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Black and off white image of an article title page in a 1788 "magazine"

James Duff was born in 1729, the second son of the 1st Earl of Fife.  He became the 2nd Earl when his father – William – died in 1763, but it seems he was active in the running of the Duff estate well before that – it is well known that his father was not enamoured with Duff House, even though he had had it built!

30 years after he started developing the Duff House estate, James wrote about some of his agricultural work.  He describes the estate with its “many natural beauties from sea views, a fine river, much variety from inequality of ground, and fine rock scenes in different parts of the river; but there was not a tree, and it was generally believed that no wood would thrive so near to the sea coast.”

In other words the area around Banff and Duff House in the first half of the 18th century used to look substantially different.  The whole valley had no trees, which must have made Duff House itself really seem to be imposing.  Difficult to imagine now, but it shows how the whole lower Deveron valley is a man-made landscape.

James Duff carries on to make it clear that he has proved over a thirty year period from about 1750 that the general belief that trees would not grow so near to the sea coast, was a mistake.  In 1787 The Duff park was fourteen miles round, and James claims he has every kind of forest tree, from thirty years old, “in a most thriving state; and few places better wooded”.  This was confirmed by some of the well known visitors to the estate.

James writes the above in the “Annals of Agriculture” and over several pages goes on to explain in some detail how to grow trees where the climate is not favourable, and in different types of ground.  How experience has taught him what species to mix for success, that the best planting density is 1200 trees per acre.  He used to bring trees on, mainly in his own nurseries, for three years and then plant them out, mostly amongst “Scotch Firs” as “nurses”.

In this way James planted 7,000 acres mainly in his Duff and Innes estates – as the magazine editor comments “This is planting on a magnificent scale indeed!”.  He says that part of his purpose is to provide wood to the local population – all those Scotch Firs that were cut down once the other trees were established – as coal was so expensive in this region, and made worse by “a heavy and unjust tax on it”!

His article prompt considerable interest and many questions; he writes answers to every question and does not seem to hide any detail.

It is clearly because of James’s foresight that we are lucky enough to have such a pleasant Deveron valley, with it’s wooded river-side walks to enjoy.

Black and white image of Banff stamp

Not a rallying cry but a privilege given to Members of Parliament and those that sit in the House of Lords.  The title “Earl Fife” was an Irish title and did not entitle the holder to sit in the House of Lords, and hence at various times the Earls Fife were Members of Parliament for Banffshire, or even Elginshire.  At other times, the Earls Fife were given a UK title; for example James the 4th Earl was made Baron Fife in 1827 until his death in 1857, and so could sit in the House of Lords.

James the 2nd Earl was a particularly prolific letter writer and the Free Frank became a great cost saving to him.  Technically free postage was only for correspondence pertaining to parliamentary or constituency affairs, but it was widely abused.  All that was needed was the signature of the sender in the lower left hand corner of the address face; the date and place of origin was also meant to be shown.

That may not seem of particular importance these days, but prior to the postal reforms introduced by Rowland Hill in 1840, the high cost of sending a letter was dependent on both the distance it had to travel, the route it took and the number of sheets of paper; the charge could be paid by either the sender or the recipient.  For example, in 1830 it would have cost the equivalent of £4.32 to send a single sheet letter to an address 100 miles distant.  Letters were generally folded pieces of paper, as if an envelope was used it counted as an extra sheet and thus cost twice as much!  There were many other complications too, whether it went via a capital city or cross country, disparities about how many miles between places, and at that time even what a mile was (England was 1,760 yards; but a Scots mile was 1,976 yards, and although that was phased out early in the eighteenth century, the Irish mile of 2,240 yards applied until 1839, hence would have included the second example below!).

James the 4th Earl similarly had the same Free Frank privilege.  This example was sent from London on 21 February 1833 and is addressed to Mr Geo. Gibb, Bank Office, Glasgow.

