The Old Burghs of Aberdeen
I have been much taken by two illustrated postcards I bought for 10p each in the Ferryhill Library. They depict the long-gone building popularly if erroneously known as the Wallace Tower, once a prominent feature of the Netherkirkgate, and are intensely evocative of the old medieval Burgh of Aberdeen, long-predating Union St., King St., Market St., Bridge St., Holburn St. and the later 19th century development of the West End.
The site of Aberdeen has been inhabited since about 6,000 BC. There was a settlement known to the Romans as Devana and identified as such in Ptolemy’s Systems Of Geography of 79 AD. They knew the rivers Dee and Don, which used to conjoin on the Queen’s Links, as the Deva and Devona. Some scholars derive ‘Aberdeen’ from the Pictish-Gaelic aber-devan, meaning ‘at the meeting of two rivers’. It is likely that Roman fleets used the natural harbour at the mouth of the River Dee (Deva) in preparation for their great battle of Mons Graupius against the Caledonians in 83 AD. Thereafter, Aberdeen developed as two settlements: the Royal Burgh (from the 12th century) of Aberdeen, which developed around the natural harbour at the mouth of the River Dee, and the Episcopal Burgh (from 1498) or Kirk-toun of St. Mary’s, later the Kirk-toun of Aber-don, which grew up around St Machar’s Cathedral and King’s College and later became known as Old Aberdeen. The two burghs did not become one until 1891.
The medieval township was well established, as an unwalled trading community, by the mid-12th century. Aberdeen was granted the status of a Royal Burgh by King David I (1124-53), with concomitant rights and privileges relating to manufacturing and trade. The effect was that Aberdeen was permitted a degree of autonomy in the conduct of its affairs, although it had to conform to the accepted mercantile and burgh law common to England, Scotland and northern France. The trading and other privileges of the older Royal Burgh of Perth were granted to Aberdeen. It should be realised that markets, fairs etc. could be held only by permission of the landowner or feudal superior. This meant in practice that trade in agricultural and other products could only take place in the fairs and markets of the Burghs, which became processing plants for the products of the rural hinterland. Trade outside the Burghs was banned. For the residents of a Royal Burgh, the feudal superior was the King himself. There were none of the usual feudal obligations to any local Earl or lesser landowner, but taxes were payable to the Exchequer.
The most powerful of the townsfolk were the burgesses, generally merchants and traders, who had commercial privileges, e.g., only burgesses could own and operate businesses, and also certain civic responsibilities. Most of the early burgesses came from Flanders, northern France, England and Lothian, bringing with them skills and expertise hitherto lacking in Scotland. They spoke many different tongues, but settled on English as their common language. The burghs became enclaves of English-speakers, and their use of English spread outwards to the surrounding hinterlands. In addition, the Royal Burghs, which were almost all east-coast seaports like Aberdeen, Dundee, Perth, Leith and Berwick, had a legal monopoly of trade with foreign countries; in return, the burghs were responsible for the collection of the duties levied on both imported and exported goods and for remitting these revenues, plus sundry rents, fines and tolls, to the Exchequer. The burghs thus became the main source of revenue for the kings of Scotland and, in consequence, the burgesses became men of national significance.
Aberdeen’s earliest extant Charter, detailing its privileges, rights and responsibilities, is that granted by William the Lion, grandson of David I, about 1171. In 1211, William the Lion granted his palace in the Green to the Trinity or Red Friars for use as a monastery. The Dominican or Black Friars and the Carmelite or White Friars settled in the same area, whilst the Franciscan or Grey Friars had their monastery adjacent to the Broadgate; hence various street and place names still in use in our own time.
