Gravestone of Alexander Irvine Ross in Portsoy
Gravestone of Alexander Irvine Ross in Portsoy

In the Museum of Banff there is a new exhibit, a map of Banff in 1826. This is a coloured map with great details of the town shown, including who owned parts of the town, at the time. Large areas of Banff were owned by the Earl of Seafield but areas were owned by organisations such as the “Gardeners Society” and “St John’s Lodge” At this time Banff is almost two separate towns – the Sea town, the area from St. Catherine Street North and the rest of the town, covering Low Street, High Street and the surrounding area. It stops short of Duff House and its grounds. This can be compared in the museum with a 1756 plan of the town and an 1823 map, by John Wood. These maps were produced by independent map makers or land surveyors, before the days of the Ordnance Survey.

The 1826 map was created by Alexander Irvine Ross, a land surveyor from Mains of Tyrie. He was involved in the production of a series of maps created by James Robertson (1783 – 1879) of the shires of Aberdeenshire, Banff and Kincardine in 1822. James Robertson was referred to as “the Shetlander who mapped Jamaica and Aberdeenshire”. Alexander Irvine Ross also produced a four sheet map covering Aberdeenshire and Banff in 1826, mentioned in the New Statistical Account, written by the Reverend Francis William Grant in 1845. This possibly refers to the maps which were published in John Thomson’s Atlas of Scotland, 1832.

The map came in to the possession of the late Bob Carter who donated it to Banff Preservation and Heritage Society. It was in poor condition and in need of conservation work. The map was cleaned and relined by the High Life Highland Conservation Service, with a grant from the Area Initiatives Fund. This meant that a unique and valuable part of Banff’s history has been preserved for future generations. The map is best viewed in person at the museum but if that’s not possible it can be seen on our website – https://www.bphsmob.org.uk/collection/various_items/1724_1826_Map.html

Mary Duff of Hatton

Mary Duff’s House, High Street, Banff

The great poet Lord Byron spent part of his childhood in Banff. His mother’s family lived here. His great-grandmother, Lady Gight, lived in rather an ugly house where the Sheriff Court now stands on Low Street. His first sweet-heart was Mary Duff, who lived on the High Street. There was a public outcry in the 1960s when that house, a really historic 17C tower house, was demolished and replaced by what is now McColl’s. It was because of that philistine decision by our local councillors that the Banff Preservation Society was founded.

Mary was a Duff of Hatton, a very prolific Duff family, cousins of the Earl Fife, and a distant cousin of Byron. She was a few months older than he was, both born in 1788, and they met at a dancing class in Aberdeen. The little boy was lame from birth, so dancing was probably purgatory. But he loved sitting billing and cooing with his pretty cousin.

We know about this because some years later, after inheriting a peerage and going to Harrow, the great English public school, Byron heard that Mary was married. He was a teenager, with his first proper girlfriend (though he said he’d had fifty) and his first proper falling-out with his girl-friend, and he felt totally betrayed. There was his childhood sweetheart, his first love, abandoning him too! It is all in his journal.  It did not help matters that his mother then told everyone she met about George’s star-crossed love with Mary Duff.  

Here is the story from Byron’s own journal. “I have been thinking lately a good deal of Mary Duff. How very odd that I should have been so utterly, devotedly fond of that girl, at an age when I could neither feel passion, nor know the meaning of the word. And the effect! My mother used always to rally me about this childish amour; and, at last, many years after, when I was sixteen, she told me one day, “Oh, Byron, I have had a letter from Edinburgh, from Miss Abercromby, and your old sweetheart Mary Duff is married to a Mr Co’e.” And what was my answer? I really cannot explain or account for my feelings at that moment; but they nearly threw me into convulsions, and alarmed my mother so much, that after I grew better, she generally avoided the subject—to me—and contented herself with telling it to all her acquaintance. Now, what could this be? I had never seen her since her mother’s faux pas at Aberdeen had been the cause of her removal to her grandmother’s at Banff; we were both the merest children. I had and have been attached fifty times since that period; yet I recollect all we said to each other, all our caresses, her features, my restlessness, sleeplessness, my tormenting my mother’s maid to write for me to her, which she at last did, to quiet me. Poor Nancy thought I was wild, and, as I could not write for myself, became my secretary. I remember, too, our walks, and the happiness of sitting by Mary, in the children’s apartment, at their house not far from the Plain-stanes at Aberdeen, while her lesser sister Helen played with the doll, and we sat gravely making love, in our way.  How the deuce did all this occur so early? where could it originate? I certainly had no sexual ideas for years afterwards; and yet my misery, my love for that girl were so violent, that I sometimes doubt if I have ever been really attached since.”

