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St Machar's Cathedral

A place of worship was established in this area about 580 AD and it is highly likely that it was indeed on its current location It became a Cathedral in the 1130s when the seat of the Bishop was transferred from Mortlach, near Dufftown to Old Aberdeen under David I.  By 1165 a Norman style cathedral stood on the site.


Old Machar - was originally a small hamlet, consisting only of a few scattered cottages, was, from the erection of a chapel near the ancient bridge of Seaton by St. Machar, in the 9th century, called the Kirktown of Seaton, but was undistinguished by any event of importance, till the year 1137, when it became the seat of a diocese, on the removal of the see of Aberdeen, by David I., from Mortlach, in the county of Banff, where it was originally founded by Malcolm II., and had continued for more than 120 years. Bishop Kinnimond, at that time prelate of the see, founded a cathedral church on the site of the ancient chapel of St. Machar, which, towards the end of the 13th century, was taken down by Bishop Cheyne, for the purpose of erecting a structure of more ample dimensions, and of more appropriate character; but, in the contested succession to the throne of Scotland, becoming an adherent of Baliol, he was compelled to retire into exile, and the rebuilding of the Cathedral was suspended. On the establishment of Robert Bruce, however, that monarch recalled the exiled Bishop, who recommenced the work, which was continued by his successors, of whom Bishop Elphinstone, the founder of King's College, with the assistance of James IV., made rapid progress in the rebuilding of the Cathedral, which was completed by Bishop Dunbar, in 1518, and, since the abolition of episcopacy in Scotland, has been appropriated as the parish church.


In the 13th century the Cathedral had to undergo extensive restoration. This was started under the instruction of Bishop Cheyne (1282 to 1328). We have him to thank that the building turned out to be a fine example of a fortified Kirk.  Construction was continued under among others Bishop Alexander Kinnimund (1355-80) and Bishop William Elphinstone(1431-1514). In his lifetime the cathedral was constructed to its biggest form. The Nave and Towers on the west - which form the modern church were only one part. To the east of the Nave, there was a crossing which had one large Central Tower. There was also a Choir begun by Bishop Elphinstone to its East (but never finished) and transepts pointing North and South.  The North Transept was built by Bishop Leighton and the South by Bishop Dunbar

The Cathedral Church commonly called St. Machar's, of a large and stately Structure; being built of hewn Stone by the several Bishops of that See.  It anciently consisted of two Ranks of Stone Pillars, another cross Church and three Turrets, the greatest of which, was the Steeple, which was set upon Four Pillars of vaulted Works. In the Church likewise was a Library, but about the Year 1560 it was almost wholly destroyed, so that the Ruines do now only remain.
Some 350 years ago a band of Reformation religious zealots marched from the south to Aberdeen; maddened by the too palpable luxury, vice, and superstitious observances of the priests, they were inspired by a wild desire to sweep away every vestige of idolatry from the places of worship.  Their frenzy ever increasing as they advanced, their minds were at last dominated by a mad desire for destruction, indiscriminate and unreasoning.


Like the contagion of a plague, the frenzy fastened on the lower classes in the town, and a wild rabble attacked the religious houses in the city, sacking and spoiling as they went. They even sought to drag the steeple of St. Nicholas Church to the ground. but other citizens more sane resisted, and it was saved for that time. Away they rushed to Old Aberdeen, and the Cathedral was over-run by the mad crowd. Everything that was beautiful, everything that was breakable, everything that was worth lifting, was defaced, broken or stolen. They tore the lead from the roof and the 14 tuneable bells from the steeple, and but for the timely arrival of the Earl of Huntly with troops a broken wall might have been all left to us of the goodly church of St. Machar.


But the jagged reefs of the Girdleness lay in wait for some of the spoilers. One master robber, loading a ship with the spoils of the church of the twin spires, the Lead from the roof, and the Bells, set sail for Holland. But a storm arose and swept him on the Girdleness, and, within sight of the church he had robbed, and in the waters across which, in the quiet Sabbath evenings so often stole the tolling of the 14 large tuneable Cathedral bells, the robber went down with those bells he had for ever silenced, and weighted with the lead of the church he had desecrated.

