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ONCE a thriving fishing port, the focus in Banff is now principally on leisure sailing at its attractive new marina that is home to more than 70 yachts and other pleasure craft.
The sea has played a significant part in the history of Banff and it was in the 1100s that it was first recorded as a community.
Nestling on the west side of Banff Bay close to the mouth of the River Deveron, it was almost inevitably destined to have a nautical history.
From early times fishing and boat-building prospered on the Greenbanks and along the gravel-rich Deveron Spit that acted as a natural shelter from the ravages of the Moray Firth.
Changing river courses forced the townsfolk to look elsewhere for secure moorings and a harbour in the north-west corner of the bay was begun as far back as 1471. But it took hundreds of years to complete today’s fine granite port that is a tribute to the involvement at different times of two great British civil engineers John Smeaton and Thomas Telford.
Even with the harbour in place, early steam drifters were still built on the Greenbanks and less than a century ago the west bank of the Deveron mouth was a hive of timber boat construction.
In the meantime Banff had grown in trading stature with cargo vessels, whalers and fishing boats registered at the port and the town was by this time a proud Royal Burgh.
But it is neighbouring Macduff across the bay on the east side of the Deveron mouth which has fared better from the sea in more recent times. It has a far better harbour, sheltered basins and a boat-building industry that thrives today by servicing its dwindling but still significant fishing fleet and constructing high-technology steel fishing craft for fishermen throughout the country.
Banff, however, had other attractions to offer. It became a haven for the local nobility in the harsher winter months and from that came the fine Georgian architecture to be found in areas where they chose to build their town houses. In fact, Banff can lay claim to having more listed buildings than any other town in the north of Scotland.
A splendid example is Banff’s now famous Duff House. It was designed by William Adam and completed in 1740 as the seat of the Earls of Fife. Experiencing a somewhat chequered history for a time at the beginning of the 20th century, as both a hotel and a sanatorium, it began to fall into ruin but was saved by the nation and is now a national treasure, providing a grand home for fine art exhibitions, musical events and conferences.
The grounds of the mansion are home to the Duff House Royal Golf Club, an 18-hole parkland course designed by James Braid. And there are beautiful walks around the grounds of the house, either gentle strolls or the more demanding four mile hike to the Bridge of Alvah.
Like many Scottish towns Banff was swept up in World War 11. For a brief period between 1943 and 1946 it was at the sharp end of aerial warfare following the construction of RAF Banff. The station became famous, first as a training airfield for hundreds of pilots converting to twin-engined aircraft and later, and even more famously, as the home of the feared RAF Banff Strike Wing – a crack anti-ship and U-Boat busting unit initially equipped with Beaufighters but best known for its links with six Mosquito squadrons.
Commanded by the late Group Captain Sir Max Aitken, it flew hundreds of missions against German shipping in the North Sea and along the Norwegian coast and sank more than 330,000 tonnes of munitions and supplies.
Today the old airfield is covered by wind generators but its glorious past is remembered with a large granite memorial on the A98 four miles west of Banff and small museum at the nearby Boyndie Visitor Centre.
As well as its fishing past, Banff also thrived thanks to its distillery at Boyndie and tile-works at Blackpots – now both consigned to history. It also once boasted two railway stations – one westbound from the harbour the other southbound from the east side of beautifully arched Banff Bridge. More romantically, the burgh is said to have had a thriving smuggling past!
In the 21st century, Banff’s seafaring links with other countries have principally been restricted to occasional visits by Scandinavian yachtsmen.
But for the visitor to Banff, there is plenty more to see and do in this thriving corner of north-east Scotland.