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14th-16th Century Water Supply

The Spital Burn and the Westburn were but small streams, and the growing population needed more water for domestic use and more power for making meal. Probably long before 1398, when the Town Council Records begin, and certainly before 1438, an additional supply had been brought from the Denburn, which had been tapped where Gilcumstoun Dam was afterwards formed though it has vanished now. The track of the water may still be followed; but, whereas it was originally open and among fields, it is now among streets and houses and wholly covered up. Water is still taken off from the Denburn at the site of Gilcumstoun Dam and flows along a part of the original course; but it no longer enters the area of the Ancient City, and it is now unfit for domestic use. The water-course runs along the south side of Whitehall Place to Albert Street, and then along the south side of Leadside Road. About the middle of the 19th century the stream of water ran open and was utilised to drive a large undershot wheel for a wool mill in Leadside Road, opposite Grosvenor Place, which was owned by Mr Chadwick.

At Northfield Place, now part of Leadside Road, it was crossed by a Bridge on the old Skene Road as it passed through the village of Gilcomsto(u)n. The road came along Mid Stocket Road, Short Leanings, Jack's Brae, Upper Denburn, and Schoolhill. Jack's Brae took its name from John Jack, farmer at Gilcomston in 1750. Many of the houses of the village are still standing and contrast strongly with the modern houses of Rosemount Place. The selection of the site of the village had been determined by freedom from taxation with an abundant supply of water, and by proximity to the granite quarries on the west side of Craigie Loanings. Francis Douglas, describing a ride to the country made in 1780, says the locality abounded with quarriers and beggars. The former were near their work, and the latter had not been permitted to reside in the city, though no doubt they lived off the inhabitants. Another inducement to live there had been work at a lint mill on the point between Jack's Brae and Leadside Road, erected in 1760. It gave place in 1849 to a Meal Mill still in operation, but the Denburn water is no longer fit to do all the work at the point, and it has been largely supplemented by steam and gas.

At South Mount Street the water-course enters on Baker Street, and there till 1902 stood another Meal Mill, which caused a great commotion in Aberdeen 400 years ago. When the Town Council acquired at some far-back date the right to take the water of the Denburn they did not, buy the land, and they could not prevent the proprietor of Gilcomston from using the water on its way into the Ttown, and he erected a Meal Mill in 1513 at the top of the brae, at the east end of Baker Street. The Mill interfered with the Town's monopoly of meal-making for the citizens, and as it could not be stopped heavy penalties were imposed on those who went past the Town's Mills with their corn to grind; and the farmer tenant of the Mill was debarred from getting any of the fulzie of the City to manure his barren, stony fields. The difficulty was solved in 1679, when the Town bought the land of Gilcomston. The formation of the Dam at Gilcomston may be assigned to the time of the erection of the Mill at Baker Street, because the town had a dam of its own called the Loch. The Lower Mill of Gilcomston was on the south side of Baker Street, and in connection with it there was afterwards erected Gilcomston Brewery, for which the Mill ground the malt used in brewing. The Mill-wheel served also to pump from a deep well the water required for the Brewery and a Distillery attached to it. This had a prejudicial effect on the Well of Gilcomston, a strong spring on the North side of Baker Street, which had been pressed into the service of the Town. It now sends water only to the Well of Spa and a watering trough at the end of the Infirmary.

The Brewery and the Mill were afterwards given up, and after standing long idle they were completely removed in 1902. When the Mill was taken down, there were seen in it separate pairs of stones for grinding oats, wheat, barley, and malt. The fall of water at the Mill-wheel was in the 18th century sometimes turned to another purpose which seems almost incredible now.  At that time, the treatment thought best for violent lunatics was heroic, sometimes even barbarous. They were chained, flogged - even the insane King George III. was flogged - starved, bled, blistered, whirled round on revolving tables, and soused with dashes of cold water. We should have liked to think that such things were not done in Aberdeen ; but in the Royal Infirmary there are stone paved cells in which violent lunatics were confined a 100 years ago, before the Lunatic Asylum was built : and as a remedial treatment for the head, the seat of their malady, they were sometimes placed under the fall of water at the Lower Mill of Gilcomston.

Leaving the Mill the water crossed the street and after a short run at the foot of a bank with a hedge upon it Skene Square was crossed at the end of the last house in Gilcomston Steps. It bears the date 1762, and it is believed to be the oldest house in the place. The Steps of Gilcomston were large stones in the Mill-lead at the upper end of the street called Gilcomston Steps. At the lower end the Spa Burn was crossed by a shallow ford for horses and a foot-bridge for passengers. The water still passes under the 1st house in Skene Square, crossing the railway in a large overhead pipe. Holding 1st north, then east, it crosses Maberly Street and supplies water to a pond at Broadford Works, a service formerly done by the Gilcomston Burn till about 1860. It returns to Maberly Street, crossing it at Charlotte Street, and being now joined by the Westburn, or Gilcomston Burn, it returns to the Denburn at the end of Spa Street. But formerly it had more work to do. In a chamber under the pavement in Maberly Street, which may be explored by entering a gate in a wall on the south side of the street, the Spital Burn and the Westburn were joined by the new water supply from the Denburn.

