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The earliest known photo of Duff House appears in Imlach’s book “History of Banff” and is dated 1868.  Before that there are a number of etchings (starting with one after Cordiner in 1779) and some paintings.

The earliest photo shows the main house looking not too dissimilar to the Duff House of today.  The east extension that was bombed in July 1940 was only built in 1871 and hence doesn’t appear in this photo.  Instead, the photo shows a smaller separate building immediately to the east of the House; this was a kitchen building, because the original main part of the House didn’t include one – it had been designed for the west wing that was never built.

A small photo found in a private collection is believed to date from about 1885 to 1890.  This has three carriages, each with two horses, drawn up outside, with the vestibule door open to the balcony.  This was perhaps on the occasion of some party being held by the Duffs – although the grass at the front doesn’t look very tidy!

By the very late nineteenth century picture postcards were starting; the earliest postmarked date found for Duff House is two in 1903.  As the views show different aspects of what is at the front of Duff House, one of the photos must be earlier in date!  Based on other, later, photos, it seems the fence around the apron was added later, some postcards showing it was effective at keeping sheep out. 

By 1908 Duff House was a hotel.  There are a couple of photos with old cars in front of the House, and one dated 1913 shows the first tennis court in front.

After 1913 it became the Sanatorium, a sort of health spa but also conducting research into diabetes and other digestive disorders.  A booklet was produced at this time, and although no date is given, the wording suggests it has not been open very long.  The west wing, now gone, also appears to have gained a taller chimney.

Then from 1923 it was once again a hotel, advertising it’s golf course, and other sports.  This clearly included tennis as the courts out the front seemed to have been improved and with a higher fence.

Once this closed down in 1928 the House stood empty – and the grounds look quite uncared for.  This particular postcard was postmarked and dated by the sender as 1947 – after the bombing – but clearly the photo must have been taken before 1940 as the east wing is shown as undamaged.  This highlights the care that must be taken when using postcards! The War Office took over Duff House in 1940, initially as an internment camp, then POW Camp No 5.  Although no photos exist until after the war, from that point on Duff House is much better documented.

The earliest map that shows any level of detail for Banff or Macduff is dated AD 1600 and names the towns of Banff and Doun, also the settlements of Gellymill, Barnhill and Tarlair. But it also shows the shape of the river mouth, clearly indicating the bar coming from the Doun (Macduff) side.  This expanded estuary covers a much larger area than the river does today, and may well have included not just Greenbanks, but the low lying land where Duff House now stands.

The next image is the first indication of what is a harbour, essentially shared between both Banff and Macduff.  Unfortunately it is a century and a half later before there is another map that gives any detail of the area.  This is the map produced by General Roy in the aftermath of Culloden, to inform the government of potential routes for it’s army around Scotland.  The bar from the Macduff side is clearly still shown, with Greenbanks still submerged.  Duff House is now shown (“Braco’s House”) and the Temple of Venus.

The very detailed map of Macduff in 1763 shows not only the shape of the river, but clearly how the river mouth is used by substantial ships (of their day) as a harbour.  Interestingly this map also shows the piers of the first Banff Bridge, not reportedly completed until 1765.  This map was commissioned as part of the town planning for the new town of Doune – not named as Macduff until 1783.

Note: the next available maps are 1772 and 1775.  The former does not show any Banff Bridge, as it had been swept away in 1768. The Taylor & Skinner map of 1775 shows the new Banff Bridge.

There are also some images which clearly show the estuary, inland of the Bar, being used for shipping.  The colour drawing is 1839.  The black and white photos are late in the 1800’s.  By then there was a shipyard on the Banff side of the river mouth.

Agnes was a grand-daughter of King William IV, and married James Duff in 1846 while he was serving there as part of the Diplomatic Service.  She was born in 1829, and most unfortunately died in 1869 as a result of falling out of her carriage while in London.

A quote from one of the poems written after her death, demonstrates how well liked she was:

“Beloved by all, like springtide’s flowers,

Her presence did a joy impart;

In and around her princely bowers,

Her presence was a joy of heart.”

