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.

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.

The famous aviation brothers were known around the world but we had our own Wright Brothers in the North East, not famous for flying but for making Threshing Mills.

William Wright trained as a millwright at Alehouseburn and aged just 23 was already making all kinds of agricultural machinery in his own business. By 1870 he had designed a traction engine which was used to power threshing machines and toured the area.

By 1888, he was producing turnip-sowing machines, manure spreaders and threshing machines.

Timber for the many machines was bought from the Cullen House annual wood sale and the business continued to grow.

In 1889 William moved his business to the Boyne Mills, outside Portsoy. This had previously been a woollen and tweed mill owned by William Walker and Co who, from 1881, sold their goods from the old U.P. church in Carmelite Street, Banff.  William Wright continued to build agricultural machinery as well as carrying out general joinery. Some of the local projects included working on the new United Free Church at Cullen and at the Hay Memorial Hall in Cornhill.

William Wright died in 1902, but the business was carried on by his family. They continued to supply threshing mills all over the country, from Perthshire northwards. Farms where the threshing mills were installed included Mains of Skeith, and Fiskaidly locally. When the threshing mill was installed at Fiskaidly a large company of friends and neighbours were invited to inspect the new buildings and machinery. This was followed by supper and dancing with songs sung in the intervals.

In 1909, “an interested company met at the Home Farm of Sir George Abercromby of Forglen, to witness the installation of a threshing plant of the most improved type” (a Wright Brothers installation)

By the mid 1950s the demand for threshing mills had declined and the business disappeared over time.

Wright Brothers’ threshing mills can still be seen at agricultural shows.

Banff Jail

Australians come on pilgrimage to Banff to see where an ancestor was imprisoned before he was transported to what was then called Van Diemen’s Land. People could be transported for fairly petty crimes. There are cells at the back of the Town House on Low Street. On the opposite side of the road, at the foot of Strait Path, was its predecessor, the Tolbooth. The cells there were only too easy of access, and there was a long history of escapes. Indeed, even as late as the Town House, if a prisoner had funds or friends, or possibly even agility, there might be ways and means of getting out.

With the reign of Queen Victoria there came reforms, purpose-built jails it was almost impossible to escape from. Banff jail was on Reidhaven Street. As you can see in the picture it was a tall bleak building, set back behind an outer wall. We stopped transporting people to Australia, though there is a nice description of how two convicts were marched from the new jail down George Street and Sheriff’s Brae to the harbour, on their way to the convict ship from the Thames, and the town turned out to see them off, in a sympathetic spirit.

Banff was a county town, but not really a big enough place to justify a proper jail. It was used as an overspill for neighbouring counties, and in 1878 stopped having long-term prisoners, who went to Elgin instead. The building was used as the local lock-up, like the cells at the police station. In the days when they still had the birch, that was where it was administered. We understand that the chief warden, Mr Coutts, hated that side of his work.  

The jail was closed in the 1950s, and then demolished. Part of the outer walls was incorporated into the group of houses that replaced it, called Turnkeys as a nod to the past. In the Banff Museum you can see the big lock and key of the jail. There are still cells if needed in Banff, as the Police Station is a former bank, a grand Victorian building on Low Shore, and the former bank vaults make thoroughly authentic-looking cells.   

Black and white image of Banff stamp

Not a rallying cry but a privilege given to Members of Parliament and those that sit in the House of Lords.  The title “Earl Fife” was an Irish title and did not entitle the holder to sit in the House of Lords, and hence at various times the Earls Fife were Members of Parliament for Banffshire, or even Elginshire.  At other times, the Earls Fife were given a UK title; for example James the 4th Earl was made Baron Fife in 1827 until his death in 1857, and so could sit in the House of Lords.

James the 2nd Earl was a particularly prolific letter writer and the Free Frank became a great cost saving to him.  Technically free postage was only for correspondence pertaining to parliamentary or constituency affairs, but it was widely abused.  All that was needed was the signature of the sender in the lower left hand corner of the address face; the date and place of origin was also meant to be shown.

