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.

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.

The old Banff Academy, Institution Terrace, Banff

Crossing the Deveron Bridge, what first attracted me to Banff was the prospect of the Old Banff Academy facing east on a rise above the High Street, overlooking the approach from the bridge.  The Neo Greek, single storey, 15-bay classical frontage by William Robertson (1837-8) of Elgin, spoke of Banff as a town which valued culture and learning, as indeed it does.  It also spoke of a darker side to Banff’s history.

 The 1837-8 building was financed by money left by Banffer, James Wilson, ‘late of Banff, in the island of Grenada, a charitable fund for the good of Banff … expended on the school’.  Mr. Wilson died in 1799 at the height of the slave trade in the Caribbean; it is likely that his legacy was directly or indirectly linked to the enslavement of Africans on the plantations in Grenada.  It is well known that many North East families owned plantations in the Caribbean in the 18th & 19th C.  One such was another Banffer, James Gardiner(d.1825), owner of the Swanswick plantation in Jamaica.

  Mr. Wilson’s will directed that the whole of his stock, after the decease of certain annuitants, be given to the magistrates of Banff, to be used for charitable purposes, according to their discretion.  The estate was sufficient for the construction of an infant school, a free school on the Madras system, and class-rooms for the grammar school, as well as, a library and a museum. 

 When the annuitants died, their descendants brought a case declaring the will invalid.  The case went to the House of Lords, which ruled in favour of the magistrates and so in 1838 Banff got the bequest and the town got its Academy.  By coincidence all enslaved people in Grenada were freed by 1 August 1838.

Colour photo of a distinguished General holding an Argentine flag

19th August 1824. 

Doña Josefa Balcarce y San Martín de Gutiérrez Estrada is probably not a name that many people recognise; a few more may remember his more common name of José de San Martin.  This general became a great friend of James, the 4th Earl Fife, after they met during the Peninsular Wars in Spain.  At that time they had both given allegiance to Spain, but José was born in Argentina, and in 1812 was drawn back to South America.  Interestingly the Burgess Roll of Banff for 1824 lists José as from Colombia, rather than Argentina; this may in fact have been correct as José’s last South American domicile was in Guayaquil, originally in Peru, at that time very recently annexed to Colombia and today in Ecuador.  

It was actually James Earl Fife – who had returned to UK in 2011 as his father was ill – that organised José’s trip from Spain via London, as switching allegiances to now fight against Spain from being one of their most successful military leaders was a delicate situation!

As a great strategist José was the General that led Argentina (then known as the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata) to gain independence from Spain, and also led armies to liberate Chile and then Peru.  He ceded to the better known Libertador Simon Bolivar in 1822, left his life in the military and politics and came back to Europe.

For 17 days in 1824 he visited his friend James at Duff House.  During that stay, specifically on 19th August, the town of Banff granted him the freedom of the Burgh.  He probably cut quite a dashing figure at the time; the artist for the painting shown here is not known, but it was painted 1825 or 1827 so quite representative of his visit to Banff.

José went to live in France, and died on 17th August in 1850.  One hundred years later and the then Argentine ambassador, Carlos Hogan, paid a celebratory visit to Banff on 25th October.  Part of his visit was planting a native Argentinian “Monkey Puzzle” tree in Banff Castle grounds – where one can be seen today together with it’s plaque.  There is a story that the first winter was not good for the actual tree planted by Carlos Hogan and another was quietly substituted!

Just over two years later and Banff is given another accolade in memory of José de San Martin.  Carlos Hogan went on to become the Argentine Minister of Agriculture, and arranged for a square in Buenos Aires to be called “Ciudad de Banff” – Town of Banff – “in recognition of the hospitality given to the Argentine Liberator Don José de San Martin by Banff in 1824, and the freedom of the Burgh they conferred upon him.”  That Plaza retains that name to date in Buenos Aires.

A photo of Bamff, Perthshire tower house at Bamff.

We all know that people muddle Banff in Scotland with Banff in Canada. But there’s another Banff in Scotland, more normally spelt ‘Bamff’, which is just as we pronounce it round here. This is near Alyth in Perthshire. The Bamff estate there has belonged to the Ramsays since 1232. The first Ramsay was physician to King Alexander II, a later one was physician to King James VI, and in 1662 they became hereditary baronets. They were a clever family, but one generation particularly stands out. Sir James Ramsay, who died in 1925, had two memorable daughters. Agnata, the elder, went to Cambridge, where she studied classics, in those days the most difficult and prestigious of subjects. Then, and much later, women could attend classes and sit the examinations, but were not eligible to be granted the degree. A list would be published saying what class of honours they would have got. That year no male student got a First Class honours in classics, but Miss Agnata Ramsay of Bamff, but not our Banff, would have done. There was a Punch cartoon showing Mr Punch shepherding Miss Ramsay into a First Class train carriage labelled Ladies Only. The next year she married the Master of Trinity, the largest and richest of the Cambridge colleges. Her sister Katharine married the heir to the Duke of Atholl. Before he was Duke, her husband had been an MP, and in 1923 she stood for parliament, and became the first Scottish woman MP, and then the first Conservative woman cabinet minister. She had a mind of her own, and broke with the Conservatives because she disagreed with what she saw as the folly of appeasement towards fascism. There is a strong case for saying she was right. ‘The red Duchess’ as they called her, gamely resigned her seat and fought and lost a by-election. These are two strong women, and works of reference will say their father was Sir James Ramsay of Banff – but it’s not our Banff.  

