History On Your Doorstep and Under Your Feet

Dr Fiona-Jane Brown


First published 2013 by Black & White Publishing Ltd 29 Ocean Drive, Edinburgh EH6 6JL 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2 13 14 15 16

ISBN: 978 1 84502 634 9 Copyright © Fiona-Jane Brown 2013 The right of Fiona-Jane Brown to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Maps © OpenStreetMap Contributors Maps contain information from OpenStreetMap http://openstreetmap.org/copyright made available under the Open Database License (ODbL) http://opendatacommons.org/licences/odbl/1.0/ All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without permission in writing from the publisher. A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.


Typeset by Creative Link, North Berwick Printed and bound in Poland www.hussarbooks.pl

To my parents, Margaret and James Brown, who wanted to me to have a ‘real’ book published. Let this be the first of many.

Introduction Castlegate 1. Find the Lady – The Brig of Dee’s Madonna 2. Skipper Scott and Prince Jamie 3. Theatre Lane – Aberdeen’s Thespian Heritage 4. Huxter Row – A Lost Street 5. Fittie Port – Gate to the Fisher Village Beach/Links 1. The Last Tram Line 2. The Man Who Sank the Titanic 3. Death of a Ship: The Sinking of the SS Archangel 4. Bombs and Bullets in the Cemetery 5. The Gallows Hill 6. Urquhart Lane: The Road to the Gallows Fittie/Torry/Riverside Drive 1. Fittie’s Fog Bell 2. Philanthropic Packman – George Davidson of Pettens

1 2 4 6 8 10 12 14 16 18 20 22 24 26 28 30 32

3. The Torry Coo That Doesn’t Moo 5. The Bridge That Flitted 6. Outseats House – The Home of the Blaikies Union Street and the Environs 1. The Auld Bow Brig 2. CSI: Exchange Street – The Murder of Brother Francis 3. Carnegie’s Brae – The Forgotten Land of Putachieside 4. The Bones of St Nicholas 5. Mary Jameson – Embroiderer and Wife 6. William Guild – Saint or Sinner? 7. The Quaker’s Grave 8. James Cromar Watt – Aberdeen’s Forgotten Craftsman

34 38 40 42 44 46 48 50 52 54 56 58

4. King Robert’s Gift – The Freedom Lands of Aberdeen 36

Gilcomston 1. More Tea, Vicar? – Cardenhaugh Spring 2. Mackie Place – Home of the Castle Spectre 3. Junk, Jam and Jocks – Rosemount Square and Its Origins 4. The Well of Spa The Lochlands 1. The Aberdeen Body Snatchers 2. Next to Godliness – The Public Baths, Crooked Lane 3. Education for All – John Knox’s Statue 4. The Gateway Missing Its Church 5. The Aberdeen Soup Kitchen – Catering for the Masses 6. The Auld Hoose – Robert Gordon’s College 7. The Killin’ Hoose – A Case of Animal Cruelty? 8. Full Steam Ahead – Hutcheon Street’s Railway Vents Old Aberdeen 1. Mount Pleasant – Paradise Lost 2. The St Nicholas Poorhouse – Nelson Street

60 62 64 66 68 70 72 74 76 78 80 82 84 86 88 90 92

3. Gibberie Wallie – Old Aberdeen’s Forgotten Well


4. St Mary of the Snows – Old Aberdeen’s Snow Kirk 96 5. Powis House and Gates – The Leslies’ Lost Estate 98 6. Dunbar’s Forgotten Tower 7. New for Old – Bishop Elphinstone’s Memorial 8. The Bishop, the King and the Architect St Machar and the Environs 1. The Slaughter of Sacrist Downie 2. The Wandering Wallace Tower 3. The Mysterious Mason’s Mark 4. Mrs Baird’s Burden – The Ghost of Chaplains’ Court 5. The Goodly Priest Gordon Acknowledgements Bibliography 114 116 118 119 100 102 104 106 108 110 112

© Thinkstock

Hidden Aberdeen came about as a result of a photography group on Facebook; my friends and I attempted to discover hidden or forgotten bits of our city’s history. After returning from a short-term contract in Portsmouth, those same people were clamouring for ‘another tour’, and that is when I turned it into a business. Hidden Aberdeen Tours is the only commercial walking tour company at the time of writing, offering walks on various historic themes.

