In St Mary’s Chapel, there is a brass plaque on the wall in the south aisle commemorating Margaret Mansonia Brotchie, a member or ‘sister’ of the Guild of St Margaret. The plaque is shown in the photograph. The Guild was started in 1882 during the first year of the innovative ministry of Revd. James Cooper, but Margaret Brotchie had only been a member for 18 months when she died in July 1886.
This Guild is believed to have been the earliest guild for women in any Scottish parish church and was active 6 years before the formation of the Women’s Guild at national level. The intention was that it should provide a focus for mutual support and encouragement for women who were engaged is some aspect of church work – Sunday school teaching, district visiting, soup kitchen, knitting or sewing garments for the poor, etc. In addition to these practical activities, they were also devout, frequently meeting for worship, for which they even had their own printed service book. Much of the activity of the Guild was centred in the Mission Rooms in Guestrow and it was there that the memorial was initially placed. However, when the Rooms closed it was appropriately moved to St Mary’s Chapel in which many of the Guild services were later held.
Very little is known of Margaret herself: she was born on 7th April 1835 daughter of John Brotchie, parochial schoolmaster in Kintore, and died at 134 Crown Street at the age of 51. At a meeting of the Council of the Guild on 13th September 1886, in noting her death, mention was made of ‘her goodness and kindness of heart’ as having won the respect of all. It was agreed to send an expression of sympathy to her brothers, and with their agreement, to erect a brass memorial tablet. The cost was estimated at £3 and it was later calculated that that could be raised if each member contributed 6 pence. It was shown to members, prior to erection, on 7th February 1887 and was ‘much admired’
St Mary’s Chapel was built around 1450 before the Kirk of St Nicholas was expanded to its present size towards the end of that century. It is a special place, often described as ‘one of the hidden gems of Aberdeen’. It has a stone-vaulted ceiling, beautiful stained glass, the walls have mostly 17th century carved wood panels, and there is some dating from 1508. Set in the floor are grave stones some of which show the links between the building in the castles of Drum and Crathes.
The Chapel will be open to the public on four Saturdays over the summer between 10 am and 12.30 pm on 14th May, 11th June, 9th July and 13th August. Entry is free, there will be people there to explain and answer questions, but please note that access involves difficult steps and the floors inside are uneven. Entry is by the door at the top of Correction Wynd.
The Chapel will also be open on Doors Open Day on 10th September between 10 am and 4 pm.
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!
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!
One of the most beautiful windows in St Mary’s Chapel depicts the ‘Betrothal of Mary’. The Jewish customs of two thousand years ago may seem rigid compared with what we are used to in the West today. These customs meant that the engagement was probably arranged by the parents, maybe without Mary or Joseph being consulted. There would need to be a contract, part of which would be the ‘bride price’ to be paid by the groom’s family. The contract was implemented immediately and was binding on the couple. In effect they were considered married, but what we think of as a wedding ceremony would not occur for a considerable time, sometimes up to a year, later. During their betrothal, the couple would have little contact with each other, in order to test their commitment to each other. When Mary and Joseph became engaged is not known. In their case the events of this ‘pre-consummation’ phase of their marriage certainly tested them, following Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus. The Bible tells us that Joseph was minded to break off the relationship, but was dissuaded by the Angel Gabriel.
The window was created by the Aberdeen artist Douglas Strachan in 1899 when still in his twenties. He studied at Robert Gordon’s College and Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen before working as an illustrator on newspapers in the north of England. He was persuaded to try designing stained glass. This window in St Mary’s Chapel is his very first commission (there is a later example of his work upstairs in the former East Kirk). He was prolific in his work with stained glass all over the United Kingdom and some overseas. By 1908 he had moved to live in Edinburgh from where he worked for the rest of his life. The University of his home city awarded him an Honorary Doctorate in 1923. His largest commission was for the windows of the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh Castle. He died at his home in Midlothian in 1950 at the age of 75 and is buried in the Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh. The window was restored as part of the Mither Kirk Project in 2010 following some damage due to vandalism.
John Fendour was a master wood carver of Flemish origin. Around 1500 he was renowned as one of the best wood carvers in the world. Aberdeen is fortunate that he was active at two churches – King’s College Chapel and St Nicholas Church. According to the records of the day, it was in 1495 that John Fendour was employed to work on the building work involved in expanding St Nicholas Church to make it one of the largest parish churches in Scotland. Initially he worked on the ceiling. Whilst the building was dedicated in 1498, the ceiling was not finally finished until 1515. In the intervening years he also worked on the choir stalls and he was also working on King’s College Chapel and Falkland Palace in Fife. Unfortunately, the east end of the building was demolished in 1835 to make way for the present building. As a result, the ceiling and most of the woodwork was lost. However a few years before it was demolished the ceiling was described as a ‘timber wagon roof, decorated with slender cross ribs, foliate sprays and an ornamental cornice’. John Fendour was commissioned to work on King’s College when building work started there in 1500. It is, therefore, not surprising that scholarship has established that the work at King’s College and St Nicholas Church were of a similar style, and indeed were influenced by styles used in a number of churches in the Netherlands. Thus, whilst we cannot know exactly what the stalls and ceiling in St Nicholas Church looked like, surviving pieces of the former and drawings of the latter together with those still visible in King’s College Chapel give a good indication of their appearance.