The Burgh had become an efficient municipal organisation by the 14th century. Its first recorded Provost was Ricardus Cementarius, Richard the Mason, in 1272. The Burgh had a system of higher and lower courts and a Council drawn from the burgesses of the Merchant Guild of between 12 and 24 members and other officers, sergeants, treasurers etc. In practice, the Council became a self-perpetuating oligarchy dominated by the Menzies family of Pitfodels, successive members of which served as Provosts of Aberdeen for 114 of the 212 years from 1423 to 1635. Six members of the Menzies family were Provosts for a total of eighty-three years out of the 16th century alone; one such, Thomas Menzies, served three terms of office, the longest for the period 1547-75, totalling forty years. Aberdeen became something like a European city-state, with a single ruling family whose autocracy was, however, subject to the constraint of other burgesses such as the Rutherfords, Chalmers and Cullens. There was a degree of dictation from the Court and Parliament in Edinburgh and, occasionally, an attempt by neighbouring landowners like the Forbeses, the Gordons or the Setons to take over the Burgh or to seize some of its possessions. Substantial sums of what amounted to protection money were paid to these families, to keep them at bay. The Gordons of Huntly were by far the largest and most powerful of the local landowning families and it was to them that the Burgh looked for protection and support. There was a close working relationship between the (burgess) Menzies family and the (aristocratic) Gordons of Huntly, to the extent of intermarriage. In 1545, Thomas Menzies resigned as Provost to be succeeded by George Gordon, the 4th Earl of Huntly, the only peer ever to hold that office, albeit for a period of only two years.
But, for most intents and purposes, the Burgh was both independent and autonomous; the more so because of the grant to the Burgh in 1314 by King Robert I (Bruce) of the Royal Forest of Stocket, which became the basis of the Common Good Fund and guaranteed the Burgh a substantial source of revenue such as could finance significant investments and improvements thereafter. Another of the many benefactions from Good King Robert was the Brig o’ Balgownie, built at his order across the River Don in 1320 to facilitate trade with the lands of Buchan, Formartine and the Garioch. King Robert’s daughter Matilda married Thomas Isaac, the Town Clerk of Aberdeen, and his (Bruce’s) sister Christian latterly lived and died in Aberdeen. These things are indicative of the Bruce’s close relationship with, and affection for, the Burgh of Aberdeen and its citizens.
A Mint was established by the end of the 12th century, probably at Exchequer Row, which issued coinage in the forms of sterlings, groats and half-groats until the reign of James IV (1473-1513). A weekly Sunday market had been established in 1222, and an annual fair in 1273. The local economy was based on fishing and the processing of wool and leather. Aberdonian merchants travelled to England and the Low Countries, trading fish, wool and hides for wines, spices and other luxuries; similarly, they sailed to the Baltic for flax, timber, iron and grain. Aberdeen was an early member of the Hanseatic League, along with such other northern-European seaports as Bruges, Lubeck, Danzig, Riga and Novgorod. Until the Union of the Crowns in 1603, England was more-or-less closed to Scotsmen. The magnet for Scots seeking to earn a living in foreign parts was Poland, then a much larger country than now. Aberdonian merchants had well-established connections with its main seaport of Danzig, now Gdansk. One such was Robert Gordon (1668-1731), the founder of Robert Gordon’s College; another was William Forbes, known as ‘Danzig Wullie’, who went on to build Craigievar Castle.
Our notions of the older Aberdeen are based on the map drawn by Parson James Gordon of Rothiemay in 1661. The town had been much the same for the three centuries before 1661, and did not change much until the beginning of the 19th century. Parson Gordon observed that ‘the most considerable part of the city stands on three hills – the Castle Hill, St. Katherine’s Hill and the Gallowgate Hill’. Aberdeen in 1661 had a population of only about 5,000, and consisted of about sixteen streets, most of which had long back gardens which covered more ground than did the streets and houses themselves. As the population expanded, these gardens were themselves built on, resulting in considerable congestion and squalor, and were accessed by courts, pends and closes cut through the original house, e.g., Peacock’s Court in the Castlegate. There were regular outbreaks of plague, cholera, typhus, amoebic dysentery, smallpox, tuberculosis and leprosy. A leper hospital, first mentioned in 1363, was set up outside the Burgh on Spital Hill, but was in ruins by 1661. A town ‘scaffyngir’ (hence ‘scaffie’) was appointed in 1494, financed by a tax of 1d on each house or merchant’s booth or stall.
In Parson Gordon’s map of 1661, there were no houses westwards of the Den Burn, nor northwards of the Loch, no Ferryhill or Rosemount, no Union St., King St., Marischal St., George St., Market St. or Bridge St. There was the considerable elevation of St. Katherine’s Hill, so-named after the chapel on its summit dedicated to St. Katherine of Siena. The chapel was founded in 1242 but was in ruins by 1661. St. Katherine’s Hill sloped down to the Netherkirkgate to the north, Putachieside (Carnegie’s Brae) to the west and to Shiprow to the south and east. St. Katherine’s Hill was obliterated during the construction of Union St. and Market St; the Adelphi Court, built 1810, lies on its former crest. The only remnant of St Katherine’s Chapel is a 15th century red sandstone grave slab set in the north boundary wall behind No. 24 Adelphi. The name lingers on in St. Katherine’s Wynd, (adjacent to E&M’s), which descended from the Netherkirkgate to Shiprow. The circular route around the former base of St. Katherine’s Hill is still apparent in the curve of Shiprow, the Netherkirkgate and Carnegie’s Brae.
