The ruin of St Brandon's Church at Boyndie

For whom the bell tolls?  Well – nobody!  The bell made by Hugh Gordon of Aberdeen and dated 1770, disappeared in 2000 just after St. Brandon’s Church was gutted by fire. So if the bell were to toll it would be for St Brandon’s in Boyndie.

St Brandon’s Church in Boyndie was built in 1773 by local architect William Robertson to take over from the pre-reformation St Brandon’s Kirk at Inverboyndie.  The Inverboyndie Kirk seems to have been abandoned and gradually fell into a ruinous state.  Some items of furniture were carried from there to St Brandon’s Boyndie, including a ‘fine chair’ dated 1733.  There was also a ‘flower table’ reputedly from a four-poster bed in Duff House.   St Brandon’s also benefitted from a pair of communion beakers (circa 1720’s).  These beakers were sold for £38,000 in 2004 to pay for repairs to the Church Hall in Whitehills.  One of the beakers is on display in the Museum of Banff.

St Brandon’s served as the Church of Scotland Parish Church until the final service on Sunday, 25th August 1996.  The congregation then moved to Trinity Church in Whitehills.

St Brandon’s was sold into private ownership in 1998.  On 14th February, 2000 the building was severely damaged by fire.  The North East Scotland Preservation Trust carried out structural repairs in 2004 to prevent further deterioration of the building.  A compulsory purchase order was served on the owners in 2006 by Aberdeenshire Council resulting in the Council gaining ownership of the building in 2013.  In the same year, St Brandon’s was again sold into private ownership.  It now serves as a family home, and also hosts a tearoom from Thursday to Saturday, thus continuing a tradition of service to the community.

St Brandon’s Church

If ever you have given thought to where you might like to rest for eternity, you will not find a more salubrious location than St Brandon’s graveyard, Inverboyndie.  The view from any of the graves is unsurpassed, taking in as it does an expanse of the Moray Firth, including a cinemascopic view of the Banff area and beyond.  Closer to hand there is a gentle slope down to the Boyndie Burn.

You will not be stuck for company.  The graveyard is quite small so all those interred should be within earshot.  Your more visible neighbours on the ground floor date from the 17th to the present day.  They originate from a cross section of the surrounding area: farmers, blacksmiths, boat builders, and fishermen.  As you can see from the gravestones, they had an appreciation of the mason’s art. 

While some are accompanied by their wives and some of their children, I dare say they would all welcome some outside conversation as, being upfront and close to one’s family in a confined space for all eternity can be trying at times 

St Brandon’s church is first mentioned in the early 13th century, so it seems reasonable to assume that in the basement of the present graves lie those of medieval folk.  Their stories should go some way towards passing the eternal days and nights, and I can see you will be in great demand with your stories of world wars, Brexit and Scottish Independence.

Should you run out of conversation in the basement, you could explore the lower basement.  The graveyard has all the signs of a Celtic origin: it is circular in shape, situated near a burn and is named after a famous Celtic missionary and navigator: St. Brandon.  While you may experience some initial difficulty with the Celtic and Pictish languages, learning these languages could be a pleasant occupation and, I am told, help stave off senility.

On those nights when all is quiet, you could ponder the question:  why was an industrial estate allowed right up against such a unique ancient monument?

C W Cosser plans for Library and Museum Banff

While completing the paperwork to enable the Museum of Banff to be involved in this year’s Doors Open Day, the name of the architect of the Banff Library and Museum emerged, one C. W. Cosser, and, as it is an unusual name for Banff, I sensed a story.

Charles Walter Cossar, or more often Cosser, was indeed the architect based in Banff who designed the Banff Library building.

Charles Cosser was born in Southampton and is listed as a Bugler with the Royal Engineers in 1861. He first arrived in Banff as an engineer with the Royal Engineers in 1866, when they carried out a survey of the district. Later he retired from the army and married a local butcher’s daughter, Mary Ann Bartlett Scott, in 1870. They had four children. Unfortunately his wife died in 1874.

He was responsible for a number of projects in the local area such as adding the tower to Portsoy Parish Church in Seafield Street in 1876.

C.W. Cosser also designed alterations for Craigston Castle in 1876, alterations to the Royal Oak hotel in the 1890s, and planned the extension to Marnoch Churchyard in 1902. He also built Doctor Barclay’s house in Castle Street. He was praised for his work as an engineer in 1888 as he was responsible for planning a clean water supply for Ladysbridge, bringing it from springs on the farms of Wardend and Inchdrewer.

As well as being an architect and surveyor Charles had other roles: he was Inspector of the Poor, and people could book passages on board ships to worldwide destinations from his offices at 1 Carmelite Street.

Charles also held the role of Clerk to the Parish Council and he rented out several properties around Banff.

In his spare time, we know that he kept a garden because he was a Banff Flower Show winner in the amateur section for dessert apples – truly a man o’ pairts.

Charles Walter Cosser died in Banff in 1915, aged 70.

 In 1862 John Kynoch was digging a grave in the old St Mary’s kirkyard in Banff, then still in use. He hit stone and was, he said, “compelled to use the pick in place of the spade”. Then he realised he had uncovered part of a statue. The pick had done serious damage in the process. Not being an archaeologist, he did not gather up the bits broken off. He took his find to the manse, where it stayed for a time, but then was put back in the kirkyard as an attraction for visitors. Twenty years later, there was a gathering of the northern Scientific Societies at Banff, and they were shown Mr Kynoch’s find. The learned minister of Nairn, Dr Grigor, said ‘That is a late-mediaeval Pieta”. The Catholic priest at Banff, Fr Chisholm, later a bishop, contradicted him, because the Middle Ages are Catholic, not Presbyterian, territory. It was too small to be a Pieta. He thought it might be part of a set of Stations of the Cross, the one that shows Christ being taken down from the cross after the crucifixion. Perhaps you could have a version of the thirteenth station showing him being lifted down and placed on his mother’s lap.

The statue was taken to Edinburgh and showed to scholars there, and Dr Grigor brought a picture of Michelangelo’s Pieta in Rome to the next meeting of the Banffshire Field Club, and it was agreed that what Banff had was a Pieta. It is likely that the word Pieta was a new one to Banffshire. Now classified and recognised as an amazing local survival of medieval art, the Pieta was at once moved to Banff Museum in 1883, and it has been there ever since. There is little doubt that it is local. A stonemason could tell you this is old red sandstone, common along this coast, and still quarried in Morayshire. (Incidentally old red sandstone can be yellow too.) Some say that the fact that the heads are missing is evidence of deliberate iconoclasm at the Reformation, but Banff quite liked images of Our Lady, and across the room in the Museum is the original Mercat Cross, with a statue of the Virgin and Child which survived in a public place throughout the Reformation and on. It is sadly possible that a man with a pick will knock off bits that stick out before he realises he has found a statue.

In a way, Michelangelo’s masterpiece has been a nuisance in interpreting what we have got in Banff, as if the sculptor in Banff must have had it as his model. On the continent there were hundreds of Pietas going back 200 years before Michelangelo, most common in Germany, but in France and Italy as well. No other Pietas, or indeed Stations of the Cross, have emerged from mediaeval Scotland. It is actually a problem to make one that looks right. A mother with a baby is easy, but a woman with the corpse of a full-grown man looks not just tragic but somewhat grotesque. So earlier Pietas often do not achieve what Michelangelo managed. Measured against them our Banff sculptor did all right.

Presumably it stood in the parish church, or perhaps in the Carmelite church, now lost. 

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.

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.