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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.

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!