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.

Turnpike Trusts were established in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a way of creating and maintaining a decent road network. The individual Trusts were established by Acts of Parliament. Turnpikes or Toll bars were points on the roads where people had to pay to use the road. The first Scottish Turnpike Act was in 1713 but it was the end of the century before turnpikes were built in Aberdeenshire and Banffshire.

There was a case for more roads. In the late 1700s, cargo ships from the Moray Firth were often attacked and captured by French privateers. For example in 1781 the “Anne” of Banff was taken by a Dunkirk privateer and Lord Fife lost many possessions. As the seas were so dangerous there was a great need for an alternative and safer travel route.

Also agriculture and industry saw considerable developments during this period so roads were needed to transport goods being produced.

In 1796, the road from Aberdeen was surveyed and planned, allowing an estimate to be drawn up. In 1800 a general meeting was held in Banff because the road from Turriff to Banff was so bad that no one would carry the mail on the road without extra payments being made to them. The great Provost George Robinson obtained the necessary permissions to have the road built and in 1801, Thomas Shier was appointed as the road overseer as he had surveyed the route.

It all took time. In 1802 the first eleven miles of turnpike road between Banff and Turriff was complete. In 1804 the Head Court of Banff “authorize[d] the Magistrates to subscribe £500 to the construction of a turnpike road from the Harbour of Banff southward to Huntly by Inverkeithny and Marnoch.”

In 1804 “the Provost is authorized to subscribe a sum not exceeding £300 towards making a direct communication to Keith by a turnpike road from Cott-town of Ordens to the place where it will join the Portsoy turnpike, near the Kirk of Ordiquhill.”

Four turnpike roads led out from Banff – to Boyndie, Turriff, Buchan and Marnoch. Many of the toll houses can still be seen around the area, normally altered to suit the needs of today. The nearest example to Banff is the Toll house just South of the Gellymill. The first toll house was built in 1802 “where the Turriff turnpike intersects the Macduff road below Myrehouse”. It was made of turf and the keeper, John Morrison, was paid 1/- for each day. This was replaced by the permanent house “immediately below the Gellymill”.

By 1808 the system of toll roads inland from Banff was complete. Everyone was to pay the tolls except for soldiers and their carriages ‘on the King’s business’ who would be exempt.

By 1809 the demand by the military for a decent road through Banff to Fort George from Aberdeen reduced as other, shorter routes from Fort George south had opened up and the route along the Moray Firth coast was no longer so well used.

Photo of colour painting showing one large sailing ship, junks and all sorts of small craft in front of warehouses with international flags flying

George was born in 1737 just along the coast from Banff in Fordyce.  The family seems to have had Jacobite connections so after the failed uprising in 1745 spread out across the world.  As George grew up he travelled from Holland overland via Syria to Bombay arriving in 1768.  That must have been some trip!  There he established himself as a private trader, both in India and China, trading a lot in tea which at that time came mostly from China.  At times he acted as “Supercargo” on ships, ie the person representing the owner of the cargo – often himself.  The network of Supercargoes in India and China were the people that controlled all trade in the area, although of course trading in China – Canton (now Guangzhou) being the only allowed port for foreigners – was subject to various Chinese rules.  There was no British Embassy in China at the time.

In late 1784 George was the Supercargo on board a ship called the “Lady Hughes”, berthed alongside in Canton.  It was the practice to honour other foreign ships leaving harbour by firing a gun salute – all cargo ships at that time were armed merchantmen.  So the Lady Hughes gunner fired his customary salute as a Danish ship was leaving port – most unfortunately he hit a Chinese boat and killed two crewmen!  George was arrested as the most senior person on board, but the other Supercargoes did not take kindly to one of their own being detained and all the foreign ships – armed – lined up to blockade the harbour.  The Chinese responded with their own warships and there was a standoff.  Fortunately it seems the local Chinese governor (Sun Shiyi) was reasonable and a compromise was negotiated, the alleged gunner in question being summarily strangled as was the Chinese custom.

The painting is of Canton Harbour in the late eighteenth century, showing an armed merchantman as well as a multitude of local boats, in front of the international warehouses of the time; painted by Daniell (it is thought both father and son).

When word of this serious incident reached the UK, the existing government policy of wanting a trading outpost in China outwith the laws of China was re-inforced.  An embassy and outpost was created, but it was decades later, after China’s financial crisis and inability to re-pay debts, plus Britain militarily defeating China in the first Opium War, that Hong Kong island was formally ceded to the British in 1842.

George may have only played a tiny un-intended part in the creation of Hong Kong, but part of his legacy still stands in the centre of Banff today – and the Story of how that came to be, will be told in Part 2.