The Loch to the north of Aberdeen was fed by burns flowing in from the north and west and was the Burgh’s main source of fresh water; it also supplied three of the Burgh’s many mills, such as that at Flourmill Brae. Evidently more water was being abstracted from the Loch than drained into it, because Parson Gordon depicts it as ‘the Marsh formerly known as the Loch’. By 1800, the Loch had shrunk to about the area now covered by Loch St., and by 1838 it had disappeared completely. The area now known as the Lochlands became George St., Charlotte St., St. Andrew St. and John St.
In old Scots, ‘gate’ or ‘gait’ meant road. Thus the Castlegate, once known as the Marketgate, was the road to the Castle, perched on the Castle Hill. The Castle dated from about 1150. It is mentioned as being repaired in 1264, by Richard the Mason, the Burgh’s first Provost, amongst others. It surrendered to the English, under King Edward I, in 1296. But, in 1308, Robert The Bruce, with the support of the citizens of Aberdeen, finally ousted the English garrison. He razed the Castle to the ground to prevent its re-fortification by the enemy, and the Castle Hill itself was reduced in height. A chapel to St. Ninian was built there in the 14th century.
Much later, the Castle Hill was re-fortified by Cromwell’s army, under General Monck, during their occupation of the town in the 1650s; they used stone purloined from the buttresses of St. Machar’s Cathedral and from the Bishop’s Palace in Old Aberdeen; this activity resulted in the collapse of the Cathedral’s central tower and spire in the gales of 1688. A military barracks was built within these Cromwellian fortifications in 1794 and was thereafter occupied by the Gordon Highlanders. A military hospital was built on the adjacent Heading Hill in 1799; a cast-iron bridge, perhaps like the present pedestrian bridge, linked the Barracks to the Hospital. Sometime before World War Two, the old barracks were turned into tenement housing and degenerated into slums. They were demolished in 1965 and replaced by the present twin blocks of flats. Part of the old surrounding wall of the Hanoverian barracks is still to be seen on the south-east side of the Castle Hill, just up from Castle Terrace.
Castle Hill and Heading Hill were places of judgement and execution, as during the witch-burning frenzy of 1590-7. The name ‘Heading Hill’ appears on old maps, but seems to have fallen into disuse. Open-air courts were held in the hollow between the two hills, now occupied by Commerce St., whilst executions and witch-burnings took place on the ‘Heidin’ Hill’. The other main place of execution was in front of the Tolbooth, latterly facing down Marischal St. Although the Tolbooth – known satirically as ‘The Mids o’ Mar’, meaning the heart of the province of Mar – was the town prison, it had only limited capacity, and it cost too much to keep convicts in prison for long. So convicted criminals were mostly executed. The aristocracy were beheaded, by sword or, later, by Aberdeen’s own patent guillotine, the Maiden, last used in 1615; the blade is on display in Provost Skene’s House in the Guestrow. Common criminals were hanged. The Town Hangman was allocated a small, isolated house on what became known as Hangman’s Brae, which descended the Castle Hill to the present vicinity of Virginia St. and which presumably corresponded to the flight of steps to be seen there now. The office of Public Executioner was abolished in 1833 when the Council decided that it would be cheaper to hire such a person from somewhere else, as and when needed. In the event, the last public execution in Aberdeen took place in 1857.
Virginia St. was laid down in the mid-18th century on the reclaimed Shorelands, as were Commerce St., Sugarhouse lane, Water Lane, Mearns St., James St. and the lower end of Marischal St. Until then, the waters of the harbour had extended to the foot of the Castlehill at high tide. The name of Virginia St. refers to the expanding trade with the Americas, as does that of nearby Sugarhouse Lane.
