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.

Sandi Thom

Alexandria Thom, better known as ‘Sandi Thom’, born and raised in Banff, became widely known in 2006 after her debut single, “I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair)”, topped the UK Singles Chart in June of that year.  Surely you remember?

I was born too late into a world that doesn’t care
Oh, I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair

In 2004, Thom moved to London, initially, to pursue a song writing career, that soon turned into a performing one.  She signed a record contract with the record label Viking Legacy, where her mother was director.  The label released her début single, “I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair)” in late 2005, but it did not attract attention.

In early 2006, Sandi Thom decided, instead of endlessly driving to small venues around the country, she would publicise herself via a series of 21 shows to be performed every other night from the basement of her Tooting flat in South London. Being a small flat, the audience was in single figures.  The trick was to video the half-hour shows and broadcast them free of charge via her website.  By the middle of the second week, she had a peak audience of 70,000 online, had become an internet sensation, was given a major record deal and soon after topped the charts with her 2005 single.

People were amazed to think that there could have been punks in Banff.  Nonetheless a few had been spotted, but none with flowers in their hair. 

Since then the sun has set on Sandi’s UK chart career, but the star has risen to a performing career far from Banff.  Where, you ask, would a Banffer replicate Banff’s resplendent sea and sand.  Would you believe Bahrain?

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.


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

This is one of my favourite places. It is beautiful of course and it has seen so many wondrous, historically important and sometimes terrible things. There are stone circles and Bronze Age cairns dotted around the countryside. There have been people here for a very long time indeed.

The Celtic Mormaers, it is thought, ruled this land for centuries from here, the principal seat. Bede Cruithnech, the Pict, the first Buchan man mentioned in history, lived here, and listened to St Drostan’s words about 520 AD. It is a formidable defensive location ideal for a castle, and so enter the Norman barons, the Comyns. Like so many other Norman nobles, the St Clairs or Sinclairs, Meldrums and Cheynes were invited to settle in the North East of Scotland by King David I. The King was enamoured with the feudal system and wanted to subjugate the Celtic folk.

Margaret, the only child of Fergus, the last Mormaer of Buchan, married William Comyn who became the first Scoto-Norman Earl of Buchan and he built a Norman keep right there in the 12th century.

The Comyns ruled Buchan from here for more than 100 years and played a very important role in the history of Scotland. After the death of the Maid of Norway, John Comyn and his cousin the Lord of Badenoch, the Black Comyn, were among the thirteen barons who could lay some possible claim to the throne of Scotland. But King Edward I of England had a desire to make Scotland a part of England. The Black Comyn died and his son the Red Comyn took over his claim.

Lots of battles and events preceded this but Edward invaded Scotland in 1296 and on July the 23rd 1296 King Edward I of England and his entire northern army came from Turriff to King Edward Castle to be entertained by John Comyn before moving on to Banff.

Edward invaded Scotland again in 1303 and marched through Buchan from Aberdeen and arrived in Banff on the 4th of September. The son of the Red Comyn who was one of the chosen Regents of Scotland fought a guerrilla war against Edward I of England, alongside William Wallace and Simon Fraser. He was famously slain by Robert the Bruce after a quarrel before the high altar of the church of the Minorite Friars in Dumfries. Bruce stabbed his rival because he believed Comyn had passed secrets to Edward.

John Comyn, the Earl of Buchan, and cousin to the Red Comyn, was now one of Robert the Bruce’s most deadly enemies and the most powerful noble of his time. He held court here in Kynedor Castle.

Bruce fled to Norway and came back to Scotland in the spring of 1307 and then the tide of battle turned in his favour. Bruce, a general of consummate ability, gained victory after victory in decisive battles, several of them near here, such as at Aikey Brae, Bruce Hill, Slains and the battle of Barra in the parish of Bourtie less than a mile from Oldmeldrum.

To make certain there would never be opposition again from such a powerful baron, Robert the Bruce wreaked a terrible vengeance on the people of Buchan. All Buchan was devastated including Kynedor Castle. Robert the Bruce is known by a few names but the Scottish hero is also called ‘the Bane of Buchan’.

