The cup and saucer building near Glengassaugh distillery
Chickens in Glasshaugh House
Chickens in Glasshaugh House

In 1759 General James Abercromby (aka Mrs Nanny Cromby) retired from the army and returned to his Banffshire estate, Glasshaugh.  With plenty of time on his hands he commissioned the rebuilding of Glasshaugh House in a classical style, see above.

Fast forward to the 21st century.  The house still exists but in a ruinous state.  Not surprising since in the last century it was used to house livestock, ‘chickens on the second floor, pigs on the first – who reached their pens via the principal staircase – and cows on the ground’.

Back in the 18th century, James’ thoughts turned to land improvements on his estate.  But what to do? 

  • What about a mill? 
  • A mill??
  • A windmill would be fun!

So, a windmill it was.  While windmills were not unknown in Scotland, most mills in the area were water driven.  In construction, two essential components required are labour and materials.  Fortunately, labour was readily available in the form of large numbers of tenant farmers and cottars locally displaced in a manner reminiscent of the Highland Clearances.  Materials were available in the form of a nearby Bronze Age burial cairn.

To the utter astonishment of the local population around Banff a gigantic four-story windmill was completed and dressed in splendid white sails.  It was the talk of Banff and beyond.  It still is, but now known locally as the Cup and Saucer.  Not surprisingly travellers who pass it on the A98 between Banff and Portsoy have no idea what it is.  Could it be a Martello tower, Pictish broch, a tower house, a part of the nearby Glenglasshaugh Distillery??

James Abercromby, defeated general, nanny, wind power visionary, destroyer of Bronze Age remains? We will let his wife, Mary Duff, have the last word. She ended the inscription on his gravestone at Fordyce:“… his once happy wife inscribes this marble as an unequal testimony of his worth, and of her affection.”

Glasshaugh House
Glasshaugh House
Fort Ticonderoga

James Abercromby (1706 – 23 April 1781) started his military career at the age of 11 by entering the 25th Foot as an ensign.  It is a truth universally acknowledged, that significant promotion in the military, must await a war.  In 1734, not yet a captain, he sought and won promotion as Banff member of parliament courtesy of his brother-in-law, William Duff – Duff’s son was underage.  Abercromby had to give up his seat in 1754 when the son came of age. 

Abercromby’s big military moment, and it was just a moment, came in December 1757 with the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War.  He was made Commander-in-Chief of British forces in America and directed to take what is now called Fort Ticonderoga from the French. He managed to assemble a force of 15000 and move them and their supplies through the wilderness. That said, the troops eventually lost their way in the dense forest and soon after, Lord Howe, Abercromby’s right hand man, was killed during a brief skirmish with the French.

At Fort Ticonderoga the French commander, Montcalm, was hastily entrenching his force of some 3,500 men behind a barricade of brush and abatis (sharpened wooden stakes stuck in the ground, pointing at advancing troops).  Fearing French reinforcements and lacking Lord Howe’s advice, Abercromby vacillated, but eventually ordered a series of frontal assaults without waiting for artillery support.  Bad move; the strategy was a disaster leaving 1,944 British troops dead or wounded and Montcalm in situ. Abercromby then ordered a retreat. Second bad move; his forces still vastly outnumbered Montcalm’s, and by bringing up his artillery, he could have won the day.  However, Abercromby was disheartened by his heavy losses and pulled back to his fortified camp south of Lake George.

Worse was to come. James was mocked as Mrs Nanny Cromby, a name that referenced his organizational skills and his indecisive leadership.  In September 1758 he was sent home and replaced by General Jeffery Amherst.

Black and white image of part of a plan of Duff House showing one of the proposed - but unbuilt - wings.

There are at least two meanings of the word “Library”.  The first meaning is a room where books are kept.  At Duff House there were very grand plans for what would have been a truly wonderful library space.  The East wing, part of the original William Adam design, was to have it’s whole top floor, 80 feet by 60 feet, designated as the Library.  Of course this was never built due to the dispute between William Adam and his client, William Duff, who later became the 1st Earl Fife – who never lived at Duff House anyway!

The 2nd Earl Fife, James, was however clearly – from references in his letters many of which still exist – a very well read gentleman, and he designated what we know today as the Long Gallery in Duff House to be his Library.  He certainly tried to look after his book collection and, for example, in February 1789 he instructed that the windows and bookcases be thrown open, and his large books of prints laid out for airing.  The 4th Earl was an equally avid book collector and by the end of the 19th century the Duff House Library held 15,000 volumes.

Today, the designated “Library” is two rooms on the second floor, which contains a number of glass fronted bookcases with a very fine collection within them – but not the original Duff Library!  This is because the 1st Duke of Fife gave Duff House and it’s estate to the people of Banff and Macduff in 1907 and the collection of books was taken out of the House.  When the restoration, completed in 1995, was being planned Duff House was very fortunate to get permission from the Dunimarle Trustees to allow it’s collection of furniture, artefacts and books to be installed.

