Authors: Gwen Kirkwood
There is a small museum in a cottage in the village of Ruthwell near the Solway Firth. This was the community meeting room where the Reverend Doctor Henry Duncan started the first Trustee Savings Bank for ordinary working men and women in 1810. The movement quickly spread in Britain and abroad. Many articles and books have been written about the Reverend Duncan and his other achievements and these can be seen on the internet.
This novel is purely fiction but the author has borrowed some of the banking principles from the Reverend Duncan for the purpose of the story. All events and places are imaginary and the characters bear no connection to any persons living or dead. The only real names are those of Annan, Dumfries and Edinburgh.
Billy Scott’s eyes were troubled as they rested on his wife’s thickening waistline, then moved to their four-year-old son, Andrew. The little boy was finely boned with the same air of fragility, the same smoky-blue eyes and fair curly hair as himself. Mary caught his eye and read his thoughts.
‘I saw my father having one of his wee chats with you when we came out of the kirk,’ she said. ‘You shouldn’t take any notice, Billy. It’s his habit after all the years of being the dominie. He forgets you’re no longer one of his pupils.’
‘Aye, but he means well. I love you so much, Mary.’ His voice was low, soft as the sigh of an evening breeze. ‘I love you both. I want to do what is best for you.’
‘I know you do, Billy.’ Mary sank onto the parched strip of grass beside his chair and took his hand, holding it against her cheek. ‘I know you love us. That’s all that matters to me.’
They were sitting outside their little whitewashed cottage, enjoying the peace of the Sunday afternoon, knowing the fine spell of weather could not last much longer. This part of southwest Scotland rarely enjoyed more than a fortnight without a shower of rain, but grass, trees and flowers flourished all around their small village. Mary looked up into her husband’s face.
‘I fear your father may have been right, lass,’ he sighed wistfully. ‘I want to give you so much, yet scarcely a week goes by now without me losing hours of work.’
‘You can’t help your cough, Billy. Mr Cole understands. He told
Father you are the best assistant he has ever had – both at the tailoring and with the books. When you’re well he—’
‘That’s the trouble, I’m never as well as I ought to be. I remember the way my father went, and Donald and wee Agnes. I didna believe the consumption could strike me down as well. I’ve so many plans, so many dreams for you and our bairnies.’
‘It hasn’t struck you down, and it won’t,’ Mary vowed with determination.
‘You’re the best wife a man could have, Mary, but your father knows how the coughing disease can wipe out whole families. ’Tis what he was afraid of. I understand that and….’
‘Did he say he feared the consumption? He didn’t, did he Billy?’ Mary’s tone was indignant. She loved her father. She had been the only surviving child of the four babies her mother had borne, and her parents had loved her well, perhaps too well. She had been fourteen when her mother died, only weeks after the birth of her last baby. She had grown even closer to her father then, but that did not give him the right to criticize and dictate to her beloved Billy.
‘He – he just asked if my cough was improving. He reminded me I should soon have another wee one depending on me.’ He smiled down at her, his eyes twinkling suddenly. ‘As though I could forget.’ He stroked her cheek with a gentle finger. ‘I hope this one is a wee girl, just like you.’
‘Whatever it is, we shall love it so don’t you worry about anything, Billy Scott.’
‘But I do. I’m not afraid for myself, but I canna bear the thought of leaving you with a family to raise on your own. That’s what happened to my mother, but she had Uncle Sam to help her. You’d have nobody to turn to if anything happened to me.’
‘Nothing is going to happen to you. Don’t even think about it. My father has been getting at you. I can always tell. I shall have a word with him.’
‘No, no, lass, don’t do that. We were talking about the savings bank the Reverend Drummond has started in our own village Society Room. He says we can start with sixpence a week, not like the banks for rich men where you need ten pounds to open an account. Nor will it be like the Craft Guilds who only look after
their own members. Your father says the minister is a wise man. He has planned this savings bank for the benefit of all the people in his parish. He’s going to London to get the Members of Parliament to pass a special act. This bank is for people like us, working men and women wi’little money to spare but who want to prepare for a rainy day and can only afford to save a penny or two.’
‘Aye, the minister is a great man for encouraging thrift,’ Mary nodded. ‘He doesna believe in spending money on a funeral wake when folks can scarce afford bread for their bairns. Yet neither he, nor my father, would see a body starve.’
‘Aye, that’s so. You must promise me, Mary. You’ll not hold a wake for me….’
‘Billy! We’re too young to think about funerals. My father….’
