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The Doric Columns

Mercat Cross

A  large market cross, originally erected  in 1686, thoroughly repaired in 1821 and removed to the present site in 1842

The Balustrade surmounting the arches is divided into 12 panels, in 10 of which, enclosed within, oval-shaped wreaths, are sculptured portraits in high relief of the following Scottish Sovereigns James. I., II., III., IV., and V., Queen Mary, James Vl, Charles I. and II., and James VII.  The remaining 2 panels are filled in with the Royal Arms and the Insignia of the City. The armorial bearings of the City, which the visitor will come across in various places, are gules, 3 towers triple towered, within a double tressure flowered and counter flowered argent, supporters 2 leopards proper, and the motto "Bon- Accord." The column which rises from the centre of the Cross is wreathed with Thistles, and resting on the capital is a Unicorn in white marble bearing on its breast a Shield with the Scottish Arms. The Cross was at one time closed in below, and was let out for small shops or booths, but in 1822 these were cleared out, and for a short time the building was used as the Post Office

Origins of Market Crosses

Crosses in Market Places seem to have been a key point of the market from their foundation with traders selling produce from their steps.  In churchyards they served as stations for outdoor processions, particularly in the observance of Palm Sunday.  Elsewhere, standing crosses were used within settlements as places for preaching, public proclamation and penance, as well as defining rights of sanctuary.  Many were linked to religious or monastic institutions where ‘their object was not only to draw men to do public homage to the religion of Christ, but to excite in them a due regard for that justice and equity, which, it is essential, His followers should practice in the ordinary transactions of life.’ It was at Market Crosses that market dues would be paid – often to a religious institution.  ‘Standing crosses were also employed to mark boundaries between parishes, property, or settlements.  A few crosses were erected to commemorate battles. ‘Some crosses were linked to particular saints, whose support and protection their presence would have helped to invoke.  Some crosses where erected as memorials to individuals.  ‘Crosses in market places may have helped to validate transactions. Like the nails in Bristol, people could agree that they would pay the money “on the nail” at a set date.  After the Reformation, some crosses continued in use as focal points for Municipal or Borough ceremonies, for example as places for official proclamations and announcements; some were scenes of games or recreational activity.’

The simplest form of market cross would be a single shaft standing stone inserted directly into the ground. More usually there would be a base stone with a socket into which was inserted a shaft, usually with a cross on the top. Often the socket stone would be placed on a base of one or more tiers of steps. The shaft could be of increasing complexity and ornamentation itself. Sometimes rising to considerable height again, often constructed in tiers of diminishing width. The next step, as in the Mercat Cross is for there to be a canopy surrounding the central pillar to provide shelter for market traders using the cross.

There appears to be a Mound or Round in front of the New Inn and the external staircase to the Court is clearly visible at the Toll Booth. The compartmented Mercat Cross stand on its original site and the New Inn is present on the end of the Toll Booth.  St Nicholas Spire is in the background.

Note the twin Gable end structure in the foreground with the close leading to a Pend beyond typical of Aberdeen's town centre development.  The Mannie Well seems truncated and missing some embellishments.

The Market Cross was the symbol of a Burgh's right to trade and was located centrally in the town's market place. Documentary evidence suggests that this monument type existed by at least the 12th century in Scotland, although it is thought that these early examples were wooden. Many of the standing examples date from the 16th and 17th century, but there are also several more elaborate Victorian examples. Some burghs are recorded as having more than one market cross according to the produce sold around their base (  in Aberdeen the former 'Fish Cross' or Laich Cross probably a mere pillar was at the  east end and finally removed in 1742.  The 'Flesh Cross'  or High Cross at the west end was ornamented with a crucifix). Documentary evidence, particularly in town council records, also refers to all manner of announcements, celebrations and grizzly punishments carried out at the market cross, prompting Small the description of their sites as 'the dreaded theatre of public punishment and shame'!  Today they are a symbol of the Burgh's heritage, often seen, little contemplated.

