Watermarks on Modern Banknotes

Peter Symes

Watermarks have been a traditional device for security printers and paper manufacturers for many hundreds of years. They were used in the earliest years of banknote production to provide a measure of security and are still being used today. The Scottish Banks utilized them almost universally through the 19th century and, whilst they were not used by all banks through the course of the 20th century, their use was extensive.

The following descriptions are of watermarks in notes issued by the Scottish Banks from the turn of the century to the present [i.e. to 2002]—being the range which is most accessible to collectors. I have drawn the descriptions from my own observations and with some help from the reference works by James Douglas (Scottish Banknotes, Stanley Gibbons Publications, London 1975; 20th Century Scottish Banknotes, Volume 1, Banking Memorabilia, Carlisle 1984; 20th Century Scottish Banknotes, Volume 2, Banking Memorabilia, Carlisle 1986).

Whilst Douglas has comprehensively covered the Scottish issues, he has made some omissions in his descriptions of watermarks for some notes. The descriptions which follow are all from watermarks that I have sighted, with the exception of the one hundred pound notes (which are not described) and the British Linen Bank notes with the 'B.L.B' watermark. The reference numbers appearing in brackets (D.1 et cetera) are those used by Douglas in the aforementioned books. I trust that these descriptions will add to the knowledge and pleasure of all collectors of Scottish Banknotes.

The Bank of Scotland

From 1885 to 1967 the notes of the Bank of Scotland carried a complex watermark—consisting of: a Celtic pattern, the denomination of the note, and a code number. The design of the watermark was part of the overall redevelopment and design of a 'forgery-proof' banknote which culminated in the 1885 issue. The design of the watermark was considered so important that a patent was taken out on it—this being noted for some years by the imprint 'RD. NO. 18970.' in the bottom margin (RD representing Registered Design).

The specific representations of the various denominations in the watermarks are:

£1 ONE £1
£5 FIVE £5
£10 TEN £10
(£100 not sighted)

In 1929 the £1 was reduced in size (D.81) and the patented watermark was no longer used for this denomination. For this and subsequent one pound issues a simplified watermark was developed consisting of a Celtic border pattern enclosing:

(code no.)

This watermark was used as a note specific watermark until the issue of 1961 (D.96) where the size of the £1 was reduced yet again. From this issue until 1967 (D.98b-1) paper prepared with the amended £1 watermark was used, but the notes were no longer registered with the watermarks. Indeed some notes were cut with the watermark running from top to bottom, and some were cut with the watermark running from left to right, and all notes had incomplete watermarks (mostly they had portions of two or more of the watermarks).

The five pound note had been reduced in size in 1945 (D.92-1) and the patented watermark was modified to suit the reduced size. In 1959 the £5 was reduced yet again (D.97) but this time the watermark remained unchanged, resulting in each note having only a part of one, or parts of several watermarks (much the same as previously described for the one pound notes).

In 1967 the Bank introduced their new watermark of a pattern of thistles arranged regularly over the paper—being initially used for the one pound note (D.98b-2). The first five pound note to use the new watermark was the issue of 1978 (D.102). The £10 note had used the patented watermark until the last issue of the old notes in 1942 (D.88a-2). No further notes of this denomination were issued until 1974 (D.108) when the thistle pattern was used.

The £20 note used the patented watermark until 1963 (D.89b-3), then in 1969 it was issued (still with the old design) on the new thistle patterned paper— this is known as the 'emergency' printing (D.89c-1). The new twenty pound note continued with the thistle pattern and all Bank of Scotland notes are now issued with this watermark.

The British Linen Bank

The watermarks on the early twentieth century issues of the British Linen Bank consisted of 'B.L.Co.' (The Bank was formerly the British Linen Company) in large copperplate script with the denomination in smaller plain letters below—e.g. 'ONE POUND'. The 'B.L.Co.' watermark was replaced by 'B.L.B.' for the 1907 issue, but some of the first of these notes used paper with the old watermark. The old paper was again used for all denominations in 1912.

With the advent of the 'sunburst' overlay on their notes (in 1914 for the one pound and 1916 for the other denominations), the Bank decided that there was no need for the added security of watermarks. This and all subsequent issues were without a watermark.

