The Doric Columns
An excavation on a site on the corner of James Street and Virginia Street, in 1979, demonstrated the presence of medieval archaeological deposits dating from the 14th to 15th centuries, specifically in the form of what may have been part of the stone foundation for a timber building. A cobbled surface overlying that structure was dated to the 15th to 17th centuries - possibly Futty Wynd. Other excavations, on the northern side of Virginia Street between 1978 and 1982, provided evidence of the nature and growth of the burgh waterfront from the 12th century onwards. Additional and very striking evidence of Aberdeen’s late 14th or early 15th century waterfront was found during a ‘rescue’ excavation in 1974 at a site in Shore Brae.
Virginia St. was laid down in the mid-18th century on the reclaimed Shorelands, as were Commerce St., Sugarhouse Lane, Water Lane, Mearns St.( Pork Lane), James St. and the lower end of Marischal St.
Until then, the waters of the harbour had extended to the foot of the Castlehill at high tide. The name of Virginia St. refers to the expanding trade with the Americas, as does that of nearby Sugarhouse Lane.
James Street was a busy thoroughfare for the Harbour and was immediately opposite the Virginia Steps which led down from the Upper Castle Terrace area where Cocky Hunters Store was and the old Sick Children's Hospital and led down past what was to become the Swedish Church.
Excavations were conducted at James St during the summer of 2007. A wooden structure with foundation piles sunk in estuarine sand (possibly dating from sometime between the middle of the 17th and 18th centuries). The James St structure was probably a type of platform or boardwalk, and may have been built over an area of particularly wet ground in an area that had been reclaimed from the sea after the construction of Harbour Walls in the 1st half of the 17th century.
James Street led to the main open aperture of the 2 storey Storage shed on Regents Quay which had 2 traversing cranes mounted on the roof for unloading cargo from ships berthed alongside.
This area was a constant source of wee loons mischief where we could examine strange cargo and leap about on boxes, bales or from barrel to barrel only to have winded ourselves if we missed our footing.
We could climb on Carties and move around on sack barrows. If we became to too boisterous we would be chased off with a 'kick in the aerse' by the warehouseman, A suspended slip way would be used to slide sacks from the upper floor storage area which can be seen above the unloaded cargo.
On the right corner approaching from the Virginia Steps was the Snug Bar and to left was Bisset's Steel Fabrication Shed.
There was one general provisions shop just beyond the Pub on the same side and the rest of the street was given over to tenement houses and closes.
To enter these was scary as the stairs had no natural light and you were rendered totally blind and groping in the dark - only the familiar could proceed with confidence as there was no electricity or artificial light provided either. You could not see you hand in front of your face or find a door. Try delivering newspapers or a letter in that situation.
Typical scene at the end of James Street at the junction of Regents Quay Circa 1930 Some monstrously dangerous but exciting playground for for exploring by tenement loons!
Viewed from the 2 storey goods shed at Regent Quay, James Street emerges opposite the the 2 storey Storage Shed beyond lies Mearn's Street, Water lane and Sugarhouse Lane. Regent Stores run at that time by a Mr J Ross, By the Regent Hotel right corner is a 2-way lion headed drinking fountain - handle turned up for public drinking and down for the horses, Cars and lorries together with horse drawn carts carrying Coal and bagged cargo, perhaps paper rolls and rough sawn timber which was forever stacked on the Quaysides and gave kids a fine bouncing Platform. This was continually cleared by hand using carts or lorries to convey it to the Rob Millars or Geo Gordon's Sawmills on Provost Blaikies Quay on the other side of the Victoria Dock. Steam Train No.284 (Puffing Billy's) a shunting Engine which has no wagons in tow simply nudged the empty freight wagons' steel buffer pads and and they would sail on unguarded to consolidate and be chain linked at the far end of the tracks - no health and safety issue then. A loon had tae listen for approaching driverless wagons moving near silently under their own induced momentum.
To the lower left is another whitewashed 'close' where distant relative Aly Masson lived in similar squalor in concealed tenements behind the facades. Coal Merchants J & A Davidson and Ellis & McHardy used to deliver fuel to these abodes and the poor labourer had to often climb 6 flights of stairs to dump a 1cwt of coal sack off his back in a box room within a 'but and ben' attic - dust and all - for a shilling extra reward from the tenant despite the mess. Not the most comfortable load to balance on one's back let alone the the grinding regular climbs - 'a sair trachle' indeed. In later years the Coal Merchants employed chain driven Steam Lorries that carried adequate amounts of both Mechandise and Fuel which was somewhat indistinguishable. Buyers the Ships Chandlers were also on Regents Quay. Note the load of Coal being pulled by a single Horse.
The 2 storey Storage Shed had 2 traversing cranes mounted on the Roof for unloading cargo these were later replaced by a a larger road rail located moving crane that would traverse the entire length of Regents Quay to service Cargo vessels.
Bisset's at the Virginia St end of James Street were major steel fabricators whose main street and side doors were for ever open in the summer and a deal of large RSJ's would be delivered for and cutting, drilling and welding. We would observe the Oxy-acetylene cutting of steel by masked men and extensive electric welding. We were always told not to look into the brilliant arc flashes for fear of (Photokeratitis or ultraviolet keratitis which is a painful eye condition) - Arc Eyes - inflammation which rendered you painfully tearful and grittily blind. This did not prevent us having a wee squint at this marvel. We begged that our broken bikes be made anew by their alchemists ability to repair fatigued metal joints on overloaded tricycles and bicycles. We also discovered how to make bombs with 'match heads' and 2 bolts run into one nut stolen from Bisset's with the match-head cut into slivers with a razor and the red pieces placed in between the bolts. When the device landed after being thrown the impact would cause the sulphurous mix to explode with an impressive bang and our immediate reuse till there was - nae maer matches!
Snug bar at the corner of James Street and Virginia Street opposite Bisset's Works and the Virginia Steps and could be approached via Castle Lane (Hangmans Brae) from Castle Terrace. A typical small corner pub. See's Half a croon fer a drink hen! Hard times in the slums of the Harbour area.
Sutherland's Court, 20, James Street Annand's Court, 27 James street Footdee Dispensary, 17, James Street
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