The essential element of the market cross is not a cross, but a shaft crowned with an appropriate heraldic or religious emblem.  Heraldic beasts (eg the unicorn), armorial bearings and sundials are popular subjects of sculpture for the capital and finial of market crosses.  Few actual cross-shapes appear as finials, and where they occur they tend to be stylised. Typically, the earlier, more simple constructions consist of a polygonal shaft with capital and finial, rising from a solid, stepped base  Some of the later examples are more elaborate, according to the available funding within the burgh for their construction. There are five standing examples of the round tower-based type. These consist also of a shaft crowned with capital and finial, surmounting an under-structure which can be in the form of either an open, vaulted shelter, or a tower with internal stairs providing access to an elevated, parapet platform. Later, Victorian examples are often based upon a square-shaped pedestal, sometimes tiered, and usually with quite elaborate carving. All of these types tend to be of sandstone.

Market crosses are situated in many town centres in mainland Scotland, with a distribution that tapers to the north and west, according to the existence historically of Burghs. There are around 126 standing examples in Scotland. While market crosses are found in other parts of Britain, the architecture of the Scottish examples tends to differ from these in form, style and iconography.

Aberdeen once had 2 crosses. One was the " fish cross," in the east end of the Castlegate, round which the fisher folk displayed their wares until the removal of the fish cross in 1742. The other, situated at the western end of the spacious market-place, was known as the "flesh cross," from the circumstance that the booths of fleshers stood in and near it for many years, from the time when flesh-meat was allowed to be sold on only certain days of the week.

The Plainstones or Exchange

In 1752, in the course of levelling and paving the Market area of Castle Street, they laid down the Plainstones, which, in Aberdeen as in other towns, became popular as a resort and promenade for many years.

On 22nd January, 1752, the Town Council agreed to the proposal of David Deuchar, contractor, for paving the area "twixt the Cross and Exchange Coffee Rooms, at the rate of 4d per foot, he furnishing sand and all workmanship, and the paving being at least 6 inches of thickness."

Before the work was carried out, however, a larger improvement had been discussed, and so, on 29th June, 1752:-

"The said day, The Council agreed that the Pavementing on the Castlegate should be 60 foot in breadth; and 80 foot of length from the Cross, with swipe on the side of the Cross, conform to a Plan, and that this shall be a foot higher than the Causeway."  The Exchange was a Pavement of Granite and it ended up 84ft x 57ft and 2 steps up from the Street and terminated on the East by the Mercat Cross.  Up till the laying out of Union Street, and the great public improvements that issued there from, this raised platform was the daily resort, or Exchange, of the better class of citizens and frequented by the Merchants of the City; subsequently, it became the scene of Huxters' Stalls, Fishwifes and their Creels and Loungers of every kind, until it became something of a public nuisance.   The Mercat Cross was at the south east corner of the Plainstones and they extended towards the Tolbooth diagonally opposite the Atheneum.

On the Plainstones was fought, in 1763, a fatal duel between Abernethy of Mayen, and Leith of Leith-hall. It originated in a squabble in the adjoining New Inn, and the 2 antagonists, having withdrawn to the Plainstones, they there exchanged shots, and Leith was shot through the head.

Its trading associations are of a homlier cast, but it is worth noting that it was at the North corner of the Plainstones that McCombie, originator of a once famous brand of Aberdeen Snuff, had his booth.  In the newspapers of June, 1807, one may still read that "McCombie, late Dealer in Snuff and Tobacco, North Corner of the Plainstones, begs leave to Intimate that he has Removed to that Shop, Justice Port, head of Justice Lane, formerly possessed by Mr. John Walker, where he intends to deal in the Grocery, Tea, Spirit, and Porter lines." One is glad to add that such a soul was not wholly given up to grocery lines, for McCombie intimated also that he still intends "to keep an assortment of the very best qualities of Snuff and Tobacco on the most reasonable terms." The business was afterwards transferred to Netherkirkgate, near the passage now so well known as McCombie's Court.

