The Doric Columns


The Old Bridge of Dee dating from the early 14th century was begun by Bishop William Elphinstone c.1493. Further building started in 1518 and was carried out by Alexander Galloway and Thomas Franche. In 1840, the bridge was widened by John Smith, the City Architect.

Before the Bridge of Dee was built the Main Road to the South crossed the Dee by a Ford at the end of the Hardgate, about Ruthrieston Terrace, and followed the bank of the Dee to the burn at Hildontree and then turned South. On the top of the hill there was a peat moss, through which the road passed.  It was sometimes hardly possible to get through the moss, so the Town Council of Aberdeen got an Act of Parliament authorising them' to improve the road and build a gate or port on the road, where all who used the road should pay toll for maintaining it. The improved part was called the Calsay of the Cowie Mounth, but probably all that had been done to improve the road had been to give it a coat of loose gravel, for the road is frequently mentioned as being in a bad way. The Ford of the Dee must have been dangerous in winter, and a bridge across the river was much needed. It seems to have been several times proposed.  In 1384 John Crab, Burgess of Aberdeen, gave to his son Paul by letter the lands of Kincorth, pledged to him for a sum of money lent to the Abbot of Arbroath.  The letter said that if the Abbot repaid the loan and reclaimed the land his son should have part of the money for his own use and hold other £50 sterling on deposit for a Bridge over the Dee.  It said further that he gave his son an annual payment falling to him from the Barony of Findon among the Grampian Mountains for the use, work, and maintenance of the Causay of the Mounth and the Bridge of Dee. It is not clear from the letter whether the bridge was already constructed or only to be constructed. Moreover, if the Abbot did not repay the money there was no obligation laid upon the son to give £50 for the bridge; and in 1392 Paul Crab disposed of the 40s. annuity to William Chalmers, Provost of Aberdeen, apparently without reference to the Causay of the Mounth or the Bridge over the Dee (" Registrum Episcopatus Aberdonensis," II. 286-287).

In 1459 the Town Council appointed Master John of Levingston, Vicar of Inverugie, to be master of the work of a Bridge proposed to be built over the Dee. There is, however, no evidence that any bridge had ever been erected over the Dee near Aberdeen before 1520. It is generally believed that Bishop William Elphinstone, who died in 1514, began the building of the Bridge of Dee. In his edition of Hector Boece's " Lives of the Bishops of Mortlach and Aberdon " Dr James Moir says in the Index : -" Dee, Bishop Elphinstone begins bridge over, 98." When reference is made to p. 98 we find that the text does not warrant this statement. It says that the last enterprise which the Bishop took up was building the Bridge of Dee; and that in a short time he got ready very many [dressed] stones and pieces of wood, and as much rubble as seemed sufficient for completing a great part of the work.  Bishop Elphinstone died in 1514 and was succeeded by Alexander Gordon, who held office till 1518. Boece goes on to relate that in (Gordon's time mention was frequently made of Bishop William Elphinstone's legacies for building the bridge, and that both his Trustees and those who had come into possession of his property were called to account, but that nothing could be done at the time, seeing that Bishop Elphinstone had not selected a site for the bridge and that the public would not take any interest in the matter. It is therefore manifest that the building of the bridge had not begun before 1518, when Gavin Dunbar became Bishop.

Boece relates that on Bishop Dunbar's entry into Aberdeen he was met by a procession of Ecclesiastics and University men, 1 of whom addressed him in a long speech and urged him to complete the undertakings of Bishop Elphinstone, which had been lying in abeyance since his death, special mention being made of the Bridge of Dee. Boece says that the new Bishop examined the preparations which had been made for the bridge and was seized with a strong desire to build it.  He says, further that without long delay the bridge had been begun, the Bishop contributing liberally to the work, and that at the time when he was writing (1522) a great part of the work had been done, with a good hope that the whole would be accomplished. The bridge was completed in 1527. It was therefore a scheme of Bishop Elphinstone, who made some preparations for the work but was not able to make a commencement and died without selecting a site. He left in the hands of Trustees a large sum of money to be devoted to building the bridge. Nothing, however, was done daring the time of his successor, Bishop Alexander Gordon, and the whole work of constructing the bridge fell to be done by Bishop Gavin Dunbar. As first constructed the bridge was 432 feet long and 16 feet wide. It consisted of 7 semicircular arches with 5 ribs. The ribs may be regarded as an indication that the bridge is not altogether solid masonry, but that, with the design of lightening the load on the piers and the haunches of the arches, internal longitudinal walls had been built, one at each rib, which necessitated the making the rib arches of longer and better stones than those where there are voids. The stones had all been dressed to their proper size and shape at the quarry in Moray from which they were taken, probably Covesea for the yellow sandstone and Lossiemouth for the whiter and harder. The stones had been conveyed to Aberdeen by sea in large boats, and up the river in smaller boats. Many carved stones bearing coats-of-arms and inscriptions with dates are built into the sides of the cut-waters between the arches. The oldest date, 1520, is on the north side of the southmost arch, and the most recent, 1527, is on the south side of the northmost arch, both on the west side of the bridge. The position of these dates shows that the bridge was begun at the south end and completed at the north.