That may not seem of particular importance these days, but prior to the postal reforms introduced by Rowland Hill in 1840, the high cost of sending a letter was dependent on both the distance it had to travel, the route it took and the number of sheets of paper; the charge could be paid by either the sender or the recipient.  For example, in 1830 it would have cost the equivalent of £4.32 to send a single sheet letter to an address 100 miles distant.  Letters were generally folded pieces of paper, as if an envelope was used it counted as an extra sheet and thus cost twice as much!  There were many other complications too, whether it went via a capital city or cross country, disparities about how many miles between places, and at that time even what a mile was (England was 1,760 yards; but a Scots mile was 1,976 yards, and although that was phased out early in the eighteenth century, the Irish mile of 2,240 yards applied until 1839, hence would have included the second example below!).

James the 4th Earl similarly had the same Free Frank privilege.  This example was sent from London on 21 February 1833 and is addressed to Mr Geo. Gibb, Bank Office, Glasgow.

Such mail could be keenly collected when disposed of, trying to once again abuse the Free Frank system.  Hence the trend was often to retain only the address part of the letter and to discard the rest, so the content of this particular letter is unknown.

This second example, fortunately complete although difficult to read, is also signed by the 4th Earl Fife but this time when he was in residence in Duff House, Banff. It is dated 1st February 1828 and addressed to a Mr W Sheppard Esq, 29 Regiment, at an address in Ireland. What is particularly interesting about the letter content, is that it wasn’t written by the Earl, but is a short message to the addressee from his father, A. Sheppard.

The Free Frank system continued until the postal reforms introduced in 1840 – when stamps much as we know them today were introduced; just 1d per half ounce to anywhere in the country.  The parliamentary privilege was then changed to a set value of pre-printed postage; today that stands at £7,000 per year, although looking at the list, very few MP’s use that much.  An MSP can currently claim up to £5,500.

The Banff aisle, in the old kirkyard of Banff

For centuries the Ogilvies were the top local family round Banff. We have Airlie Gardens, because the head of the Ogilvie family is the Earl of Airlie. The Ogilvies of Dunlugas, which is a little way up the Deveron, were cousins to the earl, and they dominated the town. Walter Ogilvie, and his son George, were Provosts of Banff for life. George married a daughter of Lord Seton. Mary, another of the Seton girls, was a lady-in-waiting to Mary Queen of Scots, one of the Queen’s four Maries.  His son Walter married an Urquhart of Cromarty (that’s the family at Craigston Castle) and was the first to call himself Ogilvie of Banff, instead of Ogilvie of Dunlugas. And we are talking about his eldest son George, first Lord Banff.

George Ogilvie was something of a thug. At the entrance to the old graveyard of Banff you can see the monument to Provost Douglas. In 1627 George was ‘put to the horn’ for threatening Douglas, and it is not terribly surprising that when Provost Douglas was actually murdered years later, the murderer was never found.  In 1628 somehow George got off with a fine for the confessed murder of his cousin James Ogilvie. In 1629 he was committed to Edinburgh Castle for brawling in Edinburgh, and he definitely had a hand in the terrible burning of the castle at Frendraught. (There is a famous ballad about this crime). What a record for a Provost of Banff!

Then came war between Royalists and Covenanters, and George, by now elderly, fought on the King’s side. In consequence General Monro, on the other side, sacked Banff. He destroyed George Ogilvie’s house, the Palace of Banff. In those days in Scotland the word ‘palace’ was used for a big house. It was the grandest house for many miles around, and stood on the corner of Low Street and Carmelite Street, where the Town House is now. All the trees in the orchard were chopped down. As King Charles I said “It was a cruel thing to fall upon the garden … it had neither done evil nor could hurt them.”  Apparently the people of Banff joined heartily in the looting of the Palace. Of course a few years later there came the Restoration in 1660, and George Ogilvie was compensated for his losses with a peerage, the first Lord Banff. He died in 1663. There used once to be a portrait of him in Cullen House: “an old Lord Banff, aged 90, with a long white square beard, who is said to have incurred the censure of the Church, at that age, for his gallantries!”  One source says he lived to be 105.

