We watched the sun set on Rum as a wavering television set broke news of Lehman Brothers collapsing on the other side of the world. A mere two weeks earlier Alistair Darling had given his all-too prophetic interview with Decca Aitkenhead, predicting that the global crisis had a lot further to go.
That was four years ago, almost to the day. We had no idea how long the banking disaster story would continue to unfold (and it’s nowhere near done yet). In September 2008 I was engrossed in the research of John’s life, working through the fascinating archives in Canna House (diaries, pictures, maps, books, letters…and the house itself) inching towards the goal of writing The Man Who Gave Away His Island.
Since then I’ve written a new and very different book (HUBRIS: How HBOS wrecked the best bank in Britain), alas not about Canna or the islands, but about the collapse of Bank of Scotland as part of the ill-fated conglomerate, HBOS.
I’ve been struggling to find a tenuous link between the two books, but all I can come up with is a shared affinity for the Jacobite cause. John Lorne Campbell was a fierce defender of Bonnie Prince Charlie, even though his family moved their allegiance from the Old Pretender in 1715 to the Hanoverian side in 1745.
Bank of Scotland was closely associated with the 1715 rebellion. Two directors of the Bank, the Earl of Panmure and Lord Basil Hamilton fought with the Stuart army. Hamilton was captured at the battle of Preston (and subsequently pardoned) and Panmure at the battle of Sheriffmuir, although he escaped to live in exile.
The rising was crushed, but not before there had been a run on the Bank which forced it to stop trading for eight months, with loss of business and profit. The participation of the two directors in the insurrection and the fact that the Bank’s Treasurer raised funds for Jacobite prisoners, were enough to brand the Bank as sympathetic to the rebels, with substantial political and commercial consequences.
It soon lost its banking monopoly and an upstart rival, the Royal Bank of Scotland, which was loyal to King George, nearly drove Bank of Scotland out of business.
John banked with the Westminster Bank in Oxford and the National Bank in Inverness and Mallaig. (Coincidentally both banks eventually ended up being owned by the Royal.) He continually ran overdrafts and tried his managers’ patience, but it was a different age. In 1958 the Highland regional manager of the National Bank of Scotland was writing, in a courteous and restrained tone to point out that John’s overdraft in the Mallaig branch was £6,776 12s 8d, well above the £6,000 limit.
These days there would be bounced cheques and £40-a-day fines.
PS: The Man is selling out (no, not like that), a new paperback edition is scheduled for printing early in 2013.