As part of the celebration of Christmas, Aberdeen City Council erects a Christmas Nativity scene in St Nicholas Kirkyard. It is located on the grass area by the main path from the Union Street entrance. It reminds us that at Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The tableau also reminds us of the conditions which today would be classed as appalling and yet is still reality for many around our world. The bright lights, presents, parties etc. are another way of celebrating – but not the reason.
The Nativity Scene depicts the stable, with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, with the shepherds and wise men in attendance. This year the Blessing of the scene was organised by Aberdeen Churches Together in association with the Council. There was a short act of worship with the main participants being pupils from Aberdeen primary and junior schools gathering to sing carols, hear the Christmas story from the Gospel of St Luke and witness the blessing. Afterwards, they enjoyed refreshments in the Kirk of St Nicholas.
The photograph was taken last Christmas on a dark morning in the hope that the inside of the ‘stable’ would be clearly visible. Unfortunately, there is also some unavoidable reflection from the Perspex screen.
The Board of the OpenSpace Trust wish all our readers a very Happy Christmas.
Archibald Simpson was born on 4th May 1790, his parents’ ninth child, in a house on Guestrow, Aberdeen. Much of Guestrow was demolished during the slum clearance, but a plaque is in place on what remains of the road (parallel to Broad Street across from the Town House extension). At Aberdeen Grammar School Archibald Simpson was a contemporary of the poet Byron. At the age of 13 he went to Marischal College but had to leave a year later when his father died. At the age of 20 he went to London as an apprentice architect, later spending some time in Italy before returning to Aberdeen in 1813 where he opened his architectural practice in his old home in Guestrow. He moved the practice a number of times, to Union Street (where a fire destroyed all his drawings), Belmont Street and finally to Bon Accord Street. There are, or were, because some have been lost, many important buildings designed by Archibald Simpson in the city. The Assembly Rooms, now the Music Hall, is one of his prominent buildings, currently undergoing restoration. Others include The Old Royal Infirmary, St Andrew’s Cathedral, the Triple Kirks and the Athaneum.
Simpson also designed the East Kirk of St Nicholas in 1835. Following the demolition of the previous East Kirk, the new building was built and then dedicated in 1837. It is worth noting that John Smith, as city architect, disapproved of the design. The first photograph shows the building as it now appears, which is more or less unaltered from his day.
Archibald Simpson died when only 56 years old. He had been away on business to Edinburgh and then Derby. On his return he was showing signs of developing a fever. Over the next few days at his home at 1 East Craibstone Street, he rapidly deteriorated and died on 23rd March 1847 just one week after his return. He had been a bachelor, played the violin and was variously described as ‘a little, active man, always carrying plans under his arms’, ‘shy and retiring’ and having ‘a strong and eccentric character’.
As befits a man of granite, his grave in the Kirkyard at the Kirk of St Nicholas, is marked by a simple granite slab at ground level, close to the East Kirk building, as shown in the second photograph.
After the horror and desolation of Good Friday, today is the day when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Day. This is the foundation of the Christian faith, showing as it does the divine Jesus, that he is indeed the Son of God. Christians believe that through the sacrifice of Jesus and his resurrection, no matter what we do, it is still possible for us to be reconciled with God.
It is not easy to represent the resurrection. Often Jesus was shown as the Paschal Lamb. This is a reference to the Old Testament practice of animal sacrifice as an atonement for sin. So, Jesus is seen as the ultimate sacrifice. However, in many non-conformist churches an empty cross is often used to show that Jesus is no longer crucified and dead. The photograph is of a grave memorial in the Kirkyard of the Kirk of St Nicholas. It is an empty cross carved by the stonemason to appear as though it were made from tree trunks.
Today is remembered throughout the western Christian world as Good Friday – the day when Jesus was crucified. It has become one of the commonest themes for religious art over the centuries.
St Mary’s Chapel was built at a lower level in the middle of the 15th century to allow the expansion of the Kirk of St Nicholas above the valley of the Putachie Burn. It was used for a number of years by a group of ladies who focussed their devotion on the suffering of Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the time of the crucifixion. The photograph with this blog shows the right hand light of the window created by Aberdeen artist Douglas Strachan for the Chapel. This is half of Strachan’s first stained glass window. The image portrays the words in John’s Gospel chapter 19 verses 25-27 “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother …. When Jesus saw his mother standing there and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman here is your son’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother’. From that time on, this disciple took her into his home”. The image created by Strachan shows Mary, with a sad and forlorn look on her face, resting on ‘the disciple’ with Jesus on the cross looking down on them.
