The Colonnade

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 colonnade in September 2016.

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.

The colonnade at night with one of the many lighting options showing

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.

The presentation of Jesus in the Temple when 40 days old. Part of a window in St Mary’s Chapel.

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.

The harmonium in St Mary’s Chapel

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.




Plaque commemorating John Nisbet



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.

The hymn tune ‘Carden Place’ by John Nisbet in the Revised Church Hymnary

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.





The picture is part of a window in the former East Kirk and shows the Angel Gabriel. By tradition, depictions of the angel feature him holding something – a trumpet, a lily, a shining lantern, a scroll, a branch from paradise or a sceptre. Also traditionally, Gabriel wears white or blue clothing. In this window he is shown with mainly white clothing and holding a lily in his left hand.

Gabriel features widely in the Bible, but is also recognised in other major religions, including Judaism and Islam.

Adam Heriot

This year there has been celebration of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his ‘95 theses’ on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Saxony on 31st October 1517. This is taken as the start of the Reformation, although it was a further 43 years before it properly reached Scotland, in August 1560.

Adam Heriot at the top of the list of ministers at St Nicholas after the Reformation

However, things had been changing for a number of years and came to a head during 1559-60. This blog is going to focus on the first Protestant minister of Aberdeen, Adam Heriot. He was born in Trabroun, East Lothian in 1514. He matriculated at St. Leonard’s College, St. Andrews in 1543 and became an Augustinian canon at the cathedral in St. Andrews. As the challenges to the established Roman Catholic doctrine grew, Adam Heriot started to question his own beliefs and in 1558 he became a Protestant. It seems that he might have briefly been a minister in St. Andrews in 1559 before settling in Aberdeen where he remained until his retirement in 1573. In August 1560 he was appointed as the first protestant minister to the Kirk of St Nicholas in Aberdeen. In the West Kirk there is a board listing all the protestant ministers of the Kirk. His name tops the list as shown in the photograph.

His stipend was fixed at £17, which he received from the revenues of the town, but the magistrates presented to him annually a suit of black clothes (‘doublet and hose, all in black’), and other necessities, to the value of £2.50, besides a donation of about 85p in money, for house rent.

Not a great deal is known of his ministry in Aberdeen. It must have been a time of considerable turmoil and it was not until 10th December 1562 that a Kirk Session met for the first time. In 1564 there was a visit by John Knox who stayed for several weeks including preaching in the Kirk. It is presumed much of this time would have been spent on ‘purging’ the local church of Roman influence and advising on reorganisation. Adam Heriot has been described as being ‘an eloquent preacher and well seen in scholastic divinity’. On an unknown date, he married Euphemia Scheves. She died in February 1569 and he had a plaque prepared in her memory. It still remains in the wall of what is now St John’s Chapel (the Oil Chapel). It is, unfortunately, illegible but is shown in the second photograph.

The memorial plaque to Euphemia Heriot

He did not keep good health and in 1573 he was forced to retire. He moved back to St Andrews, where he had retained a manse. He died there on 28th August 1574 of apoplexy (possibly a stroke). An obituary says ‘greatly beloved of the citizens for his humane and courteous conversation, and of the poorer sort much lamented, to whom he was in his life very beneficial’.

Organ for St John’s Chapel

In the transept between the West Kirk and the former East Kirk a small chapel was created in 1990 to commemorate the first 25 years of the North Sea oil industry. Officially it is known as St John’s Chapel, although it is usually referred to as the Oil Chapel.

The chamber organ for St John’s Chapel

To allow the chapel to be used for services a small chamber organ was obtained. This was originally built by the firm of Bewsher and Fleetwood of Liverpool in 1825 for a house near Kirkmichael in Perthshire. It was rebuilt and restored in 1990 by organ builder Sandy Edmonstone. It is a small instrument, shown in the first photograph and has only seven stops played from a single manual. The pipes are in the upper part of the case. The second photograph shows the front open to display the pipes, with a close-up of some of them. The different lengths of pipes, to produce different pitches, can be clearly seen.


General view of the pipes inside the upper part of the case



Close up of some of the pipes







Many instruments built since the introduction of electricity, use some form of electrical transmission to link the manual to the individual pipe to be sounded. Typically, an electrical contact is activated by the depression of the key on the manual. The electrical signal is transmitted to a solenoid below the pipe which opens a valve to allow aid to enter the pipe and make the sound. However, with older instruments, before electricity, this was not possible. Instead a mechanical link was used – called a ‘tracker action’. When the key is pressed on the manual a series of links, made of wood, metal or wire, connects through to the individual pipe and operates the valve. Obviously the manual and the pipe have to be fairly close together and there are mechanisms for ‘adding’ different ‘stops’ to allow more than one pipe to be sounded from the one key.

Part of the ‘tracker action’ below the pipes

Sometimes the detailed mechanics can be quite complicated. The final photograph of the organ shows some of the mechanism inside the case below the pipes and behind the manual (the lowest level horizontal wood are the backward extension of the keys). As mentioned in the blog on 14 October about the West Kirk organ, the instrument of 1880 had a tracker action until it was expanded and rebuilt in 1927.

The certificate of merit for the organ


The British Institute of Organ Studies has undertaken a system of recognising historic instruments. This instrument was awarded a certificate of Grade II* in 1997 – certificate shown in the last photograph. The grading indicates ‘an important organ of more than special interest’.


Worked stones

During the archaeological dig in 2006 a large number of worked stones were uncovered. On some stones, this working was quite small, for example one flat surface, or a rough piece with some chisel marks or a mason mark. Others had been carefully carved to produce a complex profile which had once been part of a building, but had since been discarded. One thing which became clear during the dig was that, as each new development of the building took place, the previous building was only partially demolished but not completely removed. It appears that some of the stone was either reused or it was left in situ.

A piece of shaped stone reused in a pillar base built in the late 1490s

The first photograph shows a piece of sandstone, probably from an earlier doorway, but reused in one of the 15th century pillar bases.

The next three photographs show a pillar column, first as it was being uncovered by the archaeologist, second once removed from the ground and third in comparison with one of the pillars in Drum’s Aisle

A slender broken pillar being excavated.
Part of the pillar once excavated







The excavated pillar in Drum’s Aisle beside a pillar


A carved stone, possibly from a doorway in an earlier building

The final photograph is of another carved piece of stone which may have been part of a door or archway in an earlier building. A detailed study of these stones has still to be completed but once done they could tell us a great deal about the appearance of the previous buildings.

(The photographs are copyright Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections and are used with permission)

The West Kirk Organ

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 pipes and console of the West Kirk organ behind the canopy of the Civic Pew. In the foreground is part of the light fittings from 1755 

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.

The present console of the West Kirk organ

Robert Gordon

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.

Plaque on the front of the south gallery of the West Kirk, Kirk of St Nicholas
The memorial to Robert Gordon in Drum’s Aisle, Kirk of St Nicholas. The wreaths were placed there by pupils in September 2016

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.

The East Kirk organ

The organ at the rear of the gallery. The actual pipes are inside the box seen behind the mock pipes

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.

Some of the shorter pipes – note different lengths
Some of the larger pipes both metal and wood
Underneath the pipes are the bellows with springs to control air pressure. Seen above are the valves which allow air into a pipe.
A panel of electrics to control the extension system in the organ

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.

Details of one of the control panels

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.

The blower with the pipe to the lower right leading air to the pipe.