History of Galashiels

The name Galashiels is derived from shiels or shielings which means dwellings, this is usually preceded by a place or personal name, hence Galashiels means dwellings by the Gala Water. The first recorded reference to the town was in 1124, during the reign of David I, contained in a charter where it was referred to as Galche.

Gala Hill was first mentioned in the writings of Blind Harry in 1296 when he refers to William Wallace's pursuit of Cospatrick, Earl of Dunbar, who had taken refuge on top of Gala Hill.

In 1321 Robert the Bruce granted Ettrick Forest to Sir James Douglas (later the Earl of Douglas). The Earls of Douglas had a strong tower (called Hunters Hall) in Galashiels in what is now Glebe Street.

By 1467 there was evidence of a skilled community in the town as court records tell of several local people being fined, among them were smiths, wheelwrights, foresters and spaders (involved with canon carriages).

The Earl of Douglas granted the lairdship of Galashiels to the Pringle family who eventually built Old Gala House.

1503 saw the betrothal Of Margaret Tudor (Henry VII daughter) to King James IV at the mercat cross and on that occasion she was given the lands of Ettrick forest.

The first street in Galashiels would have been Church street with the mercat cross at one end, followed by Elm Row.

At the Battle of Flodden the Laird of Galashiels and four of his five sons were killed so that the fifth son, who had been left behind, became the next Laird. The last direct descendant of the Pringle family was female and when she married a Scott who then became the Lairds of Galashiels.

Following the execution of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell defeated the covenanting army at Dunbar and during his campaign was reputed to have camped at Darlingfield (Glenfield) and at Torwoodlee.

Galashiels has long been associated with the textile trade and the first references to three fulling mills in the town can be traced back to 1585. In 1599 Galashiels was created a Burgh and at that time the population of the town would have been 400-450.

By 1788 there were ten employers in the town engaged in textile manufacturing and this had risen to 35 by 1825. Due to the communication/transport problems caused by the towns geographical location the cloth produced was always going to be more expensive than the "shoddy" cloth produced in Yorkshire where manufacturing costs were much lower. Consequently the Galashiels mills concentrated on producing cloth of superior quality. The growth of the textile trade led to a rapid increase in the towns population which was 1,600 in 1825 and increased to 18,000 by 1891, greater than the towns population today!

The railway came to the town in 1849 which had the benefit of halving transport costs to Edinburgh and also led to an influx of foreign produced wool into the mills.

The increase in population led to many changes both good and bad. Schools proliferated, the first library was established in 1797 and at the Great Exhibition of 1851 Galashiels firms were the largest exhibitors in the textile section, scooping four of the twelve medals that came to Scotland. 1831 saw the establishment of the Galashiels Gas company.

On the other hand, the town became a Police burgh in 1850 following a navvies riot which required the local militia to turn out to restore order. 1849-53 saw three outbreaks of cholera in the town due to the then inadequate water supply and sanitation.

1850-80 was the wealthiest period for the town before the textile industry began to decline. The local connection with many of the mills was lost following the First World War. The town lost 635 men during this war, many of them in a single attack in Gallipoli. Amongst these casualties were many of the mill owners sons so by the 1920's many of the millowners had no natural successors and the companies were in some cases taken over by outsiders.

Communications did improve as a result of the war, electric lighting and telephones became more widespread and the first local hospitals had been set up in the 1890's. Textiles remained the major employer up to the second World War. The town however needed a more balanced economy and efforts were made to direct new industries into the textile towns.
In the 1960's electronic factories were established in the town which by this time had clearly become the administrative centre for the area with Government Departments as well as Local Government being based there.

Also: The Gathering, History of Gala Fairydean and Old Gala House.