A view of the inside of Banff Foundry

If you look carefully as you walk around Banff you can still find traces of a major industry in the town (see the photos).

The area where Tesco supermarket is now would have been very different before 1955. Banff Foundry was developed on the site of a blacksmith’s forge (Robert Thomson’s blacksmith shop), bounded by Reid Street, Carmelite Street and Bridge Street. The industrial forge was installed in 1827 by William Fraser.

In 1858, an article in the Banffshire Journal and Advertiser gave details about the new Foundry and the iron-making process.

 “The large new casting room is 60 feet long by 30 feet wide”. “The furnace is like a huge lemonade bottle, from which a chimney to a considerable height rises. On the side, and near the head of the furnace, at a spot exactly corresponding with that on which the aerated water vendor  pastes his label, is a large circular opening, opposite which a platform is extended. From this platform the workmen (who must partake, somewhat of the salamandrine character from the amount of heat they endure) feed the furnace, by the opening, with metal and fuel.” (Banffshire Journal and General Advertiser, Tuesday 23 November 1858)

The Foundry made a wide range of agricultural implements, gates, fences etc. Many people collect old agricultural implements made in Banff by G. W. Murray and later Watson Brothers, which can still be seen today. (See the accompanying photos.) Around Banff, there used to be drain covers with Banff Foundry written across them.

In 1867 to 1869, the Foundry is described in the Ordnance Survey name book as “A large iron foundry on Reid Street, occupied by G W. Murray, the property of the Aberdeen Town & County Bank.”

G.W. Murray was the owner of the Foundry from 1863 until his death in 1887, aged 53 years. He had an adventurous life, living in Australia from 1852 until 1862, where he made his fortune. (Australia’s gold rush started in 1851). George Wilson Murray married Cecilia Blake in 1862 and built the Italianate house at South Colleonard, just outside Banff.

The Foundry had a tumultuous history, burnt down in 1892. However, it recovered very quickly and the business thrived, employing 35 people in the 1890s.

In 1902, the Foundry, then being run by the Watson brothers, exported agricultural machinery worldwide, e.g. Cape Colony, South Africa; Montevideo and Hobart, Tasmania, being just a few of the destinations.

William Charles Dawes (1865 – 1920): there is tantalizingly little that can be said with surety about this man. Born in Surbiton, Surrey as the eldest son of four boys to Sir Edwin Sandy Dawes, a ship owner knighted for his contributions to the shipping industry and founder of the ‘Dawes Dynasty’, he will no doubt have had a privileged upbringing and enjoyed the fruits of his father’s labors. Foremost being life at Mount Ephraim, which are now ten-acre gardens open to the public.  Picture, if you will, what a delightful childhood that must have been. Consider your own, and the times in which you found yourself playing in your garden, and then transport your younger self into acres of private land characterized by their topiary, arboretum, water and rose gardens. One must wonder at the adventures these four lads undertook on hot summer days and the joy it brought them. 

Why did he dedicate a bridge so far north? To proffer a concrete answer would be speculative, but one fact that bears pointing out is that he was married to a woman called Jane Margaret Dawes nee Simpson, and that she was born 1st of september 1869 in Inverboyndie Banff. 

It may be a forgivable leap, especially for romantics among us, to suggest it was for his wife’s sake. Anything more than that with so little information on the man available and we would be venturing into conjecture, however. Perhaps the most important thing we can say about him that is not conjectural, is that he was of a noble spirit, as clearly demonstrated by his willingness to pay for the construction of a bridge at Inverboyndie at all.  

He died 20th of July, 1920 (19 days after his brother, second youngest, Col. Bethel Martyn Dawes) and is buried in the churchyard of St Michael, Hernhill, Kent, England; thirty-three years later, at the age of 84, his wife was reunited with him in eternal rest.

Banff was a town with a musical tradition. In the 20th century this expressed itself in singing. Steadily from 1925 into the 1970s there were regular productions. We can safely say that every single Gilbert and Sullivan light opera was performed in Banff, starting with The Gondoliers in 1926, the year the Operatic Society was formally constituted. There was already a Choral Society, and the two overlapped for years, and then merged as Banff Choral and Operatic Society in 1955.

The leading light of the Society was Harold George, organist and choirmaster of St Mary’s Parish Church, nowadays simply called Banff Parish Church. He was Director of every performance from 1925 till his retirement in 1970, and his wife was Secretary of the Society. Once he had gone, things weren’t the same, and after two or three years the routine was broken.

Provost Rankine for many years was a tenor in the choir and then was Secretary and Treasurer, and indeed President. In the Museum we have a programme with a list of 72 Patrons, starting with the Countess of Seafield. The venues varied, sometimes St Mary’s Hall, sometimes the Drill Hall or the YMCA Hall, or even Macduff Town Hall.

