The present Banff Bridge was opened in 1779, although not formally signed off until 17th June 1780. Some of the original drawings of this Smeaton designed bridge, widened in 1881, do exist. Many people are however aware that the present bridge replaced a previous one but little is known about it.
The Roy map of 1747 gives a sketch of both Banff and Down (although the latter is not named) and it does show a ford across the river. This appears to be the King’s Ford, located 1350 feet south of the present bridge, just upstream of the mouth of the Gelly Burn on the Macduff side; part of the track from this ford to Down is still traceable on the ground.
A bit later there was also another ford utilising the west end of Scurry Island – the island just round the first major bend to the south – which joined the track past what is now Kirkside farm.
Use of the fords however was quite difficult and certainly dangerous; the tracks to them were also reported as not easy to navigate in wet weather – or until the 2nd Earl Fife undertook to improve them if the land was passed to him – which only took place in 1777. The alternative was the use of a ferry, but some of the arguments used to make the case for a bridge show how dangerous the ferry was too: “not a single year passed without some unfortunate occurrence at this ferry”; “inconvenience to the public”; “frequent stoppage of mails”. One of the reported incidents was 12th January 1739 when several people lost their lives after the ferry overturned.
The case for a bridge over the river was several decades in the making, and the earliest known detailed map of either Banff or Down (not named Macduff until 1783), dated October 1763, does show the beginnings of the first bridge. This unique map shows the first bridge had three piers in the river, plus one on each bank – hence four arches compared to the present seven arched bridge. It was largely paid for by the Government and is reported to have cost between five and six thousand pounds. It opened in June 1765.
However great it was to stay dry crossing the river – remembering it was the main route to Aberdeen – on 17th September 1768 there was a large storm, and a huge spate of water came down the river. This undermined the west, Banff side, pier, and the bridge collapsed, although fortunately without loss of life.
Unfortunately the ferry that had to be resumed was not so safe; in January 1773 seven lives were lost when the ferry was carried out into Banff Bay.
Smeaton decided that the new bridge should be located “the breadth of itself further up”. Not particularly clear but the 1763 map allows some scale measurements to be taken and it would appear the old bridge was slightly to seaward of the present bridge. The stones from the old bridge were re-used in the new bridge when work started in 1772, much of the rest coming from the quarry now at Bridge garage.