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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.

Black and white image from a wood cut

Recently, reading a local diary yet to be published, the writer makes an observation about his day of Sunday 2nd August 1874: “pretty well churched today”!  In all the writer had attended five services that day, three in Banff, one in Macduff, and one in the open air in the Duff House Park. This “revival” was due to a mission to the area by two American evangelists, Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey.  Mr Moody was the preacher and Mr Sankey was reported as an especially good singer.  The visit is also referred to in the biography of the Rev Bruce of Banff.

Colour image of a painting
Rev Dr Bruce, Banff Minister 1873 to 1925, painted 1924 by Souter (now in the care of Aberdeenshire Museums Service)

Combining these two sources it seems the visit started with a service in Banff Parish Church.  As their skills as orators and singers had been widely broadcast since they had been in Edinburgh and then Glasgow for over 3 months, it seems the church was packed out – more than packed out as “half of them did not get in”.  In the afternoon Sankey gave a recital, but there were so many people that most “heard little of him” – plus the fact it was a really windy day!

Then it was back to Banff Church, before going to Duff House Park.  At that time the grounds to the north of Duff House – between the House and what is now New Road, but then was the private Duff House drive – were more open; there was no golf course and less trees, so perhaps it was here that the assembly was held.  Fifteen thousand people are said to have attended.

And once again back to the church.  Rev Bruce describes Mr Sankey’s singing as having a “sweetness of the fine baritone voice, combined with a certain manliness of tone and look, simply overpowered the people.  My choir broke down and could not sing…  The whole congregation were so subdued that we called on two members to offer up short petitions, and then Mr Sankey sang his second solo:

There were ninety and nine that safely lay,

In the shelter of the fold,

But one was out on the hills away,

Far off from the Gates of Gold.

Away on the mountains wild and bare,

Away from the tender Shepherd’s care.”

Rev Bruce had never in his life seen “a congregation so swayed and moved, liked a field of corn beneath a breeze of wind.”  “We remained for five minutes in silent prayer and then recovered ourselves.” One or more of the above services (although definitely not the morning one which was definitely in the “established” church) or perhaps during the following week, was also held in the Trinity Church, then a Free Church – now part of the River Churches.

Colour photo of Duff House surrounded by woodland

Continuing to pick out some of the interesting wild flowers that used to be, and still are, in Duff House woods; plus a rare addition in more recent years!

Arum Maculatum  – Common Cuckoo Pint.  This has been seen in a number of places around the woods which is not surprising as it was deliberately introduced.  One reason for this could be that the root forms an excellent flour which can be used for starch; indeed many centuries ago the church insisted it was used to whiten and stiffen altar cloths; similarly it was used for gentleman’s collars.  A common name for the plant is “Lords and Ladies”, because there are both female and male elements on the stalk of flowers and berries – known as a spadix; the same derivation as the “pint” in the name, being short for the word “pintle”, a word referring to the male sex organ.  There is one major drawback of the plant – it is extremely poisonous to humans and many animals; but not to birds who eat the ripe berries and spread seeds.  This picture was painted in 1836. 

Colour photo of painting on text
Arum Maculatum otherwise known as Cuckoo Pint

Sometimes the leaves are not spotted and these are known as Arum Immaculatum!

Doronicum Paralianches – Leopard’s Bane.  This is a large plant up to about a metre tall, and it’s bright yellow flowers – some of the earliest in the year – can be up to two inches across.  It is another flower that was reportedly introduced into Duff House woods; whether this was because it’s flowers can be used to help bruises, even eaten, or massaged into the skin, to relieve pain and inflammation – or because of it’s aromatic and bright appearance is not known.  This watercolour was done in 1841.