Singing with a good local Society can be the start of a musical career. Muriel Rae went on to Covent Garden and Sadlers Wells, and Chris Donald to the BBC Singers. The Junior Branch of the Society flourished in Banff Academy for several years, and even more of these went on to sing elsewhere.

What a consistent annual delight it must have been to have all this light-hearted tunefulness, and the whole spectacle of a well-turned-out company, year after year.


In 1759 Richard Birnie was born in Banff. He came from a respectable family and when he was old enough he was apprenticed to a saddler. Later he travelled to London to take up a position with McIntosh and Co., Saddlers and Harness Makers in Haymarket. This company undertook work for the royal family and Richard was often asked for by the Prince of Wales.

As his work was sought after by a member of the royal family, he advanced within the company and in time became a foreman and later, a partner in the business. In 1798, he married Louisa Birrell, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, and had a family.

In time he became a magistrate at Bow Street. He is famous for having led the police in the arrest of the Cato Street conspirators on 23rd February 1820. This was a group of twenty-seven men who had devised a plot to murder the entire British Cabinet, whom they blamed for the poor conditions for ordinary people in the country at the time. George Edwards, one of the conspirators, showed the others a copy of the New Times which stated that the Cabinet ministers were going to dine together at Lord Harrowby’s home in Grosvenor Square. The conspirators plotted to assassinate the ministers there. The group were betrayed by a spy in their ranks and that allowed Richard Birnie and the metropolitan police to arrest them before they could act.

Although there was such a large group, only eleven men were arrested. They were brought to trial and of these, five admitted their guilt and were transported, the other five were hung. The last one of the eleven was the spy.

Later at Queen Caroline’s funeral in 1821, a mob of people was becoming unruly and Sir Robert Baker, the Chief Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate, was urged to read the Riot Act but he did not, so Richard Birnie stepped up and read it. Sir Robert Baker resigned and Richard Birnie was promoted in his place. Shortly after the funeral, Richard Birnie received a knighthood.

Sir Richard Birnie died on 29th April 1832 and was buried in St Martin in the Fields cemetery.

This was soon after the 1914-18 war. The mortars went off at the coastguard station. My pal said: “Come on, we’ll get a badge”. So off we set at a run for the lifeboat station, then sited at the Macduff end of Banff Bridge. Arriving there we found the skipper throwing out armbands, the badges I mentioned. Of course a couple came our way, which meant we were to tail on to one of the ropes with which the boat was hauled to the launching place, in this case Macduff Harbour. The actual crew were all volunteers but all of them were seamen.

The boat, named George and Mary Berrey, was fitted with oars and sail only, and sat on a wheeled launching carriage. We were soon on our way, and when we arrived at Macduff, the crew all got on board. Mr Paterson, the harbour master, directed operations. There was a kind of slip, a very narrow passage, which the boat had to enter in order to be launched on an even keel, and this proved very difficult to accomplish. Skipper Dowffie (his nickname, not his surname) becoming impatient, shouted to “dump her ower the pier,” but Mr Paterson objected, saying it might damage the keel.

“Fit’s a coat o’ paint fan men’s lives may be at stake” was the answer he got, and we got a shout to let her go. Whoever worked the release pin did just that, and the boat plunged off the pier bow first, went well underneath the surface, and bobbed up again like the proverbial cork. A complete ducking for a start did not in the least dismay the bold skipper and his crew. The boat was well on its way when it was recalled. It had all been a false alarm!

When we arrived back at the lifeboat shed, the boat was housed and everything made shipshape. We handed in our armbands and a sum of four shillings [20p] was paid to each of us hauliers – very welcome for the little we did.

This story is almost word for word from Memories of My Young Days in Banff by A.R. in the Banffshire Journal Annual for 1965. He spelt the boat’s name George and Mary Berry, but I’m trusting the RNLI plaque in Banff Museum. In 1923 they closed the lifeboat station at the bridge and moved it to Whitehills.

Mary Beaton (Copyright acknowledged)

The Ogilvies of Boyne were very important round here for more than 200 years. Sir Walter Ogilvie was body squire to two kings, James III and James IV, and in 1486 was given the thanage of Boyne. He was Sheriff of Banff, and married an heiress, Margaret Sinclair of Deskford and Findlater. His great-grandson, Alexander, in 1562 entertained the young Mary Queen of Scots at Craig of Boyne. “After dining at Craig she proceeded to Banff, where she supped and slept”. Alexander caught the eye of her lady-in-waiting, Mary Beaton, and married her in 1566. Do you remember the song “Yestreen the Queen had four Maries, Tonight she’ll hae but three. There was Mary Beaton, and Mary Seton, and Mary Carmichael, and me”? Alexander built Boyne Castle, a fitting place for a lady brought up in the chateaux of France, but it bankrupted him.

