How Gala’s past paved the way for its future

Gala Book.
Gala Book.

HOW and why modern Galashiels has come to look like it does is the subject of a major new book on the town and its history.

Last week, Old Gala House was the appropriate setting for the launch of Historic Galashiels: Archaeology and Development, which charts the events that shaped the town – from when massive ice sheets gouged out the valley, to the social, economic and architectural impact of Galashiels becoming the Scottish centre for tweed manufacture.

Gala Book.

Gala Book.

The book is part of Historic Scotland’s series of works on Scottish burghs, which was established in the 1970s, and has since covered the history and archaeology of more than 70 of Scotland’s historic towns and cities.

Published jointly by Historic Scotland and the Council for British Archaeology, the new book on Galashiels has been compiled by Martin Rorke, Dennis Gallagher, Charles McKean, Patricia Dennison and Gordon Ewart, who have brought together the perspectives of historians and archaeologists to offer a new look at the town.

They recount archaeological evidence for settlements on the site of the modern-day town which date back to the Neolithic period, and building work in Gala Park in 1878-79 that uncovered evidence of Bronze Age burials.

The book also shows that Iron Age hillforts and Roman roads predate the urban settlement that grew from the 14th century.

Gala Book.

Gala Book.

The name Galashiels is a mix of two parts – ‘Gala’ which may originate in the Cumbric ‘gal gwy’ meaning clear stream, and ‘shiel’, derived from a Scandinavian language, meaning shelter.

Although the red sandstone which is common to the Tweed basin can be seen in nearby Melrose Abbey, looking round Galashiels you are much more likely to be struck by the amount of greywacke whinstone that is used in the town’s historic architecture.

However, the arrival in 1849 of the railway, brought the option of alternative building materials, such as brick, as well as coal for steam power and it was this latter new technology that injected fresh energy into the wool trade and intensified urban development.

Galashiels grew on the back of the woollen industry, which affected everything, from the town’s water channels and housing to society in general.

Gala Book.

Gala Book.

Even as early as 1666, weavers formed their own corporation to champion better regulation of the trade and four-year apprenticeships. The new book goes on to catalogue how the mills contributed enormously to the town’s prosperity, and explains what can be learned from their industrial archaeology. It also recounts the architectural character – as defined by churches, schools, houses and shops – of different parts of the town.

Today, modern Gala is less reliant on the woollen industry and has seen wide-ranging diversification in employment, while many former mill sites now house retail units. But Heriot-Watt University’s School of Textiles and Design ensures that innovation in textiles continues the town’s historic link with its founding industries.

By identifying areas that may hold an archaeological resource, the book will allow developers and local authority archaeologists to better plan how to record and learn from these sites.

Mark Douglas, Principal Officer (Built Heritage & Biodiversity) at Scottish Borders Council, says the book is a substantial and important new work which will change people’s perspective on how Galashiels came about.

“Reading the book, you realise that where the mill lade is today is was where the river flowed originally and once you understand that, you realise how the layout of the town we see today came about.

“You can see that Island Street was once part of a flood plan and so named because this was where there were islands in the river and you can see why Channel Street is called that.

“Once you find out how the river orginally flowed and how it became the mill lade, it gives the reader a whole new perspective on the town’s development.”

Co-editor Mark Watson, of Historic Scotland, added: “From the ancient origins of the Gala dam, a contour lade that flows today over wheelpits where mills are long gone, to hand loom shops that can still be identified in the town centre, the wool industry is woven into the urban fabric as it is in few other towns.

“A good understanding of past urban development gives better confidence in combining the new with the old, and this book helps, we hope, to share that understanding.”