Perspective | The Insurance Industry Was Already Unpopular and Misunderstood. Then Sir Walter Scott Jumped In

By: | March 4, 2021

Roger Crombie is a United Kingdom-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®. He can be reached at [email protected].

Two hundred years ago, people lived without social media, TV, movies or even electricity. How they did it, no one knows. It seems impossible. They probably just sat around, staring into space. Yeah, that must be it.

A privileged few would have read books. Some would have read Ivanhoe. Did you? Perhaps you remember a movie about the good Sir Knight of old, that buckler of swash, whose activities informed the modern interpretation of Robin Hood. Or maybe you read Rob Roy, the story of the Scottish adventurer and proto-Braveheart.

Ivanhoe and Rob Roy were the best-known novels of Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), who more or less invented the historical novel.

His works also rehabilitated medievalism and in Scottish culture, the wearing of the tartan and the kilt. Scott was the first English-language author to achieve renown around the world and was among the earliest celebrity endorsers (if we ignore Moses).

When the Duchess of Cambridge or Rita Ora sports, say, a green T-shirt, millions buy one immediately. Why? Dunno. Why Tom Cruise being paid to wear a particular watch would encourage anyone to buy one escapes me. You’re nothing like Tom Cruise. Get over it.

Scott lent the sheen of his celebrity to a major insurance company. Hugely famous in his day, the novelist might have appealed to those who could afford insurance, whether or not they could read. Yet by his own account, Sir Walter wasn’t very good at insurance. Writers, you know. Oddballs.

Alex Trebek had a side-line appearing in TV ads for Colonialist Penn Life Insurance. That, you can sort of see. Trebek was associated with knowledge, implying that taking out a policy with Colonialist Penn might be a smart move.

But Trebek had nothing on Sir Walter, who was appointed to the board of the insurance company for which he shilled. This despite the fact that Scott was a legendarily disastrous financial manager who bankrupted many of his friends.

Rehabilitated by time, Scott now appears on banknotes issued by the Bank of Scotland.

In December 1824, he was elected a Director Extraordinary of the Edinburgh Assurance Company Ltd. He was an original shareholder and took out a life policy, which the group archive retains. A year later, to stave off bankruptcy, Scott placed his affairs in the hands of his creditors.

What is a director extraordinary? Akin, one imagines, to today’s non-executive director. The term ‘non-executive’ suggests doing little and taking no responsibility, although we’ve all known executive directors who exactly fit that bill.

The ideal non-exec brings independence, perspective, distance and fresh thinking. Directors Extraordinary rather less so, apparently.

An extract from Scott’s journal reads: “1825 December 13. Went to the yearly court of the Edinburgh Assurance Company, to which I am one of those graceful and useless appendages called Directors Extraordinary — an extraordinary director I should prove, if they elected me an ordinary one.

“Off I came, my ears still ringing with the sounds of thousands and tens of thousands,” Scott wrote, “and my eyes dazzled with the golden gleam offered by so many capitalists.” &

More from Risk & Insurance