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.

Partly coloured map showing the detailed layout of the original Duff House gardens, overlaid with a transparent current day road layout

The Vinery – the large glasshouse – that is seen by everyone coming into Banff, used to be part of the Duff House estate. A Diary, by an estate gardener John Donaldson, amongst lots of other interesting references, provides the information that the Vinery was built in 1873.

There are several Monkey Puzzle trees around Banff and Macduff but two in particular have a place commemorating world events.

Thomas Edward spent all his adult life in Banff, and his story, the Life of a Scotch Naturalist, is the only bestseller ever to have been set in and around Banff. When the author told Edward of his plans to write it, Tam tried to dissuade him. “Not a copy,” he said, “would be bought in Banff”. There is a cartoon in Punch in 1877 showing Queen Victoria awarding Edward, when an old man, a small royal pension, and in the background is a scowling figure personifying Banff.
Edward, all his days, was a poverty-stricken shoemaker, but also a wonderfully precise observer of nature, discovering, for example, dozens of new species of crustaceans on the Moray coast. For this he was made an Associate of the Linnean Society, the top reward for naturalists in Britain. But the local “Institution for Science, Literature, and the Arts, and for the encouragement of native genius and talent” which had very creditably founded the Banff Museum in 1828, never made him one of their Associates. They did, however, employ him, as assistant curator of the Museum, at two guineas a year, which even then was a token amount. The Museum in those days was behind the pillars in what is now part of the Primary School, overlooking St Mary’s carpark.
There is a fine story of how Edward fell out with the senior curator over an “auld been” (old bone). “Remove it at once, and burn it with the rest”. Edward hid it instead, and when the Institution folded, and the Banffshire Field Club, founded in 1880 and still around, took over the Museum, they were happy to honour Edward, and he brought back the bone. Tam was told by the best authorities of the day that his guess was right, and that it was the femur of a plesiosaurus.
Alas, scholars a hundred years later say it is in fact a 6000 year old whale bone. If you’ve got one, don’t throw it away, even if it’s not a plesiosaurus bone. Give it to the Museum of Banff.


Old photograph of Thomas Edwards

A blue plaque on the gable end of a house on Deveronside marks the home of Thomas Edward (1814-86), naturalist.