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17th Century Water Supply

The original and natural supply of water for Aberdeen was the Denburn, which bounded the Town from Gilcomstoun to its mouth between Pocra Quay and Point Law. At some early date previous to 1398, when the burgh records begin, the two burns which fed the Loch - the Spital Burn and the Westburn - had been diverted and taken along a higher course lying north and east of the Loch and along the Guestrow to drive a Mill at the east-end of Netherkirkgate, and to supply water to the residents in the higher parts of the Town.  At a later period, but still apparently too early to be mentioned in the Records, the Denburn had been diverted at Gilcomston Dam and brought along Leadside Road, Baker Street, Maberly Street, Spring Garden, and Loch Street, to drive a Mill at Flourmill Brae and another in the Green. This new supply was conjoined the 1st, which ran along. the Guestrow.

Proposal for More Water
In 1632, during the Provostship of Sir Paul Menzies, a proposal was made for bringing pure spring water into the Town, because that derived from the Loch, fed by the Denburn, Westburn, and Spital Burn, was "filthillie defyllit and corruptit, not onlie by gutteris daylie rynning in the burne, but also be litsters and the washing of clothes and abussing of the water in sindrie partis with other sorts of uncleanness." Among other sources of pollution were geese which frequented the Loch. It must be remembered that the Loch mentioned was not the original great sheet of water so named, but a long Mill-dam extending along the west side of Loch Street from Spring Garden to St Paul Street. It was a few feet higher in level than the marsh in the bed of the original Loch, from which it was separated by a high broad mound of 'sludge' dug out of the bed of the Mill-Dam. Additions had been made of mud thrown out when the Dam was cleaned occasionally by the joint efforts of the Citizens. The pear shaped Dam was 13 ft wide at Spring Garden, 18ft in the middle, and 30ft at St Paul Street. The roadway along its east side was 13 ft wide at the north end and at the south. As the supply of water was scarcely sufficient for grinding meal for the people it must have been an exaggeration to say that the water of the Loch stank and was green with floating vegetation; but it could not possibly have been fit for domestic use. As a deterrent against wilful pollution it was ordained that servant lasses who cast privies into the Loch or the Burn should be 'jouggit' for 2 hours. Jougging (from Latin jugum, a yoke) was a punishment inflicted by enclosing the neck in an iron collar, jointed in front and fastened by a lock at the back to a staple in a wall or in a wooden post. The chain of the jougs in use in the parish of Nigg still hangs beside the door of the old St Fitticks Church.  A head court of the citizens was called to consider the state of the Loch and to see if a new supply could be got. The craftsmen agreed to stent themselves to the extent of 1000 merks, £666 13s 4d, to provide a supply of pure water; whereupon an Act of the Privy Council of Scotland was obtained next year sanctioning the scheme; but it was seen that the sum guaranteed was insufficient, and nothing was done at the time. In a few years the troubles of the Civil War came, in which Aberdeen suffered severely both in men and means; and in 1647 there was a return of the terrible plague which had often before visited the City.

Great efforts were made to ward off infection, but the disease gained an entrance. As soon as persons were seen to be smitten they were removed to huts in the Links, where those who did not recover were buried.  An entry in the Burgh Records tells a sad tale. "For casting 37,000 feal to cover the graves of them that died in the infection and were buried among the sands."  In making a sewer along the Links some years ago the burial-place was crossed east of the Rope Works, and many bones were met with. More recently many skeletons were found in the foundation of a house in Carmelite Street.  Bodies of persons who died of the Plague had been interred in trenches in the open grassy place called the Green. No doubt the want of drainage and the abominable condition of the Loch, polluted with excrementitious matters, contributed to the virulence of the Plague when it broke out; but yet it seems never to have originated spontaneously, but only by contagion. In 1682 another attempt was made to get pure water, but the proposal was received unfavourably, owing to the losses sustained by the Citizens in the War time and to the diminished population.