The Mr Co’e was a Robert Cockburn, from a rich family of wine-merchants in Edinburgh – yes, it’s Cockburn’s port. Mary had a happy life, and she outlived Byron by 30-odd years, to die in 1858. She comes into one of Byron’s poems too.


Byron as a boy, engraving from a painting by Kay
Brown and white postcard image

Monday 26th November 1906

This was the day of a huge milestone in the history of Banff and Macduff, an event that was intended to, and did, cut through the normal competition between the two towns.

“In the evening a huge bonfire was lighted on the Hill O’Doune, when there was a further opportunity for a public demonstration and general jubilation.  During the afternoon a very large quantity of brushwood was carted to the hill, and was piled on top of several barrels of tar and paraffin.  At seven o’clock the match was applied by Mrs West [wife of the Provost of Macduff].  A very large number of of the inhabitants of both communities assembled to witness the conflagration, which, fanned by a strong breeze, soon assumed considerable dimensions.  The fire burned furiously till a later hour.”  “A large number of rockets were sent off from the hill, and the opinion was generally expressed that it was a long time since so hearty enthusiasm was displayed.”

The event earlier in the day had been enough not just to give rise to the bonfire, but an impromptu closing of the schools, flags and bunting were erected all over both towns and shops closed – what was reported as “a general holiday was observed for the rest of the day.”

And the event that caused this: the extremely generous donation by the Duke and Duchess of Fife, of Duff House and a large part of the estate, to the two town councils.  This had been announced at a meeting that morning of both town councils.  During 2021 there has been some mention of the written terms of this gift, and perhaps 2022 will give rise to more discussion, but the undertaking of Provost Alexander of Banff, made as part of his acceptance of the gift, may also be relevant.

Provost Alexander described in glowing terms the house and grounds, and then goes on to say: “Then we have the invaluable fact of the subject of the gift being absolutely unrestricted in its administration.”  Such a term does indeed exist in the written Gift, but so too do the underlying purposes of the Gift by the Duke, and these are fully acknowledged by Provost Alexander.  He describes in some detail some of the plans as of that time for the grounds, “golf courses, bowling greens, tennis courts, and  croquet lawns” which he sees fully in accordance with the “heads of pleasure grounds and places of recreation” as laid out in the Gift.  “I feel with the exercise of sound judgement … we will be able to complete a scheme (in the formation of which we are unfettered) which will adequately accomplish the objects underlying His Grace’s munificence.”

Hence, certainly in 1906, the Town Councils involved had a clear understanding of the purpose of the house and land gifted to them, and appeared to have every intention of doing just that. 

Black and white image of a postcard
Postcard from the first years of the 20th century showing the Duff House gates on the Banff side of the bridge, the drive to Duff House and “Canal Park” to it’s right.

There is on other interesting aspect too.  The written acceptance of the Gift includes that the two town councils “respectfully request the gracious permission of Her Royal Highness [the, Duchess, Princess Louise] to the Canal Park being henceforth known as the Princess Royal Park.”  Although such permission was granted, it seems this aspect of the Town Council’s undertakings haven’t been honoured in all of the present day wording by Aberdeenshire Council!

Black and white photographic image of head and shoulders

In 1873 a young local man became an apprentice gardener in Banff, living in the Bothy just behind the Vinery in what is today known as Airlie Gardens, but used to be one of the kitchen gardens for Duff House and the Lord Fifes.  Forty years later the same man was in New York, still working in the same industry, but now owning two acres of downtown Manhattan.

John Donaldson had decided he wanted a career in gardening and seemed to take it quite seriously.  After a year at Duff House learning his trade, he took a job at Vogrie House near Edinburgh, and from there to a larger estate in Yorkshire, before moving to one of the largest nurseries in the UK at the time, Veitch Nurseries based in London.  After a spell at Regents Park Zoo (then called the Zoological Gardens), with his wife he emigrated to New York in 1893.  He learnt more of the nursery trade with two large nurseries there, before starting his own business on Long Island, growing flowers, particularly carnations and lillies.   We even know some of the preferred varieties that he grew, which of course were those popular amongst the rich of New York.  At the beginning of the twentieth century New York, a very crowded place, was a very smelly place, and flowers were one of the means that the better off could do to have a better smelling atmosphere!

Black and white photographic image

Many of these were sold on the street at flower markets in New York, but wanting to improve sales and provide more certainty, John became one of the founders of the “New York Cut Flower Exchange”.  By 1912 he became the President of that organisation.  This still exists, centred around W 28th Street, between Manhattan and Greenwich Village, not far from the Empire State building (although that was only built in 1931). 

