Tag Archives: Buildings

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)

Another carved corbel

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.

The corbel traditionally known as The Rat

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.

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.






Look up!

Post 74 (a) General view of east building
The east end of the building looking from the north-east

The east end of the Kirk of St Nicholas building seems rather austere with its fairly plain granite walls, although the windows do have some nice sandstone tracery. The walls at the east end date from 1837, although towards the west of the side walls there may have been some rebuilding or repair after the fire in 1874. For the most part the granite seen is simply the outside of the solid granite wall. However, at the lowest level, around St Mary’s Chapel at the top of Correction Wynd, the granite is a cladding on the outside of the 15th century wall which still remains on the inside.

However, this plain exterior is deceptive if one looks right up to the top of the east end. The first photograph shows a general view of this end of the building looking from the north-east. At roof level and above, it can be seen to have some quite elaborate adornments. These also are in granite. A close up, before cleaning and repointing work, of one of these is shown in the second photograph.

Detail of one of the finials before restoration


Looking more closely at the first photograph it can be seen that there is quite a complex roof structure above the apse, with three separate gables set at right angles to each other, facing north, east and south). This produced some interesting dilemmas during the roof replacement because there are hidden sumps in the gullies between the gables. These require drains for the rainwater and the building design requires these to be internal.


Post 74 (c)  Apse Roof Interior altered
Interior view of gables and roof structure

The third photograph was taken inside the roof space during the preparation for the roof repairs. It shows the interior structure of one section of the apse roof. The stone wall towards the left is the interior of the north gable wall (shown in the first photograph it is partly in shadow) whilst the stone wall towards the right of the photograph is the inside of the east gable wall (facing left in the first photograph). Between is the ‘V’ shaped timber of the ‘north’ sump. On the first photograph this is hidden behind the buttress which supports the pinnacle between the two gables discussed. Also in the third photograph the internal drain can be seen going across this wall, draining from the ‘north’ sump (left) to the ‘south’ sump (not visible) from where there is a connection to the external downpipe. Buildings may look simple from the outside, but the hidden internal structures can be complex!

A Bridled Woman?

St Mary’s Chapel has a large number of carved stone corbels, some of which will be featured in future posts. However, the one shown here is something of an enigma, because it is hung on the wall and is not part of the structure of the building. Where it was originally is not known.

In years gone by there was an offence, called in Latin communis rixatrix. Those words are in the feminine gender, so it was something that only women could commit. The ‘crime’ was to be a troublesome and angry female, who broke the public peace by habitually arguing and quarrelling. The common phrase was a ‘common scold’. The punishment was to put a bridle on the woman’s head, which included a bit, or something equivalent, in her mouth to press down on the tongue. Some were quite horrendous with sharp spikes on the bit. In Scotland this contraption was often called a brank’s bridle (or simply branks), with the first recorded instance of its use in 1567. It was supposed to be a minor punishment and was often inflicted on female offenders by Kirk Sessions and barony courts. Presumably the intention of the punishment was to stop the woman from speaking, hence the other common name: ‘the gossip bridle’. Quite often, the woman concerned was paraded in public then tied to the town cross or a similar prominent place. The duration of this humiliation would be determined by the Kirk Session or barony court. One assumes that the pain, discomfort and public humiliation was intended to act as a deterrent to others. In England and Wales the actual law was abolished as recently as 1967. It should also be noted that there are records of the branks being used on men – so in reality it was not just for women!

Post 66 Bridled women in SMC South Aise
The ‘bridled woman’ head in St Mary’s Chapel

In the photograph the bridle going through the mouth can be clearly seen. So what is a carved head such as this doing in a church? We just do not know! It seems unlikely that it was intended to be part of the building in the same way as the other corbels. Perhaps a previous Kirk Session had decided that this carving should be made and displayed to the congregation as a warning! Any (sensible) suggestions would be welcome!

The present spire

From around 1500 until the drastic fire in 1874, featured in the Blog on 10 October 2015, the spire at the Kirk of St Nicholas had been of lead-covered wood. It also housed a peal of eight bells hung for change ringing, which were lost in the fire. Subsequent posts will recount the story of the bells. Following the fire considerable repair was required to the East Kirk, although the outer walls survived. It was reopened for worship in 1876. The work was overseen by William Smith, son of John Smith who designed the 1829 Colonnade on Union Street. William Smith also designed the new spire and the present façade of Drum’s Aisle. Looking at the building from the Union Street side we see a mainly granite building – the East Kirk, Drum’s Aisle and the spire. This gives the impression that the West Kirk is an ‘addition’ even though it predates it by more than a century. Work on the spire was completed in 1877 at a cost of £8,500. It is described as ‘a crocketted and finialled square-plan clock-tower with recessed stone spire with clasping polygonal corner towers’. The present day bells are located behind the pointed-arch louvred openings. Above is the clock face and above that the inset spire rising to a total height of 196 feet.