Such mail could be keenly collected when disposed of, trying to once again abuse the Free Frank system.  Hence the trend was often to retain only the address part of the letter and to discard the rest, so the content of this particular letter is unknown.

This second example, fortunately complete although difficult to read, is also signed by the 4th Earl Fife but this time when he was in residence in Duff House, Banff. It is dated 1st February 1828 and addressed to a Mr W Sheppard Esq, 29 Regiment, at an address in Ireland. What is particularly interesting about the letter content, is that it wasn’t written by the Earl, but is a short message to the addressee from his father, A. Sheppard.

The Free Frank system continued until the postal reforms introduced in 1840 – when stamps much as we know them today were introduced; just 1d per half ounce to anywhere in the country.  The parliamentary privilege was then changed to a set value of pre-printed postage; today that stands at £7,000 per year, although looking at the list, very few MP’s use that much.  An MSP can currently claim up to £5,500.

At 83 foot long and 21 feet in beam, the schooner “Baron Skene” was launched by John and William Geddie in Banff on 18th April 1874.  She was a single deck, two masted, wooden hull sailing ship, and presumably well liked by her owner, W Morrison.  She was surveyed and Classed with Lloyds Register of Shipping.  On the 3rd May 1874 she sailed in ballast from Banff harbour bound for St Petersburg. (This picture is a close sister vessel built a couple of years later but with the same dimensions by the same builder).

It is not known for sure, but it seems likely that she had been named after James, the 5th Earl Fife, raised in 1857 to the British peerage as Baron Skene.  This enabled him to sit in the House of Lords; he was also Lord Lieutenant of Banffshire.  His son, Alexander, the 6th Earl, later became the first Duke of Fife.

The schooner, Baron Skene, unfortunately didn’t have such a good life as her namesake, the 5th Earl.

While the next event in the schooner’s life is now a matter of record, one local document has recently been found to make reference to her.  John Donaldson was an apprentice gardener to the Earl Fife, working mainly in what is now known as Airlie Gardens – but used to be the kitchen garden for Duff House – with it’s Vinery that had been erected just a few months earlier.  John was keen to make a career from gardening and so throughout his first (and second) job, he kept a diary.  Like all gardeners at the time he worked Monday to Saturday, and had Sundays off.

In 1874, today 3rd May, was a Sunday.  He admits he only got up about 11 o’clock – he was only 18 years old!  He goes on to say “Over at Macduff in the afternoon seeing the new ship that was smashed on the rocks this morning”.

So the schooner “Baron Skene”, with her Captain W Mason, had managed to sail about a mile, believed to have hit rocks to the southwest of Collie Rocks.  She was assisted off the rocks and into Macduff harbour.  No records of her since that fateful day of 3rd May 1874 seem to exist so perhaps the damage was really bad – perhaps as described by John Donaldson as “smashed”!  Not a particularly auspicious start for a brand new vessel.

The reason for her hitting the rocks is not known; John Donaldson describes the weather every day in his diary – and that day was just recorded as “dull cold day”; if it had been windy he would have used the word “rough”.

In December 1891, a Miss M’Donald, gave a “recitation” of the “Loss of Baron Skene” in Portknockie at the Seafield Church Soiree (accordingly to the Aberdeen Journal); was this a poem, or a song, or a story?.  If anyone has a copy it would be great to see it!

Black and white image of part of a plan of Duff House showing one of the proposed - but unbuilt - wings.

There are at least two meanings of the word “Library”.  The first meaning is a room where books are kept.  At Duff House there were very grand plans for what would have been a truly wonderful library space.  The East wing, part of the original William Adam design, was to have it’s whole top floor, 80 feet by 60 feet, designated as the Library.  Of course this was never built due to the dispute between William Adam and his client, William Duff, who later became the 1st Earl Fife – who never lived at Duff House anyway!

