Portrait of George Robinson
A portrait of Provost Robinson
George Robinson (1743-1827), Provost of Banff 

In 1817 George Robinson, the greatest of Banff’s Provosts, after 34 years of running the town’s affairs, presented the Head Court with a statement of what had been achieved in that time. It was an impressive list, and what was more, everything was costed, and the town was still solvent. 

Not everything had been plain sailing. His first move in 1785 had been to arrange for Banff to have its own Customs House, because until then every boat had to send an officer overland to Aberdeen to get the paperwork signed (that meant an overnight stay in those days). This excellent move was thwarted because Banff had two rival earls, each of whom wanted the right to appoint the local exciseman, and we had to wait till these two earls were dead in 1807 to find a compromise, and get our own Customs House. 

Other reforms came more easily. There was a new east quay at the harbour, a grand new parish church, new meal houses in the (Old) Market Place, and a new town house and jail. There were new turnpike roads, and the new entry to the town along Bridge Street. There was a new water supply for Banff. They put a new upper storey on the Academy, doubling its size. After the high tides of 1807, which washed away the shingle bar across the river mouth (it came back) there were new sea defences on Low Shore. Also money was laid out to bribe fishermen with boats and free houses, so that they would settle in Banff, hence the Seatown, as Banff became a fishing port. By matching funding, the Council had got a major public grant to enlarge the harbour further.   

Almost all of this had gone through on the nod. The Deacons of the Incorporated Trades would sometimes look at the accounts, hoping to save public money. Provost Robinson had found himself again and again defending the meagre pay given to the schoolteachers. As he said in his statement, “To that system which prevails in Scotland, and by which even the most indigent may receive the benefit of a classical education, is to be ascribed the pre-eminent success of our countrymen in all parts of the world.” He was right, and he had been a very effective Provost. At the north end of Low Street is the arch built for the entrance to the New Market, with his name on it.

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.  

Greyscale image of the wedding ceremony

27th July.  Louise and Alexander’s marriage service started at noon, 131 years ago today.  Quite an auspicious marriage for Banff and Macduff, as Alexander was the Sixth Earl Fife with his main home being Duff House, and Louise was the Princess Royal, the daughter of the then Prince and Princess of Wales.  Prince Edward became King Edward VII in 1901.

The ceremony took place in the Private Chapel at Buckingham Palace, attended by most of the British Royal Family as well as royalty from Germany, Denmark and Greece.

In the main picture in this Story, the foreground characters from the left, are some of the seven bridesmaids, Alexander, Louise, Prince Edward of Wales, Princess Alexandra of Wales and Queen Victoria.

The other photo in this article is a large silver two-handle cup that stands 24 inches high, has an engraved representation of Duff House and the couple’s coat of arms, and bears the inscription “Presented to H.R.H. the Princess Louise of Wales and The Earl of Fife, K.T. on the occasion of their marriage by the Inhabitants of the Royal Burgh of Banff, July 27, 1889”.  A very handsome gift indeed.

A commemorative special Illustrated London News was published just four days later, and bearing in mind that this publication at that time did not use photos but hand drawn engravings – and there are sixteen of the actual wedding itself in this edition, one being a double page, and the rest at least half a page – is quite remarkable.  Additionally this publication has several dozen engravings of other views, with about a dozen being of Banff and Macduff including Duff House; hence it is a great source for the heritage of the area.

Alexander was first made Duke of Fife and Marquess of Macduff two days later, and, unusually, in 1900 he received a second set of Letters Patent which amended the 1889 ones to allow the Duke’s titles to pass to his and Louise’s daughters Alexandra and Maud, as there was not a male heir. 

The 1st Duke of Fife died in 1912 from pleurisy likely as a result of complications from being shipwrecked off the coast of Morocco while on a cruise on the ss Delhi; the rest of his family all survived. Louise, Duchess of Fife is reputed not to have favoured Duff House, and hence the gift of the estate to the people of Banff and Macduff in 1907.  She is of course the person behind the name of the sports and community club and making Banff and Macduff the only place in the world with two Royal golf courses.  Louise died in 1931, and her remains are with her husband’s in St Ninian’s Chapel at Mar Lodge.