James became the fifth Earl Fife in 1857 on the death of his uncle.  During his marriage to Agnes they had six children, the last who died in infancy.  Their eldest son, Alexander, became the sixth Earl Fife, and on marrying the Princess Royal became the first Duke of Fife.

Agnes and James were quite often at Duff House.  Agnes masterminded a major decorative overhaul of Duff House, and today a room is entitled her boudoir, just off the first floor Vestibule.  Her body was brought back to Duff House where it lay in state.  The Banffshire Journal of the time says “the ceiling and wall of the room were entirely draped in black, the only relief being a wreath of white roses in the centre of the ceiling.”  Apparently “as usual”, there were three coffins; the inner being mahogany richly lined in white satin, then a lead coffin, and outside it was encased again in mahogany.  During the funeral Agnes was taken to the Mausoleum and lowered into the crypt, the “whole of the top of the coffin was covered in white camelias”. There are a number of art works of Agnes.  The newspaper reports that a beautiful bust of her was in it’s usual place in the Vestibule.  From an old low resolution photo it seems this sat alongside one of her husband, now in the Aberdeen Art Gallery; both believed to have been done by the renowned sculptor Alexander Brodie.

One of the best known paintings of Agnes was initially believed to have been done by Sir Francis Grant, but is now attributed “after” him, ie in his style.  A small photo of it hangs in the Lady Agnes Boudoir today.  One interesting aspect of this picture is the dog at her feet, believed to be Barkis.  The painting was presented to Agnes by a grateful tenant in 1863, and Barkis was born that year.  The dog is commemorated on the gravestone in Wrack Woods.

James and Agnes youngest daughter, also called Agnes, did gain some notoriety in her time.  She eloped in 1861 aged just 19, married and had a child, but was soon divorced.  Her second marriage, also by elopement, lasted four years.  Shunned by much of polite society, the younger Agnes then went to work in a London hospital, and met the eminent surgeon Sir Alfred Cooper.  One of his medical interests was venereal diseases, and a scurrilous remark that arose is reported as “Together they knew more about the private parts of the British aristocracy than any other couple in the country”!   They had four children, and they and other descendants became quite prominent in society.  The best known most recently being David Cameron, Prime Minister 2010 to 2016.

Black and white photo

Across each of the front and back of Duff House there are three statues.  On the front of the house, the south with the horseshoe stairs, are from left to right, Mars, Apollo and Minerva; and at the back as you face it from left to right, are Bacchus, Mercury and Diana.  (NB, the Guide Book has Apollo and Bacchus swapped in it’s text!).

These have an interesting history.  They were originally made as outdoor statues to decorate the Bowling Green at Airlie House, now the lower part of what is called Airlie Gardens.  This austere building and land was bought by the Duffs, and in 1743 we know the statues were moved to Duff House, where they have been placed above the pediment.

These statues were made of lead and are very fine work indeed.  Today, the versions on the outside of Duff House are glass fibre reproductions erected in 1995 when the whole House was refurbished, but the quality of the originals can be seen on the two original lead statues (Mars and Minerva) now displayed at the bottom of the Grand Staircase on the 1st floor.  The other four have all been refurbished but are in storage.

In the early nineteenth century they were apparently painted white; whether this was for protection or some other reason is not known, but it seems it all wore off!

There is also a first-hand story by a local resident that the statues may have been stored on the roof in the ‘40s and early 50’s, but we do know that by 1953 they were in place.

Mars – God of war, rage and passion

Apollo – God of prophecy and politics, patron of musicians, poets and doctors

Minerva – God of wisdom, war, the arts, industries and trades

Bacchus – God of wine, viniculture, creativity and revelry

Mercury – God of commerce, communication and travel

Diana – Goddess of the hunt, the moon and the underworld

The statues are attributed to a sculptor, Jan van Nost.  Some people attribute them to Jan van Nost the Elder (who died circa 1729) and others to Jan van Nost the Younger, his nephew, who may have made them in about 1740. An interesting further fact however is that the 1743 account refers to the statues for Duff House, but also for “the temple”.  The only temple for Duff House is “Temple of Venus” on the top of Doune Hill, and just by the name the other statue therefore must have been of Venus!  Sadly, the whereabouts of this statue are unknown.

