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.

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.

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
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.

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.