Bank of Scotland Museum

A million on the Mound

The headquarters of Halifax Bank of Scotland and the adjoining museum dedicated to money reopened in September, after a lavish refurbishment. Robin Lee pays a visit.

It’s creepy, discovering that someone was murdered right outside your office; even more chilling when you find out that it’s unsolved. Yes, a man named William Begbie, a porter for the British Linen Bank, was stabbed to death and robbed of £4,392 of the institution’s cash in Tweedale’s Close, the small courtyard off the Royal Mile in which The List has its Edinburgh base.

Of course, the British Linen Bank no longer exists, and eagle eyes may have spotted that today the close is called Tweeddale Court, so it’s reassuring to note that the murder took place in 1806. It’s one of the earliest-recorded British bank robberies, a fact I learnt from Doug McBeath, curator of the Museum on the Mound, the exhibition dedicated to filthy lucre and the people who look after it. The museum is part of the corporate residence of the not-long merged Halifax Bank of Scotland, which reopened over the summer after extensive renovations, the exact cost of which is not being disclosed. The gilded ceiling cornices and beautifully restored gargoyles in the showpiece Bryce Room indicate it was not an inconsiderable sum.

Neither is the one million pounds in cancelled, uncirculated, but absolutely genuine Bank of Scotland £20 notes that sits in a perspex case in the museum, surely a highlight of the exhibition for the unquenchably avaricious visitor. ‘If you can get the ink off them, you can spend them,’ says McBeath, before hastily assuring that it’s not possible. Four times bigger than it used to be, the Museum on the Mound illuminates everything, from the origin of banking in Scotland to the manufacture of coins and notes, via the story of the headquarters, the history of finance, and life as an employee.

Originally, the building (completed in the same year that Begbie was killed) was a boxy Robert Adam-style villa that displeased such Edinburgh arbiters of taste as the then Lord Cockburn, who decried it as ‘a prominent deformity’. This led to a scheme to augment and prettify the carbuncle, which was carried out between 1864 and 1878 using the designs of David Bryce, whose name the grandest room now bears. Eager young architects can complete the revamp in less than a minute using the interactive display (pictured), although the guidance of Ian Rankin cannot be guaranteed.

One of the more surprising tales is that of the ‘bank wars’, which sound comically petty when measured against the immense machinations of international finance in the 21st century. After the establishment of the Royal Bank in 1727, the two note-issuers began hoarding each other’s currency and then demanding it in coinage. It was an attempt to lever out interest payments, as these were due from the time the coins were requested. However, soon the two Edinburgh banks formed an alliance - the first Glasgow bank was incorporated in 1749, and east-west rivalry commenced in earnest.

And just to prove that little else has changed in the life of Edinburgh, a copy of the North Briton newspaper from 1868 was discovered behind plasterwork during the museum upgrade. In it, an article raises issues with the proposed relocation of the Royal Infirmary. Plus ça change.

Museum on the Mound, the Mound, Edinburgh. Tue-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat & Sun 1pm-5pm. Free.

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