Colour photo

One of the landmarks in Wrack Woods is the Ice House, built as the refrigerator for Duff House.  The exact date of building is not known but it was before 1800.  Today it doesn’t look as though it would keep anything frozen or cold for very long, but when it was fully in use it was the best technology of the time.  Built into the side of a hill (probably for ease of construction) it had several features to help it keep food cold. 

Today, there is a modern grilled skylight so that the inside of the Ice House can easily be seen, but back when it was in use it would have been fully covered in probably at least 3 feet of earth, the dome shape of the storage compartment providing the strength; secondly the trees provided shade so the hottest sun was never on it; and importantly it had two “air-lock” compartments – three doors, while many of it’s contemporaries only had two.  At the bottom was a drain, for the melted ice to be let out; and food could either be laid on the ice – or between layers of ice; or it could be hung from above or held above the ice from some foods that just needed to be cool.

We know that the Head Gardener in the 1870’s, Mr Mackie, kept a master list of what foods were stored where and when in the Ice House; that straw was put between different foods so that they could be split, and that access from the passageway was by ladder into the egg shaped storage compartment.

It is likely ice would be taken from the river and used in the ice house, where it would last for up to two years.  By the second half of the nineteenth century, the ambient temperatures were slowly rising in general, and this may also have been the cause of the start of the demise of another source of ice.

Black and white image
Extract from 1763 map of Macduff

We know that in 1874 the “Cuddy” – the donkey – and it’s cart, were taken up to Star Loch for ice.  Star Loch was one of two lochans on the top of Doune Hill but these no longer exist.  Being still water, and higher, this would freeze more readily than the river water.  Star Loch is named on some of the older maps that include Doune Hill.

The cuddy seemed to be an integral part of life at Duff House and was used for several jobs – even taking ice as far as Innes House (between Lhanbryde and the coast)!   There is a photo of a donkey at Duff House – perhaps the same one that we know was walked up to Doune Hill!

Brown and white photo
Photo from early 1900’s showing a tethered donkey at the front of Duff House

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.

By eye-witness Anne

It was just a normal Saturday for me.  My mother woke me up in time for my school hockey match – a home game against Fraserburgh Academy.  I struggled out of bed and looked sleepily out of the window.  Dark clouds were scudding across the sky and rivulets of rain trickled down the windowpane.  Not a day for hockey or football but, unless the visiting teams had phoned to cancel the fixture, their hired bus would already be on its thirty mile journey to Banff Academy.  I would have to turn up at the school in order to find out.

Standing at the unsheltered bus stop, with the wind whipping around my legs and the rain soaking my thin trench-coat, I was sure that the whole thing would have been called off.  But as I rushed up the school brae, I saw, to my horror, a blue Alexander’s bus sitting at the gate.  Our opponents had arrived!  “The match is off” was the cry, as I staggered into the cloakroom.  Our teachers had apparently decided that even we hardy northeast scholars could not be expected to play football and hockey in such weather.  That was a relief!  The not-so-good news was that there had been no time to cancel our school lunch, which was an integral part of the sporting arrangements in this rural part of the world.  After all, we sometimes had to travel forty miles or more to our matches, and a school dinner was part of the deal.

                It was probably a mistake to make us hang around just for the sake of a school lunch.  But the food had been bought, the cook had arrived and it seemed the sensible thing to do.  How were our teachers to know that an extremely deep depression situated off the coast of Norway was rapidly heading our way?  Our school hall was completely surrounded by classrooms and, in this cosy cocoon, we entertained our visitors while the meal was being prepared.  It wasn’t until we ventured out to the canteen that the full force of the storm hit us.  We hastily gobbled up our mince and tatties, gathered our things together and set out for home.

                My friend and I raced down to the ‘Plainstones’ to catch the 12 o’clock bus.  Wet and windblown, we sank into our seats; but our relief was short-lived.  The bus driver didn’t appear to be taking his usual route.  The river Deveron had burst its banks, he explained, and he would have to take us through the private grounds of Duff House. 

Colour image of a postcard
Collie Gate – opposite to Collie Lodge now the cobbles in St Mary’s Car Park – was the entrance into the Duff House estate.