My personal favourite character and hero for me is Isabella, the sister of Duncan, the Earl of Fife of the old line of Macduff, who was married to the Earl of Buchan, John Comyn. The right of crowning the Scottish Kings being hereditary to the family of Macduff, Isabella claimed this right. She, along with a body of retainers mounted on her husband’s war horses, arrived two days late for the ceremony at Scone. Because of her loyalty she was given the opportunity of again placing the Crown on Bruce’s head. Isabella was captured by the English and imprisoned, on orders from King Edward, in a wicker cage at Berwick Castle where she languished for 7 years, known as the ‘caged lady of Buchan’.

It is hard to imagine what King Edward would look like today if the events I have just described had turned out differently. At the height of their power there were no fewer than three earls, Buchan, Menteith and Athol and one great feudal baron, Comyn Lord of Strathbogie, with 30 knights owning land.

There remains no memorial for the Comyns in the land save the orisons of the monks of Deer, and places names such as Cuminestown.

There is not much of Kynedor Castle left just the stories. The masoned stones were used in the building of the Castleton Bridges in the 18th and 19th centuries and now span the burn instead of a drawbridge, but it looks affy bony. You can park at the picnic area and walk down a really good path to the old 18th century bridge, but watch yourself crossing the busy A947.

by Mark Findlater

A view of the Strait path from Low Street

When visitors hear a Banffer mention ‘Strait Path’, they hear ‘Straight Path’. When they look up or down the path this spelling is confirmed; the path which leads from the High Street to the Low Street, is indeed (more or less) straight.  However, straightness was not the most salient feature in the naming of the path; it was the narrowness of the path that caused it to be named ‘Strait Path’.  Notice both parts of the name imply narrowness; a strait is narrow, as is a path.  They could more simply have named it ‘Strait’, or ‘Path’.

There is a third dimension, height, which should have been salient to the namers of Strait Path; the Ordinance Survey puts its elevation at 13.91%.  To appreciate this number you only have to stand on Low Street, look up to the top of Strait Path and be awe struck by the very steep climb.  Standing there you can readily appreciate why Strait Path featured on the BBC’s website, ‘Is this Scotland’s steepest Street?’.  You might also agree that Strait Path could have’ been more appropriately called ‘Strait Hill’.

Not everyone is distressed by the climb.  Shopkeepers are happy to see people come up the hill, stop for a rest, and have a look at their shops.  The local council kindly erected stout railings to provide a support to lean on at various points in the climb.  That being said, it is not uncommon to hear visitors say, one to another, with what one assumes is ironic understatement: that brae is a bit steep.  The same visitors would find it hard to imagine that up to the 19th century Strait Path was a part of the main route in and out of Banff. 

For the most part the kind of shop on Strait Path has not changed much over the years; where you had a barber, now you have a beauty salon, and kilt makers have given way to tailor alterations.  As the French proverb has it: things change to remain the same.

The historic buildings of Banff all tell a story. It could be of the trades and crafts once carried out in the town, it could be of the families that once lived there. One building that tells the story of a revolution is the former Trinity and Alvah Church in Castle Street, now used by the Riverside Church.

This building is a monument to the people of the disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1843. On 14th May 1843, the Reverend Francis Grant preached for the last time in the Parish Church and led the dissenters from the church. At first they leased Seatown chapel, now demolished.

The dissenters engaged James Raeburn, architect, from Edinburgh, but born in Boyndie, to draw up plans for a new church, on a site on the new South Castle Street that was being laid out at the time.

In a letter from James Raeburn on 16th May, 1843, promising a plan and sketch of the Free Presbyterian Church to be erected in Banff James Raeburn stated “I have kept in view comfort, strength and cheapness, even in the exterior arrangement.“ “I also approve of you adopting stone, rather than wood which will in the end be less expensive as well as more durable”

Donations to build the church came in from all over the country and in all amounts – varying from a few shillings to several pounds. E.g. Mr Lillie from Nottingham – 10/-, Mr James Wood – £5. The people who paid for the church were from all walks of life.

The foundation stone of the new church was laid in August 1843, along with 111/2 d. The new church was opened in June 1844. A Day school was added next to the church in 1844 at a cost of £250 and in 1845, the manse was built at a cost of over £500. The church was enlarged in 1877 at a cost of £1500.

Trinity and Alvah church was built in the Ionic style, one of many designed by James Raeburn for the Free Church in 1843, is considered an unusually grand example of a Free Church.