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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
There are two stained glass windows in St Mary’s Chapel which record the crucifixion and death of Jesus.
This window is the right hand light of the window of the south aisle of the Chapel and shows Mary, his mother grief-stricken together with ‘the disciple who Jesus loved’ with Jesus on the cross in the background. The window was created in 1900 by Douglas Strachan and was the first stained glass window at the start of a distinguished career.
In 1801 an Act of Parliament allowed Aberdeen to build two new roads – King Street and Union Street. Planning of Union Street had started around 1794, but it was a big project which faced many challenges. These included removal of St Katherine’s Hill and building the stretch from the Adelphi as far as Diamond Street on massive brick arches with Union Bridge over the Denburn linking the two ends together.
The Kirkyard of St Nicholas Kirk had followed a slope down towards the Green. Erecting the brick arches raised the ground level. The Kirkyard was extended southwards in 1819. There was a period when there was open ground onto Union Street, which started being used for events not really fitting for a Kirkyard. To counter this, the City commissioned its City Architect, John Smith, to design and build a colonnade to separate the two in a tasteful manner and to provide an impressive entrance to the Kirk.
John Smith was born in 1781 and trained as an architect in Aberdeen and London. At the age of 26 he was appointed Superintendent of Works for the City (the title was later to be changed to City Architect). He designed many fine buildings still in use today. For the colonnade, Smith took inspiration from the Hyde Park Screen in London which had been built a decade earlier by Decimus Burton.
The photograph shows the colonnade, sometimes referred to as a screen. It has a central wide and high archway flanked by double Ionic columns. To both sides there are six smaller columns mounted on a low wall with iron railings between. At either end are massive pylons which anchor the whole structure. Smith used granite from the Dancing Cairn quarry. The quarry closed in the 1960s and is now largely under the Auchmill Golf Course between Heatheryfold and Bucksburn. The stone is a light grey-silver granite and was also used in making Aberdeen Adamant paving stones. The colonnade was completed in 1829.
Nowadays it is partly hidden by bus shelters and by the trees just behind it in the Kirkyard. However, in 2015 Aberdeen Inspired applied to install lighting on the colonnade. One of their publicity pictures is shown in the second photograph. The new lighting, which is very discrete, was working by 2016.
The second of February is celebrated in many churches as Candlemas. Where does the name come from and what is being celebrated?
At the time of Jesus’ birth, there were strict requirements placed on parents following the birth of a child. The first of these, if it was a boy, was circumcision at 8 days old. This was spelled out in the Torah – the Hebrew scripture. In the Bible it is in Genesis chapter 17 verse 12 and repeated in Leviticus chapter 12 verse 3.
The second requirement was that the mother had to be ‘purified’ as she was classed as ‘unclean’ until this ritual was performed. When this took place depended on whether the child was a boy or a girl. If it was a boy it was at 40 days, if a girl at 80 days, after the birth. This ritual was carried out in the Temple in Jerusalem, with the appropriate offerings for sacrifice. The details are spelled out in Leviticus chapter 12 verses 1 to 8. A second ritual being performed that day was the dedication of the first-born to God. Exodus chapter 13 verse 2 states that every first born, including animals, was to be dedicated to God. So Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to dedicate him. That answers the question of why there is a celebration on 2nd February – it is 40 days (inclusively) after Christmas Day. The nature of the celebration takes a little longer to explain.
When the family went into the temple they encountered two people, Simeon and Anna, who are mentioned in Luke’s Gospel. There is very little about Anna, other than that she was a widow, very devout and very old. Simeon appears to have been a priest and he had a conviction that he would see God’s salvation before he died. As soon as he saw the baby, he recognised that here was the fulfilment of God’s promise. He then spoke what we now call the Nunc Dimittis (the name is simply the first two words as written in Greek). In it he said that the baby Jesus would be ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’. Light was produced using oil lamps and later using candles. That is where the term Candlemas comes from.
In St Mary’s Chapel one section of the large stained glass window in the apse, shown in the photograph, depicts the scene, but with a level of ‘artistic licence’. Mary and Joseph are presenting Jesus to the priest in his robes. Interestingly, Joseph is carrying a little cage with two birds in it. The details of the sacrifice given in Leviticus chapter 12 verse 6 is for an offering of a lamb and a young pigeon or dove. However, verse 8 of the same chapter indicates that if the family cannot afford a lamb, a second pigeon or dove may be substituted. Luke’s Gospel states the offering made was of two birds, indicating that Joseph was a poor man. The window has a stylised colonnade, with two people looking on. These are Simeon and Anna, seeing the child being offered to God. The scroll below says ‘To present Him to the Lord’.
Some recent posts have described the three pipe organs located within the Kirk of St Nicholas over recent decades. To complete the picture of musical instruments in the building, this post deals with a harmonium (also called a reed organ) located in St Mary’s Chapel.
Harmoniums were developed from the late 18th century, reaching their peak around 1900. They work by causing thin pieces of metal, held in a frame, to vibrate by passing air over them. The piece of metal is called a reed, hence the name of this type of organ. The pitch of the sound is defined by the length of the reed, whilst different tones and volumes can be produced by using different shapes of reed, angle of air impact and by surrounding the reed in a tone chamber. Traditionally the air flow is produced by the player using two foot treadles, like an old fashioned sewing machine, to operate bellows. Some larger instruments also have hand operated bellows, worked by an ‘assistant’. A second type sucks the air over the reed rather than blowing it. In general this produces a softer, quieter sound, making it more suitable for home use. As with a pipe organ, the harmonium is played from a keyboard, each key allowing air to pass over one reed. A range of stops is used to produce the different sound qualities desired, as with the pipe organ. With some instruments the volume can be altered using a knee-operated air valve.
Harmoniums are relatively easy to transport and are more robust than a piano. They are also less complex and so many churches could afford them whereas a pipe organ was beyond their financial resources. Many are still in use in this context. Smaller harmoniums are also widely used in Indian and folk music.
The instrument in St Mary’s Chapel has a single manual and range of stops, and is ‘blown’ using two foot treadles. It is shown in the first photograph. Until fairly recently it still worked, but of late has ceased to do so, probably because the leather in the bellows needs replacing – a common problem with time! Looking at the photograph, it is possible to see that there is something at the front of the left hand treadle. This is a small notice to say the mechanism is patented ‘mouse proof’! The knee crescendo levers are just visible above the treadles under the keyboard.
On the harmonium is a plaque, shown in the second photograph. It commemorates John MacDonnell Nisbet, who died in 1935. He became organist of the East Kirk in 1890 at the age of 33 and served for 45 years until his death – a remarkable achievement and a sign of great dedication. He also taught music to trainee teachers and lived for some time in Union Grove, later moving to Carden Place. Not only did he serve the congregation and choir faithfully, he was involved in wider church music, serving as a member of the committee responsible for producing the Revised Church Hymnary, published in 1927. Included in that book is a hymn tune called ‘Carden Place’ written by John Nisbet, shown in the third photograph.