The Gallowgate, from Broadgate northwards, steeper and more winding than now, was the medieval route to the then place of execution on Gallowgate Hill, also known as Windmill Hill, later as the Port-Hill because it was near the Gallowgate Port, one of the six gates or ‘ports’ allowing entry to the medieval town. Aberdeen was built on seven hills, like Rome, and the Port-Hill was the highest of the seven. From the mid-18th century until as recently as 1960, this site was occupied by the huge Porthill Factory, originally manufacturing linen cloth. The name, but nothing else, continues in the blocks of flats known as Porthill Court, opposite Aberdeen College. The Gallowgate is an extraordinarily historic thoroughfare, once compared with the Royal Mile in Edinburgh; all kinds of interesting and important things happened there, but one would never know to look at it now. There seems almost to have been a systematic attempt by the authorities to obliterate all evidence of past settlement, industry, architecture, history and culture. The Gallowgate of the present-day would scarcely look out of place in a run-down steel-making town in some remote and insignificant province of the former USSR; the wrong end of Ukraine, perhaps.
From the end of the 16th century until 1776 there was a gibbet on Gallows Hill, which overlooked the Links and, from the early 20th century, the Pittodrie Stadium, hence its later description as ‘Miser’s Hillie’ – it afforded a free view of the football matches. It was approached from the Tolbooth or Castlegate via the Justice Port, or Thieves’ Port, now Justice St., on which the heads and dismembered limbs of executed criminals were displayed. Otherwise, the bodies of criminals were covered in tar and left hanging in chains or in a kind of cage for years and decades, to discourage persons of similarly malign intent. Gibbets were strategically placed on the main routes into the town for the same reason – there was one at the Brig o’ Dee, for the benefit of those approaching the Burgh from the south.
Macabre as this may seem, the fact was that the medieval Burgh lived under a constant threat of attack by the Celtic warlords of its rural hinterland, such as the infamous Wolf of Badenoch, Alexander Stewart (1343-1405), who destroyed the towns of Elgin and Forres and burnt down Elgin Cathedral in 1390; also the rapacious Highlanders further beyond, to whom Lowland burghs like Elgin and Aberdeen represented wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. The citizens of the Burgh therefore had to maintain a high degree of alertness, watchfulness and military capability, as was evidenced by the Battle of Harlaw on 24th July 1411, which may be viewed as a decisive struggle between the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders and the Scots-speaking Lowlanders.
The citizens of Aberdeen were never Gaelic-speakers. (If they had been, Aberdeen might now be called Inverdeen.) They spoke Lowland Scots, albeit with a notably shrill intonation and an extensive vernacular vocabulary. Lowland Scots was a version of the Germanic language of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria, which for about 500 years extended from the Humber estuary to the Forth estuary, or from Hull to Edinburgh and beyond, from the 6th to the 11th centuries. Before this time, the Pictish people of N-E Scotland would have spoken a Celtic language best described as an early form of Welsh, hence the place-name ‘Aberdeen’. There are many place-names beginning with Aber- in Wales, none at all in Ireland. The Northumbrian or Anglo-Saxon language developed into ‘Inglis’ (English) and ‘Scottis’ (Lowland Scots) variants, which were distinct but mutually comprehensible. ‘Scottis’, or Lowland Scots came to be regarded as the authentic language of the people of Scotland. The real, Gaelic-speaking Scots, the Highlanders of the north and west, came to be referred to as ‘the Irish’ and their language, incomprehensible to Lowlanders, as ‘Irish’ or ‘Erse’. But the Lowland Scots dialect itself began to lose ground as a literary language from the 15th century, although it remained the spoken language of the common people. The advent of the King James Bible in 1611 served to standardise its version of written and spoken English in both England and Scotland. A Welsh version of the Bible was produced fairly early on, but Scots and Gaelic versions did not appear until much later, for the simple reason that there was insufficient demand; the Lowland Scots could read English easily enough, and there weren’t enough monoglot Gaelic-speakers to constitute a worthwhile market.
Thus in 1411, Donald, Lord of the Isles, led a force of Highlanders and Islanders eastwards, ostensibly so as to seize the Earldom of Ross, which he claimed in the name of his wife; but he was almost certainly at least as interested in sacking and plundering the Burgh of Aberdeen. That is certainly how the citizens of Aberdeen saw it. They marched out to do battle under the command of Alexander Stewart, son of the infamous Wolf of Badenoch, who had contrived to become Earl of Mar. At Harlaw, near Inverurie, the Highlanders were opposed by the fighting men of the north-east – the Irvines, Leslies, Keiths and Forbeses, plus Provost Davidson, the burgesses and men of Aberdeen. The invaders were eventually forced to withdraw, after one of the bloodiest battles in all the bloody history of Scotland. Provost Davidson was carried home on his shield to be buried in the Mither Kirk of St. Nicholas.