This book contains many of the quirky stories I have learned during my research for tours, some of which have not appeared in print before. Many thanks go to OpenStreetMap, a free online mapping resource, who supplied the street maps for this publication. Finally, I hope these tales will encourage people to open their eyes to the history which is on their doorstep and under their feet!

Hidden Aberdeen Tours www.hiddenaberdeen.co.uk Twitter: @HiddenAberdeen

1. Chapel Court – Our Lady of Aberdeen 2. Peacock Close – Skipper Scott 3. Theatre Lane – The Old Band Box 4. Huxter Row – The Lemon Tree Hotel, et al 5. Castle Terrace – Fittie Port
© OpenStreetMap Contributors


A highly decorated wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, which now resides at the church of Notre Dame du Bon Succès in Brussels, started life as a venerated icon at the High Altar of St Machar in Aberdeen around the mid-fifteenth century. ‘Our Lady of Aberdeen’ apparently granted many miracles in answer to the prayers of pilgrims who visited from all over Scotland. Bishop Gavin Dunbar desired to carry out his predecessor, Elphinstone’s wish for a bridge over the Dee to improve communication with the Aultoun’s religious site. After completion in 1527, Dunbar added an oratory, or small chapel, where he translated the statue, thus she became known as ‘Our Lady at the Brig’. Thirty-two years later, the Reformation resulted in the destruction of all things Catholic; priests and monks tried their best to hide their treasures. Our

Lady was no exception, but her journey to the Low Countries was shrouded in mystery. Some said the monks responsible for the Brig Chapel hid her at Heron Dock – where the boathouses are today – others that she had already been hidden in St Machar’s. It was even suggested that the so-called ‘reformers’ cast her into the Dee and she was rescued at Fittie. The Archduchess Isabella, a member of the Spanish Royal family and ruler of the Netherlands by marriage, was given care of Our Lady in 1625. Again a miracle occurred when the ship taking them home was almost wrecked in a storm; they safely reached Dunkirk without sail or mast. Isabella placed the statue in the Augustinian Chapel where ‘the miraculous powers conferred on Our Lady of Aberdeen manifested themselves even in a foreign country’. The Virgin was adored by her new supplicants, who christened her

‘Our Lady of Good Success, such were the answers to prayer she granted. Safely hidden during the French Revolution, Our Lady was eventually moved to another church, the Church of Our Lady of Finisterre, Brussels, in 1814 where she remains today. However, when St Mary’s Cathedral was opened in Aberdeen in 1860, the first attempt was made to have her returned. The Belgians refused. Father Andrew Grant visited Belgium in 1919 with some Scots soldiers who suggested they ‘rescue’ the statue, but he declined. As Bishop Walsh would say after the last attempt in 1960, Fr Grant expressed that it would be a crime to deprive the Belgians when they venerated her so much. A replacement statue, based on the medieval original, is at the altar in St Peter’s Chapel, Justice Street, also known as Our Lady of Aberdeen.


Most folk in Aberdeen have heard the name Peacock Court, either because of a local art studio or the city’s first dancing master, Francis Peacock, after whom the lane is named. The next one off Castlegate is Peacock

Close; its old name, however, was Skipper Scott’s Close. ‘Skipper’ Alexander Scott was a Jacobite, a supporter of the exiled Catholic dynasty of Britain. It


would be he who gave hospitality to the ‘highest Stuart o them aa’ on a dank, foggy night two days before Christmas 1715. Scott was a ship owner and lived in the large tenement which stretched all the way back to what was then a great expanse called the King’s Meadow, now East North Street. He and his wife ran part of the house as a tavern, the only one in the city at the time. Alexander and fellow Jacobites, including George Keith, the tenth Earl Marischal, were delighted and honoured to receive ‘The Old Pretender’, aka Prince James Francis Edward Stuart, to the city. However, by November of that year, the Prince’s army, led by his deputy John Erskine, the Earl of Mar, had been defeated at Sheriffmuir. It seemed James’s cause was lost before he even arrived. Neighbours of Skipper Scott reported seeing three men on horseback dressed in French naval officers’ uniforms arrive outside the close late on 23 December. The skipper was seen to bow to one of his guests as

they dismounted. Jacobites all knew this was their future king, who at the time was suffering from a cold and had only arrived in Scotland the previous night. Alexander probably gave the prince a king-sized feed and sent him to rest with a wee dram. Of course, the 1715 Rebellion failed miserably and James left in February 1716 from Montrose, never to return. Very recently, I took a wander up Peacock Close and discovered an interesting sight: On the left wall halfway down the close you will find a lintel stone with two sets of initials: AS, IK and the date 1710. Parish records reveal the marriage of Alexander Scott and Janet Kinear in 1696. Could the ‘I’ be a ‘J’, which was not uncommon in late medieval script? If so, then the couple moved in five years before Prince Jamie came to call, and perhaps it was Mrs Janet Scott who brought the ‘uisge beatha’ for His Royal Highness to drink almost three centuries ago.