Colour photo of painting on text
Doronicum Paraliaches

Trachystemon Orientalis – Abraham Isaac Jacob.  An interesting name, one that supposedly derives from the feature that the flower has three colours in one.   This photo is courtesy of Peter Llewellyn.  The flower starts showing in late spring.  This plant is native to eastern europe where it is very common; it is quite possible that the Duff House woods patch is the most northerly example – although a few smaller patches are also reported locally.  It is first recorded anywhere in the UK in 1868, but not listed by 1907 as being in this area.  In the last 12 years the patch near the Mausoleum has been seen to double in size, so clearly it likes the conditions there!  This may be a sign of the temperate climate of this part of the Deveron valley and/or global warming!

Colour photo of three coloured flowers
Trachystemon Orientalis

Colour photo of Duff House surrounded by woodland

One of the consequences of having woodland, is that wildflowers find their way to grow. During the late nineteenth century a number of lists of wildflowers around Banff were given, mostly under the auspices of the Banffshire Field Club, but they admit these were just partial surveys.
The local historian Allan Mahood, in his 1919 book, provides a chapter on local wildflowers, contributed to by several knowledgeable botanists. They conclude that the area around Banff has an unusually great “profusion, variety and charm” of its wild flowers. There is also a comment that there may not be rare plants – which may be true except for one exception – a plant perhaps not identified until more recently (see Part 2).


The examples below are just a few noteworthy wildflowers in the Duff House woods – most accompanied by images of some nineteenth century water colours of the plants.


Impatiens Roylei – or I. glandulifera – better known as the Himalayan Balsam. It was introduced into the UK in 1839 as a garden plant, and by early in the twentieth century a small patch was noted next to the Gelly Burn, near to where it joins the Deveron. A hundred years later and there are patches on both sides of the river, and not just by the banks, but even at an elevation of about 20 metres above the river. This has perhaps taken place because the plant can shoot it’s seeds up to 7 metres distance, which are easily transported on water as they are viable for about two years. This plant is now listed as an invasive species, overbearing many native plants; it seems to be slowly expanding locally. The picture is taken from Favourite (Garden) Plants in 1897 – not a favourite garden plant nowadays, not even a favourite wild flower!

Colour image of a hand drawing
Better known today as Himalayan Balsam – an invasive species that used to be a garden plant


Allium Paradoxum – few flowered leek. Anyone that has walked through Duff House woods in June and July can hardly of missed the garlic smell in the area south of the Mausoleum. Follow the footpath just on the river side of the Mausoleum, and this leads you down to “Hospital Island”, a Leper Hospital many years ago. Garlic is a traditional natural remedy to ease the symptoms of leprosy; and few flowered leek is also called few flowered garlic. It is not known if that is the reason there is so much of this plant, completely covering Hospital Island and now spread to the surrounding woods. Two things to note; Hospital Island is not really an island any more as the channel has silted over; but this 1908 postcard shows it really did used to be. Secondly, please note it is illegal to replant because of it’s extreme spreading habit!

Colour photo
Few Flowered Leek
Black and white image of a boat on a river channel

Mercurialis Perennis – Dog’s Mercury. This is, and was reported to be, very abundant in the low lying part of Duff House woods; it is very tolerant of shade and grows to about one foot (35cm) in height. It may not be considered to be the prettiest of plants, with just some very small greenish flowers. It has at least two special features however: firstly it is hermaphrodite – more accurately dioecious – as it has both male and female versions of the plant. Secondly and most important, it has nothing to do with “dogs”, and is highly poisonous to both dogs and humans, causing vomiting, jaundice, coma and eventually death. The word “dog” in this context means “false”. The painting, male on the left, female to the right, was done in 1831.

Colour image of a plant painted over text in a book
Male version on the left, female on the right.

Colour photo of leaves and berries

We know in the 17th century there was hardly a tree around Banff, and Lord Fife – mostly the 2nd Earl Fife – planted large plantations in the late 18th century, proving that with the right care trees can flourish in Banffshire.  However, in addition to the major plantations intended for commercial reasons and to provide building materials for the locals, James Duff also stocked the immediate surroundings of Duff House – what he called his “Pleasure Grounds”, from the original entrance (now in St Mary’s car park) all the way through to Bridge of Alvah.  Today we benefit from his collection in what we call Wrack Woods.