Post 58 (a) West Kirk late 18th century

The photographs show a general view of the West Kirk and spire shortly after the latter had been built. Note that there are no trees to obscure the view!






The second photograph gives a typical ground-level view of the spire.


A building like this requires maintenance but work on the spire is not for the faint-hearted as shown in the final photograph!

Steeplejacks on St Nicholas Kirk Steeple
Steeplejacks on St Nicholas Kirk Steeple

Fire at the Kirk

The choir were practising in the East Kirk of St Nicholas on 9th October 1874. The church had a fancy new, perhaps experimental, chandelier lighting system which had multiple gas jets. Water in glass bowls above the jets was intended to keep it from overheating. On this night, however, the water evaporated and left the bowls dry. The resulting overheating set fire to the roof timbers in the East Kirk and the fire spread to the wooden 16th century steeple. Press reports at the time indicate that it was a ferocious fire. The steeple had been built around 1500 as part of the expansion of the building in the late 15th century and housed a peel of 9 bells. One of these was called Laurence, or ‘Lowrie’ – 1.2m in diameter at the mouth and 1.1 m high, made of thick metal. After the fire some of the metal was retrieved and reused and can be seen in the West Kirk as the pelican lectern. Fragments were also used to make the bell at Mannofield Church. More will be said at a future date about the bells.

The East Kirk was in ruins and there was damage to the rest of the building. Major rebuilding works had to be undertaken, during which time both congregations worshipped in the Music Hall. Repair work took two years before the congregation could move back into the building. The East Kirk was restored much as it had been before the fire, with the difference that two external doors had been added. Even though they were in the original design by Archibald Simpson, who had died nearly 40 years earlier, these had never actually been put in the original building. Worship resumed in the East Kirk in 1876. The new granite spire was designed by William Smith – which is the spire you see today.

Post 50 (a) Fire in East Kirk
Press drawing of the fire and crowds

Two pictures are attached. One is a drawing from the press at the time, showing the crowds which gathered to view the spectacle. The other is of an anonymous painting of the scene. One of the photographs in the Blog on 19th August shows remaining smoke damage on the currently exposed inside wall in the East Kirk.

(c) Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Anonymous painting of the fire

The East Kirk in the 1800s

Following completion of the major expansion of the church building around the end of the 15th century, there were no major external changes, although there were internal modifications both small and large, including the division of the interior to create two separate sanctuaries – the Auld and New Kirks – in 1596. In the early 1700s the Auld Kirk fell into disrepair and in 1732 the building was closed as unsafe. It was eventually rebuilt to a design by James Gibbs, work started in 1751 and it was opened in November 1755 a year after Gibbs death. This meant that the Auld Kirk was now newer than the New Kirk. So to avoid confusion, they were renamed the West Kirk and the East Kirk.

Post 46 (a) South wall with 15th century wall and 1837 wall on top April 2015 DSCN0447
15th century wall (left) and 19th century wall on top (right)

Meanwhile, the East Kirk remained unchanged until, during the early 1830s, led by the then minister, Dr James Foote and architect Archibald Simpson, people were convinced that the building was ‘old fashioned’ and should be rebuilt to have a greater capacity and be in a modern and airy style. Whilst the City Architect, John Smith, objected, the demolition went ahead and the new building was erected on the old foundations to a design by Archibald Simpson. It was dedicated on 7th May 1837. These are the walls seen from the outside today. The walls were indeed built on top of the remaining 15th century walls. On the south side the junction can be clearly seen on the inside. Whilst it is difficult to photograph, the first photograph attempts to show the 15th century wall (left) and the 19th century wall (right) as seen from above. The latter wall is several inches thinner than the earlier wall.


Post 46 (b) North wall 1837 April 2015 DSCN0449
The interior of the walls built in 1837

Outside, the walls are smoothly dressed granite. The surfaces inside are much rougher. The second photograph shows a section of the exposed interior wall on the north side between two windows below the gallery.





