On 25th March 1812, some eminent Scotsmen gathered at the Royal Exchange Coffee Rooms, on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. They included members of the aristocracy, and well known figures such as the scientist and mathematician, John Playfair; the industrialist and social reformer, Robert Owen; and the bookseller and publisher, Archibald Constable.
They met to discuss a proposal, put forward the previous year, to establish a life assurance company in Scotland. At that time, with no welfare state, the death of a breadwinner could spell disaster for a family. Women were particularly vulnerable. They tended to be financially dependent on their husbands or other male relatives; in cases of serious misfortune, they could be left destitute.
The men agreed to establish a 'General Fund for securing provision to widows, sisters and other females; to be called the Scottish Widows' Fund'.
A president and a court of directors were appointed. They were charged with drawing up regulations and tables of premiums. This proved a lengthy process: the 'Scottish Widows' Fund and Life Assurance Society' was finally opened on 29th July 1814.
The Society issued its first policies in late 1814. For reasons of convenience, however, the directors named the official start date as 2nd January 1815.
Business was slow at first. By the end of 1819, only 196 policies had been issued. But that same year, Scottish Widows set up its first agency in Glasgow. A second opened in Dundee, in 1823. It was followed by a whole raft of agencies, including Perth, Aberdeen, Inverness, Ayr, Kelso, Dumfries and Lerwick.
In 1832, the Society resolved to extend its branch network to 'places in England where an extensive Scotch connexion is known to exist'. Over the next three years, agencies were successfully established in Bradford, Huddersfield, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and London.
Thereafter, the Society steadily gained ground. By December 1831, funds had grown to well over a quarter of a million pounds. By 1845, they stood at more than £1.7 million.
In 1824, Scottish Widows received an application for life assurance from Sir Walter Scott. Scott was by then a celebrated author, having published some of his most well-known novels. These included Waverley (1814); Rob Roy (1817); The Bride of Lammermoor and Ivanhoe (both 1819). He had been made a baronet in 1820.
The years from 1824 on, however, were not happy ones for Scott. In 1826, his wife died. That same year he suffered financial catastrophe: the publishing firm in which he was a partner went bankrupt. Scott was left with debts of £121,000 - around £6 million in today's terms - which he elected to pay off himself.
Sir Walter Scott died in 1832. His life had been assured by the Society for £3,000. This was increased by bonus additions to £3,360 – some £170,000 today.
On the Move
For the first three years, Scottish Widows operated from the home and business residence of its manager, William Wotherspoon, in Brown Square, Edinburgh. In 1817, Wotherspoon moved his office to 71 Princes Street - a prime location in Edinburgh's up and coming New Town. Following Wotherspoon's death, the Society purchased a property at 2 St David Street. Then in 1826, it moved to 5 St Andrew Square.
The growing demands of the business meant that in 1832, the Society needed to extend these premises. They commissioned the eminent sculptor, Sir John Steell, to embellish the building. Steell carved a symbolic group of figures: a widow with her children, sheltering at the feet of the goddess of Plenty (Ceres). It was inspired by the decorative emblem used on the Society's policy documents.
In 1857, the Western Bank of Scotland went spectacularly bust. Its assets were sold off, including its premises at 9 St Andrew Square. The building was bought by Scottish Widows in 1859, and became its new head office. It was to occupy this site for more than a century.
The Society celebrated its centenary in 1914, with the chairman reflecting on progress thus far: 'From small beginnings the Society has steadily advanced, and it now holds the proud position of the largest Mutual Life Office in the Kingdom.' That year alone, 5,729 policies were issued, amounting to more than £3.5 million. The Society's total funds surpassed £21.5 million.
The annual report for 1914 featured on its front cover the mythical winged horse, Pegasus. The emblem had been designed for the Society in the 1880s by Walter Crane, a prominent member of Arts and Crafts movement. Symbol of immortality and mastery of time, the flying horse device was used by Scottish Widows until the 1980s.
The 1970s saw Scottish Widows relocate once more. The Society left its longstanding home at St Andrew Square, in Edinburgh's city centre, for purpose-built premises on Dalkeith Road. This stunning new building, based on a series of bronze hexagons, was designed by the prestigious architectural practice of Sir Basil Spence, Glover & Ferguson. It was officially opened in July 1976. The following year the offices won a much coveted award from the Royal Institute of British Architects. The judges commented that the premises made a 'notable contribution to the design of large office buildings'. Dalkeith Road continued as head office until the move to Port Hamilton, Edinburgh, in 1997.
In 1988, the Society launched its 'living logo': the 'Scottish Widow'. She first appeared in a television advertisement, directed by David Bailey. It was a bold and innovative step, which paid huge dividends. The advert was a big success. Recognition of the Scottish Widows brand rocketed from 34% to 92%.
There have been four 'Widows' to date: Deborah Moore, the daughter of Roger Moore (1988-1994); Amanda Lamb (1994-2005); Hayley Hunt (2005-2013); and Amber Martinez (2014 to present).
Diversification and Merger
In 1995 Scottish Widows diversified, with the launch of Scottish Widows Bank. Then on 3rd March 2000, after almost 180 years of independence, the Society demutualised to become part of the Lloyds TSB Group.
That same year saw the creation of the Scottish Widows Investment Partnership; this was formed from the merger of Scottish Widows Investment Management and Hill Samuel Asset Management. SWIP was later sold to Aberdeen Asset Management in 2014.
Scottish Widows is now the insurance arm of Lloyds Banking Group. The Group was formed in 2009, following the takeover of HBOS plc by Lloyds TSB.
- Annals of the Scottish Widows' Fund Life Assurance Society, During One Hundred Years, 1815-1914 by Sir Herbert Maxwell (Edinburgh, 1914)
- An extensive archive relating to Scottish Widows is maintained by Lloyds Banking Group Archives in Edinburgh - for further information see our archive collections.