The Dunimarle Library – now stored in various places in Duff House – has over 4,500 volumes collected by members of the Erskine family from Torrie House in Fife.  The Erskines thrived at much the same time as the Duffs and shared many parallels; this even extended to their names, such as William and James!  Both families were avid collectors, of artefacts, paintings and books.  The subjects covered by the Dunimarle Library are similar to those known to have been in the original Duff House Library, classics, history, geography, news, law, economics, heraldry, travel; typical subjects for serious libraries of the 18th and 19th centuries to include.  One clear – and interesting – difference was that the original Duff House Library included many Spanish books – because of the 4th Earl Fife’s travel there; and the Dunimarle family library instead has a major section on India and the far east because of John the 4th Baronet of Torrie.

Some of the key books were, perhaps not unexpectedly, the same in both Libraries.  A 17th century Bible, Hume’s 1786 History of England, 18th century works of Shakespeare, Bartolozzi engravings.  While enquiries continue for a complete list of the original Duff House collection, the Friends of Duff House many years ago completed a full catalogue of the Dunimarle Library – which can be viewed in the Study inside the House (once it re-opens) and which it is hoped will go on-line in the future.  Meanwhile all 929 Dunimarle Library books published in the British Isles before 1801 are listed on the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC). 

Land Yacht Wanderer

It is only a small exaggeration to say the Banff’s caravan parks owe their existence to one Dr William Gordon Stables, born in 1837 at nearby Aberchirder, or Foggie as it is called locally. Dr Stables had a career as a surgeon in the Royal Navy and when retired wrote over 100 books, mainly tales of imperial derring-do for children, to supplement his pension.

A fortuitous encounter with a gypsy encampment changed his dream of owning an ocean-going yacht into commissioning a Land Yacht.  And what a yacht it turned out to be – the world’s first purpose-built leisure caravan?  Measuring some 18 feet long, 6 feet 7 inches wide and a maximum of 10 feet 8 inches high, the Land Yacht Wanderer, built of mahogany, weighed about two tons.  It was pulled by two large horses and came with all mod-cons for the time: a valet, coachman, dog, cockatoo, and a china cabinet.  The caravan’s security system consisted of Dr Stables’ ‘Navy cutlass and a good revolver’.

In 1885 The Wanderer embarked on a 1300-mile journey around Britain subsequently written up and published in 1886 as, The Cruise of the Land Yacht ‘Wanderer’ – the first caravan holiday guide book?  It must have been quite the spectacle trundling through towns and villages, particularly as Dr Stables cut such a fine figure of a man in his Highland dress. His fame was such that in 1907 he was elected Vice President of the Caravan Club despite not being a member or ever attending a meeting.

There is no doubt that Dr Stables would have delighted in any one of Banff’s caravan sites.  On a visit here he commented, ‘I have discovered Banff … it is by far and away the most delightful town on the coast. … the scenery all around would delight the eyes of poet or artist.’  Fine praise indeed from our gentleman gypsy.

Portrait of James Grant, 1789 - 1858

James Grant, (1789-1858), born at Banff made a name for himself as a soldier, administrator and historian in India with the East India Company.  He first arrived in India as a cadet at the age of sixteen. Graduating from the cadet academy he distinguished himself in many military campaigns while also mastering the Marathi, Urdu, and Persian languages. In 1818 he was appointed to the important office of Resident of Satara State.

In office, a great deal of Grant’s time was spent in adjudicating the claims of his officers for booty during battles and prize claims in the aftermath of battles.  As can be imagined there was fierce competition among officers for prize as, Henry Dundas Robertson, his fellow administrator and Scot wrote, ‘Treasure-hunting does indeed make men keen.’  To distinguish between actual looting and suspected booty Grant constantly consulted Maratha manuscripts. From his research in the primary materials, it was but a short step to historical scholarship.

In 1820 he began work on the first volume of his History of the Marattas, which eventually went to three volumes.  Grant’s history feels quite modern in its use of primary documents (state papers, family and temple archives, and personal contacts with the Maratha chiefs) and its appreciation of the material culture of the Maratha, particularly that of their weaponry. The complete history was published in 1826.

He left India in 1825, married and soon after he succeeded to the estate of Eden and with it to the Duff name. He spent his time there improving the property and helping in the development of short horned cattle. In 1850 his wife, Jane Catharine, succeeded to an estate in Fifeshire belonging to her mother’s family, and James became James Grant Duff Cuninghame. 

