Old Gala House and the growth of Galashiels Town

Published on
17 March, 2024


I try to discover the growth of my hometown happened, with no major written history of the lands it occupies.

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Old Gala House and the growth of Galashiels Town

Why did Galashiels become and grow into a well populated industrial revolution textile town that was at the forefront of production when there is very little history of the lands it occupies?

As a Gala man born and bred, it was hard not to write a story on Galashiels and the pride I feel coming from that town. But with many Galaleans, there is only so many generations back we can go to keep the family tree within the town, and on further research we hope and pray we still have some form of connection at least to the northern side of the anglo-scots border to call ourselves (Scottish) Borderers.

As a keen enthusiast of Scottish Borders history and culture that comes with tradition and tales of other towns great feats in history. It always leaves me thinking, what went on in the Galashiels area beforehand and why did it grow so quickly out of nothing.

As with most Gala folks, our first touch of the towns history comes with the Braw Lads’ Gathering. Growing up in the 80s there was still working mills, and a load of mothballed mills that stood as a monument to what went before.

As my thirst to know more history of my birth town I turned to more written literature to quell my knowledge.

The greatest resource (and potentially only source) is found in a publication by Robert Hall written in 1898.
A book I believe was written with or on behalf of the Galashiels Manufacturers’ Corporation in an attempt to bolster the “designation of origin” potential of the towns exports.
It seams to pull its early history resources from magistrate records, Church records, and School Teachers who may have used tales and fables to add worth to the monuments in the surrounding area of past history.

The opening of chapter 1 says the following:

“THE town of Galashiels, unlike most of the towns on the Scottish Border, has little or no ancient history; it inherits no proud traditions of heroic deeds performed by its sons; legend and song are nearly alike silent concerning it” 

For me this is very disheartening to read this opening line. For me I already know of ancient hill forts, Ancient ditch earthworks, Reiving towers and Roman remains that exist with in the current towns area. Surely something must be going on before.
But, I am not going to touch on this in this article as on the website there is many of Marks videos exploring this.

What I would like to do in this article, is fill in the blanks that Robert Halls book missed out on. This period covers from early medieval times, to the end of the Victorian Times, when the book was published. 1000 to 1898AD.

The name of what would become to town of Galashiels is taken from 2 parts:

Gala could be from an adjective describing a water flow. Such as an ancient british word “gwala” which means “full stream”. (of course there is many other debated terminology for this word, but we are not here for that)
Certainly the River Gala existed in written text far earlier than the town. The River starts in the Moorfoot Hills in Midlothian and flows south being fed from many tributary burns along the way before entering the River Tweed just below the current town of Galashiels.

Shiels seams to derived from a Saxon term meaning shelter. And there was many of these shelters found along the River Gala in most of AD history of the area. We will touch on these Shielings later and maybe myth bust some detail about them.

In written history documents we can find written interpretations of the name Galashiels.
Galuscheil, Gallowschel, Galowayscheelis, Galwschelis, Galloschelis, Gallaschelis, Gallowscheillis, Gallowschelis, Gallowsheills, Gallowshields, Galasheels, Gallosheiles, Gallascheiles, Galasheills and my hatred miss-spelling – Galashields.

Certainly in history I do not believe these refer to the Town as we know it to this day. But rather the greater area covered by the River Gala and its valleys.

So what do we know about the area of Galashiels in the centuries that followed after the Romans left?
Well, like the rest of Scotland, nothing is really known as we were not as administrative as the Romans.
But we can make some assumptions drawing on later facts. Such as the area was part of the larger Ettrick Forest that extended from Ayrshire to the central Borders. This in turn could be part of the greater Caledonian Forest that the romans documented and came searching for resource from. We tend to assume that the Caledonia Forrest was solely based in the Highlands, but there is talk that it could of been continuous for most of the UK at some point. Only when resource started to be taken it became more patchier into smaller forrest bodies.

