Church Organs

Most churches of any size have a pipe organ, although, regrettably, their use is decreasing. There is some evidence that they were first used more than 1000 years ago. However, it was only in the 1500s when technological developments, initially in Germany, enabled the organ to be far more versatile so that it became a regular feature in churches. Organs are very versatile and can produce a range of different sound qualities, such as might be suitable to accompany a congregation or choir, during quiet meditation, before the service or as an exhilarating postlude as people leave. Indeed the organ has been described as a ‘one-person orchestra’.

Little is known of the music at St Nicholas Kirk, Aberdeen during the Middle Ages. However, the Burgh Accounts for 1437 indicate the payment of 26 shillings and eight pence “for blowing the organs” – well before mechanical blowers. There are also indications in the records that high standards of music and behaviour were expected from the chaplains and choir boys. For example, in 1533 the entire choir, apart from one aged chaplain, was dismissed! In 1544 John Fethy was appointed to “have charge of organ and sang schule”. The Reformation brought changes to church music and in 1574 the civil authorities ordered that the organ should be dismantled and sold for the benefit of the poor.  It seems that the latter part of the instruction was not obeyed because, two hundred years later, the pipework was found stored in St Mary’s Chapel.

The console of the East Kirk organ

This blog is the first of a series on the organs in the Kirk of St Nicholas. The first photograph shows the console of the former East Kirk organ. It looks complicated! However, it may become easier to understand with an explanation of how it works.

Stops on the West Kirk organ

In the centre are three manuals. Each manual is similar to a piano keyboard, although shorter. Each key is related to a note of a particular pitch, as with the piano. It is common for organs to have more than one manual – the normal is two or three, but large organs can have up to five. A note sounds for as long as the key is held down, unlike a piano where the sound fades fairly quickly. On each side of the manuals are the ‘stops’. These connect the keys on the manual to pipes in the organ to produce the sound. Different lengths of pipe produce different pitches. For each stop there is a rank of pipes each of different length to produce the whole range of notes. The material and structure of the pipe produces different sound quality and tone – such as sounding like a flute, an oboe, a trumpet, strings as well as the basic ‘organ sound’ called a diapason. These are named on each stop, but there is also a length marked on them. The ‘basic’ length is 8 foot (8’). If this is used it gives the same pitch as a piano. However, there are stops which indicate different lengths, such as 4’ (an octave higher), 2’ (two octaves higher) 16’ (an octave lower) and 32’ (two octaves lower). The organist can use combinations of stops which enable one key to play several notes at different pitch and by combining several different tonal qualities, a very wide range of sounds can be produced.

Part of pedal board

There is also a pedal board (not shown on the main photograph but shown in the second photograph). This is, in effect, the lower half of a manual but made of larger pieces of wood to be played using the feet. Most organs now have a concave shape to the pedal board to make it easier for the feet to move around. The organist uses both feet as necessary and can play using either their heel or toe.

It will be noted that there are other ‘bits’ on the organ console. Under each manual there is a series of white buttons. These are called ‘thumb pistons’ because they are most easily operated with the thumb whilst playing. These are replicated by the studs above the pedal board (called toe pistons). Their function is to activate pre-set combinations of stops, thus allowing the organist to quickly change the settings. Other buttons allow connections to be made between each of the manuals and pedals, so that notes played on one are also sound on the coupled manual.

The ‘pipes’ of the East Kirk organ

Finally, below the manuals, in this organ there are three larger tilting pedals. The two on the left are ‘swell pedals’ used to open or close louvre shutters which enclose some of the organ pipes. This is a way for the volume of sound to be increased or decreased by the organist whilst playing. The right hand of the three (shining in the photograph) is a general crescendo pedal; using it adds or subtracts stops to increase or decrease the overall volume. In the centre, above the top manual, there are indicators to show the positions of the swell and crescendo pedals.

The last photograph shows what most people think of as ‘the organ’ where the pipes are. The pipes which are seen in this case are dummies. All the actual pipes are behind the dummies, enclosed in the louvered shutters.


