Gravestone of Alexander Irvine Ross in Portsoy
Gravestone of Alexander Irvine Ross in Portsoy

In the Museum of Banff there is a new exhibit, a map of Banff in 1826. This is a coloured map with great details of the town shown, including who owned parts of the town, at the time. Large areas of Banff were owned by the Earl of Seafield but areas were owned by organisations such as the “Gardeners Society” and “St John’s Lodge” At this time Banff is almost two separate towns – the Sea town, the area from St. Catherine Street North and the rest of the town, covering Low Street, High Street and the surrounding area. It stops short of Duff House and its grounds. This can be compared in the museum with a 1756 plan of the town and an 1823 map, by John Wood. These maps were produced by independent map makers or land surveyors, before the days of the Ordnance Survey.

The 1826 map was created by Alexander Irvine Ross, a land surveyor from Mains of Tyrie. He was involved in the production of a series of maps created by James Robertson (1783 – 1879) of the shires of Aberdeenshire, Banff and Kincardine in 1822. James Robertson was referred to as “the Shetlander who mapped Jamaica and Aberdeenshire”. Alexander Irvine Ross also produced a four sheet map covering Aberdeenshire and Banff in 1826, mentioned in the New Statistical Account, written by the Reverend Francis William Grant in 1845. This possibly refers to the maps which were published in John Thomson’s Atlas of Scotland, 1832.

The map came in to the possession of the late Bob Carter who donated it to Banff Preservation and Heritage Society. It was in poor condition and in need of conservation work. The map was cleaned and relined by the High Life Highland Conservation Service, with a grant from the Area Initiatives Fund. This meant that a unique and valuable part of Banff’s history has been preserved for future generations. The map is best viewed in person at the museum but if that’s not possible it can be seen on our website – https://www.bphsmob.org.uk/collection/various_items/1724_1826_Map.html

Mary Duff of Hatton

Mary Duff’s House, High Street, Banff

The great poet Lord Byron spent part of his childhood in Banff. His mother’s family lived here. His great-grandmother, Lady Gight, lived in rather an ugly house where the Sheriff Court now stands on Low Street. His first sweet-heart was Mary Duff, who lived on the High Street. There was a public outcry in the 1960s when that house, a really historic 17C tower house, was demolished and replaced by what is now McColl’s. It was because of that philistine decision by our local councillors that the Banff Preservation Society was founded.

Mary was a Duff of Hatton, a very prolific Duff family, cousins of the Earl Fife, and a distant cousin of Byron. She was a few months older than he was, both born in 1788, and they met at a dancing class in Aberdeen. The little boy was lame from birth, so dancing was probably purgatory. But he loved sitting billing and cooing with his pretty cousin.

We know about this because some years later, after inheriting a peerage and going to Harrow, the great English public school, Byron heard that Mary was married. He was a teenager, with his first proper girlfriend (though he said he’d had fifty) and his first proper falling-out with his girl-friend, and he felt totally betrayed. There was his childhood sweetheart, his first love, abandoning him too! It is all in his journal.  It did not help matters that his mother then told everyone she met about George’s star-crossed love with Mary Duff.  

Here is the story from Byron’s own journal. “I have been thinking lately a good deal of Mary Duff. How very odd that I should have been so utterly, devotedly fond of that girl, at an age when I could neither feel passion, nor know the meaning of the word. And the effect! My mother used always to rally me about this childish amour; and, at last, many years after, when I was sixteen, she told me one day, “Oh, Byron, I have had a letter from Edinburgh, from Miss Abercromby, and your old sweetheart Mary Duff is married to a Mr Co’e.” And what was my answer? I really cannot explain or account for my feelings at that moment; but they nearly threw me into convulsions, and alarmed my mother so much, that after I grew better, she generally avoided the subject—to me—and contented herself with telling it to all her acquaintance. Now, what could this be? I had never seen her since her mother’s faux pas at Aberdeen had been the cause of her removal to her grandmother’s at Banff; we were both the merest children. I had and have been attached fifty times since that period; yet I recollect all we said to each other, all our caresses, her features, my restlessness, sleeplessness, my tormenting my mother’s maid to write for me to her, which she at last did, to quiet me. Poor Nancy thought I was wild, and, as I could not write for myself, became my secretary. I remember, too, our walks, and the happiness of sitting by Mary, in the children’s apartment, at their house not far from the Plain-stanes at Aberdeen, while her lesser sister Helen played with the doll, and we sat gravely making love, in our way.  How the deuce did all this occur so early? where could it originate? I certainly had no sexual ideas for years afterwards; and yet my misery, my love for that girl were so violent, that I sometimes doubt if I have ever been really attached since.”