As a side note, I think it would be unfair to describe these forest as tightly bunched trees as we would assume to see in manufactured sites in modern times. A forest in earlier times would more likely consist of naturally spread out native trees of great age that their canopy allowed the area beneath to flourish with plants and bushes. Some areas may be undrained wetlands and mosses. But this would largely attract many wild animals into its vicinity. Wild animals such as cattle, horses, boar, cats ect ect.  

We also know that the area of the town sits buttressed in by several hills, although not mountainous, they offer steep sidings that aids to the drainage of rainfall in the form of many burns and streams to the river which meanders through the valley floors and finally ending up into the major River Tweed.
This is of course not uncommon  and similar to the rest of the British Isles. But still we find no significant inhabitations of the area spring up from these qualities.
Again, we do find micro communities in terms of the Hillforts and Broch that was found on Torwoodlee and Meigle hills that pre-date Roman occupation, but no continuous habitation has been noted of the Galashiels area.

Certainly by the 10th and 11th Centuries other Border town settlements names were appearing in battle roles of serving their Kingdoms. I use Kingdoms here as this point in history there is an overlap of kingdoms and territorial kinship from older tribes, and as such the Scottish Borders fell under the English Territories before the settling period of today’s Kingdoms occured.

We can probably assume the Western Borders we lesser populated that say the western Scottish Borders. That be because of the rolling hill landscape which would be tricky to traverse (be prove to be valuable in later times) and no access to the sea for export and em/immigration. 

At this point I am going to go all hippy on you; Because of these qualities i believe the area became a pilgrimage area to celebrate the seasons and worship in pagan ways that we might not fully understand in full as christianity bulldozed these beliefs from existence.  It may have not been no stonehenge but certainly in importance of structure, Eildon hill has evidence of such a point.
Because of this the surrounding area would become a older version of AirBnB and I believe this is where the “Shieling Craze” first grew up, in terms of providing temporary accommodation to the passing pilgrim.
Maybe these were built by the pilgrim in the first instance, then adopted and adapted until they became a significant structure with plenty in number to then become a area known for that.

As we delve a bit deeper in to the pilgrimage factor, there is another couple of instances that occur in the area. Certainly the large Roman Camp at Trimontium would of been selected not only for it location to control and progress their occupation of Britain. But also as a place to practice their worship with their older belief systems.
The other being the setting up of the site of one of the oldest monastic and powerful sites at Mailros (Old Melrose Abbey) which sits at the foot of the Eildons in a bend (peninsular like) in the River Tweed. This is of course before it became re-sited in the 12oos to the town that grew up around it and became Melrose.

The site at old Melrose dates from about the 650s, and it probably claimed and acquired a large Estate surrounding the area that would go unchallenged because of the power, wealth and sacredness of the monastery.
And there is evidence of this being within the area that became Galashiels.
The “Abbots Ford” that fords the Tweed just below the Old Town of Galashiels, would allow passage and movement to the area. A littler known fact is that to the East of the river Gala was in Roxburghshire (Melrose) and to the west in Selkirkshire. (I am unclear when this change happened, but i can come to a conclusion later).

Along with monastic life came selsificiancy for a larger group of people, Monks had developed good farming and land management skills. And a offshoot to that may of provided employment for “civilians” that worked on behalf of the estate.
Many trades were needed to manage the estate and a skilled workforce would of grown up around this, from smiths, farmers, forrester and (corn) mill workers. And this where we potentially first touch on wool and textile manufacture, potentially with and Frankish influence from the Order of Cistercians (But that gets messy and Ill let you do your own research on that – Maybe that’s why Selkirk standard bearer truly “shows his wears” – I mean casts his flag)

The monks became very powerful and influential in a progressing medieval society. And when David I of Scotland offered to build the Monks an new monetary for them, they argued about its siting as best for agriculture purposes.

Fancy seeing these places for yourself?

Mark offers dedicated day trips that focus on experiencing these places and finding out more about your family history in the Scottish Borders.
Click below to our dedicated website:

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