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.
Today is Good Friday.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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 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’.
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.
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
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)