The caretaker at the lodge opened the big wrought-iron gates for us and we headed for the bridge over the already swollen river.  We should have turned left along the coast road but huge waves, created by the wind and exceptionally high tide, were crashing over the sea wall and rebounding off the steep hillside at the opposite side of the road.

Black and white map image with colour route overlay
The blue line being the route the bus took, through the private roads of Duff House, as Bridge St, Bridge Road and Princess Royal Park were underwater!

                Instead we turned right along the ‘Howe’, a tree-lined country road popular with Sunday strollers.  Not today, though!  The wind screeched through the bare branches of the birches, beeches, elms and rowans, bending them over until they were almost horizontal.  We crouched in our seats, terrified that, at any moment, a tree might get uprooted and come crashing down on top of us.  Once the driver had negotiated the corner at the cemetery, we knew we were out of the woods and that home was only a few minutes away.

                My mother wasn’t too surprised when the electricity went off in mid-afternoon.  “Power cables”, she said – in a knowledgeable sort of way.  At teatime, the gas for the cooker fizzled out as well.  Only a few years after my mother had acquired her fancy new domestic appliances, we were plunged back into the middle ages, with only a few candles and a coal fire for comfort.  At bedtime, I had to find the way to my attic room in the dark.  The wind was still rattling the panes of the dormer window and I pulled the covers over my head to shut it out.

                Sunday morning brought a curious calm.  Under a pale grey, watery sky, we ventured out to inspect the damage.  At the harbour, almost half the town seemed to be staring in bewilderment at a fishing boat sitting lopsidedly in the middle of the street.  Further along the road, the sea had completely undermined the foundations of the petrol station, which now dangled precariously on the rocks.  And the coastal road, which we should have travelled along the day before, resembled a boulder field.

                It is the custom for people to be drawn together at such times, united in commiseration or in simple curiosity.  And so, small groups of local folk were dotted here and there along the sea-front, viewing the devastation with disbelief.  On our meanderings, we discovered that the gasometer in Banff had been washed into the sea, which explained our lack of gas. 

Black and white image
Shows the gasometer that used to be at Banff Harbour.

I also met some of the football boys, who had missed the last bus out of Banff at lunchtime on Saturday.  They had apparently decided to walk back home and had been forced to struggle over the Hill O’Doune to escape the rising tide.  Crawling on hands and knees, clinging on to bushes and to each other, they managed to avoid being blown away and reached the relative safety of Macduff with nothing more than a few scratches and a thorough soaking.

                By evening the electricity supply had been restored but, with no prospect of gas in the forthcoming weeks, my mother’s shiny ‘New World’ cooker now supported a pair of decidedly ‘old world’ Primus stoves.  With our immediate needs taken care of, our thoughts now turned to the outside world.  We had been cut off from the rest of civilization for two whole days and we had no idea how the rest of Britain had fared.

                It was Monday morning before we became aware of the full impact of the storm.  Newspapers and radio reported that; in East Anglia, 2,500 square miles of land lay under water and 307 people had perished in the floods at King’s Lynn; one sixth of the Netherlands was also under water with more than 2000 lives lost.  In the south-west of Scotland, 133 people had been drowned when the British Rail ferry, Princess Victoria, had sunk in Belfast Lough on her crossing from Stranraer to Larne.  Much closer to home, six men of the Fraserburgh lifeboat drowned when their boat was caught by a giant wave and capsized at the harbour mouth.  The seas were so fierce that it was impossible for any of the witnesses to enter the sea to rescue them.  For us and others around Britain, the forces of nature had taken their toll.

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

Brown and white postcard image

Monday 26th November 1906

This was the day of a huge milestone in the history of Banff and Macduff, an event that was intended to, and did, cut through the normal competition between the two towns.

“In the evening a huge bonfire was lighted on the Hill O’Doune, when there was a further opportunity for a public demonstration and general jubilation.  During the afternoon a very large quantity of brushwood was carted to the hill, and was piled on top of several barrels of tar and paraffin.  At seven o’clock the match was applied by Mrs West [wife of the Provost of Macduff].  A very large number of of the inhabitants of both communities assembled to witness the conflagration, which, fanned by a strong breeze, soon assumed considerable dimensions.  The fire burned furiously till a later hour.”  “A large number of rockets were sent off from the hill, and the opinion was generally expressed that it was a long time since so hearty enthusiasm was displayed.”

