November in the Western Isles can be bleak. The days grow shorter and the cold weather draws in. It might not feel like the best time to start something new. But it was on just such a day in 1946 that a driver and a clerk set off together in a van from National Bank of Scotland’s Stornoway branch, on a brand new mission to meet and serve the bank’s customers - in their own communities - all over Lewis and Harris.
The van itself was an American Studebaker, left behind by the US Army at the end of the Second World War. Shortages of all kinds were rife at the time, so the opportunity to pick up army surplus equipment played a big part in making the enterprise possible.
The Studebaker had been used during the war as a mobile pay office, travelling around to issue wages to soldiers wherever they were stationed. It is thought that this practice was the inspiration for the mobile bank idea.
The initiative was particularly applicable to the customers of Stornoway branch. Many of them were crofters or tweed weavers. They worked in their own homes, which stood alone or perhaps clustered with one or two other houses, all over the island. Few had cars of their own, so a trip to the bank in Stornoway could take a whole day.
The bank realised that it could save people all that time and effort by going out to meet them – quite literally going the extra mile (or more) for its customers. It set up a regular route, covering an average of 50 miles a day, nine days a fortnight. Customers could go to their local stop at the appointed day and time, and transact their banking business in a matter of minutes.
The new service was immediately popular. Press coverage was overwhelmingly positive, and before long enquiries began pouring in from banks in Africa, Europe, India, New Zealand and the United States, all asking to know more about the service and how it worked.
The bank’s second mobile branch started its rounds in 1947. Like the first vehicle, it made use of war surplus – this time a former Air Raid Precautions control wagon – which was converted to bank use. It was based at Fort William and served remote villages in the Lochaber and Ardnamurchan areas. As press coverage at the time pointed out, Ardnamurchan contained an area of about 100 square miles that had never before had banking facilities, so the new service was most welcome.
Although other banks in Scotland and beyond imitated the idea, it was National Bank of Scotland that remained famous for its invention. It went on to develop the concept in new ways. In 1962, by which time it had become National Commercial Bank of Scotland, it introduced a boat bank in Orkney. Eight years later – following the bank’s acquisition by Royal Bank of Scotland – the service was superseded by the flying branch which still operates today.
In more recent years, mobile branches have come into their own once again. Today NatWest, Ulster Bank and Isle of Man Bank, as well as Royal Bank of Scotland, all operate mobile bank routes. Advances in digital technology have increased the functionality the vehicles can offer, while the flexibility they provide has become more important than ever as smaller rural branches become unviable and are replaced with mobile services.
It’s fair to say that the mobile branch has travelled much further – and had a greater impact on customers – than the original driver and clerk could ever have imagined when they first set off from Stornoway, 70 years ago today.