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Prof Patrick Copeland

18th Century Water Supply ~
1742 - 1769

Gilcomston Fountains
Water was so scarce in 1742 that it was resolved to bring a spring from the neighbourhood of North Rubislaw, a farm lying between the Denburn on the south and Gilcomston or Westburn on the north.  In a nursery garden on the south side of Morningfield Road there is a well in a hollow. This well marks the site of a marsh shown on Paterson's Map, 1746, in which the Gilcomston Burn rose. Thence it ran in a pretty straight course south-east across the ground now occupied by Forest Road, Carlton Place, Fountainhall Road, Blenheim Place, and Desswood Place. From the crossing of these last 2 streets it ran along the south side of a row of trees in Desswood Place, formerly part of the old Fountainhall Road, and joined the Denburn a few yards above Gilcomston Dam. This small stream, which has now quite disappeared from sight, was of some importance at one time, because it was the boundary between the lands of Gilcomston belonging to the Town, and Rubislaw belonging to the family of Skene of Old Rubislaw House; but it was still more important because it was for many years the chief water supply for Aberdeen.

Once fed by the waters of the Denburn on its eastward course from Kingswells and Rubislaw Den, the Gilcomston Dam lay between Leadside Road and the present Osborne Place. It was in existence as early as 1673, when it is mentioned in a disposition of sale of surrounding land to the Aberdeen Corporation, and in the sale, the meal mill of Gilcomston is mentioned. The dam was drained and filled in by the Town Council in 1907 as it had become insanitary and a favourite place for drowning cats and dogs.

The spring selected to supplement Garden's Well (Cardenhaugh Well) was probably on the site of No 87 on the south side of Desswood Place, and from it the water was conveyed by a lead pipe to the cistern at Garden's Well. It yielded 5 gallons per minute, and Fountainhall House in Blenheim Place took its name from this fountain. This augmentation did good, but the supply was still deficient, and in 1766 more water was obtained from the small Gilcomston Burn. A drain was cast from Short Loanings along Leadside Road, Whitehall Place, and Desswood Place, and afterwards extended to the Well in the Nursery Garden, with branches to a well in the line of Forest Road and to another at Morningfield. The drain was formed of U-shaped channel stones with covers. Cistern houses were built at intervals to collect the produce of short branch drains and to allow sediment in the water to settle before it entered the drain. The 1st Cistern House was on the south side of Carlton Place, near the east end, where a skating pond was afterwards made.  Here in a very dry time in the early part of last century a well was sunk to the depth of 60 feet, and men were kept working a fire engine pump night and day to keep up the supply of water. The water from this deep Well was warmer than that coming to the skating pond from the Wells above it, and there was usually a spot without ice where the Well was, when the rest of the pond was frozen over.

The 2nd Cistern or Fountain-House was on the North side of Desswood Place (Old Fountainhall Road), about 160 yards from the lower end of Whitehall Place. This house remained entire till 1905, when it was removed and rebuilt in Duthie Park.

James Mackie and John Burnet, 1706. Small rubble cistern house built into hillside. Flat-arched opening to centre of South Elevation with large lintel, metal plaque above reading "Old Well from Lands of Fountainhall, erected in connection with the 1st City Water Supply 1706, Re-erected 1903". Rectangular pool in front, with 4 stone steps on each side leading down to water; brick and stone lined vaulted inner chamber.

This small Cistern House was erected in connection with Aberdeen?s 18th Century water supply. Water had previously been obtained from the Loch but by 1706 it had become polluted and lead pipes were laid to bring water from Carden's Haugh Well.

A total of 6 Cisterns or Fountain-Houses were built along the old Fountainhall Road and water was conveyed from these sources to the Water House in Broad Street until 1866. A new scheme was eventually introduced and in 1903 the Fountainhall Well was taken from its original site and rebuilt in Duthie Park.

Fountainhall House, now 130 Blenheim Place, an 18th century 2-storey house with period gateway and ironwork, commemorates, through its original name of Fountain Haugh, the days when reservoirs and cisterns dotted the area. The old 1706 cistern from Fountainhall is now in Duthie Park.