The Union Bank of Scotland

From 1893 until their final issue in 1949 the Union Bank used the same watermark on each note. The only distinction being that as the modern issues reduced in size, so did the watermarks. The watermark consisted of the words 'UNION BANK' in a convex arc above the word 'OF' which is in the centre of the note, and the words 'SCOTLAND LIMITED' in a concave arc below the centre of the note. The watermark is particularly difficult to distinguish in the final issue (1949) due to the heavy colours used in printing the notes.

The Clydesdale Bank

The notes that were used by the Clydesdale Bank in the twentieth century had been first issued in 1891 and carried no watermark. In 1922 a new series of notes was issued and each of the four denominations (£ 1, £5, £20, and £100—D.11 to D.14) carried the same watermark. The watermark consisted of the words 'THE CLYDESDALE' in a convex arc just above the middle of the notes, and 'BANK LIMITED' in a concave arc just below the middle.

The subsequent issues also carried the same watermark, and when the one pound note was reduced in size the watermark was reduced to fit the new format. In 1950 a new series was introduced (D.21 to D.24) that carried no watermark, and this absence was continued in all issues until 1971.

Between 1971 and 1972 a series was introduced (D.32 to D.36) which featured famous Scots, and carried a watermark of a lymphad. The lymphad is an heraldic device of an ancient galley that had a mast and oars, and derives its name from the Gaelic world 'longfhada'. The lymphad was used extensively as an heraldic device in the west of Scotland (notably by the Lords of the Isles) and whilst most representations have one mast, the watermark has three.

The lymphad is repeated in a vertical pattern on the right side of the note in a specially prepared area. This watermark was used on all denominations, and when the notes were reduced in size it remained in use.

The North of Scotland Bank

The notes on issue from the North of Scotland Bank at the turn of the century had first been issued in 1882 (D.10 to D.14). The one pound note (and I suspect all other denominations) had a watermark with the words 'THE NORTH OF SCOTLAND' forming an arch which rested on the words 'BANK LIMITED'—this appearing in a straight line across the lower part of the note.

In 1909 the North of Scotland Bank introduced a new series of notes (D.15 to D.18) and from this series until their last issue, all notes carried a distinction which no other Scottish notes carried—they had two watermarks.

The first watermark of the new series appeared in a specially prepared area at the lower right, and was a portrait of the Earl of Marischal—probably William Keith the fifth Earl. It was he who founded Marischal College which is the building depicted at the top of each note in this series.

The second watermark consisted of the words 'NORTH OF SCOTLAND' in an arc starting near the bottom margin of the note (near the serial number) and reaching to the top of the first watermark, followed directly underneath by the words 'BANK LIMITED' in a similar arc. The words of the second watermark are encased in a border which is also part of the watermark. When the one pound note was reduced in size in 1924 (D.27) the watermark was also reduced to meet the new format.

The final issue from the bank (D.30 to D.33) had as its dominant watermark a portrait of Sir William Wallace (c.1274–1305) which appeared in a specially prepared area to the left of the note. Wallace was a famous Scottish patriot and general who lead the Scottish resistance against Edward the first of England. The watermark is based on the statue of Wallace found in Aberdeen. The second watermark is a monogram of the letters 'N S B' (for the North of Scotland Bank) which appears above and to the right of the signature.

The Commercial Bank of Scotland

There were no watermarks on any of the modern issues of the Commercial Bank until their final issue in 1947 (D.53 to D.57). This issue had a watermark that was an emblematic portrait of 'Scotia' and was a copy of the cameo that appeared in the bottom centre of each note. The watermark appeared in a specially prepared area to the left of the notes.

The National Bank of Scotland

The notes of the National Bank need to be dealt with in two divisions—the one pound note and the higher denomination notes. The one pound notes at the turn of the century, and for some time afterwards, were printed by Waterlow & Sons Ltd. and contained no watermarks. In 1931 W. & A. K. Johnston took over the printing of the one pound note (D.33) and introduced a watermark. The watermark consisted of the words 'THE NATIONAL BANK OF SCOTLAND' across the lower portion of the note. The writing was designed to mirror the name of the Bank as printed in the upper part of the note, having the central portion of the watermark dipping in a curve in the middle of the note.

