The Dornoch banker who had his fingers in the till

Hamish Mackenzie OBE, was born in 1937, graduated from Oxford, qualified as a Chartered Accountant and held senior executive positions in industry. In retirement in Ross-shire he has been President of the Clan Mackenzie Society of Scotland and the U.K., played a leading role in the Tain & Easter Ross Civic Trust and chaired Tarbat Community Council, and he continues to research local history. During lockdown he published A Highland Legacy: the Maitlands of Tain, their Work and their World. The book tells the story of a family of architects who designed an astonishing range of buildings across the Northern Highlands in Victorian and Edwardian times. It brings to life the people who commissioned them, some of whom left footprints on the sands of time, others long since forgotten but interesting in their historical context, and it explains the social, religious and political factors that underpinned their demand. An earlier book, Tain, Tarbat Ness and the Duke, 1833 (about the efforts of the first Duke of Sutherland to incorporate the area between Tain and Tarbat Ness into his empire) is available from the Tain & District Museum.

In the last three decades of the nineteenth century the towns in which A. Maitland & Sons of Tain operated saw an acceleration in the rate of construction not just of new public buildings but also – reflecting a wider level of prosperity – of commercial buildings. The most prominent of these were banks. The architectural historian John Gifford remarks that ‘rapid expansion of the banking system during the nineteenth century quickly established the rule that a bank in any prominent town should have the character of a public building’.[i] Bank agents, many of whom also practiced as solicitors, were important members of the local community. They often acted as factors for local estates, and they played a key role in the finances of local business. As well as extending and improving several bank branches, the Maitlands designed three new ones. Two were for the Aberdeen based North of Scotland Bank, which later became part of the Clydesdale Bank. The first of these, in 1872, was in Invergordon High Street.[ii] The other, recently closed, and one of the most charming buildings in the burgh, was in Market Street, Tain in 1878.[iii]  The third had a curious early history.

Photo – Lynn Mahoney

On the other side of the Meikle Ferry Dornoch was emerging from the doldrums. Until 1868 the Dukes of Sutherland had been Provosts, but in that year the first (moderately) democratic elections were held. The middle classes slowly began to flex their muscles. The later years of the nineteenth century saw a rising prosperity, fuelled particularly by the attractions of the golf course. This was to lead to several commissions, particularly for houses, for the Maitlands. It also led to another expanding bank, also Aberdeen based, the Town & County Bank, opening a branch in Dornoch. In 1889 the bank appointed as joint agent John Mackintosh, a farmer at Proncy, three miles from Dornoch. Mackintosh seemed to be highly respectable: he was a total abstainer and lived an unostentatious life, and he became commander of a company of Volunteers, Clerk of the School Board, and a county councillor. But, unbeknown to the bank’s directors, Mackintosh was soon embezzling their customers’ money.

Photo – Lynn Mahoney

Mackintosh’s fellow joint agent was a Dornoch solicitor, John Leslie. Leslie served for ten years as captain of the Royal Dornoch Golf Club, and was said to have been responsible for an important step in 1886 when the services of the legendary golfer Old Tom Morris were secured and the course was extended to 18 holes. In 1893, whilst Mackintosh’s fraud remained undetected, Leslie decided to build new premises in Castle Street, the main entrance to the town. A. Maitland & Sons produced plans and sought tenders for a new classical style building.[iv] Inside were bank offices, which Leslie let to the Town & County Bank, and law offices and living accommodation for himself and his family. Elizabeth Beaton describes it as a ‘plain, somewhat conventional bank building, the symmetrical two-storey front enhanced by simple pilastered doorpiece and tri-partite (three-light) ground floor windows’.[v] John Leslie, who had become Sheriff Clerk of Sutherland, died in 1900 and John Mackintosh then became sole agent.

Photo – Lynn Mahoney

There was great excitement in Dornoch in March 1908 when Mackintosh was arrested and committed to Inverness Prison. In May he pleaded guilty in the High Court of Justiciary to having embezzled a total of £1,753-2s-6d between 1889 and 1907. In mitigation his counsel asserted that in regard to at least half of the deficiency Mackintosh had not personally fingered a penny of the money. A number of customers had overdrawn accounts. The bank had strict rules and had instructed him that certain customers should not be accommodated. In order to oblige them, however, Mackintosh had honoured cheques and bills drawn on their accounts and had met these by paying into their accounts money taken from other customers. Mackintosh might have expected a sentence of penal servitude (imprisonment with hard labour), but the Lord Justice Clerk, apparently impressed by this Robin Hood argument and perhaps also by Mackintosh’s colonelcy in the Volunteers, sentenced him to only 15 months imprisonment.

Like the North of Scotland Bank, the Town & County Bank later became part of the Clydesdale Bank, but the Dornoch branch no longer operates. The building, now listed,[vi] and the first in a series of dignified premises flanking the approach to the centre of Dornoch, is now a bed and breakfast establishment.

The building when it was the Clydesdale Bank in the 1960s. Image Courtesy of Historylinks Image Library.

[i] John Gifford, Highlands and Islands, Pevsner Architectural Guides, The Buildings of Scotland, Penguin Books, 1992, p. 68.

[ii] Inverness Advertiser, 11th March, 1872, Highland HER MHG21245.

[iii] The plans are held by Historic Environment Scotland, RCD/36/1-4.

[iv] Inverness Courier, 6th June, 1893.

[v] Elizabeth Beaton, Sutherland, An Illustrated Architectural Guide, Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, 1995, p.33.

[vi] Historic Environment Scotland LB24635, Highland HER MHG16970.

2 thoughts on “The Dornoch banker who had his fingers in the till

  1. Surely the picture is of the wrong bank. Is this not the Bank of Scotland building on High Street? The house above was owned, at one time, by Rosamund Pilcher, authoress of The Shell Seekers, was it not?

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