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The Beginnings of Railways

In 1814 Robert Stevenson designed a travelling road engine for hauling coal waggons on a tramway from Killingworth Colliery to a port. It travelled at the rate of six miles an hour. In 1825 a locomotive was made for the Stockton and Darlington Railway — the first railway in England — which drew goods and passengers at the rate of fifteen miles an hour. The first railway in Scotland was the Monklands Railway, opened in 1826; and the first north of the Forth was the Dundee and Newtyle Railway, opened in 1831. It was 10 miles long, and rose to 224 feet above the sea. Most of it was level, but there were some steep inclines, where trains were pulled up and let down by stationary engines. These are now shunned, and the railway is worked solely by locomotives.

Aberdeen Railway
Earlier Proposals for the Dee Viaduct
A railway from Aberdeen to Perth was surveyed in 1837. Owing to the state of the money market no attempt was made to get an Act for it at the time. On March 20, 1844, the " Aberdeen Journal " published the prospectus of the Aberdeen, Dundee, and Perth Railway, which was to cross the Dee at Durris, cross the Grampians at the Slug, and pass Auchinblae and Laurencekirk. This drew out next week the prospectus of a railway which had been planned in 1837 to connect Aberdeen with the southern railways. Its route was by Stonehaven and Laurencekirk, and it was to terminate at Friockheim, on the Arbroath and Forfar Railway, made in 1835 to supply the manufactories of Forfar with coals and the raw material they used. As its route was nearer the coast than that of the railway announced the week before it was styled the Aberdeen and East Coast Railway. On April 23 a third railway from Aberdeen to the south was announced, with the title of the Great North of Scotland Railway, which was to run from Aberdeen, through Strathmore, to Perth. This proposal emanated from Perth, and it had the effect of inducing the promoters of the other two schemes to coalesce in favour of any scheme which might be recommended by Mr William Cubitt, a railway engineer of much experience. He recommended the adoption of the route proposed by the Aberdeen and East Coast Railway, with connections with the Arbroath and Forfar Railway at Friockheim for Dundee, and Guthrie for Forfar. This route was adopted, but some persons who wished to have a coast railway afterwards issued the prospectus of a company for forming a railway connecting Stonehaven, Montrose, and Arbroath, to be called the East Coast Junction Railway. The scheme met with little support and was soon abandoned.

Aberdeen's 1st Railway Station was at Ferryhill. It opened in 1850. But in 1847 there was a proposal for a different site.  This was to be where Market Street joined Union Street. The plan shows what it might have looked like: a very grand building in the neo-classical style.  This means that it was designed to look like Greek-Roman architecture.


But it was never built. It would have been a large civil engineering project costing a lot of money. Engineers would have needed to build the Railway up to the height of Union Street, difficult and expensive.



Ferry Hill Station 1847
Aberdeen's 1st Railway Station was at Ferryhill.

The Aberdeen Railway was the name adopted for the railway recommended by Mr Cubitt. There were to be branches to Montrose and Brechin, and the total length was to be 66 miles. The capital was to be £1,000,000. There were to be no tunnels, and no gradients steeper than 1 in 100. The Parliamentary plans showed that the railway was to end on the south side of Hadden Street, 80 feet west from Market Street. There might have been some intention of utilising the Market for station buildings, but the price spoken of by the Market Company, £50,000, was prohibitive. A large area between Market Street and Guild Street was purchased, including Trinity Church, which is still standing, though the congregation bought The Royalty Theatre in Marischal Street for a new church.  The railway was designed to go in a straight line to Polmuir Road, crossing Trinity Quay, now included in Guild Street, by an arched bridge and going along a viaduct upon 171 arches of granite with 30 feet of span. The route led through the Inner Dock and along the margin of the Dee. The viaduct was to be level, and alongside of it there was to be another with a single line of rails, rising from the level of the harbour to Ferryhill. The bill for the railway was opposed in Parliament, but it passed on July 31, 1845. The capital of the company was fixed at £830,000 and the following well-known Aberdeen worthies were named in the Act as members of the company:- Thomas Blaikie (Foundry), William Adam, John Blaikie (Foundry), Newell Burnett, Patrick Davidson, James Hadden (Weaving Factory), Alexander Jopp (Advocate), Clements Lumsden, Isaac Machray, Alexander Pirie jr.(Paper), Henry Paterson, and George Thompson jr (Shipbuilder).