The Castlegate, Broadgate, the Upper- and Nether-Kirkgate, Shiprow and Guestrow were historic and thriving neighbourhoods from the 16th to the 19th centuries The old Castlegate was dominated by:
(1) The Tolbooth, dating from 1394, but rebuilt in 1615 and nowadays largely concealed by the frontage of the Town House, built in 1867-72 in Flemish-Gothic style.
(2) The New Inn, built by the Freemasons in 1755, visited by James Boswell and Dr Johnson in 1773; the Freemasons had their Lodge on the top floor, hence the adjacent Lodge Walk. The New Inn was replaced by the North of Scotland Bank, later the Clydesdale Bank, built in 1839-42 as the cornerpiece of Castle St./King St., now a pub named after its illustrious architect, Archibald Simpson.
(3) Pitfodel’s Lodging of 1530, the town house of the Menzies family of Pitfodels, a three-storey turreted building, the first private residence in Aberdeen to be built of stone after its predecessor was destroyed by fire in 1529. The Lodging was demolished in 1800 and replaced the following year by the premises of the Aberdeen Banking Co., from 1849 the (Union) Bank of Scotland. The power and influence of the Menzies family had long been in decline by this time, and their old motte-and-bailey castle at Pitfodels, a stone-built towerhouse, was in ruins. The associated earthworks were still to be seen at what became the entrance to the Norwood House Hotel until the 1970s, but not much is left there now. The family had, in fact, moved to Maryculter House in the early 17th century. In 1805, John Menzies, the last of his line, put the lands of Pitfodels up for sale (and also those of Maryculter, six years later) and, in 1806, purchased No. 37 Belmont St. (Lizars); this house had been built in the 1770s and thus pre-dates Belmont St. itself, which was laid down in 1784, well before Union St. In 1831, John Menzies donated his mansion and lands at Blairs to the Catholic church for use as a college, and moved to Edinburgh. He died there without heirs, the last of the Menzies dynasty, in 1843, receiving a spectacular Catholic funeral. Up to about 1715, the deceased members of the Menzies family were buried in ‘Menzies Isle’ within St Nicholas Kirk; thereafter in the Kirk-yard, but latterly at the ‘Snow Kirk’ in Old Aberdeen, just off College Bounds, where the Menzies family grave remains prominent.
(4) Earl Marischal’s Hall, dating from about 1540 and next to Pitfodel’s Lodging on the south (harbour) side of the Castlegate; this was the town house of the Keiths, the Earls Marischal. It had been the Abbot of Deer’s town house, but became the property of the Keiths following the Reformation. It consisted of a group of buildings surrounding a central courtyard with gardens attached. It is from this house that Mary Queen of Scots is believed to have witnessed the beheading of Sir John Gordon in 1562 following the defeat of the Gordons of Huntly at the Battle of Corrichie. Earl Marischal’s Hall was purchased by the Town Council and demolished in 1767 to allow ‘the opening up of a passage from the Castlegate to the shore (or harbour) and erecting a street there’, being Marischal St., built 1782. Before then, there had been no direct route from Castle St. to the Quay, and the growth of trade at the harbour made a new street absolutely necessary. Marischal St. was (and is) a flyover, possibly the first such in Europe, vaulting Virginia St. by means of ‘Bannerman’s Bridge’. It was also the first street in Aberdeen to be paved with squared granite setts, the first street of the ‘new’ Aberdeen, and it is the only complete Georgian street remaining in Aberdeen today.
Broadgate, or Broad St., was the main street of Aberdeen according to Parson Gordon’s map of 1661, lying as it did between the main route north, the Gallowgate, and the main (and only) route south via the Green, Windmill Brae and the Hardgate. The old town of Aberdeen never had a High Street as such, probably because St. Katherine’s Hill stood in the way of the most obvious route for a High St., from the ‘Mither Kirk’ of St. Nicholas to the Castlegate.
