This is one of my favourite places. It is beautiful of course and it has seen so many wondrous, historically important and sometimes terrible things. There are stone circles and Bronze Age cairns dotted around the countryside. There have been people here for a very long time indeed.

The Celtic Mormaers, it is thought, ruled this land for centuries from here, the principal seat. Bede Cruithnech, the Pict, the first Buchan man mentioned in history, lived here, and listened to St Drostan’s words about 520 AD. It is a formidable defensive location ideal for a castle, and so enter the Norman barons, the Comyns. Like so many other Norman nobles, the St Clairs or Sinclairs, Meldrums and Cheynes were invited to settle in the North East of Scotland by King David I. The King was enamoured with the feudal system and wanted to subjugate the Celtic folk.

Margaret, the only child of Fergus, the last Mormaer of Buchan, married William Comyn who became the first Scoto-Norman Earl of Buchan and he built a Norman keep right there in the 12th century.

The Comyns ruled Buchan from here for more than 100 years and played a very important role in the history of Scotland. After the death of the Maid of Norway, John Comyn and his cousin the Lord of Badenoch, the Black Comyn, were among the thirteen barons who could lay some possible claim to the throne of Scotland. But King Edward I of England had a desire to make Scotland a part of England. The Black Comyn died and his son the Red Comyn took over his claim.

Lots of battles and events preceded this but Edward invaded Scotland in 1296 and on July the 23rd 1296 King Edward I of England and his entire northern army came from Turriff to King Edward Castle to be entertained by John Comyn before moving on to Banff.

Edward invaded Scotland again in 1303 and marched through Buchan from Aberdeen and arrived in Banff on the 4th of September. The son of the Red Comyn who was one of the chosen Regents of Scotland fought a guerrilla war against Edward I of England, alongside William Wallace and Simon Fraser. He was famously slain by Robert the Bruce after a quarrel before the high altar of the church of the Minorite Friars in Dumfries. Bruce stabbed his rival because he believed Comyn had passed secrets to Edward.

John Comyn, the Earl of Buchan, and cousin to the Red Comyn, was now one of Robert the Bruce’s most deadly enemies and the most powerful noble of his time. He held court here in Kynedor Castle.

Bruce fled to Norway and came back to Scotland in the spring of 1307 and then the tide of battle turned in his favour. Bruce, a general of consummate ability, gained victory after victory in decisive battles, several of them near here, such as at Aikey Brae, Bruce Hill, Slains and the battle of Barra in the parish of Bourtie less than a mile from Oldmeldrum.

To make certain there would never be opposition again from such a powerful baron, Robert the Bruce wreaked a terrible vengeance on the people of Buchan. All Buchan was devastated including Kynedor Castle. Robert the Bruce is known by a few names but the Scottish hero is also called ‘the Bane of Buchan’.

My personal favourite character and hero for me is Isabella, the sister of Duncan, the Earl of Fife of the old line of Macduff, who was married to the Earl of Buchan, John Comyn. The right of crowning the Scottish Kings being hereditary to the family of Macduff, Isabella claimed this right. She, along with a body of retainers mounted on her husband’s war horses, arrived two days late for the ceremony at Scone. Because of her loyalty she was given the opportunity of again placing the Crown on Bruce’s head. Isabella was captured by the English and imprisoned, on orders from King Edward, in a wicker cage at Berwick Castle where she languished for 7 years, known as the ‘caged lady of Buchan’.

It is hard to imagine what King Edward would look like today if the events I have just described had turned out differently. At the height of their power there were no fewer than three earls, Buchan, Menteith and Athol and one great feudal baron, Comyn Lord of Strathbogie, with 30 knights owning land.

There remains no memorial for the Comyns in the land save the orisons of the monks of Deer, and places names such as Cuminestown.

There is not much of Kynedor Castle left just the stories. The masoned stones were used in the building of the Castleton Bridges in the 18th and 19th centuries and now span the burn instead of a drawbridge, but it looks affy bony. You can park at the picnic area and walk down a really good path to the old 18th century bridge, but watch yourself crossing the busy A947.

by Mark Findlater

Photo of old yellowed map showing the River Deveron and the piers of the first Banff Bridge.

The present Banff Bridge was opened in 1779, although not formally signed off until 17th June 1780.  Some of the original drawings of this Smeaton designed bridge, widened in 1881, do exist.  Many people are however aware that the present bridge replaced a previous one but little is known about it.

The Roy map of 1747 gives a sketch of both Banff and Down (although the latter is not named) and it does show a ford across the river.  This appears to be the King’s Ford, located 1350 feet south of the present bridge, just upstream of the mouth of the Gelly Burn on the Macduff side; part of the track from this ford to Down is still traceable on the ground.

A bit later there was also another ford utilising the west end of Scurry Island – the island just round the first major bend to the south – which joined the track past what is now Kirkside farm.

