I RETURNED to the great grey granite city of Aberdeen just before mid-September in a largely successful bid to get a few days of walking in before the weather changed from summery to autumnal. A train journey lasting several hours conveyed me north from London and it was early evening when I finally alighted at Aberdeen station. From there, it was a very short walk to check in at my hotel, after which I was faced with the question of what to do with the rest of my evening. The obvious answer was to find food and go over my plan for the following morning’s walk. What I actually did was go for a walk right there and then. In the rain.
In fairness to my post-arrival self, it hadn’t been raining when I crossed Guild Street to find my hotel but it very was much when I stepped out again moments later. This should perhaps have been a deterrent, but I lived in Plymouth at one point; I’m accustomed to grey granite cities watered by equally grey skies. Although, now that I think about it, inured might be a better adjective.
The time was approximately half past five, which gave me two hours until sunset. If I were to do the circular walk I had in mind, I could hardly afford to stop first for a meal. Fortunately, Aberdeen had no shortage of foods available that could be eaten on the hoof and many of these, conveniently, could be found in nearby Union Street. I therefore went and found one; it doesn’t matter which.
And so, stuffing my face with something that had been moderately ‘fast’ and technically met the description of ‘food,’ I backtracked slightly and then turned left to head north up Union Terrace. This gave me a view across Union Terrace Gardens towards several magnificent structures, all glistening slightly in the rain.
The Triple Kirks was a bizarre outcome of the Great Disruption of 1843, which was a schism over whether patronage and political power gave any say over the appointment of clerical positions. The schism resulted in the Free Church of Scotland breaking off from the Church of Scotland and ‘Free Kirks’ sprung up all over to cater for schismatic congregants.
In Aberdeen there were three – the East, West and South Free Kirks respectively, and they each required a new building. The strange solution hit upon was to build them each a separate section of one shared structure with a single, mutual spire; this was done primarily as a cost-saving measure. The architect of the Triple Kirks was Union Street-based Archibald Simpson (1790-1847) and work progressed quickly, with the East Free Kirk opening in 1843 and the other two following in 1844.
The West Free Kirk moved out in 1864, when the creation of the Denburn Junction Railway pushed Denburn Road closer to the building than the congregants felt was safe. The South Free Kirk moved to a new building on Rosemount Viaduct in 1890 (off the left side of the photo, on the other side of His Majesty’s Theatre) and the East Free Kirk eventually followed and merged with them in 1972. In 2020 a block of flats – the Point – opened on the site, retaining only the Triple Kirks’ spire.
Union Terrace Gardens
The Union Terrace Gardens were originally laid out in 1879 and occupy what was then the valley of the Den Burn, although that would be culverted during the construction of the railway.
A controversial plan was mooted in 2010, which would have involved raising the gardens to the level of surrounding streets, essentially filling in the valley to make a vast, level plaza. North Sea oil tycoon Sir Ian Wood backed the venture, offering £85 million of the estimate £140 m cost. This plan was narrowly rejected by Aberdeen City Council in 2012 and a cunning new plan for redeveloping the wider Union Street area drawn up and then never acted on.
In 2019, the gardens were finally redeveloped while keeping their topographical profile, reopening in late 2022.
Old Chamber of Commerce
Arrayed along Union Terrace and overlooking the gardens were a number of grand Victorian edifices such as the former Northern Assurance Offices (1885) and the Caledonian Hotel (1892), the latter of which is still in business under the ownership of French hotel brand Mercure (est. 1973). Nestling up to the hotel were a few granite town-houses, one of which bore signage proclaiming it to be a Chamber of Commerce.
William Wallace Statue
This statue of Scottish national hero Sir William Wallace (c. 1270-1305), sculpted by William Grant Stevenson (1849-1919), stands at the north end of Union Terrace and was erected in 1888. This thankfully means that, icon of misty-eyed Victorian romanticism though it might be, it bears no relation to utterly infuriating travesty of history that was the Mel Gibson film Braveheart. He stands atop his cairn-like plinth, keeping a watchful eye over the Union Terrace Gardens in case they should be overrun by Englishmen, which was a bit of an own goal as his eyeline passed way over the top of this Englishman’s head.
My own eyeline was drawn not only to the statue but to the colourful railings that bordered the park in its vicinity, which sported brightly-painted renditions of the coat of arms usually attributed to Wallace. There is some doubt about his exact birthplace and parentage – his own seal on a letter sent to Lübeck in 1297 named his father as Alan – but the Victorians would have taken his unreliable biographer Blind Harry (c. 1440-1492) as the main source, despite his writing around 170 years after the man’s death. Blind Harry made Wallace a younger son of Sir Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie. The arms as depicted fit in well with that assumption.
