The town of Denny stands pretty much at the focal point of central Scotland. Stirling is 7 miles to the north; Falkirk is 5 miles to the east; and Cumbernauld is 6 miles to the south west. And yet, despite its central location, Denny has a surprisingly remote feel: it is the sort of place people seldom visit unless they have a reason to do so. And unless you live here or know someone who does, your probably don't really have a reason to visit.
The reason for this sense of remoteness is obvious from a glance at a map. There was a time when Denny was a much more frequently visited place, as it stood astride the main road from Glasgow to Stirling, the A80. This met the main road from Falkirk at Denny Cross, in the heart of the town. Today it is a very different picture. Denny stands close to the southern end of a triangular island created by three motorways, the M9 to the north, the M876 to the east, and the M80 immediately to the west.
The relevant stretch of the M9 opened to traffic in 1968, and the M80 followed six years later in 1974. It was another six years before the triangle was completed by the opening of the M876 in 1980. Since then, virtually all through traffic traversing this area has used one or other of the motorways, leaving Denny with the slightly "cut off" feel it has today.
Denny appears to have originally come into being as a settlement at the southern side of a crossing over the River Carron, on the main overland route from Glasgow to Stirling. As such it forms a pair with Dunipace, on the northern side of the river. There is evidence of early settlement in the area in the shape of Tappoch Broch, an unusual lowland broch found on a hilltop some two miles north east of Denny. The strategic importance of the area in the medieval period accounts for a number of castles built on or close to the banks of the River Carron, including Herbertshire Castle, which stood near Dunipace, and Torwood Castle, located not far from the broch.
According to one story William Wallace's uncle was a clergyman in the area, and the young William was a frequent visitor. According to another the body of Robert the Bruce spent the night in what is now Denny en route to his burial in Dunfermline Abbey in June 1329. Another exotic link comes with the suggestion that in the 1300s the Barony of Denny was one of a number of baronies held across Scotland by the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and administered from their Scottish headquarters at Torphichen Preceptory. It has also been suggested that property in the area was owned by the better known Knights Templar. The latter were suppressed across Europe in the early 1300s and in Scotland their property (and, often, their knights) simply transferred to the Knights Hospitaller: so it could be that the Barony of Denny was owned in succession by both.
By the 1700s Denny was known for its wool and calico industries, though these gave way to paper mills during the 1800s. In 1858 Denny found itself linked to Scotland's rapidly growing railway network by means of a three mile long branch line from a junction on the Caledonian Railway south of Larbert. Several coal mines opened around the town following the arrival of the railway, and a foundry opened for business in 1870. A gasworks using the locally extracted coal soon followed.
The early years of the 1900s found Denny to be a busy and thriving (and probably very dirty) place. Another iron foundry opened in 1920, and a coal-fired electric power station was built. As with so many towns and cities whose livelihoods revolved around heavy industry and mining, the story of Denny in the latter half of the 1900s is one of decline. The railway ceased operations in 1965 and the last pit, Herbertshire Colliery, closed in 1959 after a productive life of 70 years during which it had, at any one time, employed between 300 and 400 men.
As already noted, this was also the era during which Denny found itself surrounded by motorways. Some efforts were made to improve matters, not always successfully. In the 1960s a large part of the centre of Denny, along the west side of Stirling Street north from Denny Cross, was cleared and a large new shopping centre was built, with shops at ground floor level and flats above, with a large car park at the rear. But while the intentions were doubtless good, this is one of those developments which leaves you wondering what anyone involved in it at the time thought they were doing: it has to be said that the 1960s shopping development does little for the look and feel of the centre of Denny.
One result is an active campaign to redevelop, again, the centre of the town. Such is the strength of feeling locally that in 2010, Denny asked to be awarded the Carbuncle Award for the most dismal place in Scotland after it emerged that no-one was prepared to receive it on behalf of the originally chosen "winner", John o' Groats. This was a bold step intended to draw attention to the need for redevelopment.
As you drive around Denny, it has to be said there are other obvious problems: a disused police station here, a boarded up pub there. But there are also signs of real regeneration, not least in the shape of the new Denny High School and the council Offices at Carronbank House. And meantime, nice older buildings such as the 1931 Town House and some attractive churches show that not everything was lost in the 1960s.