Carved corbels

St Mary’s Chapel was originally built as a separate building around the middle of the 1400s, with the intention that it would be used to support the church as it was extended eastwards over the valley of the Putachie Burn later that century. It was built with a stone vaulted ceiling. In such buildings where each rib of the vault reaches a pillar it is supported by a corbel which is keyed into the stonework to give it strength. The word corbel is derived from the Old French for ‘raven’, presumably referring to its shape being similar to a bird’s beak. Using corbels goes back to Neolithic times, for example Maeshowe on Orkney is built by corbelling the flat stones. By the Middle Ages carving the protruding stone of the corbel had become fairly popular. So it is not surprising that the corbels in St Mary’s Chapel have carved decorations. Apart from classical scroll shapes, common themes for the carvings include faces, animals and imaginary ‘beasts’. In many older churches, corbels depicted whole or nearly whole people, some doing ‘strange’ things or being grossly distorted. However, by far the commonest carving in St Mary’s is a stylised human face – but some of them are quite ‘crude’, whilst others are more realistic. All of them are different. Why this should be the case is open to some debate, but one suggestion is that each one may have been created by a different person. At the time the chapel was built the ability to carve granite was still being developed so some of them may still have been learning their craft. Whatever the reason, the photographs show some of the different faces to be seen staring back from the walls in St Mary’s Chapel. One of them appears to be a ‘green man’ with the head surrounded by leaves and on another there appears to be a hand below the chin. It should be noted that there is very little relief on some of the faces, so they are better appreciated ‘in the flesh’ than in photographs.






The Font

A general view of the font

The font in St Mary’s Chapel was made as part of the reordering of the chapel in 1898. The octagonal stone structure stands in the north aisle. It was erected in memory of Annie Margaret, Robert James and Emily Lisette, children of Robert Spottiswood Farquhar Spottiswood of Muiresk and was dedicated on 1st October 1898.

Around the top of the font are eight metal panels, four of which feature enamel symbols related to baptism. These were created by the distinguished Aberdeen enamellist James Cromar Watt. He was born in Aberdeen on 14th July 1862, went to Aberdeen Grammar School and then qualified as an architect. However, through a number of study tours he gradually moved into working in art and sculpture, especially using metal and enamel. His style embraced the Arts and Craft movement and was influenced by people such as Phoebe Traquair and fellow Aberdonian Douglas Strachan. He lived, as a bachelor, at 71 Dee Street where there is a plaque to him. He died in an accident on 19th November 1940. During his life he created many pieces of enamelled jewellery. Enamel is made by fusing powdered glass to a metal substrate at temperatures between 750-850ºC. The glass melts, flows and then hardens to a smooth durable vitreous coating of the metal. The photographs show the four medallions on the font. In order these are:

A dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit which came to Jesus at his baptism.


The combined Greek letters chi and rho (C R) which are the first two letters of ‘Christ’ in Greek.



A cross with the Greek letters alpha and omega (A W), the First and the Last.


Stylised Greek letters iota, eta and sigma (I H S) which are the first three letters of ‘Jesus’.


The table in the Chapel, also created in 1898, has two larger panels of enamel work by James Cromar Watt. These feature coats of arms related to Lady Elizabeth Gordon, reputedly the founder of the Chapel and her ill-fated descendant Sir John Gordon.

Good Friday

The events of Easter are at the heart of the Christian faith. This is because Christians believe that Jesus’ sacrifice of himself was the atonement for our sin. Good Friday is the day Christians remember the crucifixion of Jesus.

Given the importance of the Easter events, it is not surprising that they feature in works of art, many featuring in churches. In St Mary’s Chapel there is a beautiful window which has as its centrepiece the Pietà, shown in the accompanying photograph. The image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, cradling the body of her son was developed in Germany around 1300 and reached Italy by the end of the century. Michelangelo used it as the subject for one of his most famous statues (now located in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City) another century later.

  The central section of the window by Christopher Whall in       St Mary’s Chapel

The stained glass window in St Mary’s Chapel was made by Christopher Whall in 1899. He started work as the Arts and Crafts movement got underway and is widely recognised as one of the key figures in the modern history of stained glass. A lot of his work is in England, but there is a substantial amount north of the border. This window has been described as one of the finest Arts and Crafts windows in Scotland. It was commissioned in memory of Dr James Cooper a former minister of the church.

If you would like to see the window, St Mary’s Chapel will be open to the public between 10 and 12.30 on the second Saturday of each month starting in May and ending with Doors Open Day in September. You would be very welcome to come and see this small chapel dating back to the mid-1400s.

Broken Bones

Archaeology is not just digging up bones and other artefacts. Sometimes, it can throw up some interesting ‘whodunit’ questions. This post reports on just such an instance. The osteaoarchaeologist, Paul Duffy, while carrying out the detailed analysis of the bones uncovered during the archaeological dig in 2006, came across severe injuries on the upper left leg of a man. From the evidence he was aged perhaps in his early 30s. A view of the lower part of his femur, just above the knee, is shown in the first photograph.

