The Witness of Banff

Nowadays the harbour in Banff is full of small pleasure craft but in days gone by there were much larger ships.

One of these was the Witness of Banff. In 1852 this vessel set sail from Banff to Melbourne – a daunting journey for a ship that could fit into Banff Harbour. We know quite a lot about the voyage because one of the passengers, a Mr W Robertson of the Commercial Bank in Banff, kept a journal.

The ship left Banff on Tuesday 17th August – a ship of 130-odd tons, captained by Charles McKenzie, with a cargo of oatmeal and five passengers. The voyage was not without incident. They sailed across the Moray Firth, round the north of Scotland through the Pentland Firth, and the last sight of Scotland was St Kilda.

The good weather continued until they glimpsed the island of Madeira, and then the weather broke and the passengers were confined to their cabins.

“The howling of the wind, the gurgling of the waters, and the heaving of the ship was most dreadful. Mounting gallantly upon the hilly ridges of frothy topped waves, and diving head foremost like a duck”

Food on board the ship consisted of ship’s biscuits and beef or pork. The water was “so discoloured and so very sour that one might have pickled cucumbers in it”

Once in the Tropics they came on a vessel called the Columbus that was in difficulty and they had to rescue the captain and crew with as many possessions as they could from the stricken vessel. They also had to accommodate a dog, a very large pig, a cock and four hens but they couldn’t salvage the cargo of coal. On route they visited a ship called the Wellington to socialise with the passengers on board and enjoyed a decent dinner washed down with wine.

At last they arrived in Melbourne on 24th January 1853. Alas the Witness didn’t make it back to Banff – it travelled to Adelaide with cargo but on the return journey to Melbourne ran aground on a reef at Cape Northumberland in South Australia. The schooner was lost but fortunately all the crew survived.

There is a copy of Mr Robertson’s journal in the Museum of Banff.

Thomas Edward spent all his adult life in Banff, and his story, the Life of a Scotch Naturalist, is the only bestseller ever to have been set in and around Banff. When the author told Edward of his plans to write it, Tam tried to dissuade him. “Not a copy,” he said, “would be bought in Banff”. There is a cartoon in Punch in 1877 showing Queen Victoria awarding Edward, when an old man, a small royal pension, and in the background is a scowling figure personifying Banff.
Edward, all his days, was a poverty-stricken shoemaker, but also a wonderfully precise observer of nature, discovering, for example, dozens of new species of crustaceans on the Moray coast. For this he was made an Associate of the Linnean Society, the top reward for naturalists in Britain. But the local “Institution for Science, Literature, and the Arts, and for the encouragement of native genius and talent” which had very creditably founded the Banff Museum in 1828, never made him one of their Associates. They did, however, employ him, as assistant curator of the Museum, at two guineas a year, which even then was a token amount. The Museum in those days was behind the pillars in what is now part of the Primary School, overlooking St Mary’s carpark.
There is a fine story of how Edward fell out with the senior curator over an “auld been” (old bone). “Remove it at once, and burn it with the rest”. Edward hid it instead, and when the Institution folded, and the Banffshire Field Club, founded in 1880 and still around, took over the Museum, they were happy to honour Edward, and he brought back the bone. Tam was told by the best authorities of the day that his guess was right, and that it was the femur of a plesiosaurus.
Alas, scholars a hundred years later say it is in fact a 6000 year old whale bone. If you’ve got one, don’t throw it away, even if it’s not a plesiosaurus bone. Give it to the Museum of Banff.

AFM

Word cloud in the shape of a speech bubble showing Doric words and phrases.
Macduff town cross

The town of Macduff has grown up around its busy working harbour and thriving shipbuilding industry which continues today.

Black and White sketch of Chalmers Hospital Banff

For over two hundred years Banff was known for the high quality work produced by generations of silversmiths. These skilled craftsmen made items ranging from communion cups for churches to cutlery, ewers, watchcases and even buckles.

photograph of Banff Silver Teapot

For over two hundred years Banff was known for the high quality work produced by generations of silversmiths. These skilled craftsmen made items ranging from communion cups for churches to cutlery, ewers, watchcases and even buckles.

Macduff harbour

The town of Macduff has grown up around its busy working harbour and thriving shipbuilding industry which continues today.

Black and White photograph of the Site of the old tolbooth

James Macpherson, or ‘James of the hills’, has been described as Banff’s Robin Hood. He and his band of followers roamed the north east, and were said to steal only from those who could afford it and to give much of their loot to the poor.