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. 

1866 Map of Banff Harbour

Walking past the harbour, partially repaired, raised questions about the railway pier and how the harbour had developed. The harbour in Banff is fascinating as for many years it was the home to fishing boats but also ships that sailed the world, bringing in raw materials needed in Banff and the surrounding area and exporting goods from this area.

The earliest mention of a harbour or safe haven is stated by Cramond (The Annals of Banff) to be in 1471, when the “Peel Heife” or Peel Haven, was next to the area used as the site for rebuilding the Kirk of Banff,St Mary’s Kirkyard, and that it had previously been where “boats and small craft were generally moored”.

In the early 1600s, plans were made for a harbour at Guthrie’s Haven and in 1625, James McKen, Fraserburgh, was employed to clear Guthrie’s Haven of rocks. (where the harbour is now) Records were found of people contributing £88 14s. 10d. towards building the harbour in 1626.

By the 1730s the harbour was still not complete and the town was unable to complete the work within a year as funds were low, despite gaining funding from across Scotland by voluntary contributions, so the storms in winter destroyed much of the work undertaken in the previous summer.

A renewed effort brought more contributions from across Britain and Europe e.g. Provost Hamilton in Bordeaux sent strong claret which was “rouped for eight guineas” and an order was issued by the Council for “a man from every family in town to work for a whole day or two tides, for carrying off the chingle thrown in to the harbour of Guthrie”

By 1760 there was “a basin with two piers, in which a ship of a hundred tons can lie with safety”.

By 1770 a new harbour was planned and the foundations were being laid, according to a plan by John Smeaton.

By 1818 further improvements were needed and a plan was drawn up by Mr Thomas Telford. The works were to cost £14,000 and consisted of building new piers. The work was not without problems as a storm in 1828 wrecked part of the partially built pier and the pier then had to be built higher and thicker.

Throughout its existence regular maintenance and improvements have been needed.

From approximately 1859 to 1910 the Banff, Portsoy and Strathisla railway ran right to the harbour but in 1910 the link to the harbour was dismantled. It can be seen on the map of 1866. The National Library of Scotland has several maps of Banff that show how the harbour has changed over time.

The harbour has faced periods of great prosperity and some really difficult periods so hopefully better times will return soon for this wonderful historic harbour.

Black and off white image of an article title page in a 1788 "magazine"

James Duff was born in 1729, the second son of the 1st Earl of Fife.  He became the 2nd Earl when his father – William – died in 1763, but it seems he was active in the running of the Duff estate well before that – it is well known that his father was not enamoured with Duff House, even though he had had it built!

30 years after he started developing the Duff House estate, James wrote about some of his agricultural work.  He describes the estate with its “many natural beauties from sea views, a fine river, much variety from inequality of ground, and fine rock scenes in different parts of the river; but there was not a tree, and it was generally believed that no wood would thrive so near to the sea coast.”

In other words the area around Banff and Duff House in the first half of the 18th century used to look substantially different.  The whole valley had no trees, which must have made Duff House itself really seem to be imposing.  Difficult to imagine now, but it shows how the whole lower Deveron valley is a man-made landscape.

James Duff carries on to make it clear that he has proved over a thirty year period from about 1750 that the general belief that trees would not grow so near to the sea coast, was a mistake.  In 1787 The Duff park was fourteen miles round, and James claims he has every kind of forest tree, from thirty years old, “in a most thriving state; and few places better wooded”.  This was confirmed by some of the well known visitors to the estate.

James writes the above in the “Annals of Agriculture” and over several pages goes on to explain in some detail how to grow trees where the climate is not favourable, and in different types of ground.  How experience has taught him what species to mix for success, that the best planting density is 1200 trees per acre.  He used to bring trees on, mainly in his own nurseries, for three years and then plant them out, mostly amongst “Scotch Firs” as “nurses”.

In this way James planted 7,000 acres mainly in his Duff and Innes estates – as the magazine editor comments “This is planting on a magnificent scale indeed!”.  He says that part of his purpose is to provide wood to the local population – all those Scotch Firs that were cut down once the other trees were established – as coal was so expensive in this region, and made worse by “a heavy and unjust tax on it”!

His article prompt considerable interest and many questions; he writes answers to every question and does not seem to hide any detail.

It is clearly because of James’s foresight that we are lucky enough to have such a pleasant Deveron valley, with it’s wooded river-side walks to enjoy.

The famous aviation brothers were known around the world but we had our own Wright Brothers in the North East, not famous for flying but for making Threshing Mills.

William Wright trained as a millwright at Alehouseburn and aged just 23 was already making all kinds of agricultural machinery in his own business. By 1870 he had designed a traction engine which was used to power threshing machines and toured the area.

By 1888, he was producing turnip-sowing machines, manure spreaders and threshing machines.

Timber for the many machines was bought from the Cullen House annual wood sale and the business continued to grow.

In 1889 William moved his business to the Boyne Mills, outside Portsoy. This had previously been a woollen and tweed mill owned by William Walker and Co who, from 1881, sold their goods from the old U.P. church in Carmelite Street, Banff.  William Wright continued to build agricultural machinery as well as carrying out general joinery. Some of the local projects included working on the new United Free Church at Cullen and at the Hay Memorial Hall in Cornhill.

William Wright died in 1902, but the business was carried on by his family. They continued to supply threshing mills all over the country, from Perthshire northwards. Farms where the threshing mills were installed included Mains of Skeith, and Fiskaidly locally. When the threshing mill was installed at Fiskaidly a large company of friends and neighbours were invited to inspect the new buildings and machinery. This was followed by supper and dancing with songs sung in the intervals.

In 1909, “an interested company met at the Home Farm of Sir George Abercromby of Forglen, to witness the installation of a threshing plant of the most improved type” (a Wright Brothers installation)

By the mid 1950s the demand for threshing mills had declined and the business disappeared over time.

Wright Brothers’ threshing mills can still be seen at agricultural shows.

Banff Jail

Australians come on pilgrimage to Banff to see where an ancestor was imprisoned before he was transported to what was then called Van Diemen’s Land. People could be transported for fairly petty crimes. There are cells at the back of the Town House on Low Street. On the opposite side of the road, at the foot of Strait Path, was its predecessor, the Tolbooth. The cells there were only too easy of access, and there was a long history of escapes. Indeed, even as late as the Town House, if a prisoner had funds or friends, or possibly even agility, there might be ways and means of getting out.

With the reign of Queen Victoria there came reforms, purpose-built jails it was almost impossible to escape from. Banff jail was on Reidhaven Street. As you can see in the picture it was a tall bleak building, set back behind an outer wall. We stopped transporting people to Australia, though there is a nice description of how two convicts were marched from the new jail down George Street and Sheriff’s Brae to the harbour, on their way to the convict ship from the Thames, and the town turned out to see them off, in a sympathetic spirit.

Banff was a county town, but not really a big enough place to justify a proper jail. It was used as an overspill for neighbouring counties, and in 1878 stopped having long-term prisoners, who went to Elgin instead. The building was used as the local lock-up, like the cells at the police station. In the days when they still had the birch, that was where it was administered. We understand that the chief warden, Mr Coutts, hated that side of his work.  

The jail was closed in the 1950s, and then demolished. Part of the outer walls was incorporated into the group of houses that replaced it, called Turnkeys as a nod to the past. In the Banff Museum you can see the big lock and key of the jail. There are still cells if needed in Banff, as the Police Station is a former bank, a grand Victorian building on Low Shore, and the former bank vaults make thoroughly authentic-looking cells.