Cowdray Hall War Memorial
Schoolhill & Upperkirkgate
Suitably chastened, I crossed the Rosemount Viaduct into Schoolhill and followed that into Upperkirkgate, which curved northeast. These shop-lined streets brought me to a junction with Broad Street (to my right) and Gallowgate (to my left).
Before braving the morbid promise of Gallowgate’s name, I had something else to examine in Broad Street, Indeed, I could hardly not at look at it, on account of it being spectacular!
Facing onto Broad Street was the magnificent 1835 edifice of Marischal College (another design by Archibald Simpson), which belongs to the University of Aberdeen but since 2011 has been leased by the city council for use as office space and public access to services. Marischal College (est. 1539) was one of two separate Aberdeen universities that eventually merged in 1860.
The Seven Shields
The seven coats of arms on Marischal College were:
- Donald Smith (1820-1914), Baron Strathcona & Mount Royal. Born in Forres, he was a governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, banker, diplomat and co-founder of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Vastly wealthy, he was a benefactor to the university and served as its rector 1899-1902. His arms allude to his Canadian exploits with a hammer & railroad spike and a canoe in the Northwest Territories.
- The Burgh of Old Aberdeen, which was created in 1489 and remained separate until 1891. Its arms were a gilt vase of lilies, upon which was a fret of three silver fish.
- William Elphinstone (1431-1514), Bishop of Aberdeen. In 1495, he founded the other college that became part of the university of Aberdeen – King’s College – which was located in Old Aberdeen. His arms bore a black chevron between three red boars’ heads.
- The University of Aberdeen. The arms of the united university have four quarters alluding to its origins. The first quarter is Old Aberdeen with the addition of a hand holding an open book issuing from a radiant sun, to symbolise learning. The second is supposed to be the arms of George Keith, 5th Earl Marischal, who founded Marischal College although it doesn’t quite match the official blazon recorded with Lord Lyon, King of Arms. The third quarter is Elphinstone and the fourth is a silver tower on red, alluding to the Royal Burgh of Abderdeen.
- The fifth coat of arms impales the slightly incorrect arms of the Earl Marischal with those of his first wife, Margaret Home, presumably to show them both as benefactors to the university. I had always understood such an impalement to be the arms traditionally shown by a married woman, but it seems to have been a thing in Scotland to display impaled arms to represent both members of a married couple. I rather like that.
- The Royal Burgh of Aberdeen showing three silver towers on red within a Scottish royal tressure.
- Charles Mitchell (1820-1895), an Aberdeen-born shipbuilder and philanthropist. His black and gold arms include a bend wavy (a bend being a diagonal stripe) and four mascles (voided diamond shapes).
Robert the Bruce Statue
Sitting astride his battle steed not far from the building’s entrance was a statue of King Robert I, better known to many as Robert the Bruce (1274-1329). He had supported his grandfather as one of the claimants for the Scottish throne in the Great Cause, the succession crisis that began in 1290 after the death of Alexander III, and inherited that claim in 1302, by which time the Great Cause had mutated into the Scottish Wars of Independence, that Sir William Wallace may have fought in but Robert actually won. He became king in 1306 and retook Scotland from English control, culminating in a decisive victory at Bannockburn in 1314.
The statue, by sculptor Alan Beattie Herriot, was erected in 2011. It cost the city £120,000, paid for out of its Common Good Fund, which was developed as a direct result of a charter that Robert issued in 1319. So, in a very indirect way, he organised his own statue.
The street of Gallowgate, up which I now ambled, used to be well-named, terminating in New Aberdeen’s most northern gate, near to which there was indeed a gibbet, although the ‘gate’ part of’ Gallowgate’ actually means ‘street’ (from Old Norse gata).
Today it has neither gate nor gallows, nor does it have a soap factory, though the low granite building of Ogston & Tennant Ltd, erected in 1922, still stands at number eleven.
Ogston & Tennant
Formed from the 1898 merger of local tallow chandlers A Ogston & Sons (est. 1802) and the soap-making operations of chemical manufacturer Charles Tennant & Co of Glasgow (est. 1792), Ogston & Tennant operated independently for just over a decade before becoming a subsidiary of the English company Lever Brothers (est 1885) in 1911. They continued to operate more-or-less autonomously until WW2, when Unilever – formed by a 1929 merger of Lever Bros and Dutch company Margarine Unie (est. 1927) – absorbed them fully into its structure before finally closing the subsidiary down in the 1970s. Unilever, of course, is still going strong today and, in addition to manufacturing products as disparate as ice cream and antiperspirant, is the largest soap producer in the world.
