Peter Anson sculpture, Macduff

Peter Anson came to this area in 1936, staying at 2 Braeheads Banff.  Two years later he bought and moved into 2 Low Street Macduff, known locally as ‘Harbour Head’.  Over the course of his lifetime (1889-1975) he published over thirty books, many dealing with the sea and its ships, and others focusing on his other love, the Catholic religion.  Of all his books only one could be described as a best seller, How to Draw Ships (1940).  He also produced many drawings related to the sea, some of which are on display in Banff’s Museum.

Peter Anson was born Frederick Charles Anson in Southsea on 22 August 1889, to prosperous parents. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1913 and was received into the Third Order of the Franciscans in 1922, adopting the name Peter.  While living in Macduff he turned the loft of Harbour Head into a small sacristy, where visiting monks would say mass for visiting mariners: Peter was no longer a member of the Order. The area of the sacristy was minute and containing as it did an altar table and other religious equipment had little space for church goers, not that there were ever many. Despite the lack of church goers, Peter took satisfaction from having it known that Macduff was the only port in Scotland with a Catholic chapel set apart for mariners.

During his time in Macduff (1937-1952) Peter was acquainted with notables, such as Neil M. Gunn and Compton Mackenzie, and became involved in the early activities of Scottish nationalism.  Indeed, the Scottish Nationalist Party invited him to write a pamphlet which appeared with the title, The Scottish Fisheries: Are they Doomed? (1939). 

Peter had a great personality and had empathy for fisher folk and they for him.  There are not many public memorials in Macduff, but it comes as no surprise to find there is a sculpture in memory of Peter Anson. 

Colour photo of Duff House surrounded by woodland

Continuing to pick out some of the interesting wild flowers that used to be, and still are, in Duff House woods; plus a rare addition in more recent years!

Arum Maculatum  – Common Cuckoo Pint.  This has been seen in a number of places around the woods which is not surprising as it was deliberately introduced.  One reason for this could be that the root forms an excellent flour which can be used for starch; indeed many centuries ago the church insisted it was used to whiten and stiffen altar cloths; similarly it was used for gentleman’s collars.  A common name for the plant is “Lords and Ladies”, because there are both female and male elements on the stalk of flowers and berries – known as a spadix; the same derivation as the “pint” in the name, being short for the word “pintle”, a word referring to the male sex organ.  There is one major drawback of the plant – it is extremely poisonous to humans and many animals; but not to birds who eat the ripe berries and spread seeds.  This picture was painted in 1836. 

Colour photo of painting on text
Arum Maculatum otherwise known as Cuckoo Pint

Sometimes the leaves are not spotted and these are known as Arum Immaculatum!

Doronicum Paralianches – Leopard’s Bane.  This is a large plant up to about a metre tall, and it’s bright yellow flowers – some of the earliest in the year – can be up to two inches across.  It is another flower that was reportedly introduced into Duff House woods; whether this was because it’s flowers can be used to help bruises, even eaten, or massaged into the skin, to relieve pain and inflammation – or because of it’s aromatic and bright appearance is not known.  This watercolour was done in 1841.

Colour photo of painting on text
Doronicum Paraliaches

Trachystemon Orientalis – Abraham Isaac Jacob.  An interesting name, one that supposedly derives from the feature that the flower has three colours in one.   This photo is courtesy of Peter Llewellyn.  The flower starts showing in late spring.  This plant is native to eastern europe where it is very common; it is quite possible that the Duff House woods patch is the most northerly example – although a few smaller patches are also reported locally.  It is first recorded anywhere in the UK in 1868, but not listed by 1907 as being in this area.  In the last 12 years the patch near the Mausoleum has been seen to double in size, so clearly it likes the conditions there!  This may be a sign of the temperate climate of this part of the Deveron valley and/or global warming!

Colour photo of three coloured flowers
Trachystemon Orientalis

Willian Geddie was born in Garmouth on 21st July 1829 into a Speyside shipbuilding family.  He served his apprenticeship in Garmouth, later working as a shipwright in Glasgow and Aberdeen.  His brother John was born in 1823 and had built three ships in Lossiemouth before going bankrupt in 1863.  In 1865 both brothers migrated to Banff and built at least 27 ships mostly at the Duffus Hillock yard near the mouth of the Deveron but also at Patent Slip, Banff Harbour.

