Keith Town Council by Bill Ettles, from a talk given to the Heritage Group

The first Year of Keith Town Council 1889 – 1890, with a glance at the same Council in the 1960’s.

This is not in any way a serious historical treatise dealing with the laws of Scottish Local Government as applied in Keith. That would be the fruit of years of study rather than the few days I have been able to give to it. What I propose to do tonight is to look at the beginning of Keith Town Council, the reasons for the changes that took place in 1889, as they were seen at the time, and then to pick out from the first year points that may be of interest to us who came later, ending that part with the Election of 1890.

Basically Keith became a Burgh at the time of the so-called Lindsay Act, the name, as far as I can gather, given to The Local Government (Scotland) Act 52 and 53 Vic. Cap 55. That’s the reference for any of you who wish to check up on it.

The reasons for change at this time, as far as Keith was concerned, are many and varied. Hitherto, the Town had been under the control of a Parochial Counsel a body composed of the Minister, Heritors (i.e. those owning property above a certain value), some members of the Kirk Session and a few elected rate-payers. They seemed to be chiefly concerned with the application of the Poor Law, under an Act of 1845, but also exercised powers in the areas of sanitation, and could establish burial grounds, presumably when the Kirkyard overflowed.

Police Burghs had been possible since 1850, to join the older Royal Burghs, of which Cullen was one of the oldest, and Burghs of Regality and of Barony, none of which had embraced Keith, despite its ancient Charter. In other words, the powers were there but had not been used. What, then, caused this sudden rush in 1889.

The most cogent reason that comes through from the Press reports, seems to have been the matter of Roads. The condition of Keith’s roads, footpaths etc., seems to have depended on the generosity of the Town’s two Superiors, the Duke of Fife and the Dowager Countess of Seafield. There was also an allegedly responsible body called the Roads Trust, which seemed to have powers to levy rates but over whom there was little local control, nor, it seemed, very much return in the way of better roads. Indeed, it was suggested at one meeting that £160 subscribed by Keith had been “diverted to the Upper District”. It seemed that the aforesaid Upper District consisted largely of poor land and moorland, producing little in the way of rental, and consequently little or nothing in the way of rates. Not surprisingly, Keith in 1889 viewed the spending of its money elsewhere in much the same light as we view the spending of large sums on Sports facilities in Elgin.

Added to this was the progress in Parliament of an Act to establish a new administrative body, a County Council. This would consist of representatives of Burghs and Landward areas. It seemed to the rate-payers of Keith that, if they established themselves as a Burgh, and not a Parish, a Police Burgh with Commissioners, they would ensure better representation in the new body than if they remained a Parish., and thus Landward. They would thus have more control over the collecting and the spending of Local Rates.

I have already noted dissatisfaction with the condition of the Roads, and this was emphasised by a rather nasty little remark in the Buckie paper, the Advertiser. Buckie had, for-once beaten Keith in setting itself up as a Burgh, and was rather gloating in the fact. It said:-

“Keith has been a laggard in the process of Burgh-making, but Keith means no longer to sit at ease in a state of unsanitary consciousness and irresponsible Government”. A little further on, this report, which would repay closer study, puts the knife in with kindly, neighbourly satisfaction:­-

“Keith is a dirty place, its streets ankle-deep in mud”.

Thus encouraged, and seemingly with reason, as there is no denial of that last remark available, the people of Keith packed the Longmore for a public meeting. Again, the very full Press reports in the Moray and Nairn, and particularly the Banffshire Journal suggest a scene not far removed from Mr Dickens’ description of the Eatanswill Election (V. Picwick) The Chairman, a Mr T.A. Petrie-Hay, whose portrait hangs in the Burgh Chamber in the Institute, was informed that he had no right to the Chair. He did eventually vacate, but was promptly reinstated by acclamation. He then addressed the Meeting at some length and with some clarity, outlining the benefits of Burgh status. Mr Fleming, Lawyer, and father-in-law of Mrs Betty Fleming, who still lives in Land Street, noted that the changes pending would see Water and Drainage removed to a District Council, from the Parish Council. Compulsion was on the way, in the Burgh Police Act, (which eventually arrived in 1892) and all powers would be consolidated, including much that at present was only ‘use and wont’ – translated as “It’s Aye Been”. They were therefore right to anticipate this, and take the powers to themselves. The M.P. Mr Duff added his weight in a letter suggesting that if they failed to take the step, they would lose all powers, The ‘Antis’ were represented by one Rev. Fitzpatrick, whose Church I know not, but who seemed to be anti everything – an eternal protester. Another ‘Anti” apparently spoke so badly that he had to have an interpreter. His attempts, if the Press are to be believed – and who would doubt them – brought the house down, and despite the Rev’s refusal to be ‘dragged by a few busybodies’ the meeting was clear in its decision.