On the other side of the road there was a Filter House (shown in Taylor's Map), where water taken in from the Denburn by a pipe was allowed to settle and deposit sediment before being let into the main drain at the fountain-house. This, however, was done only when the spring water fell short. Just below this settling-house the Gilcomston Burn turned south and entered the Denburn. It is important to keep in view that the pipe and the settling-house were on the Estate of Rubislaw, and though for many years the right of the Town Council to have water brought by this pipe had not been challenged, yet when it was removed with the view of substituting a larger pipe and taking more water from the Denburn the proprietor of Rubislaw prevented this from being done and landed the Town Council in a great difficulty.

The 3rd House was on the east side of Whitehall Road, where it joins Whitehall Place ; and the 4th was in the corner of a garden on the east side of the road to Westfield Terrace. The 5th was at a tree at the bottom of Craigie Loanings on the East side; and the 6th was 140 yards farther East on the north side of Upper Leadside Road. At the bottom of Short Loanings the water left the stone drain, and entered a lead pipe, by which it was conveyed to a Water House reservoir erected in Broad Street in front of Greyfriars Church. It was removed in 1902 though it had not been in use after the introduction of the water of the Dee at Cairnton. The produce of the fountain-house line of springs was 17 gallons per minute, which brought up the total supply to about 26 gallons. A few more cistern wells were erected in the town, and supplies were granted to the Infirmary and Gordon's Hospital. The course of the pipe was to the north of the Infirmary and the Hospital, through gardens and along George Street to Upperkirkgate.

The Reservoir or Water House
The Reservoir or Water House in Broad Street was necessary because the fountains did not accumulate water but were merely contrivances for collecting water from short drains and securing that it should enter the main drain free of sediment. This was effected by making a water-tight chamber into which the short drains poured their tribute of water. Through the bottom of the chamber passed a vertical pipe communicating with the main drain below and rising a foot or more above the floor. When the water rose in the chamber sufficiently high it passed down the pipe into the drain. The fountain houses were small, low buildings, with vaulted stone roofs. They had doors by which they could be entered to clean out the chamber. One in Desswood Place (Old Fountainhall Road) near the bottom of Whitehall Place, where the ground rose, was wholly underground and may not have had a door.

The operations for bringing water from the fountains began in 1766, and the Water House Reservoir in Broad Street was completed in 1769. It was an imposing structure with a pediment gable and a clock. It stood till 1902 though it had not been in use for 40 years. Its clock had been removed before the house was taken down, and it was put up at the City Hospital near the Links. The lower part of the Water-house was convenient for holding workmen's tools, and the Reservoir was in the upper part. When it was taken down onlookers were puzzled by the sight of 2 wooden floors, with an interval of 1 foot between them. The mystery of the 2 floors may be explained by an incident which happened a long time after the erection of the Water-house. One day there was a great commotion among the citizens on account of the strange taste of the water from the reservoir. The waterman confessed that seeing the floor of the reservoir had become leaky he had given it a coat of coal tar. Apparently this had not been permanently effective, and a new floor had been laid above the 1st. The reservoir was intended to supply all the old wells in the town, and also some new wells, by gravitation. Its site was about 70 feet above the sea, and the surface of the water when it was full may have been 10 or 15 feet higher. This would have sent water to any part of the town except the highest part of the Gallowgate, which rises to nearly 95 feet, and Seamount which is even higher.

Trying to raise water to all parts of the town proved fatal to the efficient working of the system. The connection of the stone conduit with the lead pipe at Short Loanings was about 100 feet up, which gave but little fall to the Reservoir, and the lead pipe was only a little over 2 inches in diameter. This was much too small with the slight fall, and the result was that it took 24 hours to fill the Reservoir, and, as was afterwards found, some of the water coming down the drain never entered the pipe but escaped over the top of the channel in the stones.

18th Century Water Supply ~ 1775 - 1812

The Water Caddies
There were many quaint trades in Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries and many colourful personalities. Among them must be mentioned the water caddies, a turbulent crew, who in these days. made a living by selling water to the lieges of Scottish towns at a penny per stoup. They were to be seen bearing their staffs and wearing their leather aprons, their little barrels on their backs, negotiating the tenement stairs, ready to curse and brawl on the slightest provocation, a sore trial to the Magistrates.  The youngest Water Caddie had the unfortunate traditional privilege to lead the condemned to the Gallows.