William Geddie 1829-1897

William Geddie 1829-1897

All the ships built by the Geddies were built of wood and carried sails.  They were used for trading along the East Coast and for voyages to the Baltic countries.  Most of them were owned by Banff or Macduff merchants and carried general cargo such as: coal, herring, grain.  While they were judged to be fine ships by Lloyds of London, sailing was a dangerous undertaking as evidenced by the fact that of the 27 ships built by the brothers, at least 17 were lost at sea, in some cases with all the crew.

The launching of the Lady Ida Duff illustrates how difficult it could be to manage these boats.  During the launch the ship’s bow lightly touched the seabed causing her to roll from side to side.  The crew had almost managed to steady her before a slight breeze caused her to roll again.  This movement was greatly amplified by the ship’s visitors, mostly boys, rushing to the shore side of the ship for some reason.  The ship toppled over and a great number of those on board were tipped into the water.  Fortunately, they were all rescued.  During the next high tide, the ship was righted and moored.

The advent of steam-powered ships and the railway network spelt the end of sailing ships and their shipbuilders.  The last ship built in Banff, the Swift, was on the stocks for three years waiting for a buyer.   Eventually the Geddies had to become the managing owners.   Tragically the Swift was lost at sea in 1896, less than a year after her completion.  Six men were lost with her, including two of William’s sons.  William died heartbroken in 1897 and with him went a great Banff industry that carried the name of Banff far and wide.

Colour photo of Duff House surrounded by woodland

One of the consequences of having woodland, is that wildflowers find their way to grow. During the late nineteenth century a number of lists of wildflowers around Banff were given, mostly under the auspices of the Banffshire Field Club, but they admit these were just partial surveys.
The local historian Allan Mahood, in his 1919 book, provides a chapter on local wildflowers, contributed to by several knowledgeable botanists. They conclude that the area around Banff has an unusually great “profusion, variety and charm” of its wild flowers. There is also a comment that there may not be rare plants – which may be true except for one exception – a plant perhaps not identified until more recently (see Part 2).


The examples below are just a few noteworthy wildflowers in the Duff House woods – most accompanied by images of some nineteenth century water colours of the plants.


Impatiens Roylei – or I. glandulifera – better known as the Himalayan Balsam. It was introduced into the UK in 1839 as a garden plant, and by early in the twentieth century a small patch was noted next to the Gelly Burn, near to where it joins the Deveron. A hundred years later and there are patches on both sides of the river, and not just by the banks, but even at an elevation of about 20 metres above the river. This has perhaps taken place because the plant can shoot it’s seeds up to 7 metres distance, which are easily transported on water as they are viable for about two years. This plant is now listed as an invasive species, overbearing many native plants; it seems to be slowly expanding locally. The picture is taken from Favourite (Garden) Plants in 1897 – not a favourite garden plant nowadays, not even a favourite wild flower!

Colour image of a hand drawing
Better known today as Himalayan Balsam – an invasive species that used to be a garden plant


Allium Paradoxum – few flowered leek. Anyone that has walked through Duff House woods in June and July can hardly of missed the garlic smell in the area south of the Mausoleum. Follow the footpath just on the river side of the Mausoleum, and this leads you down to “Hospital Island”, a Leper Hospital many years ago. Garlic is a traditional natural remedy to ease the symptoms of leprosy; and few flowered leek is also called few flowered garlic. It is not known if that is the reason there is so much of this plant, completely covering Hospital Island and now spread to the surrounding woods. Two things to note; Hospital Island is not really an island any more as the channel has silted over; but this 1908 postcard shows it really did used to be. Secondly, please note it is illegal to replant because of it’s extreme spreading habit!

