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.