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THE PORTS - The City Gates

The records of the town council now extant commence in the year 1398, but nothing requiring notice in this summary occurs for a good many years. During the captivity of James I. and the minority of James II, the troubled state of the country obliged the inhabitants of each town to provide for their own security, and the citizens of Aberdeen were ordered to arm, the town was protected with walls, the gates being carefully shut at night, and an armed patrol of thirty citizens was daily selected as a guard. against surprise.

An interesting feature of ancient Aberdeen was the 6 ports or gates into the town. No trace of any of them is now to be seen ; but the places where they stood are known, and they serve to show the extent of the town when they were erected. They were far too old to be mentioned as new in any record of the town. The need for them as a protection against nightly thieves and robbers, or hostile incursions of armed noblemen and their followers, was never greater than when Aberdeen was first made a burgh and the seat of annual fairs visited by merchants with wares from other countries -  say in the beginning of the 12th century. In the "Book of Bon-Accord" (p. 142) it is noted that the silver keys of the ports delivered to the Provost of the City on his election are only three in number, from which the author infers that when the keys were made there were only three ports; but this is hardly a safe conclusion to come to. The keys of the ports are now represented by two ancient-looking, small silver keys. He quotes also a local byword: -  "There is not such another within the four bows of Aberdeen " - from which he seems to infer that there had at one time been only 4 ports. It may have been so, but two of the gates might have been hung from the walls of the houses, or when the saying came into use two of the gates may have become ruinous and may have been removed as useless nuisances, as all at length were.

The Upper and Netherkirkgate were the roads ‘above’ and ‘below’ the Mither Kirk of St. Nicholas. The narrow street to the west of the Kirk nowadays known as Back Wynd used to be called Westerkirkgate

The Upperkirkgate Port was the last of the 6 medieval town gateways to be demolished, sometime after 1794. It stood near the foot of the Upperkirkgate, just beyond No. 42, the gable-ended 17th century house which is still to be seen there now.  The original 6 ports – solid walls pierced by gateways – had become an obstruction to the flow of traffic, having been in existence from the first half of the 15th century

Mr George Cadenhead in his " Sketch of the Territorial History of the Burgh of Aberdeen '* (1878), says the Upperkirkgate Port was near the foot of Upperkirkgate, about the mouth of Burn Court probably, and that the ports in the town were removed in or about the year 1768, as being useless and obstructive to the streets. This date is incorrect, so as it concerns the Upperkirkgate Port, for the following paragraph appears in the " Aberdeen Journal' of 30th June, 1794:-
"The workmen have now finished pulling down the Upperkirkgate Port. The room over the Port was used as a state prison in the beginning and middle of last century, and Mr Samuel Rutherford, who was confined there (or non-conformity, in 1636 and 1637, calls it 'Christs Palaoe in Aberdeen'.  A Mr Oswald, bookseller in the Poultry, London, a great admirer of Mr Rutherford', being  on a visit to his friends in Fife, about 40 years ago, came to Aberdeen for the sole purpose of seeing: it !"

The Upperkirkgate or Schoolhill Port was just within the mill burn which came down Burn Court, 60 yards west of Tannery Street. (now George Street) Kennedy's Annals says that before 1585 a gallery had been erected over the port, which communicated with the house adjoining the north end.  It has been supposed that Samuel Rutherford occupied this gallery during his banishment to Aberdeen, 1636-8, for his strict non-conforming Presbyterianism and severe Calvinism, but his letters written in Aberdeen contain nothing to bear out this supposition. "I am well. My prison is a palace to me, and Christ’s banqueting-house" Rutherford was an active man, always doing good.  He wrote many books and helped prepare the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  Yet his life was involved in much suffering. In addition to the persecution and banishment he endured, he mourned the loss all but one of his seven children, who died before him.  His beloved wife also preceded him in death, after a long and painful illness. 