A general view of the badly injured femur

The most obvious thing is major damage and breaking of the bone. Additionally there had been no healing of the fractures, which suggests that he died around the time the injury was inflicted. A closer look shows that there is a deep blade wound (shown in close-up in the second photograph).

A closeup of the ‘chop’ wound




This damage is characteristic of a ‘chop’ type of injury. This would also have severed blood vessels, muscles, tendons and nerves and no doubt there would have been severe bleeding. This man would have experienced extreme shock. Together these factors could well have been the cause of his death.

So how did this happen? The third photograph shows a different view of the same injury where the shattering of the lower part of the femur is more obvious.

The same bone from the opposite side

This would have required considerable force and would have come from behind. A ‘reconstruction’ is shown in the last photograph indicating that the injuries are consistent with a blow to the lower part of the upper leg. There is, obviously, no direct evidence, but it is most likely that the unfortunate man was attacked from the rear, perhaps as he was running away from a would-be attacker or a fight or battle.

A reconstruction of how the injury might have been inflicted


We are indebted to Paul Duffy for the detective work – and all the studies on the bones. No researcher was injured in the reconstruction! Paul is director of Brandanii Archaeology and Heritage, Bute, which can be accessed on Twitter and Facebook at present whilst their website is refreshed. The photographs are copyright Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections and are used with permission.

James Kidd DD


Drawing of James Kidd

How things have changed! This is a brief account of the life of Revd Dr James Kidd (pictured) who was born on 6 Nov. 1761.

He was the youngest son of poor parents from Loughbrickland in County Down. His father died soon after his birth, following which the family moved to County Antrim where a friendly farmer paid for his school education. Later Kidd had sufficient means from running his own school, to go to Belfast to study English. He married Jane Boyd and in April 1784 they emigrated to Pennsylvania where he taught and also studied at Pennsylvania College. It was during this time that he chanced to see a written Hebrew character which started a new chapter in his life. He bought a Hebrew Bible, and with the help of a Jewish friend and by attending a synagogue he acquired fluency in Hebrew. At this time it was called Oriental Language and became his favourite subject. In 1792 he returned to Edinburgh University reading chemistry, anatomy, and theology, whilst earning money by teaching extra-collegiate classes in Oriental Language. In the autumn of 1793 he was appointed Professor of Oriental Language in Marischal College, Aberdeen, where he completed his theological qualifications and was licensed as a preacher by the presbytery of Aberdeen on 3 Feb. 1796. He was appointed evening lecturer in Trinity Chapel in the Shiprow. Then on 18 June 1801 he left Marischal College to become minister of Gilcomston Chapel of Ease where he stayed until his death on Christmas Eve 1834. During these years he took up the Abolitionist cause, founded the first Sunday School in Aberdeen and advocated the temperance movement. In October 1818 the College of New Jersey conferred on him the honorary degree of D.D.

His preaching was powerful and popular, reputedly to congregations of up to 2,000. But he was also a very forceful character who was not averse to being controversial. A source suggests he was an ‘Ian Paisley-like’ personality. One story told of him is that during one particular service a man wearing a distinctive red waistcoat fell asleep. The command came from the pulpit “Waken that man”. He was roused – for a while, but on falling asleep again there was a second reprimand from the pulpit. The third time, Dr Kidd picked up a small Bible which was to hand and threw it, accurately, at the sleeper – adding the words “Now, sir, if you will not hear the word of God, you shall feel it!” Dr James Stark published a biography of him in 1898. Dr Kidd had published a number of religious books.

The grave of James Kidd beside the main path in St Nicholas Kirkyard

He is buried in the Kirkyard at the Kirk of St Nicholas Uniting. It would be easy to walk past his grave (shown in the photograph). It almost overhangs the central path from Union Street on the right hand side. The inscription for Dr Kidd is on the vertical face at the side of the path.  In the recent SPECTRA 2017, there were illuminated ‘spiders’ around there. One can only imagine what he might have said!!







The Witches’ Ring


In the last few years of the 16th century there was great concern about the presence of witches in society. In part this arose because the king had written a book about it, but there had also been some poor harvests and various epidemics, so witches were convenient scapegoats. Aberdeen did not escape this hysteria where the first ‘witch’ was arrested in 1596. He was John Gordon, sometimes known as Williamson, and was imprisoned in the vault of St Nicholas Kirk on the charge of being ‘a manifest and open witch’.