The Mr Co’e was a Robert Cockburn, from a rich family of wine-merchants in Edinburgh – yes, it’s Cockburn’s port. Mary had a happy life, and she outlived Byron by 30-odd years, to die in 1858. She comes into one of Byron’s poems too.


Byron as a boy, engraving from a painting by Kay
Brown and white postcard image

Monday 26th November 1906

This was the day of a huge milestone in the history of Banff and Macduff, an event that was intended to, and did, cut through the normal competition between the two towns.

“In the evening a huge bonfire was lighted on the Hill O’Doune, when there was a further opportunity for a public demonstration and general jubilation.  During the afternoon a very large quantity of brushwood was carted to the hill, and was piled on top of several barrels of tar and paraffin.  At seven o’clock the match was applied by Mrs West [wife of the Provost of Macduff].  A very large number of of the inhabitants of both communities assembled to witness the conflagration, which, fanned by a strong breeze, soon assumed considerable dimensions.  The fire burned furiously till a later hour.”  “A large number of rockets were sent off from the hill, and the opinion was generally expressed that it was a long time since so hearty enthusiasm was displayed.”

The event earlier in the day had been enough not just to give rise to the bonfire, but an impromptu closing of the schools, flags and bunting were erected all over both towns and shops closed – what was reported as “a general holiday was observed for the rest of the day.”

And the event that caused this: the extremely generous donation by the Duke and Duchess of Fife, of Duff House and a large part of the estate, to the two town councils.  This had been announced at a meeting that morning of both town councils.  During 2021 there has been some mention of the written terms of this gift, and perhaps 2022 will give rise to more discussion, but the undertaking of Provost Alexander of Banff, made as part of his acceptance of the gift, may also be relevant.

Provost Alexander described in glowing terms the house and grounds, and then goes on to say: “Then we have the invaluable fact of the subject of the gift being absolutely unrestricted in its administration.”  Such a term does indeed exist in the written Gift, but so too do the underlying purposes of the Gift by the Duke, and these are fully acknowledged by Provost Alexander.  He describes in some detail some of the plans as of that time for the grounds, “golf courses, bowling greens, tennis courts, and  croquet lawns” which he sees fully in accordance with the “heads of pleasure grounds and places of recreation” as laid out in the Gift.  “I feel with the exercise of sound judgement … we will be able to complete a scheme (in the formation of which we are unfettered) which will adequately accomplish the objects underlying His Grace’s munificence.”

Hence, certainly in 1906, the Town Councils involved had a clear understanding of the purpose of the house and land gifted to them, and appeared to have every intention of doing just that. 

Black and white image of a postcard
Postcard from the first years of the 20th century showing the Duff House gates on the Banff side of the bridge, the drive to Duff House and “Canal Park” to it’s right.

There is on other interesting aspect too.  The written acceptance of the Gift includes that the two town councils “respectfully request the gracious permission of Her Royal Highness [the, Duchess, Princess Louise] to the Canal Park being henceforth known as the Princess Royal Park.”  Although such permission was granted, it seems this aspect of the Town Council’s undertakings haven’t been honoured in all of the present day wording by Aberdeenshire Council!

Black and white photographic image of head and shoulders

In 1873 a young local man became an apprentice gardener in Banff, living in the Bothy just behind the Vinery in what is today known as Airlie Gardens, but used to be one of the kitchen gardens for Duff House and the Lord Fifes.  Forty years later the same man was in New York, still working in the same industry, but now owning two acres of downtown Manhattan.