When wheeled conveyances came into general use the ports were found to be an inconvenience, and in 1798 the Upperkirkgate Port with its gallery was purchased by the City for £140 and demolished.                  Knocket Doon

The other 5 ports were the

Netherkirkgate Port,
controlling movement around the north side of St. Katherine’s Hill; the Shiprow or Trinity Port, (hence Trinity House and Quay) checking entry from the south side of St. Katherine’s Hill and the harbour; the Justice or Thieves’ Port to the north-east of the Castlegate, demolished 1787; the Futty Port on Futty Wynd, to the south-east of the Castlegate, and the Gallowgate Port on Port Hill, controlling movement from Old Aberdeen and the north.  So perhaps it should have been the 'Castlegates'

1440 First written mention of the Justice Port or 'Thieves' Gate' where the dismembered limbs of felons were placed as a warning to others

In Gordon's Chart of the City in 1661 only four of the ports are represented. A port is represented by a high wall across the street with an archway in the middle. There was a gallery over the Upperkirkgate Port, from which it may be inferred that some of the ports were in the style of the ancient Roman gates. There is an ancient Roman gate in Aosta in the form of a guard house stretching across the street with a room having a lofty gateway in both sides. In the Roman Wall between Newcastle and Carlisle there were gates at intervals. They were guard houses with two gates for two horse chariots in both sides, and accommodation for keepers inside. Each gate had two leaves turning on pins, which folded inwards and when closed butted against a stone in the middle of the passage. In driving through the gate the block would have been between the two horses.

James Gordon - Map of Aberdeen 1661

Roman Gate the Newport Arch - Lincoln
Roman Gate the Newport Arch - Lincoln

The Aberdeen Ports were secured by locks and chains and catbands, and no doubt it had been the rule that they should be closed and locked every night; but perhaps this rule was strictly observed only in times of civil war in the country, or when infection from the terrible plague was apprehended. For the convenience of those taking an airing there were stone seats outside the gate, and these were useful as "Louping-on stones" for travellers on horseback leaving the city. This lets us see that the bows were not high enough to give a passage to riders, and travellers had not mounted their horses till they were outside the gates.

The northern entrance was guarded by the Gallowgate Port, at the east end of Windy Wynd, now annexed to Spring Garden. The old name tells us that it was once just outside the town. This port was also called the Causey or Calsie Port, which name might have been given to it because at it the causewaying of the Gallowgate began. Causewayend must be a newer name, dating from the time when the causewaying was extended a quarter of a mile farther out to the city parish boundary, where "Causewayend" may be made out on a house on the north side of the road. In 1518 the Gallowgate Port was considered ancient, and it was adorned with the royal arms. These may have been put up when Aberdeen was made a royal burgh, or they may have been put up in honour of James IV. in 1501, when he passed through the port and inspected the building operations at King's College.

The Justice Port constructed in 1439 was in the higher end of Justice Street, between the west front of the Salvation Army Citadel and Gardener's Lane. It was also familiarly called the. Thieves' Port. It took its proper name from being in the street leading from Castle Street to the seat of the Justiciar's Circuit Courts at Heading Hill beside the Castle Hill, and its colloquial name from thieves sentenced to be Hanged on the Gallowhill passing through it, never to return. On such occasions a crowd of noisy spectators always accompanied the poor wretches. There were some people who never missed being present at an execution. The procession crossed the Powcreek Burn at the end of Jasmine Street by a small bridge called the Thieves' Brig. Criminals were usually executed 3 days after being sentenced. This gave time for an appeal to the Sheriff from inferior courts. The Bowl Road, (later Albion Road) which led from the Links to the Justice Port, was sometimes barricaded with booms of wood to keep out objectionable persons. The Battle of Corrichie was fought October 28, 1562, in a little hollow on the south side of the Hill of Fare, 17 miles from Aberdeen. The Marquis of Huntly lost his life in it, and 4 days after his 2nd son, Sir John Gordon, "the Queen's love," was executed in Aberdeen. His head was afterwards exhibited on a spike stuck on the top of the Justice Port.

The original course of the mill burn after crossing Upperkirkgate had been southward across the top of Flourmill Brae, a little west of Flourmill Lane, and across Netherkirkgate at its lowest part. The point called Wallace Neuk had no existence till Sir Robert Keith of Benholm built his house between Carnegie's Brae and Netherkirkgate about the end of the 17th century. The Netherkirkgate Port was between the little Bow Brig and the end of
Flourmill Lane.

No.64 Shiprow.
: Look at the intriguing projection features from about 6 to 13 feet up the exterior wall of the tenement above the line of men in the image. These are in the correct location for the Shiprow Port, and the height would accord with the City Ports having been very substantial structures. There is a city coat of arms on the wall adjacent to the down pipe with the street name under it, on this already abandoned building.  The Shiprow was the main route to the city centre leading directly to the Broadgate and Castlegate via Exchequer Row .

