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Girdleness Outfall Northern Sewer

In ancient Aberdeen the supply of water was very small. In one way this was an advantage, for there were no sewers to carry away dirty water. Rain water ran off by gutters at the sides of the streets to the nearest burn. When there was a large quantity of dirty water to get rid of, as on a washing day, it was poured out into the street gutter. Most of the houses had deep ashpits into which were thrown ashes from fires and all sorts of household refuse. Upon these was cast also the dirty house-water. Before the introduction of water from the Bridge of Dee the same water that served to wash the face had often to wash also the floor. Most houses had also cesspools. Sometimes in places closely built upon these were under the pavement of lanes and closes, with a foot or two of earth above the flags or slabs with which they were covered. In sparsely-peopled places the cesspools were in gardens, and usually they were under the bleaching green. The ashpits and cesspools seldom gave any trouble. The whole area upon which Aberdeen is built was long under the sea, and beds of sand are found almost everywhere when excavations are made for the foundations of houses. In the Gallowgate, which before 1800, was the chief street of ancient Aberdeen, it would have been easy to get quit of the house sewage by letting it run down the edges of the narrow lanes on the west side of the street to the Mill-Dam in Loch Street; but this was not allowed because the Loch was the chief supply of water for the town. From the houses on both sides of the street and from the long lanes and closes on the east side the dirty water ran down the gutters on both sides till it reached Broad Street. There the ground begins to rise towards the south, and the water could go no further in that direction.

Where the Gallowgate merges into Broad Street seems the proper place to locate what is termed in the old records of the town the Braid Gutter. This name occurs frequently, because it was a landmark or boundary line on crossing which bearers of burdens from ships discharging cargo at the quay were entitled to an addition to their hire. In 1490 the Town Council enacted that for carrying a barrel from the Quay at Shore Brae to the Braid Gutter pynours and carters should get one penny Scots, and two pennies if they carried it beyond the Braid Gutter. Half these suras was allowed for back burdens. In subsequent centuries, however, larger sums, 4d and 6d, were allowed. In 1749 we find mention of "the Gallowgate gutter or head of Broad Street," which seems to settle that the Braid Gutter was a broad channel crossing the south end of the Gallowgate to allow the sewage and rain water from the west side of the street to cross it and run down the narrow lane between Littlejohn Street and Marischal College to the pools on the east side of West North Street. The low area there was drained by the Powcreek Burn. In recent excavations on the east side of the Gallowgate it was seen that there had been a deep hollow where it joined on to Broad Street, which had afterwards been filled up to the present level.

The Pynours
-  One of the many interesting crafts was that of the pynours, an ancient Aberdeert body later known as the Shore Porters' Society and first mentioned in the Burgh Records in 1498. Up to 1636, admission to the Society was easy and unrestricted; but that year candidates for admission had first to undergo a professional trial before being accepted as fully and privileged members. Such professional trials were by no means uncommon in other crafts, but the special interest of the test to be undergone by budding pynours lay in the fact that it was a test of strength, to which the candidate was subjected under the supervision of the Water Bailie; and "only candidates who passed the test were licensed by the Magistrate. It is believed that this test of strength lay in ability to carry without resting a back lift of 1 cwt (50kg) from the Block House at the harbour mouth to the Braid Gutter up in the heart of the town. The test was primitive but severe when the distance, a long mile, and the steep elevation were taken into account: and it must rank as one of the earliest Scottish examples of a test of physical capacity for work to be undertaken. No class of the community had more need to provide for old age and infirmity than the pynours,  For each man's stock in trade was his physical strength, and when that failed he was dependent on others.

