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The Church Hospitals

This was a shelter for infirm brethren of the priesthood, established by Bishop Matthew Kyninmond (1170-99) on the east side of the Spital. This name is a shortening of hospital. It was dedicated to St Peter, the chief of the apostles, and it was intended to be for the weal (well being) of the soul of King William the Lion, his ancestors and successors, and of the soul of the Bishop himself and his ancestors and successors.  It was an article of the faith of the old Church of Scotland that the souls of the dead were benefited by the prayers of the living.  With the twofold object of securing physical comfort for priests no longer fit for nocturnal service in the Cathedral and "post mortem" spiritual benefit to the King and to himself, the Bishop endowed an Hospital for the priests to live in and a church where they should assemble daily and perform religious services. The King had been a benefactor to the Cathedral, and he may have helped with the erection of the church, as it is likely that there had been in it a chapel with an altar devoted solely to the services for the King and his friends. An altar in the Cathedral, called the Holy Blood altar, was reserved exclusively for King James III. and his son John, Earl of Mar.

The Bishop endowed the hospital with lands which were called mensal — that is, devoted to the Bishop's table and house to enable him to show hospitality to visitors. It was "ultra vires" of the bishop to withdraw them permanently from the use of his successors, and in 1427 Bishop Henry Leighton was within his right in recalling them to his own and his successors' use. This he did on the ground that the Hospital had never fully served the purpose for which it was intended. A master had been necessary to look after the Hospital and the infirm brethren to see that they prayed for the King and the Bishop; but there was no one to look after the Masters and they had appropriated the income of the Hospital to their own purposes. Bishop Leighton, therefore, suppressed the Hospital, but undertook for himself and two chaplains the religious services that the brethren had been intended to carry on. The church was continued as a place of worship and made a parish church with a parochial district (The Spittal Kirk). The boundary stones were marked with a key, representing St Peter. After the Reformation, when prayers and masses for the dead were forbidden, the church was unnecessary, and the parish was suppressed and united to its mother parish St Machar.

The site of the hospital for 'infirm brethren' dedicated to St Peter and founded between 1172 and 1179. In 1266 there is also a reference to 'the sisters living therein'. Although the hospital was apparently suppressed in 1427 the sick were still being maintained there in 1541St Peter's Chapel was associated with the hospital and after the suppression of the latter in 1427 the chapel continued until the Reformation as a place of worship and was made a parish church.  Both sites lie in St Peter's Cemetery. Nothing remains of the hospital but the outline of the church is still visible a turf-covered wall 0.5m in maximum height, although part of the north wall has been buried and a modern vault has been built over the eastern perimeter. The interior is covered with graves.  The site of St Peter's Church is situated on a knoll on the highest part of the modern cemetery. Measuring 21.65m from E to W by 6.6m transversely overall, the ground-plan of the church appears to have been preserved by an early-19th century mausoleum, at its E end, a low turf-capped wall on the W and S, and a mortared revetment wall on the N. The interior of the church is occupied by graves marked with 19th and 20th-century headstones.

St Thomas's Hospital (m)
On May 28, 1459, John Scherar, minister of Clatt and Canon of the Cathedral of Aberdon, and Canon also of the Cathedral of Brechin, founded an hospital for poor and infirm people. His name was John Scherar; but in the foundation charter he is called John Clat, and this was the name he was generally known by. The ground given for the Hospital was bounded on the North by that part of the Netherkirkgate west of St Nicholas Street which is now reckoned to be part of Correction Wynd; on the West by Correction Wynd, which shows that the "Book of Bon-Accord" is wrong in saying that this way to the Church was opened in 1636; on the South by John Howysoun's land; and on the East by the burn flowing from the Upper Mill - that is the Mill afterwards called the Flour Mill. The Hospital, the Charter says, was for the increase of the worship of the Holy Mother Church and for the honour of God Almighty and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, His most glorious mother, and of all Saints, and especially of St Thomas the Martyr - that is Thomas A'Becket, Bishop of Canterbury, killed in 1170. The Hospital was intended for a residence for poor and infirm people. The founder appointed John Chawmer to be Master, Rector and Chaplain of the Hospital, and he gave the patronage and appointment of the inmates, after his own death, to the Provost and the community of Aberdeen.  Annual allowances were made to the inmates, who provided for themselves and had no other duty laid upon them than taking part in the morning and evening services in their Chapel.  We see in Gordon's Chart a building with a spire, which extended from Correction Wynd, along what was formerly in Netherkirkgate, as far as the East side of St Nicholas Street. In rebuilding houses on the site of the Hospital in 1902 it was seen that there had been a burying ground behind at the East end, and a garden at the West end. Probably the Chapel had been much larger than the necessities of the inmates required. If the management of the Hospital and the conduct of its inmates had been such as to gain the confidence of the citizens there can be no doubt that mortifications had been made for memorial services in the Chapel. St Thomas was held in the highest reverence, as we see from Chaucer, and the incomes of the Chaplain and the Bedesmen had been augmented by bequests for prayers and masses at his altar.  Memorial services were held at various places for the same person, and often at places where we should hardly have expected to find them. Prayers were said in the Abbey of Deer for the soul of David, Earl of Rothesay, son of Robert III.; and in St Nicholas Church and St Machar Cathedral for the soul of John, Earl of Mar, son of James III. In the Cathedral the memorial tablet usually said to commemorate the poet Barbour bears his name. During the Franco-Prussian war masses which should have been said in Paris were transferred to the Catholic Chapel at Fetternear, in Aberdeenshire. At the Reformation annual payments for soul masses had ceased, and the slender endowments of the Hospital were able to maintain only a few inmates, and their allowances were but small.

