ON THIS DAY IN 1898 – by Duncan Harley

The planned township of Macduff has a relatively short history. As recently as 1759 the rent rolls for the settlement, known then as Down or Doune, recorded just 34 tenancies along with 400 inhabitants who subsisted through crofting and fishing from what was probably a very basic harbour. Today’s population is around 3850. 
Burgh status came in 1783 and in that year, the first town council sat down to deliberate on the improvement of the burgh. Markets were licenced, vagrants were ostracised and residents forbidden to throw excrement and general rubbish onto to the streets.

The Earls of Fife invested heavily in the town and encouraged improvements in agricultural practices. They clearly understood the potential of exploiting the natural resources of the sea and began harbour improvements in the 1760s. The harbour has been upgraded at regular intervals up to the present day, with ownership passing from James Duff, the second Earl of Fife, to the town council on March 1 1897, for the “nominal fee of £10,000”.

The second earl inherited the Lands of Doune in 1773 on the death of his father and within a few years, the thorny question of what to call his new town rose to the fore. In a letter to his factor, William Rose, dated 26 August 1781, he writes: “If I change the name of Down, I would change it altogether and call it Macduff, as if we were to say Down Duff, wits would explain it as knocking Down my family.”

The canny laird must have had a sixth sense as well as a wry sense of humour, since, some 230 years later, a mysterious Hollywood-style sign spelling out, in five-foot-high letters, the word ‘MACDUFF’ unexpectedly appeared above the town, on top of Doune Hill. Over the succeeding two weeks, the giant sign successively morphed into the words ‘DUFFCAM’, ‘MADCUFF’ and, finally, ‘MACFFUD’, at which point the local council felt obliged to enforce removal of the offending anagram.

The 2006 sign was the work of pranksters, but more recently, a campaign group, convinced of the sign’s marketing potential, gathered 2059 signatures on a petition demanding its reinstatement.
The name Macduff is of course also a Shakespearian character and the oft quoted line “Lead on, Macduff” is perhaps a Shakespearian misquotation.

Indeed, The Illustrated Police News of March 1st 1898, recorded that Londoner Joseph Callaway, age 64, was fined seven shillings for exclaiming in tragic tones: “Lead on, Macduff, lead on! I’m the only real and genuine Sir Henry Irving.”

Perhaps if he had shouted “Lay on, Macffud”on that fateful day, he would have received a much lesser penalty.

If you have enjoyed this wee snippet of Scottish history then please consider buying my books – The Little History of Aberdeenshire and The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire. Both are available from local bookshops and via Amazon. Just search for my name – Duncan Harley, on Google to find a stockist.


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