All posts by Arthur

Two new videos

As part of the virtual Doors Open Day 2021 in Aberdeen we have produced two new videos, both about the use of St Mary’s Chapel as a prison during the witches trials in 1596-97. They can be found under the YouTube Video tab along with those of last year. We hope to continue to produce new videos on a variety of subjects.

The witches, dating from about 1596, in St Mary’s Chapel

Building the Crypt

A large quantity of human remains were uncovered during the archaeological excavation in 2006. Since then they have been the subject of a great deal of study and research, some of which is ongoing. However, the aim has always been to re-inter them within the building. This is easy to write but more difficult to do, not least because of the large volume the bones occupy. It is also important that wherever they are buried it is in a place where they will not be disturbed again. Our architect was asked to draw up plans for a crypt to be built below the floor level of the lowest level of the proposed 4-storey building within the shell of the former East Kirk, in other words below the lowest levels of the dig.

We were able to obtain funding from the Town Centre Fund, a Scottish Government initiative being administered locally by Aberdeen City Council and we are very grateful to them for this. Once all permissions were obtained the contract to build the crypt was signed with CHAP Construction of Westhill. Work was scheduled to start in March 2020 – just after the beginning of the first Covid-19 lockdown. Not surprisingly it had to be postponed, finally getting underway in September 2020.

Early stages of excavation

Getting deeper

The first and slowest part of the work was the excavation of the large hole required. This was about 25 feet long and 11 feet wide and went down about 7 feet. Special machinery was needed which required a new temporary ramp to be built to give access.

The base is put in place

The walls are built

Once excavation was complete, the concrete base was made, then the walls were constructed and finally a wooden covering with access hatch and internal ladder was put in place. Work was completed in November. A number of photographs, mostly taken from the ‘viewing window’ off Drum’s Aisle, are included to show progress.

A wooden closure was made

Finished crypt – seen from the opposite end

At present none of the bones have been returned to the crypt because they all require placing into special boxes before this can be done. That will take quite a long time to process. Eventually, however, it is intended that there will be a religious ceremony to mark the laying to rest of the remains once more.

Madonna and Child

The OpenSpace Trust wishes all our followers a very Happy Christmas and a successful New Year.

This picture shows one of four carved wood panels in the West Kirk of St Nicholas. It shows Mary and the baby Jesus. The letters carved are IHS – the first three letters of Jesus in Greek – and M, indicating Mary. The style of the carving is European and suggests an early date. It is thought that they date back to mediaeval times, perhaps carved in Germany, but nothing is known for certain about their history.

Restoration of the Hamilton Memorial

In February 2015 a post about the Hamilton Memorial in the St Nicholas Kirkyard showed two photographs taken 10 years apart. They showed the deterioration over the years. This post shows that it has been restored. The work was undertaken by the Aberdeen City Heritage Trust during the first half of 2018. The architect for the work was Aberdeen-based David Chouman and the contractors were specialist stonemasons Harper and Allan of Keith.

The Hamilton Memorial during the restoration work in spring 2018

The Hamilton Memorial as it was in 2015











The photographs show the memorial in 2015, work underway in spring 2018, the finished restoration and a close up of the plaque on the memorial. We are grateful to all who have been involved in this work.

The plaque on the Hamilton memorial

The Hamilton Memorial fully restored in summer 2018




Edward Raban, printer

Compared with many other important cities, printing came late to Aberdeen, and then through an Englishman. The place and date of the birth of Edward Raban are not known, but might have been in Gloucester or Worcestershire. He was a soldier, fighting against Spanish occupation in the Low Countries for a decade in the early 1600s and is known to have stayed on in Leiden around 1617-19 when he learned the printing trade.

He started as a printer in Edinburgh in 1620 and in the same year opened a shop in St Andrews. He was enticed to move to Aberdeen in 1622 by two notables – Sir Paul Menzies and Bishop Patrick Forbes. He set up a printing office on the north side of Castle Street, where he also lived, and was appointed as printer to the City and University. The City Council paid him a salary of £40 (Scots) per annum – and charged him the same amount as rent for his premises! He was particularly industrious, producing about 150 publications in about 27 years with, as far as can be told, only one assistant. All this was, of course, long before any mechanisation. Much of this output was for the University and the City, but in 1623 he produced his ‘Prognostication’ or Almanac, a collection of writing about the preceding year. This continued annually and became the Aberdeen Almanac which records a wide range of information.

Edward Raban retired in 1649 and died in 1658, being buried near the west wall of St Nicholas Kirkyard on 6th December that year. The exact position is not known, but there is a memorial plaque to him in Drum’s Aisle of the Kirk of St Nicholas, as shown in the accompanying photograph. It was erected in 1922 by the Guild of Master Printers in Aberdeen to mark the three hundredth anniversary of the start of his business.

Piper Alpha Disaster

Friday 6th July 2018 marks the 30th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster. On that fateful night the Piper Alpha rig exploded and caught fire killing a total of 167 men. No-one who was in Aberdeen at the time will forget that day nor the subsequent days. It is fitting that various memorials have been created for those who lost their lives. The Piper Alpha Memorial Garden is in Hazlehead Park where an Act of Remembrance will take place at 7 pm on 6th July. There is also a beautiful Piper Alpha memorial window in Ferryhill Parish Church.

