Banking in the Square

It has strangely come about in our own time, that banking companies have, in some instances, been drawn once more into what might be called.…mercantile speculation, in consequence of over great advances to private traffickers….which we have lately seen productive of such widespread ruin.

Introduction to Forbes Memoirs of a Banking House, written in 1854. [Sounds familiar!] 

Parliament Square from its early days had been a major centre of Scottish banking.  The Bank of Scotland (BOS) and Coutts Bank originated there, and Forbes Bank, one of the most successful private banks in Scotland, spent its entire existence in the Square.  From the Square the BOS issued the first paper banknotes to be used in Scotland and Forbes Bank had a picture of the Square printed on its banknotes.  

The oldest Scottish bank was the Bank of Scotland (BOS), founded in 1695 by an Englishman, John Holland, one year after the founding of the Bank of England by a Scot, William Paterson[1].  The BOS charter from the Scottish Parliament gave it a monopoly of banking in Scotland for twenty one years. Its first office was on the second floor of Paterson’s Land in Parliament Square above John’s Coffee Shop.  An entry in the Minute Book of 2 March 1699 ‘Recommended to the Directors to have their serious thoughts what way the Cash and other weighty concerns of the office may be put in safety in the case (as God forbid) of accidental burning in or about the Bank….’  This was a wise precaution for the following year:-

In the Beginning of February 1700, the great Burning in the Parliament Close happened; and the Bank-office being there at the Time, the Directors and others concerned did with great Care and Diligence carry off all the Cash, Bank notes, Books and Papers in the Office; being assisted by a Party of Soldiers, brought from the Castle by the Earl of Leven then Governor thereof, and Governor of the Bank; who with the Lord Ruthven, then a Director, stood all the Night directing and supporting the soldiers….:But the Company lost their Lodging and whole Furniture in it.[2]

The bank moved, after the fire, to a new office in Gourlay’s Close (later named Old Bank Close) off the Lawnmarket where it remained for a century.  In 1806 it occupied its splendid new building on the Mound which remains its head office.[3]  

When the BOS monopoly expired, the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBOS) was founded in 1727, backed by a Royal Charter from George I, signed nine days before his death.  The first home of the RBOS was in a house at the bottom of Ship Close on the north side of the High Street. In 1750 it moved to larger premises in Fishmarket Close on the south side of the High Street overlooking the buildings on the east of Parliament Square. In 1821 it moved to grand new premises in St Andrew Square in the New Town just in time to miss the Great Fire of 1824 which destroyed its previous headquarters. 

Map showing the location of the Royal Bank marked Q in Kirkwood’s Map 1817

At first there was intense rivalry between the two banks; the RBOS was envied for its Royal title which the BOS was denied because of its supposed Jacobite proclivities.  For a time a ‘bank war’ raged, each trying by devious means to damage the reputation and credit worthiness of the other. A third national bank, the British Linen Bank, was founded in 1746.  It adopted the name ‘British’ rather than ‘Scottish’ because of the Jacobite uprising at that time.  It managed to keep out of the ‘bank wars’ which ended amicably by 1750 and thereafter the banks worked harmoniously to establish an excellent reputation for Scottish banking.  

The BOS, a year after its foundation, while still based in Parliament Square, was the first Scottish bank to introduce paper banknotes which became so popular that silver and gold coins were almost eliminated from currency.  In 1826 the Bank of England tried to introduce legislation to ban the Scottish banks from issuing notes under £5 value.  Sir Walter Scott was instrumental in marshalling opposition to interference by the English Bank in Scottish affairs, by writing a letter which drew attention to the success and importance of the independent banking system in Scotland. Writing under the pseudonym Malachi Malagrowther, his letter was widely circulated.  A fragment reads:

…It is not less unquestionable, that the consequence of this Banking System, as conducted in Scotland, has been attended with the great advantage to the country.  This facility which has been afforded to the industrious and enterprising…. has converted Scotland, from a poor, miserable, and barren country, into one, where, if Nature has done less, Art and Industry have done more, than in perhaps any country in Europe, England herself not excepted….[4]

Scott won the day and the Scottish banks were allowed to retain this privilege and continue to issue their own banknotes to this day.  The BOS rewarded Scott by putting his portrait on their notes.