Indeed, so wholeheartedly was it in favour that when one dissenter tried to organise a plebiscite, he failed to persuade the necessary seven rate-payers to sign the requisition for what we call now a Referendum. Things don’t change a lot, do they? Despite this, the Rev. still seems not to have accepted Vox Populi (Voice of the People) as necessarily Vox Dei (Voice of God).

When one considers the slower channels of communication, events now raced ahead. On the 26th of July, a meeting of rate­payers agreed to ask the Sheriff, (Hamilton-Grierson) to fix the Burgh Boundaries, and a sub-committee was set up to meet him for this purpose. On August 30th, Sheriff and Sub-committee met and agreed boundaries. On 6th Sept. a Petition asking to be granted Burgh status was agreed by a Meeting of Rate-payers, and submitted to the Sheriff.

On the 2nd of November, the Petition having apparently been granted, a Nomination Meeting was held. After the usual “Oh No. Not Me!” and “Oh I couldn’t do that” which every such meeting seems to evoke, some eighteen names were eventually submitted for election of Twelve.  A Further Meeting was held on the 5th of November seemingly for the purpose of allowing those who cried “Foul” the chance to say it in Public. This meeting, despite the date, seems to have produced no fireworks, and no more names, and on November 12th, twelve Commissioner were duly elected.

So the Council was now in being, though there is no sign yet of the word Council being used.

When I looked at the first year’s minutes, however, I was immediately struck by the fact that they were, so to speak, in tandem. One book refers to “The Police Commissioners”, and the other to “The Police Commissioners as Local Authority” Yet these are the same people with the same Clerk (Lawyer Mr. John Fleming) and meeting on the same nights. Some explanation is provided by the fact that they took over the work of “The Parochial Council as Local Authority”, as well as a new role of Law and Order. As I noted earlier, the Parochial Council had been responsible for Drainage, Water, Sanitation and Infectious diseases. This is borne out by a Press report suggesting that the Parochial Council should hand over the operation of the New Infectious Disease Act (1898) to the Commissioners. Law, Order, Lighting, Roads (eventually), Assessments and Appeals against them, seems to come under the other hat.

So to the Minutes of that first year! Strangely, for me as a later member, the titles assumed by the first Office-Bearers were Chief Magistrate (Mr T.A. Petrie Hay) – yes he of Hay Crescent-, and Second and Third Magistrates (Messrs Kelman and Annand – the former of Kelman Place, the latter the Ironmonger. No street is named after him as he was never Provost. The titles of Provost and Bailies were not then assumed, despite their ancient origin, and I have not yet had time to find out either why not, or when the change was made. The first Budget, up to 15th May was £240.00. By December, the Sheriff had been asked to approve an extension of the Burgh Boundaries at Duff St., Fife St., Nelson Terrace, Cuthil and Broomhill. Lotted Lands were to be exempted from levies as long as they were used for Agricultural purposes. (Does anyone require an explanation if Lotted Lands?)

On the side of Sanitation, one Mr McKenzie, a Vet, had been charged with nuisance anent his dunghill. I wonder what he had buried in it? He was not alone. 19 others faced similar charges. Roads were still a problem. It required a total of 5,000 in the Burgh to allow the Roads to be taken over from the Roads Trust and a count showed 4672 – not enough. To mitigate this disappointment, the Institute Committee offered to the Commissioners control over the operation and maintenance of the Institute Clock.

The meeting of February 1890 was a momentous one on two counts. First, it saw the adoption of the Burgh Bye-Laws. These are too long to quote, covering as they do two closely printed pages, but I have selected a few:­

NO throwing stones or snowballs.

Players of Music or Singers to move on the request of a Constable requisitioned by ONE householder.

Such players or singers to desist at the request of a Constable requisitioned by THREE householders.

Owners of property fronting a footpath to clear that footpath of snow, and to scrape the water-course (I can now appreciate why, in the 1930’s, my father set me about cleaning the pavement in front of the shop.)