James Gordon - Map of Aberdeen 1661

The necessity of living in the Hospital away from their friends made the inmates discontented, and in 1771 they got annual allowances with leave to live with their friends and relations. The Hospital Feu was sold and closely built upon. Dwelling-houses and shops were erected on the ground contiguous to the streets, and the Associated Burgher Congregation built a Chapel on the ground behind. In 1838 it became a Chapel of Ease in connection with the Church of Scotland, It afterwards became Melville Free Church. Some years ago the property was sold, and a new Church was built in Skene Street.

The site of the hospital of St Thomas the Martyr, founded for the poor and infirm in 1459. It was still in operation in 1661 but the hospital and the garden were sold c.1770 and the site built upon. During building operations in 1902 evidence of a burial ground was uncovered to the East of the hospital site.

1425. John Clatt, Vicar.  The probabilities are that this is the same John Clatt referred to by Kennedy as being the original founder of Saint Thomas' Hospital, which stood near Saint Nicholas Church, Aberdeen. "By the Charter of Foundation, dated May 28, 1459, Clatt granted all his lands and tenements in the Netherklrkgate for erecting the Hospital in honour of God, the blessed Virgin Mary, and all Saints, and particularly for the honour of Saint Thomas, the Martyr; and appointed Mr. John Chawmers to be Master and Rector. After his and the founder's death, the patronage of the institution was to devolve upon the provost and community for ever. The founder also endowed it with annuities in perpetuity, amounting to 4s. 8d., arising from certain tenements in the town; and also with an annuity of 6 merks, to be levied from the lands of Mondynes, in the county of Kincardine, for celebrating, in the hospital, masses for the salvation of his own soul, and for the souls of James II, and of Alexander Stuart, Earl of Mar, of his own father and mother, and of all the faithful departed, according to the custom of the age."

Ramsay says that St Thomas Hospital had a Well, which in his time still remained in a house in Correction Wynd.

Bishop Dunbar's Hospital (21)
In 1531-2 Bishop Gavin Dunbar founded an Hospital to receive 12 poor old men, preferably men who had once lived upon the Cathedral Lands. It was built on land belonging to the Bishop "ex officio" at the end of the Chanonry, on the north side of the Tillydrone Road, where Seaton Gate is now. This site had not been reckoned to be within the Chanonry till the Manse of the Prebend of Monyrnusk was built, in the same place but farther west, in 1445. By that time all the suitable available space within the Chanonry had been occupied. The Hospital was 100 feet long and 32 wide, and it contained a Refectory, Oratory, and 12 dormitories for the inmates, who were called Bedesmen, because they were requested to pray daily for the founder and his successors.  A view of the Hospital in Gordon's chart shows that it had a Belfry and a Spire in the middle. 

The drawing by Andrew Gibb gives a clear impression of the structure.

In addition, there was a wall in some part of the house where there was a fireplace and between the rooms, a hallway that was 8 feet wide. The rest of the house, which was 36 feet long and 32 feet wide, was divided and on the North side there was a Common room, 16 feet wide and 36 feet long, for all the poor men so they could have a common fire. Opposite to this on the south side of the house, there was a well-furnished Oratory, the same size as the Common room of the house, which was provided with an altar.  There was also a desk for the Chaplain and seats for the poor men and a small Baptistery in the south wall.  Above the Common room there was a common floor to keep items that the Hospital used, such as fuel, food and other necessities. However, there was not a floor above the Oratory, which created an open space. There was a wooden bell tower housing a bell.