Post 46 (c) North wall of 1837 sat on some 15th century wall and smoke damage of 1874 April 2015 DSCN0445
Fire damage on the inside of 1837 wall. Lower part of wall is from the 1490s

In 1874 there was a drastic fire – more will be written about this in a future blog. As far as the East Kirk was concerned the roof and interior was gutted. Evidence of the fire emerged during the archaeological dig in 2006. In the upper layers of the soil there was a layer of ash from the fire. A number of stones were also found which had been cracked by the heat. In addition evidence still remains on the inside of the walls where there is clear smoke damage. This is shown in the third photograph, where the darkened stone is soot on the wall of the 1837 building. This area is sat directly on top of the wall dating from the late 1400s.

Copper alloy chain

E84 St Nicholas Site Week 32 Building in area B - work in progress Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections
General view of sacristy, east wall across bottom (yellow buckets inside sacristy)

The first photograph in this post shows the lower part of the walls of a building to the north of the main church building as it was in the 13th to 15th centuries. Because of its position it is assumed that this would have been a sacristy – a place for keeping vestments, sacred vessels, books and other items used in worship and also for keeping church records. There was some rather tentative evidence when this was being uncovered during the archaeological dig of 2006 that this could have been a two-storey building. Inside there were many intriguing artefacts.


E84 St Nicholas site Week 33 Chain 1203 Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections
A copper alloy chain found in the sacristy

The second photograph shows one of these artefacts, a delicate copper alloy chain. Its construction is unusual with a ‘figure of eight’ shaped link, so that it produces a double chain. Many different alloys of copper have been used, by adding a second metal, for example bronze (copper and tin) and brass (copper and zinc). Their use was common because of their resistance to corrosion – as this photograph shows, since this chain is likely to have been in the soil for more than 600 years. The scale shown has 1cm divisions, so it can be seen that creating this chain would have been quite an intricate task. The chain has not yet been conserved because we have not had sufficient funds. Once it has been cleaned and conserved the true craftsmanship will become more obvious. We are always open to offers to help with the post-excavation work which still has to be carried out.

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

The building dedicated in 1498

Following the building of St Mary’s Chapel by the middle of the 15th century (see Blog for 23rd May 2015), work progressed to enlarge the church ‘upstairs’. The records suggest that there was a pause in the work ‘upstairs’ – perhaps to allow funds to be assigned to building a bridge over the Dee. In November 1474 a contract was recorded between Sir Andrew Wright, master of kirk work and David Menzies for the delivery to the harbour of three cartloads, of specified size, of lead. Thereafter, for the rest of the decade there are several reference to the building works at the kirk and to the provision of finance  – from fishings on the Don and ‘wattir of Crvis’ and from taxation on goods passing through the harbour. For some reason not altogether clear, the Provost, Alexander Chalmers, was appointed for two years from September 1477 ‘upper and principal master of work’ to whom Sir Andrew Wright was answerable. Exactly when the building was completed is unclear. It was dedicated by Bishop Elphinstone on 24th September 1498, but some works were still taking place into the next century, perhaps as late as 1520. The church which was dedicated by Bishop Elphinstone was one of the largest parish churches in Scotland and was slightly longer towards Back Wynd than the present building. None of that building is visible from the outside, indeed before the archaeological dig in 2006, none of it was visible on the inside either. However, an extensive part of the south chancel wall was uncovered during the dig. The first photograph shows a general view of the lower part of that wall.

Post 42 (a) DSCN0443
Lower part of 15th century south chancel wall

Some interesting features emerged as the wall was uncovered during 2006. In the photograph, the rough stones at the bottom are the foundations for the wall, with the properly dressed stones of the actual wall built on top of them. It is worth noting that the wall at the left of the photograph is two or three metres under the modern ground level. The surprising feature in the wall clearly visible in the photograph is the ‘slope’ upwards from left to right of the junction between foundations and wall. There were insufficient remains to know why this was, but it appeared as though it was a sloping walkway from the level of St Mary’s Chapel up to the sanctuary above. Maybe this preceded the staircase which was found at the north side of the building and was removed once the latter was completed.

E84 St Nicholas church Site Week 41 Main Wall South of Church Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections
Upper portion of 15th century wall

The second photograph shows the upper part of the wall by where it joins the wall at the west of St Mary’s Chapel (a small section of that is just visible on the left). There is evidence in the structure that there had been alterations to the walls at some stage because the stones do not ‘key-in’ as would be expected. There is also a suggestion that there might have been a filled in window in the wall (just left of centre of the photograph). If this is the case, it could have been to allow light onto the sloping walkway referred to above. Whilst there are remnants of these 15th century walls on the north side, they are not as extensive, suggesting that there was a greater amount of rebuilding in the 19th century when the present exterior was created.

Photographs copyright and used courtesy of Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections