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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.

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 a colour painting of a sitting lady holding some flowers

At the eastern end of the Mausoleum in Wrack Woods is a memorial to William Duff and his second wife, Jean (or sometimes Jane) Grant, his “Datie”, who he married in 1723 when she was just eighteen.  His first wife, Lady Janet Ogilvie, unfortunately had died aged just 25 on Christmas Day 1720 after just a year of marriage (her memorial is also in the Mausoleum).  William and Jean were originally buried at Rothiemay but were later re-interred by the 2nd Earl.

As below, their fourteen children experienced mixed fortunes:

Their first son was born in 1724 (when William was 27 years old and Jean was 19), and, as was tradition, he was also called William.  From the evidence of several letters the younger William was mostly always “unhappy”, prone to “drinking and idleness”.  He had Jacobite sympathies and lived in London with the support of his parents; he seems to have had no profession and never took part in public life.  He died in ill-health in 1753.

Two daughters followed, Anne in 1725 and Janet in 1727.  At the ages of 14 and 12 respectively while ‘passing the season’ with their father in Edinburgh both caught smallpox quite badly.   Anne, although scarred, married her cousin, Alexander Duff of Hatton and lived until she was 80.  Janet was described by her father as a “very thoughtless and imprudent girl”, perhaps because she married a Jacobite and then followed him into exile in north-eastern France.  After her husband’s death she seems to have been forgiven by her parents, and had five years of happy married life with George Hay from Mountblairy (between Banff and Turriff), passing away in 1758 from general ill health.

James was born in 1729, later becoming the 2nd Earl Fife; followed two years later by Alexander, later the 3rd Earl Fife.

The sixth child, Jane, came next in 1732.  The Aberdeen Journal says she was “an agreeable young lady”.  She married William Urquhart of Meldrum at age 21, but died relatively early in 1776.

The fourth son, George, was born in 1736 and was well educated in St Andrews, but had to hastily marry in 1756; they lived in London.  Unfortunately it seems George’s first son, James, was placed in a private asylum under a false name, which only came to light more than 60 years later.  George’s brothers complained about his want of friendliness and sociability!  George died in 1818.

Five more children followed annually thereafter: Lewis in 1737, then Patrick, Helen, Sophia and Catherine.  Lewis was initially in the army, serving in Canada and America but disliked it even though his long-suffering wife travelled with him.  He later built what is now known as Blervie House near Forres.  Patrick died shortly after birth.  Helen married Admiral Robert Duff but died in Gibraltar when only 39.  Sophia lived until she was 77, as the third wife of Thomas Wharton, Commissioner of Excise, who her mother describes as having “so many whims of his own, without considering Sophia”!  Catherine seemingly didn’t marry and hardly left home, dying in ill health at just 24.

The seventh and youngest son was Arthur who came along in 1740.  He seems to have been everyone’s favourite, of an exceptionally sweet nature, with his father perpetually calling him “my Attie”.  He became an advocate and reportedly a very diligent MP in London.  He lived until 1805; not all available lists have him as buried in the Duff Mausoleum.

The last child was Margaret, born 1745, eloped in 1767 with an almost penniless Brodie of Brodie.  She died in 1787 when her nightdress was caught light from the fire.

The father, William Duff, made Earl Fife in 1759, died in 1763.  Jean Grant remarkably lived until she was 83, dying in 1788, quite some feat having given birth to 14 children!

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!

Colour photo showing the front of the rectangular gothic building

About a mile south of Duff House, in a very peaceful location looking over the river, is a Mausoleum built in 1792 by the 2nd Earl Fife, initially for his parents, but now with possibly 21 residents, including the first five Earls.  The sixth Earl – who became the first Duke of Fife – was buried at Mar Lodge on Deeside, another of what was the Duff family properties.

The Mausoleum is a rectangular “gothic” building, with stone latticed windows and a slate roof.  When a restoration was done in 1912, one of the reasons apparently was that the then stone tiled roof was leaking, and the slate roof was put on top to make it weathertight.

Other work in 1912 included filling in the crypt.  As you enter through the main door in front of you are three large stones in the floor which cover the steps that went down.  There was then an aisle running left and right, with a total of 22 shelves, in pairs, for coffins.  The only location known of any of the listed incumbents is the First Earl and his (second) wife Jean, who are in the northeasterly corner, looking out over the river.  His son, James the 2nd Earl, had them brought to the Mausoleum from Rothiemay once the Mausoleum was completed.  William the first Earl Fife never lived at Duff House in his lifetime – although he had it built – but has been here now for 228 years!

A list of people buried in the crypt is incised in stone just inside the door; this lists 19 people.  It does get a bit confusing because two other lists have been printed in history books, and all three are slightly different.  If the lists are combined a total of 21 people are spending their time in the crypt.  Monuments to many of them adorn the inside of the Mausoleum itself.  The first Earl’s at the east end is made of Coade stone – refer to the separate “story” of 16-Sep-19 for more information.  A number of excellent examples exist around the Mausoleum, but the first Earl’s tomb is marred by the crest at the top being damaged by rusting – and hence expanding – supporting metal work.

Originally the windows were filled with coloured glass; years ago fragments could be found on the ground outside, and some remnants can still be seen in the stone tracery.  In 2016 a small amount of restoration was done described well by the notice posted at the time:

Please take care around this building as work is underway,

Unfortunately we must repair the damage without further delay,

We do not mean to disturb your visit and would like you to know,

Just what it is we need to fix and how about it we might go.

The window has been vandalised and the tomb is a little green,

The gate is rather rusty and needs much more than just a clean,

So please excuse us while we work, we won’t take too much time,

But watch this space and soon the building will be looking mighty fine.

And indeed, the conservation contractors for Aberdeenshire Council, did a great job.  The building was plenty fine enough for a tea party with Their Graces The Duke and Duchess of Fife in 2017 !

A “story” about the Provost Douglas tomb on the outside south wall was put on this site on 11-May-19.

The Mausoleum is normally kept locked, but can be viewed during the grounds guided tours from Duff House (but not during Covid!) or in mid-September for Doors Open Day.  For 2020 the latter was a virtual experience and a short Mausoleum video narrated by the Duke of Fife can be seen and heard at https://youtu.be/9koNx6v5Z6A