Swathed in tartan, the blacksmith’s son from Cheshire stands outside in Theatre Lane; there is precious little space in the green room, even for the leading man. A voice calls, ‘You’re on, Mr Ryder!’ He smiles and strides inside, ready to portray the famous Highland outlaw Rob Roy on the stage at Marischal Street’s Theatre Royal. Yes, the Old Band Box, opened by Herefordshire actor-manager Stephen Kemble 1795, was Aberdeen’s first permanent theatre. From 1812, John Fraser of Paisley ran it as the Theatre Royal. His daughter Jessie took the stage aged fifteen; she captured the heart of Corbet Ryder, who had already made his debut at London’s Drury Lane in 1798. Jessie became Corbet’s wife, and in 1817 the pair set about establishing the Scottish theatre circuit using the Marischal Street premises as their base. Although Rob Roy became a favourite with Scots

audiences, Ryder had originally thought the role too trivial for him. After the show’s first night in Perth was a huge success, Nicholas, Corbet’s father, berated him for missing out on the applause, after which Ryder Jr adopted the part with gusto. The Theatre Royal itself was a converted sevenstorey house rising from the level of Regent Quay to the street, making it ideal for split-level seating, catering for 600 patrons. The middle door on Marischal Street led directly into the circle; the other entrances to the gallery and the ‘pits’, as the stalls were formerly known. There were seating areas in the ‘gods’ known as ‘sweeps’ boxes’, which were popular with local youth who capered loudly at intervals. Theatre-going in the city reached the height of fashion in the early 1830s. Journalist William Cairnie noted he had seen Marischal Street ‘half-lined with the

waiting carriages of the best families of the town and county’. Ryder sadly died in 1839, leaving Jessie a widow. Jessie remarried another actor named John Plockton, but was widowed again in 1854. Retiring in 1862, Jessie’s sons-in-law, Alexander McNeil and Edward Price, became managers. Mrs Plockton must have known the Theatre Royal’s days were numbered when the brand new Her Majesty’s Theatre and Opera House opened on Guild Street in 1872, which would be renamed the Tivoli in 1910. Jessie died in 1874; the following year the old building was auctioned off, ironically bought by the Church of Scotland, whose Evangelical movement had turned locals against stage entertainment in the 1840s. Lost to history, the only reminder of the site’s thespian past is that dark, dingy lane below Marischal Street still called Theatre Lane.


What is the significance of the line of cobbles between the Townhouse and the Athenaeum? These are the remains of the pre-Union Street road surface marking the entrance to Huxter Row, a street now lost under Peddie and Kinnear’s granite edifice of 1868. Huxter Row was first recorded as ‘Boothraw’ in 1440, indicating a street containing locked booths or temporary shops which could be hired by traders. Many were itinerant salesmen or ‘huxters’, some of whom settled in the city, including George Davidson of Pettens, the beneficent packman; and John Ewen, a polymath who eventually owned a huge emporium in Castlegate. By the advent of the city’s new main street in 1810, Huxter Row

was a popular little trade centre behind the old Town House, hosting tailors, printers, grocers, shoemakers, watchmakers and a number of taverns ranging from the merchant’s favourite, the old Lemon Tree Hotel,

to Mrs Mortimer’s unnamed establishment recorded in the 1825 street directory. Huxter Row also became the home of the Musical Society, founded by dancing master Francis Peacock in 1749, next door at Concert Court. Sadly the concerts stopped after 1806. The Lemon Tree attracted Aberdeen’s intelligentsia; here in 1758 the local Philosophical Society was founded. In 1853 a group of businessmen met to organise ‘a society for the Protection of Trade’; this was to become the Chamber of Commerce. Bailie John Forbes, an ambitious warehouseman, was elected as their first chair, stating that the Chamber’s intention was to ‘work together to promote common business interests and support commerce’. Little did those Victorians guess it would still be going strong in 2013. George Ronald and his wife, licensees of the Lemon Tree from 1799-1859, were celebrated for their fine meals. Writer William Carnie remembered

