Henry Duncan (minister)

Henry Duncan FRSE (8 October 1774 – 12 February 1846) was a Scottish minister, geologist and social reformer. The minister of Ruthwell in Dumfriesshire, he founded the world's first mutual savings bank that would eventually form part of the Trustee Savings Bank. He served as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1839. At the Disruption has left the Church of Scotland and sided with the Free Church. He was also a publisher, a philanthropist and an author, writing novels as well as works of science and religion.

Henry Duncan
Henry Duncan from Disruption Worthies[1]
Personal details
Born8 October 1774
Died12 February 1846(1846-02-12) (aged 71)
Occupationminister known for founding the world's first commercial savings bank
Henry Duncan by Hill & Adamson
Rev. William Wallace Duncan, Rev. Dr George John Craig Duncan (Henry's son and biographer) and Rev. Henry Duncan
Annan Presbytery by Hill & Adamson from National Galleries Scotland
Mrs Mary Duncan wife of Henry Duncan
Henry Duncan in oil
Henry Duncan statue, Church Crescent, Dumfries
Ruthwell Cross South Face

Early life


Duncan was born in 1774 at Lochrutton, Kirkcudbrightshire, where his father, George Duncan, was minister.[2] As a boy he met the poet Robert Burns, who visited Lochrutton Manse. Duncan was educated in Dumfries at the Academy. After studying for two sessions at St. Andrews University he was sent to Liverpool to begin commercial life, and under the patronage of his relative, Dr. James Currie, the biographer of Robert Burns, his prospects of success were very fair; but his heart was not in business, and he soon left Liverpool to study at Edinburgh and Glasgow for the ministry of the Church of Scotland. Whilst in Edinburgh he joined the Speculative Society, and became intimate with the political figures, Francis Horner and Henry Brougham.[3]

Early ministry and works


In 1798 he was ordained as minister of the Church of Scotland and became Minister at Ruthwell in Dumfriesshire in 1799, where he spent the rest of his life. Duncan from the first was remarkable for the breadth of his views, especially in what concerned the welfare of the people, and the courage and ardour with which he promoted measures not usually thought to be embraced in the minister's rôle. In a time of scarcity he brought Indian corn from Liverpool. At the time when a French invasion was dreaded he raised a company of volunteers, of which he was the captain. He published a series of cheap popular tracts, contributing to the series some that were much prized, afterwards collected under the title The Cottage Fireside. He originated a newspaper, The Dumfries and Galloway Courier, of which he was editor for seven years.[3]

Savings banks


The measure which is most honourably connected with Duncan's name was the institution of savings banks. He is widely acknowledged to have formed the country's first savings bank in 1810, the Ruthwell Parish Savings Bank[4] and Duncan was unceasing in his efforts to promote the cause throughout the country. His influence was used to procure the first act of parliament passed to encourage such institutions. By speeches, lectures, and pamphlets he made the cause known far and wide. The scheme readily commended itself to all intelligent friends of the people, and the growing progress and popularity of the movement have received no check to the present day. Great though his exertions were, and large his outlay in this cause, he never received any reward or acknowledgement beyond the esteem of those who appreciated his work and the spirit in which it was done.[3]

Although Dr Duncan and the Ruthwell Savings Bank were hugely influential, the Bank itself was not a great success. By 1875 only 29 accounts remained, and these were transferred to Annan Savings Bank. [5] The bicentenary of this event was celebrated with a conference held by the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Edinburgh.[6] Speakers investigated Duncan's legacy in light of current social, financial, and religious dynamics. The Savings Bank Museum tells the story of early home savings in Britain.[3]



Duncan published some work anonymously. In 1821 he published another tale of humble Scottish life, — " The Young South-Country Weaver,"[7] a fit sequel to "The Cottage Fireside."[8] In 1823 Duncan received the degree of D.D. from the University of St. Andrews. A number of years later (1826) he published, anonymously, a work of fiction in three volumes, " William Douglas ; or, The Scottish Exiles," intended to counteract Sir Walter Scott's aspersions on the Covenanters in "Old Mortality."[9][10][11] This was hailed as a work of real genius, and was remarkably well received by the Scottish public.[1] In 1836 he published the first volume of a work which reached ultimately to four volumes, entitled The Sacred Philosophy of the Seasons. It was well received, and ran through several editions.[12][13][14][15] He also contributed to Tales of the Scottish Peasantry by Henry Duncan, D.D., and others.[16]