Inscriptions and Carvings
At the South end of the Bridge there is on the West front of the retaining wall a sun dial with some letters, of which A.W. Mr 0. ... W.B. 1719. can be made out, indicating that the dial was put up in 1719 by a man whose initials were A. W., and who held the office of Master of Kirk and Bridge Works in the City of Aberdeen. On the West side of the round pillar at the South end of the bridge, west side, is carved Bishop Elphinstone's coat-of-arms, surmounted by a Mitre and the letters W. E. At the bottom is the motto "Non Confundar," I shall not be confounded, referring to the day of judgment. On the West side of the Bridge there are at the South end of the 1st arch, reckoning from the South, the Royal Arms of Scotland, a lion rampant or standing on his hind legs, and at the north end there is:- [CONTSRUXIT 1520 (Bishop's Mitre) (Dunbar Arms) SUB SPES (With hope.) which tells that the 1st arch was completed by Bishop Gavin Dunbar in 1520. The Bishop's arms are 3 lozenges, sometimes called pillows, 2 above and 1 below. The bridge might have been begun in 1520, as the 1st could easily have been built in 1 year. On the West side, at the North end of the 2nd arch, there is:-
ANNO DOM[INI] 1521 G (Mitre) D (Dunbar Arms.) This tells us that the second arch was built by Bishop Gavin Dunbar in 1521. At the north end of the third arch, west side, there is : - GAUIN[U]s . DUNBAR . ABERD0NEN[S1S] EPlSC0PUlS  . IMPERII (for IMPERIo) . lACOBI . q[uIn]tI . SCOTORUM . REGIS . ANNOS . DUO . ME . LAPSUM. REKDIFICARE (for REEDIFICARl) . FECIT . ORATE . p[ro] . EO.

The mistakes had arisen from the carver at the Quarry not being able to read the inscription supplied to him; or else the inscription had been recut when the Bridge was repaired, 1719-23, and some letters had then been illegible. The final letter of annos has disappeared, but it has left its mark. The letters N and M have been indicated in the inscription by the mark -  above the letter preceding their place. This tells us that the 3rd arch had been built but had fallen and had lain in ruins 2 years, and had been rebuilt by Bishop Gavin Dunbar by order (and at the expense) of King James V. In English the inscription reads:- Gavin Dunbar, Bishop of Aberdeen, by order of James V. King of Scots, caused me lying fallen down for 2 years to be Rebuilt. Pray for him. The arch had probably been built in 1522, and it had been demolished by a spate which carried away the centres or wooden framework on which the unfinished arch rested.
This caused damage to the extent of more than a £100. It seems to have stopped the work till the King came to the help of the Bishop, who was Clerk of the Council and of the Register. Below the inscription there is a whitish stone with the Bishop's coat-of-arms, surmounted by a Nitre, with the initials G.D. at the sides. At the south end of the fourth or middle arch, west side, there is the inscription

In English this is: - The Town Council of Aberdeen, who, throughout the whole course of their administration, did their utmost to prevent the public welfare from suffering loss by their neglect, caused all the arches of this Bridge, which had already begun to fall into decay, to be restored at the expense of the fund bequeathed for keeping the Bridge in good repair, in the years of our Lord 1719, 1720, 1721, 1722, and 1723. On the North side of the same arch another inscription reads:-
GAUIN[U]s . DUNBAR . ABERD0NEN[S1S]. PONTIFEX . ME TRANS . DEE . FLUUIUM . FIERI. lUSSIT . ANNO . d[0Mi]nI . QUINTO ET . UIGESIMO sup[r]a . mille[simu]m . ET . quingen[tesimu]im . ORATE . p[ro] . FO
ANNO DO]m[iNi] . 1525.

In English:-
Gavin Dunbar, Bishop of Aberdon, ordered me to be made over the River Dee, in the year of our Lord five and twenty beyond one thousand five hundred. Pray for him. In the year of our Lord 1525,

Beneath the inscription are the Bishop's Mitre and coat-of-arms. At the north end of the 5th arch are the arms of Thomas Blaikie, surmounted by his initials T.B. The shield bears 2 wolves' heads above and 3 crescents below. The motto is:- "A'irtute et Pidelitate," by manliness and fidelity. This shield had been registered by the Lyon King of Arms for a gentleman named Blackie, and Sir Thomas Blaikie had adopted it.  At the South end of the 6th arch, west side, are the Aberdeen Arms:- 2 leopards supporting a shield bearing 3 towers, 2 and 1, each triple-towered, surmounted by a scroll with the motto "Bon Accord." Beneath there is a blackish blue marble slab with this inscription:-

In English:—
By the blessing of God this Bridge, by means of well-managed funds bequeathed for its preservation, more than 300 years after its 1st erection was greatly widened and wholly repaired in the years 1841 and 1842, Thomas Blaikie being Provost of Aberdeen; George Henry and William Fraser, successive Masters of Kirk and Bridge Works ; John Smith, Architect; Alexander Macdonald and William Leslie, contractors. In the years 1841 and 1842 the Bridge was widened 12 feet, making the total width 28 feet, at a cost of £7250.