The population of the City - which did not include Torry, Woodside, or Old Aberdeen - was 75,000. The City had then linen, cotton, woollen, and other manufactures, and considerable trade in stone, fish, cattle, and grain.   An agreement was made with the Arbroath & Forfar Railway by which it was leased at 5/- per cent, per annum of its capital for 5 years and then merged in the Aberdeen Railway. This gave time to complete the Aberdeen Railway before the Union, and it also gave it the means of carrying for itself the materials to be used in constructing it.

Works of Construction
The working plans were got ready, and the Railway was contracted for within the estimates. There were many separate contracts. Messrs Leslie and Macdonald, contracted for the first mile at £50,000, and they undertook also the Bridge over the Dee. The piers for the arches of the main line of the viaduct were built from Guild Street to Ferryhill, and arches were thrown over the south half, but none over the north half. After standing isolated several years the piers of the north half of the viaduct were taken down. No part of the north end of the small viaduct was ever formed, but the piers and arches of the south end were built. No operations of any sort were ever carried on north of Guild Street.


From Polmuir Road at Ferryhill to Greg Ness the track of the Railway is a beautiful double curve on a gently- rising gradient. Both the curves have a radius of 2000 feet. In the 1st curve in approaching the River there are 4 arches of granite, 60 feet in span, and in crossing Riverside Road and the River Dee there are 7 arches of cast iron, each 60 feet in span, on granite piers. The contract was for arches of wood, but the contractors offered to make them with 4 ribs of iron for a very moderate addition to the contract price, and the offer was accepted.  It was a fortunate thing that the piers of the River arches were erected long before the arches were cast, for after a flood in the river it was found that some of them had been undermined. They were taken down and rebuilt farther up the River, away from the deep pot above the Craiglug Bridge. Better foundations were made for the piers, and they have never shown any sign of giving way. In September, 1846, a serious accident happened to the viaduct near Devanha Brewery. At the south end several arches had been cast, and though the "centres" had been removed from 3 of them they stood apparently substantial and sound for 10 days. Then they suddenly collapsed. Of 11 men who were at work upon them, 7 were instantly killed, and the other 4 were severely injured.

The Railway Viaduct (1848), on the Aberdeen section of the Caledonian, crosses the Dee transversely, 3 furlongs above the Suspension Bridge, and designed by Messrs Locke & Errington, consists of 7 iron girder arches, each about 50 feet in span, with two land arches at its northern end.

Progress of the Work
The work of construction was carried on vigorously, and at many points simultaneously; but rapid progress was impossible in the deep cuttings in the granite and gneiss rocks between Aberdeen and Cowie Church, where the soft, old red sandstone rocks begin. The early locomotive engines used on railways weighed, with their tender, only 10 tons, consequently the railways had to be made straight and level. Where curves were unavoidable they had to be made with a long radius, and gradients rose not more than 6 feet per mile. Stationary engines were used where steep gradients were imperative.  By 1844, when the Aberdeen Railway was planned, heavy engines had been introduced ; but in the prospectus of the railway it, was stated that no curve would have a less radius than half a mile, and no gradient a greater rise than 1 in 100. Hence there were deep cuttings, spill-banks, high embankments, and long viaducts. Had the Aberdeen Railway not been made till 1854, when more powerful engines had come into use, such expensive works would have been avoided, and the railway would have been constructed at much less expense. But it has been for the advantage of the present generation that the Aberdeen Railway was constructed in the primitive style.  It has effected a saving of coals on every journey that an engine makes; trains are run at a higher speed; and there is less tear and wear of the permanent way and the rolling stock

The Denburn Valley Railway
Both the Aberdeen Railway and the Great North of Scotland Railway Companies originally contemplated a junction between the two by a line in or near the Denburn Valley. There was at one time a stream of water in Berryden and by following it, the Spa Burn, and the Denburn a railway could easily have been made from Kittybrewster to Marywell Street. It would have been opposed by the proprietors of Broadford Works and the Royal Infirmary, and the Town Council would not have allowed it to pass under Union Bridge. This led to plans for carrying it on the west side of the line of the burns at such a level as that it would pass under all the streets in its course. In the plan of 1846 it ran along the west end of Rosemount House. Subsequently it was proposed to keep a little nearer the burns, but still crossing Union Street west of the bridge; and the feu on which the Palace Hotel stands was taken with the intention of making a station there. After the opening of the Kittybrewster and Waterloo Stations the Great North of Scotland Company gave up the intention of making a junction with the Aberdeen Railway by the way of the Denburn, and enlarged these stations.