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!

It is a real achievement to raise a regiment. We all remember how the Duchess Jean raised the Gordons by giving a kiss to each recruit, with the king’s shilling between her teeth. Here is the story of a native of Banff who raised a regiment. His name was Sir John Bury Gordon (1781-1835) and the regiment he raised was the 30th Royal Lancers (Gordon’s Horse).

Sir John was a hereditary baronet, a Gordon of Park. The fine Castle of Park is still there, beside Cornhill, a few miles inland from Banff. The family had long links with Banff. His grandfather Sir William was made a Burgess of Banff in 1730, but then he was out in the 1745 Jacobite Rising, fought at Culloden, and was very nearly captured skulking near Banff. The government troops reported that a man identified as him had galloped off up a hill, and those pursuing him got bogged down, and he got away because he knew the country and they didn’t.

His young wife Janet (we have a picture of her in the Museum of Banff) was a daughter of Lord Braco, who became first Earl Fife. One story says the two of them eloped. A Jacobite son-in-law was rather an embarrassment in 1746, but Sir William escaped to the continent, and we find he was recognised as nobility in the peerage of Hungary. He had handed over his castle to his half-brother, Captain Gordon of the Marines, so it was not forfeited, but however, as Sir William’s children were born overseas – the brave Janet joined him – they were not entitled to inherit a Scottish estate ‘as natural subjects of the French king’. In any case, Captain Gordon was determined not to give it back. Our Sir John was born in Banff because the other side of the family kept the castle. His father was a professional soldier, an excellent man except when drunk, and was killed fighting in India a few months before our Sir John was born. There was a surge of sympathy for the young widow with her fatherless child, and money was found. And when he was 14 Earl Fife, who was after all related, got him an ensigncy in the Coldstream Guards, and the rest of his life he was a soldier.

Sir John spent the last 23 years of his life at Madras, and there he raised his regiment. It was in fact part of the private army of the fabulously rich Nizam of Hyderabad, but there was status involved in being a British regiment, raised by a British officer.

Sir John was the last of the hereditary baronets of Park. He married the daughter of an Anglican cathedral dean, but she fell in love with another man, and Sir John divorced her. Her son by her new husband became Speaker of the House of Commons. Sir John remarried, but there were no children.

The 30th Royal Lancers (Gordon’s Horse) fought in the First World War. There is a picture of the Lancers’ last charge – perhaps not these particular Lancers – but there was no real call for cavalry in the trenches. 

The Mercat Cross

In Doo’cot Park stands what is known locally as the Doo’cot, housing spaces for at least 96 pigeons. However the building was probably re-erected from the town centre. From 1768 until 1900 the Mercat Cross stood on top of the building on a hilltop, seen when approaching Banff from the south west, but according to William Cramond in the Annals of Banff, the whole building was removed from Low Street to its present location.

A Mercat is the old Scots name for a market, and a mercat was expected to have a Mercat Cross. The earliest Banff cross was referred to in an old Banff Protocol book of 1542 but in the Burgh Accounts of 1627 to 1628, expenditure for the “new croce” was listed. The new cross may well have been a new base for the cross, a hexagonal room, and some of the carvings for it were probably transferred in 1786 to the nearest wall beside the Town House, where there is a dated Virgin and Child. But scholars think the actual cross is medieval, not 17th century.  

Most public transactions were conducted near to the Mercat Cross and in ancient times, courts were held next to them and sometimes punishments were meted out there too. For example in 1748 one Alexander Stuart was to stand “on the steps with his back to the door of the Cross, bareheaded, from 11 o’clock in the forenoon till one o’clock in the afternoon, with a paper on his breast with the following inscription in large letters – ‘An Infamous Outlander of Thieves’ and then he was to be banished from Banffshire forever.” Tough times.

Why would the Mercat Cross have been removed from the town centre? Further reading explains that the building was in the way. The building is described thus: “in shape it is hexagonal, about fifty feet in circumference, and of considerable height” There wasn’t enough room for people to move around at the annual and weekly fairs and so the cross was to be removed. An application was put in to the Court of Session to allow it to be removed from the town centre.

