Communities across the north were left furious last night after Bank of Scotland announced seven branch closures in the region.
The rise of internet banking was blamed for the shock decision, which will leave many customers facing huge distances to the nearest alternative bank.
Branches in Beauly, Bonar Bridge, Dornoch, Fortrose, Helmsdale, Kingussie and Lairg will close by October as part of a UK-wide rationalisation programme by the bank’s parent company Lloyds.
Business leaders claimed that the north was being “hit disproportionately” and urged politicians to launch an investigation.
The bank insisted that more mobile units would be available in “some” rural areas.
Customers in affected communities across Sutherland, Ross-shire, the Black Isle and Badenoch reacted angrily when they learned of yesterday’s announcement.
Beauly Community Council chairwoman Rosie MacDonald was “devastated” by the decision.
She said: “It’s bad enough that the branch was already closed on Tuesdays. A lot of local shops use the Bank of Scotland.
“I’d just had a letter from them, telling us we could deposit and withdraw money from the Post Office but that’s not always convenient.”
At Bonar Bridge, Michael Baird, 68, has campaigned for many months to retain his community’s branch, highlighting its importance at a meeting in February with local MP Paul Monaghan and a senior Bank of Scotland representative.
“This angers me,” he said. “How are people now expected to do banking in Sutherland? Tain would be the nearest. That’s a round trip of about 30 miles.
“This will have a huge impact here, not least for senior citizens without internet banking and who prefer to come in and do face-to-face banking, and for all the various treasurers with accounts and there are many who use this branch.
“I have several treasury accounts myself for various local organisations and a whole range of personal banking myself with them.”
The Federation of Small Businesses yesterday urged Scotland’s parliamentarians to “urgently investigate” the issue.
Amanda Frazer, (CORRECT) chairwoman of the organisation’s Highland committee, said: “Research shows that bank branches are closing faster in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK and it’s clear the Highlands is being hit disproportionately.
“The Bank of Scotland’s announcement that it is to close seven Highland branches – six of which are in the northern Highlands and four of these in south and east Sutherland – will come as a great shock to the businesses and communities they purport to serve.
“Not only does it make it harder for local firms to access banking services, it also makes it harder for their customers and especially visitors to the area.
“While more people might be doing online banking, that’s no good for cash-based tourism businesses or for rural firms with patchy broadband.”
She pointed out that many rural Highland communities depend heavily on visitors to sustain the businesses on which they rely and that visitors need access to cash.
According to the Competition and Market Authority, between 2013 and 2014 the number of Scotland’s bank branches fell by 7.7% to 1,037.
In the same period, the number of branches in England fell by 5%.
A spokeswoman for Bank of Scotland said: “We’ll be introducing more mobile branch services to support customers in some of our more rural and semi-rural communities, alongside other ways to bank locally.
“There are three new routes – one of which will cover the branches closing in the Highlands – offering services such as making deposits, withdrawing cash and paying bills.”
She said the closures were due to reduced or low levels of demand, and in some cases because of a local overlap of branches.
She added: “We apologise for any inconvenience that these changes may cause and have informed customers of the closest alternative branch.
“We remain committed to our branch network and branches will continue to play an important role in our multi-channel approach to meeting customer needs.
“At the same time we are investing heavily in digital and mobile to give our customers choice.”
Green Highlands and Islands MSP John Finnie said: “Three jobs may mean little in the City of London but it’s a significant employer in many of the small rural communities affected and it’s disappointing that no cognisance is taken of that.”
Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch SNP MSP Kate Forbes said: “I’m really disappointed. The local branch is still very important for those who depend on physically visiting the branch, such as elderly customers or businesses depositing cash.”