Even more not there than Ogston & Tennants was the Porthill Factory of Milne, Cruden & Co, which was erected in 1750 and manufactured linen thread. Later occupied by William Kitson and Co, stoneware merchants, it was demolished in 1960 and a block of flats – Porthill Court – now stands in its place. Actually, blocks of flats were what mostly characterised modern Gallowgate.
North East Scotland College
Something that was there was an educational establishment unconnected to the university, namely North East Scotland College (NESCol). This was formed in 2013 through the merger of Aberdeen College and Banff & Buchan College and occupies the former’s building, which was built in the 1960s. Its construction obliterated Young Street, the eastern end of which is now occupied by the college’s main Gallowgate entrance.
Immediately north of where NESCol now stands was the site of the Gallowgate Port, New Aberdeen’s northern gate. Considered ancient by 1518, the gate bore the Royal Arms of Scotland, which had to be renovated in 1669 on account of having become illegible through age. A century later, the city ordered the gate torn down as its narrow portal was impeding traffic. No physical evidence of its existence remains.
I knew I had passed outside the old gateway when I saw the side-street of Spring Garden to my left. Located just beyond the gate, its eastern end used to rejoice in the name of Windy Wynd. In Scots street terminology, a wynd is a narrow alley between houses, so Aberdeen had already spilled outside its bounds by the time the street got its old name.
Mounthooly & Spital
Gallowgate terminated at the Mounthooly Roundabout, which older maps show as a simple five-way junction. Leading off to the northeast from this was Mounthooly, the name of which means ‘holy hill.’ It probably got this designation from the monks of St Peter’s Hospital (founded circa 1172), as did the street name of Spital. The latter led directly up the hill and, though it was not especially steep, the stone pavement was slightly treacherous in the rain.
I was actually quite glad to reach the crest of the hill, which was indicated by this row of houses being called Hillhead Terrace:
St Peter’s Cemetery
St Peter’s Hospital had been established by Bishop Matthew Kyninmond for the care of infirm clerics and functioned until at least 1541. Thereafter, the Spital Kirk, erected for the benefit of the brethren, continued in use as a parish church and survived until the Reformation , after which it was suppressed. Today, only the bases of its walls remain. Its churchyard was opened for use as a cemetery in 1767 and extended in 1822 and 1884. It closed to new burials in 1951.
The gateway to the churchyard is accessed by descending some steps from the side street of St Peter’s Gate. This was the main entrance to the cemetery until later extensions pushed it eastwards to allow a gateway onto King Street. The old gateway bears a coat of arms with a thematically-appropriate skull and crossbones crest above the helm and the motto ‘non sibi sed cunctis.’
It means ‘not for self, but for all.’
A closer look reveals that the design on the shield is three Moor’s heads, because what more fearsome emblem for a mediaeval crusader than the severed heads of his enemies? These are the arms of Sir Kenneth Moir, whose foes actually were Moors as in 1330, he joined the Reconquista in Spain alongside James Douglas, Lord of Douglas who was taking the embalmed heart of Robert the Bruce (who had died the previous year) on crusade.
Aberdeen Mosque and Islamic Centre
With supreme irony, just 100 m further down the hill from Sir Kenneth Moir’s ‘three beheaded Muslims’ motif, I passed an unassuming stone building with a sign announcing it as Aberdeen Mosque and Islamic Centre.
The centre was established in 1980, mostly to cater for the small number of Muslim students at the university. It has since outgrown the original building and moved to larger premises, though this site remains open for the convenience of Muslim students.
Compounding the irony was that, while the mosque itself had been an ordinary house quite without minarets, another 300 m down the hill – which had now changed from Spital to College Bounds – stood a pair of them flanking an archway that they had no good reason to be flanking. This was the Powis Gate, a fanciful entrance to what had once been the Powis Estate but is now an extension of the university campus.
Hugh’s arms combine the blue bend and gold buckles of Leslie in the first and fourth quarters with the three white cinquefoils of Fraser in the second and third quarters. As the latter represent the cadet branch of Fraser of Powis, they are differenced by a border, which is itself composed partly of Fraser cinquefoils and partly of red antique crowns on gold.