A Bank of Scotland note with Walter Scott’s portrait

The national banks regarded themselves as a common repository of the nation’s cash – a ready fund for affording credit and loans on heritable bonds and other securities. Their reputation for practicality and creditworthiness was such that they: 

….placed the banks of a tiny country in the forefront of Europe and the world.  They were the product of Scotland’s situation and culture; a literate population though initially poor and remote from the commercial heartland of Europe, could through its ethos and education, thus generate a remarkable system.[5]

Private Banking

The giving of bills of exchange by which private trade was conducted was beneath the dignity of the BOS and RBOS:  

There was much to be done in that business without doors, by day and night, with such variety of circumstances and conditions as are inconsistent with the precise hours of a public office and the rules and regulations of a well-governed company; and no company like the Bank can be managed without fixing stated office hours for business and establishing rules and regulation, which will never answer the management of the exchange trade.[6]

This restriction on the public banks left the field open to a host of small private banks which evolved from businesses such as jewellers, goldsmiths, grain merchants, insurance brokers etc.[7]  These private banks followed the much earlier example of the jeweller and goldsmith, George Heriot (1563-1624) who founded his ‘bank’ a century before the public banks were created and became invaluable to King James VI and I in this capacity both in Edinburgh and in London following the Union of the Crowns in 1603.  

In 1810 there were thirty-eight private banks in Scotland, concentrated mostly in Edinburgh and Glasgow, although only four were regarded as important.[8] These private banks were very popular with the public whose small transactions were managed. There were few rural banks at that time so other trading towns did much of their business through Edinburgh’s private banks, several of which were based in and around Parliament Square.[9]

The Coutts dynasty

One merchant who left a lasting legacy was Patrick Coutts, the progenitor of a banking dynasty.  Patrick was the fourth son of Alexander Coutts, a provost of Montrose, who came to Edinburgh around 1696 and became a successful general merchant.  Patrick died in 1704 leaving a large fortune of £30,000 Scots.  He had four children; the eldest, John, was born in 1699 and was only five when his father died, so the family business was wound up.  John was educated in Montrose and served an apprenticeship in merchandising from 1713-19.  In 1721 he was made a burgess and guild brother in Edinburgh.  He started a mercantile business, John Coutts and Co. in 1723 which occupied five rooms on the second floor of the President’s Stairs[10] on the east side of Parliament Close. This served as a warehouse for wine and cloth and dwelling house for successive generations of the Coutts family[11].  In this small accommodation John lived and conducted his business and was renowned for his liberal hospitality.  The business involved dealing in corn, buying and selling goods on commission and the negotiation of bills of exchange on London, Holland, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal[12].  Private banking was gradually introduced into the company’s activities and this was the first private bank to become established in Scotland[13].  The business prospered and John became a town councillor in 1730 and was twice elected a bailie before becoming Provost of Edinburgh in 1742.  In that year he also became a director of the Royal Bank of Scotland.  As Provost, John allowed the town council to meet in his business premises when the council chamber was in disrepair.  In 1740 there was a severe famine; Maitland[14] records that ‘Mr Couts (sic) and other gentlemen, who dealt with the Corn Trade, did import great Quantities of Victual, which they delivered to the City of Edinburgh at prime Cost…. inasmuch that the people lived in Plenty in the midst of Famine’.

John Coutts had four sons, Patrick (b.1731), John Jr (b.1732), James (b.1733) and Thomas (b.1735) who were gradually introduced to the family business and to private banking.  Hard work and excesses at the table were said to have undermined John’s health and in 1749 he retired to Italy where he died in 1750 at the age of fifty-one. John left the running of the business to his partner, Archibald Trotter (a relative of his wife), and to his eldest son Patrick, aged 18, whom he had made partner, so the firm became Coutts, Son and Trotter.

Portrait of John Coutts by Alan Ramsay

John Coutts’ sons did not have much respect for Trotter whom they teased by such activities as putting a live mouse in his inkwell and not surprisingly he soon resigned[15].  The boys, still too young to conduct the business, took on a new partner, John Stephan, who had married a sister of their father. The name of the firm changed again to Coutts Bros. and Co. In 1752 the company expanded by setting up a London branch under the name of Coutts Brothers and Stephan. This was run by Patrick, aged 21, and Thomas, aged 17, together with Thomas Stephan, the son of the Edinburgh partner, John Stephan.  The three young men lived together in their London office in Jeffrey’s Square in St Mary Axe.  The Edinburgh branch remained under the control of the brothers John Jr, James and John Stephan. 

