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Greyfriar's 1530~1903

Greyfriar's or College Church formed part of St Mary's Observantine Friary (1450-1560), and, consisting of a plain old Gothic hall with a modern East aisle, is interesting as the only pre-Reformation church within the Municipal Burgh. The restoration of this old church was accomplished in 1624.

Until 1901, however, although altered and deformed, there remained in use as the Parish Church of Greyfriars, alias the College Kirk, the ancient freestone Church of pre-Reformation days, of which Alexander Galloway was Architect. Though it might have been said with truth of its pointed windows and buttressed front that " - decay's effacing fingers have swept the lines where beauty lingers," yet the removal of that venerable structure, even to make room for the imposing pile of granite now forming the front block of Marischal College, was witnessed with sore misgiving on the part of not a few. The old church formed an interesting historic link with a memorable and not inglorious past, and it interpreted to everyone the point and meaning of the famous motto quoted here. How it all came about  this effacement for all time of the last vestige of the ancient buildings connected with Earl Marischal's foundation may be found "writ large" in the records of the inheritors of the Church, the Town Council of Aberdeen.

Unhappily, there is a like previous record regarding the demolition of another and still more venerable ecclesiastical edifice in Aberdeen that might have been preserved. "The greatest glory of a building," says Ruskin, "is not in its stones nor in its gold. Its glory is in its age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy - which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity."

The College Kirk

The site of the Franciscan Friary, in Broadgate some of whose buildings were used by the original Marischal College after the Reformation.  The Friary was founded in 1469 and consisted of a Cloister, Church dedicated to the Virgin Mary,  A new Church was built for the Friars in 1518-32 and in 1559  under threats from wreckers they resigned their whole property to the Town Council, anticipating that the buildings would survive the Reformation allowing them to return.  In 1567 permission was granted for 'the place of the Friars Minor' to be converted into a Hospital, but the Church stood derelict until 1624, when it was restored.  A north projection was added to it in 1768 and it remained in use as a parish church until its demolition in 1903.  The other buildings passed to George Keith, Earl Marischal, who founded Marischal College on the site in 1593 although new college buildings were not erected until c.1676. The college was extended over the site in the early 19th century.

A series of stone walls, pits (including one containing two complete 15th- to 16th century pots), postholes and a dump of rubbish, including pottery, ceramic floor tiles, stone roof tiles and window glass, are probably of Friary origin. The Greyfriar's Church stood on a NW–SE alignment until the early 20th century, when it was removed to make way for a new frontage for Marischal College. No structural evidence of the Church was uncovered, but possible Cloister Walls which survived to a height of 1.5m were recorded. A series of 7 burials of older male individuals with their hands clasped were buried with their heads to the SW against a Cloister Wall.  From the late 16th century the Friary buildings were occupied by the newly founded Marischal College.

[Marischal College, Aberdeen, Scotland]The 1st Church was built about 1469. Gavin Dunbar, Bishop of Aberdon (1518-32), provided the money for a new Church. Alexander Galloway, Parson of Kinkell, was Architect and superintended the erection of the Church, and at his own expense he caused an altar to be constructed in honour of John the Baptist. The new Church had been begun to be built before 1528, for the "Necrologia" says that William Elphinston, Rector of Clatt, who died in that year, contributed £100 in the end of his days for building the new Church. It was a long building. The part remaining to be taken down in 1903 was 110 feet long, and the foundations extended 30ft. 10in. farther north, showing that it had been 140ft. 10in. long originally. The Church was 33 ft wide. The west wall of the latest addition to Marischal College is on the site of the west wall of the Church; but the north end of the Church, when it was taken down, came only to the buttress at the south side of the gate. There were then 6 window spaces in the west wall; but there had been originally 8 windows in the west side. There were no windows in the east side, but there were originally 2 round arched doorways which had afterwards been built up. When the Church was taken down it was found that there were between these doors the foundations of piers which had supported an arch 19 feet wide, behind which there had probably been a chancel containing the high altar. If the church had stood east and west, instead of north and south, the altar would have been in the end of the Church.

