In 1759 Richard Birnie was born in Banff. He came from a respectable family and when he was old enough he was apprenticed to a saddler. Later he travelled to London to take up a position with McIntosh and Co., Saddlers and Harness Makers in Haymarket. This company undertook work for the royal family and Richard was often asked for by the Prince of Wales.

As his work was sought after by a member of the royal family, he advanced within the company and in time became a foreman and later, a partner in the business. In 1798, he married Louisa Birrell, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, and had a family.

In time he became a magistrate at Bow Street. He is famous for having led the police in the arrest of the Cato Street conspirators on 23rd February 1820. This was a group of twenty-seven men who had devised a plot to murder the entire British Cabinet, whom they blamed for the poor conditions for ordinary people in the country at the time. George Edwards, one of the conspirators, showed the others a copy of the New Times which stated that the Cabinet ministers were going to dine together at Lord Harrowby’s home in Grosvenor Square. The conspirators plotted to assassinate the ministers there. The group were betrayed by a spy in their ranks and that allowed Richard Birnie and the metropolitan police to arrest them before they could act.

Although there was such a large group, only eleven men were arrested. They were brought to trial and of these, five admitted their guilt and were transported, the other five were hung. The last one of the eleven was the spy.

Later at Queen Caroline’s funeral in 1821, a mob of people was becoming unruly and Sir Robert Baker, the Chief Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate, was urged to read the Riot Act but he did not, so Richard Birnie stepped up and read it. Sir Robert Baker resigned and Richard Birnie was promoted in his place. Shortly after the funeral, Richard Birnie received a knighthood.

Sir Richard Birnie died on 29th April 1832 and was buried in St Martin in the Fields cemetery.

This was soon after the 1914-18 war. The mortars went off at the coastguard station. My pal said: “Come on, we’ll get a badge”. So off we set at a run for the lifeboat station, then sited at the Macduff end of Banff Bridge. Arriving there we found the skipper throwing out armbands, the badges I mentioned. Of course a couple came our way, which meant we were to tail on to one of the ropes with which the boat was hauled to the launching place, in this case Macduff Harbour. The actual crew were all volunteers but all of them were seamen.

The boat, named George and Mary Berrey, was fitted with oars and sail only, and sat on a wheeled launching carriage. We were soon on our way, and when we arrived at Macduff, the crew all got on board. Mr Paterson, the harbour master, directed operations. There was a kind of slip, a very narrow passage, which the boat had to enter in order to be launched on an even keel, and this proved very difficult to accomplish. Skipper Dowffie (his nickname, not his surname) becoming impatient, shouted to “dump her ower the pier,” but Mr Paterson objected, saying it might damage the keel.

“Fit’s a coat o’ paint fan men’s lives may be at stake” was the answer he got, and we got a shout to let her go. Whoever worked the release pin did just that, and the boat plunged off the pier bow first, went well underneath the surface, and bobbed up again like the proverbial cork. A complete ducking for a start did not in the least dismay the bold skipper and his crew. The boat was well on its way when it was recalled. It had all been a false alarm!

When we arrived back at the lifeboat shed, the boat was housed and everything made shipshape. We handed in our armbands and a sum of four shillings [20p] was paid to each of us hauliers – very welcome for the little we did.

This story is almost word for word from Memories of My Young Days in Banff by A.R. in the Banffshire Journal Annual for 1965. He spelt the boat’s name George and Mary Berry, but I’m trusting the RNLI plaque in Banff Museum. In 1923 they closed the lifeboat station at the bridge and moved it to Whitehills.


This continues from the first part of the story posted a week ago.

WILLIAM DUNCAN, 1846-1921   Part 2 of 2

William Duncan was a very enterprising man. He was on various committees and organised the first Masonic Lodges in the Chickasaw Nation.  Through his connections as a Scottish Rite Shriner, he heard that the Rock Island Railroad was to be extended and built across his land.  He immediately ordered a new store to be built nearer to the railroad site as well as new homes for himself and family members. William had always held the Native Indian people in high regard but ignored their advice not to build his new store in the location he had chosen near the new railway line.  They warned him it would be right in the cyclone path but William had already made promises to rail road officials so he went ahead.