The witches’ ring mounted in the wall of St Mary’s Chapel

It seems strange today that part of a church building should be used as a prison. The vault is now known as St Mary’s Chapel and had been built nearly 150 years earlier and dedicated to St Mary, the mother of Jesus. After the Reformation in 1560, the worship of Mary was no longer considered a suitable part of the new church practice. Thus, this part of the building became redundant and other uses had to be found for it. Over the years there were many, with its use as a prison being one. The spire of the Kirk was also used to house witches.

Part of the account for burning Isobel Cockie as recorded in the Guildry Accounts



A surprisingly large number of people were accused of witchcraft. In total 80 were put on trial; 72 were found guilty of which 26 were executed and 8 were branded. All this information is included in the Guildry Records of Aberdeen which are held in the City Archive. These are remarkably complete and have received UNESCO recognition for their importance. The records about the witches are extensive, with full details of each trial and any subsequent execution. To assist with their imprisonment, an iron ring together with appropriate shackles was purchased, fitted into the wall of St Mary’s Chapel and used to chain the witches. The cost for this is also included in the written records. The first photograph shows the ring, which can easily be overlooked as it is relatively insignificant. The records of each execution itemise the price of each material used in the burning, such as the stake, the pitch, the rope etc. Gruesome reading! Part of these hand written records are shown in the second photograph which records the cost for burning Isobel Cockie. Perhaps it is worth noting that the witches were executed before burning.

BBC cameraman filming a page from the Guildry Accounts in St Mary”s Chapel

BBC Scotland did a short report about the records last June (accessible at and the current (January/February 2017) issue of the magazine History Scotland has a two page article about the history of the building and the witches’ trials. During the filming by the BBC, reporter Fiona Stalker took a few photographs. The third photograph shows the filming of the archive document in St Mary’s Chapel. This is just Volume 1 of the Guildry Accounts. What is not shown is that the accounts for the costs of burning are signed off by the Provost of the day, Alexander Rutherford. Also in St Mary’s Chapel is the ‘Provost’s loft’ created less than a decade later by the same Alexander Rutherford when he was again Provost (see blog of 18th February 2014 to learn more about him and to see the panel with his name on).

Thanks to Martin Hall, City Archives, for some of the detailed information and the photograph of part of the records.

Elizabeth Duthie

Lady Elizabeth Crombie Duthie of Ruthrieston was born in 1818 to Alexander Duthie. Her father was a member of the wealthy family of merchants, ship owners and ship builders. She inherited considerable sums from her uncle Walter and brother Alexander Duthie, who had both been in the legal profession. In their memory she was determined to do something to benefit the people of Aberdeen. Therefore, in 1880 she purchased the 44 acre estate of Arthurseat by the banks of the River Dee for £30,000 and gave it to the City of Aberdeen to be developed into a park. The estate, on the north bank of the River Dee, was marshy ground covered with gorse and was traversed by a street, Sycamore Place. In the language of the day it was determined that the park be “available for all classes of citizens, that it should have a broad expanse of grassy sward upon which the young might indulge in innocent frolic and play…”. The work of designing the park was given to William R McKelvie of Dundee. Work progressed quickly with the first sod cut on 27th August 1881. The official opening of Duthie Park on 27th September 1883 was performed by HRH Princess Beatrice, substituting for her mother Queen Victoria who was recovering from an accident. Many of the original features of the park remain today, although they have evolved with time. Perhaps the best loved are the Winter Gardens, now known as the David Welch Winter Gardens. The original glass houses were opened in 1899. Today’s glasshouses were built following severe storm damage in 1969. They house the second largest collection (after the Eden Project) of bromeliads and giant cacti in the UK.

The memorial to Elizabeth Duthie in St Nicholas Kirkyard

Elizabeth Duthie died on 30th March 1885 at the age of 67. Her substantial memorial in the Kirkyard at the Kirk of St Nicholas is shown in the photograph and has the epitaph “Her best and most enduring memorial is the park she gave to her fellow citizens”. The memorial also records other members of her family. There is a less obvious memorial to her in Duthie Park. In recognition of her contribution to the city, the council erected the ‘Hygeia Statue’, which was unveiled in 1897. The four lions around the plinth of the statue are supposed to represent the strong citizens in the park whilst Hygeia is the Goddess of Health, shown holding a cup from which a snake drinks (a symbol linked with various health related professions). There is a third memorial to Elizabeth Duthie in the city – a plaque outside 34 Maberly Street where she lived. The original house was demolished fairly recently. A portrait of her, painted in the year she died, is owned by Aberdeen Art Gallery.

Christmas 2016

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

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.