The two businesses progressed in harmony until 1755 when James married Mary Peagrum, the granddaughter of John Campbell, a Scottish goldsmith who had completed his apprenticeship with John Threepland in Parliament Square. Campbell moved to London where he established a jewellery/banking business in the Strand in the George Heriot tradition in 1692 (two years before the Bank of England was established).  Mary was the niece and heiress of George Campbell, then owner of the bank, who made James a partner.  James moved to London, leaving John Jr and John Stephen as partners in charge of the Edinburgh branch.  George Campbell died in 1761 leaving James in charge.  James persuaded his younger brother Thomas to leave the family branch in Jeffrey’s Square and join him as partner in James & Thomas Coutts in the Strand.  

Now there were two Coutts’ banks in London, operating in competition with each other, which inevitably led to family disharmonies.  Unfortunately, James and Thomas did not get on well and, in 1762, James entered politics to become MP for Edinburgh leaving Thomas with the running of the London bank.  James’ parliamentary career came to an end in 1768 when he started to behave oddly and talked ‘in some strange and incoherent language’[16].  He was persuaded to retire from the bank in 1775 on the grounds of ill health and died in Gibraltar three years later, having been afflicted with the same mental malady which was to affect his brother Patrick a few years later (see below). 

The London bank, now called Thomas Coutts & Co, was run by Thomas with great diplomacy and efficiency, supported by a few well-chosen partners, some of whom were related to the Coutts family.  It was the wish of Thomas that the bank should, as far as possible, remain a family business.  His personality and discretion inspired trust and the bank became the choice of royalty and the aristocracy. The Coutts’ Bank flourishes and retains its identity to this day although after various mergers it became part of the Royal Bank of Scotland who sold it to Union Bancaire Privée in 2015.    

Well born young ladies vied with each other to catch the eye of the young and successful bachelor, but Thomas fell in love with and married Betty Starkey, the housemaid of his brother James, by whom he had three beautiful daughters. These girls made advantageous marriages, Susan to the Earl of Guildford, Frances (Fanny) to the Marquis of Bute and Sophia to Sir Francis Burdett.  At least six of the descendants of these unions were to become partners in the Bank.  Betty, who developed deafness and dementia, died in 1815 after fifty two years of marriage. Within a month of her death, Thomas, then aged eighty, married an actress Harriot Mellon, forty-two years his junior, who had been his companion during Betty’s lengthy decline. Thomas and Harriot enjoyed seven years of happy marriage before Thomas died in 1822. 

Having given generous sums to his daughters during his life, Thomas left his entire estate amounting to £900,000 (about £1-billion today), and a half share in the bank, to his new wife.  Five years after his death Harriot married William Aubrey de Vere, the Duke of St Albans. She wrote to Sir Walter Scott, a long standing friend[17] and distant relative of Thomas Coutts, who had written to congratulate her on her wedding:

…what a strange, eventful life has mine been, from a poor little player child, with just food and clothes to cover me, dependent on a very precarious profession, without talent or a friend in the world!… Is it not wonderful? Is it true? Can I believe it? First the wife of the best, the most perfect being that ever breathed, his love and unbounded confidence in me, his immense fortune, so honourably acquired by his own industry, all at my  command, – and now the wife of a Duke![18]

They had no children and Harriot was left with the problem of deciding to whom to leave her fortune.  She was aware that ‘dear Tom’ had wished that it should be retained in the family. The most obvious choice was her only male step-grandson, Dudley, the son of Fanny, but he blotted his copybook by marrying the daughter of Lucien Bonaparte – a Catholic and a niece of Napoleon – a double whammy!  Susan’s daughters were ruled out because their mother had never become reconciled to Harriot after the marriage.  This left Sophia’s daughter Angela, the youngest of the grandchildren, who had always been a favourite. 

At Harriot’s death in 1837, Angela Georgina Burdett[19] (1814-1906), became the wealthiest heiress in Britain and the fortune remained in the family. The terms of the will required Angela to add the Coutts name to her title and also included a clause that if she should ever marry a foreigner the will would become invalid and she would lose her half share of the bank.  

Angela Burdett-Coutts by J J Masquerier

Angela Burdett-Coutts

Angela, now Burdett-Coutts, devoted her long life and fortune to charitable works in recognition of which Queen Victoria made her a baroness in 1871.  Helping to guide her with her charitable donations were her good friends and admirers, Charles Dickens and the Duke of Wellington.  Her church and the poor of London were her main beneficiaries.  She was devoted to animals and supported several societies concerned with animal welfare, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. One of her minor good works was the gift of the fountain and sculpture of Greyfriar’s Bobby to the City of Edinburgh.  Most Edinburgh citizens know the history of Greyfriar’s Bobby, a terrier who visited the grave of his master daily from 1858 until his death in 1872.  Angela made her presentation two years after Bobby’s death.  It symbolises her love of animals and perhaps it also acknowledges the City in which the Coutts family fortune was founded.  