The young George Gordon, later Lord Byron, was born in London in 1788 and was named after his maternal grandfather, George Gordon of Gight Castle in Aberdeenshire; the child was brought to Aberdeen in 1790 by his mother, Catherine Gordon, after her worthless husband, ‘Black Jack’ Byron, had dissipated her inheritance, resulting in Gight Castle being sold to the nearby Gordons of Haddo. Mother and child lived in lodgings at No. 10 Queen St., then moved to No. 64 Broad St. Young George attended the Grammar School in Schoolhill until 1798, when he inherited his father’s brother’s title and returned to England, to continue his education at Harrow.
The construction of Union St. from 1795 and the development of the ‘New Town’ westwards of the Denburn encouraged the wealthy and fashionable to migrate in that direction, and the old or medieval town deteriorated throughout the 19th century. The Castlegate became squalid and dangerous, and was notorious for the number and brazenness of the prostitutes who catered for the soldiers in the Barracks and the seamen from the harbour. The congested old streets and wynds became filthy, infested, stinking and diseased. The courts and closes branching off the Gallowgate were described in 1883 as the dingiest and most unwholesome of any British town. Across the whole Burgh, there were still in 1883 some 60 narrow lanes and 168 courts or closes, of a breadth of seven feet at most. The average number of inhabitants per house was reckoned as 14.8 persons; in the St Nicholas Parish, the average was 16.8 persons per house. This level of congestion and overcrowding arose because the city’s population was expanding much faster than its geographical boundaries; from 26,992 persons in 1801 to 71,973 in 1851 and to 153,503 in 1901.
Much of the old toun was swept away in the major slum clearance programmes of the 1890s and 1930s. The Gallowgate, surmounted by the 15th century ‘Mar’s Castle’ – the town house of the Earl of Mar, demolished 1897 – was once compared with the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. Surely something better could have been achieved than the charmless ‘Brutalist’ Gallowgate we see today? Of the reputedly-haunted Guestrow (from Ghaist-Raw), the main remnant is the beautifully-restored 16th century George Skene’s House, long known as Cumberland’s Lodging following its requisition by the infamous Duke of Cumberland on his way to Culloden Moor in 1746. His troops were billeted in what is now Robert Gordon’s College, built 1739 to the design of William Adam, father of the Adam brothers, Robert and James, who are commemorated by the Adelphi Court, the name of which refers to dolphins – a classical symbol of brotherhood.
The Green is thought to be the oldest part of Aberdeen, perhaps properly ‘Green-gate’, meaning the road to the bleaching-greens the banks of the Den-burn; Aberdeen itself was perhaps originally ‘Aber-den’, given that seagoing vessels could come up the Den-burn as far as Patagonian Court. King William The Lion (1165-1214) was said to have had a Palace on the Green, which he later presented to the Trinity Friars, hence the Trinity Monastery and Chapel, and now, presumably, the Trinity Centre. There was a Carmelite monastery on the south side of the Green, hence Carmelite St. and Lane. But recent archaeological research suggests that the west end of the Green, close to the confluence of the Denburn and the River Dee, must have been marshy and waterlogged. The early or Dark Ages settlement must have been on the drier land at the east end of the Green, pressing up against the steep slope of St. Katherine’s Hill, looking eastwards to Shiprow and northwards up Putachieside to St. Nicholas Kirk. In such a confined space, any significant growth of population would soon have prompted a shift of activity and settlement to the higher and drier land of the Castlegate and Broadgate. Even now, the streets and wynds around the Green are characterised by very high, narrow buildings, reflecting the tiny medieval plots into which the land was divided. The Castlegate was certainly the main street and market-place by 1290, being referred to then as a forum.
Nonetheless, for fully six centuries on end, the Green formed part of the only route into Aberdeen from the south. Visitors, welcome and unwelcome, had to come over the Brig o’ Dee, up the Hardgate, down Windmill Brae, across the Den-burn and through the Green into the old toun. Then as now, the entry to the Green was narrow, but the street then widened out into a triangular shape. It branched off on the left hand into the wynd known as Putachieside and thence to the Netherkirkgate; whilst on the right hand, it led by way of Shiprow round the southern side of St. Katherine’s Hill to the Castlegate – the heart of the medieval Burgh.