Today it may seem strange, but of the two acres he owned in Manhattan, flowers were still being grown.  John lived there himself, and had only six other houses on what amounted to 28 city lots; the rest of the land was still productive, although he also had a nursery at Elmhurst, about 3 miles to the east on Long Island.

He started to sell some of the Manhattan lots; one was sold for $60,000 in about 1912 – equivalent today of about US$ 2 million!

There is much more research to complete, but John Donaldson of Banff is one local lad that certainly did make his way in the world.

There are eighteen Commonwealth War Graves from the Second World War in Banff.  These are only a few of the airmen killed serving at the Boyndie base. Only those whose planes crashed in Scotland are buried in Banff. If you were shot down over the sea or over Norway there will be no grave. One of the Canadians and one of the Australians had brothers who were shot down over Europe.

One is of an unknown airman, so that is where, if we have a wreath, we lay it. Four were from England, seven from Canada, four from Australia, and two from New Zealand. One, called William Reid, was from Britain, but we don’t know where.

Of the British airmen, one was a doctor’s son from Surrey, one the son of a warden at Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight, and another came from Bethnal Green in London.

Two of the Australians came from neighbouring suburbs of Sydney, and one from just outside Perth in Western Australia. The other came from the outback in Queensland, a small place called Winton, where they have an annual festival because ‘Waltzing Matilda’ was first performed there.

The New Zealanders came from in or near Auckland, in the North Island, but the Canadians came from all over, from Edmonton, and Ottawa, and Saskatoon, and two from small places in the prairies. The one from Ottawa had three Christian names, Louis Eber Eldred, but apparently answered to ‘Tony’. The man from Saskatoon was not only married but had two small children, and this may explain why this is the only grave that has recent mementos from the family on it.

And then there was Ernest Raymond Davey, who came from London, Ontario, in Canada. (I think people called him ‘Bus’.) He wrote a poem, found after his death, called Extinction: the Airman’s Prayer which was put into a book. It is a serious Christian poem; at home, he was a loyal member of the Anglican Church of Canada. It is easy for us to imagine how we would like to face our death when it comes. It is different for someone who is actually facing it.

Here it is, from Soldier Poetry of the Second World War: An Anthology, ed. Jane and Walter Morgan, Presented with the permission of the Department of National Defence, Government of Canada. Oakville: Mosaic Press, 1990: 45. RPO

Almighty and all present power

Short is the prayer I make to thee;

I do not ask in battle hour

For any shield to cover me.

The vast unalterable way,

From which the stars do not depart,

May not be turned aside to stay

The bullet flying through my heart.

I ask no help to strike my foe;

I seek no petty victory here;

The enemy I hate, I know

To thee is dear.

But this I pray, be at my side,

When death is drawing through the sky;

Almighty Lord, who also died

Teach me the way that I should die.

Willian Geddie was born in Garmouth on 21st July 1829 into a Speyside shipbuilding family.  He served his apprenticeship in Garmouth, later working as a shipwright in Glasgow and Aberdeen.  His brother John was born in 1823 and had built three ships in Lossiemouth before going bankrupt in 1863.  In 1865 both brothers migrated to Banff and built at least 27 ships mostly at the Duffus Hillock yard near the mouth of the Deveron but also at Patent Slip, Banff Harbour.

William Geddie 1829-1897

William Geddie 1829-1897

All the ships built by the Geddies were built of wood and carried sails.  They were used for trading along the East Coast and for voyages to the Baltic countries.  Most of them were owned by Banff or Macduff merchants and carried general cargo such as: coal, herring, grain.  While they were judged to be fine ships by Lloyds of London, sailing was a dangerous undertaking as evidenced by the fact that of the 27 ships built by the brothers, at least 17 were lost at sea, in some cases with all the crew.

The launching of the Lady Ida Duff illustrates how difficult it could be to manage these boats.  During the launch the ship’s bow lightly touched the seabed causing her to roll from side to side.  The crew had almost managed to steady her before a slight breeze caused her to roll again.  This movement was greatly amplified by the ship’s visitors, mostly boys, rushing to the shore side of the ship for some reason.  The ship toppled over and a great number of those on board were tipped into the water.  Fortunately, they were all rescued.  During the next high tide, the ship was righted and moored.

The advent of steam-powered ships and the railway network spelt the end of sailing ships and their shipbuilders.  The last ship built in Banff, the Swift, was on the stocks for three years waiting for a buyer.   Eventually the Geddies had to become the managing owners.   Tragically the Swift was lost at sea in 1896, less than a year after her completion.  Six men were lost with her, including two of William’s sons.  William died heartbroken in 1897 and with him went a great Banff industry that carried the name of Banff far and wide.

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.