Portrait of George Robinson
A portrait of Provost Robinson
George Robinson (1743-1827), Provost of Banff 

In 1817 George Robinson, the greatest of Banff’s Provosts, after 34 years of running the town’s affairs, presented the Head Court with a statement of what had been achieved in that time. It was an impressive list, and what was more, everything was costed, and the town was still solvent. 

Not everything had been plain sailing. His first move in 1785 had been to arrange for Banff to have its own Customs House, because until then every boat had to send an officer overland to Aberdeen to get the paperwork signed (that meant an overnight stay in those days). This excellent move was thwarted because Banff had two rival earls, each of whom wanted the right to appoint the local exciseman, and we had to wait till these two earls were dead in 1807 to find a compromise, and get our own Customs House. 

Other reforms came more easily. There was a new east quay at the harbour, a grand new parish church, new meal houses in the (Old) Market Place, and a new town house and jail. There were new turnpike roads, and the new entry to the town along Bridge Street. There was a new water supply for Banff. They put a new upper storey on the Academy, doubling its size. After the high tides of 1807, which washed away the shingle bar across the river mouth (it came back) there were new sea defences on Low Shore. Also money was laid out to bribe fishermen with boats and free houses, so that they would settle in Banff, hence the Seatown, as Banff became a fishing port. By matching funding, the Council had got a major public grant to enlarge the harbour further.   

Almost all of this had gone through on the nod. The Deacons of the Incorporated Trades would sometimes look at the accounts, hoping to save public money. Provost Robinson had found himself again and again defending the meagre pay given to the schoolteachers. As he said in his statement, “To that system which prevails in Scotland, and by which even the most indigent may receive the benefit of a classical education, is to be ascribed the pre-eminent success of our countrymen in all parts of the world.” He was right, and he had been a very effective Provost. At the north end of Low Street is the arch built for the entrance to the New Market, with his name on it.

The old Banff Academy, Institution Terrace, Banff

Crossing the Deveron Bridge, what first attracted me to Banff was the prospect of the Old Banff Academy facing east on a rise above the High Street, overlooking the approach from the bridge.  The Neo Greek, single storey, 15-bay classical frontage by William Robertson (1837-8) of Elgin, spoke of Banff as a town which valued culture and learning, as indeed it does.  It also spoke of a darker side to Banff’s history.

 The 1837-8 building was financed by money left by Banffer, James Wilson, ‘late of Banff, in the island of Grenada, a charitable fund for the good of Banff … expended on the school’.  Mr. Wilson died in 1799 at the height of the slave trade in the Caribbean; it is likely that his legacy was directly or indirectly linked to the enslavement of Africans on the plantations in Grenada.  It is well known that many North East families owned plantations in the Caribbean in the 18th & 19th C.  One such was another Banffer, James Gardiner(d.1825), owner of the Swanswick plantation in Jamaica.

  Mr. Wilson’s will directed that the whole of his stock, after the decease of certain annuitants, be given to the magistrates of Banff, to be used for charitable purposes, according to their discretion.  The estate was sufficient for the construction of an infant school, a free school on the Madras system, and class-rooms for the grammar school, as well as, a library and a museum. 

 When the annuitants died, their descendants brought a case declaring the will invalid.  The case went to the House of Lords, which ruled in favour of the magistrates and so in 1838 Banff got the bequest and the town got its Academy.  By coincidence all enslaved people in Grenada were freed by 1 August 1838.

A view of Canal Park from the Howe
A view of Canal Park Banff
Canal Park Banff

Everyone living in Banff will be familiar with the name Canal Park, being the area of ground that was, for many years, the home to Deveronside football team. Where did the name come from? There are no canals around Banff.

The following quotes from the Minutes of Banff Town Council shed a bit of light on the subject.

In 1724 Lord Braco applied to the court “for sanction to straighten his marches by carrying up his canal in a straight line from the sluice in the new bulwark towards My Lord’s garden, “and seeing the place called the Dogie’s Pott is deap and wet ground he desires liberty to build a little farther down on the common betwixt him and the town to have his dyke on a sure foundation, and if he has any advantage he is to pay the value as agreed on”

In 1734 “Bracco is allowed to make a drain from the water of Diveron into a canal which he  is making out in his park, and which drain shall go through a piece of the town’s commonty”

This seems to be the beginnings of the name Canal Park in Banff, a canal built to carry the stones for building Duff House form the sea to the building site. On 11th June 1735, the foundation stone for Duff House was laid with the Duke of Fife and William Adam, architect, in attendance.

The stone for the north and south fronts came from a quarry in Morayshire and the rest from a quarry near Queensferry. In 1741 Adam’s account listed £468-1-0 5/6 d for stone and £2500-5-0d for carved stones. The stone from Queensferry came in to Banff as ballast in meal boats and then made the last part of the journey via the canal to Duff House.

It’s difficult to imagine how the sea front looked back then as the coast of Banff has changed over the years e.g. in 1699 nineteen and twenty one year leases were being offered on the “Salt Lochs” along the sea front to anyone interested in order to improve conditions for the salmon trade. Early maps don’t have sufficient detail.

In 1906 the Duke of Fife (6th Earl 1849 – 1912) gifted Duff House and its grounds including Canal Park (around 140 acres in all) to the people of Banff and Macduff. The Duke of Fife was married to the Princess Louise, eldest daughter of Edward, Prince of Wales.