Gavin Dunbar's Seal

What greatly hastened the dilapidation of the Cathedral was the removal, in 1568, of the lead from the roof by order of the Lords of the Privy Council, who ordained " that the leidis of the saidis kirkis (Elgin and Aberdeen) salbe takin doun with diligence, and sauld and disponit upoun, for interteneing and sustentatioun of the saidis men of weir and utheris neidfull chargeis of the commoun weill of this realme." Dr. Walter de Gray Birch mentions that Bishop John de Pilmor, who occupied the see of Moray from 1293 till 1298, had on the obverse of his seal a representation of the Holy Trinity " between four circular  plaques, containing the customary emblems of the Four Evangelists." Dr. Birch adds : " The Holy Trinity reappears on many other seals of prelates of this See, in company with figures of Bishops, the Virgin and Child, St. John the Evangelist, St. Mary Magdalene, Michael the Archangel in combat with Satan, or shields of arms."

With the Reformation of 1560 change came. The Cathedral lost its status as cathedral. Its treasures were taken and its land sold. Once immediately before and during the reformation and then later when the conflict with Charles I escalated, recovered its Cathedral status This also sheds some light on the question why St Machar’s is referred to as Cathedral. While it is a part of the Church of Scotland, a Presbyterian church, which has neither bishops nor cathedrals, St Machar's is a cathedral only by name: The Cathedral Church of St Machar. This seemingly trivial distinction is nevertheless a reminder of serious conflicts which more than once in the in the middle of the 17th century led to civil wars that engulfed Scotland, England and Ireland.  General Monck led Cromwell's troops into Aberdeen in 1654. Looking for material for his fort he removed the stones from the empty and destroyed Bishop's Palace to the east and from the disused and probably never finished Choir. It is not clear if this led to a weakening of the base of the central tower. A storm in 1688 caused its fall into the transepts and crossing, and damaged the 7 pointed arches and round columned Nave as well.  The east end of the Nave was closed off by 1704, though work to tidy up the effects of the collapse of the tower on what was left continued until as recently as 1953, when a new east end was inserted into the nave, complete with three stained glass windows.


St Machar - Virtual Tour

James Gordon - Map of Aberdeen 1661

The tomb of Bishop Gavin Dunbar is at St Machars Cathedral, Aberdeen. Gavin Dunbar was appointed Bishop of Aberdeen on 5th November 1518 and died on 9th March 1532.

He became a great benefactor not only of King's College, but of the town. It was he who took over the plans left after the death of Bishop Elphinstone and created the Bridge of Dee which opened road access to the City, from the South.

Dunbar built the twin towers at St Machar's Cathedral and gave its magnificent ceiling at his own expense. It comprises 48 heraldic shields including the arms of Scottish monarchs, nobles, Kings of Europe, and Scottish Bishops. The work on the ceiling was carried out by James Winter of Angus. When he died in 1532, he was buried in the South Transept of the Cathedral. This was virtually destroyed after the collapse of the great central tower in 1688, and a recumbent statue of white marble of Dunbar was broken into pieces during the Reformation.

The splendour of the 6 foot richly carved arch of Morayshire freestone is still obvious despite its exposure to the weather. A Bishop's mitre surmounts the Dunbar coat of arms and his initials, at the right hand side.

Today's St Machar's Cathedral is what survived the 1688 collapse. The church comprises the Nave, flanked either side by aisles, plus the twin western towers complete with their crowning spires. On two sides the church is tightly confined by a very crowded churchyard, while on the north side a wall only a few yards from the church marks the boundary with Skene Park, which descends to the banks of the River Don.

To the east of the church, the ground plan and some of the walls of the crossing and transepts can still be made out. These are in the care of Historic Scotland and include an alcove in which Bishop Gavin Dunbar was laid to rest in 1532. Beyond the old transepts, no sign remains of the Choir removed in 1654.

This historic street derives its name from the fact that it was once home to the canons (clergy) of St Machar’s Cathedral. The college of canons was incorporated as early as 1240 although canons may have lived here for longer than that. Their manses were named for various areas in the diocese of Aberdeen which provided the stipend, or payment, for the canons: hence one named after Old Rayne and one after Clatt. Following the Reformation, most of these manses were demolished.  However, some of the large plots of land upon which they sat have remained largely intact to this day. In the 17th century the Marquis of Huntly acquired Belhelvie and Daviot manses and enclosed their lands to create one large garden. Today the site accommodates Chanonry Lodge, home to the University of Aberdeen’s PrincipalNo.20 Chanonry incorporates elements older than the use itself. It sits on the site of what was the Chaplain’s Court. Built in the 16th century, this provided lodging and schooling space for around 20 of the Chaplains of St Machar’s Cathedral. The current 18th-century building incorporates elements of the old Court: part of an archway and a coat of arms of Bishop Dunbar are still painted to this day.