The event earlier in the day had been enough not just to give rise to the bonfire, but an impromptu closing of the schools, flags and bunting were erected all over both towns and shops closed – what was reported as “a general holiday was observed for the rest of the day.”

And the event that caused this: the extremely generous donation by the Duke and Duchess of Fife, of Duff House and a large part of the estate, to the two town councils.  This had been announced at a meeting that morning of both town councils.  During 2021 there has been some mention of the written terms of this gift, and perhaps 2022 will give rise to more discussion, but the undertaking of Provost Alexander of Banff, made as part of his acceptance of the gift, may also be relevant.

Provost Alexander described in glowing terms the house and grounds, and then goes on to say: “Then we have the invaluable fact of the subject of the gift being absolutely unrestricted in its administration.”  Such a term does indeed exist in the written Gift, but so too do the underlying purposes of the Gift by the Duke, and these are fully acknowledged by Provost Alexander.  He describes in some detail some of the plans as of that time for the grounds, “golf courses, bowling greens, tennis courts, and  croquet lawns” which he sees fully in accordance with the “heads of pleasure grounds and places of recreation” as laid out in the Gift.  “I feel with the exercise of sound judgement … we will be able to complete a scheme (in the formation of which we are unfettered) which will adequately accomplish the objects underlying His Grace’s munificence.”

Hence, certainly in 1906, the Town Councils involved had a clear understanding of the purpose of the house and land gifted to them, and appeared to have every intention of doing just that. 

Black and white image of a postcard
Postcard from the first years of the 20th century showing the Duff House gates on the Banff side of the bridge, the drive to Duff House and “Canal Park” to it’s right.

There is on other interesting aspect too.  The written acceptance of the Gift includes that the two town councils “respectfully request the gracious permission of Her Royal Highness [the, Duchess, Princess Louise] to the Canal Park being henceforth known as the Princess Royal Park.”  Although such permission was granted, it seems this aspect of the Town Council’s undertakings haven’t been honoured in all of the present day wording by Aberdeenshire Council!

Black and white photographic image of head and shoulders

In 1873 a young local man became an apprentice gardener in Banff, living in the Bothy just behind the Vinery in what is today known as Airlie Gardens, but used to be one of the kitchen gardens for Duff House and the Lord Fifes.  Forty years later the same man was in New York, still working in the same industry, but now owning two acres of downtown Manhattan.

John Donaldson had decided he wanted a career in gardening and seemed to take it quite seriously.  After a year at Duff House learning his trade, he took a job at Vogrie House near Edinburgh, and from there to a larger estate in Yorkshire, before moving to one of the largest nurseries in the UK at the time, Veitch Nurseries based in London.  After a spell at Regents Park Zoo (then called the Zoological Gardens), with his wife he emigrated to New York in 1893.  He learnt more of the nursery trade with two large nurseries there, before starting his own business on Long Island, growing flowers, particularly carnations and lillies.   We even know some of the preferred varieties that he grew, which of course were those popular amongst the rich of New York.  At the beginning of the twentieth century New York, a very crowded place, was a very smelly place, and flowers were one of the means that the better off could do to have a better smelling atmosphere!

Black and white photographic image

Many of these were sold on the street at flower markets in New York, but wanting to improve sales and provide more certainty, John became one of the founders of the “New York Cut Flower Exchange”.  By 1912 he became the President of that organisation.  This still exists, centred around W 28th Street, between Manhattan and Greenwich Village, not far from the Empire State building (although that was only built in 1931). 

Today it may seem strange, but of the two acres he owned in Manhattan, flowers were still being grown.  John lived there himself, and had only six other houses on what amounted to 28 city lots; the rest of the land was still productive, although he also had a nursery at Elmhurst, about 3 miles to the east on Long Island.

He started to sell some of the Manhattan lots; one was sold for $60,000 in about 1912 – equivalent today of about US$ 2 million!

There is much more research to complete, but John Donaldson of Banff is one local lad that certainly did make his way in the world.