Gilcomston Well
After a few years a demand was made for an additional supply, and in 1775 a fine spring was found in the angle between Baker Street and the east side of Calton Terrace. The Well was deep, and it may have been in old red sandstone rock, which was found in making the Railway near by and also in passing a sewer under the tunnel in Hutcheon Street. Much water was found in both these operations. The well is still in existence, though few people know of it. In Baker Street an iron plate may be seen in the foot pavement near the end of Calton Terrace, and on lifting it steps are seen leading under the garden wall into the vaulted chamber containing the well. After its water was given up for town use it continued to supply a well at the corner where Baker Street and Gilcomston Steps meet. It also supplied a watering-trough at the corner of the Infirmary, and the Well of Spa after it was shifted from its original place to the back of the Infirmary.

The surface of the ground at the Well is about 65 feet up, and the level of the water at the outflow had not been above 60 feet. This was too low to enter the Broad Street Reservoir, but it served to supply the Infirmary, Gordon's Hospital, a Cistern Well at the bottom of Schoolhill, a Well in the Green, and also the Shore Well, which may have been at Shore Brae. This supply was called the lower or new course, to distinguish it from the Fountainhall supply, which was called the upper or old course. This spring was a great acquisition, and for a while it greatly benefited the lower parts of the Town, but 2 mishaps befell it. The track of the pipe conveying the water to the town was through the Lochlands, then in grass, and thence by the shortest way to the Well in Schoolhill. It had been resolved to keep the Lochlands permanently in grass ; but after a time houses were built, and later on the whole ground was laid out in streets for building. In the course of investigations as to the source of a waste of water, which was suspected, a leak was found under a Carpenter's Shop in the Lochlands.

Gilcomston Distillery

The Mill lade from Gilcomston Dam to the Loch passed along the north side of Baker Street; and here the Town Council had granted a site for a lint mill, with water power to 'scutch' the lint, and a croft on the south side of the road to spread out the lint upon after being in the steep. In 1751 the mill and the croft were transferred to a distillery company on a tack of 99 years, at £? per acre, a condition being that the tack would terminate if the property were used for any other purpose than a Distillery. The business did not prosper, and in 1763 the Town Council permitted the lease to be assigned to a Brewery company, with leave to take water by a lead pipe from the  mill lade.
Scutching: - The flax was bruised on a stone with a timber club to break up the outer straw and release the fibre. Hand scutching was done with an upright board, which had a slot at one side near the top. A handful of flax would be held in this slot and turned while the fibres were beaten down against the side of the board with a wooden bladed scutching tool.

Gilcomston Brewery
In 1766 the company got leave to divert the Mill burn to the south side of the road to drive a wheel there, on condition of returning it to the north side. This led to an extension of the Brewery company's premises and business. A Mill-house was erected on the south side of the road with 2 pairs of millstones in one end for grinding oats and wheat, and 2 pairs in the other for barley and malt. The mill-wheel was in a pit crossing the middle of the house, which had to be deep because the water passed over the wheel. This wheel was intended merely to drive millstones; but another use was found for it. In digging the pit water was found. Much water was required for brewing, and hitherto the only supply had been the Mill burn. The Brewery Company, however, wishing to have spring water for making their malt liquors, sank a deep well in the Mill-house beside the wheel, and put in a pump worked by the wheel to raise water.

Rival Wells
The Wells of the Brewery company and the Town Council were so near each other that they were competitors for the same water, and the Brewery Well being the deeper it got most water. In 1791, the driest year then on record, a Committee of the Citizens was appointed to investigate and if possible find more water for the Town. They found that by lowering the outlet from the Well at Gilcomston they got 30 gallons per minute; but as the outlet was only 20 inches above the lip of the Cistern of the Schoolhill Well the pipe did not take in more than 6 gallons per minute. Some persons had been advocating a new supply from 2 springs at Hazelhead on the Holburn, and to help them to decide what they should do the Committee brought to Aberdeen Mr Gordon, Superintendent of the Edinburgh Waterworks, who got 50 guineas to report on the water. By cutting the pipes on both the upper and lower courses at the lowest places and testing the discharges there and at the Cisterns and Reservoir, Mr Gordon was able to show that insufficient fall was the main cause of the insufficiency of both systems. He therefore proposed to take up the 2 or 2-1/2 inch lead pipe and substitute for it a 3-inch pipe made of trunks of Elm trees. This would carry more water; and to get more fall he proposed also to substitute for the stone conduit, pipes of elm, which would retain at the lower end, water entering at the Fountains on the upper part of the course. The Aberdonians objected to wooden pipes, but Mr Gordon assured them that they were in use in London, Newcastle, Perth, and Edinburgh. In London, water was supplied to any place only 1 in 48 hours, and as the pipes gave the water a taste few people drank water there. In Edinburgh other materials, lead and iron, were also in use. In Perth Fir had been tried, but had been given up for Lead. Mr Gordon recommended wood because it was cheap and would last 30 years; and it was easier to make connections with it than with iron pipes. He recommended also that water should be brought in Elm pipes from Hazelhead, which would double the supply.  It was resolved to adopt Mr Gordon's recommendations, but to use Iron instead of Wood. A Bill was prepared and brought into Parliament in 1794; but it did not pass. It made provision for paying off a large sum alleged to be still due on former schemes, whereas the Citizens said that if the Town Council had kept the water accounts properly and separately it would have been seen that the debt incurred on account of the water had been already paid, and they opposed the Bill.