Greyfriar’s Bobby

Angela received many honours but one which pleased her particularly was the award of the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh in 1874 – the first woman to be so honoured.  At the ceremony in the Music Hall, the Lord Provost spoke of her many charitable works and mentioned her Edinburgh heritage – her great-grandfather John Coutts who had also been Lord Provost, and her grandfather, Thomas Coutts, who had started his banking career in Parliament Square and had also been honoured with the Freedom of the City.  A copy of Ramsay’s portrait of her great-grandfather, John Coutts, given to the city by Angela, was displayed behind her on the stage.  That evening Angela held a banquet at the Palace Hotel which was attended by many of Scotland’s gentry including the Dukes and Duchesses of Buccleuch, Argyll and Roxburgh.[20]

A surprising marriage

In 1879, while grieving the death of her lifelong friend and companion, Hannah Brown, Angela became increasingly dependent on a young man, Ashmead Bartlett, for help and support.  Angela had known Bartlett since he came to England from America as a boy and had taken an interest in his education and wellbeing. Two years later, in 1881, Angela aged sixty-seven married Ashmead aged twenty-nine. The marriage aroused a great deal of concern and critical comment from her friends, the Bank, and even Queen Victoria who suspected that Bartlett was interested only in her wealth. In the event, the couple enjoyed twenty-seven years of apparently happy life until Angela’s death in 1906.  During this period, Angela continued with her good works and regained the respect of her friends while Bartlett became a Member of Parliament. In the terms of Harriot’s bequest, by marrying a foreigner, the bulk of Angela’s inheritance, including her share in the Bank, was transferred to her sister Clara – an issue which unsurprisingly was the cause of considerable disharmony within the family.

Sir William Forbes, J. Hunter and Co 

As the London bank of Thomas Coutts developed, the Edinburgh branch of the Coutts bank continued to be run by John Jr and Stephan from their premises in President’s Stair.  In 1754 John Jr took on an apprentice, the fifteen-year old Sir William Forbes, who was destined to become the most respected and successful of Edinburgh’s private bankers.  William Forbes was born in 1739.  His father, an advocate, died when he was four and William inherited the baronetcy.[21] He received his schooling in Aberdeen.  In 1753 the family moved to Edinburgh where William was introduced to the Coutts family.   William, who wrote an account of his time in the bank, Memoirs of a Banking House, held John Jr in great regard as: 

one of the most agreeable men I ever knew     He had the happy talent of uniting love of society and public amusement with strict attention to business…I shall ever retain the most grateful respect for his memory, on account of the very great attention he bestowed on me during the five years of my apprenticeship.[22]  

William dedicated himself to the bank and worked hard during his apprenticeship, being allowed only one night away from Edinburgh between May 1754 and September 1760.  In 1761, John Jr, while on a visit to London was seized with ‘the severe disorder called iliac passion’[23] and died aged thirty.  In the same year Patrick, who had been left in charge of the Jeffrey’s Square branch after Thomas departed to the Strand, became insane and retired to the continent, like his brother, James, leaving the two original branches of the Coutts family enterprise without a Coutts family member.  After Forbes had completed his apprenticeship, he continued to work for the firm for two years as a clerk, without pay, in the hope that he might become a partner.  With the death of John Jr his ambition was realised and he was made a partner in 1761 with one eighth share of the business.  About the same time James Hunter (1741-1787), the son of a wealthy Ayr merchant, who had been taken on as an apprentice in 1756, two years after Forbes, was also made a partner.  

John Stephan, meanwhile was beginning to suffer from dementia and was bringing the firm into disrepute by his odd behaviour at the ritual daily assemblies which took place at mid day at the Mercat Cross, where business was transacted and gossip exchanged.  He was bought out of his partnership leaving the two young men, Forbes and Hunter, in charge.  One of their first actions was to give up corn speculation and confine the business to banking.  Under their management the bank flourished.  In 1772 a major financial crash occurred and fifteen private banks in Edinburgh failed. They fell ‘like the trees of a forest before a cyclone’[24]; the Coutts Bank was one of only three[25] which survived.

