Tag Archives: Walls

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!

Bones in walls!

During the archaeological dig in 2006 there were a number of places where bones were found either under a wall or built into a wall. One reason for this arises because the walls were built in what had been, up to that time, the graveyard – in other words the graves already existed and the wall was simply built on top.

E84 St Nicholas Site Week 28 Skeleton in wall - SK426 Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections
Bones under the 15th century wall

The first two photographs show examples of this under the 15th century wall. The first photograph clearly shows how the wall was built on top of the burial. In the second photograph, there is also a bone higher up the wall.



Post 47 (b) bones DSCF0169 Bones in exterior (south) wall
Bones under and in 15th century wall

When the bones are built into the wall they would have been placed there deliberately when building was taking place. Any soil disturbance in the graveyard could disturb existing burials. So digging a new grave was likely to uncover some remains. Likewise, when foundations were being dug the same could happen. In the latter situation it was normal to incorporate the bones within the wall. This might seem strange to modern minds, but bone is a very strong material and so could be used in this way (the first two photographs show bones more than 500 years old and still supporting the wall).


E84 St Nicholas Site Week 35 Stewart (Robbo) with skeletons in wall (Ian's section) Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections
Large collection of bones built into a wall

The third photograph shows a much larger assemblage of bones found in a wall towards the west end of the dig area. Presumably several graves were disturbed during site preparation. The archaeologist is actually working on a grave right at the foot of the wall.


Post 47 (d) DSCN0446
Bones sticking out of a 19th century wall




The final photograph shows a wall, which still exists, which was probably built when the East Kirk was rebuilt in 1837. It shows some of the bones which stick out from the wall. There are many more, including one or two skulls in the whole wall.


First three photographs are copyright and used with permission of Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

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.

More Mason’s Marks

We are showing two other photographs in this post featuring different mason marks, so they belong to two different people.

The first photograph shows a mark almost like a stylised fish. Similar marks are recorded in a number of buildings in Scotland, including Glamis Castle and St Machar’s Cathedral in Aberdeen.


The mason mark in the second photograph is like a capital W with a vertical line from the centre. Quite a number of variations on this shape can be found, but it seems that this one is found in the Old Bridge of Dee and St Machar’s Cathedral in Aberdeen as well as further afield.


There are a number of people who study these mason marks. One such study is being made in the northeast of Scotland lead by Moira Greig. There is a fascinating website (http://www.masonsmarkproject.org.uk/) which explains the study, demonstrates the wide range of marks and gives pointers where to find them. If you are interested it is well work a visit.

Should you wish to try to find mason marks yourself, it is best to use a source of light shining across the surface of the stone, as the marks can be difficult to see at first!

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

St Nicholas Church week 13th Feb Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collection

Mason’s Marks

Looking closely at the stonework of old buildings, it is possible to find symbols carved into individual stones. These are known as mason’s marks. There are a very wide range, but they are usually made up of straight lines because curves would be more difficult to carve. Whilst they could show the pride of the mason in his work, it is more likely that their primary use was as a form of accounting for payment – piece work.

In medieval times a mason was a very skilled craftsman. A mason had to undertake an apprenticeship under a master mason. When they were considered to have sufficient skill, they would be admitted to the Guild and they would adopt a ‘sign’ or ‘mark’ which they would carve onto future pieces of work to identify it as their work. Some records are sufficiently detailed to allow linkage between a mark and a named individual. It might also be that a basic symbol was handed down from one generation to another, with just a small change, usually an addition, being made to the symbol by the new master mason. The life of a mason was semi-nomadic, working on one building until it was complete then moving on to seek employment at another. Even when a mason found a new building, life was still not simple. When a mason arrived at a new building his work would first be tested by the Master Mason of the site. If acceptable he would probably be given simple tasks initially, where his mark would be used in a form of quality control. Once accepted, his mark would be used to claim payment for work done. If you would like to see more about the life and work of masons visit  http://www.medievalists.net/2010/10/02/medieval-masons-tools-the-level-and-the-plumb-rule/

Post 14(a) Star on stone round door (N vault) Post 14(a) Mason Mark (2)

During the archaeological dig in the former East Kirk a number of stones were found to have mason’s marks on them. In this post two similar ones, depicting a 5-pointed star are shown. Who the person was is not known, but it is not one which has been recorded around Aberdeen. The mark can be seen in Arbroath Abbey, St Monans Church and Dalgetty Castle. We will put up another post in a few days showing two other mason marks which can be found in other local buildings.

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

An old wall

Post 10(a) The north-east side of the apse with babies burials

Towards the end of the dig in 2006, the archaeologists uncovered a curved wall at the west end of the dig site. Because it was underneath the ‘viewing window’ and the floor had to be taken up to allow this part of the excavation to take place it was left until late on in the dig. What emerged was a semi-circular stone wall about three feet high and 4 feet thick. It was the apse at the east end of a building, previously unknown and predating the Drum’s Aisle of the Kirk of St Nicholas (the latter probably dates from about 1140). Not only was most of the wall there, but also some of the mortar floor inside the building. The first photograph shows the main section of the apse looking from the north-east. The photograph below is taken from the west and shows and the floor (with the curved apse wall round the right hand side). The gap in the wall and floor was caused by a much later burial. Very close to the base of the wall were about 20 infant burials.

Post 10(b)The early apse top round via right to bottom enclosing the floor

There is uncertainty about the age of the wall and floor. Whilst apses had been used in buildings from Roman times, their use in Scotland was uncommon. One suggestion is that it dates from about 1100 AD. However, building experts indicate that the wall could not have been built without damaging the babies’ burials – and they were not disturbed. This and a carbon date on one of the babies suggests an earlier date. Either way, this is the oldest wall and oldest floor presently visible in Aberdeen. When the Mither Kirk Project is complete, this area will be conserved and available for people to view as part of the proposed heritage centre.

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