Undiscovered Scotland: The Ultimate Online Guide
Henry Duncan lived from 8 October 1774 to 12 February 1846. He was the founder of the world’s first savings bank. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Henry Duncan was born at Lochrutton, west of Dumfries, the son of the parish minister. As a boy he met Robert Burns, and he was educated at Dumfries Academy. He went on to become a student at the University of St Andrews, but after less than a year, aged 16, he took up a post with Heywood’s Bank in Liverpool, a city in which two of his brothers already lived. Three years later, Duncan decided that commercial banking was not for him, and returned to his studies, attending the University of Glasgowand the University of Edinburgh before being ordained as a Church of Scotland minister.
In 1799 Duncan was appointed minister of the parish of Ruthwell, which lies between Dumfries and Annan. He arrived to find a very deprived community and set to work to revive it, turning the local church land into a model farm to provide work. He also reinvigorating the village’s Friendly Society and used it to distribute food and grain supplied by his brothers in Liverpool. In 1810, Duncan used the Friendly Society’s cottage as the launch pad for a completely new initiative, a locally-based savings bank that was self-supporting and based on business principles. The savings bank was an immediate success. Duncan ran the bank himself without pay, and the surpluses generated went back into providing services for the community. The idea spread rapidly: within a decade savings banks had been established in many parts of the UK and were managing funds of over £3 million. The ideal also caught on in Europe and North America.
In 1818 Duncan paid for the restoration of the 17ft high Ruthwell Cross which had been smashed by Presbyterians in 1642. In 1828 he read a paper to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in which he described fossil footprints he had found in sandstone in Dumfriesshire: thus becoming the first person to produce a scientific report on fossilised tracks. A cast of the tracks, made by an animal named after Duncan as Chelichnus duncani, is in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. In 1839 Duncan served as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Four years later, during the 1843 Disruption he helped establish the Free Church of Scotland. Henry Duncan died in 1846.
- The Ruthwell Cross, Dumfries And Galloway, Scotland (thejournalofantiquities.com)
- Ruthwell Cross (near Dumfries) (sandystrachan.wordpress.com)