A cross in the wall
The cross marking the site of Banff Episcopal school at the junction of Sandyhill Road and Bellevue Road.

Those of you who are observant will have noticed a stone cross, built in to the wall at the corner of Sandyhill Road and Bellevue Road. The date carved around the cross is 1864.

This cross marks the site of the Episcopal female school, opened in 1864. Thanks to old copies of the Banffshire Journal and General Advertiser, we are able to have a picture of the site in those days and have some fascinating details of the building.

The site of the new school was given by the Earl of Fife at the lowest possible feu duty and is described as “on Sandyhill Road, forming the south corner of St Ann’s Hill Lane”

We know that the school was built by subscriptions and that it was a “new female school for St Andrew’s church”. As well as local subscriptions, there were also subscriptions from London, Edinburgh and Birkenhead. The school was necessary because the old schoolroom in Boyndie Street was too cramped and this had meant that the roll had to be capped at eighty scholars.

The buildings included a teacher’s house which was a two storey cottage which was built on to Sandyhill Road with the school building behind it. The school was described as “substantial and commodious”, the schoolroom being 40 feet long, 20 feet wide and 14 feet tall. The entrance to the school was on the west gable via a porch, measuring six by eight feet. The school was “well lighted by three rolled plate glass windows. The building had ornamental finials and on the end facing the road, a stone cross with the date of erection. This building cost around £350.

The architect for the project was Mr James Booker of Banff and the first headmistress was Miss Marr of Old Deer. The school was supported by school fees and a government grant.

By 1921 the school was closed and in 1923, a request was made to let the school to the Girl Guides. In the late 1940’s and into the 1950’s, the building was the technical and woodwork department of the Academy.

In 1966, the school was used by Mr Thomas Woodham as a skirt factory. This business survived until a recession hit and all his staff were laid off in 1981. The factory sent orders as far afield as Canada, Australia and Austria.

The school and house were demolished in 1982 and all that remains is the cross in the wall.

Cover of Random Rhymes - a book of poetry written by Colin Grant Mackenzie

You have probably never heard of Colin Grant Mackenzie (1832-1913); me neither, until recently.  It turns out he was famous for his woodcut printing skills, and somewhat of a poet to boot.

Mackenzie was born in Banff in 1832; the only census entry I could find showed one Colin Mckinzie, 8 years old, present at Gallowhilll Street for the 1841.  Strangely, there is no mention of either parent in the census return.  In the valuation records for 1855 a James W Mackenzie is recorded as a tenant occupying ‘part of house back of Journal office Old Market Place’.  Could James be a relative, perhaps Colin’s father, given that we know Colin learned hand-press printing at the offices of the Banffshire Journal?

Whatever his parentage, in 1850, this Banffer arrived in the USA a fully-fledged journeyman pressman.  In 1854 he joined Harper Brothers and made the woodcut overlays for their illustrated work; he was the first printer in America to make such overlays.  Later on Colin joined what became University Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts.  During his time there he printed the writings of Longfellow and other great literary men of the day.

In between developing the printing industry in the US, Colin found time to print four series of his own poems, “Random Rhymes”: series 1 in 1867 (Cambridge: the author) series 2 in 1883 (New York: the author) and 3 in 1903 (Brooklyn: J.J. Bowles).  The fourth was unpublished.  Here is a flavour:

“Hail Brothers of the printing ink!

Ye are the faithful, loyal crew,
You hold within your faithful hands,
Power, mightier than Archmedian screw–
The Printing Press rules all the lands”

If you want any more of this Banffer’s poetry, you can buy the fourth series of “Random Rhymes.”  Be warned it doesn’t come cheap – currently on sale for £1,260.84.

Greyscale image of U-boat, taken from starboard bow

It’s 30th June 1940.  Captain Heinz Scheringer had taken his vessel out to the southwest of Ireland, looking for cargo vessels to torpedo.  It had been quite a successful patrol – they had sunk three allied ships already.  That evening they sighted a convoy, and overtook it to set up a night attack.