By 1819, two of the many visitors, in this case Robert Southey the Poet Laureate who visited with his friend Robert Telford – the architect for the expansion of Banff Harbour – described Wrack Woods: “the trees are surprisingly fine, considering how near they grow to the North Sea.”  In fact, just a few years earlier, it had been described that Duff House grounds contained every type of tree known in the UK.

A description of many of the trees in Duff House grounds was written a hundred years later, in 1919, by Allan Mahood.  He lists many of the trees near to the main track through what used to be the Pleasure Grounds – but gifted by the Duke of Fife twelves years earlier for the recreation of the local residents.

There was a huge Ash tree near Collie Gate – opposite what is now known as Collie Lodge, today marked by an area of stone setts; reportedly used to hang a spy in 1746 by the army on the way to Culloden.  There were many Elm trees, including the much rarer Wych Elm.  Beech trees, normal and copper versions; Sycamore including a variegated version.  Several Maple varieties including Norway and small leaved Maple.  Lime, various species of Oak, a line of very tall white Poplars just near Collie Gate and more unusual balsam Poplar with golden leaves down near the river.  Several of these trees have not been found in the woods today.

There are still plenty of Horse Chestnuts in the woods, but there used to be Sweet Chestnuts although reportedly the fruit never ripened.  But there were also less usual trees: a Dwarf Elder (known as “Danewort”), Noble Fir, Cypress, Douglas Fir, Himalayan Cedar; the list goes on.  There is even a Sequoia Gigantea – still there today near Bridge of Alvah.

There were also several trees known as “Lord Fife’s Mapples” – in fact what was known then as the Pyrus Aria, now the Sorbus Aria.  This is the Whitebeam; the exact variety is not known, but to bear fruit that is compared to apples suggests it may have been what was at that time the new cultivar “Magnifica”, with extra white undersides of leaves as described, and with larger fruit.

Clearly the Duff House woods were a magnificent arboretum and truly Pleasure Grounds!

Colour photo of bronze plaque and wreath on a stone background

This picture is of the war memorial at Duff House. Poppies in remembrance of the British that died, and the Forget-me-nots as the German flower of remembrance. This is one of the very few joint nationality war memorials in existence. It is placed on the spot where one of the bombs fell as part of the events recounted below.

“In the morning at nine o’clock the klaxon for roll call went. We were all lined up outside. We heard an aircraft and he came pretty low. He must have been coming out from Norway or somewhere [like that]. I think it was a reconnaissance aircraft. They are loaded with bombs too. I think he was on a reconnaissance mission to explore northern Scotland, and he saw this camp down there. He saw the tents of the guards up on the hill, and he saw this building there with people outside and thought, ‘let’s give them a lesson,’ so to speak. Before we witnessed that it was over, the bombs fell. Miraculously, I wasn’t hit by anything, but I lost six of my crewmates from U-26 during the air attack mistakenly made by Hermann Göring’s ‘Flying Circus’. Two bombs went into the elevator shaft as duds, they never blew up. But two guards outside, they were killed through the bombs.”

These are the words of Paul Mengelberg, one of the true eye-witnesses as the bombs fell. This took place on 22nd July 1940 – 81 years ago this last week.

Paul Mengelberg continued, “Those that died were given a soldier’s funeral by the British forces at the gravesite in Banff.” Later writers mention that the bodies were eventually repatriated to Germany, but this is not correct. In 1959, an agreement was concluded by the governments of the United Kingdom and the Federal Republic of Germany concerning the future care of the graves of German nationals who lost their lives in the United Kingdom during the two World Wars and so a new German Military cemetery was established at Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, which is where the six men are now buried.

The two British soldiers who were killed were of course returned to their families, one in Newcastle, one in Blair Atholl.

Colour photo of gravestones in neatly cut grass
Four colour photos of gravestones
Colour photo of gravestone
Colour copy of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission card for Thomas Blakey
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission card for Thomas Blakey
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.