The 2nd Earl Fife, James, was however clearly – from references in his letters many of which still exist – a very well read gentleman, and he designated what we know today as the Long Gallery in Duff House to be his Library.  He certainly tried to look after his book collection and, for example, in February 1789 he instructed that the windows and bookcases be thrown open, and his large books of prints laid out for airing.  The 4th Earl was an equally avid book collector and by the end of the 19th century the Duff House Library held 15,000 volumes.

Today, the designated “Library” is two rooms on the second floor, which contains a number of glass fronted bookcases with a very fine collection within them – but not the original Duff Library!  This is because the 1st Duke of Fife gave Duff House and it’s estate to the people of Banff and Macduff in 1907 and the collection of books was taken out of the House.  When the restoration, completed in 1995, was being planned Duff House was very fortunate to get permission from the Dunimarle Trustees to allow it’s collection of furniture, artefacts and books to be installed.

The Dunimarle Library – now stored in various places in Duff House – has over 4,500 volumes collected by members of the Erskine family from Torrie House in Fife.  The Erskines thrived at much the same time as the Duffs and shared many parallels; this even extended to their names, such as William and James!  Both families were avid collectors, of artefacts, paintings and books.  The subjects covered by the Dunimarle Library are similar to those known to have been in the original Duff House Library, classics, history, geography, news, law, economics, heraldry, travel; typical subjects for serious libraries of the 18th and 19th centuries to include.  One clear – and interesting – difference was that the original Duff House Library included many Spanish books – because of the 4th Earl Fife’s travel there; and the Dunimarle family library instead has a major section on India and the far east because of John the 4th Baronet of Torrie.

Some of the key books were, perhaps not unexpectedly, the same in both Libraries.  A 17th century Bible, Hume’s 1786 History of England, 18th century works of Shakespeare, Bartolozzi engravings.  While enquiries continue for a complete list of the original Duff House collection, the Friends of Duff House many years ago completed a full catalogue of the Dunimarle Library – which can be viewed in the Study inside the House (once it re-opens) and which it is hoped will go on-line in the future.  Meanwhile all 929 Dunimarle Library books published in the British Isles before 1801 are listed on the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC). 

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!

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.

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?

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.

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.

Colour image of a painting showing a distinguished grey haired man.

The Banffshire Journal was founded in 1845 but it’s first Editor, James Thomson, lasted only little more than a year.  For the next six decades Alexander Ramsay was the Editor, initially appointed when he was just 25.  He had served an apprenticeship in Edinburgh – since the age of 13 – then worked in London, before coming to Banff in early 1847.

50 years into his job he told friends at his Jubilee, “Since the day I first entered the Town, I have never ceased to take a lively interest in its affairs.  On nearing the east end of the Bridge, and looking out of the window of the coach, I saw the fair prospect of the Town resting on the slope of the hill, the river in the foreground, the sea to the right, the valley of the Deveron stretching southwards. I felt that I could live in this place.  I have been so engrossed I work ever since that I had no time to think of a change.”

He started the regime of printing on Mondays for distribution on Tuesdays, and also appointed a correspondent in every parish, who weekly reported their local news to him.  He made sure the paper covered not just local subjects, but everything he could think of interest to his readers.  His political editorials tried to be balanced, which must have resulted in some discussion since his controlling shareholders were two Tories, the Earl of Fife and the Earl of Seafield!

He had many interests outside of the Journal itself.  He purchased the copyright of the Polled Cattle Herd Book (“polled cattle” are those cattle breeds that naturally have no horns, such as Angus and Galloway) and published many editions, remaining it’s editor until 1901.  At times he was also a Town Councillor, was Provost for two years, Chairman of the Parish Church Musical Association, and an Elder of the Church.  Other posts he held were on the Banff School Board and Chair of the Banffshire Field Club.

There was a large gathering for his Jubilee in 1897; at least 150 polled cattle farmers and many friends gathered in the Banff Council Chambers.  One of the things he was presented with was his portrait, painted by Marjorie Evans, herself a grand-daughter of a Provost of Banff.

Dr Ramsay passed away in 1909.