Use of the fords however was quite difficult and certainly dangerous; the tracks to them were also reported as not easy to navigate in wet weather – or until the 2nd Earl Fife undertook to improve them if the land was passed to him – which only took place in 1777.  The alternative was the use of a ferry, but some of the arguments used to make the case for a bridge show how dangerous the ferry was too: “not a single year passed without some unfortunate occurrence at this ferry”; “inconvenience to the public”; “frequent stoppage of mails”.  One of the reported incidents was 12th January 1739 when several people lost their lives after the ferry overturned.

The case for a bridge over the river was several decades in the making, and the earliest known detailed map of either Banff or Down (not named Macduff until 1783), dated October 1763, does show the beginnings of the first bridge.  This unique map shows the first bridge had three piers in the river, plus one on each bank – hence four arches compared to the present seven arched bridge.  It was largely paid for by the Government and is reported to have cost between five and six thousand pounds.  It opened in June 1765.

However great it was to stay dry crossing the river – remembering it was the main route to Aberdeen – on 17th September 1768 there was a large storm, and a huge spate of water came down the river.  This undermined the west, Banff side, pier, and the bridge collapsed, although fortunately without loss of life.

Unfortunately the ferry that had to be resumed was not so safe; in January 1773 seven lives were lost when the ferry was carried out into Banff Bay.

Smeaton decided that the new bridge should be located “the breadth of itself further up”.  Not particularly clear but the 1763 map allows some scale measurements to be taken and it would appear the old bridge was slightly to seaward of the present bridge.  The stones from the old bridge were re-used in the new bridge when work started in 1772, much of the rest coming from the quarry now at Bridge garage.

Before 1849 there were no public holidays in Banff, but one day in the year was certainly different.  The 6th of October was the Earl Fife’s birthday – I mean James, the fourth Earl. The festivities usually began by the arrival of the different coaches running to and from the burgh in Low Street, gaily decorated with flowers, like dahlias, hollyhocks and asters. The Aberdeen and Elgin coaches, in particular, vied with each other which would be most artistic. Imagine one with an iron-work foundation, rising into a crown on top, all a mass of colours. (As an aside, the poor passengers were rather bothered by earwigs).  After discharging their passengers the coaches were driven down to Duff House for inspection by the Earl, who appeared on the balcony, and would tip the drivers and the guards. The loons of Banff went along too, for the schoolboys always got a holiday upon the 6th of October. No sooner had the coaches cleared off from before the house than the Earl called the boys to the front, and, telling them to look out, showered amongst them handfuls of silver, great and small. The old man, in his flowered blue silk dressing-gown reaching his feet, and in his velvet skull-cap, used to laugh heartily over the squirming mass of humanity rolling and clutching at the cash.

The next part of the day’s proceedings caused criticism as Scotland became more Victorian. At one o’clock in the afternoon large casks of porter were set up under the care of his lordship’s servants at different points in the burgh—notably the Battery Green, North Castle Street, the Gallowhill, the Greystone, the Back Path, Low Street, Low Shore, and the Green Banks or Old Market Place. You can imagine the clamouring, thirsty crowd hovering about with mugs, jugs, and vessels of all shapes and sizes, eagerly waiting their turn at the tap.

At one o’clock in the afternoon within the Hotel a goodly number of the professional men, farmers in the neighbourhood, and master tradesmen of the burgh assembled to eat an excellent dinner and drink long life to the noble Earl. There also his lordship’s kindly thought came in, for he invariably sent to the Hotel a quantity of game and an ample supply of port and sherry from his own cellar for the use of the company.

The day’s proceedings were wound up with a mighty bonfire on the top of the Hill of Doune, a ball in the County Hall, to which the Earl also sent an unstinted supply of wines, including champagne, not so common then as it was later, while another ball for the benefit of his servants and work-people was held at the barnyards, within the demesne.

This story comes, almost word for word, from Mr Hossack’s memories fifty years later, as he recounted it to the Banffshire Field Club in 1900.

A view of the Strait path from Low Street

When visitors hear a Banffer mention ‘Strait Path’, they hear ‘Straight Path’. When they look up or down the path this spelling is confirmed; the path which leads from the High Street to the Low Street, is indeed (more or less) straight.  However, straightness was not the most salient feature in the naming of the path; it was the narrowness of the path that caused it to be named ‘Strait Path’.  Notice both parts of the name imply narrowness; a strait is narrow, as is a path.  They could more simply have named it ‘Strait’, or ‘Path’.

There is a third dimension, height, which should have been salient to the namers of Strait Path; the Ordinance Survey puts its elevation at 13.91%.  To appreciate this number you only have to stand on Low Street, look up to the top of Strait Path and be awe struck by the very steep climb.  Standing there you can readily appreciate why Strait Path featured on the BBC’s website, ‘Is this Scotland’s steepest Street?’.  You might also agree that Strait Path could have’ been more appropriately called ‘Strait Hill’.