Meanwhile the London branch continued under the management of a merchant, Robert Herries, who proceeded to set up his own business, the London Exchange Banking Company, in which both Forbes and Hunter took a share.  This business, which was seen as a rival company by Thomas Coutts, caused a breach between the Edinburgh bank and the surviving Coutts connections in London.  Until then, the Edinburgh branch had retained the name of John Coutts and Co, although no Coutts family member remained, and continued to occupy the old premises on the second floor of the Presidents Stair which remained the property of the Coutts family.  When the breach with Thomas occurred, they lost the tenancy but found new premises on the floor below. In 1773 they severed the last ties with the Coutts family and the bank became Sir William Forbes, J. Hunter and Co. The bank prospered while many competitors failed.  In Forbes time “the business was conducted on an appropriate scale of frugality; the simple tradesman virtues of probity, civility, and attention to business were sedulously cultivated.  All extravagance and needless risk avoided.”[26]

Sir William Forbes by Joshua Reynolds. Scottish National Portrait Gallery

New partners were taken on and larger premises were required.  In 1782 the bank moved from President’s Stair to a new building erected on a vacant site on the south side of Parliament Square next to the Exchequer (marked O in the map below).  It was built around a central court approached by a passage from the Square.  When digging the foundations, many skeletons were discovered for the site had been the old burial ground of St Giles; these remains were reburied nearby. 

Map showing location of Forbes Bank marked O (Kirkwood’s Map 1817)

In 1782 the bank became the first private bank to circulate its own notes which were illustrated with a picture of Parliament Square and the Statue of Charles II engraved by James Kirkwood

Forbes bank note showing Parliament Square

Sir James Hunter Blair (1741-1785)

As the Forbes/Hunter Bank grew, the two principal partners acquired increasing wealth and status in the City.  

Both men had distinguished careers outside the bank.  James Hunter, in 1770 married Jane, the daughter of a wealthy land owner, John Blair, who died in 1777.  At his death Jane inherited the family estate of Dunskey in Wigtownshire and James Hunter assumed the name of Blair.  He immediately commenced extensive improvements to the estate. He substantially rebuilt the town of Portpatrick, improving the harbour to accommodate larger packet boats for the ferry crossing to Ireland, as well as introducing new farming methods.  

The Hunter Blair family by David Allan. Dunskey house in the background.

Hunter Blair was elected MP for Edinburgh in 1781 and again in 1784 but had to resign on being elected Lord Provost[27] later that year.  His chief contribution as Lord Provost was to promote and raise the funds for the building of the South Bridge over the Cowgate valley on the south side of the High Street.  With the support of Sir William Forbes his plans prevailed against stiff local opposition for inevitably it involved the destruction of several old buildings and wynds. The work commenced in 1785 and was completed the following year; it consisted of 19 arches, the largest over the Cowgate was 31 feet high and 30 feet wide.

L The Cowgate Arch (T H Shepherd c1820) R The Arch as it appears today

The South Bridge was a companion to the recently built North Bridge which covered the valley to the north of the High Street connecting the Old City with the developing New Town. The South Bridge provided a level route to the University and the extensions of the City to the south, such as George Square.  Hunter Blair’s contribution is acknowledged on a plaque placed on the foundation stone of the bridge where he is credited with being “the author and indefatigable promoter of this undertaking”.  Two locations adjacent to the bridge are named in recognition of his contribution – Hunter Square and Blair Street. In 1786 he was created a baronet.

Hunter Blair died in 1787, aged forty-six, just before the bridge was completed and the bank was renamed simply the Forbes Bank.  Forbes mourned the passing of his good friend.  ‘Our friendship terminated only with his life, after an intimacy which few brothers can boast of, during thirty-one years, in which long period we never had a difference, nor a separation of interest.’[28]  Blair had befriended Robert Burns during his visits to Edinburgh, and Burns wrote an elegy on his death, one verse of which reads:-

My patriot falls, but shall he lie unsung,
While empty greatness saves a worthless name?
No: every Muse shall join her tuneful tongue,
And future ages hear his growing fame.

Burns acknowledged that the poem ‘is but mediocre but my grief was sincere.’[29] Nevertheless, he sent it on to his friend Jane Ferrier with a covering poem which included this verse:-

The mournful sang I here enclose
In gratitude I send you,
And pray, rhyme as weel as prose,
A' guid things may attend you!

