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Banffshire
Chapter 14. Shipping and Trade


One of the most significant changes in comparatively recent years in the commercial arrangements of the county is the vanishing of commercial ships, especially sailing ships. Some sixty years ago the shipping industry of Banffshire employed much capital and many men on sea and on land: today it may well be said not to exist.

Some of the larger ships owned in the county seldom saw their port of registration. They were employed largely on foreign service—breaking records on a voyage from China with the new crop of tea, or in the emigrant trade (for it was no uncommon thing in those days for a ship to leave a Banffshire port direct for Melbourne or Quebec with cargo and passengers), or in a sealing expedition in the northern seas. But the majority of the ships were engaged in purely local trade—carrying coals from the Tyne, or shipping grain, cattle, salmon and products of the kind for southern ports, or cured herrings for the Baltic. In the winter months many of the ships lay up in their home harbours, a period used by the younger and more ambitious members of crews to go back to school and study navigation in order to secure the certificate of the Board of Trade. Stout sturdy fellows they were, bringing with them to the school all the romance of the far seas. Although that is now unknown, the spirit of sea adventure continues to find an outlet, and in the engine-room today of many passenger liners or cargo ships Banff lads hold responsible posts.

A Macduff gentleman, recently dead, who went to sea first in 1843, has recited the names of over one hundred Macduff vessels he had known during his own life-time, and he lived to see a day when the town had not a schooner belonging to it. In the town of Banff, so lately as i 865, a list was made up of sixty-five persons in the town having shares in local ships, a wonderful record for a community of the size it was. There were foreign-going ships owned and registered in the town; there was a fleet of coasting ships that engaged also in the Baltic and Mediterranean trades; there were packets that sailed regularly to Leith and London; there were emigrant ships that left Banff harbour direct for Canada and Australia; there were Banff ships that engaged in the whale-fishing industry in the frozen north; and Banff ships, too, sailed west and north seal-hunting. A Banff ship in 1718 took the kirk bell of Banff, which had become "old and riven," to Holland to be recast, and when a local ship went to Bordeaux, the Town Council of the day saw to it that part of the return cargo was wine, euphemistically described as being for "the town's use." So intimate were the business relations with some continental ports that in 1730 a firm of merchants in Dantzig sent a fine brass drum, with the town's arms upon it, as a present to the burgh; and seven years later, when harbour repairs were under way in Banff, a Bordeaux merchant sent a hogshead of "strong claret" as a gift to the scheme, the said wine being rouped for eight guineas, while contributions in money were sent as well by merchants in Rotterdam. In 1781 when the Anne of Banff was captured by a Dunkirk privateer, Lord Fife had to lament "In it were all my clothes, and the whole provisions for my family in the country, with many other things." The shipping of the town and county was such that a battery with cannon was mounted above the harbour, and numbers of the inhabitants were taught to work the guns —this against depredations by French privateers—and in 1790 a Custom House was established in the burgh, the only one then between Aberdeen and Inverness.

On the absolute disappearance from Banff of its sailing commercial craft, the Banffshire Steam Shipping Coy. was formed, with its head-quarters in the town. Its first steamer, the Rosecraig, was lost on the Bell Rock; its second and last ship, the Boyne Castle, fell a victim to a German submarine while on a peaceful voyage to Newcastle for coals; the Company itself is now dissolved, and Banff is in the position of neighbouring ports in possessing no longer a mercantile marine in any form.

Portsoy had in those days a fleet of ships, and the commercial needs of the adjoining district as far inland as Huntly were served from its harbour. Cullen, Buckie, and Portgordon, particularly the last, were extensively interested in shipping. Portgordon was the recognised seaport for Keith and a large inland area, and from that little town came a race of seamen that for enterprise and skill proved inferior to none in the county. In 1841 the registered tonnage belonging to the village was 3231; between i 86o and 1870 it is believed that the majority of the male population of the village were sailors, and at one time in these years there belonged to it close on one hundred seamen who had passed the Board of Trade examination and were able to command vessels to all parts of the world, a record surely for a place of its size.

Interests so large had the natural accompaniment of shipbuilding yards in practically every port, but all acknowledged the superiority of Speymouth in the matter of ship construction, and Garmouth and Kingston yards furnished many fine vessels that carried the BF register into every sea. Probably the whole industry was in its heyday about 1857, and the mercantile navy list of that year prepared by the authority of the Board of Trade credited to the Port of Banff 142 ships, from the Corriemulzie of 606 tons, the Holyrood of 552 tons, and the Lochnagar of 379 tons to trading smacks of 15 and 22 tons.

The introduction of steam power, the coming of railways, the concentration of the herring industry at distinct centres, developments in local commerce, as well as the general speeding up of trade methods—all these had an influence in the disappearance within a comparatively few years of the sailing craft of the county.


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