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Sir Walter Scott, advocate of free banking

The library in my old hometown recently held a competition for the unofficial title of poet laureate of the city. They found two people worthy of the title. One is a high school buddy of mine. Seeing the newspaper story set my mind wandering down the byways of literature and I remembered that free banking counts among its advocates Scotland’s most famous novelist, Sir Walter Scott.

Under the pen name of Malachi Malagrowther, Scott wrote "letters"  — more accurately, short essays — defending the Scottish system of bank note issue. A banking crisis in England in 1825-26 led to a search for remedies, and some people argued that raising the minimum denomination of bank notes, then £1, would reduce the risk of future crises. Today, £1 is so little that there is no note for it, just a coin, but back then it was more than two week’s wages for many workers. Scott and other advocates of the £1 note pointed out that Scotland’s banking system had withstood the crisis much better than the more heavily regulated English system. They were successful in making their case: the British Parliament raised the minimum denomination of notes to £5 in England but kept it at £1 in Scotland. Although Scottish free banking ended in 1845, Scottish banks continued to issue notes under regulations that made them more or less Bank of England notes with distinctive designs. Fittingly, Sir Walter Scott’s portrait today adorns all notes issued by the Bank of Scotland.

As far as I know, Scott confined his advocacy of free banking to prose. Neither he nor Robert Burns ever wrote poetry on monetary matters; that was left to Monty Python’s fictional Scottish poet Ewan McTeagle. Burns is, however, on the £5 note issued by the Clydesdale Bank.

This concludes several posts on “what’s old” in free banking. My next post will discuss “what’s new,” that is, what we have learned in the last 15 years or so.


  • Richard W

    Burns wrote about monetary matters when he described the Scottish elite as " a parcel of rogues " who were bailed out by the English government resulting in the Act of Union.

    But pith and power, till my last hour
    I will make this declaration :-
    'We are bought and sold for English gold'-
    Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

    What he was referring to was the ill-fated Darien scheme's attempt at setting up a colony in Panama. The failure resulted in 20-25% of the money in Scotland being lost. The English government later made good the losses and the Act of Union although deeply unpopular was signed. Years later Burns clearly believed the ruling elite had sold out Scotland for English gold. Quite ironic that the Scots would go on to be such enthusiastic empire builders.

    • Kurt Schuler

      I stand corrected on Burns, then. Thank you, Richard W.