The area was unfortunately struck by cyclones several times over the years with a particularly bad one in 1898 flattening most of the town.  The demolished buildings were rebuilt with stronger materials and life went on.  

Tornado damage at Duncan, 1898

He established ‘city’ limits when other families started to arrive. The town of Duncan was officially named on 27th June 1892 when the first train passed through. By all accounts it was a day of great celebration opening up endless possibilities for the small town, bringing goods and passengers faster than by road and was a mechanical link to the rest of the country.  The Duncan band played and there was a party and barbeque which lasted for three days.  Chief Quanah Parker, the last Comanche Chief, attended with hundreds of his ‘braves’ from their reservation near Fort Sill, making a colourful sight and a great time was had by all.  The anniversary of that day was celebrated for many years after with people coming from miles away in wagons, buggies and on horseback.

Comanche Chief Quanah Parker
1892 Duncan’s first passenger train

1892 was also a sad year for the Duncan family as William’s other two daughters, Ruth and Christina, died of typhoid fever when it swept through the country and they are buried next to their Macduff grandmother, Ann.  All three daughters were gone but William still had his three sons, William junior known as ‘Red Bill’, James known as ‘Big Jim’ and Gregg.  That same year William ordered the building of the first Baptist Church in ‘Duncan’ which also served as a meeting place.  The first school followed soon after.

In 1895, William sold his store, gave up his position as postmaster and concentrated on rearing dairy cattle.  William wanted to share his good fortune and encouraged other family members from Scotland to join him.  His sister, Isabella Duncan had a large family and two of her daughters, Agnes and Barbara Kelman and a son, Alex Kelman travelled over one by one and made their home there. 

Alex Kelman became one of the best known ‘ropers and riders’ at rodeos in the country but tragically died age 40 when he was thrown from his horse.  William’s brother James also had two  sons, William and Jim Duncan who left Scotland and settled in Duncan, Oklahoma.  Out-with his own family, he paid for several other young Scots to travel over, using their skills to help build his town.  In return, they settled there and had good lives.

William was described as being cultured, refined and a fine conversationalist, liberal to a fault and never forgetting a friend or those in distress, indulgent to his family and a moral, upstanding man.  Mrs Geneva Thurlo, wife of US Marshall Ed Thurlo of the town described William Duncan as being “one of the finest, kindest men I have ever known”.

In 1905, William and Sallie, affectionately known in the town as Uncle Bill and Aunt Sallie, decided to retire due to William’s failing health.  They moved, at first, to California to be nearer to son, Jim’s family.  Later, they moved again to Bremerton, Washington to be nearer the sea which served as a reminder of William’s homeland. Sallie died there in 1914.

1907 brought statehood to the Indian and Oklahoma Territories and Duncan was made the county seat of Stephens County.  It became the 46th state to enter the Union.  

William Duncan c1917

In 1919, William and his great niece travelled back to Duncan, Oklahoma for a visit. William did not recognise the place.  It was bustling with faces he did not recognise.  The population was growing especially since the recent discovery of oil in the region.  He suffered a short illness while there and was unable to return home for a few weeks.

William Duncan died in Bremerton in 1921. His legacy is the town, now a city, which was named after him and the many Scots people who followed him to Oklahoma.  There is no statue or memorial for him.  There is one for Earle P. Haliburton who founded the oil company based there.

Daily Oklahoma article remembering the founder of the town of Duncan

Note from the author Sonia Packer:

My information has been gathered over many months from descendants of the Duncan family including direct descendants of William Duncan who hold stories and photographs; from archives and news stories; from the Stephens County Historical Museum in Duncan, who have a portrait and personal possessions that belonged to William and from the Oklahoma History site.  The Chisholm Trail Heritage Centre is also in Duncan, Oklahoma.

I descend from William’s sister, Annie Duncan who married a farmer and lived in Alvah, Banffshire all her life.  William was my 2 x great uncle.  William’s mother, Ann Kinnaird was my maternal 3 x great  grandmother.  Her sister, Helen Kinnaird, who married James Watt, a fisherman from Crovie, Gardenstown was my paternal 2 x great grandmother.  Helen’s 2x great grandsons are the founders of Macduff Shipyards.