At the time of the disaster the ‘Oil Chapel’ was being planned by the oil industry to mark the first 25 years of North Sea oil. This is in the Kirk of St Nicholas and naturally its design was influenced by these events. In particular the furniture, designed and built by Borders craftsman Tim Stead, features strips of native Scottish trees, the initials of which spell out ‘We Remember Yew’. This can be seen, for example, in the backs of the chairs (first photograph). Also in the Oil Chapel is a desk housing a book with the names of all those who lost their life. This is shown in the second photograph. The Chapel can be visited any weekday afternoon (between 12 noon and 4 pm) until the end of September in the Kirk of St Nicholas – entry by the main door facing Union Street.

Two of the chairs created by Tim Stead showing the strips of wood spelling out ‘We Remember Yew’

The memorial desk with the book which lists all those who lost their lives

The front of the notelet explaining the design of the woodwork

Also available is a notelet showing a chair, as shown in the third photograph. In the chapel’s stained glass window there are red (oil) and green (gas) ‘lenses’ representing various fields in the North Sea. There is also one clear glass lens commemorating the Piper Alpha field.

We will remember them.

St Mary’s Chapel Open Day

St Mary’s Chapel will be open to the public as indicated above.

Many of the features in the chapel have appeared in this blog over the years, including the carved wood, stained glass, grave slabs, vaulted ceiling, witches ring, enamel work font etc. It is truly one of the hidden gems of Aberdeen.

Entrance if free, although we always welcome donations. Access is awkward if you have mobility problems and involves steps both up and down. The entry door is at the top of Correction Wynd across from the side of the new TSB bank. It will be signposted.

The chapel will be open again on 11th August and on Doors Open Day (8th September). For Doors Open Day there will also be tours of the archaeological dig site at 11, 12, 2 and 3, conducted by Alison Cameron who led the dig.


Sir Alexander Anderson

Sir Alexander Anderson had a long and full life, being successful in many fields of endeavour. He was born on 10th June 1802 in Strichen to the Rev Alexander Anderson and his wife Helen Findlay. He was brought up in the manse in Strichen. His education was at Aberdeen Grammar School and Marischal College in Aberdeen, where he graduated MA in law in 1819! His apprenticeship was served in Aberdeen and in 1827 was admitted to the Society of Advocates. He formed a partnership with William Adam to create the law firm of Adam and Anderson. This was probably the best known law firm in Aberdeen of that time and Alexander was the senior partner. Amongst his early achievements was the reorganisation of the Aberdeen Dispensary (originally founded in 1781 and which later developed into the Maternity Hospital) and he became its treasurer for 32 years. He promoted Aberdeen Fire and Life Assurance in 1836, which evolved to become the Northern Assurance Company in 1848. Their offices at No 1 Union Terrace are a major granite feature at the junction with Union Street. He was involved in a large number of other projects in the city including the North of Scotland Bank, the Aberdeen Market Company, a number of gas and water undertakings and the City of Aberdeen Land Association. He was also pivotal in the creation of the Great North of Scotland Railway (GNSR), the inaugural meeting being held in the offices of his company. His ability to think clearly enabled him to guide the planning processes for GNSR, particularly the routes to follow, at a time when ‘railway fever’ was at its height and often led to financial disaster. This was avoided with the GNSR, although Alexander did have some other unfortunate financial ventures, such as the Illinois Investment Company and the North Bank, both of which failed with substantial losses being incurred.

In 1859 a whole new chapter in the life of Alexander Anderson started when he was elected Lord Provost, a role he filled until 1866. He was knighted on 13th October 1863 on the occasion of the unveiling of the statue of the Prince Consort by Queen Victoria. It was during his time as Lord Provost that the City Council created a new water supply, built a new sewerage system and acquired the legislation to build the Town and County Buildings in Castlegate. One historian has suggested that he single-handedly ‘projected Aberdeen into the modern age’. Quite an accolade.

He died on 11th April 1887 just a few months after his wife. His gravestone, which also includes his wife and other members of the family, is on the Back Wynd wall of the graveyard at the Kirk of St Nicholas. There is also a white plaque to him, not accessible to the public, on the North Pier light at Aberdeen Harbour – he had been involved in the extension to the harbour as well!

The Chauntry Stone

A chauntry (sometimes spelt chantry) is the word used to describe an altar or chapel created for the chanting of Mass for the soul of the founder. Setting up a chauntry would also involve a financial endowment to remunerate the clergy. By the early 1400s, there were more than 30 such chauntries in the Kirk of St Nicholas. Indeed, this was one of the factors leading to plans to expand the building.

The Chauntry Stone in Drum’s Aisle

One of these chauntries, dedicated to St Laurence and St Ninian, was founded by William De Leith in 1356. St Laurence (born in 225) was one of the elders of the church in Rome who was martyred in 258 by Emperor Valerian as part of his purge of Christians. By contrast St Ninian is first mentioned in the 8th century as an early missionary to the Pictish peoples in Scotland. His major shrine is at Whithorn in Galloway.

On the west wall of Drum’s Aisle is the plaque shown in the first photograph. It can be seen that parts of it appear to be quite badly worn, but it was part of that altar to St Laurence and St Ninian. The plaque has a richly sculptured stylised border. The central image shows a female figure with four children, some kneeling, and with what is probably an open book in front of them. To the right there may have been a cross, although this is now blank because it is reputed to have been defaced by Covenanters. Overall the scene probably represents a Mass taking place. The original altar was located in the extension to the south transept which William Leith had paid for that same year. This means that the original altar would have been near to where the main south door is today. The plaque was mounted on the west wall at the time of the rebuilding of the East Kirk in 1836.

The panel below the Chauntry

Underneath is a panel recording the origin of the larger plaque (second photograph), but these are now in a different place, so the relatives of William Leith are not under its present location as indicated on the panel.