As the 18th century drew to a close, and the spirit of public improvement spread, the Mercat Cross stood in some danger of being swept away as a public obstruction. The old city Ports had been demolished; the old stone port or barrier at the Bridge of Dee had shared the same fate, and now, by the advent of a new public body, the Police Commissioners, created by the Police Act of 1795, to manage the streets, everything was to be large and new. John Ewen, a meddlesome busy-body, whose curio shop was opposite the Plainstones, and who was one of the early Police Commissioners, had long had his eye on the Cross. The complete levelling of Castle Street was one of the earliest of the schemes which the new Police Board occupied itself with, and very soon John got his colleagues to come to a formal resolution about the Cross. So say the Board's official Minutes :

"28 July, 1806. The Board having had under consideration various proposals suggested out of doors, in respect of removing the Cross, Plainstones, and the Outer Stairs leading to the Court House, or Prison, it appeared proper that these obstructions upon the street should be brought under the view of the Magistrates and New Street Trustees, with whom the Board wish to cultivate a good understanding for the public benefit a and a scroll of letter having been read on these subjects by Mr. Ewen, the Commissioners approved of it, and directed that it should be extended, and that Mr. Ewen may, with the Treasurer,  subscribe and forward it to Provost Brebner.

1827 Aberdeen Star (27 April) 
    On the Plainstones, in Castle Street, about 7 o’clock, a bonfire was lighted up

This structure was erected in 1686, to replace the Ancient Flesh Cross, and is of hexagonal form, 18 feet in height: the faces, which are 10 feet in breadth, are ornamented with duplicated Ionic columns at the angles, sustaining an entablature and cornice, surmounted by a parapet and an open balustrade; and from the centre of the area, which is 21 feet in diameter, rises a lofty Corinthian Column, supporting a Unicorn bearing a shield with a Lion rampant. The entrance was once by a door in the north face, leading to a staircase forming an ascent to the platform, from which all public proclamations were read. The entablature above each of the faces is divided into 2 compartments, in the western and eastern of which are respectively the Arms of the town and the Royal Arms of Scotland, and in the others busts of the Sovereigns from James I. of Scotland to James II. of England.

Aberdeen’s Mercat Cross was the traditional heart of the Burgh. At the Cross new Monarchs were proclaimed: a locked  staircase led from ground level to the top where announcements were made. The symbolism in making the announcement from this spot was important to the Jacobites and on 20 September 1715 the Old Pretender was declared King at the Mercat Crosses of Aberdeen and Old Aberdeen. Old Aberdeen is just to the North, incorporating the Cathedral and Kings College, which was a separate town from Aberdeen until 1891

In 1745 events at the Cross took a more dramatic turn.  On 25 September 1745 the Jacobite Rebels intended to make a similar announcement. Under the command of the Laird of Strathbogie the rebels could not find the keys to the Cross and so an armed party was sent to Provost Morison’s house.  The first party failed to find him so a second party was organised with instructions to make it known that unless Morison surrendered himself they would burn down his house.  By these means they found the Provost; they marched him at sword point to the Town House and then onto the roof of the cross.  A further armed party had by this time rounded up a number of the Councillors and 2 Baillies, who were also marched at sword point to the cross. All of the Council officials were forced onto the top of the cross, along with James Petrie, Sheriff Substitute of Aberdeen, who declared the Young Pretender king and toasted his health. Petrie attempted to force Morison to toast Charles as monarch, which Morison refused to do. Petrie then poured wine down Morison’s chest in a mock toast.

The Mercat Cross -

at the upper end of Castle Street, is a Renaissance, open-arched, hexagonal structure of freestone, adorned with medallions of the Seven James's. From its centre springs a column with Corinthian capitol, surmounted by a unicorn that bears an escutcheon charged with the Scottish Lion, the basement being 21 feet in diameter and 18 high, the column 12½ feet more. The workmanship of John Montgomery, mason of Old Rayne, it first was erected, in 1686, before the Tolbooth, near the site of the Flesh Cross, and was transferred to its present position in 1842.- It also served as a Post Office in 1822 as the arches were originally bricked up and doors and windows added. 

The built under-structure, hexagonal in plan and composed of a series of semi-circular arches supports a parapet, decorated with arms and Royal portrait medallions. Within the parapet rises a carved column surmounted by the unicorn with the shield.