Act of 1795
In 1795 another Bill was promoted on the same lines and it passed, but with the provision that water should not be brought from Hazelhead till every possible effort had been made to increase the supply from the existing sources at Fountainhall and Gilcomston. The execution of the powers conferred by the Act was given to a Water Commission, not to the Town Council, and the powers were limited to 21 years. Little was done under the new Act till 1806, when the lead pipe of the upper course was taken up and 5-inch iron pipes - cast in Aberdeen - were substituted. After serving their purpose these were taken up, and some of them may still be seen at the Police Stores in Jasmine Terrace. They were flanged at the ends, and connected by bolts. The town was very proud of the quality and workmanship of the pipes; and still more of the success attending their introduction. They were tried with water from the Mill burn, and they filled the reservoir in 4 hours, whereas the Lead pipe required a whole day. This was just what they ought to have done, seeing that the cross sectional area of the iron pipes was more than 4 times that of the lead.

About this time it was discovered that there was a leak in the low course pipe under a Carpenter's shop off George Street, where 21 gallons out of 30 entering the pipe at Gilcomston Well were lost. The lead pipe was taken up and a 4-inch cast-iron pipe was substituted. The new pipe was laid down in the lines of streets instead of taking short cuts through gardens in the Lochlands. At the junction of George Street and Schoolhill and Upperkirkgate the pipes of the upper and lower courses crossed each other, and a connection was made between them, furnished with a stop-cock. On filling the pipes and opening the cock it was found that the Cistern at Short Loanings ceased to overflow, which it had been doing for some time. This showed that there was too little fall on the higher course between Short Loanings and the Reservoir in Broad Street. To secure more fall on the upper course the stone conduit was taken up, and a 6-inch iron pipe was laid down from Short Loanings to Fountain No 1 at Carlton Place. No additional pressure would have been gained if the pipe had been open to receive water at all the old fountains. We may, therefore, assume that the Iron pipe had been close as far up as to Craigie Loanings, where there would have been a gain of 10 feet of fall on the upper course. The water from the lower fountains must have been excluded, and to compensate for this the main drain was extended to the nursery Well, with branches to the Forest Road and Morningfield springs. The Water Commission was bound by the Act of 1795 to make every possible effort to increase the supply from the existing sources before going to Hazelhead, and so they resolved to take more water from the Denburn. In 1807 they took up the small lead pipe which had hitherto been used to take in Burn water in dry times. Its diameter was said by the Commissioners to have been 2 inches. It was not, however, till 1812 that another and larger pipe of cast-iron was substituted for it. Mr Skene of Rubislaw gave his consent, but the Gilcomston Brewery Company objected on account of the loss of driving power for their Mill-wheel by the abstraction of the water. The Commissioners gave them a solatium of £60 or £70, and this difficulty was overcome. There was a filtering bed in a small house in Mr Skene's Ground on the south side of Desswood Place, and after passing through it the water was taken across the road to a Fountain-house, where it entered the main pipe. Traces of the filtering house were still visible in the beginning of this century; but it and all the fountain-houses have disappeared.

Aberdeen 1875

The Aberdeenshire Canal had been opened in 1805, and it supplied water suitable for washing and other cleaning purposes, though not for drinking or cooking. Many pump wells had been sunk for the new houses in Union Street. West of Union Bridge every new house had a pump of its own, or the right to take water from 1 common pump to several houses. The lowering of the outflow of Gilcomston Well had rendered this supply unavailable for any but the lower parts of the town; but the quantity was maintained and it amounted to 30-40 gallons per minute. From all sources the supply of Aberdeen amounted to about 100 gallons per minute, and the town had never before in its history been so well supplied with pure water.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013