fondly Mrs Ronald’s ‘creamy Finnan haddocks’ and ‘magnificent partan claws’ in his 1902 book, Reporting Reminiscences. The aforementioned John Ewen was a keen advocate of local government reform; to that end he was the author of Aberdeen’s first Police Act in 1795. By 1819 a police ‘watch-house’ had been established in Huxter Row, which would remain till the street was demolished in 1867 for the new Townhouse. By Huxter Row’s final year of existence it contained the offices of those on civic business, such as Procurator Fiscal George Cadenhead. The Lemon Tree would move into St Nicholas Street until 1935. Approximately sixty years later the name would resurface under the guise of an entertainment venue just down the road in West North Street. Huxter Row, however, was swept away forever in the name of progress.

At the back gate of the Carlton Bar on Castle Terrace a number of old rusty bolts stick out from the wall; seven centuries ago they would have held the iron bars or ‘catbands’ which secured the Fittie Port. The latter was one of six gates which safeguarded the medieval city, the others being the Justice, Shiprow, Netherkirkgate, Upperkirkgate and Gallowgate Ports. Although there are no images of the ports, most historians assume they were similar to the West Port of St Andrews, the stone arch of which survives today. From a council record of repairs to the Fittie and Justice Ports in 1710, we learn that the doors were of ‘oaken timber’. Ports were guarded by watchmen and closed in times of plague and warfare. Stone mason John Alexander Anderson, the father of John, a local magician later known as ‘The Wizard of the North’, took shifts as a watchman on the Justice Port when building work was in short supply.

Futty Wynd, as the name appears on Parson Gordon’s 1661 map, led from Fittie Port to the hamlet at the Dee estuary clustered around St Clement’s Kirk. According to The Book of Bon Accord, the earliest mention of this street was in a charter dated 1281. Yet there was activity in the area at least as early as 1136, the year David I of Scotland granted the bishops of Aberdon the right to tax shipping entering the river. Hence two communities grew up side by side, those living in the Parish of St Clements and the humble fishers of Pockraw. The latter was a ramshackle collection of wooden huts which would be replaced first by expansion of the harbour and later by the oil services companies which now stand on Pocra Quay. The Fittie we recognise did not exist until 1809, following a petition to the council by three local fishermen and pilot boat owners to build new houses for the residents of Pockraw who had been served with eviction notices the previous year. The

design of the ‘fisher squares’ was the creation of city architect John Smith, better known as ‘Tudor Johnny’ for his love of medieval styling. The council congratulated itself on the project which resulted in ‘houses which are neat and commodious’. However, the new dwellings were anything but; poor sanitation and overcrowding created perfect conditions for disease. Between 1809 and 1878 the number of boats owned in Fittie rose from ten to ninety. The city fathers finally despaired of the constant complaints from their fisher tenants and auctioned off what had been the city’s first ever council housing scheme. Fittie remains a conservation area to this day, but the fisherfolk have gone, unlike the steadfast bolts of the Port.

© OpenStreetMap Contributors

1. Constitution Street — The Last Tram Line 2. Trinity Cemetery — The Man Who Sank the Titanic 3. Trinity Cemetery — Death of a Ship: Sinking of the SS Archangel

4. Trinity Cemetery — Bombs and Bullets in the Cemetery 5. Erroll Street — The Gallows Hill 6. Urquhart Lane — The Road to the Gallows

In the dead of night on a May evening in 1958, few of the residents of Constitution Street would have heard the rumble of the entire fleet of Aberdeen’s trams, destined for their funeral pyre on what was left of the old Sea-Beach line. Those that did rouse themselves and attend the almost arcane end to what had once been the city’s main form of public transport would have seen the first twenty cars bump along the track and draw up in two rows before being doused in paraffin and set alight. All that remains of that sad day for tram enthusiasts are the forlorn steel rails which can be found on the Links near the Beach Boulevard. Wander along there today and you might notice the churned up tarmac — could it contain charred fragments of those wonderful trams? Aberdeen’s very first horse-drawn tram appeared

