Peter Anson sculpture, Macduff

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. 

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.

1866 Map of Banff Harbour

Walking past the harbour, partially repaired, raised questions about the railway pier and how the harbour had developed. The harbour in Banff is fascinating as for many years it was the home to fishing boats but also ships that sailed the world, bringing in raw materials needed in Banff and the surrounding area and exporting goods from this area.

The earliest mention of a harbour or safe haven is stated by Cramond (The Annals of Banff) to be in 1471, when the “Peel Heife” or Peel Haven, was next to the area used as the site for rebuilding the Kirk of Banff,St Mary’s Kirkyard, and that it had previously been where “boats and small craft were generally moored”.

In the early 1600s, plans were made for a harbour at Guthrie’s Haven and in 1625, James McKen, Fraserburgh, was employed to clear Guthrie’s Haven of rocks. (where the harbour is now) Records were found of people contributing £88 14s. 10d. towards building the harbour in 1626.

By the 1730s the harbour was still not complete and the town was unable to complete the work within a year as funds were low, despite gaining funding from across Scotland by voluntary contributions, so the storms in winter destroyed much of the work undertaken in the previous summer.

A renewed effort brought more contributions from across Britain and Europe e.g. Provost Hamilton in Bordeaux sent strong claret which was “rouped for eight guineas” and an order was issued by the Council for “a man from every family in town to work for a whole day or two tides, for carrying off the chingle thrown in to the harbour of Guthrie”

By 1760 there was “a basin with two piers, in which a ship of a hundred tons can lie with safety”.

By 1770 a new harbour was planned and the foundations were being laid, according to a plan by John Smeaton.

By 1818 further improvements were needed and a plan was drawn up by Mr Thomas Telford. The works were to cost £14,000 and consisted of building new piers. The work was not without problems as a storm in 1828 wrecked part of the partially built pier and the pier then had to be built higher and thicker.

Throughout its existence regular maintenance and improvements have been needed.

From approximately 1859 to 1910 the Banff, Portsoy and Strathisla railway ran right to the harbour but in 1910 the link to the harbour was dismantled. It can be seen on the map of 1866. The National Library of Scotland has several maps of Banff that show how the harbour has changed over time.

The harbour has faced periods of great prosperity and some really difficult periods so hopefully better times will return soon for this wonderful historic harbour.

At 83 foot long and 21 feet in beam, the schooner “Baron Skene” was launched by John and William Geddie in Banff on 18th April 1874.  She was a single deck, two masted, wooden hull sailing ship, and presumably well liked by her owner, W Morrison.  She was surveyed and Classed with Lloyds Register of Shipping.  On the 3rd May 1874 she sailed in ballast from Banff harbour bound for St Petersburg. (This picture is a close sister vessel built a couple of years later but with the same dimensions by the same builder).

It is not known for sure, but it seems likely that she had been named after James, the 5th Earl Fife, raised in 1857 to the British peerage as Baron Skene.  This enabled him to sit in the House of Lords; he was also Lord Lieutenant of Banffshire.  His son, Alexander, the 6th Earl, later became the first Duke of Fife.

The schooner, Baron Skene, unfortunately didn’t have such a good life as her namesake, the 5th Earl.

While the next event in the schooner’s life is now a matter of record, one local document has recently been found to make reference to her.  John Donaldson was an apprentice gardener to the Earl Fife, working mainly in what is now known as Airlie Gardens – but used to be the kitchen garden for Duff House – with it’s Vinery that had been erected just a few months earlier.  John was keen to make a career from gardening and so throughout his first (and second) job, he kept a diary.  Like all gardeners at the time he worked Monday to Saturday, and had Sundays off.

In 1874, today 3rd May, was a Sunday.  He admits he only got up about 11 o’clock – he was only 18 years old!  He goes on to say “Over at Macduff in the afternoon seeing the new ship that was smashed on the rocks this morning”.

So the schooner “Baron Skene”, with her Captain W Mason, had managed to sail about a mile, believed to have hit rocks to the southwest of Collie Rocks.  She was assisted off the rocks and into Macduff harbour.  No records of her since that fateful day of 3rd May 1874 seem to exist so perhaps the damage was really bad – perhaps as described by John Donaldson as “smashed”!  Not a particularly auspicious start for a brand new vessel.

The reason for her hitting the rocks is not known; John Donaldson describes the weather every day in his diary – and that day was just recorded as “dull cold day”; if it had been windy he would have used the word “rough”.

In December 1891, a Miss M’Donald, gave a “recitation” of the “Loss of Baron Skene” in Portknockie at the Seafield Church Soiree (accordingly to the Aberdeen Journal); was this a poem, or a song, or a story?.  If anyone has a copy it would be great to see it!

Black and white 1950s photo of Banff Townhouse

Refer to part 1 for George’s international influence.

George continued his trading after the “Lady Hughes” incident and seemingly was quite successful.  He had a local family, although not formally married.  In 1789 he determined to make a trip back to Scotland, but after rounding the Cape of Good Hope he was taken ill on board the “Winterton” and passed away on 22nd January 1790 aged 52.  He was buried at sea.

But most fortunately he left a Will.  His daughter Felicia in Bombay was well provided for, but a large part of his fortune he left to his five sisters – at least one of which, Jean, lived in Banff – at an earlier No 1 St Catherine Street. 

Two of his sisters however never came forward, and George had obviously expected this because his Will allowed for that event.  The unclaimed monies (circa £2 million in today’s money) were put in the care of the magistrates of Banff, and as his Will specifically directed it was called the “George Smith Bounty”.  He had two specific provisions: firstly to build a school in Fordyce – his place of birth, a stated salary for the schoolmaster, and an endowment for children that could prove a connection to the Smith family.  This seems to have taken place and very successfully.