Several things tend to show that the new church had been built on the site of the 1st church. The "Necrologia" shows that there was in the 1st Church a passage from the Convent to the Choir. There was no evidence of this in the 2nd church, but when it was taken down there was found at the south end of the west wall of the 1st church a short flight of steps going down to a paved floor 3 ft. 5 in. below the level of the floor of the Church. Three persons named Chalmer, probably nearly related, were buried in the Church, and likely near each other. William of Balnacraig was buried in the Old Church in 1516 before the altar of the Virgin Mary; Duncan, his son, a venerable man, was also buried in the Church, but neither the place nor the date are given; Mariot, the date of whose death is unknown, was buried before the altar of the Virgin in the dress of the Franciscans, but likely with shoes on her feet. When the Church was taken down there were found in the causewayed floor the bases of pillars, not far from the east wall, which might have been at divisions between small Chapels within low railings before altars. Within these Chapels assembled relations of persons for whom anniversary soul masses were to be said, who had been there buried by arrangement with the officials of the Church. Within what might have been the area of one of such Chapels were found several skeletons, one of them of a woman with remains of shoes at her feet.' In all 7 or 8 skeletons in various stages of decay were found in the church below the causewayed door of the nave. All the bodies seemed to have been interred without coffins. All human remains were carefully collected and reverently laid in the area of the Snow Church, under the care of Mr Leslie of Powis. Some shallow graves were found near the south end of the Church. The Cemetery of the Convent had been on the site of Long Acre. In 1847, in the course of some building operations many bones were found there, and also 12 bags of canvas and leather, full of small copper coins, which had been buried in the cemetery by the Friars before they left the Convent, in the hope that some day they would be reinstated in the Convent and would recover the hoard.

Old Greyfriars Church The kirk was built in 1530 under the direction of Bishop Gavin Dunbar. It was a modest structure only 118 feet by 26 feet and used sandstone. It was originally occupied by an order of Franciscans. Unfortunately it stood in the way of the expansion of the University and was demolished in 1903. Same fragments were saved and the east window was built into the new Greyfriars, which stands alongside the University frontage.

The Church was divided into 2 parts, Choir and Nave, by a screen crossing it nearer the south end than the north. From the Choir there was a round-headed door in the east wall into the jewel house, where were kept the sacred utensils, Priests' vestments, altar cloths, and books of the Church. This was a very small door, and the floor of the jewel house being higher than the floor of the Church there was a short flight of steps in the wall at the door. The other door opened into the Nave. It was larger than the door of the jewel house, but less than the Church door in the north end. These doors are mentioned in "Miscellany of the Spalding Club" (I. Preface, 42) : — " The kirk and the lytill [tjhacht howss passand furth of the queir, on the eist syd wall of the said kirk, callit the jowal howss . . . the gret dur, and . . . the lytil dur."  The little door is the door into the Nave.  The Church was surmounted by a spire with a bell which in later times was rung to call the students of Marischal College to their classes. The Church was roofed with Slates when it was taken down, but prior to 1768 it had been covered with small thin sandstone slabs. Many of these were found in the infill which had been used to raise the level of the floor. Originally there was an open space between Broad Street and the Church, "quhar thai had wont to gaddir myddings and fulse, and culd nocht be kepit clene." Therefore in 1552 the town consented to feu this piece of ground to 3 Burgesses to build "fywe boothis or choppis" thereupon, with consent of the Greyfriars. It was stipulated that the booths should not exceed 13 feet in height. Perhaps a similar limitation had been prescribed for the "choppis" forming the Boothraw on the West side of Broad Street when they were 1st set down. However that may have been, there are lofty houses now between Broad Street and Guestrow, and before the demolition of the East side there were houses of 2, 3 and 4 storey between the Church and the street.

The end of the labours of the charitable brotherhood came on December 29, 1559, when zealous reformers from Angus and Mearns invaded Aberdeen. The Greyfriars, seeing what was going on at the other Monasteries and probably acting on good advice, prudently resigned their property into the hands of the Town Council, stipulating that if ever the Queen's Government should restore to other religious Brethren the Churches and Hospices which had been taken from them by lawless men in other parts of Scotland, then restitution should be made to them of what they had resigned. A legal deed embodying the transfer and conditions was signed in the Hall of the Convent by a number of the citizens as witnesses; and Thomas Nicolson, one of the Baillie's, received the property of the Greyfriar's on behalf of the whole community of the Burgh. The Brethren received pensions from the Town, and some of them were taken into the families of citizens, nominally as servants but no doubt in some cases as Chaplains of the old faith.

