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March 31, 2010

Hawick is minted

For many small shops and businesses, mere survival is often the goal and many communities are starting to realise that they have a big part to play in this. “Shop Local” initiatives of one kind or another are everywhere, encouraging us to spend our money closer to home.   The townsfolk of Hawick have taken this further. Not only do they want to change where you spend your money, they actually want to change the change in your pocket

Peter Ross, The Scotsman

IT IS a little before 11am on a sunny Friday in Hawick and a 54-year-old woman in a top hat is walking down the high street proclaiming revolution. “Ah, bugger it!” she says, rather poshly, as a strap breaks on her home-made sandwich board.

Danielle Grunberg, a local eco-campaigner, is one of the people behind the Hawick Pound, a new currency exclusive to the Borders town. “Hello, can I give you a leaflet?” she says to an orange-haired woman browsing a clothes rail outside Oxfam. “We’re about to launch the Hawick Pound at the farmers’ market. It’s one pound for a Hawick Pound. You can buy them and spend your money locally.”

The woman takes a leaflet but doesn’t seem too sure. Most of the people approached appear similarly mystified. Maybe it’s the top hat. Hawick fashion runs more to the bunnet. In the local bakery, an old man glares up from his Selkirk bannock. “I’m no’ votin’ for them, onyway,” he says, mistaking Grunberg for a Monster Raving Loony.

The new banknotes, known as Hawicks, are the first local currency ever introduced in Scotland. They can be bought, sold and exchanged for goods in Hawick and nowhere else. The idea is to boost the struggling local economy by promoting the use of those small businesses which have agreed to accept the notes and offer them in change. Supermarkets and chain stores have not been invited to participate, as organisers of the scheme claim that 80 per cent of the money spent in such places ends up leaving the town.

So far, around 40 local shops have agreed to take the Hawick Pound. A butcher, a baker, a fishmonger, a keycutter, a purveyor of curiosities, and so on. You can buy everything from a bridie to a brass eagle. No booze, though. The pubs are yet to sign up. A drouth in Hawick can only be slaked with sterling. “Naebdy’s approached us,” says Martin Christy, 53, manager of the appropriately named Queen’s Head. “But I think if they did, we’d probably take part. Hawick’s on its knees and something needs to be done to change that.”

As the heart of Scotland’s textile industry, Hawick once had more than 50 mills and required so much manpower that Pringle alone brought in three busloads of employees from Kelso each day. Now, most of the mills are gone, including Pringle. Many of those in work feel insecure. There are working mothers with three part-time jobs. In one single day last year, there were 100 redundancies across four local businesses.

The rise in unemployment and drop in income have hit the High Street hard, as has the opening of a retail park in nearby Galashiels. There are lots of charity shops and empty premises, giving an impression of neglect and decline. This street should be handsome, confident showcase for a proud Scottish town, but it feels jittery and frayed. “My work’s shutting down,” says a young woman called Claire, who says she is about to lose her job as Ethel Austin goes into administration, “and soon there’s going to be nowhere to spend the Hawick Pound.”

David Reid, 47, runs an antique shop on the High Street and is embarrassed and angered by the condition of the vacant shops, which he feels will deter potentially lucrative visitors. “Look at that,” he says, pointing to a former cafe with dirty glass. “Isn’t that disgraceful? It’s been like that for a year. If I was coming in off the A7, that would put me off the town. I don’t think the Hawick Pound will be as beneficial as a cosmetic facelift. That’s what the council should have done first and looked at other ideas later.”

It’s 11am, time to launch the currency. “Hello and welcome to this historic moment,” says Danielle Grunberg. The venue is the Civic Space, a square at the end of the High Street. The farmers’ market is on today and the stallholders have agreed to accept payment in Hawicks. There was supposed to be some kind of fanfare by Matt the Music, a white-bearded player of the Border bagpipe, but there’s been some sort of mix-up. Instead, the crowd has to make do with Michael Moore and John Lamont, the MP and MSP for the area, who pull away a ceremonial saltire to reveal a giant Hawick Pound underneath.

As thanks for their efforts, the politicians are presented with a note each. “We’ll declare these later,” says Moore, a Lib Dem who clearly has no wish to be portrayed as the sort of MP who spends unearned Hawicks on duck houses.

“Now roll up,” says Grunberg, “and purchase your Pounds.”