For a while during last century a portion of the water was diverted down Charlotte Street to drive a wheel in the House of Refuge in Crooked Lane, and another portion was sent along Maberly Street and George Street, after which it went down Correction Wynd to scour woollens in Hadden's Factory in the Green; but. for 100s of years the main part of the water was sent eastward along the south side of Maberly Street and Spring Garden as far as Loch Street. The new supply was much greater than the 1st, but it was at a low level, higher however, than that of the Loch, from which it was separated by a bank. For a long time it ran open, but in 1838 it was covered with long stones which made a foot-walk along the west side of the street. Many of these still remain in their places, though the stream no longer flows beneath them. At Loch Street the burn turned south, and widened out into a broad mill-dam, with a bank of earth between it and the Loch to raise the level of the Dam.

The original Loch had become only a marsh when its feeders were shut, out from it, and then the Mill-dam came to be called the Loch. At the lower end there was a sluice called the Loch E'e (Eye), and here much washing was done and rowdy behaviour was indulged in. To put a stop to it a watch was set at the burn head for "banners and swearers." Another sluice opened on a ditch going round the south and the west sides of the Loch and carried away the spill-water, ending at the outflow at Gilcomston Steps. The Town Council assigned to waulkers and litsters a place for their operations on the short burn between the Loch and Gilcomston Steps, to prevent pollution of the water supply

Litsters (or dyers) such as Adam of Spens (1447) and John Litster, who in 1498 was living in the Green next door to the Carmelite Friary, had a serious impact on the Town's water supply.  Statutes from the 15th century onward show that both the loch and the common rivulets in the Town were polluted by these Craftsmen washing their produce. A statute of 1507 mentions that gutters which ran to and from their workhouses ought to be closed as they were having an impact on the Town's water supply. It was also stipulated that the Litsters should only wash their cloths in the burn that passed from the west end of the Loch to the Denburn. It is possible too that the Aberdeen craft produced similar problems to those in London where there were complaints of foundations being rotted by the large amount of waste water produced through the repeated washing of cloth.

On 9 October 1496, red cloth was singled out for polluting the water supply.  Interestingly, 2 types of red dye have been identified in cloth remains from Medieval Aberdeen; one is from the plant madder, which can produce a brick red; and the other from the insect kermes.  Both dyes, if used in Aberdeen, would have been imported with the kermes coming from the Mediterranean where it lives on the branches of a species of oak tree.  In 1512, the Council decreed that Waulkers (or Fullers) whose job it was to cleanse and thicken the cloth should not hang it to dry over the walls of St Nicholas Church or within the Kirkyard.  Fullers, like Dyers and Tanners, seem to have worked near the Loch, using the water and polluting it in the process. (Tanner Street was narrowest section of George Street) Amongst them, perhaps, John Broune in 1455 and Robert Swyntone in 1492. There is no direct archaeological evidence of the locations where Fullers operated, but many of the pieces of fulled medieval cloth found on excavations in Aberdeen must have been through their hands.

1828 - John WOOD - Map of the Cities of Aberdeen

The sight of women doing their washing often gave rise to ribald gatherings of lecherous men as a Spectator Sport.  Tucking their skirts in their bloomers and dancing on the sheets before Brassieres could contain their ample and athletic figures must have been quite an attraction to rampant males starved of feminine exposure.

The ditch between the Loch E'e and the outflow was intended to drain the Loch; but Gordon's map in 1661 shows a burn flowing round the whole Loch like Styx round Hades, and over the Burn on the west side there is inscribed : - "The draught of the Burne which entereth the Citie." In this he is certainly wrong, for Sir Samuel Forbes in 1715 says that the east burn was the water supply. The levels also are against him. The ground on the west side of the marsh was 6 or 7 feet lower than that on the east side. At the south end of the Loch there were Tanners' pits on the east of George Street, to which water had been admitted by 1 of the sluices. These pits gave the name Tannery Street to the narrow part of George Street.

James Gordon - Map of Aberdeen 1661

The Mill-burn issued from the dam by the Loch E'e, and entered an archway in a house on which there is an Ordnance Survey mark, 58.7 feet above the sea, exactly the same as the level of the south end of Broad Street; but it is not likely that the new supply had been intended to drive the Mill there. The Mill-burn ran along the east side of Burn Court, and came out at No. 48 Upperkirkgate, outside the Port, though in "The Book of Bon- Accord" the port is said to have been on the west side of the Burn. It crossed the street spanned by a Bridge and entered Landlord's Court, No 45, now closed. At Barnett's Close it turned west and drove a Wheel, which served 1st a Meal Mill and afterwards a Flour Mill. This was the Upper Mill, which continued to work till 1865. Having no houses to avoid the Burn crossed diagonally Flourmill Brae, the east side of St Nicholas Street, and the Netherkirkgate, which once extended to the East Gate of the Churchyard. An iron plate at the junction of Netherkirkgate and St Nicholas Street marks the site of the Little Bow Brig over the Burn. It crossed to No. 15 St Nicholas Street and passed under it in the basement. Its course was seen in 1903, when an old house was taken down, and a new one was founded deeper than the old. The burn-course was found to be 3 ft wide, with edges of well-dressed granite blocks cemented with mastic. The burn here sent off a branch to the West, which had been intended for a spill-water or to divert the Burn when it was not required for the Mid Mill. There is no trace of the west branch in Gordon's Map, 1661, but the 2 burns are mentioned in the Chartulary of St Nicholas (11. 51, 73), in the 15th century; and both are shown on Taylor's Map, 1773, and Milne's 1789, in the triangular block of buildings in the East part of the Green.

