Falkirk Union Bank


After the financial success of the Falkirk Banking Company, a number of gentlemen of means in Falkirk and district ventured to establish a similar concern in opposition, to be known as “The Falkirk Union Bank.”  It began on 5 July 1803.  The partners were originally fourteen in number, to which six were afterwards added: Alexander Glen of Falkirk, Thomas Mair of Pottishaw, William Coubrough of Elrig, Robert Gillespie of Plean Mill, James Brown of Broomage, William Glen and Son, Mains, James Aitken, Writer, Falkirk, Archibald Hardie, merchant, Bo’ness, Dr John Corbet of Mount Vaccine, Andrew Bell, John Crawford, Peter Muirhead, John Young, Merchants in Falkirk.  They appointed first John Smith and then James Brown to be their cashier, whose signature for behalf of the Company was to be binding on them; and they contracted with Messrs Donald Smith and Co to be their agents at Edinburgh.

The building in which the Falkirk Union Bank commenced and finished business stood at the north-west corner of Bank Street, the ground floor later being used as the business premises of William Stevenson, solicitor.  Some may remember it as Young’s china store.  It was constructed as a “Banking Office” by James Brown, one of the partners of the bank, in room of some older buildings.  Some in Falkirk doubted the wisdom of the venture from the beginning, especially as the Falkirk Banking Company had the entire confidence of local merchants and others with whom they had dealings.  Many of the partners of the newly-formed Union Bank were small lairds and farmers with no great business ability, and the cashier had only been a clerk in a country writer’s office.  At the time of its foundation the location of the bank stood on the very outskirts of the town beyond the old town wall.  As a consequence this new street became known as Bank Street.

Illus: One guinea note of 1803 (Falkirk Museum).

Thomas Mair of Pottishaw, a Bathgate merchant and younger brother of Patrick Mair, printer in Falkirk, had been the agent in Bathgate for the Falkirk Banking Company, but severed his connection with that concern. On the founding of the Falkirk Union Bank he acted as its agent in Bathgate until his death in 1808.

The original capital of the bank was £12,000 and as usual Kirkwood and Sons were employed to engrave the copper printing plates for the banknotes.  The guinea notes had as its masthead an entwined representation of a rose, a thistle and a shamrock.  Their stems were tied by a ribbon bearing the motto “TRIA JUNCTA IN UNO” meaning “three joined in one” in reference to the union of England, Scotland and Ireland, on a wavy scroll across the top.  The same theme is found on the left margin.

In 1812 these notes were payable to William Gentles, signed by James Brown, cashier, and countersigned by William Horn.  On the five and twenty pound notes the masthead consisted of a  draped female figure representing Commerce with a rod or staff held in the coup of her left arm on which she rests her cloth hat; the right arm is outstretched towards sailing ships on the sea.  At her feet is the entwined rose, thistle and shamrock and behind her the hills of Scotland.  The one pound or twenty shillings note has a similar scene but the lady appears to be more strident and leans upon the staff, now in her right hand, leaving her left arm to carry an oval shield.  The trident and shield are more commonly associated with Commerce and those attitudes on the notes have a more Continental feel.

The failure of Belches Bank in Stirling in 1805 created distrust amongst the public in the county banks and this caused much inconvenience.  The Turnpike Trustees of Stirlingshire was amongst those put to considerable trouble and so took out a newspaper advert stating that its members:

from their own knowledge and inquiries made, conceive it a duty to inform the public of their entire confidence in the responsibility and prudence of the following county establishments, namely,


The notes of which companies the members of this meeting will freely receive in payment, and are of opinion, that the public are in safety to do the same

(Caledonian Mercury 15 April 1805, 1).

Despite this endorsement the Falkirk Union Bank Company was never in high credit, being known almost at the time of its commencement by the ominous nick-name of “Black in the West.”