Proceeds of Slavery
Hugh was married to Anne Agnes Lamond (1770-1844), a merchant’s daughter who had been born in Jamaica, though some of her family were local. She received £2,065 in compensation for the emancipation of her slaves at Castle Fort Pen in Jamaica, following the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which ended the obscene anomaly whereby slavery was still legal in Britain’s colonies while not being so in Britain itself. A good chunk of that money helped pay for the gates.
Slavery Abolition Act
If it seems strange that the owners of slaves should be compensated, this is rooted firmly in the concepts that (a) one should not be retrospectively punished for doing something that was legal at the time and (b) the government should not just be able to confiscate your legal goods without compensation.
By essentially buying all the slaves in the colonies and then freeing them, the government of the day reassured those with economic clout that their investments were safe and this kept the economy relatively stable. The alternative – simple confiscation – would have been to set a precedent that your wealth can be stolen at any time on a whim, potentially precipitating a flight to other countries, and the collapse of the national economy.
The purchase required a significant loan, which was finally fully paid off in 2015.
The Obvious Problem
Of course, many in the intervening years have pointed out that the people who were actually enslaved received no compensation at all – the only concern of HM Government was to execute the new law in such a way as to protect the economy and rule of law, not to pander to the moral outrage that had led to the law being passed in the first place, however morally problematic that might be.
In 2022, the City Council installed a plaque on the Powis Gate which reads:
Powis Gateway was built in the early 1830s by the Leslie family, using profits from slavery. The Leslies, the lairds of nearby Powis House, owned an estate in Jamaica on which they forced enslaved African people to work. After the 1833 Act for the Abolition of Slavery, the Leslies received government compensation, which also helped fund the gateway. The formerly enslaved people received nothing for their years of unpaid labour and suffering.
Almost immediately beyond the Powis Gate, but on the other side of College Bounds, was the ancient magnificence of King’s College, established by Bishop Elphinstone in 1495:
On the left, with its distinctive Crown Tower is King’s College Chapel, constructed between 1498 and 1509. The crown is actually a 17th-century rebuild, the original having been destroyed by a storm in 1633. On the right is the frontage of the original college building, as rebuilt by architect John Smith (1781-1852) in 1826.
I think King’s College’s architecture is quite lovely. And I’m sure Bishop Elphinstone would have to agree, were I to ask him.
William Elphinstone was actually buried within the chapel and not under the monument shown above, which was fashioned as a cenotaph by Henry Wilson (1864-1934) in 1912. Originally, it stood within the antechapel, taking up much of the available room but, after almost three and a half decades of it constantly getting in everyone’s way, they moved it outside in 1942.
The famed but often sadly inaccurate Scottish historian and philosopher Hector Boece (1465-1536) was also buried in the chapel, which is only fitting as he was King’s College’s first principal.
Named for the founder and adjoining the main college buildings is Elphinstone Hall, a structure added in 1930 and designed by Alexander Marshall Mackenzie (1848-1933). It serves the university as an examination and graduation hall but was sympathetically designed to blend in.
As you can see, an arcade runs along the outside, facing onto Elphinstone Lawn, and above the arcade are several more coats of arms:
- University of Aberdeen
- Earl Marischal (Keith) – this is consistent with other depictions in not matching the official blazon
- Earl of Moray (Randolph) – the Randolphs died out in 1346, a century and a half before King’s College was founded but had been of immense regional power influence in northeast Scotland
- Earl of Buchan (Comyn) – the Comyns had fallen from power even earlier (in 1308), defeated by Robert the Bruce. Nonetheless, like the Randolphs, they were regionally powerful in their day
- Burgh of Old Aberdeen
- Royal Arms of Scotland
- Royal Burgh/City of Aberdeen
- Cheyne of Inverugie – allies of the Comyns, the Cheynes are another family who held land and influence in the region but had died out by the time King’s College came into being (in this case circa 1345). Sir Reginald Cheyne’s heiresses married into cadet branches of the Keiths and the Sutherlands
- Lamont – not sure who this one refers to; could potentially be a local Lamond/Lamont merchant who benefitted the college?
While Elphinstone Hall stands to the east of Elphinstone Lawn, to the north of the lawn is the New Building, better known as New King’s. This was erected in 1913, and so is 17 years older than Elphinstone Hall but somehow still gets to keep its ‘new’ adjective, while the hall gets no such qualifier.
Also designed by Alexander Marshall Mackenzie, New King’s architecture once again manages to not actually match any other part of the campus, while at the same time blending in.
