There was an early flourishing of music in the church in Aberdeen with an organ, a ‘sang schule’ and a master of music. After the Reformation and the removal of the organ in 1574, there was a brief flourishing of singing and music in the church before they went into decline.
The present West Kirk has only existed since 1755. It was in that year that a choir, which had been formed in the shire, came to give a demonstration in St Nicholas. However, the Kirk Session strongly disapproved of the performance and forbade “in all time coming” the introduction of new tunes! That decision, however, did not apply to the East Kirk congregation who, in 1823 produced their own hymnbook, with the music written for four-part singing. Times changed and just sixteen years later in 1839, the West Kirk had produced its own hymn book. There were still no organs in either sanctuary.
It was not until the 1870s that the congregations started to seriously think about having an organ. In 1878, a survey of the West Kirk congregation indicated that a majority were in favour of the introduction of an organ. As a result, they approached Henry Willis, one of the leading British organ builders, to make suggestions. His offer to build a two-manual instrument for £670 was accepted. It was opened on Easter day, 1880. The original instrument was smaller than the present one and is shown in the first photograph. The console was built into the organ case and it used a ‘tracker action’ (this will be explained in the next blog). A series of modifications were made and then it was rebuilt and enlarged by the same firm in 1927, now using an electric mechanism and having the console moved to the side of the gallery. The pipes are at the back of the Civic Gallery (at the east of the sanctuary), with the console just to the south. The present console is shown in the second photograph. It is a lovely instrument with a very clear tone. Throughout the 20th century singing was an important part of the worship with a large choir performing major choral works on a regular basis.
Robert Gordon (1668-1731) was the only son of Arthur and Isabella Gordon and grandson of Robert Gordon of Straloch, an early Scottish cartographer. Arthur Gordon was a well-respected advocate in the Edinburgh Courts, but died when Robert was just 12 years old, leaving him 20,000 merks (worth about £1,100 at the time). When he reached the age of 16, he became a Burgess of the City of Aberdeen enabling him to become a merchant in the town. In 1689, at the age of 21, he graduated in Arts from Marischal College then left Aberdeen to travel around Europe, eventually settled in Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland). There he established a merchant trader business and over several decades was very successful and became sufficiently wealthy to make substantial donations to Marischal College and low-interest loans to Aberdeenshire landowners.
Exactly when he returned to Aberdeen as a very wealthy man is not recorded, but it was before 1720. A bachelor, he had no heirs so decided to found “a hospital for maintenance, aliment, entertainment and education of young boys” and started work on this just before his death (a ‘hospital’ was a boarding school). It was quite some time before the school actually opened. The building was completed in 1743, but before it opened was taken over by the Duke of Cumberland as a barracks for the Hanoverian troops sent to put down the Jacobite rising in 1746. It was not until 1750 that his wish finally came to fruition and the first students were admitted. Over time there have been two significant developments. It embraced secondary education and also became a day school in 1881, being known as Robert Gordon’s College. Then, from 1903, it introduced technical subjects, many as night school classes. These professional and technical subjects, led eventually to the Robert Gordon University in 1992.
Robert Gordon himself is buried within the Kirk of St Nicholas, although exactly where is not known. However, the close proximity of Robert Gordon’s College and the Kirk meant that there have been close links over the centuries. This has been recognised in the panel on the front of a section of the gallery in the West Kirk (shown in the photograph). The College continues to use the West Kirk for services. In 1934 the College held their first annual Founder’s Day to celebrate their benefactor. Originally these were held in April, but in the year 2000, marking the 250th anniversary of the opening of the school, Founder’s Day was moved to September. Each year there is a service in the Kirk of St Nicholas, this year on 21st September, during which pupils place wreaths on the memorial to Robert Gordon just inside the main south entrance to the Kirk. The photograph shows the memorial with the wreaths following Founder’s Day last year.
In the earlier blog on 20th July, the former East Kirk organ was used to illustrate the basic working of a church organ. More than a century ago, the first organ of recent time in the East Kirk was a two-manual instrument built in 1887 by Wadsworth Bros of Manchester. This was enlarged to three manuals by the local firm of EH Lawton in 1902. Ernest Henry Lawton was born in Sheffield and after serving his apprenticeship worked for Wadsworth’s for 9 years before setting up on his own business in Merkland Road East in Aberdeen in 1898. The three-manual organ of 1902 was never deemed satisfactory and by the 1930s was regarded as worn out. During the reordering of the East Kirk interior in 1936 a new organ was purchased from the Compton Company. This has three manuals and 69 stops being built on the ‘extension principle’. This method of construction uses an extended range of pipes of a particular sound type (called a rank) to produce the sound for 16, 8, 4 and 2 foot stops. This design was particularly useful where there was insufficient space to house the large number of pipes needed in a conventional design.
Apart from the console, the working parts of a Compton organ are in two sections. One is the actual pipes which produce the sound. In the East Kirk these are located at the back of the gallery. The other is the electrics which operate the extension principle, which for the East Kirk organ are located in the tower. Also in the tower is the blower which produces the air for operating the pipes. A few photographs are included with this blog to show some of the hidden ‘works’ of the organ. It can be seen that the shape and material used to make the pipes differ. These produce different sound qualities. Within a ‘rank’ of similar pipes, the different lengths produce the different pitches – the shorter the pipe the higher the pitch. Other photographs shows some of the panels of electrics in the tower. They are almost a work of art in themselves! The blower is a large fan driven by an electric motor – in days gone by the air would have been produced by a person pumping the bellows.
The redevelopment of the interior of the former East Kirk as part of the Mither Kirk Project gave the OpenSpace Trust a series of dilemmas. Indeed, to allow the archaeological dig in 2006 the console had to be removed and all the connections between it and the tower removed. So at present it can no longer be played unless major work was carried out. Reluctantly, the OpenSpace Trust made the organ available to anyone who could offer it a new home and restore it to playing order once again. We are really pleased to say that, towards the end of September, it will be dismantled and taken to Dorset where a new life awaits. It served services in the East Kirk for 70 years and in the future it will be able to lead music once more in a new setting.
In the blog on 10th June, shown were some of the corbels in St Mary’s Chapel which have faces carved on them. However, there are other carved corbels, where there is less certainty about what they depict. The photograph shows one, traditionally known as ‘the rat’, because it was thought to depict a rat. Certainly when it was carved, in the mid-15th century, rats would have been commonplace, but so too would other animals. With nothing written down and with the stone slightly eroded, it is difficult to be certain.
When visitors have been looking at the rat, a number of suggestions have been made. One which seems quite plausible is that it shows an otter – it has that characteristic semi-squatting pose and has a fairly thick tail. What do you think? We will be open next on Doors Open Day (9th September) between 10 am and 4 pm when you can see it in three dimensions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.