The old Banff Academy, Institution Terrace, Banff

Crossing the Deveron Bridge, what first attracted me to Banff was the prospect of the Old Banff Academy facing east on a rise above the High Street, overlooking the approach from the bridge.  The Neo Greek, single storey, 15-bay classical frontage by William Robertson (1837-8) of Elgin, spoke of Banff as a town which valued culture and learning, as indeed it does.  It also spoke of a darker side to Banff’s history.

 The 1837-8 building was financed by money left by Banffer, James Wilson, ‘late of Banff, in the island of Grenada, a charitable fund for the good of Banff … expended on the school’.  Mr. Wilson died in 1799 at the height of the slave trade in the Caribbean; it is likely that his legacy was directly or indirectly linked to the enslavement of Africans on the plantations in Grenada.  It is well known that many North East families owned plantations in the Caribbean in the 18th & 19th C.  One such was another Banffer, James Gardiner(d.1825), owner of the Swanswick plantation in Jamaica.

  Mr. Wilson’s will directed that the whole of his stock, after the decease of certain annuitants, be given to the magistrates of Banff, to be used for charitable purposes, according to their discretion.  The estate was sufficient for the construction of an infant school, a free school on the Madras system, and class-rooms for the grammar school, as well as, a library and a museum. 

 When the annuitants died, their descendants brought a case declaring the will invalid.  The case went to the House of Lords, which ruled in favour of the magistrates and so in 1838 Banff got the bequest and the town got its Academy.  By coincidence all enslaved people in Grenada were freed by 1 August 1838.

Colour photo of a distinguished General holding an Argentine flag

19th August 1824. 

Doña Josefa Balcarce y San Martín de Gutiérrez Estrada is probably not a name that many people recognise; a few more may remember his more common name of José de San Martin.  This general became a great friend of James, the 4th Earl Fife, after they met during the Peninsular Wars in Spain.  At that time they had both given allegiance to Spain, but José was born in Argentina, and in 1812 was drawn back to South America.  Interestingly the Burgess Roll of Banff for 1824 lists José as from Colombia, rather than Argentina; this may in fact have been correct as José’s last South American domicile was in Guayaquil, originally in Peru, at that time very recently annexed to Colombia and today in Ecuador.  

It was actually James Earl Fife – who had returned to UK in 2011 as his father was ill – that organised José’s trip from Spain via London, as switching allegiances to now fight against Spain from being one of their most successful military leaders was a delicate situation!

As a great strategist José was the General that led Argentina (then known as the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata) to gain independence from Spain, and also led armies to liberate Chile and then Peru.  He ceded to the better known Libertador Simon Bolivar in 1822, left his life in the military and politics and came back to Europe.

For 17 days in 1824 he visited his friend James at Duff House.  During that stay, specifically on 19th August, the town of Banff granted him the freedom of the Burgh.  He probably cut quite a dashing figure at the time; the artist for the painting shown here is not known, but it was painted 1825 or 1827 so quite representative of his visit to Banff.

José went to live in France, and died on 17th August in 1850.  One hundred years later and the then Argentine ambassador, Carlos Hogan, paid a celebratory visit to Banff on 25th October.  Part of his visit was planting a native Argentinian “Monkey Puzzle” tree in Banff Castle grounds – where one can be seen today together with it’s plaque.  There is a story that the first winter was not good for the actual tree planted by Carlos Hogan and another was quietly substituted!

Just over two years later and Banff is given another accolade in memory of José de San Martin.  Carlos Hogan went on to become the Argentine Minister of Agriculture, and arranged for a square in Buenos Aires to be called “Ciudad de Banff” – Town of Banff – “in recognition of the hospitality given to the Argentine Liberator Don José de San Martin by Banff in 1824, and the freedom of the Burgh they conferred upon him.”  That Plaza retains that name to date in Buenos Aires.

A view of Canal Park from the Howe
A view of Canal Park Banff
Canal Park Banff

Everyone living in Banff will be familiar with the name Canal Park, being the area of ground that was, for many years, the home to Deveronside football team. Where did the name come from? There are no canals around Banff.

The following quotes from the Minutes of Banff Town Council shed a bit of light on the subject.

In 1724 Lord Braco applied to the court “for sanction to straighten his marches by carrying up his canal in a straight line from the sluice in the new bulwark towards My Lord’s garden, “and seeing the place called the Dogie’s Pott is deap and wet ground he desires liberty to build a little farther down on the common betwixt him and the town to have his dyke on a sure foundation, and if he has any advantage he is to pay the value as agreed on”

In 1734 “Bracco is allowed to make a drain from the water of Diveron into a canal which he  is making out in his park, and which drain shall go through a piece of the town’s commonty”

This seems to be the beginnings of the name Canal Park in Banff, a canal built to carry the stones for building Duff House form the sea to the building site. On 11th June 1735, the foundation stone for Duff House was laid with the Duke of Fife and William Adam, architect, in attendance.

The stone for the north and south fronts came from a quarry in Morayshire and the rest from a quarry near Queensferry. In 1741 Adam’s account listed £468-1-0 5/6 d for stone and £2500-5-0d for carved stones. The stone from Queensferry came in to Banff as ballast in meal boats and then made the last part of the journey via the canal to Duff House.

It’s difficult to imagine how the sea front looked back then as the coast of Banff has changed over the years e.g. in 1699 nineteen and twenty one year leases were being offered on the “Salt Lochs” along the sea front to anyone interested in order to improve conditions for the salmon trade. Early maps don’t have sufficient detail.

In 1906 the Duke of Fife (6th Earl 1849 – 1912) gifted Duff House and its grounds including Canal Park (around 140 acres in all) to the people of Banff and Macduff. The Duke of Fife was married to the Princess Louise, eldest daughter of Edward, Prince of Wales.

A photo of Bamff, Perthshire tower house at Bamff.

We all know that people muddle Banff in Scotland with Banff in Canada. But there’s another Banff in Scotland, more normally spelt ‘Bamff’, which is just as we pronounce it round here. This is near Alyth in Perthshire. The Bamff estate there has belonged to the Ramsays since 1232. The first Ramsay was physician to King Alexander II, a later one was physician to King James VI, and in 1662 they became hereditary baronets. They were a clever family, but one generation particularly stands out. Sir James Ramsay, who died in 1925, had two memorable daughters. Agnata, the elder, went to Cambridge, where she studied classics, in those days the most difficult and prestigious of subjects. Then, and much later, women could attend classes and sit the examinations, but were not eligible to be granted the degree. A list would be published saying what class of honours they would have got. That year no male student got a First Class honours in classics, but Miss Agnata Ramsay of Bamff, but not our Banff, would have done. There was a Punch cartoon showing Mr Punch shepherding Miss Ramsay into a First Class train carriage labelled Ladies Only. The next year she married the Master of Trinity, the largest and richest of the Cambridge colleges. Her sister Katharine married the heir to the Duke of Atholl. Before he was Duke, her husband had been an MP, and in 1923 she stood for parliament, and became the first Scottish woman MP, and then the first Conservative woman cabinet minister. She had a mind of her own, and broke with the Conservatives because she disagreed with what she saw as the folly of appeasement towards fascism. There is a strong case for saying she was right. ‘The red Duchess’ as they called her, gamely resigned her seat and fought and lost a by-election. These are two strong women, and works of reference will say their father was Sir James Ramsay of Banff – but it’s not our Banff.