John Donaldson had decided he wanted a career in gardening and seemed to take it quite seriously.  After a year at Duff House learning his trade, he took a job at Vogrie House near Edinburgh, and from there to a larger estate in Yorkshire, before moving to one of the largest nurseries in the UK at the time, Veitch Nurseries based in London.  After a spell at Regents Park Zoo (then called the Zoological Gardens), with his wife he emigrated to New York in 1893.  He learnt more of the nursery trade with two large nurseries there, before starting his own business on Long Island, growing flowers, particularly carnations and lillies.   We even know some of the preferred varieties that he grew, which of course were those popular amongst the rich of New York.  At the beginning of the twentieth century New York, a very crowded place, was a very smelly place, and flowers were one of the means that the better off could do to have a better smelling atmosphere!

Black and white photographic image

Many of these were sold on the street at flower markets in New York, but wanting to improve sales and provide more certainty, John became one of the founders of the “New York Cut Flower Exchange”.  By 1912 he became the President of that organisation.  This still exists, centred around W 28th Street, between Manhattan and Greenwich Village, not far from the Empire State building (although that was only built in 1931). 

Today it may seem strange, but of the two acres he owned in Manhattan, flowers were still being grown.  John lived there himself, and had only six other houses on what amounted to 28 city lots; the rest of the land was still productive, although he also had a nursery at Elmhurst, about 3 miles to the east on Long Island.

He started to sell some of the Manhattan lots; one was sold for $60,000 in about 1912 – equivalent today of about US$ 2 million!

There is much more research to complete, but John Donaldson of Banff is one local lad that certainly did make his way in the world.

Black and white image from a wood cut

Recently, reading a local diary yet to be published, the writer makes an observation about his day of Sunday 2nd August 1874: “pretty well churched today”!  In all the writer had attended five services that day, three in Banff, one in Macduff, and one in the open air in the Duff House Park. This “revival” was due to a mission to the area by two American evangelists, Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey.  Mr Moody was the preacher and Mr Sankey was reported as an especially good singer.  The visit is also referred to in the biography of the Rev Bruce of Banff.

Colour image of a painting
Rev Dr Bruce, Banff Minister 1873 to 1925, painted 1924 by Souter (now in the care of Aberdeenshire Museums Service)

Combining these two sources it seems the visit started with a service in Banff Parish Church.  As their skills as orators and singers had been widely broadcast since they had been in Edinburgh and then Glasgow for over 3 months, it seems the church was packed out – more than packed out as “half of them did not get in”.  In the afternoon Sankey gave a recital, but there were so many people that most “heard little of him” – plus the fact it was a really windy day!

Then it was back to Banff Church, before going to Duff House Park.  At that time the grounds to the north of Duff House – between the House and what is now New Road, but then was the private Duff House drive – were more open; there was no golf course and less trees, so perhaps it was here that the assembly was held.  Fifteen thousand people are said to have attended.

And once again back to the church.  Rev Bruce describes Mr Sankey’s singing as having a “sweetness of the fine baritone voice, combined with a certain manliness of tone and look, simply overpowered the people.  My choir broke down and could not sing…  The whole congregation were so subdued that we called on two members to offer up short petitions, and then Mr Sankey sang his second solo:

There were ninety and nine that safely lay,

In the shelter of the fold,

But one was out on the hills away,

Far off from the Gates of Gold.

Away on the mountains wild and bare,

Away from the tender Shepherd’s care.”

Rev Bruce had never in his life seen “a congregation so swayed and moved, liked a field of corn beneath a breeze of wind.”  “We remained for five minutes in silent prayer and then recovered ourselves.” One or more of the above services (although definitely not the morning one which was definitely in the “established” church) or perhaps during the following week, was also held in the Trinity Church, then a Free Church – now part of the River Churches.

There are eighteen Commonwealth War Graves from the Second World War in Banff.  These are only a few of the airmen killed serving at the Boyndie base. Only those whose planes crashed in Scotland are buried in Banff. If you were shot down over the sea or over Norway there will be no grave. One of the Canadians and one of the Australians had brothers who were shot down over Europe.

One is of an unknown airman, so that is where, if we have a wreath, we lay it. Four were from England, seven from Canada, four from Australia, and two from New Zealand. One, called William Reid, was from Britain, but we don’t know where.