In 1546 we find the distance between the Quay and the Braid Gutter divided into 2 by another landmark called the Foul Gutter. For carrying a tun of wine from the Shore to a place above the Foul Gutter the Pynours were allowed to charge 2 shillings, and to any place beyond the Braid Gutter 32 pence. From the "Chartulary of St Nicholas" we see that the Foul Gutter was in the Castlegate, and it must have been between The head of the Shiprow and the end of Broad Street. Perhaps it was in the line of Union Lane so as to take in the sewage of the Guestrow along with that of Broad Street, which might have gone down the top of the Netherkirkgate. Opposite the head of the Netherkirkgate there was on the east side of Broad Street one of the first Street Wells, which gave the name Well Court to the close behind it; and any water spilt at the Well would have gone to the Foul Gutter.  In making Union Street in the beginning of last century, when the buildings blocking the entrance to the Castlegate were removed a square wooden tube was found below the surface of the ground. This seems to have taken the place of the Foul Gutter, and it had probably been put down before there were houses at the west-end of the Castlegate. When a sewer was made in Exchequer Row the channel of the Foul Gutter was met with at 10 feet below the present level of the street. It passed down Exchequer Court and descended the steep brae facing the Harbour. At the bottom of it ran the Denburn, or Trinity Burn as it was called after passing the end of Market Street, where the Trinitarian Monastery was situated.

The sewage from Queen Street, West North Street, and the area east of King Street found its way to the Powcreek Burn, which joined the Denburn where the Great North of Scotland Goods Station was. The sewage from George Street, St Nicholas Street, and the Green entered the Mill-burn after it drove the Flour Mill, and it entered the Denburn near where the Guild Street Theatre is now. When the city extended westward the Denburn became the receptacle of the sewage of a very large area. Crown Street, Dee Street, Bon-Accord Street, Bon-Accord Terrace, Holburn, Albyn Blace, and Ferryhill Place all drained to the Holburn, called in the lower part of its course Ferryhill Burn and sometimes the Coffee Burn because it drove a Coffee Mill. The sewage from the houses north of Great Western Road and the middle section of Holburn Street and the Hardgate accumulated in stagnant ditches and marshes in Aiken's Moss, on the west side of Whinhill Road. This place is now drained to a sewer passing along Allenvale Cemetery and Duthie Park.

The 1st sewers in Aberdeen seem to have been planned on the model of the great sewers which were provided for the ancient castles of the country. These again had been influenced by the sewers of ancient Rome, chief of which was the Cloaca Maxima, still in existence and serving as one of the sewers of Rome. At its mouth in the side of the Tiber it is 11 feet wide and 12 feet high, and it evidently had been intended to admit men with a horse and a cart when it needed cleaning out. Our old castles, such as Kildrummy, were at 1st like Roman camps, and intended to be occupied occasionally by a great body of men. The supply of water was scanty and a Castle Sewer was liable to become choked with solid refuse matters. It was therefore necessary to make it large enough to admit a man with a barrow to remove accumulations of sediment. These great sewers gave rise to the belief that Old Castles had underground passages, some of them so high that, men on horseback could ride through them. The 1st sewers in Aberdeen, though not of such gigantic dimensions as those of Rome, or even of Scottish castles, were large enough to admit a man in a crouching position to remove obstructions to the flow of sewage water.

Public Sewers seem not to have been thought of in Aberdeen before the middle of the 19th century. West of the Denburn the opening of Union Bridge in 1805 was followed by the planning of new streets by wealthy corporations. In some cases sewers were constructed in these streets previous to the building of houses. Perhaps the 1st sewer had been that in Union Street, west of the Denburn. It did not cross the bridge, but descended the steep brae on the north side of it and entered the Denburn. It now passes under the burn, below Union Bridge, along the Green to Rennie's Wynd, and, joining the Northern Sewer at Shore Brae, discharges ultimately at Girdleness. Bon-Accord Terrace was provided with a sewer from the 1st, and front its open lower end a tiny flow trickled down the brae to Ferryhill Burn. There was also an early sewer in part of Crown Street, and one in Dee Street. All these and others were private sewers, made by corporations or by the joint efforts of the separate feuars along the streets. They were nearly all too near the surface of the ground to be taken over and paid for by the Police Commissioners when they set about sewering the town. At the request of the feuars in a street the Town Council sometimes made a sewer and charged the cost to the owners of houses, in proportion to the length of the fronts of the houses.