The difficulty in joining the two railways was not in the route but in the opposition to be expected from interested parties in Aberdeen, which would have to be bought off at a great cost. This led the Scottish North-Eastern Railway Company to bring out a plan for a junction without passing through Aberdeen. In 1862 they obtained an Act for making the Scottish Northern Junction Railway, from the north side of Limpet Mill Burn, three miles from Stonehaven Station, to a point a quarter of a mile from Kintore Station. After leaving the Aberdeen Railway it crossed the Aberdeen Road and struck north by the east side of the Cantlay Hills. It got into the course of the Muchalls Burn, and, passing through the Red Moss, it came to the Crynoch Burn, which led it to the Dee. It crossed the river at Culter, and coming to the Deeside Railway at Culter Viaduct it made two junctions with it, one to the north-east before crossing and one to the south-west after crossing. It followed the Culter and the Leuchar Burns for some distance, and then turned north by the east side of the Loch of Skene. After a course of 22 miles it joined the Great North of Scotland Railway 450 yards south of Kintore Station. The cost of the railway was estimated at £150,000.

It effected a saving of six miles on the distance between Stonehaven and Kintore via Aberdeen, and in general it was warmly welcomed in the country districts. In the city there was great indignation because Aberdeen was relegated to a siding instead of being on the main through line. The north railway company saw that they would lose twelve miles of their through traffic, while the south railway would gain eight or nine more than they had.  They vehemently opposed the bill in its passage through Parliament, and offered to make next year a railway junction through Aberdeen, or in the vicinity of it. There was more in the last clause than was generally suspected, but the Great North of Scotland Railway Company best knew the difficulties in the way of the Denburn route. The Act was granted by Parliament ; though its operation was suspended till Jannary 1, 1863, to give the north company an opportunity of bringing in a bill next year implementing their offer.

The Circumbendibus Railway
Before 1862 was out the prospectus of the promised railway was issued. It was titled the Great North of Scotland Railway (Aberdeen Junction). When it was discovered that the junction railway was not to follow the Denburn Valley but to go round the town on the west, it was nicknamed the Circumbendibus Railway, and its official name was rarely mentioned. It was regarded as an evasion of the undertaking made to the Commons Committee, but when the terms of the promise were examined it was seen that this allegation could not justly be upheld against the railway. Anderson, the " Wizard of the North," was at the time exhibiting legerdemain (skilful) tricks in Aberdeen, and to draw a large house he offered prizes for the best and the worst conundrums which Aberdeen could produce. The one which gained the prize for badness was:- "Why is a pig like a potato?" and the answer was : — " Because neither of them knows anything about the Circumbendibus." No doubt the same might be said now about half of the inhabitants of Aberdeen.

Its route began 100 yards north of Kittybrewster Station office, and followed the plan of 1846 for three quarters of a mile. It went along Berryden, crossing Berryden Road — near the south end, the east end of Westburn Road, Rosemount Terrace, and passing as before on the west of Rosemount House it left the 1846 route and crossed Rosemount Place at Mount Street. It crossed Short Loanings at right angles, the line of Esslemont Avenue — not then laid out, Leadside Road and the open mill-burn, Albert Street — north of the Denburn, and Garden Place, where there was to be a station. It then began to curve round in a semi-circle, and crossed Albyn Place at Nos 31 and 32 — then building, Stanley Street, Glaremont Street, Ashley Place — now part of Great Western Road, Holburn Street — west of Palmer's Brewery, Fonthill Road — east of Oldmachar Poorhouse, and crossing the Ferryhill Burn, Crown Street, and Portland Street it joined the South Railway in the line of Marywell Street as in the 1846 plan. The railway was planned to cross the streets in its way at a depth sufficient to keep it well out of sight and not to interfere with the level of the streets. The inhabitants of the west-end would be very glad now to have this railway passing through their midst so inoffensively and conveniently, but the opposition to it was so general and so keen that the Parliamentary agent sometimes threatened to withdraw the bill, and let the Limpet Mill Railway go on. In spite of all opposition the bill passed July 21, 1863.

