Alloa is the main town serving Scotland's smallest local authority area, Clackmannanshire. It lies on the north bank of the River Forth, some six miles east of Stirling and two miles west of Clackmannan.
The town grew up here largely because of the presence of Alloa Tower. The lands north of this stretch of the River Forth were granted by the Scottish Crown to Sir Robert Erskine in 1363. His successors were later made Earls of Mar and it was the Erskine family who first built a castle here, at the end of the 1300s or the beginning of the 1400s.
The Alloa Tower you see today was built in the late 1400s, probably incorporating parts of the earlier castle. It was visited by Mary Queen of Scots: and her son, James VI, received some of his education here. The tower is a truly massive construction, four storeys tall and with walls 11ft thick. But it is only a small part of what once stood here. By the early 1700s large ranges of grand buildings stretched to the east and south of the tower, and extensive gardens were also incorporated into the design. The result was one of the most impressive palaces in Scotland.
But the palace caught fire in 1800 and only the tower itself could be saved. A replacement mansion was built in 1838. This was demolished in the 1960s. Only the tower itself remains, and this was extensively restored prior to its reopening by the Queen in 1997. Alloa Tower is open to the public during the Summer months.
A ferry across the River Forth had operated between what later became Alloa and South Alloa since early medieval times. Under the Earls of Mar, Alloa also began to develop as an significant harbour and trading port. The trade through the port grew dramatically once coal began to be mined in the area. In 1710, the Custom House that oversaw all the upper Forth ports was built in Alloa: and during the 1700s, Glasgow merchants built warehouses here to hold sugar and tobacco intended for re-export to the continent.
By the mid 1800s, 2,000 vessels were using the docks at Alloa and 175,000 tonnes of coal were exported each year. Meanwhile, ships of up to 100ft were also being built at Alloa. In 1885 a railway bridge was built across the Forth to the west of Alloa. The columns still stand but the bridge itself has since been demolished. The rail bridge temporarily put the ferries out of business, but they resumed operation in 1901, and a vehicle ferry was introduced on the route from 1924.
The ferries finally ceased operation in 1939, though traffic had been in steep decline since the opening of the Kincardine Bridge to the east in 1936. By the 1960s the Port of Alloa could not compete with modern handling techniques at ports like Grangemouth, and even its shipbreaking operations were too far upriver to be reached by the larger ships then being scrapped. The port closed in 1970 and Alloa has since largely turned its back on its river frontage.
Today's Alloa is a busy and diverse town with a fine collection of impressive buildings that reflect the considerable wealth generated by a strong industrial and trading past.
Despite this the centre of Alloa retains little from the early years of its development. There was an old town dating back to the 1700s, but much of it was swept away to allow the building of the vast Kilncraigs worsted-spinning mill in the 1800s, while the rest disappeared under Maclay's Thistle Brewery, built in the 1870s. Much of Kilncraigs Mill has itself now gone, to make way for car parks and a supermarket: though part of what remains has been attractively redeveloped as a business park.
Meanwhile, Maclay's Thistle Brewery ceased brewing in 1999, and has been demolished to make way for flats and retail units. In 1900 breweries operating in Alloa included Bass, Caponcroft, Forth, Forthbank, Hutton Park, Meadow, Mills, Shore, Thistle and Townhead, as well as the better known George Younger's Candleriggs Brewery and Arrol's Alloa Brewery. Today just one brewery continues to operate in the town, Williams Brothers, who produce a number of traditional Alloa ales, plus their speciality, Fraoch Heather Ale.
On a more positive note, a railway station has reopened in Alloa, allowing rail journeys to be made to Stirling - and all points beyond - for the first time in many years.