The foliage adorning both ends of New King’s is Boston Ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata), an ornamental grapevine that is unrelated to ivy and also not from Boston, hailing instead from eastern Asia. It did see extensive use in the Americas, however, to both decorate the masonry facades of grand buildings and also to shade them from summer heat.
Youth with a Split Apple
Reclining on a plinth in front of New King’s like a young man who has seen how deeply Wiliam Elphinstone is dozing and wants to get in on the outdoor relaxation (in)action, is a statue titled Youth with a Split Apple. He is so named on account of his youthful features and the fact that he is holding half an apple in each hand. It is the work of Scottish sculptor Kenny Hunter and was unveiled in 2005.
I can only assume that the youth is going to clap the two halves together in an attempt to wake Elphinstone from his slumber. This might seem like it’s doomed to failure, what with the bishop resting eternally and apples not being famous for making all that much noise beyond a crisp crunch. I will point out two things however: Firstly, the apple in question is made out of bronze. And secondly, well, it’s clearly no fruitless endeavour.
I’ll get my coat…
New King’s Gateway
As mediaeval as the above gateway might look, it dates from the construction of New King’s and was made by the same architect, namely Alexander Marshall Mackenzie (who certainly got to make his mark on the campus). The giveaway is the ‘1912’ next to Elphinstone’s arms, which he has paired with 1494, the year the Pope authorised Elphinstone – who was, of course, a Catholic bishop – to go right ahead with his collegiate plans.
Beside Elphinstone Lawn, College Bounds had turned into High Street and I now followed this further north.
Old Town House
The rain eased off as I made my way along Old Aberdeen’s High Street, and the street broadened out, which made it feel like I was somehow spreading the same amount of rain across a wider area. Standing at the top end of the High Street was the Old Town House, in which Old Aberdeen’s burgh council used to meet. Since 2013, it has been King’s Museum, having been acquired by the university in 2001.
The Old Town House was built in 1789 to replace a 1642 predecessor on the same site. Before that was built, the burgh council met in a room at St Machar’s Cathedral…
St Machar’s Cathedral
St Machar’s Cathedral, also known as Old Machar, stands about 300 m further north than the Old Town House, across St Machar Drive and at the far end of a street called The Chanonry. Technically, it hasn’t actually been a cathedral since the Church of Scotland abolished bishops in 1689, since the defining feature of a cathedral is that it houses the throne or cathedra of a bishop. Officially, it’s now a High Kirk.
It takes its name and dedication from St Machar, an alleged companion of St Columba (521-597) on his journey to Iona and who might be the same person as St Mungo. His legend says that he founded a church in Old Aberdeen in 580, which, after much enlargement and rebuilding would become the cathedral to bear his name. A cathedral was definitely built on the site in 1131 but that has since been improved and redeveloped almost entirely out of existence.
Sir William Wallace’s upper left quarter is buried within the walls of Old Machar, it having been sent to Aberdeen as a warning after his execution in 1305.
In addition to providing a rather unusual walling material, the Great Cause and Scottish Wars of Independence also got in the way of plans by Bishop Henry Cheyne (d. 1328) to extend the cathedral but his successors Thomas Spens (c. 1415-1480), William Elphinstone and Gavin Dunbar (d. 1532) were more successful at the task.
The cathedral’s interior includes a heraldic ceiling with no less than 48 coats of arms, which was installed by Bishop Dunbar. It is perhaps fortunate that I was unable to go inside, as I’d have lost all daylight and probably done something to my neck in the course of admiring them; I find their combination of historical resonance and artistic design quite irresistible, but you’ve probably noticed that.
My second photo of Old Machar was taken from within Seaton Park, an adjoining area of park land that used to be the estate grounds attached to Seaton House. In the late 18th century, this was bought by a branch of Clan Forbes from the Middletons that owned it and then passed to the Hays via the 1813 marriage of heiress Elizabeth Forbes (1783-1861) to Lord James Hay (1788-1862), the second son of George Hay (1787-1876), 7th Marquess of Tweeddale. James was an army officer who fought the French during the Napoleonic Peninsular Campaign and then again at Waterloo.
James’s grandson, Major Malcolm Vivian Hay (1881-1962) fought and was badly wounded at the Battle of Mons during WW1, but recovered enough to become head of MI1b, the interception and cryptanalysis section of MI1, which was itself the code-breaking department of the Directorate of Military Intelligence. After the war, he became a historian and writer. He sold the Seaton Estate to the city in 1947, for use as a park.