Greyscale image of the wedding ceremony

27th July.  Louise and Alexander’s marriage service started at noon, 131 years ago today.  Quite an auspicious marriage for Banff and Macduff, as Alexander was the Sixth Earl Fife with his main home being Duff House, and Louise was the Princess Royal, the daughter of the then Prince and Princess of Wales.  Prince Edward became King Edward VII in 1901.

The ceremony took place in the Private Chapel at Buckingham Palace, attended by most of the British Royal Family as well as royalty from Germany, Denmark and Greece.

In the main picture in this Story, the foreground characters from the left, are some of the seven bridesmaids, Alexander, Louise, Prince Edward of Wales, Princess Alexandra of Wales and Queen Victoria.

The other photo in this article is a large silver two-handle cup that stands 24 inches high, has an engraved representation of Duff House and the couple’s coat of arms, and bears the inscription “Presented to H.R.H. the Princess Louise of Wales and The Earl of Fife, K.T. on the occasion of their marriage by the Inhabitants of the Royal Burgh of Banff, July 27, 1889”.  A very handsome gift indeed.

A commemorative special Illustrated London News was published just four days later, and bearing in mind that this publication at that time did not use photos but hand drawn engravings – and there are sixteen of the actual wedding itself in this edition, one being a double page, and the rest at least half a page – is quite remarkable.  Additionally this publication has several dozen engravings of other views, with about a dozen being of Banff and Macduff including Duff House; hence it is a great source for the heritage of the area.

Alexander was first made Duke of Fife and Marquess of Macduff two days later, and, unusually, in 1900 he received a second set of Letters Patent which amended the 1889 ones to allow the Duke’s titles to pass to his and Louise’s daughters Alexandra and Maud, as there was not a male heir. 

The 1st Duke of Fife died in 1912 from pleurisy likely as a result of complications from being shipwrecked off the coast of Morocco while on a cruise on the ss Delhi; the rest of his family all survived. Louise, Duchess of Fife is reputed not to have favoured Duff House, and hence the gift of the estate to the people of Banff and Macduff in 1907.  She is of course the person behind the name of the sports and community club and making Banff and Macduff the only place in the world with two Royal golf courses.  Louise died in 1931, and her remains are with her husband’s in St Ninian’s Chapel at Mar Lodge.

Cover of Random Rhymes - a book of poetry written by Colin Grant Mackenzie

You have probably never heard of Colin Grant Mackenzie (1832-1913); me neither, until recently.  It turns out he was famous for his woodcut printing skills, and somewhat of a poet to boot.

Mackenzie was born in Banff in 1832; the only census entry I could find showed one Colin Mckinzie, 8 years old, present at Gallowhilll Street for the 1841.  Strangely, there is no mention of either parent in the census return.  In the valuation records for 1855 a James W Mackenzie is recorded as a tenant occupying ‘part of house back of Journal office Old Market Place’.  Could James be a relative, perhaps Colin’s father, given that we know Colin learned hand-press printing at the offices of the Banffshire Journal?

Whatever his parentage, in 1850, this Banffer arrived in the USA a fully-fledged journeyman pressman.  In 1854 he joined Harper Brothers and made the woodcut overlays for their illustrated work; he was the first printer in America to make such overlays.  Later on Colin joined what became University Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts.  During his time there he printed the writings of Longfellow and other great literary men of the day.

In between developing the printing industry in the US, Colin found time to print four series of his own poems, “Random Rhymes”: series 1 in 1867 (Cambridge: the author) series 2 in 1883 (New York: the author) and 3 in 1903 (Brooklyn: J.J. Bowles).  The fourth was unpublished.  Here is a flavour:

“Hail Brothers of the printing ink!

Ye are the faithful, loyal crew,
You hold within your faithful hands,
Power, mightier than Archmedian screw–
The Printing Press rules all the lands”

If you want any more of this Banffer’s poetry, you can buy the fourth series of “Random Rhymes.”  Be warned it doesn’t come cheap – currently on sale for £1,260.84.

Colour photo of James Duff dressed in his road cloak and fur.