Lord Fife wrote a letter in 1768, thanking the council for the Mercat Cross, and said he would put it in a proper place and expressed a wish that all the town crosses could be buried at the bottom of it.

So the Mercat Cross itself remained there until 1900, when the cross was returned to Low Street in Banff, across the road from its original site, now occupied by the Biggar Fountain. The hexagonal base, we presume, stayed on the hill and is now the Doo’cot.  

It is a very real part of the town’s history that is now hidden away, unless you know where to look. The actual cross is in the Museum of Banff with an updated replica on display in Low Street.

Black and white image of a colour painting of a sitting lady holding some flowers

At the eastern end of the Mausoleum in Wrack Woods is a memorial to William Duff and his second wife, Jean (or sometimes Jane) Grant, his “Datie”, who he married in 1723 when she was just eighteen.  His first wife, Lady Janet Ogilvie, unfortunately had died aged just 25 on Christmas Day 1720 after just a year of marriage (her memorial is also in the Mausoleum).  William and Jean were originally buried at Rothiemay but were later re-interred by the 2nd Earl.

As below, their fourteen children experienced mixed fortunes:

Their first son was born in 1724 (when William was 27 years old and Jean was 19), and, as was tradition, he was also called William.  From the evidence of several letters the younger William was mostly always “unhappy”, prone to “drinking and idleness”.  He had Jacobite sympathies and lived in London with the support of his parents; he seems to have had no profession and never took part in public life.  He died in ill-health in 1753.

Two daughters followed, Anne in 1725 and Janet in 1727.  At the ages of 14 and 12 respectively while ‘passing the season’ with their father in Edinburgh both caught smallpox quite badly.   Anne, although scarred, married her cousin, Alexander Duff of Hatton and lived until she was 80.  Janet was described by her father as a “very thoughtless and imprudent girl”, perhaps because she married a Jacobite and then followed him into exile in north-eastern France.  After her husband’s death she seems to have been forgiven by her parents, and had five years of happy married life with George Hay from Mountblairy (between Banff and Turriff), passing away in 1758 from general ill health.

James was born in 1729, later becoming the 2nd Earl Fife; followed two years later by Alexander, later the 3rd Earl Fife.

The sixth child, Jane, came next in 1732.  The Aberdeen Journal says she was “an agreeable young lady”.  She married William Urquhart of Meldrum at age 21, but died relatively early in 1776.

The fourth son, George, was born in 1736 and was well educated in St Andrews, but had to hastily marry in 1756; they lived in London.  Unfortunately it seems George’s first son, James, was placed in a private asylum under a false name, which only came to light more than 60 years later.  George’s brothers complained about his want of friendliness and sociability!  George died in 1818.

Five more children followed annually thereafter: Lewis in 1737, then Patrick, Helen, Sophia and Catherine.  Lewis was initially in the army, serving in Canada and America but disliked it even though his long-suffering wife travelled with him.  He later built what is now known as Blervie House near Forres.  Patrick died shortly after birth.  Helen married Admiral Robert Duff but died in Gibraltar when only 39.  Sophia lived until she was 77, as the third wife of Thomas Wharton, Commissioner of Excise, who her mother describes as having “so many whims of his own, without considering Sophia”!  Catherine seemingly didn’t marry and hardly left home, dying in ill health at just 24.

The seventh and youngest son was Arthur who came along in 1740.  He seems to have been everyone’s favourite, of an exceptionally sweet nature, with his father perpetually calling him “my Attie”.  He became an advocate and reportedly a very diligent MP in London.  He lived until 1805; not all available lists have him as buried in the Duff Mausoleum.

The last child was Margaret, born 1745, eloped in 1767 with an almost penniless Brodie of Brodie.  She died in 1787 when her nightdress was caught light from the fire.

The father, William Duff, made Earl Fife in 1759, died in 1763.  Jean Grant remarkably lived until she was 83, dying in 1788, quite some feat having given birth to 14 children!