Henry Duncan (minister)

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Henry Duncan
File:Henry Duncan.jpg
Born 1774
Died 1846
Nationality Scottish

Henry Duncan FRSE (8 October 1774 – 12 February 1846) was a Scottish minister, geologist and social reformer. The minister of Ruthwell parish church in Dumfriesshire, he founded the world's first commercial savings bank. He was also an author, publisher and philanthropist.

Early life

Duncan was born in 1774 at Lochrutton, Kirkcudbrightshire, where his father, George Duncan, was minister. 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. Currie, the biographer of 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. At Edinburgh he joined the Speculative Society, and became intimate with Francis Horner and Henry Brougham.[1]

Ministry and works

In 1798 he was ordained as minister of Ruthwell in Dumfriesshire, 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.[1]

Savings banks

The measure which is most honourably connected with Duncan's name was the institution of savings banks. The first savings bank was instituted at Ruthwell in 1810,[2] 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.[1]

In 1810 Duncan opened the world's first commercial savings bank, paying interest on its investors' modest savings. The bicentenary of this event was celebrated with a conference held by the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Edinburgh.[3] 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.[1]

Other works

In 1823 Duncan received the degree of D.D. from the University of St. Andrews. 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. 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.[1]

He made a memorable contribution likewise to geological science. In 1828 Duncan presented a paper to the Royal Society of Edinburgh describing his discovery of the fossil footmarks of quadrupeds on the Permian red sandstone of Corncockle Muir, near Lochmaben. The paper, published in 1831, was the first scientific report of a fossil track. A cast of the tracks of Chelichnus duncani can be found in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.[1]

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. 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.[1]

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[2] leaving a manse and grounds that had been rendered very beautiful by his taste and skill.[1]

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

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.[1]


The following is a full list of Duncan's publications:[4]

  1. Pamphlet on Socinian controversy, Liverpool, 1791.
  2. Three sermons.
  3. "Essay on Nature and Advantages of Parish Banks", 1815.
  4. Letter to John H. Forbes, esq. [on parish banks, and in answer to his letter to editor of Quarterly Review], 1817.
  5. "Letter to W. R. K. Douglas, Esquire, M.P., on Bill in Parliament for Savings Banks", 1819.
  6. Letter to same advocating abolition of commercial restrictions, 1820.
  7. Letter to Managers of Banks for Savings in Scotland.
  8. The Cottage Fireside.
  9. The Young South Country Weaver.
  10. "William Douglas, or the Scottish Exiles", 3 vols., 1826.
  11. Letter to Parishioners of Ruthwell on Roman Catholic Emancipation, 1829.
  12. 'Presbyter's Letters on the West India Question', 1830.
  13. "Account of the remarkable Runic Monument preserved at Ruthwell Manse", 1833.
  14. "Letters to Rev. Dr. George Cook on Patronage and Calls", 1834.
  15. Sacred Philosophy of the Seasons, 4 vols., 1835–6.
  16. Letter to his flock on the resolutions of the convocation, 1842.
  17. Articles in "Edinburgh Encyclopædia"—"Blair", "Blacklock", "Currie".
  18. Account of tracks and footmarks of animals found in Corncockle Muir ('Transactions Royal Society of Edinburgh', xi.).
  19. Many articles in Edinburgh Christian Instructor.


Duncan's second wife 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 widow of the Rev. R. Lundie of Kelso. She was a lady of considerable accomplishments and force of character, and author of several books:[4]

  1. "Memoir of the Rev. M. Bruen".
  2. Memoir of Mary Lundie Duncan (her daughter, author of several well-known hymns for children).
  3. Missionary Life in Samoa, being the Life of George Archibald Lundie (her son).
  4. Children of the Manse.
  5. "America as I found it".

Duncan's son George John Craig Duncan was born in 1806. He beme the minister at Kirkpatrick in Durham. His wife was Isabelle Wight Duncan who was a notable author.[5]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Blaikie 1888, p. 165.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Rev. Dr. Henry Duncan". Gazetteer for Scotland. Retrieved 3 July 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/divinity/news-events/events/henry-duncan
  4. 4.0 4.1 Blaikie 1888, p. 166.
  5. Stephen D. Snobelen, ‘Duncan , Isabelle Wight (1812–1878)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 19 Nov 2015


  • 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). [https%3A%2F%2Fen.wikisource.org%2Fwiki%2FDuncan%2C_Henry_%28DNB00%29 "Duncan, Henry" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). In Stephen, Leslie (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. 16. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 165–166.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Endnotes:
    • Scott's Fasti, part ii. 626–7
    • Disruption Worthies
    • 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
    • private information.

External links