Hunter Blair’s eldest son, John, was taken on as an apprentice two years after his father’s death, but he behaved oddly and left after three years. His eccentricity increased and he died in 1800 ‘deprived of his reason’. Another son, Forbes Hunter Blair, stood as a Tory candidate for Edinburgh in the Parliamentary election of 1832, just after the passing of the Scottish Reform Act, which greatly increased the number of voters and doubled the number of parliamentary seats in Edinburgh from one to two.  He was unsuccessful, the two seats being won by the Whig lawyers, Francis Jeffrey and James Abercromby, who had both played major roles in the passing of the Reform Act.

Sir William Forbes (1739-1806)

William Forbes, who had been brought up in considerable poverty following his father’s death, became a notable philanthropist and supported many charitable institutions, not only with money but with his management skills.  Thus he became a manager of the Charity Workhouse, of the Orphan Hospital and the Royal Infirmary and supported the Lunatic and Blind Asylums and many others.  He contributed funds for the rebuilding of the High School on Calton Hill. In 1784, he became a member of the Merchant Company of which he was elected Master several times and, in this capacity, he arranged for widows of members of the Company to be provided with an annuity.  He was one of the founding members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and of the Antiquarian Society of which he was treasurer until his death.  Forbes was a keen mason and member of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge together with Robert Burns whose poems he so admired that he bought forty copies for distribution to his friends.  He was made Grand Master of the Masonic Grand Lodge in 1776.

Portrait of Sir William Forbes by Kay

John Kay, the caricaturist, made a portrait of Forbes. The scene included a view from a window of Forbes Banks in the south side of Parliament Square; Forbes is shown also in the background in the act of giving charitable donations to ‘pensioners’, a sight which must have been familiar to Kay, whose shop was adjacent to the Forbes Bank.

Sir William was descended on his maternal side from the Lords Pitsligo, his mother being a cousin of Lord Forbes of Pitsligo who had forfeited his estate as a result of being involved in the ’45 Jacobite rebellion.  Part of the estate had been bought back by a relative some years later, but it was then in a state of neglect with the mansion house roofless.  On the death of this relative, Sir William succeeded to the barony of Pitsligo in 1781.  It had long been his ambition to preserve and restore this part of his ancestry to its original proud name.  He immediately set about repairing and developing the estate. He built the village of New Pitsligo with a school and two chapels and invited settlers with the offer of land.  Within a short time he had a thriving community and had “several thousand acres smiling with cultivation, which were formerly the abode only of the moorfowl or the curlew.” [30] In the village he established a spinning school and the manufacture of linen.  

Sir William was deeply religious having been brought up in the Scottish Episcopal tradition.  One of his main interests and achievements was to build a fitting church for this denomination, hitherto lacking in Edinburgh. Thus the Cowgate Chapel and St Paul’s Chapel in York Place were built. After his death, two of his four sons, William Jr, who inherited the baronetcy, and John, who became the judge, Lord Medwyn, were instrumental in the building of St John’s Church on Princes Street.[31]

Sir William had a wide circle of acquaintances including Lord Melville and William Pitt the Younger, who sought his advice on financial matters.  He was a close friend of James Boswell and, through him, he first met Samuel Johnson, on 15 August 1773, when he breakfasted at Boswell’s Edinburgh home in James Court[32].  Boswell introduced “my friend Sir William Forbes, now of Pitsligo, a man of whom too much good cannot be said; who, with distinguished abilities and application in his profession of a banker, is at once a good companion and a good Christian….”[33] On this and subsequent occasions, Johnson and Forbes discussed matters such as the duties of a lawyer and the Jacobite rebellion. Forbes was to continue to enjoy Johnson’s company during his many visits to London in his later years as a member of the Literary Club. Forbes was Boswell’s banker and his friendship must have been strained by Boswell’s increasing indebtedness to the bank, for which Boswell had to offer his Edinburgh home, now in the more salubrious St Andrew Square, as security.[34]

Sir Walter Scott and the Forbes family

In 1806 Forbes was summoned to London as a witness in the trial of Lord Melville[35] who had been impeached for the misappropriation of public funds and was acquitted.  On his return to Edinburgh he became ill and died soon after.  His friend Sir Walter Scott mourned his death in the introduction to the fourth canto of Marmion.

Far may we search before we find
A heart so manly and so kind
        ..........
Inscribe above his mouldering clay
'The widows shield, the orphans stay'.

It is a strange coincidence that the two partners should each have an elegy composed by one of the two most famous Scottish writers of the day – Hunter-Blair by Burns and Forbes by Scott. 