Aberdeen 1867 Survey Map

In 1862 an Act of Parliament was passed for paving, cleansing, lighting, watching, draining, and improving the city of Aberdeen, and for supplying the inhabitants with water. Under this Act water was taken from the Dee at Cairnton, and the greatly increased supply made it imperatively necessary to provide for the disposal of the consequent increase of sewage water. In 1865 while the waterworks were in progress the Commissioners of Police obtained a report and plans on the sewerage of the town from Mr Robert Anderson, who had been Engineering the Waterworks. In the same year the Commissioners requested Messrs Willet & Fulton to examine and report upon the outfalls proposed by Mr Anderson for the sewage and upon the construction of the sewers. These engineers approved generally of Mr Anderson's proposals, and recommended the construction of an intercepting-sewer carried all round the city at an elevation sufficient to carry the main volume of the drainage of the town to the Aberdeen Links by gravitation. At this time it was believed that sewage might be used advantageously for irrigating land growing crops, and it was expected that a considerable revenue might be derived from having an irrigation farm between King Street and the Links. For the small area below the intercepting sewer they proposed that a sewer should be constructed along the River side, which should cut off the sewage entering the Upper Dock by the Denburn and join the Harbour Commissioners' sewer running along Regent Quay and Waterloo Quay and falling into the tidal harbour outside the entrance to the docks. Ultimately a modification of this scheme was adopted. Further parliamentary powers were obtained, and the powers given to the Commissioners of Police in 1862 were transferred to the Town Council in 1871

Though the sewers in the older part of Aberdeen were constructed under the Police and Waterworks Act of 1862 the Commissioners could not undertake the sewage works till the completion of the Cairnton scheme in 1866. The sewer-making period extended from 1866 to 1870, during which many miles of sewers were formed at an average depth of 13 feet below the surface of the streets. The dominant idea of the sewage scheme was to carry as much water as possible to the Spital Irrigation Farm, lying on the east side of King Street, north of St Peter's Cemetery. In carrying out this idea the sound engineering principles of the shortest course and a good steady fall had to be sacrificed for profit from the rent for sewage water. Between the head of the sewer draining the south side of Queen's Road and the sharp angle where Woolmanhill meets Blackfriars Street there is a fall of 100 feet; but between the junction of these two streets and the outfall at the Irrigation Farm there was only 4 feet. The outfall was 4 or 5 feet above mean high water of stream tides.

The sewage from Seamount Place, or Porthill, flowed south to Littlefohn Street, where it could easily have been conveyed to the Powcreek Burn, whose course crossed Mealmarket Street; but for the sake of the Irrigation Farm the sewer held on south across the low area at Marischal College, across Longacre, Shoe Lane, Queen Street, and along Lodge Walk. Then it turned west along Union Street, taking in the sewage of Broad Street, and turning up St Katharine's Wynd ; then it went along Netherkirkgate to Flourmill Lane, where it turned north, crossing Barnett's Close, Upperkirkgate, along Burn Court and Loch Street, where at St Andrew Street it entered the main sewer on its way to the Irrigation Farm. As might have been anticipated, the gradients along this devious, uneven course were not always good. In some places the bottom of the sewer had sufficient fall, in others none, and in Flourmill Lane the water had to run uphill.

There were three large sewage areas. The sewage of the higher parts of the town, called the irrigation area, was conveyed by a sewer running along Great Western Road, Holburn Street, Justice Mill Lane, crossing Bon-Accord Street, Dee Street, and running along Upper Crown Street, Diamond Street, Union Terrace, Schoolhill Viaduct, Blackfriars Street, St Andrew Street, Loch Street, Windy Wynd, across the point between the Gallowgate and West North Street in a tunnel, and thence in a north-easterly direction to the Irrigation Farm. This sewer begins with a diameter of two feet, which increases to four feet. The Irrigation Farm at first covered an area of 14 acres, which was afterwards increased to 47. The proprietor paid £250 a year for the use of the sewage, but he afterwards refused to give more than £100, and in 1899 the irrigation of land by the sewage was abandoned. In 1887 a sewer was constructed along the Links to Abercromby Jetty to carry oft the surplus sewage not required for irrigation.

