The Mercat Cross

In Doo’cot Park stands what is known locally as the Doo’cot, housing spaces for at least 96 pigeons. However the building was probably re-erected from the town centre. From 1768 until 1900 the Mercat Cross stood on top of the building on a hilltop, seen when approaching Banff from the south west, but according to William Cramond in the Annals of Banff, the whole building was removed from Low Street to its present location.

A Mercat is the old Scots name for a market, and a mercat was expected to have a Mercat Cross. The earliest Banff cross was referred to in an old Banff Protocol book of 1542 but in the Burgh Accounts of 1627 to 1628, expenditure for the “new croce” was listed. The new cross may well have been a new base for the cross, a hexagonal room, and some of the carvings for it were probably transferred in 1786 to the nearest wall beside the Town House, where there is a dated Virgin and Child. But scholars think the actual cross is medieval, not 17th century.  

Most public transactions were conducted near to the Mercat Cross and in ancient times, courts were held next to them and sometimes punishments were meted out there too. For example in 1748 one Alexander Stuart was to stand “on the steps with his back to the door of the Cross, bareheaded, from 11 o’clock in the forenoon till one o’clock in the afternoon, with a paper on his breast with the following inscription in large letters – ‘An Infamous Outlander of Thieves’ and then he was to be banished from Banffshire forever.” Tough times.

Why would the Mercat Cross have been removed from the town centre? Further reading explains that the building was in the way. The building is described thus: “in shape it is hexagonal, about fifty feet in circumference, and of considerable height” There wasn’t enough room for people to move around at the annual and weekly fairs and so the cross was to be removed. An application was put in to the Court of Session to allow it to be removed from the town centre.

Lord Fife wrote a letter in 1768, thanking the council for the Mercat Cross, and said he would put it in a proper place and expressed a wish that all the town crosses could be buried at the bottom of it.

So the Mercat Cross itself remained there until 1900, when the cross was returned to Low Street in Banff, across the road from its original site, now occupied by the Biggar Fountain. The hexagonal base, we presume, stayed on the hill and is now the Doo’cot.  

It is a very real part of the town’s history that is now hidden away, unless you know where to look. The actual cross is in the Museum of Banff with an updated replica on display in Low Street.

Black and white image of a colour painting of a sitting lady holding some flowers

At the eastern end of the Mausoleum in Wrack Woods is a memorial to William Duff and his second wife, Jean (or sometimes Jane) Grant, his “Datie”, who he married in 1723 when she was just eighteen.  His first wife, Lady Janet Ogilvie, unfortunately had died aged just 25 on Christmas Day 1720 after just a year of marriage (her memorial is also in the Mausoleum).  William and Jean were originally buried at Rothiemay but were later re-interred by the 2nd Earl.

As below, their fourteen children experienced mixed fortunes:

Their first son was born in 1724 (when William was 27 years old and Jean was 19), and, as was tradition, he was also called William.  From the evidence of several letters the younger William was mostly always “unhappy”, prone to “drinking and idleness”.  He had Jacobite sympathies and lived in London with the support of his parents; he seems to have had no profession and never took part in public life.  He died in ill-health in 1753.

Two daughters followed, Anne in 1725 and Janet in 1727.  At the ages of 14 and 12 respectively while ‘passing the season’ with their father in Edinburgh both caught smallpox quite badly.   Anne, although scarred, married her cousin, Alexander Duff of Hatton and lived until she was 80.  Janet was described by her father as a “very thoughtless and imprudent girl”, perhaps because she married a Jacobite and then followed him into exile in north-eastern France.  After her husband’s death she seems to have been forgiven by her parents, and had five years of happy married life with George Hay from Mountblairy (between Banff and Turriff), passing away in 1758 from general ill health.

James was born in 1729, later becoming the 2nd Earl Fife; followed two years later by Alexander, later the 3rd Earl Fife.

The sixth child, Jane, came next in 1732.  The Aberdeen Journal says she was “an agreeable young lady”.  She married William Urquhart of Meldrum at age 21, but died relatively early in 1776.

The fourth son, George, was born in 1736 and was well educated in St Andrews, but had to hastily marry in 1756; they lived in London.  Unfortunately it seems George’s first son, James, was placed in a private asylum under a false name, which only came to light more than 60 years later.  George’s brothers complained about his want of friendliness and sociability!  George died in 1818.

Five more children followed annually thereafter: Lewis in 1737, then Patrick, Helen, Sophia and Catherine.  Lewis was initially in the army, serving in Canada and America but disliked it even though his long-suffering wife travelled with him.  He later built what is now known as Blervie House near Forres.  Patrick died shortly after birth.  Helen married Admiral Robert Duff but died in Gibraltar when only 39.  Sophia lived until she was 77, as the third wife of Thomas Wharton, Commissioner of Excise, who her mother describes as having “so many whims of his own, without considering Sophia”!  Catherine seemingly didn’t marry and hardly left home, dying in ill health at just 24.

The seventh and youngest son was Arthur who came along in 1740.  He seems to have been everyone’s favourite, of an exceptionally sweet nature, with his father perpetually calling him “my Attie”.  He became an advocate and reportedly a very diligent MP in London.  He lived until 1805; not all available lists have him as buried in the Duff Mausoleum.

The last child was Margaret, born 1745, eloped in 1767 with an almost penniless Brodie of Brodie.  She died in 1787 when her nightdress was caught light from the fire.

The father, William Duff, made Earl Fife in 1759, died in 1763.  Jean Grant remarkably lived until she was 83, dying in 1788, quite some feat having given birth to 14 children!