Listen to this article
Emerging from the Berwick-upon-Tweed branch of Barclays Bank into the autumn sunshine, a retired banker and his wife, both Scots in their 70s, speak of their relief at having made the cross-border trip to open an English account.
“We were just wanting to be reassured that the money is safe – we don’t want any complications with exchange rates,” explains the husband, who worked in the City of London before returning to Scotland, to a town in the Borders, 15 years ago.
In recent days, as the prospect of a Yes vote to independence has strengthened, it has not only been Scottish-based financial institutions making contingency plans to move operations south. Some Scottish residents anxious about currency uncertainties and unconvinced by politicians’ reassurances have already been voting, with their feet, by opening English bank accounts.
The couple say the Berwick bank staff told them how busy they have been lately. “They have had people from Aberdeen and all over,” says the wife.
The couple say they will vote “vehemently No”. “We are great Scottish patriots; that doesn’t mean I think independence is a good thing for Scotland,” says the husband, adding: “I haven’t ruled out moving to England.”
The 96-mile border between England and Scotland, a line established mostly in the 13th century, largely comprises wild uplands and gentle rural lowlands. On the English side, Carlisle and Berwick are the two most quickly accessible financial centres; both are seeing increased demand from Scots.
On English Street in Carlisle, one banker, who declined to be named, said: “We’ve been busier than usual.” He said “a number” of people had moved money from Scotland to England in recent days, for small businesses and personal accounts.
Among these people is Christopher Hortin from Renfrewshire, a 21-year-old law student at university in the south of England. He made the 100-mile rail journey from Glasgow to Carlisle on Monday, opening an account at the city’s Barclays Bank branch into which his £4,750 student loan can be paid.
Mr Hortin said his main worry was that, in the event of a Yes vote, the Bank of England could take Cyprus-style steps to prevent capital flight and he might end up unable to pay his bills. “My concern was I might not have complete control of my money. That’s why I have opened an account south of the border with a London-registered institution.”
He added: “The [bank] staff said this is something they have been noticing; there are people coming across the border opening up bank accounts in preparation for the referendum.” Barclays declined to comment.
Rob Johnston, Carlisle-based chief executive of the Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, said he had been told of “significant” banking activity in Carlisle by Scots, for personal and small business banking. “They are opening accounts in England and asking for the money to be deposited in England,” he said.
Mr Johnston understands their worries. “It boils down to the fact nobody has given them any information. The powers-that-be have only themselves to blame.”
He also knows of Cumbria-based financial advisers considering whether they should advise clients to make such provisions.
In Berwick, the Yorkshire Building Society branch has seen an increase in inquiries from Scottish residents, with some opening accounts. “It’s a back-up plan,” said Sarah Thomson, a branch employee. “They are concerned; it’s just the uncertainty over what is going to happen.”
But some people with a financial stake in Scotland have no option but to sit on the sidelines. Tom Brewis, a 63-year-old retired planner, lives in England very near the border but his local government pension is Scottish. Short of moving house, he says he can only wait and hope. “There’s nothing you can be sure about.”