But, once Union St. and Holburn St. were laid down, the Green, Hardgate etc. ceased to be the main or only route to and from the south, and went into a decline. It is easy to forget that a full half-mile of Union St., from the Adelphi to Diamond St., is an artificial creation – a kind of flyover – superimposed on a series of arches vaulting the streets and wynds of the old toun, and at a height of between 20-50 ft. above the natural ground level, which slopes from St. Nicholas Kirkyard down to the Green and the harbour, as did many of the old streets. Thus Correction Wynd and Carnegie’s Brae run under Union St; other old streets like St. Katherine’s Wynd or Back Wynd were truncated by it, or, as at the Castlegate end, like Narrow Wynd and Rotten Row, were obliterated altogether.
Narrow Wynd was more important than it sounds, and ran across the Castlegate to Shiprow. The famous Aberdeen Philosophical Society, the fons et origo of what became known as the Aberdeen branch of the Scottish ‘Common-Sense’ Philosophy and a major contributor to the ‘Aberdeen Enlightenment’, was founded by Dr. Thomas Reid and Dr. John Gregory, both of King’s College, and held its fortnightly meetings in a tavern in Narrow Wynd from 1758 to1773. The remnant of Narrow Wynd was demolished in 1867 to make way for the new Municipal Buildings or Town House.
The Upper- and Nether-Kirkgate were the roads ‘above’ and ‘below’ the Mither Kirk of St. Nicholas. The narrow street nowadays known as Back Wynd used to be called Westerkirkgate. The Upperkirkgate Port was the last of the six medieval town gateways to be demolished, sometime after 1794. It stood near the foot of the Upperkirkgate, just beyond No. 42, the gable-ended 17th century house which is still to be seen there now. The original six ports – solid walls pierced by gateways – had become an obstruction to the flow of traffic, having been in existence from the first half of the15th century. The other five ports were: the Netherkirkgate Port, controlling movement around the north side of St. Katherine’s Hill; the Shiprow or Trinity Port, checking entry from the south side of St. Katherine’s Hill and the harbour; the Justice or Thieves’ Port to the north-east of the Castlegate, demolished 1787; the Futty Port on Futty Wynd, to the south-east of the Castlegate, and the Gallowgate Port on Port Hill, controlling movement from Old Aberdeen and the north.
Aberdeen was perhaps at its most important, relative to the rest of the world, and as a centre of trade and learning, in the early decades of the 17th century. The population of the two burghs approached 10,000 in the 1630s; about 8,500 in New Aberdeen and 1,000 in Old Aberdeen. The Burgh maintained close links with the seaports of the Hanseatic League, of which Aberdeen was an early member, and their hinterlands of the Low Countries, Poland, Russia, the Baltic states and Scandinavia. Aberdeen was more open to European influences, to new ideas from the Continent, and was more diverse in its political and religious thinking, than were either Edinburgh or Glasgow. Aberdeen (Old & New) now had its two small universities and there was hardly a European university of note that did not have an Aberdonian professor. George Keith, the 5th Earl Marischal, had set up a new college in 1593, being Marischal College, on the site of the old Franciscan Priory, to teach a Reformed (Protestant) curriculum in rivalry to King’s College, (originally St. Mary’s College), which had been established by Pope Alexander VI (Borgia) in 1495 at the request of Bishop William Elphinstone (1431-1514). This reflected the post-Reformation decline in the standing of the Catholic Gordons of Huntly, the de facto protectors of the two Burghs and the real power behind the Menzies dynasty, and, correspondingly, the growing power and influence of the Protestant Keiths, the Earls Marischal, with their power-base at Dunnottar Castle; George Keith had been promoted to Lieutenant of the North by King James VI in 1593. But it was not until 1860 that the two universities of King’s College and Marischal College were united into the single University of Aberdeen. Through King’s College, Aberdeen can claim to have the fifth-oldest university in all of Great Britain.
The Reformation had not been welcomed in the North-East, where, as late as the 1620s, the majority of gentry families, led by the Gordons of Huntly and their close allies the Hays of Erroll, remained Catholics “in their hearts”. In Aberdeen itself, this was reflected in the succession of Menzies provosts. Even as their Gordon overlords slowly weakened, so, perversely, the Menzies family tightened its grip, although their policy on religious matters might best be described as pragmatic; Aberdeen was regarded as a centre of Episcopalianism rather than of either unrepentant Catholicism or radical Presbyterianism. By May 1638, Aberdeen was the only royal burgh still refusing, on the basis of loyalty to the King, to subscribe to the National Covenant, drawn up in Edinburgh earlier that year; but opinion amongst the townsfolk reflected the wider divisions within Scotland, between the largely Covenanting Lowlands and the Catholic and Royalist Highlands. Aberdeen was on the fringe of both territories and was too big a prize to be overlooked.