Not everyone is distressed by the climb.  Shopkeepers are happy to see people come up the hill, stop for a rest, and have a look at their shops.  The local council kindly erected stout railings to provide a support to lean on at various points in the climb.  That being said, it is not uncommon to hear visitors say, one to another, with what one assumes is ironic understatement: that brae is a bit steep.  The same visitors would find it hard to imagine that up to the 19th century Strait Path was a part of the main route in and out of Banff. 

For the most part the kind of shop on Strait Path has not changed much over the years; where you had a barber, now you have a beauty salon, and kilt makers have given way to tailor alterations.  As the French proverb has it: things change to remain the same.

Colour image of a painting showing a distinguished grey haired man.

The Banffshire Journal was founded in 1845 but it’s first Editor, James Thomson, lasted only little more than a year.  For the next six decades Alexander Ramsay was the Editor, initially appointed when he was just 25.  He had served an apprenticeship in Edinburgh – since the age of 13 – then worked in London, before coming to Banff in early 1847.

50 years into his job he told friends at his Jubilee, “Since the day I first entered the Town, I have never ceased to take a lively interest in its affairs.  On nearing the east end of the Bridge, and looking out of the window of the coach, I saw the fair prospect of the Town resting on the slope of the hill, the river in the foreground, the sea to the right, the valley of the Deveron stretching southwards. I felt that I could live in this place.  I have been so engrossed I work ever since that I had no time to think of a change.”

He started the regime of printing on Mondays for distribution on Tuesdays, and also appointed a correspondent in every parish, who weekly reported their local news to him.  He made sure the paper covered not just local subjects, but everything he could think of interest to his readers.  His political editorials tried to be balanced, which must have resulted in some discussion since his controlling shareholders were two Tories, the Earl of Fife and the Earl of Seafield!

He had many interests outside of the Journal itself.  He purchased the copyright of the Polled Cattle Herd Book (“polled cattle” are those cattle breeds that naturally have no horns, such as Angus and Galloway) and published many editions, remaining it’s editor until 1901.  At times he was also a Town Councillor, was Provost for two years, Chairman of the Parish Church Musical Association, and an Elder of the Church.  Other posts he held were on the Banff School Board and Chair of the Banffshire Field Club.

There was a large gathering for his Jubilee in 1897; at least 150 polled cattle farmers and many friends gathered in the Banff Council Chambers.  One of the things he was presented with was his portrait, painted by Marjorie Evans, herself a grand-daughter of a Provost of Banff.

Dr Ramsay passed away in 1909.

Thomas Edward gravestone
General view of Banff Cemetery

There are two graveyards in Banff, the old one down by the sea, and the new one up on the hill. St Mary’s Kirkyard, round the ruins of the old parish church, is very historic, and the Banff Preservation and Heritage Society has brought out books listing and describing the graves. But for a long time now, the people of Banff have been buried in Banff Cemetery up on the hill.

The old kirkyard was overfull. There were too many visible bones. In Victorian Scotland it was clear that cemeteries should be spacious, well-drained, preferably windswept, outside the town, and discreetly expressing a well-ordered society. Along the avenues would be the conspicuous tombs of the great and the good, and in behind rows of smaller gravestones, and away in a corner somewhere for those who didn’t have gravestones at all. Banff got the whole package. “It is more than 5 acres in extent, and is laid out with great taste. The cost of the whole has been about £2700”. The newspaper had a plan of the layout, but admitted that in order to fit in with the shape of newspaper columns, they had made the triangle to the north a rectangle, and that might be misleading.

The first interment in the new cemetery was on 24th July 1862. That did not mean the old kirkyard was closed. After all widows might expect to be buried with their husbands, and so on. After the novelty wore off, rather too many preferred the old familiar place. There was a worry that the old kirkyard would become a slum, like some of the buildings around it, and in 1867 Miss Strachan of Cortes gave £50 for new railings for the old kirkyard. She herself was buried there, in one of the grandest Victorian monuments in the old kirkyard. The Victorians were really willing to spend money on graveyard monuments, and the new cemetery has some very fine stones.

Kirkyards, as the name tells us, used to be around churches. Cemeteries are not. Scotland was divided religiously, and no one church had a right to the cemetery. When in 1862, the Bishop of Aberdeen instituted a new Rector in St Andrew’s Church in Banff, he and the other clergy present went up the hill and consecrated the new cemetery. Episcopalians like blessing buildings and places. Probably most people thought it could do no harm, but the Free Church was very annoyed. The grave of Thomas Edward, the Banff Naturalist is in Banff Cemetery, and so are the Commonwealth War Graves from the Second World War.