The Resignation by the Brethren was never recalled, and the Town Council held the property till 1567; but they were unable to turn it to any useful purpose on account of the unsettled state of public affairs and the want of a valid title, because Parliament had decreed that the property of the suppressed religious houses was to go to the Crown. In December, 1567, they obtained a Royal Charter conveying to them the mansions, gardens, and other property formerly belonging to the Greyfriar's, that they might convert the Convent into an Hospital for orphans, poor children, and disabled persons. The Council never did anything farther under this Charter than endeavouring to let or sell the property with the view of augmenting the income of St Thomas's Hospital; and in 1587 the Charter was annulled by a General Revocation Act passed July 29. The Earl of Huntly had been on the watch, and on the same day he got from the Crown a Charter conveying to him the whole property, except the Church, for an annual rent of £40 to be paid to St Thomas's Hospital.

Apparently the Earl had not known what to do with the conventual buildings, which had been standing unoccupied for 30 years and had become dilapidated and ruinous; for in 1589 he resigned them to the Crown in favour of the Provost and Magistrates of Aberdeen. The Town Council had again become owners of the Greyfriars' property, but they found it necessary to settle a claim made by the heirs of Andrew Jack in virtue of a feu granted by the town to him in 1574. Having then come into full possession of the property, the Town Council, on September 24, 1593, resigned the whole, including the Church, in favour of George Keith, Earl Marischal, to be given by the Earl to, endow a College. As the Earl had already on April 2 transferred the whole Greyfriars' property to the new College, this proceeding of the Town Council must have merely been carrying out a formality which had inadvertently been omitted. In 1768 the Church was shortened 30ft l0in., and an aisle was projected from the east wall. At the same time the floor of the Church was raised to the level of the base course and the ground round the Church.

One Ecclesiastical building however which no longer survives, portions of which reached back to pre-Reformation times, and which we must take leave to call the most venerable church in the city, viz., the College Kirk or Greyfriars

There are few things it is true more forbidding than the deformities of this church on what was its visible side, but like many other things in this world the invisible side is the more worthy. That contains a series of old buttresses in ashlar work and a remarkable Gothic window of very large dimensions, which deserve a better fate than obscurity and a periodical hue and cry to have the place pulled down.

The Church was otherwise an interesting one historically, as built by the Franciscan Friars a little before the Reformation, some of the brethren being masons who laboured with their own hands, and also as the scene of the meeting of the General Assembly in 1640, when the Presbyterian party came north in full force to complete the work of the Glasgow Assembly of 1638, by carrying the war into the reluctant territory of the Aberdeen Doctors.  It is something, therefore, to have had in our City a church in which Prelatist and Presbyterian may alike take interest, where Franciscans prayed, and Ramsay, Dickson, and Henderson preached and spoke.  Few greater benefits could have been conferred on the beauty of Aberdeen -  it is a platitude even to refer to a thing so obvious -  than to open up the then front of Marischal College, to clear away the houses from the College Gate as far as the Byron house, or at least to the turreted building adjoining, not only because the Marischal College would be unveiled, but because the best side of the Greyfriar's Church would thus meet the view, the line of buttresses coming then first into vision, instead of not at all, as was the case back then.  But this was never to be.

Broad Street, Aberdeen, showing the archway leading to Marischal College, c.1889To refer to the College Chapel.  In studying old churches probably one of the 1st points to which an ecclesiologist would direct his attention, is the line in which they lie as to orientation.  The position both of the Chapel and the Cathedral is, in this respect, well defined, and indeed remarkably similar, and one has no difficulty in understanding the correctness of their ground-plan, as on a line fairly and clearly from west to east The amount of variation from due east in the old churches of the country is, however, sometimes considerable, and occasionally even surprising and perplexing, as in the case for example of the Greyfriars Church in Aberdeen, the original portion of which seems to lie rather in a line from north to south, so that it would make a very acute angle with the line of the old East Church produced or with that of the ecclesiastical buildings of the Old Town.