in August 1874, two years after the Aberdeen District Tramway Company was set up by local businessmen. The first routes ran from King Street to Queen’s Cross depot and St Nicholas Street to Kittybrewster Central Park, later the site of the Astoria cinema. When ‘horse fuel’ got more expensive, the need for electric trams, first proposed in 1896, prompted the council to make a public takeover of the tram company and fund the installation of the necessary equipment for the princely sum of £103,785. The private enterprise had already carried over 60 million passengers in the twenty-four years of its existence. The Corporation Tramways increased the routes, added more cars and started operating on Sundays – a popular decision with the citizens! Sadly the glory days of the trams were already over by the 1920s when motorbuses were seen as the economic

alternative which could more easily serve the city’s transport needs. In 1958 the council finally decided trams were ‘at the back o’ a day’ and sold the lot for scrap to Bird’s of Stratford-upon-Avon, a company which is still trading today. After an earlier gala procession, the trams’ very last journey was a greater spectacle to behold. Like

the Viking galley of Shetland’s Up-Helly-Aa, the entire rolling stock blazed up into the spring night, leaving a mangled heap of blackened metal in the cold light of the following day. The tram lines are all that remain. Stand there sometime, maybe you will hear those wheels rumbling on their ghostly journey down the track as they did fifty-five years ago.

1912 the Titanic sinks; 2012 the grave of steersman and quartermaster Robert Hichens is discovered in Aberdeen’s Trinity Cemetery (see the rudimentary grave marker on the right of the photograph). How did this man, who had also gained a terrible reputation for his offensive behaviour on the lifeboat, testified to by American millionairess Molly Brown, end up in the Granite City? Hichens was a Cornishman. Later investigators would heap blame upon him for steering incorrectly, despite the fact he was following the direct order of the first officer.

He told the Board of Enquiry that the order was to steer ‘hard-a-starboard’ and although he had turned the wheel, the ship did not respond, having already

struck the iceberg. He was no novice, having crewed on mail boats in European and Scandinavian waters. Yet the man who was happily married and survived the sinking found his life blighted ever after by the disaster. Hichens would have an unblemished record in the naval reserve during the Great War and moved with his wife Florence and the family to Torquay, where he ran a boat charter service. Bad luck struck again after poor trade forced Hichens into debt, which resulted in the seizure of his boat. He blamed Francis Henley from whom he bought it. Florence left him and moved to Southampton in 1931. Lack of work and heavy drinking drove him to desperation, and two years later Hichens tried to kill Henley, planning to commit suicide afterwards. He failed and was imprisoned for attempted murder. On his release, Hichens returned to Florence, who very soon was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Robert incurred the wrath of his children by refusing to allow his wife surgery. Florence died

in March 1940. Hichens got a job on a cargo boat, English Trader. His health rapidly deteriorated as he contracted gastric flu and bronchitis. He died a painful death on the ship in September 1940 while it was anchored two miles off Aberdeen. Two police officers were summoned aboard and removed the body to the police mortuary, where the cause of death was recorded as heart disease. Hichens was then buried in Trinity Cemetery with no marker. His son Fred remained under the misapprehension that his father had been buried at sea. Seventy-two years later, Sally Nilsson, greatgranddaughter of Robert, contacted Ian Burnett of the council’s Bereavement Services. Ian was able to locate Hichens’ burial along with Finnish sailor Hugo Tamminen, a victim of enemy action in World War II. Sally is now determined that her ancestor should no longer be remembered as ‘the man who sank the Titanic’.

Aberdeen is a city rich in history, much of it hidden. It lurks in the alleyways, tunnels, in the walls, the cemeteries, and even the roads on which you drive every day. To some, it may seem like nothing more than an anomaly in the brickwork, an intricate design, but to others, it leads to a world abundant in the dealings of the past. In Hidden Aberdeen, author Fiona-Jane Brown explores the city through new eyes, revealing fresh stories from the city’s history and bringing the modern city to life. There’s the last resting place of Robert Hitchens, who was at the wheel of the Titanic when it struck an iceberg; Royal connections, including the visit of the ‘Old Pretender’ to Aberdeen in the midst of the 1715 Rebellion; the brutal murder of a monk by so-called reformers; the strange nineteenth-century animal cruelty case against the city’s Jewish community, and much more. This fascinating book will open your eyes to the hidden, the forgotten and the abandoned past which lies at your doorstep and under your feet.


Cover photographs courtesy of the author

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