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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the most beautiful windows in St Mary’s Chapel depicts the ‘Betrothal of Mary’. The Jewish customs of two thousand years ago may seem rigid compared with what we are used to in the West today. These customs meant that the engagement was probably arranged by the parents, maybe without Mary or Joseph being consulted. There would need to be a contract, part of which would be the ‘bride price’ to be paid by the groom’s family. The contract was implemented immediately and was binding on the couple. In effect they were considered married, but what we think of as a wedding ceremony would not occur for a considerable time, sometimes up to a year, later. During their betrothal, the couple would have little contact with each other, in order to test their commitment to each other. When Mary and Joseph became engaged is not known. In their case the events of this ‘pre-consummation’ phase of their marriage certainly tested them, following Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus. The Bible tells us that Joseph was minded to break off the relationship, but was dissuaded by the Angel Gabriel.
The window was created by the Aberdeen artist Douglas Strachan in 1899 when still in his twenties. He studied at Robert Gordon’s College and Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen before working as an illustrator on newspapers in the north of England. He was persuaded to try designing stained glass. This window in St Mary’s Chapel is his very first commission (there is a later example of his work upstairs in the former East Kirk). He was prolific in his work with stained glass all over the United Kingdom and some overseas. By 1908 he had moved to live in Edinburgh from where he worked for the rest of his life. The University of his home city awarded him an Honorary Doctorate in 1923. His largest commission was for the windows of the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh Castle. He died at his home in Midlothian in 1950 at the age of 75 and is buried in the Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh. The window was restored as part of the Mither Kirk Project in 2010 following some damage due to vandalism.
In many churches, on a Sunday in early January, one of the Bible readings will have drawn attention to the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. That is the happening depicted here in a stained glass panel from the centre of the south-east window in the apse of St Nicholas’ Kirk. We see the Baptist pouring water on Jesus who stands in the river Jordan. The white lines above suggest the coming of the Spirit. In contrast to the birth of Jesus recounted (in quite different terms) by only two of the Gospels, all four Gospels draw attention to his baptism as the fundamental event for his mission and ministry in the world. Here his character as Son of God is declared and at the same time he is identified with sinful humanity. This is his epiphany or manifestation to the world to which the Spirit bears witness.
For Christians, their baptism marks their incorporation into the Church, often described as the Body of Christ, and testifies to the cleansing power of the love of God.
The window, erected in 1961, was the gift of, and commemorates, Charles A. Wilson, son, and successor in business of George Washington Wilson, the notable Aberdeen photographer of the Victorian era.
The maker was Gordon M. Webster, highly regarded and prolific Scottish stained glass artist of the mid 20th century. It may be of interest of some to know that, later in the century his son was for a period Professor of Architecture in the Scott Sutherland School of the Robert Gordon University.
The window was cleaned and repaired as necessary during the Phase 1 works in 2010-11 by Christian Shaw of Edinburgh.
In an earlier post (on 1st June 2104), we showed what had happened to one of the decorative bosses in the gallery of the former East Kirk when wet rot had destroyed the strength of its internal wooden structure. No-one was hurt when it crashed through the floor overnight, but there was concern about the safety of all the other decorative bosses, so they were carefully checked. One was found to be loose, so the decision was taken to carefully remove it. The first two pictures show an intact boss and a close-up of what remained after it had been removed. This was in an area which had already been treated for dry rot. On looking inside the small opening of the corbel, there was some concern that there could be some dry rot inside the plasterwork – but it was not possible to see enough to be sure. Complicating the matter was that nothing was known about the internal structure of the corbel. Obviously there would be structural wooden beams, which were supporting one of the main roof beams. If there were dry rot it could rapidly destroy the strength of the wood and so potentially cause a partial or total roof collapse.
The decision had to be taken to remove all the decorative plaster from this corbel so that any necessary treatment or replacement could be carried out. However, before this could be done, it was necessary to install some scaffolding to support the roof beam, just in case the wood had already lost its strength and it was only the plaster which was supporting the roof beam. Fortunately it became obvious that there was no dry rot, which was a great relief! Removing the plaster also revealed the internal structure of the corbel. This showed only two support timbers, resting on a stone protruding from the wall. One timber was vertical (the king post), whilst the other went up at a steep angle, far more steeply than the decorative plaster work would have suggested. The final photograph shows the exposed wood inside the corbel (with the support scaffold still partially in place). All the plaster was removed carefully and kept, so that it will be possible to reinstate the corbel when the interior build takes place, either using plaster or fibreglass.
In a previous post, we showed pictures of the dramatic effect that wet rot had on the structure of one of the bosses in the former East Kirk. This was caused by water getting in through the leaking roof. We have also had problems with dry rot. The name is slightly misleading since it too has a need for an increased level of moisture, but this is lower than with wet rot. Dry rot normally thrives with 20-40% moisture.
The fungus Serpula lacrymans is the main cause of dry rot. An outbreak starts with a spore germinating when conditions are right (often about 30% moisture). This develops thread-like hyphae which are capable of finding ways through stone and mortar as well as wood. A mass of hyphae forms a mycellium, which can look like grey fur (as shown in the first photograph). Growth of the fungus in wood rapidly destroys its strength so that it may no longer be capable of load bearing in a building. Eventually the fungus will produce a ‘fruiting body’ to release more spores. The hyphae can travel considerable distance from the original spore. One of the outbreaks we have had started inside the gallery structure and was first seen two storeys lower and about 20 feet away.
Often dry rot will start when a building is starting to dry out. This has been the case with the former East Kirk building, where there have been a number of outbreaks. The fruiting bodies can appear on wood or stone, as shown in the photographs. The first one shows a fruiting body on stone (above a window in the gallery).
The second shows it on some of the 17th century carved wood in St Mary’s Chapel. The orange colour is caused by the spores ready to be released.
Treatment is possible, but the sooner the better – so constant vigilance is required where there is a known risk.
For many years there were problems with rain and snow getting under the slates on the roof of the former East Kirk of St Nicholas. Historically, the roof had a very low pitch – 18 – and when it was given a slate roof after the fire of 1874, it would have required large overlap of slates to ensure no ingress in driving rain or snow. Over the years this led to a number of problems which had to be sorted out during Phase 1 of the restoration work.
In this post the focus is on one particular area on the north side of the building. The ceiling in the former Kirk has decorative plaster works, with corbels and bosses along the walls. The first photograph shows these structures. The wood inside the boss nearest the camera was, unknown to us, being damaged by wet rot caused by water running down the inside of the wall behind the lath and plaster.
During the Phase 1 works, the wood gave way and one morning it was found through the gallery floor as shown in the second photograph. It is fortunate that this happened overnight and that no-one was underneath. We will post about the actions we had to take later in the year.
With the new roof in place the walls are now perfectly dry, but are being monitored on a weekly basis.