The ground-plan of all these buildings dates from before the Reformation time, from a period, therefore, when these things, it is supposed, were specially studied. The principle that is believed to have determined the variation is said to have been the point of sunrise for the saint's day to whom the church was dedicated, whence it resulted that there might be a quadrant of a circle of variation according the sun found to rise for a saint's day in June or for a saint's day in December.

In the case of the Greyfriars Church it is not unlikely that the line of Broad Street, to which it lies contiguous, had, to some extent, determined the direction of the axis of the Building. Passing from the orientation, about which, in the case of the Chapel, there is no mistake, we next notice the frontispiece which that building presents in the shape of a long inscription on its western front. We have the date and foundation of the Chapel there presented to us in the most authentic and palpable form, in solemn declaration that "By favour of the most serene illustrious, and victorious James the V''  the masons began to build on the 2nd April, in the year 1500  It was fortunate that they allowed the 1st of April to pass, which being all fools day would have been an unlucky day to begin the foundation of a University. The irony of History, however, throws a strange light on the magniloquence of this inscription. Thirteen years later the "victorious" king lost both life and victory at Flodden.

Even in the foundation of a seat of Learning, Nescia mens hominum fati sortisque future Professor Geddes
It's a complex blend of solar geometry and Franciscan cosmology, in which churches, windows and altars were laid out in relation to the sun's position on a particular day of the year.

The current Greyfriars' Church was built in 1903 to replace the Medieval predecessor of 1532, called the Kirk of Greyfriars. This earlier church was demolished to allow the construction of Marischal College. The present church was built by A. Marshall Mackenzie in a Gothic revival style. It features a tower, rectangular nave with a west gallery and south aisle (which features a blind arcade on its north side). There is a chancel with organ chamber on the south side. The Church features a hall complex and rooms located under the church. At the East end is a Chapel with internal and external access. There is a vestry which is reached by a stair from the church and halls. There is also a committee room, kitchen and toilet facilities, although limited disabled access. The west tower of the church is joined on to the end of the college facade that makes up a large part of the City centre. The tower is embellished with sculptured stone and flying buttresses which support a fleche. The whole structure (with the college facade) is said to be the 2nd largest granite structure in the world, behind the Escorial near Madrid. The interior of the church has some interesting features. The chancel incorporates wood panelling from the old East Church of St Nicholas. The east window is highly ornate and traceried and survives from the earlier church but with more recent stained glass. The interior is lofty and spacious with a sweeping central aisle.

On 2nd September 1903 the present Greyfriars Building was opened for worship, in a special service conducted by the then Moderator of the General Assembly.  The new church replaced the original 1532 building, which stood at right angles to the present one, across the front of Marischal College. For a long time, students at Marischal attended the church on Sunday, sitting in a special “College Gallery”. This can be seen in the painting prominently displayed in the ante-room of the Church. The pulpit in the old kirk was in its traditional 17th century position, halfway down the long wall. Also the great window just had plain glass and was partly hidden by another gallery.

The story of the construction of the new church is an interesting one. In 1886 the session called a new minister, Rev. Gordon I. Murray, who had not long graduated B.D. (1882) from Aberdeen University. He was a driving force in proposals to revamp the ancient church building. However, the university had other ideas; it wanted to pull down the old church to make way for a big expansion, with a new frontage on Broad Street replacing old shops and buildings.

An enabling Act was passed by Parliament in 1893. However, the Town Council (as it was then known) and the University had different views on the location for the rebuilt church. There was also a vociferous campaign to retain the old building, largely on historic grounds. The dispute even reached the Court of Session. Finally, the Town Council very generously bought and paid for the present site. This released the logjam in time for the University to build its new frontage and have a delayed celebration of its Quater Centenary, with the King, in person, opening their new buildings.