Parcels left on the footpath to be cleared by Sunset OR within three hours.

No climbing of lampposts, or attaching cattle or horses to them

No ringing of bells or knocking on windows.


For a first offence, penalties were Not Exceeding 20/-, with fines up to 40/- for further offences, with up to 60 days imprisonment in lieu. I presume Court records were kept, though I have not yet traced any. This would be an improvement on the earlier technique of branding a first offender on the face with the Burgh Coat of Arms, so that he could not so plead again.

At this same meeting, the problem of Roads came up again, and, in order to raise the numbers to the necessary 5,000, Newmill was invited to join the Burgh. Newmill, however, like a certain lady when proposed to, said “Na!” The next episode is even more fascinating. By July of 1890 the population exceeded 5,000, without Newmill. The explanation is not given – High Birth-Rate?, Immigration?, Miscount the first time? – or simply a quiet fiddle: Who Knows? Suffice it to say that Roads were now taken over and a Roads Foreman ,was appointed at a salary of £52.00 per annum. To celebrate, the Commissioners agreed to take over the Institute Clock.

Lighting also was not without problems. It was, of course, gas, provided by the Keith Gas Light and Coke Company which provided mains, and extended them for the first fifteen feet towards a lamp. Some proposed lamps were abandoned on grounds of ‘too far from the main’. The gas Co., however, agreed to maintain all mains “to the satisfaction of the Lighting Committee”, for the sum of £20 per annum. There is an on-going saga of a lamp requested outside Inglewood, Fife-Keith, by one W. Stewart. His request was turned down, repeated, refused etc., until he agreed to put up the lamp himself, and even to pay for the Gas. The Committee hung its collective head – and paid for the gas. Later on, when Dr. George of Earlsmount died this same Mr Stewart was co-opted in his place. In November 1890, he stood for election, but was not successful. Unfortunately, I failed, through lack of time, to check if Mr. Stewart was the highest of the unsuccessful candidates at the original election, this being the later custom when a co-option was necessary.

There was a discussion, often repeated in later years, on the proximity of the August holiday and the Keith Show. The C.B.F.C were unwilling to alter the date of the Show, the 2nd Tuesday in August, so the Council moved the holiday.

The Clerk and the Treasurer were awarded salary increases, the Clerk going up from £20 to £28, and the Treasurer up to £25 p.a. The year ended with the retiral of four members (presumably the four with the lowest votes in the first election- though this I have not checked) and the co-optee. As I said, the co-opted member was not elected, and in place of Dr George, was another Annand, this one a Bank Manager, who topped the Poll.

When I joined the Council in the early sixties, there was, perhaps surprisingly, little material change. The Magistrates had been retitled Provost, Senior Bailie and Junior Bailie, and there were still 12 Councillors in all, with a part-time Clerk and Treasurer. (Willie Sutherland, later replaced by Bill Johnstone and Ian Dawson.) The Roads Foreman had given way to a full-time Burgh Surveyor since control of Water, Roads, Sanitation, Drainage and Housing required ever higher degrees of skill and qualification.

Elections had moved from November to May, and votes were cast no longer only by Rate-Payers, but by all Parliamentary Electors. The argument for this change, that much of the funds were derived from General and not from Local Taxation was a trifle specious, but I cannot argue with it, since when I was elected, I was not, strictly, a rate-payer, living as did in my Father’s property.

I have added to this paper one or two isolated incidents from my own memories of the Council and its works, which can, if you wish, be kept to a later date.

Keith Town Council Part 2

When I joined the Keith Town Council, some 70 years later, the changes were really surprisingly few. Councillors, it is true, had replaced Commissioners, Provost and Bailies had replaced Chief and other Magistrates, but the basic tasks of the Council had altered very little indeed. Poor Law had gone but we were still responsible for all the tasks taken over in 1889, Roads, Lighting, Sewage and Drainage, and the operation of the Courts. The Roads foreman had been replaced by a full-time and highly qualified Burgh Surveyor, but we still had a part-time Town Clerk, and a part-time Chamberlain. There was a Treasurer on the Council, but his task was simply to present to the Councillors the Budget and Accounts as prepared by the Chamberlain – presentation skills, not mathematical – which was just as well for one particular Treasurer whose name you might guess. ??????????

Two additional tasks, not obvious in 1889, had been added. One was the Dean of Guild Court, the other Housing, both tasks of some considerable weight.