The house at the heart of the estate had been designed in 1725 by celebrated architect James Gibbs (1682-1754), a local man but one who strode the national stage, creating such buildings as St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, London, Derby Cathedral and the Senate House at the University of Cambridge.
Unfortunately, it sat empty and mouldering after the sale, becoming ever more dilapidated. Inevitably, it was vandalised, damaging it further, before burning down in a fire in 1963.
Close to where their house once stood was this memorial fountain, jointly dedicated to Major Hay and his second wife, Alice Ivy Wigmore (1895-1982). The fountain was erected in 1984 but ceased working sometime since. I couldn’t find out when it was turned off or broke down but I also couldn’t find a single photo of it working; it’s definitely been broken since at least 2010. If a fountain doesn’t actually fountain then can it still be called one?
A granite plaque near the fountain announced its year of installation and dedication along with an engraving of Major Hay’s coat of arms, no description of which I could find anywhere accessible. This was a shame, as I’m quite sure its not meant to be entirely ‘granite grey’.
The first, second and third quarters are actually easy to deduce colours for as they were all inherited from the Hay Marquesses of Tweeddale. The first quarter shows the red escutcheons (shield shapes) on silver of Hay, while the second is three ermine bars (horizontal stripes) on red, representing Gifford of Yester. The third contains the three white cinquefoils of Fraser, which we also saw in High Fraser Leslie’s arms. The fourth quarter has to be Forbes of Seaton, comprising the arms of Forbes – three white bears’ heads on blue, muzzled in red – but differenced by a flying martlet and an engrailed border. A little research reveals that the Forbes of Seaton were a cadet line off the Forbes of Skellater who used a red border and white standing martlet and we can reasonably assume the same colours, with the engrailing and change in posture as new differences. Over all on the engraving was a device that was hard to make out but I’m 99% certain was a fetterlock. I can’t be certain what colour it should be without a reference, but gold seems most likely, given the field colours it has to show up against.
One thing I didn’t manage to see in my passage through Seaton Park was Mr Therm, a brightly-painted locomotive turned into a children’s slide. This was a shame, but as a lone man in my fifties, I wasn’t about to go and stare weirdly at the children’s play area in the park, that’s just asking for unnecessary conclusion-jumping.
Mr Therm was an engine at Aberdeen Gas Works, built by Andrew Barclay of Kilmarnock in 1947 and used to ferry coal from the harbour to the gasworks. It had an 0-4-0 ST configuration, which means that it had four driven wheels with neither leading nor trailing bogies, and it carried its water in a ‘saddle tank’ over its boiler, rather than pulling a separate tender. This made it small and manoeuvrable, but also short-ranged and slow, which was fine for its intended purpose.
Mr Therm was replaced with a Diesel train in 1964 and retired to the park as a focal point for the playground. It received a much-needed renovation in 2016 but then returned to its place in park. The cab has been emptied of hazards and steps attached to one side and a slide to the other. I understand it is much-loved by children and I am not at all surprised.
The Original Mr Therm
The locomotive Mr Therm was named for an advertising mascot created in 1931 by illustrator Eric Fraser (1902-1983) for the Gas Light & Coke Company (1812-1949) in London. When the latter was nationalised, the Mr Therm character was inherited by the Gas Council (which regulated the regional gas boards) and remained in use for national advertising until 1973, when the gas boards were amalgamated to form British Gas. This national exposure is the reason a gasworks locomotive in Aberdeen came to bear the name of a London gasworks mascot.
I passed by where Seaton House had once stood and into the trees at the top end of Seaton Park. I was now aiming for the Brig o’ Balgownie, and I asked a small group of young adults if I was heading the right way.
‘No idea,’ said one, ‘It’s only our second day in Aberdeen.’
Ah yes, of course. University town. September. Newly-arrived freshers aren’t going to know where things are yet. Or, at least, not by name. I clarified that I meant the old, arched bridge and the face of one lit up with recognition. She helpfully supplied me with directions.
Hillhead Student Village
Armed with these directions, I emerged from the trees into Hillhead Student Village, an accommodation complex that began in 1968 and has since expanded to house 2,500 students. I then immediately cocked up following the directions.
I’m not sure if I garbled the helpful student’s directions in my head, or she did when she said them but, either way, I went left when I should have gone right. I realised pretty quickly that this had happened and a glance at Google Maps suggested I was now heading for an unhelpful dead end. Except…
These are students, I reasoned. There is no way that they haven’t created their own desire paths onto the riverbank. And if I’m wrong, well, I already know where I’ll need to backtrack to.