There were no women allowed in the Hospital and only men who were free, not married, tenants and inhabitants in Aberdeen were selected; they were to be over the age of 60 and no more than 12 should be admitted. If these men did not meet these criteria, others were selected as those who had spent their lives constructing the Church, the (Bishop's) Palace. If no men met these criteria other men were selected if they had fallen into poverty, were blind, lame, and deaf or dumb, mutilated by war and not able to work for a living.

The Bedesmen got an annual allowance of 10 merks each for maintenance, and 1 more to buy a white coat; and they got 10 merks jointly to keep them in fuel.

The Bishops of Aberdon were patrons and managers of the Hospital till the Reformation, when the property and revenues fell to the Crown because the duties of the Bedesmen had become illegal. However, the Hospital was continued under the fluctuating management of the Protestant Bishops till the Revolution, when the Crown gave the management and patronage to the Principal and Sub-Principal of the University and the Minister of Old Machar,  The office of sub-principal having ceased to exist there are only 2 managers now.

James Gordon - Map of Aberdeen 1661

Bede House Don Street
The proprietor of Seton (Seaton), wishing to make an avenue from the Chanonry to Seton House, arranged with the managers in 1786 to excamb the Hospital and its site for a large house in Don Street, where the Bedesmen lived for a time.

As they were no longer required to pray for the souls of the founder and his successors there was no good purpose to be served by compelling them to live together. They are now allowed to live with their friends, and the Don Street house is let to tenants. At present eighteen persons receive annual allowances from Dunbar Hospital Fund.

The Bedesmen were Almsmen who received support from the local community. In Old Aberdeen, the main pillar of the community was the Church of St Machar also now known as St Machar’s Cathedral, and the Town Council. Latterly, the Principal of the University and the Minister of St Machar’s Cathedral have until recently acted as a committee to ensure the Bedesmen were looked after. In an article in the local press in 1968, Cuthbert Graham claims the Bedesmen only lived in the house for a few decades. The article contains an account describing the existence of the Bedesmen that is very similar to an account of the Bede House of Higham Ferrers. The foundation charter of Bishop Dunbar’s Hospital, dated 24 February 1531 relates that Bishop Dunbar claimed “ when something is left after supplying the needs of the church and our own life, and remembering the words of Almighty God, … give of they bread to the hungry and the poor and the wandering under the shelter of the house and clothe the naked we resolve to make a hospital.  In Aberdeen the men lived in separate rooms each 14ft. long and 12ft. broad in a building some 100 ft. long and 32 ft. wide. On the north side of the house was a common room and on the south side an oratory. There was a wooden bell tower and a bell. The men were to be maintained out of the revenue of the burgh of Old Aberdeen the sum of £100 (Scots) – roughly equal to £8 in modern currency. In the 16th century the men rose at 7 a.m. on the call of the Janitor – one of the Bedesmen – and they went to pray in St Machar’s Cathedral. They dined at 11 a.m. The day proceeded with prayers; work in the gardens and a supper at 6 p.m. So the day continued with prayers and “.good conversation…” until 3 a.m. the next day with a strict instruction from Dunbar that “ at all times they should be seemly in conversation and not in any manner whatever receive women into their apartments…”. Praying was central to their existence. By the 1860s a sum of 8 shillings a month was given to the Bedesmen. The number of Bedesmen had increased from 12 to 16 by 1902. The eldest two were also given 2 salmon from the River Don. In the late 1960's, there were only eight Bedesmen each receiving 15 shillings or £0.75 from the Church Officer of St Machar on the last Thursday of each month. (See Latterly the monies received by the Church were insufficient to support a payment to the Bedesmen and residual funds were amalgamated with other Poor Relief funds.