Colour photo
Few Flowered Leek
Black and white image of a boat on a river channel

Mercurialis Perennis – Dog’s Mercury. This is, and was reported to be, very abundant in the low lying part of Duff House woods; it is very tolerant of shade and grows to about one foot (35cm) in height. It may not be considered to be the prettiest of plants, with just some very small greenish flowers. It has at least two special features however: firstly it is hermaphrodite – more accurately dioecious – as it has both male and female versions of the plant. Secondly and most important, it has nothing to do with “dogs”, and is highly poisonous to both dogs and humans, causing vomiting, jaundice, coma and eventually death. The word “dog” in this context means “false”. The painting, male on the left, female to the right, was done in 1831.

Colour image of a plant painted over text in a book
Male version on the left, female on the right.

The ruin of St Brandon's Church at Boyndie

For whom the bell tolls?  Well – nobody!  The bell made by Hugh Gordon of Aberdeen and dated 1770, disappeared in 2000 just after St. Brandon’s Church was gutted by fire. So if the bell were to toll it would be for St Brandon’s in Boyndie.

St Brandon’s Church in Boyndie was built in 1773 by local architect William Robertson to take over from the pre-reformation St Brandon’s Kirk at Inverboyndie.  The Inverboyndie Kirk seems to have been abandoned and gradually fell into a ruinous state.  Some items of furniture were carried from there to St Brandon’s Boyndie, including a ‘fine chair’ dated 1733.  There was also a ‘flower table’ reputedly from a four-poster bed in Duff House.   St Brandon’s also benefitted from a pair of communion beakers (circa 1720’s).  These beakers were sold for £38,000 in 2004 to pay for repairs to the Church Hall in Whitehills.  One of the beakers is on display in the Museum of Banff.

St Brandon’s served as the Church of Scotland Parish Church until the final service on Sunday, 25th August 1996.  The congregation then moved to Trinity Church in Whitehills.

St Brandon’s was sold into private ownership in 1998.  On 14th February, 2000 the building was severely damaged by fire.  The North East Scotland Preservation Trust carried out structural repairs in 2004 to prevent further deterioration of the building.  A compulsory purchase order was served on the owners in 2006 by Aberdeenshire Council resulting in the Council gaining ownership of the building in 2013.  In the same year, St Brandon’s was again sold into private ownership.  It now serves as a family home, and also hosts a tearoom from Thursday to Saturday, thus continuing a tradition of service to the community.

St Brandon’s Church

If ever you have given thought to where you might like to rest for eternity, you will not find a more salubrious location than St Brandon’s graveyard, Inverboyndie.  The view from any of the graves is unsurpassed, taking in as it does an expanse of the Moray Firth, including a cinemascopic view of the Banff area and beyond.  Closer to hand there is a gentle slope down to the Boyndie Burn.

You will not be stuck for company.  The graveyard is quite small so all those interred should be within earshot.  Your more visible neighbours on the ground floor date from the 17th to the present day.  They originate from a cross section of the surrounding area: farmers, blacksmiths, boat builders, and fishermen.  As you can see from the gravestones, they had an appreciation of the mason’s art. 

While some are accompanied by their wives and some of their children, I dare say they would all welcome some outside conversation as, being upfront and close to one’s family in a confined space for all eternity can be trying at times 

St Brandon’s church is first mentioned in the early 13th century, so it seems reasonable to assume that in the basement of the present graves lie those of medieval folk.  Their stories should go some way towards passing the eternal days and nights, and I can see you will be in great demand with your stories of world wars, Brexit and Scottish Independence.

Should you run out of conversation in the basement, you could explore the lower basement.  The graveyard has all the signs of a Celtic origin: it is circular in shape, situated near a burn and is named after a famous Celtic missionary and navigator: St. Brandon.  While you may experience some initial difficulty with the Celtic and Pictish languages, learning these languages could be a pleasant occupation and, I am told, help stave off senility.

On those nights when all is quiet, you could ponder the question:  why was an industrial estate allowed right up against such a unique ancient monument?

Colour photo of leaves and berries

We know in the 17th century there was hardly a tree around Banff, and Lord Fife – mostly the 2nd Earl Fife – planted large plantations in the late 18th century, proving that with the right care trees can flourish in Banffshire.  However, in addition to the major plantations intended for commercial reasons and to provide building materials for the locals, James Duff also stocked the immediate surroundings of Duff House – what he called his “Pleasure Grounds”, from the original entrance (now in St Mary’s car park) all the way through to Bridge of Alvah.  Today we benefit from his collection in what we call Wrack Woods.

