The Scottish Book Trust is celebrating its long-running partnership with Scottish Friendly, which has led to more than 70,000 children falling in love with stories, finds Peter Ranscombe.
Scottish Friendly, founded in 1862, is Scotland’s biggest mutual society, meaning that its profits are used for the benefit of its 415,000 members who buy its insurance and investments. It started life as the City of Glasgow Friendly Society, before widening its name and scope in 1992.
The latest chapter in its story began in June when it took over the business of Marine & General Mutual, doubling its assets to more than £2bn. Yet Scottish Friendly also has another story to tell. Since 1998, the mutual has sponsored the Scottish Book Trust’s children’s book tour, which has brought authors into the classroom to share their love of reading, writing and illustrating with more than 70,000 pupils.
Calum Bennie, Scottish Friendly’s communications manager says: “We’ve continued to support the tour because it’s become more successful as the years have gone on – leading authors have heard about the tour and want to go on it. The turning point came about ten years ago when Michael Morpurgo, who at the time was the children’s laureate, came on the tour. His War Horse book has gone on to be a stage show and a Steven Spielberg film.”
Six tours are held each year, with four visiting Scottish venues and two heading south of the Border, reflecting the fact that the majority of the mutual’s business now comes from outside Scotland.
Writers travel everywhere, from rural schools with only eight pupils like Mouswald near Dumfries through to 400-seat theatres in Glasgow. Scottish Friendly’s involvement in the project stems back to a time when there were major changes underway in the financial services industry throughout the UK.
“We used to have a direct sales force that used to go door-to-door round people’s houses – like the famous ‘man from the Pru’, except he was the man from Scottish Friendly,” Bennie explains. “But the whole financial landscape was changing in the 1980s and 1990s because customers were out at work instead of being at home and technology meant people could deal with you first by phone and then over the internet.
“With the end of our direct sales force, there was a risk that we wouldn’t be seen as part of the community anymore. So we wanted to make sure that we were still engaged with our communities and still giving something back because of our roots as a friendly society and so that’s how the partnership began.”
Bennie remembers visiting Hull last year with the tour and seeing how well it went down with the children. Scottish Book Trust staff received a similarly-positive reception in Birmingham earlier this year. “The success of the programme is that it brings authors to places that wouldn’t normally get these opportunities,” Bennie adds. “Some of them are remote and others are in deprived communities.
“Although it’s not the be-all and end-all, from our point of view we have been able to increase our brand awareness. Parents going along to the tours find out about us and our saving plans for children, plus they hear about us through the publicity that comes from the tour. But direct sales were never the focus – it’s always been about brand awareness and giving something back to the community.”