Secondly, for Banff, “an Hospital” should be built.  The Town Council at the time, as is recorded in their Minutes, decided in 1815 however that the amount was insufficient for a hospital and instead they elected to extend the Townhouse – which had been built in 1796.  Which part of the building this was seems unclear, but presumably part of the rear extension.  The 1823 detailed map of Banff does not show the extension to the south near the now Carmelite House Hotel.  And the “houses” to the north – although owned by “the Town” existed before the present Townhouse.

The local politicians of the time defended not building a hospital by making the extension Townhouse useful to military when quartered in Banff and “for several years it has been employed most beneficially as an hospital of sustenance and health for the lower orders, from whence they have received a supply of good wholesome broth and bread three times a week”.

Although the wonderful phrase “hospital of sustenance” cannot be found anywhere else, a Report by the Commissioners on Municipal Corporations of Scotland in 1835 did conclude the donor’s “intention has in substance been carried into operation”.  They also said that while this practice “is not an example to be followed, it can hardly be censured”.

So thank you George Smith for helping Banff, Fordyce and Hong Kong.

Note, George Smith was quite a common name back then amongst Scotsmen; at least two other influential Scots George Smith’s in trade in the east, and another different one is buried in St Mary’s churchyard in Banff.

Francois Thurot

From 1702 until 1815, the French and British were involved in six wars. In the wars, merchant ships suffered heavy losses off of the North East coast. The merchant ships were attacked by privateers of mainly French origin, although privateers of American and Dutch origin were active too.

Privateers were privately owned ships, commissioned by governments to attack the merchant shipping of enemy countries and disrupt their trade. The fate of ships captured by privateers varied – their cargoes and the ships themselves could be sold, refitted or burnt. Often their crews were allowed to return home. The Moray Firth was a busy shipping route at this time as ships would sail around the top of Britain to avoid trouble in the English Channel.

The most noted incident was in 1757. On the 5th of October, Francois Thurot, in command of the frigate Marischal de Belleisle and several other ships, appeared in Banff Bay, much to the distress of the people of Banff. The plan seemed to be to invade Banff, plunder and destroy it with a force of 1100 men. The people of Banff were saved though, by a storm, a gale which forced the ships to cut their cables and flee.

In 1777 the Tartar of Boston, an American privateer, captured Lord Fife’s ship – the Anne of Banff – (amongst others). Lord Fife feared he would not be safe living at Duff House “We shall be burnt and plundered”

By 1781, in response to the threat, a very fine battery of 9 eighteen pounders were erected at Banff above the high ground above Banff harbour. This is where the name Battery Green comes from. As well as this soldiers were stationed along the Moray Firth coast.

Ultimately, the focus of transport shifted from the sea to overland routes and led to the building of the first bridge at Banff.

Photo of colour painting showing one large sailing ship, junks and all sorts of small craft in front of warehouses with international flags flying

George was born in 1737 just along the coast from Banff in Fordyce.  The family seems to have had Jacobite connections so after the failed uprising in 1745 spread out across the world.  As George grew up he travelled from Holland overland via Syria to Bombay arriving in 1768.  That must have been some trip!  There he established himself as a private trader, both in India and China, trading a lot in tea which at that time came mostly from China.  At times he acted as “Supercargo” on ships, ie the person representing the owner of the cargo – often himself.  The network of Supercargoes in India and China were the people that controlled all trade in the area, although of course trading in China – Canton (now Guangzhou) being the only allowed port for foreigners – was subject to various Chinese rules.  There was no British Embassy in China at the time.

In late 1784 George was the Supercargo on board a ship called the “Lady Hughes”, berthed alongside in Canton.  It was the practice to honour other foreign ships leaving harbour by firing a gun salute – all cargo ships at that time were armed merchantmen.  So the Lady Hughes gunner fired his customary salute as a Danish ship was leaving port – most unfortunately he hit a Chinese boat and killed two crewmen!  George was arrested as the most senior person on board, but the other Supercargoes did not take kindly to one of their own being detained and all the foreign ships – armed – lined up to blockade the harbour.  The Chinese responded with their own warships and there was a standoff.  Fortunately it seems the local Chinese governor (Sun Shiyi) was reasonable and a compromise was negotiated, the alleged gunner in question being summarily strangled as was the Chinese custom.

The painting is of Canton Harbour in the late eighteenth century, showing an armed merchantman as well as a multitude of local boats, in front of the international warehouses of the time; painted by Daniell (it is thought both father and son).

When word of this serious incident reached the UK, the existing government policy of wanting a trading outpost in China outwith the laws of China was re-inforced.  An embassy and outpost was created, but it was decades later, after China’s financial crisis and inability to re-pay debts, plus Britain militarily defeating China in the first Opium War, that Hong Kong island was formally ceded to the British in 1842.

George may have only played a tiny un-intended part in the creation of Hong Kong, but part of his legacy still stands in the centre of Banff today – and the Story of how that came to be, will be told in Part 2.

Have a listen to this interview and accompanying pictures of Macduff’s very own retired Harbour Master John West. In his interview, John talks about his experiences both as a fisherman when he started out in 1962 and then, more latterly about his days as Harbour Master which he went on to become in 1990. It really is a fascinating talk about how fishing has changed over the decades. We hope you enjoy reminiscing! 

Colour image of a painting of Captain George Duff in uniform