Of the British airmen, one was a doctor’s son from Surrey, one the son of a warden at Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight, and another came from Bethnal Green in London.

Two of the Australians came from neighbouring suburbs of Sydney, and one from just outside Perth in Western Australia. The other came from the outback in Queensland, a small place called Winton, where they have an annual festival because ‘Waltzing Matilda’ was first performed there.

The New Zealanders came from in or near Auckland, in the North Island, but the Canadians came from all over, from Edmonton, and Ottawa, and Saskatoon, and two from small places in the prairies. The one from Ottawa had three Christian names, Louis Eber Eldred, but apparently answered to ‘Tony’. The man from Saskatoon was not only married but had two small children, and this may explain why this is the only grave that has recent mementos from the family on it.

And then there was Ernest Raymond Davey, who came from London, Ontario, in Canada. (I think people called him ‘Bus’.) He wrote a poem, found after his death, called Extinction: the Airman’s Prayer which was put into a book. It is a serious Christian poem; at home, he was a loyal member of the Anglican Church of Canada. It is easy for us to imagine how we would like to face our death when it comes. It is different for someone who is actually facing it.

Here it is, from Soldier Poetry of the Second World War: An Anthology, ed. Jane and Walter Morgan, Presented with the permission of the Department of National Defence, Government of Canada. Oakville: Mosaic Press, 1990: 45. RPO

Almighty and all present power

Short is the prayer I make to thee;

I do not ask in battle hour

For any shield to cover me.

The vast unalterable way,

From which the stars do not depart,

May not be turned aside to stay

The bullet flying through my heart.

I ask no help to strike my foe;

I seek no petty victory here;

The enemy I hate, I know

To thee is dear.

But this I pray, be at my side,

When death is drawing through the sky;

Almighty Lord, who also died

Teach me the way that I should die.

A portrait of Cetshwayo ka Mpande by Alexander Bassano in 1882.
Cetshwayo ka Mpande by Alexander Bassano

King Cetshwayo was the last Zulu King. At the time British people spelt the name Cetewayo, but nowadays it is more likely to be Cetshwayo, closer to the actual pronunciation. After a long and brave fight by the Zulu army, the King was captured after the battle of Ulundi in 1879 by Major Richard J.C. Marter of the Kings Dragoon Guards. Colonel Harford described the moment King Cetewayo gave himself up – “the King …strode in with the aid of his long stick, with a proud and dignified air and grace, looking a magnificent specimen of his race and every inch a warrior in his grand umutcha of leopard skin and tails, with lion’s teeth and claw charms round his neck”.

Was this the same stick which was taken from him? In 1882, Mr F.C. Lucy took a collection of these valuable items back to Britain after a trip to South Africa. The list was long and included Cetewayo’s stick, 13 throwing and stabbing assagais (light spears), 3 knobkerries (clubs), clothing with bead work, 2 Kaffir pipes and 2 Zulu pipes, as well as a number of natural history objects.

These were donated to the Banff Museum by Mr Lucy of London, via his mother-in-law Mrs Ewing, who lived in St Catherine Street. The walking stick is listed as being in the museum in 1919 (Banff and District by A. Edward Mahood). After this it is difficult to track what happened to Cetewayo’s stick until it turns up in the British Museum in 1963. It is there listed as being previously owned by Cetshwayo kaMpande, Banff Museum, and from the collection of Captain A.W.F. Fuller.

Captain Fuller was referred to as “an armchair anthropologist”. He was born in Sussex and trained as a solicitor but at the outbreak of the First World War he signed up with the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and became a captain. He built up a vast collection and he refused to sell anything until shortly before his death when 6,800 items from the Pacific were sold to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. The rest of his collection was dispersed by his widow. The clue as to how Cetewayo’s stick went from the Banff Museum to Captain Fuller comes from newspaper articles which state that in 1938, the then town council, brought in Mr Kerr of the Royal Scottish Museum to assess their collection and he recommended that a large number of items from the museum should be disposed of as they were not local to Banff. Could it be that Cetewayo’s stick was sold then?

Peter Anson sculpture, Macduff (Photo/image with kind permission of Duncan Harley)

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.