At 01.18 on 1st July the U-26 fired a torpedo at, and hit, the Zarian; one of the ships in the convoy.

What Captain Scheringer hadn’t known was that he had been sighted the evening before, and HMS Gladiolus, the escort corvette, was already on full alert.  Just ten minutes later and the Gladiolus was dropping depth charges based on an Asdic contact – the U-26 at 80 metres depth.  The U-boat was badly damaged; one of the aft ballast tanks flooded uncontrollably and she sunk by the stern to 230m (it’s maximum rated depth was just 200m!).  6 hours later she was forced to the surface – but it was dark and luck was temporarily with the U-boat as she managed to avoid notice from the corvette.

At 08.15 a Royal Australian Air Force flying boat spotted the U-26 and forced it back to the surface by dropping some bombs.  HMS Rochester had joined the search and was quickly on the scene.  The U-26 was now out of luck; with his boat too damaged to dive Captain Scheringer ordered the crew into rafts, and scuttled his submarine.  All 48 of the crew on board were picked up by HMS Rochester and taken prisoner.

The official report is that the U-boat Chief Engineer was the last to leave as it sank by the stern.  However decades later one of the crew admitted that the British had boarded the submarine – creating speculation as to whether an Enigma machine had been obtained by the British several months before the official records of March 1941 !

And the link to Banff and Macduff ?   Well, except for the Captain, all 47 crew were sent by train to Banff Bridge Station, and marched across the river to Prisoner of War Camp Number 5 – Duff House.

“Our accommodation at Banff Scotland turned out to be to a small castle type building that had been converted into a POW camp.  There was one big wire fence.  I would say it was eight feet high.  Everything was so green: grass, pastures and so on.  A wonderful location.  There was nothing at all for us to there.  Our days consisted of a roll call in the morning followed by mutton for breakfast, lunch and supper (with lots of tea but hardly any bread) and a roll call in the evening.” 

Words by Karl Mengelberg, Electrician, U-26.

The tranquility of POW Camp No5 however only lasted another couple of weeks – when it was bombed on 22nd July 1940.   Hence the Memorial at Duff House sited close to where one of the bombs landed.

A book – “Out of the Blue” – with all known facts and photos about the bombing is available at Duff House, Banff Tourist Hub and on Ebay.

19th February 1895 Curling on the River Deveron

On the Southwestern edge of Banff is the site of the old Colleonard Nurseries. What surprised me is that this was also the original site for the sport of Curling in Banff. The Curling pond was opened in 1887 on the site of the old Mill of Banff distillery dam. It is described as follows “the pond is in a field at the back of the Nursery, near Mid Colleonard” It was built on the site of the dam for the Mill of Boyndie distillery. It was 150 feet by 230 feet. The work was carried out by Mr Anderson, contractor, Aberchirder, with plans drawn up by Mr Cossar, architect, Banff. The cost of the curling pond was sixty pounds. The curling pond was opened by Sheriff Hamilton-Grierson. Skating and curling were both enjoyed on the pond. There is a mention of curling and skating in 1895, taking place on the Deveron, the first time that curling had taken place on the Deveron, near to the tidal limit but a match which had been due to be played on the Deveron was moved to the Colleonard pond as a thaw made it too dangerous to be on the frozen river. Not only were they skating and curling, but also lighting a brazier to heat water for teas which were served to skaters and visitors. Skaters apparently skated up to the Bridge of Alvah. It’s difficult to imagine that ice would form on the River Deveron nowadays. There seems to have been a good network of local curling clubs who played against each other. However, in 1907 the Banff and Macduff curling clubs amalgamated to form the Banffshire Curling Club and the Duke of Fife gave a piece of land, just at the boundary of his policies, for a new curling pond. Two tarmacadam rinks were laid by an expert from Edinburgh. The new curling pond had a clubhouse and gas lights to illuminate the rinks. In its heyday the club had around fifty members. The curling rink is still intact just below the surface if you know where to look.

Colleonard and Duff House curling ponds shown in yellow 1940
1940 map showing Colleonard and Duff House curling ponds