In the Foundation Charter of the Hospital dedicated to St Thomas, 1459, the Mill-burn is given as the East boundary of the ground belonging to it, Correction Wynd as the West, and Netherkirkgate as the North. Correction Wynd got its name from a House of Correction in the Wynd, where culprits had to work at weaving woollen fabrics. It stopped work in 1711, but so long as it was carried on it might have utilised the West branch of the Burn. The west branch crossed St Nicholas Lane and Union Street, passing under No 95 and the West end of the Market, rejoining the East Branch at the Nether Mill.

The East Branch passed under the house in St Nicholas Street called the Lemon Tree Bar, crossed St Nicholas Lane, and passed under the Commercial Bank office. Originally it descended the steep bank on the north side of the Green and ran straight to the Nether Mill; but in 1619 the Town Council, anxious to make as much as possible out of its motive power, erected the Mid Mill in a house on the East side of the Burn. An entry in the Council Register notes a payment for refreshment on the occasion of buying the house to be used for the Mill. It was at 1st a Meal Mill, but afterwards it was converted into a Malt Mill. Though mentioned in the letterpress on Gordon's map, its position is not shown ; but we see it in Milne's Map. It is in it 60 feet from the East Green, which would bring it to the centre of Union Street, in front of the Commercial Bank, and it had been buried up when Union Street was formed.  The water, however, was not lost. It was conveyed in a tunnel still in existence under Union Street, and in the basement of the house opposite the bank it drove a Glass Cutter's wheel for some time. It crossed the East Green, and passed under the Market when it was built in 1842. This was the 1st house built between Market Street and Union Bridge. It was built by a Druggist to utilise the Mill-burn for grinding drugs. It crossed Fisher Row, where Hadden Street is now, and crossing Exchange Street obliquely it drove the Nether Mill, which stood on the south of the site of the North of Scotland Bank. At first the Nether Mill was a Meal Mill, then it was converted into a Malt Mill, and afterwards into a Sawmill; and the little bridge by which it was crossed in Fisher Row was called the Maut Mill Brig. Fisher Row sloped down from the Green to the end of the Shiprow, but it was held as ending at the Brig. Having done its work at the Nether Mill the Burn rounded the West end of the Trinity Friars' Grounds, and about the end of Exchange Street rejoined the Denburn, which it had left at Gilcomston Dam. The united stream latterly ended in the north-west corner of the Upper Dock. When the increasing importation of Flour from America rendered the working of small Flour Mills unprofitable in this country, the Upper Mill was sold and the Mill was removed. There was then no necessity for sending water along the old track, and now, after crossing Maberly Street, the Westburn and the water taken off at Gilcomston Dam turn south alongside the old Comb-Works and join the Denburn at the end of Spa Street, at a place called Rotten Holes in Gordon's Map. This name is composed of 2 Gaelic words, both of which mean hill. The name refers to the brae on the north side of the Burn. Taylor's Map of Aberdeen shows the small Putachie stream joining the Denburn near Trinity Hospital, below the Nether Mill.

Kingswells can claim the most famous of the burns, the Denburn, which rises at Kingsford and runs for 4 miles between the Lang Stracht and the Skene Road into Aberdeen. It starts as a series of field drains, and emerges as a burn in the second field east of the drive to Kingswells House (Inset). It flows behind the public hall, on past the Huxterstone Fields to the Maidencraig Gorge, straight on under the Woodend Hospital Bridge, and into Aberdeen, via the Rubislaw Den (where it is supposed to have got its name: of according to Lawrence, 1908) past the Grammar School, on to the Upper Denburn, where it is underground, and, still underground, Work on the Denburn Railwayjoins with the Gilcomston or Westburn under the Union Bridge beneath the Railway Lines, beneath the Railway Station next, and finally joins the North Sea, its estuary being the present-day Upper Harbour. It ends, therefore, as a series of town drains. It has 600 years of City history and has been fully and lovingly described by Lawrence. Some streets have taken their names form it: behind Woolmanhill, the Upper Denburn; beside the Green, Denburn Road; (formerly Mutton Brae) in Union Terrace Gardens, a garage called the Denburn. It used to be Aberdeen’s main water supply for domestic purposes and supplied the Cistern at Fountainhall Road. One can now guess the origin of the name of that road.

The Denburn from its Source to the Sea - C M Lawrence

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Last modified: 01/09/2013