One of my fifth great grandfathers was William Duff (1754–1795), the second natural son of James Duff, later Earl Fife of Banffshire (1729–1809).

William Duff was baptised on 16 March 1754 at Fordyce. His mother, Margaret Adam of Keith, was the personal maid of the Countess Fife, the mother of James Duff, that is, the mother of William’s father.

James Duff acknowledged William and his brother James and sister Jean as his children and all three received a good education at his expense. Care of the children was entrusted to William Rose, the factor (agent) of Lord Fife . The correspondence on this matter between William Rose, Lord Fife, and the three Duff children is extant, some being published in the 1925 book Lord Fife and his Factor.

William Duff was educated at the Royal Military Academy Woolwich in southeast London, a training college for commissioned officers of the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers. There is a letter from William in 1770 when he was about 16 years old describing his course of studies:

Rise at 6 and go for a walk. Breakfast 7.30. Study from 8 to12. After dinner, military exercises. 3 to 6 study.

The book of the Duffs Volume 2 page 516

The Old Royal Military Academy, in use 1741–1806. The cadets were taught in the left-hand half of the building, the right providing a Board Room for the Ordnance Board. Image by George Rex – Image from Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

On 11 December 11 1770, William obtained a commission as Lieutenant in the 7th Royal Fusiliers, and in September 1771 he wrote from Chatham Barracks to his father at Duff House :

Since I wrote your Lordship last I have been detailed, with twenty men, for a week, to Upnor Castle, a place about four miles from here. This is a duty we take by turns. All this marching about of late has been very expensive to me, and within these two months (during which time I have never been settled in one place) it has cost me upwards of eighteen pounds. Our regiment, I believe, will remain as it is for the winter, but it is generally thought we shall march some other way before February next. My brother sets off for Scotland, with the first ship. I wanted to get to London, for a day or so, to see him before he went, but I really could not get leave. We are now so thin, that I have the Sash every other day almost. I understand your Lordship is killing the Deer just now, and I dare say you will have good diversion. I have just got another step in the Regt., so that there is now five under me.

The book of the Duffs. Volume 2 page 517

Eighteen pounds in 1771 is probably equivalent to more than 30,000 pounds today. The website MeasuringWorth states to compare the value of a £18 0s 0d Commodity in 1771 there are four choices. In 2020 the relative:

  • real price of that commodity is £2,413.00
  • labour value of that commodity is £32,180.00
  • income value of that commodity is £35,310.00
  • economic share of that commodity is £273,500.00

On 15 April 1773, William Duff embarked with his regiment for Canada, the journey taking 11 weeks. He was still in Canada in 1775, when the American War of Independence broke out. He wrote to his brother, Sir James Duff of Kinstair, on 21 May 1775 from Quebec. The 7th Royal Fusiliers were stationed with the 26th Foot in Lower Canada; the two regiments were loosely scattered among frontier posts, and both were at very low strength, together mustering only seven hundred men.

At the time of the American invasion of Canada in 1775, most of the regiment was forced to surrender. The 80 man garrison of Fort Chambly, Quebec, attempted to resist a 400-man Rebel force but ultimately had to surrender in October 1775 and the regiment lost its first set of colours.

The King’s Color of the British Seventh Regiment of Foot. It was captured by American forces at Fort Chambly, Canada, in October of 1775. As the first flag captured by the new American Army it was sent to Congress as a trophy. and is now in the West Point Museum. (Photo from West Point Museum Facebook page).

William Duff was taken prisoner by the Americans, probably at Fort Chambly in October 1775. Though it was hoped he might be returned in an exchange of prisoners, he was not released until early 1777.

In February 1777 he wrote to his father from Staten Island about the purchase of a company in the Regiment. William foreshadowed the expense stating “There is not a Company that has sold for less than Seventeen hundred pounds.” He asked his father to confirm that his father would purchase it for him and requesting security.

Seventeen hundred pounds in 1777 was probably equivalent to three million pounds today . From the website MeasuringWorth:

  • real price of that commodity is £224,600.00
  • labour value of that commodity is £2,858,000.00
  • income value of that commodity is £3,110,000.00
  • economic share of that commodity is £22,870,000.00

William left the 7th Regiment and was promoted to captain in the 26th Foot on 9 April 1777.

On 4 January 1786, William Duff now Captain of the 26th Regiment of Foot was promoted to Major; at the time he and the regiment were serving in Ireland.

On 9 April 1787 at Redmarshall, Durham, Major Duff of the 26th Regiment married Miss Skelly, of Yarm, daughter of the late Gordon Skelly Esq., Captain in the Navy. The book of the Duffs describes Dorothy as niece of Lord Adam Gordon, and the third Duke of Gordon; her grandmother Lady Betty Skelly (1717 – 1769) was sister to Cosmo, 3rd Duke of Gordon (1720 – 1752. Dorothy’s great uncle, Lord Adam Gordon (1726-1801) was colonel of the 26th Regiment of Foot from 1775 – 1782.

In May 1787 William wrote to William Rose from Cork :

We expect to sail to-morrow for Quebec. After various delays we reached this place a fortnight since. I am, as you often told me I should be, happier than ever in possession of a real, confidential friend. Everyone likes her. Were we richer it would be better.

The book of the Duffs. Volume 2 page 522

The headquarters of the regiment in July 1787 at Quebec was under the command of Major William Duff. The regiment moved to Montreal in 1789, and then to the frontier posts along the Niagara River in 1790. It moved to St. John in 1792.

William took his wife Dorothy to Canada. They had one daughter, Sophia Henrietta, born about 1790. It seems likely she was born in Canada.

William Duff retired from the army in March 1793.

William Duff, major in the 26th foot, died on 5 July 1795 at Fulford near York. He has a memorial in the Duff House Mausoleum at Banff, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. The inscription reads:

Sacred to the memory of William Duff of the 26th Regiment, a meritorious officer, a most sincere friend, an affectionate husband, an indulgent parent. He lived esteemed and respected. He died regretted and lamented in the 41st year of his age in the year of the Lord 1795.

“The Annals of Banff.” New Spalding Club, 1893, Issue 10, page 369.
Duff House Mausoleum retrieved from

William’s daughter Sophia was about five years old when her father died. Sophia and her mother stayed in contact with William’s family.


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