On the South side of the 7th arch there are the initials G. D, for Gavin Dunbar above his mitre and coat-of-arms. Beneath is:- ANNO d[omi]ni, 1527. and a bonneted crown above the Royal Arms of Scotland. At the cut-water there is a column of numbers intended to show the depth of water in the River. On the South side of the 7th arch, east side of the bridge, there is a shield, surmounted by a decaying bonneted crown, bearing the arms of John, Duke of Albany, who was Regent of Scotland when the Bridge was built, and who had contributed liberally from the national revenue to the undertaking. He was the son of Alexander Stewart, 2nd son of James II., who created him Earl of March, Lord of Annandale and of the Isle of Man. The shield is divided into 4 quarters, of which the 1st shows the lion rampant of Scotland, indicating relationship to the Sovereign; the 2nd, a lion rampant surrounded by 8 roses, for March ; the 3rd, 3 legs of a man with armour, joined at the thighs and bent at the knees, arranged triangularly and furnished with spurs, for the Isle of Man; the 4th, a broad band at the top, and a saltire or cross with diagonal arms, for the Lordship of Annandale. Beneath the Regent's Arms are those of Bishop William Elphinstone, the originator of the scheme of constructing a Bridge over the Dee. His shield bears 3 boars' heads, 2 above and 1 within a chevron below. At the top are the initials of the Bishop's name:-W.E.

On a buttress supporting the East side of the approach to the north end of the bridge there is a shield supported by 2 unicorns, and bearing the lion rampant of Scotland. Below there is a scroll, probably once bearing the motto:- "In Defens," though it cannot be made out now. Beneath the Royal arms are the letters G.D. for Gavin Dunbar, a Bishop's Mitre, the Dunbar Arms, and the motto:- "Sub Spe."  Briefly stated, the history of the building of the bridge as told by itself is that the 1st arch was built in 1520, the 2nd in 1521, the 3rd in 1522, but having been carried away by a spate it lay in ruins 2 years. It was rebuilt in 1524, and the 4th arch was built in the same year, the 5th in 1525, the 6th in 1526, and the 7th in 1527. On the East face of the bridge, above the centre of the middle arch, a stone bears A.D. 1722 ; above the next arch to the North there is A.D. 1721 ; above the next A.D. 1721; and above the last arch "Instauratus," (restored) A.D. 1720, These dates refer to a thorough repair of the Bridge executed between 1718 and 1722. Standing under the Northrnost arch 9 ribs are seen, 5 old and 4 new, the new having been added when the bridge was widened in 1841-42. On the east side of the approach to the Bridge at the North end there is carved flood mark, 6th August, 1829.  The inscription, however, is not readily accessible now since the formation of the skating pond. When the bridge was newly built there was also erected a chapel, where travellers setting out on a journey might say prayers for a safe return. It seems to have been at the North end of the Bridge, and so near the River that it obstructed salmon fishers engaged at their work, preventing them from passing under the northmost arch of the bridge. This led to a quarrel between the Laird of Abergeldie, who bad the fishings, and the Town Council, who were the guardians of the Bridge.

When the bridge was completed. Bishop Gavin Dunbar wished to divest himself of the responsibility of maintaining it and requested the Town Council of Aberdeen to take possession of the Bridge, offering at the same time to make over to them the Estate of Ardlair, in the Parish of Kennethmont, which belonged to the Cathedral. The Town Council did not refuse to accept Ardlair with the burden of maintaining the Bridge in all time coming, but they suggested to the Bishop and the Chapter of the Cathedral that they should give them instead of Ardlair, which was far away, some other property such as Ruthrieston, more conveniently situated for being managed by them. However, they accepted Ardlair with the responsibility of maintaining the Bridge of Dee, and it remained in the possession of the Town Council till 1610, when it was sold and another property was purchased with the price.

Bishop Elphinstone was the founder of a Bridge over the Dee between Aberdeen and Banchory-Devenick, the successor of which now spans the river. At its north-east end stood a chapel dedicated to the Virgin, and at its south end was a porch surmounted by a watch-tower, which used to be guarded by the citizens in time of war or pestilence to prevent unwelcome strangers from entering the Burgh. There belonged to the Chapel, according to Kennedy, "a silver crucifix, chalice of silver, an image of the Virgin, over gilt, 3 embroidered napkins, and other sacred utensils, some of which were preserved at the Reformation, when the Chapel was probably demolished."  Jervise remarks: "Some writers say that the Chapel was dedicated to Our Lady of Pity; and it is also asserted that her image, which belonged to this Chapel, is still shown in the Church of Finisterre, Brussels, under the name of Notre Dame de bon Succes."   

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Last modified: 01/09/2013