St Anne's Leper Hospital
The movement and mingling of people of different countries during the Crusades (1096-1272) made leprosy epidemic in Western Europe. Many Hospitals were established to receive those infected with the disease to keep them apart from other people. Some of these were in Scotland, and one was in Aberdeen. The leper hospital at Aberdeen,  was subdivided into huts (tuguria - hovels)

The site of a Leper Hospital in Aberdeen, founded before 1363. It survived the Reformation, but was in ruins in 1661 and its lands were sold to King's College in 1718. The site was known as 'Lepers' Croft'   The movement of people of different countries during the Crusades made leprosy an epidemic. Many hospitals were established to receive those infected with the disease to keep them apart from other people. Gordon's Map shows the ruins of the Leper House on the east side of King's Crescent. Its site is now a bowling-green, and a stone projecting into the pavement had probably been at the south side of the Leper croft. It was 200 yards within the city boundary. Like most of the other leper hospitals it was a religious house. In 1519 Alexander Galloway, Parson of Kinkell, erected a chapel for devotion at the Leper House and dedicated it to St Anna. Lepers were forbidden to touch healthy persons and to wash in the streams used by others. Near Aberdeen Leper House there was a marsh, which had supplied them with water. Aberdeen was formerly supplied with fire and light by peats and candle fir from the mosses round the town. The Lepers got a peat from every cart which passed their house. The disease had disappeared from Aberdeen by 1661, and the house was then in ruins.

The Leper Hospital (St. Anne's) existed here previously to 1519. It was supported by public funds of the city, and consisted of several separate houses." Dr. Robertson states that the hospital existed before 1363, and was subdivided. The Regent and Priory Council interposed for the repair and restoration of the hospital in 1574. In 1578, it was placed under the charge of a master, and there were still patients in it in 1591.  If there really was an increase of leprosy in Scotland (1580 - 1590) it speedily abated, at least in Aberdeen, for the hospital was empty in 1604, In the same Aberdeen Records we are told that two marks were to be given "to lepper woman laitlie put in the lepper-hous, becaus she will not gett any of the rent of said hous till Martenes next." In 1612, another leper appeared on the scene in the shape of an alien, not an Aberdonian,  and in 1661 the last scene of endemic leprosy seems to have occurred in the razing to the ground of the hospital. Furthermore in the Middle Ages the church ran the only 'hospitals'. In 1363 a leper hospital was founded outside Aberdeen on Spital Hill. In it monks looked after the lepers as best they could. This dreaded disease slowly died out as the centuries past. The last recorded leper was in the early 17th century.   In 1168 another 'hospital' was founded where old priests and poor people were given food and shelter.

Leprosy was a dreaded, insidious, loathsome disease caused by a bacterium, Mycobacterium leprae, which produces a skin and nerve disease that can, if unchecked, lead to permanent disfigurement. The bacterium, which was only finally discovered in 1874 by a Norwegian physician, Gerhard Hansen, closely resembles the tuberculosis bacillus. There are today about five million known cases of leprosy worldwide (may be over ten million), occurring mostly within the tropical and subtropical climates. If untreated, the disease progresses in the following ways:
(1) lack of skin sensitivity to pain;
(2) the skin takes on a porcelain-like whiteness;
(3) the skin becomes mottled with colour;
(4) the eyebrows fall off, nasal ulcers develop, and there is facial deformity; and under severe conditions
(5) extremities may fall off. Transmission of this disease is only by contact, so that victims are quickly isolated to avoid infection of others.

Leprosy was considered an incurable disease 2500 years ago, when it appeared in the Nile Valley. There was an epidemic of leprosy in Europe from 1000 to 1200 A.D., which was probably started by the returning soldiers of the Crusades. Leprosy occurred in Britain from 625 to 1798, and at one time there were 326 lazar houses (leprosaria) in Great Britain. As housing conditions improved, leprosy declined sharply. Very few cases of leprosy are reported now in highly developed societies. About 100 leprosy cases are diagnosed each year in the United States, and most of these are imported with immigrants from Asia.

Tradition relates that King Robert Bruce, who was, so it is said, himself afflicted with leprosy, "the result of hard fare, hard living, and hard work.". . 

James Simpson, in his essay on the leper-houses of Britain (Edin. Med. and Surg. Journal, 1841-42), writes: "I have already alluded to special Orders of Knighthood having been established at an early period for the care and superintendence of lepers. We know that the Knights of St. Lazarus separated from the general Order of the Knights Hospitaliers about the end of the 11th or beginning of the 12th century. They were at 1st designated: Knights of St. Lazarus and St. Mary of Jerusalem.  St. Louis brought 12 of the Knights of St. Lazarus to France and entrusted them with the superintendence of the 'Lazaries' (or Leper Hospitals) of the Kingdom. The 1st notice of their having obtained a footing in Great Britain is in the reign of Stephen (1135-54) at Burton Lazars (Leicestershire).

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Last modified: 01/09/2013