that a new port would be built to handle the trade the canal would generate. This would be considerable because this was before the days of the railways when roads were primitive and the only way to move goods in bulk was by water.

There was also, of course, Carron Company, established in 1759 and already manufacturing and exporting a wide range of goods.

LORD DUNDAS maintained his father's interest in both Grangemouth and the canal. in 1801 he asked the engineer William Symington to design a steam engine suitable for fitting to a canal boat.

The new vessel, the first Charlotte Dundas was built by Grangemouth based Alexander Hart and seemed to have been a success in proving the viability of steam power.

In 1803 a second, improved vessel, also named Charlotte Dundas, was tested on the canal and found to be capable of towing barges weighing in excess of 130 tons.

The Canal Company, however, was concerned at the damage the vessel might cause to the canal banks and the experiment was abandoned.

The Charlotte Dundas steamed to Tophill near Rosebank for her final journey and was left to eventually rot away.

The Birth Of Grangemouth

IN July 1796, after many trials end tribulations, the canal was finally completed and a hogshead of water from the Forth was carried along the new waterway to be ceremoniously poured into the Clyde.

Three years earlier, work had begun on the new port and village of Grange Burn Mouth, as Sir  Laurence had planned.

The new community was unofficially known as Sealock, but by the 1780s the name settled on was Grangemouth and the village had a population of around 400.

It quickly overtook Carronshore as the main port of the Carron, handling cargoes as diverse as flax, hemp, grain and iron, which was taken off seagoing vessels for transfer to canal barges and onward transport to all parts of Central Scotland.

The rapid growth of Grangemouth forced the facility in Carronshore to play second fiddle: the port of Bo'ness also went onto steady decline and never recovered from the competition.