James Gordon - Map of Aberdeen 1661

Garden's Well - Cardenshaugh Well
It was not till 1706 that the inhabitants determined that they would no longer put up with Loch water and agreed to bear the expense of bringing pure water from Garden's Well, a spring on the left bank of the Denburn, near the Grammar School, in the line of Victoria Street and at the east end of the lane behind the feus in the east side of Skene Street. A Cistern was made to which was conveyed the produce of several short collecting drains. The spring bubbled up among the sand at the edge of the burn. It was reckoned to be strong, but the discharge from it did not exceed 3 gallons per minute. Sometimes in dry weather it nearly failed, and then recourse was had to the Denburn to supplement it. The spring in the margin of the Denburn is now very feeble, but a Well called Garden's Well is still in existence though out of use on the east side of Garden House. The well is in the bottom of the garden behind Garden House. It was out of the town and formed the goal of many young couples out for a walk in a summer evening.  At the Well the chief amusement was splashing one another with water from the Well.  The water was in request for making tea, an expensive luxury a 100 years ago, and therefore a little extra trouble was not grudged in connection with it.  Water for afternoon tea was carried to considerable distances from Garden Well, and it was frequently called the "Tea Wallie." It is usually supposed that there must have been a Saint named Garden or Gardan to whom the spring was dedicated. But the full name of this Well was formerly Cardenhaugh Well, so that it had been named from a place and not a person. There is a Gardenwell in Fyvie, and several places are called Kincardine, so Garden seems to be a place name. It comes from Gaelic "cathair" (pronounced caer), place, seat ; and " dain " ; genitive of " dan," judgment - the name meaning, therefore, the Well at the place where a Baron held his Courts (usually in the open air) for trying causes among his Tenants.

The water was taken into the town by a lead pipe following the Denburn to the Well of Spa. There it left the course of the Burn and went up by Black's Buildings and along Schoolhill. At the east end of Schoolhill, on the south side of the street, it supplied a stone Cistern Well. Here the main pipe divided into 2 branches. One going south supplied a cistern well in Netherkirkgate at the head of Carnegie's Brae, opposite the end of Flourmill Lane. This well is shown in "Scotia Depicta" The rounded corner of the Benholme House between Netherkirkgate and the Brae is called Wallace Neuk. Some think that Wallace is a corruption of Well-house, making the Well the origin of the name ; but much more likely it arose from the supposition that the figure cased in plate armour in a niche in the corner represents Sir William Wallace, who, according to Blind Harry, visited Aberdeen. There is no doubt, however, that it represents Sir Robert Keith of Benholm, whose town residence it was. The initials S E K B, for Sir Robert Keith, Benholm, were once visible on the pediment of an upper window. Sir Robert died in 1616. Descending Carnegie's Brae, the pipe supplied a Well in the Green, shown on Taylor's Map, 1773, and another at the Shore. The other branch ascended Upperkirkgate, and supplied a Well in the Gallowgate and another in Broad Street in front of Greyfriars Church, where a Reservoir or Water House was afterwards erected. There was another Well near the south end of Broad Street, east side, and a large cistern well in Castlegate.

The Castlegate Well
This Well is shown on Taylor's Map a little east of the line of Marischal Street, and it is a prominent feature in Irvine's "Castlegate in 1800."  Men with barrels on sledges frequented the well collecting water, which they hauled through the streets and offered for sale. This was forbidden because they never allowed the water to accumulate in the Cistern, and, the supply being small, women had usually to stand a long time at the Well before they got a pair of pails filled.  The cistern was surmounted by a "Mannie," whose acquaintance young Aberdeen used to make very early in life: now he stood in the Green almost unnoticed. When the cistern was 1st erected a brass gilt statue 3ft 6 inches high was ordered for the top, and 4 "antick" figures with 3 faces each were to be placed at the corners of the cope, the cost to be added to the water debt, already amounting to; £157l; but there was some delay in setting about casting the statue and figures, and the zeal of the Citizens having cooled they resolved to be content with the wooden model of the "Mannie" which had been prepared. With a coat of gold leaf it looked very well for a time. In 1852 the cistern was removed to the Green; a statue cast in lead was substituted ; and the "antick" figures are now seen at the corners, though they are not visible in Irvine's view of the Castlegate.

The pure water was in great demand but the supply was inadequate, and from early morn till late at night there was always some one at the Well. To prevent waste and to secure that the water would not be used for other purposes than drinking and cooking it was forbidden to water horses and to wash clothes at the Well and to carry water away in barrels and tubs. A housewife intending to have a big washing employed a man who had a sledge drawn by a horse to bring her a supply of water. The Loch and the Denburn were still for many people the chief supplies of water, though all alike had to bear their share of assessment to repay the Well debt and to uphold the supply. When the Denburn was straightened in 1758 litsters were forbidden to scour stockings in it above the Bow Brig, and there circular basins were formed for watering horses.

Note also the Bath House on the bank of the Denburn on this map between the basins.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013