Tag Archives: Organs


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.

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’.


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

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.  

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.