Bells have been used over the centuries at times of rejoicing, to warn of danger and in times of mourning. Most bells are located in churches where they have an additional use – to call the faithful to worship. With a known history spanning more than 8 centuries and its central location, it is hardly surprising that the Kirk of St Nicholas has a story to tell about its bells. Exactly when the first one was installed is not known. There certainly was one already there in 1351 when two new bells were added. They were dedicated to St Mary and St Laurence (the latter bell often known as ‘Auld Lowrie’). How they came to be gifted is intriguing. Tradition suggests that Provost William de Leyth [Leith] got into a quarrel with Baillie Catanach of Barkhill (near Berryden) which resulted in the death of the latter. In expiation for the crime, the two bells were given by William Leyth. The larger, Auld Lowrie, was about 4 feet across at the mouth and 3½ feet high, weighing about 4,000lb (1.8 tons). It must have been quite a feat getting it up the spire into position! Up to the Reformation it was only tolled on the anniversaries of the death of three successive chief magistrates, Fyffe, Roull and Davidson.
Auld Lowrie was recast in 1634 and continued in use with the other two bells until 1874. Additional bells were installed in 1794, 1802 and three in 1858 making a peal of eight. These were hung for change ringing i.e. chimed by swinging the bell using a rope. Complex permutations of sounding the bells, called changes are possible. These bells were sometimes used in this way and were reputed to have a very fine quality of sound.
The story of the drastic fire of 9th October 1874 was related in the Blog of 10th October 2015. All the bells were lost during the collapse of the spire. However, metal from the bells was recovered subsequently. Some was recast as bells, but some was used to make a lectern in the shape of a Pelican. This was used in the former East Kirk until 2004 and is now located in the West Kirk. The wooden stand is also made from wood recovered after the fire. It is shown in the accompanying photographs.
More than 20 months ago, on 3 April 2014, the post on the blog depicted the large and impressive memorial to Revd Dr William Guild in the Kirkyard of the Kirk of St Nicholas. During the summer 2015 extensive work was undertaken to repair any deterioration and restore the memorial to its original condition. The memorial is to Dr Guild and his wife, Kathleen, in recognition of the legacy left to the City of Aberdeen in general and to the Incorporated Trades in particular. It was because of the latter that, each year, the current Patron proposes a toast to their memory and this year in particular it could be announced that the Incorporated Trades had undertaken to fund the work on the memorial. The result is quite spectacular. To show the difference it has made, the original photograph is shown alongside one taken in December 2015. If you would like to see it for yourself it is difficult to miss! Enter the Kirkyard from Back Wynd, turn left and it is there. We are indeed grateful for the generosity of the Incorporated Trades for what they have done to honour the memory of William Guild, their first Patron.
In the centre at the top of the memorial the Arms of William Guild and his wife is displayed. Beneath is a long inscription in Latin. A translation, from a book published in 1834, gives the text as
“Consecrate to the most holy and undivided Trinity and to the pious memory of William Guild who being born in this town and educate there and from his tender years nourished in holy studies first was advanced to the cure at the kirk of Kinedwar [King Edward] and having discharged the same by the space of 23 years he was called in to this town by the magistrates thereof formerly having been made doctor of divinity and chaplane to king Charles and he served the ministerial function here by the space of 10 years thence he was translated to the king’s colledge where he sustained the burden of being primar or principal for ten years till affairs being troubled here his integrity did not escape the envy of these times leaving therefore that place he settled the repose of his old age here where he got his cradle Yet he was not addicted to idle slothfulness but by mouth pen and spotless life was exemplary to others The far greatest part of his ample and innocently acquired patrimony he bequeathed to pious uses His wife also devoted what was hers to the same uses He lived 71 years And upon the day 25 of July in the year 1657 in hope of a most wished for resurrection fulfilled his mortality and died Katharine Rowen his surviving but most mournful and afflicted widow caused this monument to be erected for her most beloved husband with whom she had lived 47 full years It is neither virtue to have begun nor to have done but to have perfected This Burial place such as it is consecrate both to the memory of her most deserving husband and for her own the afternamed Katharine Rolland caused to be built who obtained the crown of immortality 24 December 1659”.
The photograph for Christmas this year features four carved panels. These were gifted to the Kirk of St Nicholas by Alexander Yeats, Town Clerk depute at the time of the restoration of St Mary’s Chapel in 1898 for the decoration of St Mary’s Chapel. The subject matter is clearly that of the Adoration of the Magi.
The right hand panel features a standing female holding a young child in her hands. The lettering is rather indistinct, but carved in the upper background to the left is IHS and to the right M. IHS is a common abbreviation seen in many churches, which uses the first three letters of the Greek for Jesus, whilst, more obviously, M stands for Mary. Thus there is no doubt this is Mary and the baby Jesus.
The remaining panels feature the ‘three kings’. It is only Matthew’s Gospel which records the visit of these strangers ‘from the east’, and there is no suggestion there that they were kings. Rather they were likely to be astrologers or priests who studied the skies. The number three is used only because there were three gifts recorded by Matthew. Over the years tradition and legend has developed around them, even to the point of giving them names. In the photograph of the panels, the carved letters suggest that these traditional names can be identified for each panel. From the left they are:
RBFM – Rex Balthazar Ferens Myrrham (meaning King Balthazar bearing the myrrh)
RMFT – Rex Melchior Ferens Thus (meaning King Melchior bearing the frankinsense)
RIFA – Rex Iasper Ferens Aurum (meaning King Jasper bearing the gold)
Note that Jasper is now more commonly called Gaspar or Casper.