I strode confidently around the back of the last accommodation block and glanced at the slightly longer grass beyond its neatly-mowed lawn. As expected, a trail made by student feet led through the trees to the river. It wasn’t a very well-trodden trail, admittedly, but then it was apparently also only the second day of term. It worked well enough.
Riverside Path (South Bank)
I emerged onto a riverside path about a quarter mile upstream from where I had intended, but that just meant a got an extra quarter-mile walk along the river.
Last time, when I entered Aberdeen at the end of my previous trip, I abandoned my intent to cross the Brig o’ Balgownie largely due to heat and fatigue. Today, I was determined to correct that. I fairly bounced along the riverside path until it brought me to the hamlet also called Brig o’ Balgownie, comprising just a handful of old cottages clustered by the south end of the bridge. One, in particular, was one of the oldest houses still standing in Aberdeen:
A chapter house is the building used by a chapter, which is a body headed by a dean, as typically found administering large churches and cathedrals. This house was created as a fishing lodge in 1655 by George Cruikshank of Berriehill, whose coat of arms adorns that arch.
George held the position of Dean of Guild, which essentially meant that he was a senior council official, appointed rather than elected.
The letters ‘GC’ and ‘BH; around the carved shield refer to George and his first wife, Barbara Hervie, and the year of completion (1655) is underneath. The house remains a private dwelling.
George’s arms again give us the problem that everything is stone-coloured. Fortunately, the left hand side, as we see it, are George’s arms as recorded by Lord Lyon: three black, blue-tongued boars’ heads on a gold field. The other half of the shield, with its chequered fess, cinquefoils and mascle, shows the arms of Hervie, as also displayed in the church at Kintore. The 1565 Slains Armorial describes similar Hervie arms as silver on red but with a plain fess. Barbara’s arms are presumably a differenced version of those but, without a specific description, I can only make an educated guess at the other colour in her fess.
Brig o’ Balgownie
The Brig o’ Balgownie may have been begun on the orders of Bishop Henry Cheyne but, if so, it’s another thing that the wars stopped him from completing. That the Cheynes were allied with the Comyns and their enemy Robert the Bruce ultimately won out as king certainly won’t have helped, though Henry was never permanently deprived of his bishopric.
It was on Robert’s orders that the bridge was completed circa 1290 after which it remained the principal crossing until construction of the new Bridge of Don in 1830.
The carriageway of the bridge was surfaced with stone setts and these proved quite slippery in the rain, which had started back up again just to make that point. Thus I strode to its summit and damn near skated down again, much to the evident amusement of the only other person on the bridge. He was trying far too hard to pretend he hadn’t seen me slip and recover. I appreciated his effort, even if he was hopeless at masking his reaction.
Riverside Path (North Bank)
On the far side, a flight of handy steps lowered me onto another riverside path, which I then followed downstream.
Bridge of Don
Before long, the 1830 Bridge of Don came into view:
Using the bridge, I crossed back over the Don and set off along the Esplanade. This was the other part of my planned route that I elected to do differently last time, so it seemed only right to do it now.
The esplanade started off running parallel to the Don. The sun was close to setting now and the sky turned orange behind me. I picked up my pace, hurrying coastwards, and in doing so failed to spot what they call the Omega Stone.
The Omega Stone is one of many March Stones or boundary markers setting out the old limits of Aberdeen. The oldest of them predate 1525 but supplementary new stones were added in 1790 that were systematically marked with a sequential number, ‘ABD’ for ‘Aberdeen’ and, for those marking the inner urban area, ‘CR’ for ‘City Royalty.’ Two of these stones, the most southern and northern, received no number but were instead inscribed with the Greek letters alpha and omega.
The sun was setting just as I reached Donmouth. This made for an excellent show of glorious scarlet on the western horizon. I, however was looking eastwards to where the river flows into the North Sea.
A little further on, I transferred from the road called Esplanade to the actual esplanade that ran along the shore.
It was still lightly raining as I walked and the last of the sun’s rays managed to create a rainbow that, because of usual atmospheric effects that make sunsets how they are, filtered out everything except red. This red-only rainbow neatly highlighted a ship waiting to enter the Port of Aberdeen and I reached for my phone, knowing that it would make quite the photograph. Alas, in that instant, the sun finished setting; it was gone!
I ambled down the pedestrian promenade for just over a mile, during which time the eerie blue of twilight quickly faded into darkness.
Before long, this brought me to the Beach Ballroom, which is exactly what it says on the sign.
