Think of banknotes and your mind probably jumps to the current news about dubious offshore investments – shady stashes making even more money for those metaphorical squirrels, who have enough acorns hidden away to last them dozens of lifetimes. Yesterday, though, while the media obsessed about tax boltholes and offshore finance, my mind was on ‘pretty money’ as opposed to ‘dirty money’.
I had noticed that new banknotes had been introduced in Scotland over the last while, but I hadn’t paid proper attention. My attention was soon aroused when my Northern Irish five-pound note was refused in my local hardware shop! No, they were not refusing it for the usual reason: that they didn’t like the look of it, or had suspicions that it wasn’t actually sterling. On the contrary, I have always found the Scots open and willing to accept N. Ireland bank notes. Here, they understand that sterling notes are not solely issued by the Bank of England. In my experience, the further south you travel on this island the higher the eyebrow is raised and the more vociferous the refusal. This time, his reason had nothing do with the Bank of Ireland branding, instead he explained that they were no longer taking paper fivers of any variety – polymer five pound notes only. “The bank will change it for you,” he added helpfully.
The first bank I passed was a Royal Bank of Scotland. There was no problem, the teller was very pleasant. “Have you any other N. Ireland notes you want me to change?” she offered. I had a twenty, for which she gave me two tens. “Crisp and new,” she said, “And a pleasure to have a woman on it for a change!” I looked at the two notes and saw a pair of otters. “She’s on the other side. Mary Somerville – she was a scientist and astronomer.” There, staring at me from under her bonnet, was a young Mary. I knew nothing about her but immediately agreed with the bank teller that it was a refreshing change from the usual crusty old men who usually adorn our notes.
I walked out of the bank, distracted in my examination of the notes, as I realised there was a woman on the fiver too. I liked the look of her – with her funky headband! She’s Nan Shepherd, born in 1893, and she spent all her life in Aberdeen. She loved the mountains, particularly the Cairngorms, which provided her inspiration for poetry, works of fiction and her non-fiction work, ‘The Living Mountain’. For years she had been forgotten, but her star is ascending, thanks, in part, to the RBS.
Nan has been in circulation for just over a year – how had I missed her? Her note is blue, with two mackerel on the reverse side. Mary Somerville’s tenner is pale terracotta. Mary (with two playful otters on her flip side) has been in circulation for just about four weeks. Born in Jedburgh, down in the Borders, she died in the late nineteenth century, aged 91, leaving behind an important scientific legacy. Informally called ‘The Queen of Nineteenth Century Science’, she was one of the first two women admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society and Somerville College, Oxford, is named for her. Another woman making strides ahead of her time; this time scaling metaphorical peaks.
Outside of royalty, the UK doesn’t have a great track record in honouring women on bank notes. Up until this year the Back of England had done it just once with Elizabeth Fry on its fiver, and now Jane Austen has joined her on the ten-pound note. N. Ireland has yet to make the move. And yes, I know Scotland led the way, with the Clydesdale Bank being the first in the UK to put a woman on any banknote in 1998. But a little credit must be due to RBS this time. They made more than a few catastrophic, jaw-dropping fiscal decisions adding to the crash 10 years ago, but now they have made a few good aesthetic ones. I, for one, appreciate the long overdue gracious nods to two fine Scottish women, helping to ensure their place in history.