Another sewer belonging to the irrigation area came down Westburn Road, Rosemount Terrace, Skene Square, Gilcomston Steps, Woolmanhill, and joined the main sewer at the south end of Blackfriars Street. Though sewage was of some value as manure in 1865 when the irrigation scheme was first proposed, it is now so much diluted that irrigation is only adopted as a means of getting quit of sewage, and irrigation farms, instead of being a source of revenue to cities, are conducted at great expense and loss. For inland villages sewage irrigation is more suitable and may be a source of profit. Another sewerage area called the High Level area, though it was, on the whole, lower than the irrigation area, was drained by a sewer passing along Rosebank Terrace and the west side of the railway to Union Bridge, where, under the Bridge, it joined another sewer coming from Upper Denburn and places too low for the irrigation sewer. The two passed under the Denburn and the railway, under Union Bridge, eastward along the Green to Rennie's Wynd, along Guild Street, and joined the harbour sewer in Regent Quay and Waterloo Quay.   A small area near Victoria Dock is at too low a level to be drained by gravitation to the High Level sewer, and its sewage had to be raised by a pump at Clarence Street to the level of the main sewer. The sewage from the district lying along the river side from the Bridge of Dee down to Victoria Bridge consisted mainly of water which had been used in manufacturing and industrial processes. It is discharged into the Dee below Victoria Bridge.

In 1899 the supply of sewage to the Spital Farm was withdrawn, and in 1871 the sewerage of the town was transferred to the Town Council, who are proprietors of many houses and feus throughout the town. The streets, sewers, and many properties being then under the management of the Town Council it became possible to effect several improvements on the sewage system without further Parliamentary powers. The Seamount sewage does not now cross Littlejohn Street, but, descending it, returns along West North Street to King Street Place. It passes along it, and, crossing King Street, enters a main sewer in Jasmine Terrace, which has taken the place of the old Powcreek Burn. This sewer crosses the railway by an inverted siphon above Constitution Street, and striking south joins the Links sewer, whose outfall is at Abercromby Jetty. The sewage of Broad Street, Castle Street, King Street, Lodge Walk, Queen Street, and other places in this neighbourhood, all of which formerly went to Loch Street, was conveyed to Jasmine Terrace, according to the natural slope of the ground.

Another great improvement has recently been erected on the course of the sewage from both sides of Westburn Road. Formerly it went along Rosemount Terrace, Skene Square, Gilcomston Steps, and joined the main sewer at the point between Woolmanhill and Blackfriars Street. Now a continuation of the Westburn sewer holds straight on down Hutcheon Street. It crosses the railway at a great depth by an inverted siphon. Here a bed of old red sandstone was found, but the base was not reached. A large quantity of water flowed out of the strata, and had to "be pumped out, and by its red colour it attracted attention as it flowed along the gutter of the street. At the lowest part of Hutcheon Street a deep bed of peat moss containing trunks of hazel trees was found. Old maps of the town show a marsh there, and before the Westburn was deflected to the east in order to furnish a supply of water to the town and to drive a mill at the upper end of Netherkirkgate the Loch must, have extended across Hutcheon Street, along Fraser Road to Holland Street and the lower end of Millbank Lane.  At Fraser Road a sewer comes in bringing the sewage from Clifton Road, Great Northern Road, and Belmont Road. It passes down Berryden, and crosses the railway underneath.  At George Street and Causewayend large quantities of sewage come in, some of it crossing the railway a little below the bridge between Elmbank Terrace and Canal Road. The main sewer turns down Causewayend, and passes east along Nelson Street. Before the railway is reached it is crossed, above, by the original main sewer on its way to the Irrigation Farm, which holds on its course as far as King's Crescent, and then turns east across a bed of moss eleven feet deep. It does not now cross King Street, but being deflected south-ward, it joins the new intercepting sewer from Hutcheon Street to King Street, at the end of Nelson Street. The united stream of sewage turns down Urquhart Road, and reaches the Links sewer, which conducts it to Abercromby Jetty. The Westburn, Hutcheon Street, Nelson Street, King Street, Urquhart Road sewer intercepts all sewage from the north of its line.

