National Trust for Scotland lawyer
Tuesday 20 December 2005
For an astonishing 70 years George Russell was at the centre of the affairs of the National Trust for Scotland, the now huge organisation which he served as solicitor from 1951 to 1982. In 1935 he acted as chauffeur/driver for the chairman of the then infant trust, Sir Iain Colquhoun of Luss Bt, and his own father, the trust's secretary, treasurer and lawyer, Arthur Russell, in the acquisition of Glencoe.
His father had been the dynamic driving force behind the creation of the trust, founded in 1931, 36 years after its southern namesake, while his maternal grandfather was Rutherfurd Gillespie of the well-known Castle Douglas solicitors Lidderdale and Gillespie.
Born in Edinburgh in 1914, George Russell attended Edinburgh Academy and Belhaven Hill School before boarding at the headmaster's house at Harrow. He then became a chartered accountant, working with the firm of Richard Brown in Edinburgh from 1932 to 1937, when he joined his father's law firm, Strathern and Blair, where he was to be senior partner for 20 years.
Taking a law degree at Edinburgh University, he officially graduated in April 1941 - most of his time from September 1939 had been devoted to the 2nd Lothian and Border Horse in the 26th Armoured Brigade. In 1943, after staff college, he was attached as GSO3 to the Polish Armoured Division, being appointed OBE and winning the Polish Golden Cross of Merit with Swords. In Normandy he worked in the headquarters of 21st Armoured Group and his work in Belgium earned him the Belgian Ordre de la Couronne.
George Russell's initiation into the National Trust took place at a crucial moment in the trust's development. In August 1935, his father and his climbing companion Percy Unna put together £1,500 of their own money to go with Sir Iain Colquhoun of Luss to purchase at a public "roup" - that is, auction - the Signal Rock, the alleged point from which the Campbells gave the signal to their clansmen to massacre their hosts, the Macdonalds, in one of the most notorious and sordid events in the history of Scotland. In the pub the night before the auction, the Russells got into conversation with their rival purchaser, Alister Sutherland. So friendly did they become that Sutherland said that, if he bought the part of Glencoe that he wanted, they could have the rock as a present.
This meant that they had £1,500 to spend. Russell and his father persuaded Colquhoun that it should be used without authorisation to buy from the owner, Lord Strathcona, that part of Glencoe which contained the Aonach Eagach ridge. Thus one of the most dramatic mountain areas of Britain came into the possession of the National Trust.
It was George Russell who accompanied the late Sir Ernest Gowers and his commission members in their official visit to Scotland in 1948 which endorsed the Country Houses Scheme, enabling donors to hand over houses to the National Trust while they still lived in them. They came officially to interview my parents at the Binns (the first house given to the trust under the scheme, by my mother in 1944), as to how donors could work in future with the trust. My parents told me that the Russells, father and particularly son, had hugely impressed Gowers, the commission chairman, a man of vast experience who had been David Lloyd George's private secretary.
Russell's work for the trust over the years extended to every nook and cranny of its operation but among his particular contributions was the chairmanship of the trust's Pentlands Regional Park working party, of their fish farm working party, and of their working party more recently on the highly controversial Skye Bridge.
The President of the National Trust, the Earl of Wemyss, remembers Russell, his frequent travelling companion on trust business to North America, as "splendid, humorous, upright, ever successful and utterly lovable and ready to love and help other people. Scotland owes him gratitude."
Outside the trust, Russell spearheaded the work of Abbeyfield sheltered housing, and, as founding chairman, set up the Lothian Building Preservation Trust with the distinguished architects Frank Tindall and Colin McWilliam. A friend of the Very Rev George MacLeod (Lord MacLeod of Fuinary), he was Treasurer of the Iona Community from 1947 to 1965.
One of Russell's particular causes was the Scottish Churches Architectural Trust, of which he was trustee from 1982 to 1995. Their Secretary, Mrs Florence Mackenzie, relates that it was through Russell's many contacts that the funding was raised to get the organisation started in the first place. He took especial interest in the maintenance of small Highland churches such as Cairndow on the banks of Loch Fyne in Argyllshire.
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