By 1819, two of the many visitors, in this case Robert Southey the Poet Laureate who visited with his friend Robert Telford – the architect for the expansion of Banff Harbour – described Wrack Woods: “the trees are surprisingly fine, considering how near they grow to the North Sea.”  In fact, just a few years earlier, it had been described that Duff House grounds contained every type of tree known in the UK.

A description of many of the trees in Duff House grounds was written a hundred years later, in 1919, by Allan Mahood.  He lists many of the trees near to the main track through what used to be the Pleasure Grounds – but gifted by the Duke of Fife twelves years earlier for the recreation of the local residents.

There was a huge Ash tree near Collie Gate – opposite what is now known as Collie Lodge, today marked by an area of stone setts; reportedly used to hang a spy in 1746 by the army on the way to Culloden.  There were many Elm trees, including the much rarer Wych Elm.  Beech trees, normal and copper versions; Sycamore including a variegated version.  Several Maple varieties including Norway and small leaved Maple.  Lime, various species of Oak, a line of very tall white Poplars just near Collie Gate and more unusual balsam Poplar with golden leaves down near the river.  Several of these trees have not been found in the woods today.

There are still plenty of Horse Chestnuts in the woods, but there used to be Sweet Chestnuts although reportedly the fruit never ripened.  But there were also less usual trees: a Dwarf Elder (known as “Danewort”), Noble Fir, Cypress, Douglas Fir, Himalayan Cedar; the list goes on.  There is even a Sequoia Gigantea – still there today near Bridge of Alvah.

There were also several trees known as “Lord Fife’s Mapples” – in fact what was known then as the Pyrus Aria, now the Sorbus Aria.  This is the Whitebeam; the exact variety is not known, but to bear fruit that is compared to apples suggests it may have been what was at that time the new cultivar “Magnifica”, with extra white undersides of leaves as described, and with larger fruit.

Clearly the Duff House woods were a magnificent arboretum and truly Pleasure Grounds!

C W Cosser plans for Library and Museum Banff

While completing the paperwork to enable the Museum of Banff to be involved in this year’s Doors Open Day, the name of the architect of the Banff Library and Museum emerged, one C. W. Cosser, and, as it is an unusual name for Banff, I sensed a story.

Charles Walter Cossar, or more often Cosser, was indeed the architect based in Banff who designed the Banff Library building.

Charles Cosser was born in Southampton and is listed as a Bugler with the Royal Engineers in 1861. He first arrived in Banff as an engineer with the Royal Engineers in 1866, when they carried out a survey of the district. Later he retired from the army and married a local butcher’s daughter, Mary Ann Bartlett Scott, in 1870. They had four children. Unfortunately his wife died in 1874.

He was responsible for a number of projects in the local area such as adding the tower to Portsoy Parish Church in Seafield Street in 1876.

C.W. Cosser also designed alterations for Craigston Castle in 1876, alterations to the Royal Oak hotel in the 1890s, and planned the extension to Marnoch Churchyard in 1902. He also built Doctor Barclay’s house in Castle Street. He was praised for his work as an engineer in 1888 as he was responsible for planning a clean water supply for Ladysbridge, bringing it from springs on the farms of Wardend and Inchdrewer.

As well as being an architect and surveyor Charles had other roles: he was Inspector of the Poor, and people could book passages on board ships to worldwide destinations from his offices at 1 Carmelite Street.

Charles also held the role of Clerk to the Parish Council and he rented out several properties around Banff.

In his spare time, we know that he kept a garden because he was a Banff Flower Show winner in the amateur section for dessert apples – truly a man o’ pairts.

Charles Walter Cosser died in Banff in 1915, aged 70.

Colour photo of bronze plaque and wreath on a stone background

This picture is of the war memorial at Duff House. Poppies in remembrance of the British that died, and the Forget-me-nots as the German flower of remembrance. This is one of the very few joint nationality war memorials in existence. It is placed on the spot where one of the bombs fell as part of the events recounted below.