The outbreak of civil war between Covenanters and Royalists in 1639 was followed by a succession of invasions, occupations and lootings of the two Burghs by the rival armies, climaxing in 1644 in the three-days-long massacre of the unarmed and defenceless citizens of Aberdeen known as the Battle of Justice Mills, perpetrated by the Irish (Royalist) forces of the Marquis of Montrose. On a number of occasions the town became the battleground for the Royalists and Covenanters. About one-tenth of the population of Aberdeen died in these conflicts; another quarter died in the last but worst-ever outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1647, despite the desperate measures taken to exclude and contain it. The Marquis of Montrose was executed in Edinburgh in May 1650. One of his hands was sent to Aberdeen and was nailed to the front door of the Tolbooth. It remained there until July, when King Charles II, on his way to his Scottish Coronation at Scone and briefly in residence at Pitfodel’s Lodging, just across the Castlegate, observed the blackened and decaying object and ordered its Christian burial.
Scotland was effectively put under military occupation during the nine years of Oliver Cromwell’s British Commonwealth. General Monck’s troops arrived in Aberdeen in Sept. 1651, built their new fort on the Castle Hill, and did not leave until 1659. The destruction during the Covenanting Wars contributed to a decline in Aberdeen’s commercial importance. Aberdeen had accounted for 8% of all burghal tax revenues in 1635, but for only 4.5% by 1697. The city was badly affected by the widespread famines of 1695 and 1699; the population fell from about 7,100 in 1695 to 5,600 in 1700. It more than recovered by the mid-18th century, being estimated as 15,433 in 1755 and rising to 26,992 by the first census in 1801. As elsewhere in Scotland, it was the rural hinterland that was worst affected by the ‘Lean Years’ of the 1690s, mainly because of the lack of overland transport and functioning markets via which food could be imported, compounded by the lack of any saleable product that could be traded for food. In Aberdeenshire, population in 1755 had still not regained its 1695 level. These grim circumstances at the close of the 17th century prompted the belief that Scotland could never be economically self-sufficient, and had to obtain access to English markets. Thus the Union of Crowns in 1603 was followed by the Union of Parliaments in 1707.
Aberdeen’s relative decline in economic importance continued through the 18th and 19th centuries, mainly because Britain’s expanding trade with the Americas favoured west-coast ports like Glasgow rather than east-coast ports like Aberdeen, Dundee and Leith; also because of the Burgh’s geographical remoteness from the basic resources of the Industrial Revolution, being coal and iron ore.
The ‘Wallace Tower’ in Netherkirkgate, which set me off on these researches, had, as it turns out, nothing to do with the Scottish patriot, William Wallace (1272-1305), since it was not built until 1588. It was properly known as Benholm’s Lodging, being originally the residence of Sir Robert Keith of Benholm, the younger brother of the 5th Earl Marischal, and stood just outside the old Netherkirkgate Port – demolished about 1770 – at the corner of Netherkirkgate and Carnegie’s Brae; about where the M&S Food Hall is now. Carnegie’s Brae led down to the Green via Putachieside, so-named because the proprietor of Castle Forbes, then known as Putachie, had his town house there; it was latterly a particularly miserable street of slum tenements and was obliterated by the construction of Union St., and then of Market St. and Archibald Simpson’s New Market in 1840.
Benholm’s Lodging was a unique example of a Z-plan tower-house within a Scots town, and was one of only four 16th century buildings remaining in Aberdeen. It was demolished in 1964, along with part of the Netherkirkgate, to make way for the extended M&S store, and it is unlikely that I ever actually saw it. A replica building, incorporating some of the original stonework and features, was erected in far-off Tillydrone in the same year. This building is now empty, redundant, neglected and vandalised. The useful suggestion has been made that it should now be moved back to its original location in the heart of Aberdeen, or at least on to our projected ‘Civic Square’, where it would complement Provost Skene’s House, also of the time of Mary Queen of Scots and King James VI.
Contributed by Alex Mitchell.