Black and white photo of the Duke in uniform and the Princess Louise

The sixth Earl Fife, Alexander, by 1883 was the third largest landholder in Scotland.  The 1880s was the time of the Great Depression of British agriculture, following a fall in grain prices with the opening up of the American prairies after their civil war, and the development of cheap shipping on the new steam driven ships.  Alexander treated his tenants with every consideration, and started a policy of selling small holdings to the occupying tenants.  At a meeting in Banff in 1890 he explained his theory:

“there should be a considerable number of small estates side by side with larger ones, which will not only tend to create an element of greater stability in the country, but also do away with the idea which once prevailed, that land is the peculiar appanage of one class, instead of being, as it should be, a purchasable commodity within the reach of all”.

And so he lived up to his theory.  He sold numerous smallholdings generally to their existing tenants, but also sold off some of the larger estates.  A few – certainly not all – of these are listed below; places many people will know or at least heard of:

Skene – the gatehouse and House you see as you drive west from Westhill – leased then sold to the Hamilton family;

Innes – the House and estate between Spey Bay and Lossiemouth, now a wedding venue, sold to the Tennant family who’s fifth generation still own and care for it;

Rothiemay – to the Forbes, who made many improvements; but after several sales the house cum castle was demolished in 1964;

Auchintoul – near Aberchirder – originally owned by Alexander Gordon who founded the town as Foggieloan;

Glenbuchat Castle and Estate – to the Barclays.  The Castle itself is now in Historic Scotland care and some of the estate is owned by a foreign company;

Eden – south of Banff on the east side of River Deveron; a ruined castle with the estate sold off in parts;

Glenrinnes – southwest of Dufftown – now with a successful distillery;

Aberlour – again in the heart of whisky country;

Blairmore – near Glass west of Huntly; the House used to be a private school, now home to a Christian organisation.

And locally of course, the 6th Earl Fife, who was made the 1st Duke of Fife, stuck to his stated theory when in 1907 he left the Duff House estate to the people of Banff and Macduff, and hence as part of the Common Good, now in the care of Aberdeenshire Council!

A crowded High Street Turriff in 1890

Just as the photo of Turriff’s Feein Fair in 1890 above shows, imagine Low Street Banff is packed with farm servants, both male and female, standing around in twos and threes hoping for a fee.  The farmers wearing wide-brimmed tall hats push their way through the groups sizing up the women’s capacity for hard work with some making rude comments about their appearance.  The men are similarly quizzed as to their strength and competence.   

You might think that this was a medieval market, but no, this was the way agricultural workers and servants were hired until the middle of the twentieth century.  Unmarried men were hired for a six-monthly period with married couples hired for one year. Hiring was only possible on two set days in Banff, once at St Brandon’s Fair in May and then again at the Michaelmas Feeing Market in November. 

He clapped his hand upon my shouther,

Says, Laddie, are ye gaun to fee?

It’s I will gie ye twa pund ten

Tae the barnyards o’ Delgaty

If an offer was accepted, the worker was given a coin as ‘arles.’ Accepting the coin meant the worker was contractually bound to report to their new master.  Before doing so, the workers, as likely as not, would patronise some of the stalls in Low Street.  The stalls sold farm produce, sweets, medicines to cure all ills, clothing and all types of fancy trinkets.

Sometimes the atmosphere would have been enlivened by the presence of recruiting sergeants accompanied by the Gordon Highlanders band.  If further liveliness were required there were booths selling strong liquor, a commodity often associated with very lively behaviour, as evidenced by the following comment from the Elgin Courant, and Morayshire Advertiser – Friday 22 November 1850:

The (Brandon) market was distinguished from its predecessors by the absence of rioting, and smaller display of drunkenness than is customary.

I wonder what St Brandon would have made of his Fair Day?

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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.

Sandi Thom

Alexandria Thom, better known as ‘Sandi Thom’, born and raised in Banff, became widely known in 2006 after her debut single, “I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair)”, topped the UK Singles Chart in June of that year.  Surely you remember?

I was born too late into a world that doesn’t care
Oh, I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair

In 2004, Thom moved to London, initially, to pursue a song writing career, that soon turned into a performing one.  She signed a record contract with the record label Viking Legacy, where her mother was director.  The label released her début single, “I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair)” in late 2005, but it did not attract attention.

In early 2006, Sandi Thom decided, instead of endlessly driving to small venues around the country, she would publicise herself via a series of 21 shows to be performed every other night from the basement of her Tooting flat in South London. Being a small flat, the audience was in single figures.  The trick was to video the half-hour shows and broadcast them free of charge via her website.  By the middle of the second week, she had a peak audience of 70,000 online, had become an internet sensation, was given a major record deal and soon after topped the charts with her 2005 single.

People were amazed to think that there could have been punks in Banff.  Nonetheless a few had been spotted, but none with flowers in their hair. 

Since then the sun has set on Sandi’s UK chart career, but the star has risen to a performing career far from Banff.  Where, you ask, would a Banffer replicate Banff’s resplendent sea and sand.  Would you believe Bahrain?

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.