The business was chiefly with cattle dealers and farmers, but the bank was never a success.  In the summer of 1816 rumours began to spread of its poor financial condition which, inevitably, led to a run on the bank.  Closure was not seen as inevitable as reported by the newspapers:

We were sorry to understand, that the old established Union Bank of Falkirk, by a run made upon them from a very erroneous report which had gone abroad, have been obliged to suspend their payments, but, in the course of a few days, they have every reason to hope they will resume them

(Caledonian Mercury 13 July 1816, 3).
Illus: One pound note of 1815 (Falkirk Museum).

It finally closed its doors on 18 October 1816, its liabilities, including the notes in circulation, amounting to about £50,060.  The trustee appointed in the sequestration for the creditors was James Russel, writer, Falkirk.  He acted promptly to realise the bank’s assets and on 14 August 1817 the sale of several properties in the town of Falkirk occurred in the Red Lion Inn, including:

Lot 1 – That large tenement, lately built and occupied by the Falkirk Union Bank, with the stables and other offices behind the same.

This property is admirably adapted for a banking or other public office, both as to its situation and the construction of the premises, there being in the part of the building lately occupied by the Union Bank ample accommodation for carrying on an extensive business, with a large fire proof safe, and every other requisite convenience.

Lot II – That tenement on the west side of the preceding lot, fronting the Vicar’s Loan, and presently possessed by Charles Dewar, vintner, and others.”

(Caledonian Mercury 23 June 1817, 1).

The partners at the sequestration were Messrs James Brown of Broomage – the cashier of the bank – William Coubrough of Elrigg, James Aitken, writer in Falkirk, Robert Gillespie, residing in Falkirk, William Glen of Mains, Linlithgow and his son, John Glen, Linlithgow. Their properties at Broomage, Elrigg, Falkirk and Mains in Linlithgow were seized and sold to pay off the company’s debts

The Falkirk Union Bank was one of the few instances of bank failures in Scotland, and is said to have “paid up its engagements without much loss to its creditors.”  The following is the exact amount paid to creditors of the Falkirk Union Bank after its failure:-

  • 1st dividend, three shillings:
  • 2nd dividend, three shillings;
  • 3rd dividend, two shillings;
  • 4th dividend, one shilling;
  • 5th dividend, sixpence halfpenny – total, 9s 6½d. 
  • The “final dividend” was ordered to be paid at a meeting held on 16 July 1832.

In the closing months of that year the trustee, James Russel, announced his intention of applying to the Court of Session for a discharge.  Twenty-two years later (1851) a substantial number of the creditors had not claimed their dividends, and the trustee intimated that he intended uplifting the money lying in the Commercial Bank and lodging it in the Court along with his application for discharge as trustee.

Over the next decades the Falkirk Union Bank was frequently used as an example of major structural problems within the Scottish banking system and yet it was one of very few failures and in most of the other cases creditors were paid in full.  Even in the Falkirk example the number of those who lost out was relatively small as most had been paid out during the run on the bank.  For those effected it was, of course, a tragedy.

Illus: An example of a banknote stamped to say that the first dividend had been paid upon it.  This was claim number 972.

Such is a brief outline of the history of Falkirk Union Bank, the failure of which caused much grief and anxiety in many a home within and without Falkirk.

In 1820 “The Commercial Banking Company of Scotland” secured the premises of the defunct Union Bank, and opened them for business on 19 June of that year.  In the following year they purchased the building.  This bank was originally formed in 1810, bearing the drawn-out title given above, and under able management became eminently successful.  In 1831 they obtained a charter from the Crown incorporating them by the designation of “The Commercial Bank of Scotland.”  In 1844 they were joined by the Arbroath Banking Company, established in 1825.

A branch of the Commercial Bank was not opened in Stirling till five years after that of Falkirk.  A further branch was opened in Grangemouth in 1830 with John S. Mackay as the agent.