“In the morning at nine o’clock the klaxon for roll call went. We were all lined up outside. We heard an aircraft and he came pretty low. He must have been coming out from Norway or somewhere [like that]. I think it was a reconnaissance aircraft. They are loaded with bombs too. I think he was on a reconnaissance mission to explore northern Scotland, and he saw this camp down there. He saw the tents of the guards up on the hill, and he saw this building there with people outside and thought, ‘let’s give them a lesson,’ so to speak. Before we witnessed that it was over, the bombs fell. Miraculously, I wasn’t hit by anything, but I lost six of my crewmates from U-26 during the air attack mistakenly made by Hermann Göring’s ‘Flying Circus’. Two bombs went into the elevator shaft as duds, they never blew up. But two guards outside, they were killed through the bombs.”

These are the words of Paul Mengelberg, one of the true eye-witnesses as the bombs fell. This took place on 22nd July 1940 – 81 years ago this last week.

Paul Mengelberg continued, “Those that died were given a soldier’s funeral by the British forces at the gravesite in Banff.” Later writers mention that the bodies were eventually repatriated to Germany, but this is not correct. In 1959, an agreement was concluded by the governments of the United Kingdom and the Federal Republic of Germany concerning the future care of the graves of German nationals who lost their lives in the United Kingdom during the two World Wars and so a new German Military cemetery was established at Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, which is where the six men are now buried.

The two British soldiers who were killed were of course returned to their families, one in Newcastle, one in Blair Atholl.

Colour photo of gravestones in neatly cut grass
Four colour photos of gravestones
Colour photo of gravestone
Colour copy of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission card for Thomas Blakey
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission card for Thomas Blakey

 In 1862 John Kynoch was digging a grave in the old St Mary’s kirkyard in Banff, then still in use. He hit stone and was, he said, “compelled to use the pick in place of the spade”. Then he realised he had uncovered part of a statue. The pick had done serious damage in the process. Not being an archaeologist, he did not gather up the bits broken off. He took his find to the manse, where it stayed for a time, but then was put back in the kirkyard as an attraction for visitors. Twenty years later, there was a gathering of the northern Scientific Societies at Banff, and they were shown Mr Kynoch’s find. The learned minister of Nairn, Dr Grigor, said ‘That is a late-mediaeval Pieta”. The Catholic priest at Banff, Fr Chisholm, later a bishop, contradicted him, because the Middle Ages are Catholic, not Presbyterian, territory. It was too small to be a Pieta. He thought it might be part of a set of Stations of the Cross, the one that shows Christ being taken down from the cross after the crucifixion. Perhaps you could have a version of the thirteenth station showing him being lifted down and placed on his mother’s lap.

The statue was taken to Edinburgh and showed to scholars there, and Dr Grigor brought a picture of Michelangelo’s Pieta in Rome to the next meeting of the Banffshire Field Club, and it was agreed that what Banff had was a Pieta. It is likely that the word Pieta was a new one to Banffshire. Now classified and recognised as an amazing local survival of medieval art, the Pieta was at once moved to Banff Museum in 1883, and it has been there ever since. There is little doubt that it is local. A stonemason could tell you this is old red sandstone, common along this coast, and still quarried in Morayshire. (Incidentally old red sandstone can be yellow too.) Some say that the fact that the heads are missing is evidence of deliberate iconoclasm at the Reformation, but Banff quite liked images of Our Lady, and across the room in the Museum is the original Mercat Cross, with a statue of the Virgin and Child which survived in a public place throughout the Reformation and on. It is sadly possible that a man with a pick will knock off bits that stick out before he realises he has found a statue.

In a way, Michelangelo’s masterpiece has been a nuisance in interpreting what we have got in Banff, as if the sculptor in Banff must have had it as his model. On the continent there were hundreds of Pietas going back 200 years before Michelangelo, most common in Germany, but in France and Italy as well. No other Pietas, or indeed Stations of the Cross, have emerged from mediaeval Scotland. It is actually a problem to make one that looks right. A mother with a baby is easy, but a woman with the corpse of a full-grown man looks not just tragic but somewhat grotesque. So earlier Pietas often do not achieve what Michelangelo managed. Measured against them our Banff sculptor did all right.

Presumably it stood in the parish church, or perhaps in the Carmelite church, now lost.