A cross in the wall
The cross marking the site of Banff Episcopal school at the junction of Sandyhill Road and Bellevue Road.

Those of you who are observant will have noticed a stone cross, built in to the wall at the corner of Sandyhill Road and Bellevue Road. The date carved around the cross is 1864.

This cross marks the site of the Episcopal female school, opened in 1864. Thanks to old copies of the Banffshire Journal and General Advertiser, we are able to have a picture of the site in those days and have some fascinating details of the building.

The site of the new school was given by the Earl of Fife at the lowest possible feu duty and is described as “on Sandyhill Road, forming the south corner of St Ann’s Hill Lane”

We know that the school was built by subscriptions and that it was a “new female school for St Andrew’s church”. As well as local subscriptions, there were also subscriptions from London, Edinburgh and Birkenhead. The school was necessary because the old schoolroom in Boyndie Street was too cramped and this had meant that the roll had to be capped at eighty scholars.

The buildings included a teacher’s house which was a two storey cottage which was built on to Sandyhill Road with the school building behind it. The school was described as “substantial and commodious”, the schoolroom being 40 feet long, 20 feet wide and 14 feet tall. The entrance to the school was on the west gable via a porch, measuring six by eight feet. The school was “well lighted by three rolled plate glass windows. The building had ornamental finials and on the end facing the road, a stone cross with the date of erection. This building cost around £350.

The architect for the project was Mr James Booker of Banff and the first headmistress was Miss Marr of Old Deer. The school was supported by school fees and a government grant.

By 1921 the school was closed and in 1923, a request was made to let the school to the Girl Guides. In the late 1940’s and into the 1950’s, the building was the technical and woodwork department of the Academy.

In 1966, the school was used by Mr Thomas Woodham as a skirt factory. This business survived until a recession hit and all his staff were laid off in 1981. The factory sent orders as far afield as Canada, Australia and Austria.

The school and house were demolished in 1982 and all that remains is the cross in the wall.

Cover of Random Rhymes - a book of poetry written by Colin Grant Mackenzie

You have probably never heard of Colin Grant Mackenzie (1832-1913); me neither, until recently.  It turns out he was famous for his woodcut printing skills, and somewhat of a poet to boot.

Mackenzie was born in Banff in 1832; the only census entry I could find showed one Colin Mckinzie, 8 years old, present at Gallowhilll Street for the 1841.  Strangely, there is no mention of either parent in the census return.  In the valuation records for 1855 a James W Mackenzie is recorded as a tenant occupying ‘part of house back of Journal office Old Market Place’.  Could James be a relative, perhaps Colin’s father, given that we know Colin learned hand-press printing at the offices of the Banffshire Journal?

Whatever his parentage, in 1850, this Banffer arrived in the USA a fully-fledged journeyman pressman.  In 1854 he joined Harper Brothers and made the woodcut overlays for their illustrated work; he was the first printer in America to make such overlays.  Later on Colin joined what became University Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts.  During his time there he printed the writings of Longfellow and other great literary men of the day.

In between developing the printing industry in the US, Colin found time to print four series of his own poems, “Random Rhymes”: series 1 in 1867 (Cambridge: the author) series 2 in 1883 (New York: the author) and 3 in 1903 (Brooklyn: J.J. Bowles).  The fourth was unpublished.  Here is a flavour:

“Hail Brothers of the printing ink!

Ye are the faithful, loyal crew,
You hold within your faithful hands,
Power, mightier than Archmedian screw–
The Printing Press rules all the lands”

If you want any more of this Banffer’s poetry, you can buy the fourth series of “Random Rhymes.”  Be warned it doesn’t come cheap – currently on sale for £1,260.84.

19th February 1895 Curling on the River Deveron

On the Southwestern edge of Banff is the site of the old Colleonard Nurseries. What surprised me is that this was also the original site for the sport of Curling in Banff. The Curling pond was opened in 1887 on the site of the old Mill of Banff distillery dam. It is described as follows “the pond is in a field at the back of the Nursery, near Mid Colleonard” It was built on the site of the dam for the Mill of Boyndie distillery. It was 150 feet by 230 feet. The work was carried out by Mr Anderson, contractor, Aberchirder, with plans drawn up by Mr Cossar, architect, Banff. The cost of the curling pond was sixty pounds. The curling pond was opened by Sheriff Hamilton-Grierson. Skating and curling were both enjoyed on the pond. There is a mention of curling and skating in 1895, taking place on the Deveron, the first time that curling had taken place on the Deveron, near to the tidal limit but a match which had been due to be played on the Deveron was moved to the Colleonard pond as a thaw made it too dangerous to be on the frozen river. Not only were they skating and curling, but also lighting a brazier to heat water for teas which were served to skaters and visitors. Skaters apparently skated up to the Bridge of Alvah. It’s difficult to imagine that ice would form on the River Deveron nowadays. There seems to have been a good network of local curling clubs who played against each other. However, in 1907 the Banff and Macduff curling clubs amalgamated to form the Banffshire Curling Club and the Duke of Fife gave a piece of land, just at the boundary of his policies, for a new curling pond. Two tarmacadam rinks were laid by an expert from Edinburgh. The new curling pond had a clubhouse and gas lights to illuminate the rinks. In its heyday the club had around fifty members. The curling rink is still intact just below the surface if you know where to look.

Colleonard and Duff House curling ponds shown in yellow 1940
1940 map showing Colleonard and Duff House curling ponds
Colour photo of triangular-ish gravestone