The historic buildings of Banff all tell a story. It could be of the trades and crafts once carried out in the town, it could be of the families that once lived there. One building that tells the story of a revolution is the former Trinity and Alvah Church in Castle Street, now used by the Riverside Church.

This building is a monument to the people of the disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1843. On 14th May 1843, the Reverend Francis Grant preached for the last time in the Parish Church and led the dissenters from the church. At first they leased Seatown chapel, now demolished.

The dissenters engaged James Raeburn, architect, from Edinburgh, but born in Boyndie, to draw up plans for a new church, on a site on the new South Castle Street that was being laid out at the time.

In a letter from James Raeburn on 16th May, 1843, promising a plan and sketch of the Free Presbyterian Church to be erected in Banff James Raeburn stated “I have kept in view comfort, strength and cheapness, even in the exterior arrangement.“ “I also approve of you adopting stone, rather than wood which will in the end be less expensive as well as more durable”

Donations to build the church came in from all over the country and in all amounts – varying from a few shillings to several pounds. E.g. Mr Lillie from Nottingham – 10/-, Mr James Wood – £5. The people who paid for the church were from all walks of life.

The foundation stone of the new church was laid in August 1843, along with 111/2 d. The new church was opened in June 1844. A Day school was added next to the church in 1844 at a cost of £250 and in 1845, the manse was built at a cost of over £500. The church was enlarged in 1877 at a cost of £1500.

Trinity and Alvah church was built in the Ionic style, one of many designed by James Raeburn for the Free Church in 1843, is considered an unusually grand example of a Free Church.

Have a listen to this interview and accompanying pictures of Macduff’s very own retired Harbour Master John West. In his interview, John talks about his experiences both as a fisherman when he started out in 1962 and then, more latterly about his days as Harbour Master which he went on to become in 1990. It really is a fascinating talk about how fishing has changed over the decades. We hope you enjoy reminiscing! 

Colour photo showing the front of the rectangular gothic building

About a mile south of Duff House, in a very peaceful location looking over the river, is a Mausoleum built in 1792 by the 2nd Earl Fife, initially for his parents, but now with possibly 21 residents, including the first five Earls.  The sixth Earl – who became the first Duke of Fife – was buried at Mar Lodge on Deeside, another of what was the Duff family properties.

The Mausoleum is a rectangular “gothic” building, with stone latticed windows and a slate roof.  When a restoration was done in 1912, one of the reasons apparently was that the then stone tiled roof was leaking, and the slate roof was put on top to make it weathertight.

Other work in 1912 included filling in the crypt.  As you enter through the main door in front of you are three large stones in the floor which cover the steps that went down.  There was then an aisle running left and right, with a total of 22 shelves, in pairs, for coffins.  The only location known of any of the listed incumbents is the First Earl and his (second) wife Jean, who are in the northeasterly corner, looking out over the river.  His son, James the 2nd Earl, had them brought to the Mausoleum from Rothiemay once the Mausoleum was completed.  William the first Earl Fife never lived at Duff House in his lifetime – although he had it built – but has been here now for 228 years!

A list of people buried in the crypt is incised in stone just inside the door; this lists 19 people.  It does get a bit confusing because two other lists have been printed in history books, and all three are slightly different.  If the lists are combined a total of 21 people are spending their time in the crypt.  Monuments to many of them adorn the inside of the Mausoleum itself.  The first Earl’s at the east end is made of Coade stone – refer to the separate “story” of 16-Sep-19 for more information.  A number of excellent examples exist around the Mausoleum, but the first Earl’s tomb is marred by the crest at the top being damaged by rusting – and hence expanding – supporting metal work.

Originally the windows were filled with coloured glass; years ago fragments could be found on the ground outside, and some remnants can still be seen in the stone tracery.  In 2016 a small amount of restoration was done described well by the notice posted at the time:

Please take care around this building as work is underway,

Unfortunately we must repair the damage without further delay,

We do not mean to disturb your visit and would like you to know,

Just what it is we need to fix and how about it we might go.

The window has been vandalised and the tomb is a little green,

The gate is rather rusty and needs much more than just a clean,

So please excuse us while we work, we won’t take too much time,

But watch this space and soon the building will be looking mighty fine.

And indeed, the conservation contractors for Aberdeenshire Council, did a great job.  The building was plenty fine enough for a tea party with Their Graces The Duke and Duchess of Fife in 2017 !

A “story” about the Provost Douglas tomb on the outside south wall was put on this site on 11-May-19.

The Mausoleum is normally kept locked, but can be viewed during the grounds guided tours from Duff House (but not during Covid!) or in mid-September for Doors Open Day.  For 2020 the latter was a virtual experience and a short Mausoleum video narrated by the Duke of Fife can be seen and heard at https://youtu.be/9koNx6v5Z6A

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.