Antiquarian and geological works


To the Transactions of the Scottish Antiquarian Society he contributed a description of a celebrated runic cross: the Ruthwell Cross (now in Ruthwell church), one of the finest Anglo-Saxon crosses in Britain. This late 7th/early 8th century cross, which he discovered in his parish and restored in 1818, and on which volumes have since been written, is remarkable for its runic inscription, which contains excerpts from The Dream of the Rood, an Old English poem.[3]

He made a memorable contribution likewise to geological science. In 1828 Duncan presented a paper to the Royal Society of Edinburgh describing the discovery of the fossil footmarks of four legged vertebrate animals in the Permian red sandstone of Corncockle Quarry, near Lochmaben.[17] The paper, published in 1831, was one of the first two scientific reports of a fossil track (the other being made by Mr. J. Grierson[18]). Duncan also corresponded with the palaeontologist Rev William Buckland about the tracks.[19] A cast of the tracks of Chelichnus duncani can be found in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.[3] The original fossils can be seen at Dumfries Museum.

Church parties and the Disruption


While at first not very decided between the moderate and the evangelical party in the church, Duncan soon sided with the latter, and became the intimate friend of such men as Dr. Thomas Chalmers and Dr. Andrew Thomson. In the earlier stages of the controversy connected with the Scottish church he addressed letters on the subject to his old college friends Lord Brougham and the Marquis of Lansdowne, and to Lord Melbourne, home secretary.[3]

In 1839 Duncan became Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and at the time of the Disruption of 1843 became one of the founding ministers of the Free Church of Scotland[20] leaving a manse and grounds that had been rendered very beautiful by his taste and skill.[3]

Henry Duncan was visited by Robert Murray M'Cheyne during his vacations in Ruthwell.[citation needed]

Duncan was president of a Missionary Society. He also campaigned on behalf of Catholic Relief and on the Emancipation of Slaves.[21]



Duncan's first wife whom he married in November 1804 was Agnes Craig, daughter of his predecessor, the Rev. John Craig. They had two sons and a daughter. Agnes Duncan died of influenza in 1832.[22] Duncan's second wife, whom he married in 1836, was Mary Grey, daughter of George Grey of West Ord, sister of John Grey of Dilston, a well-known Northumbrian gentleman (see memoir by his daughter, Mrs. Josephine Butler) and Henry Grey (a minister), widow of the Rev. R. Lundie of Kelso, and mother of Mary Lundie Duncan and Jane Lundie Bonar.[2] She was a lady of considerable accomplishments and force of character, and author of several books.[23]

Duncan's son George John Craig Duncan was born in 1806. He became the minister at Kirkpatrick Durham. His wife was Isabelle Wight Duncan, who was a notable author.[24][25]

His second son, William Wallace Duncan, born in 1808, was the minister of Cleish and husband of his step-sister Mary Lundie Duncan.[2] Henry Duncan's daughter Barbara referred to by Thomas Carlyle as "the bonny little Barbara Duncan" married the Rev. James Dodds of Dunbar.

Death and legacy


Duncan was a man of most varied accomplishments – manual, intellectual, social, and spiritual. With the arts of drawing, modelling, sculpture, landscape-gardening, and even the business of an architect, he was familiar, and his knowledge of literature and science was varied and extensive. In private and family life he was highly estimable, while his ministerial work was carried on with great earnestness and delight. The stroke of paralysis that ended his life on 19 February 1846 fell on him while conducting a religious service in the cottage of an elder.[3]

The headquarters of TSB Bank (a descendant of the original Trustee Savings Bank) at 120 George Street is named Henry Duncan House.[26]

Selected publications


The following is a full list of Duncan's publications:[23]

