Photo of a Church organ

Nowadays there are hundreds of church organists, though fewer than there were, and hard to replace. In the 18C they were very rare indeed. The Church of Scotland did not believe in instrumental music. There was a precentor with a tuning-fork. But Scottish Episcopalian churches always wanted an organ, if they could afford one. So an Episcopal chapel would earn the nickname a ‘whistlin’ kirkie’. St Andrew’s, Banff, from the 1730s, gloried in its organ. It cost money both to buy and to keep in repair (I remember a bill for ‘skins for the Echo Bellows’). If need be, they would have special collections for the organ, but the money came in. I noticed over the years between 1723 and 1746 that the minister’s salary never changed, but the organist did well. They had one unhappy experience when the poor man couldn’t balance his books and was caught fornicating, but after that the organist’s pay went up and up and up, and he got perks for the annual overhaul. The organist was paid about half what the minister was. The clerk and the beadle and the organ-blower were not in the same league. An organist was a high-status job, and the organist of the Episcopal chapel was an influential figure in the culture of the town.

What is particularly impressive is that after the government troops burned down the chapel in 1746, St Andrew’s came quietly back, took the oaths to King George, and they re-built the chapel. Mr Shand, the organist in the old chapel, came back. The church paid the Chapel Officers at St Paul’s Chapel in Aberdeen 2/- for hearing Mr Shand play the organ there, and then they even sent Mr Shand down to London to consult the organist of Westminster Abbey, no less, about buying an organ for the new chapel. The one chosen would be quite sufficient ‘if a Trumpet were added to it’, which was bought. So you can imagine say Trumpet Voluntaries by Purcell on the new organ. James Shand’s expenses in London were £23 (at a time when the minister might get £42 a year). As before, you could always get a classy subscription list to help pay for the organ.

There’s a Shand family table tomb in the old kirkyard, naming James Shand as organist.

This picture of St Andrew’s is more than a century old. It has not changed much

The last large-scale religious persecution in Scotland was in 1746. After that there were still penal laws on the statute book, and religious minorities often had reason to grumble, but never again were troops used to burn down churches. The heartland of the Episcopal Church was the north-east of Scotland, and the intention was to extirpate it. They said you could go from the Tay up and round to the Spey and beyond, and never be out of sight of the column of smoke from a burning Episcopal chapel. There was a fire risk in bigger towns, so the chapels in Stonehaven and Peterhead and Inverness were demolished, and the bill for the demolition was sent to the congregation.

Two of the chapels burnt down were St Andrew’s Chapel in Banff, and the chapel at Portsoy (New Durn). After about five years St Andrew’s was rebuilt on the same site, and the present St Andrew’s is a rebuild of the replacement. It may well be that a future archaeologist will find traces of burning in the foundations of the present church. St Andrew’s had to disobey its bishop in order to become legally qualified to rebuild. The new “Qualified” chapel by law had to have a clergyman ordained in England. For forty years they sent north-east loons down to England to be ordained. (One was ordained by an Irish bishop on holiday, but that’s another story). Then Charles III (‘Bonny Prince Charlie’) died and the Episcopal Church decided after all to pray for King George, and the “Qualified” priest at Banff happily became what he had always wanted to be, an ordinary Scottish Episcopalian. It took several years before the government recognized that this particular religious minority was no threat.

You might say that this religious persecution was political, not religious. The Episcopal Church was hunted down because, in conscience, they supported a rival line of kings. Historically, there have been cases were religious groups stacked guns in their cellars. But burning down churches, and saying by law that no minister may be in a room with more than five other people, are deeds of tyranny.

It is good to think that St Andrew’s Church is still there, in the same place on the High Street as when Cumberland’s dragoons burnt it down on November 10th 1746, and you can see, now on loan in the Museum of Banff, the chalice rescued from the ruins of the New Durn chapel.

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.

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?

 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. 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black and White photograph of St Andrews Episcopal Church

Aberdeenshire and Banffshire were Jacobite heartlands. The unsuccessful  1715 Rising had begun at Braemar, where the Earl of Mar raised the Jacobite standard in support of James Francis Stuart’s claim to be King James VIII and III.