Part of a map from Taylor and Skinner’s Atlas – 1776

Aberdeenshire council fills 31.000 potholes in three years. On reading Dr James McIntosh’s thesis “Roads in the Vale of Deveron from 1750 to 1850” I realised that the state of the roads has always been an issue.

As early as 1555, the need for road maintenance was recognised – highways connecting market towns and ports should be “observit and keepit”. In 1718 early Road Acts identified seaports, market towns, parish kirks, noblemen’s houses and bridges as important points to keep well connected. In this area Banff and Portsoy were the main ports for general cargoes and Down (later Macduff) and Gardenstown were well established fishing villages.

In Banffshire, in common with other areas, prior to the 1700s the roads were narrow tracks, along which most people walked and only the well-to-do rode on horseback. The Inverness to Aberdeen road which came through Banff was referred to as a currach road, one suitable for horses laden with creels or currachs.

In the mid-1700s, the roads were in a terrible state, most of them turning to mud when it rained. Cumberland’s troops had difficulties on the way to Culloden, “getting cannon and heavier accoutrements across the Howe of Castleton”. One of the common complaints was that tenants with arable land on both sides of a road would plough right across the road.

Road repairs were undertaken by parishioners who in Banffshire were required to work on the roads for six days per year from 6am to 6pm, with two hours recess in the middle of the day. In 1769, all men aged from 15 to 70 had to take part. Notices telling people when they were needed were issued by the Sheriff and Justices who met in May and decided on the repairs and improvements needed and a District Convener organised the work – in the Banff District this role was carried out, from 1774 to 1795, by William Rose, factor to Lord Fife. The announcements of where and when people were required were read out at the Kirk on a Sunday. If people refused they were ordered to pay 18d a day and if they didn’t pay, a Constable with a warrant would go to their homes and remove objects up to the value of the money they owed.

After Culloden, the need for decent roads grew, for ease of the military moving around the country and also for the growing trade taking place, for example the linen manufacture around Banff.

In 1776, G. Taylor and A. Skinner created Scotland’s first road atlas. This was designed for the growing number of travellers and could be folded to make it easy to carry. These show the main roads around Scotland in narrow strips, three to a page. The road we are interested in is the one from Edinburgh to Inverness via Banff. https://maps.nls.uk/view/74400384

Photo of old yellowed map showing the River Deveron and the piers of the first Banff Bridge.

The present Banff Bridge was opened in 1779, although not formally signed off until 17th June 1780.  Some of the original drawings of this Smeaton designed bridge, widened in 1881, do exist.  Many people are however aware that the present bridge replaced a previous one but little is known about it.

The Roy map of 1747 gives a sketch of both Banff and Down (although the latter is not named) and it does show a ford across the river.  This appears to be the King’s Ford, located 1350 feet south of the present bridge, just upstream of the mouth of the Gelly Burn on the Macduff side; part of the track from this ford to Down is still traceable on the ground.

A bit later there was also another ford utilising the west end of Scurry Island – the island just round the first major bend to the south – which joined the track past what is now Kirkside farm.

Use of the fords however was quite difficult and certainly dangerous; the tracks to them were also reported as not easy to navigate in wet weather – or until the 2nd Earl Fife undertook to improve them if the land was passed to him – which only took place in 1777.  The alternative was the use of a ferry, but some of the arguments used to make the case for a bridge show how dangerous the ferry was too: “not a single year passed without some unfortunate occurrence at this ferry”; “inconvenience to the public”; “frequent stoppage of mails”.  One of the reported incidents was 12th January 1739 when several people lost their lives after the ferry overturned.

The case for a bridge over the river was several decades in the making, and the earliest known detailed map of either Banff or Down (not named Macduff until 1783), dated October 1763, does show the beginnings of the first bridge.  This unique map shows the first bridge had three piers in the river, plus one on each bank – hence four arches compared to the present seven arched bridge.  It was largely paid for by the Government and is reported to have cost between five and six thousand pounds.  It opened in June 1765.

However great it was to stay dry crossing the river – remembering it was the main route to Aberdeen – on 17th September 1768 there was a large storm, and a huge spate of water came down the river.  This undermined the west, Banff side, pier, and the bridge collapsed, although fortunately without loss of life.

Unfortunately the ferry that had to be resumed was not so safe; in January 1773 seven lives were lost when the ferry was carried out into Banff Bay.

Smeaton decided that the new bridge should be located “the breadth of itself further up”.  Not particularly clear but the 1763 map allows some scale measurements to be taken and it would appear the old bridge was slightly to seaward of the present bridge.  The stones from the old bridge were re-used in the new bridge when work started in 1772, much of the rest coming from the quarry now at Bridge garage.