  1. Pamphlet on Socinian controversy, Liverpool, 1791.
  2. Three single sermons (Edinburgh, 1803-40)
  3. Some Interesting Particulars of the Life and Character of Maitland Smith, who was executed in Dumfries for the Crimes of Robbery and Murder (Edinburgh, 1807)
  4. The Scotch Cheap Repository (Dumfries, 1808 ; 2nd ed., 1815)
  5. Rides and Regulations of Dumfries Parish Bank Friendly Society for Savings for the Industrious (Dumfries, 1815)
  6. "Essay on Nature and Advantages of Parish Banks", 1815.
  7. Letter to John H. Forbes, esq. [on parish banks, and in answer to his letter to editor of Quarterly Review], 1817.
  8. "Letter to W. R. K. Douglas, Esquire, M.P., on Bill in Parliament for Savings Banks", 1819.
  9. Letter to same advocating abolition of commercial restrictions, 1820.
  10. Letter to Managers of Banks for Savings in Scotland.
  11. The Cottage Fireside.[8]
  12. The Young South Country Weaver[7]
  13. "William Douglas, or the Scottish Exiles", 3 vols., 1826.[9][10][11]
  14. Letter to Parishioners of Ruthwell on Roman Catholic Emancipation, 1829.
  15. 'Presbyter's Letters on the West India Question', 1830.
  16. "Account of the remarkable Runic Monument preserved at Ruthwell Manse", 1833.
  17. "Letters to Rev. Dr. George Cook on Patronage and Calls", 1834.
  18. Sacred Philosophy of the Seasons, 4 vols., 1835–6.[12][13][14][15]
  19. Letter to his flock on the resolutions of the convocation, 1842.
  20. Tales of the Scottish Peasantry [by Henry Duncan, D.D., and others] (Edinburgh, n.d.)[16]
  21. Articles in "Edinburgh Encyclopædia"—"Blair", "Blacklock", "Currie".
  22. Account of tracks and footmarks of animals found in Corncockle Muir ('Transactions Royal Society of Edinburgh', xi.).
  23. Many articles in Edinburgh Christian Instructor.
  24. Account of the Parish (New Statistical Account, iv.).




  1. ^ a b Wylie 1881.
  2. ^ a b c Dodds 1888.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Blaikie 1888, p. 165.
  4. ^ John L Dinwiddie, The Ruthwell Cross and the Ruthwell Savings Bank, 2nd ed., 1933, Dumfries
  5. ^ Natwest Group Archive https://www.natwestgroup.com/heritage/companies/ruthwell-savings-bank.html
  6. ^ "Henry Duncan Bicentenary Conference | Divinity events | School of Divinity". Archived from the original on 31 March 2012. Retrieved 28 June 2012.
  7. ^ a b Duncan 1821.
  8. ^ a b Duncan 1821b.
  9. ^ a b Duncan 1826a.
  10. ^ a b Duncan 1826b.
  11. ^ a b Duncan 1826c.
  12. ^ a b Duncan 1847a.
  13. ^ a b Duncan 1847b.
  14. ^ a b Duncan 1847c.
  15. ^ a b Duncan 1847d.
  16. ^ a b Duncan 1862.
  17. ^ Duncan, H. 1831. An account of the tracks and footmarks of animals found impressed on sandstone in the quarry of Corncockle Muir, in Dunfreisshire. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 11:194–209.
  18. ^ Grierson, J. 1928. On footsteps before the flood, in a specimen of res sandstone. Edinburgh Journal of Science, 8:130–134.
  19. ^ Sargeant, W.A.S.; Pemberton, S.G.; McCrea, R; Gingras, M.K.; MacEachern, J.A. (2008). "History of Ichnology: the Correspondence Between the Rev Henry Duncan and the Rev William Buckland and the Discovery of the First Vertebrate Footprints". Ichnos. 15.
  20. ^ "Rev. Dr. Henry Duncan". Gazetteer for Scotland. Retrieved 3 July 2014.
  21. ^ Chambers 1855, p. 208.
  22. ^ Hall 1910.
  23. ^ a b Blaikie 1888, p. 166.
  24. ^ Stephen D. Snobelen, 'Duncan , Isabelle Wight (1812–1878)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 19 Nov 2015
  25. ^ Gould, Stephen Jay (2002). I Have Landed : Splashes and Reflections in Natural History. Jonathan Cape. p. 133. ISBN 0224062999.
  26. ^ "Information about us | TSB Bank".




  • Duncan, George John C., Memoir of the Rev. Henry Duncan, D.D., Minister of Ruthwell, founder of savings banks, author of Sacred philosophy of the seasons, &c., &c.. – Edinburgh : London : W. Oliphant Hamilton, Adams, 1848.


  •   This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainBlaikie, William Garden (1888). "Duncan, Henry". In Stephen, Leslie (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 16. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 165–166. Endnotes:
    • Life of Henry Duncan, D.D., by his son, Rev. G. J. C. Duncan
    • Pratt's Hist. of Savings Banks
    • Lewin's Hist. of Savings Banks
    • Notice of Dr. Duncan in Savings Bank Magazine, by John Maitland, esq., with note by Dr. Chalmers