The higher denomination notes (all printed by Waterlow & Sons Ltd.) carried no watermark until the final issue in 1957. This issue consisted of only the higher denomination notes and each note carried a watermark of Sir Alexander Henderson of Press (the first Chairman of the Bank) in a specially prepared area in the top left of the notes.

The National Commercial Bank of Scotland

The initial issues of the National Commercial Bank utilized paper from the supplies of its constituent forerunners—the National Bank and the Commercial Bank. Thus the watermark on the one pound note (D.1) is the emblematic portrait of Scotia (from the Commercial Bank), and the watermark on the five, twenty, and one hundred pound notes (D.2 to D.4) is that of Sir Alexander Henderson of Press (from the National Bank). In 1961 the five pound note (D.5) and the one pound note (D.6) were reduced in size but their watermarks remained unchanged.

In 1963 a new five pound note (D.7), and in 1967 a ten pound note (D.8) were introduced—both carrying a new watermark. The watermark is again a portrait of Sir Alexander Henderson of Press, but now it appears on the right side of the note, and it has been reduced in size (with minor modifications) to fit the smaller format.

Finally, in 1968 the one pound note was reduced in size yet again (D.9), and whilst the portrait of Scotia was maintained, this time she appears on the right hand side of the note facing to the left.

The Royal Bank of Scotland

From 1877 until the middle of this century the higher denomination notes of the Royal Bank were large 'horse blankets' that carried a simple watermark of the name of the bank. The words 'ROYAL BANK' formed a convex arc in the top third of the notes. 'OF' was in the middle of the notes, and 'SCOTLAND' formed a concave arc in the bottom third of the notes.

This watermark was also used by the one pound notes until the introduction of the reduced size notes (D.47) in 1927. With the smaller notes a new watermark was used, being the name of the bank—ROYAL BANK OF SCOTLAND—across the bottom of the note. Interestingly, the watermark was made so that it could be read from the reverse of the note, a unique feature in Scottish watermarks and perhaps not found in any other world issue. The one pound note was again reduced in size in 1964 (D.51) but this time the watermark remained unchanged.

In 1952 (D.50) and again in 1964 (D.52) the five pound note was reduced in size and on each occasion the original watermark (of the name of the bank held in the two arcs) was reduced to fit the new format.

In 1966–67 the Royal Bank introduced new £1 and £5 notes which carried radically different watermarks. The £l note (D.53) carried the profile of David Dale (1739–1806) in a specially prepared area to the right of the note. Dale was not only the first Glasgow agent for the Royal Bank but was also a businessman and philanthropist who was responsible for building New Lanark and its famous cotton mills. The watermark is a reproduction of the bust of David Dale which appears printed on the left of the note.

The watermark on the £5 note (D.54) is perhaps the most intriguing on all Scottish notes. The watermark is quite difficult to see due to the printing, but nevertheless it is the coat of arms of the Royal Bank—neatly covering the entire note. The watermark appears only on this one note (a rather short lived issue) and it is distinctive because it differed from the style of all Scottish watermarks which preceded it.

In 1969 the Royal Bank and the National Commercial Bank merged to form the Royal Bank of Scotland Limited. The resulting note issues, including the watermarks, were a hotchpotch of features from the previous issues of the two banks.

The £l note (D. 1) continued with the profile of David Dale as its watermark and the same watermark was introduced to the new £5 note. The £10 note used the second (smaller) version of Sir Alexander Henderson of Press (as used by the last £10 note of the National Commercial Bank), and the £20 used the first (larger) version of Sir Alexander's portrait.

In 1972 the Bank introduced the 'Castle' series and the watermark once again became standard for all denominations. The watermark is a bust of Adam Smith (1723–1790) in a specially prepared area to the left of each note. Adam Smith was a leading Scottish economist of the 18th century and is best remembered for his book Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations that was published in 1776.

With the introduction of the 'Ilay' series in 1987 a new watermark was again introduced. This time the watermark mirrors the portrait of Lord Ilay (the first Governor of the Royal Bank) who appears to the right of each note. The watermark again appears in a prepared area to the left of the note. In 1992 all denominations were reduced in size, but the watermarks remain unchanged.

Completed in February 2002
© 2002 Peter Symes