The exact history of these panels is still uncertain. They were reported, with drawings, to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1831 at which time they were part of a door in the parish church of Ruthven near Cullen in Morayshire. That same report suggests that previously they belonged to the Earls of Findlater, whose chief seat was at Cullen. If this latter report is accurate, then it is probable that the panels would, at some time, have been displayed in the ancient Church of Cullen, said to have been founded by King Robert Bruce (but probably older than that). In Cullen there has been a long standing cult of the ‘Three Kings of Cologne’. This was probably linked in some way to the removal of supposed relics of the Magi from Milan to Cologne by Frederick Barbarossa in 1164. There is a small but elaborate shrine in Cologne Cathedral said to contain the relics. In mediaeval times, Cullen was spelt Cullane – and so the similarity with Cologne becomes clearer and it could have given rise to confusion. There was also a mediaeval Mystery Play called ‘The Three Kings of Cullane’. To complicate matters there are three rocks in Cullen Bay knows as ‘the Three Kings of Cullen’, but their naming is linked to the death locally of three kings in battle not the biblical characters. Given these links and traditions, it would have been fitting for these panels to have ornamented the early church in Cullen. However, the true origin for the panels remains a mystery. Their style is European and would suggest an early date. This is consistent with them dating back to mediaeval times, perhaps in Germany, but nothing is certain.
The OpenSpace Trust wish you all a very Happy Christmas as we celebrate the birth of Jesus.
December 6th is St Nicholas Day. Last year we featured one of the stained glass windows in the West Kirk depicting St Nicholas and outlined what is known – and not known – about him. This year the photograph is of the stone boss over the crossing in St Mary’s Chapel. It represents the reverse of the City Seal made in 1430 and features St Nicholas, the patron saint of Aberdeen. The boss over the north aisle in St Mary’s Chapel features the front of this City Seal. It is the earliest known representation of the seal, apart from the actual seal itself, however the one in the north aisle is so badly eroded that no features can be distinguished today. Both these bosses are made of freestone and date from the mid-1400s when the chapel was built.
The particular story about St Nicholas depicted on the seal is that of raising three boys to life. There are variants on the story, but the essence is that the three boys were captured, killed and pickled. When Bishop Nicholas of Myra (St Nicholas) heard of this he had the murderer killed and brought the boys back to life again. Because the boss is worn, high up and the lighting is awkward, it is difficult to get a clear photograph of this particular boss, although some of the features do seem to be clearer than seeing it with the naked eye. The accompanying photograph is of the boss and shows St Nicholas, in the centre, dressed as a Latin bishop including a mitre on his head (rather indistinct at the top) and with his right hand either holding a crozier or raised in benediction. The boys, only two visible, are at the bottom left, surrounded by a structure, presumably the pickling vat, as they are restored to life. There are two other figures, one on either side of St Nicholas, which appear to have wings, so they are probably angels lending their assistance to the miracle. This miracle is one of those which Benjamin Britten included in his cantata ‘St Nicholas’ which he composed in 1948.
John Henry Anderson was born into a family of humble means near Kincardine O’Neil, west of Aberdeen, in 1814 and was orphaned at the age of 10. After working as a herdsboy and then a blacksmith he started working in a travelling theatre company when he was only 16. Here he started to develop his skills as a magician. At the age of 23 he performed magic tricks for Lord Panmure at Brechin Castle, who was very impressed and encouraged him in his career. So John Anderson decided to set up his own touring show which lasted for 3 years. He settled in London, opened the New Strand Theatre and was dubbed ‘The Great Wizard of the North’ by no less than Sir Walter Scott. Sometimes he used the stage name of Professor Anderson.
Not only was he an expert showman, he was very good at publicity and advertising making him one of the first magicians to achieve world renown, including a command performance for Czar Nicholas 1. He toured widely in Europe, North America, Australasia and Russia. His repertoire included many tricks and illusions covering a wide range. Some of these were his own invention, whilst others he took and developed from others. One of his most popular was to appear to catch a bullet fired from a gun. He is, however, given the honour of devising the ‘rabbit out of a hat’ illusion together with a number of derivatives from it, such as flowers appearing from his fingers and a goldfish bowl, complete with water and fish.
John Anderson died in 1874 a few months short of his 60th birthday. He was buried next to his mother in the St Nicholas Kirkyard. 1874 was also the year of the birth of Harry Houdini the famous escapologist who was a great admirer of the work of John Anderson. Indeed he described him as one of his inspirations. On a visit to Aberdeen in 1909 he visited the grave which had fallen into disrepair, so he made arrangements for its upkeep. The two photographs show the grave as it is today and a press photograph of Harry Houdini at the side of the grave after it had been repaired.