Besides the High Level area sewer, which passes under Union Bridge and along Rennie's Wynd, there is another sewer at a lower level extending along the north margin of the docks from Guild Street to the tidal harbour. To keep the sewage out of the tidal Harbour a pumping station was established in the angle north of Clarence Street and west of Lime Street. Here the contents of the low level sewer were pumped up high enough to enter the High Level sewer, which conveyed the sewage to Abercromby Jetty. The outfall outside the Dock Gate was still retained in case of accidents to the pumping machinery or an extra-ordinary rainfall, but it is not in use now. In 1891 it was thought desirable to save the expense of a pumping station in Clarence Street, and it was deemed practicable to effect this by forming a new sewer, beginning at the old near the Dock Gate, to pass along York Place, under the High Level sewer, across the Rope Walk, under the Links sewer, and terminate a few yards east of the outfall of the High Level sewer at Abercromby Jetty. The sewer was constructed, and it has to a considerable extent served the purpose intended; but, as the bottom of the sewer where it commences at the Dock Gate is two feet below mean sea level and more than a foot lower at the outfall, it only discharges water when the tide is low. This renders it necessary to maintain the pumping station at Clarence Street to relieve the low sewer when it becomes quite full. At high water of stream tide the flow of sewage is suspended along the whole Low Level sewer up to Market Street.

In constructing the new sewer some high ground was passed through, where the bottom is 31 feet below the surface of the ground. In 1647, when the plague raged in Aberdeen, many of those found to be infected were carried to the Links and lodged in huts. Two thousand persons died of the plague, and many bodies were interred in the sands, their graves being covered with turf to prevent the sand from blowing away. In making the sewer these graves were crossed to the east of the Rope Walk, and skulls were found in good preservation.

The cessation of the flow of sewage to the Irrigation Farm had enabled improvements lo be made upon the sewerage of the north and east parts of the town; but the growth of the town to the west was causing too much sewage to pass down Rennie's Wynd, and there were sometimes overflows there. In 1899 a new Act was obtained, the main object of which was to intercept the sewage of the west end of the town, and convey it to the sea at Girdleness without allowing it to enter the harbour or the navigation channel. It also picks up the sewage of the Torry district of the town. The Act also provides for a low level sewer along the north bank of the Dee, discharging 100 yards below Victoria Bridge into the Dee. This receives the sewage of an area of about 150 acres lying between the railway, Market Street, and the river. This area is too low to admit of its sewage being conveyed to Girdleness without being pumped up to enter the main sewer, and as it comes from a manufacturing and not a residential district the amount of water must be small, and not be seriously polluted.

Several culverts for carrying off rain water and discharging it into the Dee were provided for. Where they crossed sewers provision was made for the overflow into the culverts when they had become two-thirds full. Chief of these is a storm-water culvert commencing at the junction of Fountainhall Road with King's Gate. It receives the storm overflow from the King's Gate and Beechgrove sewers, and conveys it down Fountainhall Road, St Swithin Street, Stanley Street, and the lane passing Union Grove Baptist Chapel. There the culvert enters the Holburn, which is now covered up all the way to its outfall into the Dee, 360 yards below Wellington Bridge. These culverts are independent of the sewers, and in ordinary weather are quite dry, their chief object being to prevent flooding of the main sewers in thunderstorms. In making the culvert in Fountainhall Road old red sandstone was unexpectedly met with. Though it was known to exist in the Denburn Valley and in Berryden, it had not before been met with so far west or at so high a level. Numerous large blocks, rounded and waterworn, one of them half a ton in weight, found in the track of the sewer at Desswood Place, indicated that Fountainhall Road must be about the margin of the lake in which the strata had been laid down.

The Denburn is not mentioned in the Act of 1899, because the Corporation had already power to deal with it as far as was necessary for sewerage purposes. It is now entirely covered up from Jack's Brae downwards. At the south end of the Railway Station it turned due east and entered the south west corner of the Upper Dock. Now it goes southward along Market Street and discharges into the Dee below Victoria Bridge.


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Last modified: 01/09/2013