This was a few years after Greyfriars reopened. However, in June 1902, the parties concerned (Town Council, University and Presbytery) celebrated their agreement by laying the Corner Stone which can be seen in the corner of the vestibule. This tells of the relationship to the original Franciscan Friary (1469), which vanished at Reformation (1560) when the Friars handed over their building to the Town Council. It also tells how the masonry of the South Window of the old kirk was taken down and made into the frame of the new East Window. This wonderfully preserved a memory of the old building.

The 16th century Tracery window has been incorporated into the present Church.  ln fact, it greatly improved on the old window, because new stained glass was commissioned from the famous artist Earner Kempe, whose work can also be seen in English cathedrals and in Govan Old parish church. He was commissioned on the advice of Sir George Reid, then President of the Royal Scottish Academy, whose father had been an elder of the Church. The design of the stained glass in the East Window was agreed with Rev. Gordon Murray, who afterwards proudly lectured on it. It showed the connection with Town and University, through their crests at the top of the window, and with the Franciscans and Bishop Gavin Dunbar (builder of the 1532 church). It also showed the crucifixion of Christ, dominating the communion table. The other great influence on the new church building was A. Marshall Mackenzie, the architect of the new frontage of Marischal College. He very cleverly designed a granite tower and spire for the new church in keeping with the new frontage. He was clearly influenced by the Gothic Revival movement that had dominated late Victorian church architecture. However, he also gave the church a very light airy interior, with sandstone columns.

The Church building was largely paid for by the Town Council, as it says in the inscription in the East Window. Here the Session thanks “the Town Council, as heritors of the Parish, in erecting this church, and the unwearied efforts of their minister, the Rev. Gordon J. Murray...”.

The minister was later known as Dr Murray, on account of the honorary D.D. he received from his university in 1910. He had seen enormous changes in 25 years. In February 1902 they began to take down the South Window of the old church, but only 18 months later the new Church was complete. Those old Edwardian craftsmen and masons could teach the current builders a thing or two! Dr. Murray's picture hangs at the back of the side aisle, together with pictures of the old kirk, and of old and new kirk sessions. It is now up for sale uncleaned and unwanted.

Some other gifts of ground were made to the Fransican Lesser Brethren in extension of the ground given by John Vans. Robert Schand, Rector of Alness, bought for them the ground at the north end of the lower garden, in North Street; David Collison gave a part of his holding to allow the Cloister to be extended; and Thomas Myrtoun, Archdeacon of Aberdon, gave a property which he had at the west side of the Convent ground.  Liberal help was given by many benefactors for the erection and extension of the Convent buildings. Bishop Stewart (1532-45) bought a piece of ground at the north end of the Church for the convent, at a cost of £40, and he also built an Infirmary for infirm brethren. Several of the brotherhood whose deaths are recorded are praised for their mechanical skill. One was a Carpenter, another a Stonecutter, and a 3rd, "Brother John Strang, Priest and Glass-maker, was most faithful in his work. He executed many things in his art in several Convents throughout the province [Scotland], particularly in the Convents of St Johnston, Ayr, Elgin and Aberdeen. He died in 1517.  "Glass-making began in Scotland about 1500, and it is likely he had been the 1st glass-worker in Aberdeen. The enormous quantity of peat-ashes found in the Quadrangle of Marischal College, a few yards in from the Gate, told where his work had been carried on. He had made glass for the 1st Church and the Convent Buildings, and he may have glazed the Cathedral & King's College. It is mentioned regarding Brother John Thomson, layman, who was a skilful Carpenter and Mason, that he never accepted food or drink for work done outside the convent; and as glass-makers must have been very scarce in Aberdeen John Strang may have given his services outside to benefactors of his Order. He had made his panes of glass in the same way as the ancient Romans did, by pouring melted glass into a metal frame laid on a smooth polished slab of stone. The Romans knew how to render glass obscure by grinding the surface of the plates, and they may also have known how to make the plates more transparent by polishing them. For excluding wind and rain the Romans used chiefly linen in their windows. The same article, or canvas, may have been used in Britain; but, in general, recourse was had to wooden shutters both in public and private buildings; hence the great demand for wax and oil in early times to relieve the gloom.


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Last modified: 01/09/2013