People do. By the end of the day, around 2,000 Hawicks will be in circulation. The total print run is 5,000 and they are available to buy from specific shops which are acting as banks. The exchange rate is one Hawick Pound for one regular pound, but £20 buys 21 Hawicks, £40 buys 42 and so on. “An extra pound,” laughs Sylvia Smith, whose husband Hamish is a jeweller in town. “That’s fine for Hawick folk.”

In Libby’s Pet Shop, Rose Lyle, a woman in her sixties, is buying food for her Yorkshire terriers Molly and Princess Roseanna.

“Are you wanting any of your change in Hawick Pounds?” asks the girl behind the till.

Lyle says, “Oh, aye,” and is handed seven notes.

Libby Potts, who owns the shop, bought £160 worth of Hawicks as soon as they were released. She has personal experience of the town’s economic decline, having taken voluntary redundancy from Pringle, and is keen to try anything that could help a recovery. Her partner Ralph Lothian, with whom she runs the place, agrees that innovation is crucial. “Hawick has this ‘It’s aye been’ attitude,” he says. “But we have to move forward in a more positive way.”

Hawicks are about the size of Monopoly money. They are blue and yellow, the town’s colours, and carry a picture of “Ken the horse”, the equestrian statue at the end of the High Street which is a focal point of the Common Riding, the hugely popular and cherished annual ceremony which commemorates both the capture of an English flag in 1514 by the youth of Hawick and the ancient custom of riding the boundaries of the common land. On the back of the notes is an old map of Hawick and a list of businesses which have signed up to the scheme.

Richardson and Son, a local firm, printed the Hawicks. “The notes are numbered and it’s a special watermarked paper, so it would be very hard to replicate,” says Jamie Richardson, 28. “We hope people wouldn’t even try to forge a pound, though. It wouldn’t be worth it.”

The Hawicks will be in circulation until the end of June, at which point they will lose their value. Before that, though, they can be redeemed for sterling at any time. The experiment will be judged a success if traders feel business has increased significantly. If so, it’s likely that Hawicks will go back into circulation, possibly with higher denomination notes – Hawick Fivers and Tenners. There’s talk, too, about rolling the scheme out across the Borders towns.

As the amounts of cash increase, it may become necessary to involve the local banks. None at present will accept a deposit of Hawick Pounds. The manager of RBS, in particular, becomes very shrill when I ask. “It’s nothing to do with us!” she says. “They aren’t valid tender!”

Chains aren’t keen on the currency. Poundstretchers will not stretch the Hawick Pound. Greggs, to its credit, says it would discuss it with head office, so the day may come when a Hawick gets you two sausage rolls and a penny change. In Ladbrokes, however, the bookies just laugh when I try to put a few Hawick Pounds on the Cheltenham Gold Cup. “They take too much of my normal money as it is,” says a young woman placing a bet.

Outside Morrisons, as they emerge with bags and trollies brimming with shopping, customers are unwilling to consider switching away from the supermarket. “It comes down to money, doesn’t it?” says Wendy, a Welsh woman now living locally. “I think the Pound is a good idea, but in this recession you’ve got to watch every penny.”

Jean, a middle-aged woman wearing a pentangle necklace, bursts out laughing when asked about the Pound. “A load of rubbish. It could only happen here. They can keep their money. It’ll take more than that to improve Hawick.”

The fact is, though, that the Hawick Pound represents more than its monetary value. It’s a visible symbol of community pride. To choose to use Hawicks is to make a gesture of solidarity and to say something about who you are, where you come from, and what’s important to you. Paying Libby Potts to look after your guinea pig while you’re on holiday is a noble, patriotic act if you give her the money in Hawicks.

This town, like many Borders towns, is a conservative place, and it may at first seem strange that such a radical move as the introduction of a new currency should happen in such a bastion of tradition. But where better? Hawick’s geographic isolation and insular mindset makes it the ideal testing ground for an idea based on the notion of separatism.

“Dinna forget,” says Hamish Smith, 62, in the workshop of his jewellery business, “every single year since 1705 we’ve been reminding ourselves at the Common Riding how independent and proud we are. So, aye, we do have this independent streak and as a result we do tend to think outside the box.” Smith has wads of the currency for sale and is confident that his fellow townsfolk, known as Teries, will want to buy and use it. “We really do love Hawick,” he says. “We’re Hawick people.”

The barometers on his walls are, I notice, pointing to change.