The Ogilvies were all intermarried. Alexander’s son James married Isobel Ogilvie of Dunlugas, and when he died she married an Ogilvie of Glassaugh. Their daughter Marie married an Ogilvie of Carnousie and Knock, and her older brother James married a sister of Lord Findlater, another Ogilvie. That James had a short but interesting life. In 1623 he and five other Ogilvies was up in court for attacking and beating the minister of Forres in church. That didn’t stop him being appointed a JP for Banffshire later the same year. Two years later he went overseas, though we don’t know where, and was never heard of again. He wisely left a will naming executors to look after the children “till they be of perfect age of fourteen”.  

His son Walter lived through the Civil War. First he backed the Covenant against the King, and in 1645 Montrose’s army swept through the north. “The Laird himself kept the Craig of Boyne, wherein he was safe, but his haill lands for the most part were burnt up and destroyed”. His views changed, as he found the Covenanters too extreme, and he became an “Engager” and supported the King. So he was on the losing side when Cromwell won the battle of Worcester, and was disciplined by the church when he got home. However, in 1660 there was the Restoration, and Sir Walter (note the ‘Sir’) now was on the winning side. 

His son Sir Patrick was the greatest of the line, for 24 years one of the two MPs for Banffshire, and a Judge of the Court of Session, as Lord Boyne, “one of the most remarkable and many-sided men Banffshire has ever produced (Alistair Tayler)”. He did a lot for Portsoy, finding the funds for building the harbour, and protecting the marble quarries. But he never could balance his books, and there was public scandal about his young third wife and Campbell of Cawdor. And he was a Jacobite in the days of Queen Anne. He claimed to have had an interview with the Queen, and to have persuaded her to recognize her half-brother (the Old Pretender, James VIII and III) as her heir. In the end in 1705 he was bought out by his cousin, the Earl of Findlater and Seafield, who let the family stay on in the castle but took the estates, the land between Banff and Portsoy.

In fact Sir Patrick’s son James was a committed and active Jacobite, over in France from 1707, plotting to bring a French fleet. In 1708 he landed at Gamrie to get ready for them, but the fleet turned tail. Of course in 1715 he was back for the real rebellion. He was Brigadier Ogilvie at the Battle of Sheriffmuir (“Some say that we won, and some say that they won”) in 1716, and after that we have a proclamation from him to “All noblemen, barons… and all others the fencible men .., to meet and convene at the Gallowhill of Banff”. No-one came, and it was the last straw for Lord Findlater, who ejected James’s wife from Boyne Castle. He fled to France. The Stuart royal family paid for his son’s funeral in 1717. James died in 1728, the last Ogilvie of Boyne.

The Boyne townhouse is still there on Church Street in Banff, with a later facing, but the core is there.

A 1940 map showing Banff Drill Hall

In 1923 a new drill hall was suggested for Banff and by 8th May 1925 it was ready to be formally opened by Major-General A.B. Ritchie, C.B., C.M.G., commanding the 51st (Highland) Division, Perth. He stated that Banff had the honour of being the first provincial regiment of artillery formed in Scotland, with the exception of Midlothian. He also explained that the Territorial Army was of great importance as the regular army had been reduced by twenty percent.

In times past, the Drill Hall had been at 6 Castle Street in Banff, where Trend D.I.Y. is now.

This new hall was on Old Market Place and had an orderly room, officers’ room and a large billiard and recreation room on the ground floor. On the first floor, instructors’ quarters were provided.

There was also a drill hall, extending in to Princess Royal Park of 85 feet by 40 feet. To the south of the drill hall there was Princess Royal Park, which allowed the battery horses to be exercised and gun tests to be carried out.

In the 1930s there are descriptions of the hall being decorated with garlands, flags, balloons and flowers, along with novel lighting effects for balls, held annually by the 223rd Banffshire Battery R.A. (T.A.). Around 2 -300 people attended these from across the North-east. In the Press of the time, you can find a list of everyone who attended.

During WW2, the hall was used as headquarters for training purposes. A soldier in The King’s Own Scottish Borderers described how the company of soldiers were sent to Banff and used the Drill Hall as their headquarters while being “accommodated in the spacious and elegant confines of Duff House” and others were located at Banff distillery which had been closed, although the whisky was still in the bonded warehouses. James McQuarrie described how “We had to run about three-quarters of a mile down to the sea shore, dive in and then run back again. It made us fit.”

By 1968 drill halls across the North-east were sold to the councils and in the case of Banff Drill Hall, it was to be used for education purposes and so it became the Community centre. Many local people will have fond memories of attending youth clubs and other clubs there or picking up skis from their store before heading off to the Lecht or Cairngorms.

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

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.

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.