Trinity Congregational Church, now part of the Maritime Museum, now stands on the site.  The entrance to the town on the south-west was guarded by Trinity Port, so called because it was near Trinity Church. It was in the Shiprow, and hence it was also called Shiprow Port. Its site was a short distance west of Shore Brae.   It was demolished in the early 18th Century

There was formerly a street called Futtie Wynd with houses on both sides, which issued from the south-east corner of the Castlegate and descended in a steep brae straight down to the Trinity Burn, the nearest water to Castle Street, whose place is now occupied by Virginia Street. At the burn side it was met by a lane coming down between the Castle Hill and the Heading Hill (Park Lane  / Commerce Street along what became known locally as Hangmans Brae which run down from Castle Terrace to the base of the later constructed Virginia Steps.  The Futtie Port was in a line with the south side of Castle Street. In 1710, when there was a fear of a French invasion, the port gates were ordered to be repaired with oak beams.   Futtie Wynd led down to the old shorelands to then link with the fishing community of Futtie at Pock Raw. (known locally as Fittie later Footdee).

Survey of the Town of Aberdeen 1685 “It’s not to be omitted the Town hath set up at every entry of the Town, seats of hewn stone for the accommodation of old men and women going to horse, which is very usefull, and a comely thing.”  In the past a ferry boat had to be called from Torrie; now there is one at the mouth of the Dee, near the Blockhouse.
The causey of the Castle Gate has now been repaired (it was so hollow the dubs (mud) and rains stood in pools) some 50 years after the other streets were causeyed.

These ports distinctly indicate the extent of the ancient city. On the west it extended to Windy Wynd, then the boundary turned south along the east side of the mill-dam called the Loch, which had originally been only a burn flowing close to the back ends of the gardens of the houses in the Gallowgate. These had all back gates giving access to the water, and there were lanes in the west side for the benefit of the houses on the east side of the Gallowgate. The Vennel, now St Paul Street, gave the houses in the south end of the Gallowgate and in the north side of Upperkirkgate access to the water. The Vennel had not a gate, but it left the Gallowgate by a pend under a house, and, like other lanes, it could have been barricaded at the west end by booms and chains. From the Loch E'e to the Harbour the mill burn had been the west boundary of the town, both the Upperkirkgate and the Netherkirkgate Ports being beside the burn. On the south side, the town was bounded by Trinity Burn, the only harbour of the town.  We may include the Castle in the town, and take the east boundary along Commerce Street and Park Street to East North Street. Prior to 1775, when this street was opened, the north boundary ran along the ends of the gardens of the houses in Justice Street and Castle Street. Turning north-west its course was along the base of the steep ground on the west side of North Street. At the Windmill, on the north side of the long flight of steps leading to the Gallowgate, the boundary turned west in the line of Windy Wynd. From the north end of the Gallowgate along by Broad Street, Castle Street, and Justice Street there was anciently no public thoroughfare across the continuous row of houses bordering these streets, and in 1661 every house had its garden behind it. In 1639, when the Covenanters began to levy troops, the citizens of Aberdeen attempted to fortify the north-east side of the town. Ditches were cut from the Windmill along the ends of the gardens to the Castle Hill, and round it to the Harbour. In a short time Montrose entered the city from the west "at the Over Kirkgate Port, syne came down throw the Broadgate, throw the Castlegate, out at the Justice Port, and to the Quaein's Links directly." (Spalding's "Memorials.")  Within the boundaries just given there were in all six or seven streets — the Gallowgate, including Broad Street, which originally extended to the west side of the Guestrow; the Upperkirkgate and Netherkirkgate, which gave access to the Church of St Nicholas ; the Shiprow, which gave access to the harbour, and to the south by the Bow Brig; the Castlegate, the chief public place in the city; Justice Street, and Futtie Wynd, both short streets, were outlets from the Castlegate.

Points of interest in this 1746 Taylors map section include Broadford Meadow, Mount Hooley, Sickhouse Ruins, the Stones of Gilcon, The Aquaduct supplying city water, The old Windmill at Seamount near Port Hill, the much reduced Loch, Cardenshaugh, Blinkbly, Backburn, Flour Mill, Futtie Port impossibly steep drop to the shorelands. The Customs House and Quay, Shiprow, the Green, Bow Brig, Langstane, Crabstone, Windmill in vicinity of Golden Square, a Dovecote, Corb Haugh (Terrace Gardens), Lower Justice Mills, Guestrow, Schoolhill, Silverton Hospital, Rottenholes, Ferryhill (Fairy) and vegetable and herb fields, the extent of the Inches which gave rise to the new Harbour.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013