The work of taking it down at the first rebuilding of 1821 was gone about as carefully as possible, but in spite of that the beautifully floriated Corinthian column which rises from the centre of it unfortunately fell, and was broken in 3 parts. It still stands, however, and the careful mending of 1821 is easily discernible. At the same time a singular discovery was made in regard to the Unicorn which surmounts the central column. When the cleaning operations began the whole structure was black with the sooty grime of years, and seemed to be made entirely of sandstone, as had been agreed upon in 1686, but as the cleaning went on the unicorn began to assume a whitish tint, and it was then found that it was made of pure white statuary marble.  Apart from placing the whole structure on a granite base, and renewing the decayed portions of the fabric with Morayshire freestone, the operations of 1821 included the clearing out of the 4 compartments, or booths, in the interior of the Cross, and forming them into one.

The 2nd modest Post-Office of Aberdeen was at that time carried on in a small shop in Netherkirkgate from 1825-40.

As the rebuilding of the New Cross went on,  Alexander Dingwall, Post Master, petitioned the Town Council to grant the use of the new apartment in the Cross, as the Post-Office, offering to pay £25 yearly rent for the same.  The Town Council, while agreeing that they might have made better terms for their property, resolved to accede to the Post Master's proposals.

On 10th April, 1822, therefore, the rebuilt Market Cross was opened as the Aberdeen Post-Office, and a new era seemed to be opened in its long and interesting history. 


Ans image of the Market Cross, Castlegate at the time when it was in use as a Post Office. Taken from an engraving by J. Swan of Glasgow, based on a drawing by George Smith, architect of Aberdeen dated 1822. The Market Cross opened as a Post Office on 10 April of that year, with Alexander Dingwall as Postmaster.    The ancient Mercat Cross has been called the finest in Scotland.  It won the special admiration of the late Emperor Frederick William.  It dates from 1686, and was the work of a mason from an Aberdeenshire village.  Early in the 19th century, the general postal work of Aberdeen could be accomplished within the tiny circle of its colonnade, then walled in.  The General Post Office now has a large building in Market Street and is on the wing to bigger premises farther west in Crown Street.

From the rebuilding of the Cross to the present day only one outstanding event occurred in regard to it that needs to be specially noted. It did not long remain the home of the Aberdeen Post-Office, for in 1824 the Post-Office was removed to more suitable premises in Union Street.

The compartment in the Cross then became a Coaching Office, and in recent history some remember how Captain Robert Barclay Allardyce used to dash off with his Defiance coach from the neighbourhood of the Market Cross. 

The incidents of the proclamation at the Cross of William IV. in 1830, and of Queen Victoria in 1837, lacked the picturesque pageantry of ancient ceremonials of the kind; and other formal proclamations that have taken place in the period have as yet no historical interest.



The Cross was dismantled, and rebuilt in 1842 on a site farther to the east than the former; but the original structure was carefully preserved, except that the masonry between the supporting columns was removed, and the lower part of the fabric thus thrown open. John Smith the Town's Superintendent, according to his official title was again in charge of the taking down and removal of the Cross. The work, which was begun in February, 1842, was carried out by the end of June, and very carefully it was executed, so that not a stone of it came by any mishap. On this occasion, the Plainstones disappeared for ever. An attempt was made, just befor the removal of the Cross began, to get the Town Council to agree to lay down the Plainstones again at the new site of the Cross, but no one seconded a motion made to that effect at the Council meeting, and so the Plainstones passed away. But the Cross itself arose on the new site in a more beautiful form than ever. The solid masonry that filled the arches of the Cross was not restored, and the airy gracefulness of the open .arcade gave a new charm to the ancient structure, and made it more than ever unique among the Market Crosses of Scotland.

It was encircled, too, on the new site, with a simple unobtrusive railing, which still stood in the late 1940's, a protection, as well as an ornament, although there must be few who would wish to lay desecrating hands upon the Cross.  For it is an example of the worthy growth of public sentiment that nowadays all classes in Aberdeen look upon the Market Cross as a precious civic possession, to be guarded with extreme care.














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Last modified: 01/09/2013