General Monck led Cromwell's troops into Aberdeen in 1654.

Looking for material for improving the Castlehill Fort Ramparts - he removed the stones from the empty and destroyed Bishop's Palace to the east and from the disused and probably never finished Choir.

It is not clear if this led to a weakening of the base of the Central Tower. A storm in 1688 caused its fall into the transepts and crossing, and damaged the Nave as well.




Parish of Rayne 
Agreement on the land of Threpland 
Registrum Episcopatus Aberdonensis (REA), p.26

This agreement, dating from 1259, concerned a dispute between the Bishop of Aberdeen and the Abbey of Lindores about "a certain land called Threpland.

This lies between the land of Boyndington which belongs to the said Bishop and the land of Newton which belongs to the said Abbot and Community.

It begins at the Ford of Gethyn which is from the western part of Boyndington and extends from the same Ford by the River of Gethyn northwards as far as a certain large syke called Fulleche.

By the same syke it ascends towards the west as far as a certain bridge which is beyond the same syke towards Newton and so descending from the same bridge by the same syke in a circuit as far as the foresaid Ford of Gethyn." These lands are in Rayne Parish.

Parish of Birse 
This is an entry in the Rental (dated 1511) of lands near Aboyne that allows tenants to have common pasture in the Bradbog and marsh and to come and go with their animals to the forests of Glenawen and Lendrum (original grant of the Forest of Birse made by William the Lion). An entry for the Mill of Cluny mentions pasture rights and a way to the forest. There are a number of other entries in the Rental for this area that mention bondages and services that would entail travel.  All locations mentioned except for Bradbog and the marsh (where there was common pasture) are still identifiable and shown on the map, viz. Tulyquhorsky, Ennochty, Tulygarmontht, Glenawen, Lendrum, Clune, Parsy, Invercat. From the wording we can assume sufficient movement from the farms to form rough tracks leading to the two forests.  There is an interesting reference to Whitestone and its Inn on the Cairn a'Mounth road, namely, "The quhitstane at thee mvreaile hous."

Parish of New Deer
Sometime before 1211, Fergus Earl of Buchan exchanged 3 davochs of land in what is now New Deer Parish for the lands of Slains and Cruden south of Peterhead.  His charter is of interest because it mentions "the high road above Clochnuly" as well as a couple of fords.  At first glance the charter seems very easy to interpret because many of the place names still exist. Indeed some are almost unchanged. However, although we can get a reasonable idea of where the fords were, "Clochnuly" has not survived and its occurrence in the Charter does not make it clear where it might have been.

11 Chanonry - Rayne Manse
The Manses
surrounding the Cathedral were all named for different areas in the Diocese of Aberdeen. The different areas provided the Prebend, or payment, for the canons who worked in St Machar's Cathedral.  The location of the manses of the canons of the Cathedral gave the name to this part of Old Aberdeen, the Canonry or Chanonry.  This particular Manse was used by the Archdeacon of the Cathedral and was known as the Manse of the Archdeacon.  The Archdeacon was in charge of discipline and supervision of the clergy in the diocese and one of the most important senior officials of the diocese.  The location of the Manse was convenient for the Archdeacon as it was directly across from the Cemetery of St. Machar's, near to the entrance.  It was bounded by Clatt Manse to the north, Oyne to the south and Kettle Hill to the west.  Many of the Manses in the Chanonry were built in the later Medieval Period but no documentary evidence for this Manse has been found to suggest a foundation in this period. That is surprising considering the importance of the Archdeacon to the Cathedral. However, if many of the Chanonry Manses were established in the 14th or 15th Century, Rayne may have been as well.

Sometime in the 15th century there were complaints that the Manses were run-down and Boundary Walls needed to be repaired. The Canons who resided in the Manses were instructed to fix the walls or be penalised.  The household items in the Medieval Manses were to be handed down by each Canon to his successor and may have included simple bed linen, kitchen utensils, and necessary furniture for the public room and items needed for the brewing of ale.  There are very little details of the later owners of this Manse but there was a charter of confirmation in 1569 in favour of John Erskine of Balhaggartie as owner of the Rayne Manse. The manse was demolished in 1722 while in possession of Patrick Walker of Torreleith. However, Ordnance Survey Maps of 1867-9 and 1900-4 indicated a house or dwelling on the property; this dwelling is also evident today.  The new house built on site is of unknown date.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013