New Denburn Valley Railway
The Scottish North-Eastern Railway Company had opposed the bill, and they had asserted that for the cost of this railway a direct line could be made along the Denburn Valley. The House of Commons Committee took advantage of this statement and suspended the operation of the Act till 1st January next year, to give the Scottish North-Eastern Railway Company an opportunity of bringing in a bill for making a railway in the Denburn Valley and a joint station. If they failed to do this the Circumbendibus would go on. If their bill were objectionable and failed to pass they would have to pay £5000 to the other company for delaying needlessly the operation of their Act. If the Scottish North-Eastern Company got an Act and proceeded to make the railway they were to receive by instalments £125,000 from the other Company, otherwise the Limpet Mill Railway would go on. This arrangement put pressure also on the Town Council and the citizens whose ground might be needed for the railway. If they had demanded exorbitant prices then the Scottish North-Eastern Company would have said: — "We cannot make the railway, we will pay the £5000 and let the Circumbendibus go on."

A bill was timely introduced into Parliament, and it passed June 23, 1864, with little opposition. The Town Council allowed the new Railway to pass under Union Bridge, and were content to take £2500 for the ground taken from them. The proprietors of the Hadden Works in the Green were settled with amicably. The Directors of the Royal Infirmary magnified their office and made unreasonable demands, which were not listened to in Parliament. The result of their pains and expense was that the Woolmanhill tunnel was pushed too far to the east to admit of a convenient station being made at the mouth of the Tunnel when Rosemount Viaduct was formed. To the shrewdness of an Irish MP - Mr Michael Dobbyn Hassard, Chairman of the House of Commons Committee which sat upon the Bill - is due the credit of making the selfishness of railway companies and public bodies reluctantly co-operate to effect a direct railway junction in Aberdeen. He had been Chairman of the Committees which sat upon the Limpet Mill scheme in 1862, and the Circumbendibus in 1863, and he knew the troubles of the South Railway with the Harbour Commissioners in getting a Station in Guild Street in 1853, and the resistance of the Town Council to a Railway skirting the Public Links in 1856. When all details had been adjusted he rubbed his hands on one another as if washing them clean and clear of Aberdeen Railway matters, saying:-"Have we not done handsomely by the people of Aberdeen?" The Town Council sent him a letter acknowledging his services to the City.

Chief Provisions of the Act
The 1st and most important was to make a Railway beginning 440 yards from the south end of the Guild Street Passenger Station, and ending 110 yards north of the passenger shed at Kittybrewster Station. The 2nd was to make a 'Joint Passenger Station' according to a prescribed plan South of Guild Street. Before Railway operations began at Guild Street, the street which now bears this name was in 4 parts. The part between Market Street and Stirling Street had the Harbour on the south side and was called Trinity Quay. The 2nd part, extending to Trinity Street, was called Guild Street in honour of Dr Guild, Donor of the Trades Hospital. It dipped to the South at the West end. The 3rd part was the end of Trinity Street, which then came down obliquely in the same line as its upper part does. The 4th part, Wapping, extended across the Denburn to College Street on the east of a street called Lower Denburn, (not in existence now). From the present termination of Trinity Street a street extended South to the old Upper Harbour, called Gas Street because the Gasworks were on the west. Hadden's Dyeworks were on the East side of it. From the meeting of Trinity Street and Wapping a street called Lower Dee Street extended Southward in front of the Joint Station to the Denburn, which there curved Eastward and entered the Harbour. A bridge across the Denburn connected Lower Dee Street with Wellington Road, in which Marywell Street and Affleck Street ended. Gas Lane extended east and west from Gas Street across Lower Dee Street and the Denburn to Lower Denburn.

