Kilsyth is a North Lanarkshire town of a little over 10,000 people located approximately half way between Glasgow and Stirling. It stands on the north side of the valley of the River Kelvin, and immediately to the north the land rises steeply to form the Kilsyth Hills, in effect an eastern continuation of the Campsie Fells. These reach their highest point on Garrel Hill, at 459m or 1,500ft.
The origins of Kilsyth are a little unclear. There is archaeological evidence of settlement in the area back as far as neolithic times. Rather more recently the site of Kilsyth would have been excluded from the Roman area of occupation when they built the Antonine Wall along the Kelvin Valley in the years between AD142 to 144, as part of a 37 mile (60km) barrier from Bo'ness on the River Forth to Old Kilpatrick on the River Clyde. The wall passes within a mile of the centre of Kilsyth, and much less from the town's southern edge. One of the best preserved Roman sites on the line of the wall, the Bar Hill Roman Fort, is a short distance to the south east of the town.
The origins of the name "Kilsyth" are as open to debate as the origins of the town itself. Place names beginning with "kil" usually denote an early church, and one interpretation would see Kilsyth take its name as the location of a very early church dedicated to or founded by Saint Syth. The flaw in this theory is the lack of any record of there ever having been a St Syth. Place names were pretty malleable in an age before more than a small minority could read and write, and the name of the settlement here was recorded as "Kelvesyth" in the early 1200s. This has given rise to the theory that the town takes its name from the River Kelvin, whose source is just two miles to the east at Kelvinhead.
The Kelvin Valley was an important strategic location during the medieval period. Balcastle, a timber castle, stood within what is now the town and was occupied by the English for part of the Wars of Independence. A stone castle was built at Allanfauld on the north side of today's town in the early 1400s by Sir William Livingstone, and other castles were built close to what is now the west end of Kilsyth and at Colzium, to the north west of the town. Nothing now remains of the first two of these castles, and only a motte marks the location of the third. Colzium Castle was demolished in 1703 and only fragments remain. Some of the stone was reused when Colzium House was built on a nearby site in 1783.
Kilsyth entered the history books on 15 August 1645 when opposing armies met a mile or so to the east of the town in what is now known as the Battle of Kilsyth. The Wars of the Three Kingdoms involved a complex web of conflict that swept Scotland, Ireland and England in the middle decades of the 1600s and include the wrongly named "English Civil War". The two armies which met at Kilsyth were the Royalists loyal to Charles I under James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, and the Scottish Covenanters under William Baillie. Arguments among the Covenanters about the conduct of the battle contributed to an overwhelming defeat that saw some 4,500 of their original force of 7,800 killed; while Montrose's army of 3,500 suffered only relatively light casualties. The outcome of the battle left Montrose in effective control of Scotland.
During the 1770s and 1780s the Forth and Clyde Canal was built along the Kelvin Valley. At around the same time, quarrying and coal mining began in the area around Kilsyth. By the end of the 1700s textile production dominated the town, employing up to a thousand men and women, many weaving at home. The process was industrialised when textile mills arrived in the early 1800s, and at the same time the local pits steadily increased production, with much of their output being taken to Glasgow by barge.
The railway arrived in Croy, on the south side of the Kelvin Valley, in the 1840s, but it took until the 1870s for a line to reach Kilsyth itself. By this time Kilsyth was an important centre for coal mining and quarrying. In the 1920s there were seven pits in and around Kilsyth, and the town's housing was judged to be some of the most overcrowded in Scotland. In 1923 residents of Kilsyth voted for the town to become alcohol free, and it stayed that way until a further vote took place in 1967. By then the town was no longer served by a railway, and the pits had gone. The large Dumbreck Colliery, which had employed up to 660 men, closed in 1963.
Today the centre of Kilsyth is bypassed to the north by the A803, which means it is possible to pass through without knowing there is more to the place than the serried ranks of council housing which as recently as the 1970s formed over 80% of the town's housing stock. It is therefore something of a surprise to find that the heart of Kilsyth actually has a considerable amount of charm and interest. The pedestrianised Main Street offers views along its length of the Kilsyth Hills and an interesting mix of old and new buildings within what feels like a very old street plan.
Nearby is the Market Place, which gives a real sense of history. Head north from here and you come to another surprise, the attractive open spaces of Burngreen Park, complete with its bandstand and war memorials: plural, because as well as the town war memorial there are also memorials to band members who fell in the 1914-1919 war on the bandstand.
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