‘He’s only concerned for your future, lass. I promised we’ll make sure our wee Andrew gets his education. I told him we put a wee bit in the china teapot every week. That seemed to please him.’
‘It would.’ Mary smiled. ‘Already he has been teaching Andrew his letters, and he knows all his numbers up to twenty,’ she added proudly.
‘Imagine, Mary, the world’s first commercial savings bank, here in our own wee village. We, the parishioners, are to elect our own trustees. The minister plans to hold a meeting every year on the first Saturday of August at six o’clock.’ The light died from his eyes and his earnest face grew pensive. ‘Your father was telling me all about it but he says to be a member we have to save four shillings a year, or pay a penalty of a shilling. Do you think we could manage four shillings in a twelvemonth, Mary?’
‘We shall try, if ’tis for the sake of our children.’
‘Aye, we must save a farthing whenever we can. When we’ve saved sixpence we’ll deposit it in the bank.’
‘How shall we know it is safe? Can we get it back if we need it?’
‘Your father said you would ask that,’ Billy chuckled. ‘The Reverend Drummond and two other trustees will keep it in a strongbox with separate keys so that one man cannot open it on his own. The minister will lodge the money in a bank in Dumfries to earn interest for the depositors.’
‘You mean we would get back more money than we put in?’ Mary asked.
‘Aye, so your father says. Anyone who stays a member for three years will get five per cent interest.’
‘My father thinks the Reverend Drummond is a fine minister. I suppose we can trust his opinion on that. I shall try to be very thrifty. I would hate to lose a shilling in a penalty.’
‘So would I, but it would be worse to lose it all in a fire like poor Mrs Chalmers. You’re a good wife, Mary.’ He stroked her shining dark hair lovingly and bent his head, intending to kiss her, but he saw Andrew’s wide eyes fixed upon them. The little boy came running and threw himself into his mother’s arms.
‘Please to make a daisy chain for your hair, Mama?’ He handed her a bunch of flowers clutched in his fist. His parents smiled, warm in their shared happiness, content in their plans for the future of their family.
A month later, on a glorious day towards the end of June, Billy announced that Thomas Glover had asked him to go fishing with him and his father.
‘It’s a good chance to earn a wee bit extra money for our savings bank card.’ He was very enthusiastic about the savings bank. Mary knew it was his way of proving to her father that he was a good and provident son-in-law.
‘I wish you wouldna go, Billy,’ she pleaded. ‘We’re managing fine and you might catch a cold and set off your coughing.’
‘Thomas thinks the salt air will be good for me. Clear my chest.’
‘We practically live beside the sea! Sometimes I think it will be at our door when the tides are high. Anyway, Thomas is a tough hunk of a man, with or without the sea air. He and his cousin still have a hand in the smuggling, I’ve heard. I don’t want you in trouble too.’
‘His father will be with us today.’
‘Just as well, but neither of them have your brains, or your skill.’ She knew how much Billy yearned to be bursting with good health and energy like some of the fishermen and ploughboys who had been his companions at her father’s school. ‘I wouldn’t change you for a dozen Thomases,’ she added softly, giving him a
beguiling look from under her lashes.
He grinned and gave her a hug, but he was determined to earn all the money he could. He would prove to the dominie that he was worthy of his only daughter.
It was late that afternoon when Mary glanced out of the window to check on Andrew. He was playing with four-year-old Charlie Hughes, who lived in the cottage next to theirs. His mother, Lucy, was inclined to be slovenly but she had a kind heart. She often kept Andrew occupied for an hour or so now that the baby was nearly due.
The two boys were happy enough, but Mary frowned when she looked beyond the garden to the mist obscuring the top of Criffel. The big hill, rising high above the Solway Firth, gave a reliable indication of the weather. It had been etched clearly against the skyline for days now while the sun shone from a sky as blue as the speedwell. When the weather was fine, Mary was often filled with awe at the glorious spectacle of the sunset gilding the top of their little mountain and the Galloway Hills, cloaking them in a mantle of gold and crimson. But there were times when everything was obscured by cold, damp mist and Mary knew it would be like that before night. Would Billy be back before the rain came? She prayed fervently that he would, but she knew the boats sailed with the tides.
In spite of her reassurances, she worried secretly about Billy’s increased bouts of coughing. Once or twice she thought she had detected spots of blood on the white handkerchiefs he used during his work in the tailor’s shop. Her anxiety increased as the sky darkened ominously, although sunset was still several hours away – indeed at this time of year it was scarcely dark at all when the weather was good. Now it felt more like autumn. She called Andrew inside and gave him his supper, washed him and sang softly as she tucked him up in his crib, but all the time her thoughts were on her husband.