Other Provisions of the Act
Guild Street
was to be extended west to College Street. There was to be an open space or access in front of the station extending from Guild Street to Gas Lane. There was to be an access to the Station on the West side from College Street, and from Marywell Street to the East side by a footbridge across the Railway. There was to be an access from Union Street to the Station by a street (Bridge Street) nearly in a line with Union Terrace and joining on to Guild Street. There was to be a footbridge (Puffin' Briggie) over the Denburn to the Green in the line of the Windmill Brae. Bath Street was to be made to connect the Windmill Brae with Bridge Street. Rennie's Wynd and Trinity Street were to be carried down perpendicularly to Guild Street in the line of Gas Street.  A bridge over the Railway was to be provided in the line of Mutton Brae, joining it with the end of Skene Street. This was done, but on the formation of Rosemount Viaduct the Bridge was removed and Mutton Brae was closed up. The site of it was between the Triple Churches and the Viaduct, and there was a wooden foot bridge across the Denburn at its lower end. In the Woolmanhill tunnel the rails were to be laid on longitudinal sleepers without iron chairs, unless some better way of preventing noise should be found, and trains were to enter without whistling. Three years were allowed for finishing the works, after which Waterloo Station and Guild Street Station were to cease to be used as passenger stations. The Joint Station was to be upheld by a Committee at the expense of the 2 railways. All North of the Joint Station is the property of the Northern Railway, and all South of it belongs to the Southern. The Denburn Valley Railway was completed and opened in 1867.

Construction of the Railway
The Denburn Railway reduced the distance between the North and South lines 1 mile, 600 yards. There are 2 Tunnels on the junction, the lower of which is 245 yards long, and the upper 270. Both were made by open cuttings which were afterwards covered up. The junction line crosses the Denburn stream 3 times, and it had to be covered up. Old red sandstone rock was found at the South end of the lower tunnel. A bank of blue clay was also found, which had been put down to dam up the outlet of the Loch of Aberdeen and to raise its waters to a higher level, perhaps with the view of sending water to the Upper Mill at the head of the Netherkirkgate.  When it was cut through there was a great discharge of water from a bed of sand.  Near the upper end of the lower tunnel a Well 300 feet deep was found in the angle between Woolmanhill and John Street. This Well was purchased by James Wright proprietor of Royal Granite Works a neighbouring stone cutting yard, to get the use of the water in his trade.  The Well also supplied water for a steam engine in a Tape Manufactory owned by Milne, Low, & Company, which was in Woolmanhill, between John Street and St Andrew Street. It also supplied water for baths provided by the Company for the workers.  A woman, 84 years of age, who was a worker in the Mill, remembers the digging of the Well in the court of the Factory. Her wages were at 1st 20d. per week, and they were raised to 24d. Work began at 6am and ended at 8pm In busy times work began at 3 in the morning, yet she looks back upon the years she worked in the Mill as a happy time. Before the formation of the Denburn Valley Railway the Tape Manufactory had been shifted to Rosemount. Granite rock was found in the cutting for the upper tunnel, but afterwards old red sandstone was found under the Railway in Hutcheon Street when a sewer was passed under it. A spring of water was found in the Granite, and it was conveyed in a pipe to Union Bridge, where it feeds a tank for supplying Railway Engines with water.

Milne, Low, & Co., Clothiers, Shirt makers, and Outfitters, 127 Union Street c.1874

Subsequent Works
A Viaduct over the Railway was constructed at Schoolhill Hill 1889, and a Railway Station was made on the north side of the Viaduct. For the convenience of passengers by Suburban Trains. A Station was made in Bridge Street, but the Great North of Scotland Railway was greatly in want of more space, both at the Joint Station and at Kittybrewster. The Caledonian Railway was likewise hampered for want of room at the Joint Station. When it was opened November 4, 1867, it was pronounced to be the finest in the Kingdom, except in point of size. Now it was condemned as unsafe and inadequate; but ground for enlarging it or replacing it by a new Station could not be obtained. The Caledonian Railway Company acquired and utilised the site of the old Clayhills Brickwork and removed many buildings at the end of Affleck Street, but more ground was wanted and could not be got.  Perhaps the best way to relieve the then congestion at Aberdeen Station would have been to construct the Railway proposed in 1862 to be made from Kintore to Limpet Mill, which would save 6 miles on the journey from Aberdeenshire to the South.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013