Everyone has read stories, or seen films, about the Wild West – the American Frontier – as people started moving westwards, populating and developing the land.  The “hey day” of this was from the end of the American Civil War in 1865 for about quarter of a century – and right in the middle of that was a Macduff loon…..

We are very grateful to Sonia Packer – born in Banff – for this Story.   She is the great great niece of William Duncan, the subject of this absolutely fascinating bit of history.

WILLIAM DUNCAN, 1846-1921   Part 1 of 2

William Duncan was the eldest of ten children born to James Duncan, a dock labourer and cooper who lived in Gellymill Street, Macduff with his wife, Ann Kinnaird who came from a farm in Gamrie.

Black and white image showing a large sailing ship, various wooden fishing boats and Macduff church in the background.
Macduff Harbour circa 1870

William initially worked in Macduff as a tailor.  In 1863 he joined the Royal Navy.  Not much is known about his experiences in the Navy but it is thought that it triggered his desire to explore the world.  In 1866, age 20, William travelled from Glasgow to New York on the SS Caledonia and his new life far away from Scotland began.

At first he worked in any job he could find, gradually moving westward until he landed in Sebastian County, Arkansas.  It is believed he used his tailoring skills to make military uniforms at Fort Smith.  The whole area was under reconstruction following the end of the Civil War.  Soon after, he moved to Stonewall, in the wilds of the Indian Territory, working as a clerk at a trading store and in 1868 he married Martha Patsy Hall.  They went on to have three daughters and three sons. Their eldest child, a daughter, died as a baby.  Martha died in 1878 following the birth of their sixth child.  The following year he married his second wife; Sarah Jane Thornhill, known as Sallie, the widow of a Chickasaw Indian.  She was a white girl but had been accepted by the Chickasaw Indians and spoke their language. The family moved to Fort Sill (formerly Camp Wichita) where William again used his tailoring skills.  In 1882 William bought a general store at Cow Creek, close to the Chisholm Trail.  

Black and white photo of men on horseback and lots of cattle
Chisholm Trail cowboys on the Prairie

The trail, named after its developer, Jesse Chisholm, was used to drive longhorn cattle between Texas and the railroad markets at Kansas, so William’s store was ideally positioned to supply trade to  the cattle herders/cowboys, ranchers and American Indian people from nearby reservations.  The customers at his trading post also included some of the outlaws who used the Territory as a hideout – resulting in some tense moments!  Supplies for his store mainly came by freight wagons from Gainesville, Texas.

Black ad white photo of head and shoulders of bearded man
William Duncan in younger years

In 1884, William Duncan was also officially elected as Postmaster, a position he held for 11 years and the Duncan post office was established.  As Sallie was legally classed as an ‘intermarried white’, she and William had a right to Indian Territory land so they claimed hundreds of acres surrounding their store.  He started to build, expand and lease out areas to be brought to a state of cultivation.  Over time, large numbers of people came to settle there and the little town of Duncan became well known.  There was plenty of grass and water and the store supplied everything required for farming.

In 1888 William sent money home to Macduff so that his parents and some other family members could come and join him.  In March that year their long journey began.  The party consisted of James and Ann Duncan, their daughter Barbara with her husband Arthur Horne (his family owned the Crown Temperance Hotel and Stables in Banff and ran the first ‘penny bus’ service between Banff and Macduff) with their young son Joseph.  Also in the party was another daughter, Agnes – who was married to Macduff man, Charlie Birnie – and her two young children, William and baby Annabella.  The family first travelled by train from Macduff to Glasgow then by ship (the SS Furnessia) to New York, a journey of several weeks.  A train from New York took them to Gainesville, Texas where they rested before being transferred by covered wagon to William’s home at Cow Creek.  Ann Duncan sadly died there just a few months after their arduous journey.

Main Street, Duncan 1894

Agnes Duncan and her husband remained in Oklahoma and raised their large family there.  Barbara  Duncan and her husband, Arthur Horne returned home to Banff as the pioneer life did not suit them.  James Duncan also went home to Scotland shortly after the death of his wife but returned to visit his son, William, in 1895 and they always kept in close contact.  

Watch this space for the second part of William Duncan’s development of “his” town of Duncan.