Big drops of rain plopped slowly onto the dry earth outside the cottage door. They fell faster and faster. Soon it was impossible to see through the streaming window pane. Mary could not settle to darn. She began to knit and dropped some stitches. She sorted a
pile of clothes. She rearranged the cups on the shelf. She stared at the slow pendulum of the wig-wag clock on the wall. Surely it could not be keeping time? At length, she opened the big family Bible, which had belonged to Billy’s family. For once, it brought her little comfort. It had fallen open at the list of births recorded there; the marriages were few, the deaths were many. She closed it with a faint moan and went to stand at the window.
Mary had no idea how long she stood there, unseeing. The rain had slackened to a steady drizzle and the whole world seemed grey and shrouded. Then her eyes widened. A tall, thin figure was hurrying along the merse, shoulders hunched, head bowed against the incessant rain.
‘Billy!’ she breathed in relief. ‘Oh, Billy. Thank God.’ Without further thought, she pulled her shawl around her and grabbed Billy’s tweed coat from behind the door. She ran out of the little cottage, down the garden, past the pigsty and out onto the grassy tussocks which made up the foreshore. It did not occur to her that her husband was already soaked to the skin and ten more minutes without his coat would make little difference now. She hurried, hampered by her bulky figure, stepping over the watery inlets, jumping over wider ones in her haste to reach her husband. Her dark hair was wet and flattened to her head. She blinked the raindrops from her lashes. Perhaps it was that which caused her to miss the treacherous little gully hidden between two high green tussocks. Before she realized what had happened she had fallen heavily, one leg caught in a stagnant pool. For a moment she lay winded. She didn’t know she had screamed but Billy heard and raised his head, peering through the drizzle. He saw Mary struggling to haul herself to her feet. He began to run.
‘Oh, lass,’ he panted. ‘My ain lassie! What are ye doing out here?’ He began to cough with the effort of his brief sprint.
‘Your coat. Put it on.’ She gasped as a sudden pain took her breath away. The baby was nearly due, she remembered. Surely it wouldn’t come yet. Not now. ‘Must get you home, Billy. A hot bath. I’ll put mustard in. The kettle is on. My big pan is on the rib. Oh – oh!’ She couldn’t prevent the gasp as pain shot through her.
‘Mary, lass, dinna worry about me. Let me help you back to
the house.’ He pulled on his coat and pulled her close, holding it around them both as they stumbled towards their cottage. Just before they reached the gate, a stab of pain brought Mary almost to her knees.
‘I – I think the babe is coming,’ she gasped when the pain subsided.
‘Oh, my lassie.’ Billy’s voice was choked with loving concern as he helped her to the house, trying hard to stifle the coughing which racked his thin frame.
‘You must get dry and warm,’ Mary gasped weakly. ‘Please, Billy. I’ll be all right if you help me onto the bed and let me lie down.’ He removed her shawl and wet shoes and helped her to the bed in the alcove beside the fireplace. In the corner, Andrew slept peacefully in the large crib which had once been his grandfather’s. Billy brought the towel and gently rubbed Mary’s hair, pulling it from its coil to dry more quickly. He loved her thick dark tresses. He loved everything about her. He couldn’t remember a time when he had not adored her. Even the small exertion of rubbing brought on another bout of coughing. Mary’s eyelids lifted.
‘I’ll be all right, Billy. Get out of your wet clothes. Please….’
Billy had barely pulled off his clothes before the fire and rubbed himself dry, when a long low moan escaped Mary’s lips despite her efforts to stifle it.
‘Is it the babe, Mary? Is it coming?’ Billy asked anxiously, yanking up his trousers impatiently as he hurried to her side. Her face was pale and he saw it was damp with sweat.
‘I fear you’ll need to be getting Mistress Cummins, Billy.’ She broke off as another pain racked her body, and yet the pain was not the same as it had been with Andrew. Had she injured the babe when she fell? Her face paled. ‘Oh, Billy, what if I’ve killed our babe?’ Her eyes were wide with anxiety. Billy stroked her brow with his long gentle fingers.
‘The bairn will be fine, lass,’ he soothed. ‘I’ll go for Mistress Cummins.’ He would not acknowledge his own exhaustion, even to himself. He pulled on his coat again and closed the door quietly behind him.