The Dean of Guild Court, swept away in 1975, was the last remaining power base of the Mediaeval Trade Guilds, which controlled so much of Urban life in the Middle Ages. By the mid 20th Century, it had become part of Planning, largely devoted to building regulations and the effect of one structure on another. The Feudal Superiors were, of course, the overall planners, as you will see if you look over Title Deeds of 18th and 19th Century structures and feus. They saw to the outside of buildings and to their placing in their relationship to others. But inside, and alterations were the pulieu of the Dean of Guild. You may have noticed in the Banffshire Herald recently, (25 Years ago) a request – no a Command- for a certain gentleman to appear before the Court, to explain why he had not adhered to plans passed by the Court in altering a building.

I remember this one well, since I was on the Court at the time. He had simply ignored the plans, and gone on to please himself in setting up stairs, toilets, and all other points noted and passed in the original. The Dean of Guild, (Rev Tom Gooding) insisted on a personal appearance, and sailed into the unhappy proprietor with unusual vigour, for Tom was normally a very gentle person. There was no argument really. The powers of the Court were such that he had to go back and undo all those thing outwith the plan, and replace them, at his own expense. Fortunately, this was a rare occurrence.

Housing was another very large part of the Council’s work, and one on which we depended greatly on the skill of the Burgh Surveyor and the Clerk of Works to keep us in line. During my time on the Council, the Burgh was considerably extended on the Cuthil, (Quarryhill and Viewfield), School Road and Green Court, Mar Place and Mar Court, and finally the first phase of the Den Scheme which was eventually completed by Moray district. Two memories always remain with me. The first concerns an outcry by members of the public anent the Council’s tendency to use an overall contractor for house-building and ‘never give the Local men a chance”. There was at this time a piece of ground at the top of Cuthil Avenue leading to Cuthil Road, where a small scheme might just fit in. We decided to listen to the complaints, and try it. It was not a success. Quality and workmanship were not a subject of complaint, but the time factor was. When one trade completed its task, the next was not ready to carry on. There were gaps of weeks where no progress was made and the total time ran into years. Imagine the feelings of a young family waiting for the chance of a house here as they watched the snail’s pace of progress. I can sympathise, because my wife and I had a similar experience in Culter where Aberdeenshire Education authority had promised us a house in a certain scheme, which progressed from eaves level to having roofs on two houses – in two years. We in Keith never repeated this experiment.

My second housing memory is of Quarryhill and Viewfield. This, as you know, is not the easiest of sites to build on, because of the slopes, and because, at that time, it was not allowed to dig out a site from the hill. Underbuilding was the only way to level a house, said the Authorities, and, since they were supplying the Finance, it was necessary to listen. On this occasion, we had got together with the Contractor, Frank McIntosh, and produced a plan which we thought would make maximum use of the available space in a way that was feasible from the builder’s view-point. This was sent to the Scottish Office, and, after the customary lapse of time, returned with a note which said, in effect, that it was complete nonsense, an inefficient use of area producing far too few houses in the space available. They would, they said, send a proper architect and designer to produce a real plan. In due course, two men appeared (S.O. Reps always need escorts) surveyed the site, and went away. In further due course, a plan appeared which the Scottish Office suggested was ideal, and could be approved and implemented without further delay. I went round to the site with the Burgh Surveyor (Mr Gordon Geddes, I think) and we did some measuring. At some points, the Scottish Office Plan would require some 20 feet – yes 20 feet – of underbuilding to reach the Ground Floor. This would leave room for a basement and a wine-cellar, or a private swimming pool, or some similar amenity. We sent the Plan back, pointing out that their experts had failed to include a ???. After an embarrassed silence, we had a curt reply, approving our original plan. So if that area is wrong today, it’s our fault. But assuredly, the ‘experts’ would have been worse.

Water has always been a problem area. Despite the fact that we are assured that it falls from Heaven, and is therefore free, it does require a vast amount of spending to locate, pipe, purify, pipe again, and finally remove. The last is called sewage and is an essential part of the water business; equally costly, and, since buried, often forgotten when pseudo-politicos calculate costs. My first memory was of a visit to a new, upward-flow filter, at Auchoynanie, opened by the then Water Convener, Bill Kelty. You may well wonder why taking water in at the top of a reservoir, filtering it through sand and out at the bottom, should differ materially from taking it in at the bottom, up through the sand, and out at the top. It does when the filter bed has to be cleaned. With the first, downward, the tank is emptied, and two little chaps with shovels scrape away the dirt. This can take up to 48 hours. With the other, close inlet, close outlet, open a large outlet at the bottom. The water then flows down through the sand, taking the dirt with it. Total time nearer 48 minutes. I still remember Bill christening the new filter with a glass of Strathisla – a small glass, but the rest did not reach home. Just before that we had walked round the Balloch to the original intake and filtration system. Imagine, if you will, a small burn trickling down the hill. There is a hole in the ground, into which it flows, and the hole is covered with a piece of sheep-wire. That was it, the first filtration system.

