Lawyer’s office was the engine room of Falkirk district

James Russel of Arnotdale
James Russel of Arnotdale

Last summer I had the pleasure of taking a visiting couple from America on a walk through Falkirk’s High Street.

The man was pretty sure he was descended from Scottish royalty and when we came to King’s Court he was most anxious to find out which sovereign was commemorated there.

I resisted the strong temptation to spin him a yarn about Robert the Bruce holding court in the town in the afterglow of the great victory at Bannockburn and instead told the truth – the name is a shortened version of King’s Arms, a pub from the 19th century.

Although clearly disappointed, my Californian friend was soon admiring the old world charm of the Court which has thankfully avoided the fate suffered by countless other ancient closes and wynds in the old town.

It was here in the 1790s that James Aitken from Polmont began working as a ‘writer’, as lawyers were called in those days, taking as his apprentice a young man called James Russel from Blackbraes. When Aitken died unexpectedly his widow proposed that James Russel take over the firm and that her young son Henry would join when he was old enough.

Thus in 1818 the firm of Russel and Aitken was born and continues to practice in the same place and under the same name almost 200 years later. It’s doubtful another legal firm in Scotland can make the same claim.

But Russel and Aitken’s historical importance is not based on either longevity or loyalty to the town. The firm was at the heart of the district’s transformation from agriculture to an industrial and commercial giant, and key to the success was James Aitken himself, without doubt one of Falkirk’s greatest and most influential men.

He represented many of the most powerful local families including the Heughs, Meeks and Wilsons. He was a man of business who owned coal mines and farms and had a number of ships trading across the world. As the manager of the hugely successful Falkirk Banking Company and the first agent in Falkirk for the Clydesdale Bank he helped fund a host of new ventures which helped the town’s future prosperity.

In 1831 he built a fine mansion, Arnotdale, in what is now Dollar Park and created the gardens that still surround the house. On his death in 1858 it was said of him that he “had done more to benefit the neighbourhood by his indomitable energy and enterprise than any other man in Falkirk”.

As the long line of carriages which formed his cortege passed along High Street to his place of burial in Muiravonside the shops all shut their doors and the town bells tolled for an hour.

For a decade James Russel had served as Falkirk’s first Town Clerk and his son John carried on the tradition of service as Provost for 12 years. In partnership with James Aitken of Darroch, Provost Russel continued encouraging and supporting enterprise and many of the 19th century foundries owed much to their investment and canny advice.

The Falkirk Building Society, the Falkirk and Counties Savings Bank, the extension of the docks at Grangemouth, the local railways, the Falkirk Gas Company and much more were linked in one way or another to that office in King’s Court – the engine room of both town and district.