William Horn of the Union Bank became an accountant in the Commercial Bank of Falkirk, and died 18 August, 1832, aged 55 years.  Under its first agent, Henry Salmon, the Falkirk branch of the Commercial Bank soon secured a large amount of custom, and after being established for a number of years the directors felt warranted in securing a site for new bank premises in the High Street of the town. They remained in the old building till about the autumn of 1832, or a little later, when they removed to a handsome new structure commissioned by them opposite the Cow Wynd (see Bailey 2017, 46-48).  In 1836 the Bank Street premises were sold by the Commercial Bank to Robert Muirhead, cloth merchant, Falkirk, and on his death it fell to his son Thomas, one of Glasgow’s merchant princes. On the death of the latter in 1882 it was bequeathed to his cousin, Colonel Alexander Nimmo of Westbank, and on his decease in 1898 it became the property of his son, Mr Alexander Nimmo, solicitor, of Messrs Russel and Aitken, law agents.

Henry Salmon was very active in the affairs of his adopted town.  He oversaw major improvements to the streets and drainage and became the burgh’s first provost.  The premises of the bank on the High Street included a residence and garden called Commercial Bank House and at first he lived there.  However, he is best remembered for embezzling funds from the bank which was discovered in 1857 and this episode will be dealt with separately.

Charles S Gauld was brought in to steady the ship.  A native of the parish of Mortlach, Banffshire, he entered the North British Bank at Beauly as an apprentice and then got an appointment at Invergordon.  From there he moved to Dufftown, and then to Keith.  He entered the Commercial Bank at Dumbarton as an accountant and was subsequently sent back to Beauly to open an agency there. 

Illus: The Commercial Bank on the High Street.

After two years he was sent to Falkirk.  Gauld became a pillar of the community and although he took no direct part in local government he was active in the community.  Amongst his many activities he was chairman of the Falkirk Certified Industrial School, a director of the Scottish National Imbecile Institute at Larbert, a leading character in the provision of proper premises for the Falkirk Town Mission, and president of the Falkirk Tract Society.  Whilst in the employ of the bank he lived at Commercial Bank House and it was here that his children were born.  He often had reason to complain to the town council of the lack of water at his residence!  He retired in 1896 and died in Falkirk on 7 July 1898.  During his working career the bank prospered and many changes took place in the town.  The building was illuminated in March 1863 on the occasion of the wedding of the future Edward VII.  Later still shops were introduced into the ground floor, bringing it into line with the other national banks in Falkirk.

Illus: Robert Lochhead (Falkirk Herald 4 September 1937, 7).

Gauld was succeeded by Robert H Lochhead who was the agent of the Hope Street branch in Glasgow at the time.  A native of Toward in Argyllshire he had served his apprenticeship in Glasgow.  Like Gauld he also doubled as the agent for small branch at Bonnybridge which had been opened in 1890.  Within a few years of his arrival a second satellite branch was opened at Grahamston.  Lochhead took a direct role in local government and served a number of years as a town councillor in the role of Dean of Guild and Treasurer.  In 1910 he was moved to West George Street branch in Glasgow and retired there in 1922, dying on 3 September 1937.

Offices on the upper floors of the Commercial Bank Building were leased out.  One of the better known tenants was the accountant Festus Moffat and as a consequence many people referred to it as the “Festus Moffat Buildings.”

In 1993 the Halifax Building Society made a bold attempt to restore the symmetry on the new building line by replicating a Neo-Georgian loggia.  This has channelled ashlar end bays containing large arched recesses – that on the left housing a shop doorway; that on the right a recess for a cash dispenser.  The architects, J & F Johnston Ltd of Edinburgh, brought the distyle design to the ground level by incorporating large squat fluted Doric columns.

Illus: The Commercial Bank with projecting ground floor shops, c1920.


Bailey, G.B.2017‘The making of Falkirk, 1830-1860,’ Calatria 34, 1-92.
Love, J.           1928Highways, Byeways and Biggins of Falkirk.

Geoff B. Bailey, 2022