The Beach ballroom is housed in an art deco granite pavilion, erected in 1926, and has played host to some pretty notable acts, including the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Who and Cream, amongst others.
From the Beach Ballroom, I could have followed Beach Boulevard back into the city centre but it wasn’t quite completely dark yet, so I elected to keep following the Espalanade. As I continued south, I noticed that quite a lot of the steps leading down to the beach were blocked off with ‘no entry’ signs.
It looks as though the steps were closed off in mid-2019, after storms displaced 140,000 tonnes of sand, creating a dangerous drop at the bottom of the steps. The City Council’s hope was that natural fluctuation of sand levels over time would fix the problem without the need for any expensive sand-moving operations. However, it hasn’t yet.
As I continued southwards, I realised I was rapidly running out of two things. One was any remaining semblance of daylight, and the other was promenade. I was rapidly approaching Aberdeen’s North Harbour and the mouth of the River Dee.
Ahead, stretching out into the sea, I could see lights on the North Pier, which was erected and extended in three stages (1781, 1816 and 1874) with input from two titans in the world of such civil engineering, namely John Smeaton (1724-1792) and Thomas Telford (1757-1834). The final phase was carried out by William Dyce Cay (1838-1925), who isn’t nearly so famous.
The Esplanade finally came to an end in Footdee, known locally as ‘Fittie,’ which had once been a separate fishing village perched at the mouth of the river before the expansion of Aberdeen’s harbour absorbed it into the city.
Although the village has been around since mediaeval times, it’s greatest claim to fame was perhaps in 2012, when a storm inundated Footdee with sea foam, apparently waist-deep in places. This resulted in the village looking as if it had been buried in snow and is referred to in Scottish Government reports as the Aberdeen Foam Event, which sounds awesome.
At this point, I could have ventured onwards to the North Pier and river mouth out of sheer completism, but that’s not a malady with which I am afflicted. It was dark and getting cold and I’d seen all of what I wanted to. That being so, I swung westwards along York Street, passing north of the harbour’s Telford Dock.
Sounds of activity were coming from the dockside which, being a working dock, is out of bounds to the public. I could, however, peer in from outside.
The dock is named for Telford, not built by him, being part of a 1990s redevelopment of that part of the harbour.
The big red boat in the photo above is VOS Patience, a Dutch-flagged offshore supply ship under contract to support the North Sea oilfields. She was built in Guangdong, China in 2017 and is approximately 83 m long and 18 m broad and has a top speed of 15 kts (17 mph), which is pretty reasonable for a vessel of her type and size.
VOS Patience was built for and is operated by Vroon Offshore Services (VOS), VOS is a brand of Vroon Group BV, a shipping company founded in 1890 and headquartered in Breda in North Brabant. Although Vroon only established the VOS brand in 2005, they have been operating in the offshore supply sector since 1964.
All I can tell you about the ship berthed next to her is that her name ends with an ‘s;’ I didn’t note it, nor did I capture it in a photo. She will just have to remain another tantalising mystery.
York Street ended at Wellington Street, both being flanked by warehouse buildings. I followed this south towards the harbourside, passing on my way the Fittie Bar, established in 1821 and named for neighbouring Footdee.
I was moderately tempted to stop for a drink, but the prospect of a hot shower in my hotel room proved more alluring. Only marginally more, I grant you, but that was enough to ensure that I passed by.
At southern the end of Wellington Street, I turned right onto Wellington Quay, which faces onto Victoria Dock. Today, this road is characterised by the fenced-off quayside to its left, lined with storage silos, and old warehouses converted into offices on its right.
In the past, when today’s offices were still warehouses fronting directly onto the dockside, the whole quay was criss-crossed with industrial railway tracks, linking the dockside to Waterloo goods depot, opened in 1856. Some tracks of the depot, tucked away behind the warehouses, still remain as good sidings but those across Waterloo Quay are long gone.
This was the area once worked by Mr Therm, hauling coal between Waterloo Quay and the gasworks at Cotton Street.
Closing the Loop
After a while, Waterloo Quay turned into Regent’s Quay and then Trinity Quay beside what had once been (until 1974) the separate Upper Dock, partitioned from Victoria Dock by piers with a hydraulic swing bridge crossing their mouth. This led me back into Guild Street and a return to my hotel.
Despite arriving with only a couple of hours until sunset, I had managed to squeeze in an eight mile loop, taking in a number of things that I had wanted to look at. This pleased me. Although, in the immediate moment, that hot shower pleased me more.
This time: 8 miles
Total since Gravesend: 4,351 miles