The new filter, however, was only the second of its type in Scotland. Fife-Keith’s supply of water comes from Cairnie, and when we built Mar Place and Mar Court, we found it had insufficient pressure for the top houses, especially on Wash Days. To improve this, we decided that we would have to provide a balancing tank, holding perhaps 100,000 gallons, at the back of Fife Park. The main problem was that this would require a Water Order, from the Scottish Office, which we reckoned would take about two years to achieve, and in the meantime these houses would be short of water. We then resurrected the papers referring to the original supply from that area, and found to our considerable joy, that the original agreement from the S.O. stipulated that “a balancing tank must be provided somewhere on the route”.

The papers were dated 1902, so we were only some 60 years late. The tank, built of concrete and not of metal, formed the first club-house for the newly formed Keith Golf Club, and now houses its machinery. My own contribution to the water business was bold, revolutionary, and totally abortive. Along with one Bill Lowson of Baptie Shaw and Morton Civil Engineers, we formed a plan to extract water from Ice Age gravel under the Deveron at Rothiemay. The river here extends underground far beyond its banks, and filters through gravel. It is not a difficult matter to drop a pipe through the gravel, extend the pipe in star form over a considerable area, and find a pool of pure water flowing in at the bottom. This water can then be pumped up to the nearest high ground, and gravitated to its destination. At the place we thought of, the Gallowhill of Rothiemay, would have held the storage, and pipes would gravitate to Keith, to Aberchirder and to Portsoy along therailway line most of the way. The cost was a total of around £100,000 split among the three Burghs in proportion roughly £45,000 each to Keith and Portsoy, and £10,000 to Aberchirder. Both these Burghs turned down the idea, on no better grounds than that they had not thought of it for themselves, so we set about a simpler scheme on the Birkenburn, which gave us all we needed. Aberchirder later evolved a scheme for themselves at four times the sum they had stated they could not afford, and Portsoy had no water for many years after that.

At the same time, and with greater success, we provided the Sewage works, down by the Railway. For Keith, this was a very costly exercise, at around £120,000, but essential in that our sewers till that time debauched, untreated into the Isla, which was virtually an open sewer. Indeed one Burgh Surveyor, the late Alec Lochhead, was sure that some of the houses in Broomhill and Seafield Avenue, were not linked to the main sewer, but only into field drains and thence to the river. We did have a plan to trace this, but it was forgotten in the trauma of Alec’s illness and untimely death. There is a story of one house in the area having a first link to the sewer long after that time but I cannot vouch for its truth.

As you may see, my years on Keith Town Council were very happy ones. We had there twelve good men and true, working for the good of the town, not for any selfish reasons, and most important, not for the benefit of any political party. We all, indeed, had our own political views, but they were submerged in the need to work together for Keith. Indeed, I remember one gentleman who stood for election under a political label. He failed. Next year he stood as himself, and was handsomely elected. We worked in our own time, largely in the evenings, and the sole reward was the feeling of a job well done. Even the Provost’s Fee Fund, a small fund designed to help the Provost in all the duties of entertaining which fell to him, was never touched, until one Provost, so that others could in the future, drew it, – and quietly paid it into the Common Good. Yes, we did at one point have two Ladies on the Council, but they were there for the same purpose as the rest of us, the benefit of Keith. It was a close-working, harmonious body, differing surely, but accepting the majority vote, voting with conscience and conviction and not because a political Party had cooked up a line in the back shop. When one reads of the unholy alliances conjured up in even this area, of the subjugation of the benefit to Burgh and Community to some petty political purpose, we must be thankful that in that area, Keith has not followed the common trend. Our representatives at both District and Regional level are still honestly and completely Independent. We thank them for that and hope that this independence of our Town may long continue.

Keith Heritage Group 18th March 1993.

This is a rough transcript of the original talk.