After Forbes death his eldest son, now Sir William, who had been a partner since 1794, was left in charge of the bank.  In 1806 he purchased the Greenhill estate and mansion house in Morningside.  Two streets within the estate were named after him – Forbes Road and Pitsligo Road.[37]  (No streets were named after his more illustrious father). William Jr and Sir Walter Scott were great friends since their days together at the High School.  Their friendship survived despite the fact that they had both courted the fair Williamina Belsches and William had won her hand in 1797.  Both men served as officers in a regiment of yeomanry cavalry raised to resist the threatened Napoleonic invasion. Scott described William Jr as “an honest, amiable country gentleman, without the genius of his more successful father.”[38]  The Forbes Bank was very helpful to Scott during his financial crisis of 1826.  Scott described a meeting of his creditors in his Journal 26 January 1826 “Sir William Forbes Jr took the chair, and behaved, as he has ever done, with the generosity of ancient faith and early friendship.  That House is more deeply concerned than most.”  Forbes persuaded the creditors to agree to the creation of a trust to which future earnings by Scott would be paid rather than have him sequestrated. Scott did not know at that time that Sir William had paid nearly £2000 out of his own pocket to settle one of his debts.[39] Harriot Coutts also offered financial help which Scott declined for he wished to clear his debts by his own efforts[40].  In the end Scott’s trust repaid in full his debts of over £120,000 after his death.

An entry in Scott’s Journal in March 1828 reads:

Dined at Lord Chief Commissioner’s where I met the first time for thirty years[41] my old friend and boon companion with whom I shared the wars of Bacchus, Venus, and sometimes Mars.  The past rushed on me like a flood and almost brought tears into my eyes.  It is no very laudable exploit to record but I once drank three bottles of wine with this same rogue – Sir William Forbes.

The final days of Forbes Bank

In the great fire of November 1824, the Forbes Bank was the only private building to survive in Parliament Square, together with the adjoining law courts and Parliament House.  All the other buildings on the south and east sides of the Square were destroyed in the holocaust.  Following the two fires of that year, the Town Council decided to purchase all the ruined tenements and business premises on the south and east sides in order to reconstruct the Square with buildings of a more uniform and fire-resistant character in which to allow an expansion of the law courts and other public buildings.  The Forbes Bank agreed to move to a new site in the southeast corner of the Square to leave room for the extended law courts provided that the Treasury paid for the new building.  The new bank building, designed by William Burn, was built in 1827-30.  Sir William Forbes Jr. died in 1828 before it was completed.  Inevitably the bank had to incorporate Reid’s Adamesque façade which all new buildings fronting the Square were obliged to adopt. Dibdin described the splendid new building: 

What rooms! – lofty, dry, fireproof, interminable.  As the street is very precipitous on the other side, and the business rooms are on a level with the High Street, you descend instead of ascend stories.  The 42nd regiment of Highlanders may be barracked here and dance reels to boot.  The entrance or business rooms are spacious, having an elegant appearance, and are exceedingly inviting to a good deposit; for the credit of the house is yet stronger than its stone walls.[42]

During the first half of the nineteenth century, the Scottish private banks ceased to exist, the last in 1857.  A series of financial crises which followed the Napoleonic wars resulted in failure and sequestration of the majority.  Having provided a useful service to the community for more than a century, banking practice had changed and private banking disappeared.  Only six had survived to merge with larger banks, Forbes Bank being the last to amalgamate. In 1836 it was taken into the Glasgow Union Bank which in turn merged with the Union Bank of Scotland in 1842.  The name and reputation of the Forbes Bank was such that the Union Bank retained the premises in Parliament Square as its second head office until the building was purchased to become the Commissary Office and Court in 1885.  By this action the last connection between banking and Parliament Square was severed after nearly two hundred years. The Union Bank incorporated in its coat of arms the motto, “Shield and Stay”, which was taken from Walter Scott’s elegy on Forbes, quoted above.  The Union Bank merged with the Bank of Scotland in 1955 and since 2009 the BOS has been part of the Lloyds Banking Group.  The Forbes Bank, which was Edinburgh’s leading private bank in its day, is not forgotten. Some of its memorabilia can be seen in the Museum attached to the BOS headquarters on the Mound including the fine portrait of the founder, Sir William Forbes, by Raeburn. 


The Coutts Bank, from which the Forbes Bank separated in 1773, survives to this day having changed ownership several times. Since 2015 it has been acquired by the Union Bancaire Privee. It retains its head office in the Strand but no longer has any premises in Edinburgh where it had its origin.