The most substantial part of John Fendour’s work surviving in St Nicholas Church is the long desk at the west end of St Mary’s Chapel (shown in the first photograph) with seven panels on the front and one on either end. One similar panel has been incorporated in a Victorian reading desk and others in furniture made for the 1937 refurbishment of the East Church. Upper parts of the choir stalls are in the National Museum of Scotland. Other panels were incorporated into the Deacon Convener’s Chair of the Incorporated Trades of Aberdeen. The second photographs shows one of the panels in closer detail. The carving was carried out in 1508.
St Mary’s Chapel has a fine example of a stone vaulted ceiling – one of the best in the North-East of Scotland. Key to holding vaulting in place is the boss which is placed at the apex of each set of ribs making up the vaulting. In 1898, St Mary’s Chapel was restored by a team including Dr Kelly (who is perhaps more famous for ‘Kelly’s Cats’ on UnionBridge). At some stage in the past the ceiling had been plastered and covered in a whitewash. It was decided that this would be removed to expose the stonework of the vaulting. The team were very surprised to find that the boss in the apse vaulting was actually made of oak not stone and that it still had its original colouring present. The photograph shows this boss as it is today. The colour was ‘retouched’ by the Victorian restorers so we can see what it was like when new. However, it remains the original, approaching 600 year-old, wood which continues to support the whole structure! The symbol used is a common abbreviation for the name of St Mary and similar symbols are still used today.
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The birth of a baby is a time of excitement and celebration. The stories of the Birth of Jesus suggest that it must also have been a time of some anxiety for his parents – and there are always legal requirements to be met. Two thousand years ago in Israel these included a visit to the Temple in Jerusalem for the ‘purification’ of the mother and the ‘presentation’ of the child (especially the first-born male) to God. This is the event pictured in one of the windows in St Mary’s Chapel.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is seen presenting the child to a priest in the Temple while her husband Joseph is carrying a cage with two young pigeons for the necessary sacrifice. The episode is described in chapter two of St Luke’s Gospel from which the words ‘to present him to the Lord’ are quoted under the picture. Behind the screen are Anna, an aged and very devout woman, and an old man, Simeon, with whom is associated the ancient hymn called ‘Nunc Dimittis’ (Lord, now let your servant go in peace) which is still regularly sung in many churches. A phrase from the hymn, ’a light to lighten the Gentiles’ gives rise to the name ‘Candlemas’ for the commemoration of this event 40 days after Christmas (on 2nd February).
The window was created in 1899 by Christopher Whall from London and has been described as one of the finest Arts and Crafts windows in Scotland. It was given by friends who had been associated with him in the late Victorian restoration of the Chapel in honour of Dr James Cooper and to mark his semi-jubilee as a minister, including 18 years in the East Kirk
The final photograph of this series shows the Chapel more or less as it is today. By 1980, on the recommendation of George Hay, architect with the precursor of Historic Scotland, the plaster had been replaced between the stone ribs and on the walls and new lighting introduced and soft furnishings provided, giving a warmer and brighter appearance to the chapel.
The photo (about 2004) also shows the result of water seepage from a leaking roof high above. As part of Phase One of the Mither Kirk Project, a new roof has been completed. This has stopped the water ingress but drying out is a slow process. In a later phase of the Mither Kirk Project the whole Chapel area will be restored.
One of the many features in St Mary’s Chapel are the carved wood panels around the walls. The large screen on the west wall was originally in the Provost’s Loft in the East Kirk. The photograph shows two panels from the screen, the upper one is of the City coat of arms in 1606 and the lower one the coat of arms of the Alexander Rutherford of Rubislaw who was Provost of Aberdeen on eight other separate times between 1591 and 1615 including 1606. Clearly a good servant of the city over many years he died whilst in office in 1615.
In 1604, another year when he was Provost, Alexander Rutherford had to put down a ‘demonstration’ by 20 boys of the Aberdeen Grammar School. Their protest was against the suppression by the Provost of their Christmas vacation, traditionally from the feast of St. Nicholas (6th December) until Innocents Day (28th December). They were armed with “hagbuttis, pistollis, swordis and lang wapynnis”. In the riot, the school boys “barred-out” their masters and magistrates and occupied the school. The siege lasted three days until hunger overtook them! The boys were taken to the Tollbooth by Provost Rutherford – but eventually the Christmas vacations were restored.
The building of St Mary’s Chapel probably began in the 1440s as the first stage of the extension of the church over the steep slope down to the Putachie Burn. When it was dedicated in 1498 St Nicholas’ was one of the largest parish churches in Scotland. After the Reformation the chapel was used for many secular purposes but by 1886 when this drawing (the earliest known view of the interior) was published it was again being used for regular services. The original window openings had been altered, a wooden floor inserted at a higher level than the original, and pews formed from carved panels removed from the church above.
A major restoration of St Mary’s Chapel in 1898 attracted widespread public support and significantly altered its appearance. The original floor levels were restored and new floors laid in granite, in which interesting grave slabs, at one time in the church, were inserted. A stone Communion table was placed in the apse, chairs replaced the pews, and the old carved panels from these were used to form a dado round the walls while others were used along with an ancient choir desk were used to furnish a dais against the west wall. Two stained glass windows were inserted. Contrary to the architects’ recommendation, plaster between the ribs of the roof was removed, revealing some interesting, and puzzling, features.