Background and early life
James Smail was born in Jedburgh on 1 November 1828, the youngest child of James Smail and his wife Janet. He had an elder sister and two elder brothers, both of whom became booksellers and printers; Thomas Smail in their home town of Jedburgh and Robert Smail in Innerleithen. Robert Smail’s printing works remain open today, operated by the National Trust for Scotland as a living museum of Victorian printing.
James Smail was educated in Jedburgh, and may have begun his working life there as a tailor.
National Bank of Scotland
By the early 1850s James Smail was working for National Bank of Scotland at its branch in Kelso. In 1854 he became the branch’s accountant.
In July 1855 National Bank of Scotland decided to open a branch in the nearby town of Earlston. It appears to have done so in a hurry, perhaps fearing that a rival bank had similar plans and wishing to get there first. All the arrangements were made within a few days, including the appointment of James Smail as acting agent (that is, manager) of the new branch. His position was made permanent in January the following year.
By 1858, however, National Bank of Scotland was unhappy with Earlston branch’s progress. Not enough business had been generated to make the branch worthwhile, and in September that year it decided to withdraw from the town. Smail, by this time a husband and father, had to move his family back to Kelso and return to his former post as branch accountant.
Commercial Bank of Scotland
Late in 1862 another bank – Commercial Bank of Scotland – decided to open in Earlston, possibly at the suggestion of James Smail himself. He had disagreed with National Bank’s decision to withdraw, believing that the branch had not been given enough chance to establish itself. When Commercial Bank of Scotland offered him the opportunity to try again, he immediately resigned from National Bank of Scotland and returned to Earlston as agent of Commercial Bank of Scotland’s new branch.
This time, the branch was more successful, no doubt helped by the fact that Smail had already built relationships in the local community. It remained open, eventually becoming part of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Smail himself remained there for four years, before moving to Galashiels in 1866 to open a new branch for the bank there.
Smail remained at Galashiels for 13 years. In 1880 he moved to become agent of the bank’s large, important branch at Kirkcaldy in Fife.
In 1884 he was appointed secretary of Commercial Bank of Scotland at its head office in Edinburgh. He held that post until his retirement in about 1898, when he was 70.
Other activities and interests
James Smail was an enthusiastic angler, and was recognised as an authority on fishing in the south of Scotland. He contributed chapters to angling publications, including editions of Younger’s River Angling for Salmon and Trout and The Sportsman’s Guide.
He was a member and president of Berwickshire Naturalists’ Club.
While in Galashiels he served as quartermaster to the Border Battalion of Volunteers, and as secretary to the Border Rifle Association. He was secretary to the Selkirk and Galashiels Agricultural Association, treasurer to the Galashiels Farmers’ Club and clerk and treasurer to the Landward School Board.
In addition to his articles on angling, he published papers on natural history and archaeology. He also wrote verse and ballads, sometimes published under the pseudonym Matthew Gotterson.
In 1855 James Smail married Margaret Boa. They had eight children together:
- Jessie Scott Boa Smail, born 1857
- George Rutherford Smail, born 1859
- Thomas Scott Smail, born 1861
- Merlin Mill Smail, born 1863
- Elliot Redford Smail, born 1865
- James Reid Smail, born 1869
- Johanna Crosby Smail, born 1870
- Maggie May Sterling Smail, born 1873
Retirement and death
James Smail retired from Commercial Bank of Scotland in about 1898. He died at home in Edinburgh on 22 January 1905. His widow Margaret died nine months later.