[1] William Paterson is perhaps better known as the founder of the Darien Scheme designed to establish a Scottish colony in the isthmus between North and South America. The Scheme which took place between1698-1700 was a disaster.  Many Scots invested in the Scheme and the loss amounted to about a quarter of Scotland’s liquid assets.  Many settlers died including Paterson’s wife. The Union of Parliaments in 1707 was partly a consequence, England having offered to bail out the bankrupt Scots as an inducement.  

[2] An Historical Account of the Establishment, Progress and State of the Bank of Scotland… (1826) p6

[3] Cockburn did not regard it as splendid.  He referred to it as a ‘prominent deformity’.

[4] Sir Walter Scott writing as Malachi Malagrowther (1826) Letter on the Proposed changes of Currency to the Editor of the Edinburgh Weekly Journal Published by William Blackwood

[5] Checkland S G, in A Companion to Scottish Culture, Daiches D, Ed p28-9

[6] Grant I p176-7

[7] Cockburn, Memorials p238-9, was somewhat scornful of these private bankers “Respectable men they were; but, without talent, general knowledge, or any liberal objects.”  He makes an exception of the respectable Forbes Bank

[8] Checkland, Scottish Banking p165, listed Mansfield Ramsay and Co, Sir William Forbes and Co, Allan and Stewart, and Scott, Smith, Stein and Co as the important four.

[9] Forbes p89

[10] Rogers, C vol I p299. The ‘President’s Stair’ was so called because Sir Hugh Dalrymple, Lord President of the Court of Session had at one time lived there. 

[11] Forbes’Memoirs pp 9,14

[12] Kerr p51

[13] Richardson (1901) p53

[14] Maitland p124

[15] Forbes p4

[16] Richardson (1901) p56

[17] Harriot had visited Abbotsford on two occasions in 1824 and 1825 and had discussed her pending marriage to the Duke of Argyle with Scott. 

[18] Johnson (1970) Sir Walter Scott the great unknown 2, p1017 

[19] Angela was the daughter of Sophia. The other two sisters also had distinguished children. Francis who married the Marquis of Bute had a daughter who became the Countess of Harrowby and a son, Lord Dudley Coutts Stuart, who married the daughter of Lucien Bonaparte, Prince of Canino. Susan, who married the Earl of Guildford, had a daughter who became Baroness North.

[20] Scotsman 16 January 1874.

[21] The baronetcy was a Nova Scotia title which had been created in 1625 by James VI and I as a money making ploy. To qualify for a baronetcy the recipient had to contribute 3000 marks, ostensibly to support six colonists in Nova Scotia for two years.  The Forbes baronetcy was obtained by this means in 1626. William was the 6th baronet. 

[22] Forbes p10

[23] A term used to describe relentless vomiting due to obstruction of the bowel.

[24] Richardson (1902) p95

[25] The other two were Mansfield Hunter and Co and William Cumming & Son. The Cumming bank was located in Parliament Square.

[26] Forbes Memoirs introduction pii

[27] Three Lord Provosts of Edinburgh had connections with the bank, John Coutts 1742-4, Hunter Blair 1784-6 and John Marjoribanks 1813-5

[28] Forbes p62

[29] Kinsley, J. (1968) The poems and Songs of Robert Burns Vol III p 1239

[30] Kay Vol 1 p182

[31] It is of interest that young Sir William and Sir Walter Scott, who were lifelong friends, are both remembered on Princes Street, Sir Walter by his splendid monument and Sir William by St John’s Church. 

[32] Walter Scott was also present. This apartment had previously been the home of David Hume.

[33] Boswell, J. Journal of a tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson. Ed. Pottle, F A, & Bennett, C H  Heinemann, London 1963 p13-5

[34] Brady, F. James Boswell the Later Years 1769-95 Heinemann, London 1984 p267 

[35] Forbes had also been called as a witness at the trial of Captain Porteous.  He had observed Porteous firing his weapon into the assembled crowd.

[36] This line is adapted from Psalm 146 verse 9.

[37] Smith, C J Historic South Edinburgh Vol 1 p81

[38] Scott Journal p62 fn

[39] Lockhart Life of Sir Walter Scott vol 9 p157

[40] Healey, E  Coutts and Co p271fn.

[41] Scott’s memory was at fault for as recorded in the previous paragraph the two men had met several times in connection with Scott’s bankruptcy two years previously.

[42] Dibdin, T F Picturesque Tour in the Northern Counties of England and in Scotland  II p529