Scottish Widows

Scottish Widows

In Brief

In Nausicaa Bloom thinks of the charitable visit he paid to Mrs. Dignam an hour earlier and his plans to help her family: "Anyhow she wants the money. Must call to those Scottish Widows as I promised. Strange name. Takes it for granted we’re going to pop off first." The "strange name" of this life insurance company (it is no less strange that Bloom refers to it in the plural, as if the company is run by widows) stems from its origins as a privately held annuity fund in 18th century Scotland. By 1904 those origins had been submerged in the flood of impersonal British financial instruments. Patrick Dignam's policy likewise seems to have been swept up in some obscure financial dealings.

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In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011), Yuval Harari narrates the story of the company's founding: "In 1744, two Presbyterian clergymen in Scotland, Alexander Webster and Robert Wallace, decided to set up a life-insurance fund that would provide pensions for the widows and orphans of dead clergymen. They proposed that each of their church's ministers would pay a small portion of his income into the fund, which would invest the money. If a minister died, his widow would receive dividends on the fund's profits. This would allow her to live comfortably for the rest of her life. But to determine how much the ministers had to pay in so that the fund would have enough money to live up to its obligations Webster and Wallace had to be able to predict how many ministers would die each year, how many widows and orphans they would leave behind, and by how many years the widows would outlive their husbands" (285).

Being Scots of that country's remarkable Enlightenment era (memorably explored in Arthur Herman's How the Scots Invented the Modern World), Webster and Wallace did not seek answers to these questions in divine revelation. Instead they used "several recent breakthroughs in the fields of statistics and probability," including Jacob Bernoulli's Law of Large Numbers (which holds that, when very large numbers are involved, it is possible to precisely predict average outcomes), and also actuarial tables compiled fifty years earlier by Edmond Halley from the records of the German city of Breslau (286). Working with these tools, they calculated what the premiums would need to be, and predicted that in two decades, "by the year 1765 the Fund for a Provision for the Widows and Children of the Ministers of the Church of Scotland would have capital totalling £58,348. Their calculations proved amazingly accurate. When that year arrived, the fund's capital stood at £58,347" (287). In At Home (2011), Bill Bryson too notes that Halley's "were the first actuarial tables, and, apart from anything else, they made the life insurance industry possible" (480).

In 1815, responding to the great number of families impoverished by men's deaths in the Napoleonic wars, the Scotsmen's purely local enterprise became a publicly traded corporation on the Edinburgh stock exchange, providing financial services to anyone in the UK. The company grew throughout the 19th century, and at the time represented in the novel it had an office on Westmoreland Street in Dublin. Today Scottish Widows, as it is called, is a subsidiary of the Lloyds Banking Group with holdings in the range of $100 billion. It is still headquartered in Edinburgh, but it operates internationally and cover more than male heads of households.

In Ulysses, though, this financial services company fulfills exactly the role for which it was created in 1744: saving widows and orphans from the disastrous loss of the family wage-earner. Mrs. Dignam dramatically acts the part in Circe: "She holds a Scottish widow’s insurance policy and a large marquee umbrella under which her brood run with her, Patsy hopping on one shod foot, his collar loose, a hank of porksteaks dangling, Freddy whimpering, Susy with a crying cod’s mouth, Alice struggling with the baby." In Hades Ned Lambert reports that Martin Cunningham has been taking up a collection for the family, "Just to keep them going till the insurance is cleared up." The task of delivering these two pieces of news has brought Bloom to Newbridge Avenue, Sandymount in the early evening hours before the beginning of Nausicaa.
What exactly needs to be "cleared up" regarding the insurance policy?  This information is supplied in Cyclops. In the bar Bloom tells Joe Hynes that he is looking for Martin Cunningham to discuss "this insurance of poor Dignam's. Martin asked me to go to the house. You see, he, Dignam, I mean, didn't serve any notice of the assignment on the company at the time and nominally under the act the mortgagee can't recover on the policy." "Holy Wars," says Joe, "that's a good one if old Shylock is landed. So the wife comes out top dog, what?" In response to this puzzling exchange, Gifford observes that "Technically under British law, when an individual borrowed money, mortgaging his insurance policy as security, the mortgage was not valid unless the insurance company that issued the policy had been notified. This legal loophole was the source of considerable litigation, but attempts to void a mortgage based on the fact that the insuring company had not been notified of the mortgaging of its policy were rarely successful in the courts." 

This would explain Hynes' reaction: Mrs. Dignam, he supposes, may be able to avoid repaying the Jewish man who loaned her husband money because Dignam failed to tell the insurance company that he had used its policy as collateral. It does not address the question of what may happen to Mrs. Dignam if the courts find for the moneylender, as Gifford notes usually happened. In that case, presumably the "Shylock" would sue to recover his funds from the Dublin widow, or, failing that (since it seems likely that Paddy's drinking will have left little behind), from the Scottish Widows whose policy backed the loan.

This prospect would most certainly leave something to be "cleared up" about the policy. The insurance company would hesitate to pay out benefits to the Dignam family until its legal liabilty was known, and if it found that it would be on the hook for repayment then it would want to reduce or eliminate the Dignams' benefits. Paddy's unscrupulous listing of his policy as collateral, then, appears to be threatening the financial wellbeing of those he left behind.

Bloom apparently has promised to be the one to contact the company about this matter because he too holds one of their policies and is familiar with the firm. Ithaca reveals that he has taken out life insurance with the Scottish Widows at an impressive level. His desk drawer holds "an endowment assurance policy of £ 500 in the Scottish Widows’ Assurance Society, intestated Millicent (Milly) Bloom, coming into force at 25 years as with profit policy of £ 430, £ 462-10-0 and £ 500 at 60 years or death, 65 years or death and death, respectively, or with profit policy (paidup) of £ 299-10-0 together with cash payment of £ 133-10-0, at option." Bloom's purchase of a substantial annuity, banking over the long term on his daughter's financial security, is not the least instance of his fiscal prudence, consistent with the habits of Jews and Scottish Protestants far more than with those of Irish Catholics.

JH 2021
Scottish Widows' Fund poster designed by Walter Crane in 1888, held in the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington. Source:
1878 advertisement for Scottish Widows insurance. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
One of five bookmarks designed by Walter Crane for Scottish Widows in 1913, listing the address of the Dublin office. Source: