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St Nicholas Church

Pre-Reformation history

The earliest documentary evidence for St Nicholas Church is a papal bull issued in 1157 by Adrian IV (coincidentally the only British person to have ever been pope, Nicholas Brakespeare). However the church itself probably predates this charter. There has always been a problem understanding the actual position of St Nicholas Church. It sat outside the medieval Royal Burgh of Aberdeen - outside the town's gates, in fact outside the area which could be locked and protected. Perhaps its position points to it having earlier origins than Aberdeen as a Royal Burgh. Indeed Aberdeen became a Royal Burgh in the 12th century, and it is possible that this church predates that. Archaeological evidence has gone some way to helping our understanding of this fascinating anomaly,

St Nicholas Church is also extremely well served with historical evidence. Principally this comes in the form of the Chartulary of St Nicholas. This was probably compiled over a few decades in the early to mid 16th century, although some entries stretch to the late 16th century. In it the priests of St Nicholas recorded all of their important documents, gifts and rules and regulations.

By the 15th century St Nicholas was the largest burgh church in Scotland. In many ways the success of this church was a function and reflection of the success of Aberdeen as a Royal Burgh.  Technically only a Royal Burgh could trade overseas. There is, therefore, a symbolic importance in choosing St Nicholas to be the patron saint of this church. St Nicholas was amongst other things the patron of merchants, mariners and seafarers. A number of great medieval cities, which traded overseas, chose St Nicholas to be their patron: amongst the others are Amsterdam, Hamburg, Liverpool and Kiel.

The illustration below, shows the ceiling of the choir as completed probably in the early 16th century. It is very similar to that at King's College in Old Aberdeen.

As Aberdeen grew and prospered with its overseas trade the merchants directed much of their wealth to this church. It came directly in the way of gifts of money, candles, wax and other items, but most importantly in the form of endowments for what were called chantry altars. In these cases rich people 'mortified' (or bequeathed) all of their land, money and income to the church to set up a small individual altar and to hire a priest to say mass at that altar for the founder, or whomsoever the founder nominated.

So successful did this form of piety become that by the early 16th century over 30 different chantry altars were in St Nicholas. It must have been one of the busiest buildings at the time. The money from this income allowed the building of an ever grander church which expanded eastwards with the construction of a new choir, or east end (the choir is where the clergy sat during mass, as opposed to the nave or west end where the public sat during mass), from the mid 15th century. The building work for this stretched over into the next century.

The excavation took place in the east end of the church and has revealed much about the development of the 15th century choir.


The woodwork for this splendid new east end was carved by John Fendour, one of the most important wrights working at the time.

Fendour also did work for James IV at Falkland Palace in Fife the Stuarts Hunting Lodge and completed the choir stalls for King's College Chapel in Old Aberdeen.




Some of these rich merchants and magistrates from medieval Aberdeen ordered stone effigies of themselves to be produced to adorn their graves. In total St Nicholas contains 7 effigies, four males and three females; the largest group of medieval effigies in Scotland. They have been dated to between 1430 and 1465. The figure to the right is often said to be that of Provost Robert Davidson. Davidson is a famous provost in Aberdeen's history largely because he is the only one known to have died in a battle. He died at the battle of 'Reid' (or Red) Harlaw in 1411 defending Aberdeen against the 'wild and savage Highlanders'. However if this effigy dates to between 1430 and 1465 then it is probably not Provost Davidson. This is unfortunate as Davidson is a fascinating character. He was also a pirate: he was the subject of a number of court cases brought against him for piracy, including one claiming he had stolen goods belonging to one Richard (Dick) Whittington, then Lord Mayor of London.

Some of the more important events in the church's history. For example in 1596, after the Reformation, a stone wall was erected to divide St Nicholas into two new churches, the East and the West Churches. An entry dated 20 March 1596 shows £20 being paid to William Petre for taking ‘half a hundred stones’ to the church and building them up in the choir. This probably represents the work leading to the creation of the dividing wall. Although the church today is the Kirk of St Nicholas Uniting the physical division is still very much there: the legacy of this wall is one with which the church lives, to this day.

The idea in dividing the church was very much a product of Protestant thinking.  Central to Protestant theology is hearing the word of God preached (in English as opposed to Latin). Hence the old long church of St Nicholas was divided into two new 'preaching' churches which made hearing the word of God easier for the congregations.  The old medieval nave, or west end, served as the primary place of worship for the new congregation of the West Church until the early decades of the 18th century by which time it was in an advanced state of disrepair. Plans for a new church were given, free, to the Town Council by James Gibbs. Gibbs was a native of Aberdeen and Aberdeen's first internationally important architect. He was responsible for many buildings in Oxford and Cambridge Colleges and also for many churches including St Martin's in the Fields in London. The West Church of St Nicholas represents the only surviving example of his work in his native city.

The West Church also contains four wonderful embroidered hangings. They were purchased in 1688, by the town council, from Baillie George Aedie for £400 Scots. They are often attributed to Mary Jamesone, daughter of the Aberdonian painter George Jamesone and wife of Baillie Aedie (Of Aedie's Wynd). All four scenes are from the Old Testament or the Apocrypha. There was a fifth scene which has disappeared.  They are based on contemporary North European engravings and date to the early part of the 17th century, possibly to the reign of Charles I.  It had previously been thought that they dated to the time of the Restoration in the 1660s but that interpretation is now in question.  More research now remains to be done on these hangings. It will be necessary to look at Mary Jamesone and her extended family and to try and place them in the political and religious spectrum of opinions that existed in Aberdeen at that time

The east end of the church, the 15th century Choir survived as the place of worship for the congregation of the East Church until the early 19th century. In 1837 it was pulled down to make way for a more commodious church, which was designed by Archibald Simpson.  This burned to the ground several years later in 1874. The fire started in the tower and eventually brought the medieval tower crashing down into the roof of the East Church. The north and south walls of the church were left structurally sound but the roof and tower had to be replaced. Previously some historians and commentators had asserted that the entire East Church had to be rebuilt after the fire. The discovery by archaeologists of scorch marks on the wall left this claim open to some doubt.  The exact nature of the repairs and building work was uncovered as part of the historical research project which looked at newspaper accounts of the fire and rebuilding and documents in the city archives. These sources taken together have provided a very complete picture of the fire and the subsequent rebuilding work. The newspaper accounts were particularly detailed. All future work on the 19th and 20th century history of the church will draw on the rich resource that these represent. However more work remains to be done in the city archives on the rebuilding work after the fire.  In all St Nicholas has had a fascinating history, much of which we are only now coming to appreciate. The unique combination of the excavation in the East Church together with the rich historical sources for the church as a whole have combined to create a lively and vivid picture of the twists, turns, highs and lows of this church. - C P Croly

File:Pope Hadrian IV.jpgThe spurious bull ascribed to Pope Adrian IV. mentions among the revenues of the Cathedral the incomes of the Church of Abbirdein, the Church of St Machar, and also the Church of St Nicholas of Abbirdone. The Church of St Machar we know, and the Church of St Nicholas we know; but it puzzles the dons to locate another church of Abbirdein or of Abbirdone. Giry, a modern French writer on charters, papal bulls, and letters patent, says it is easy for forgers to follow closely proper forms and to be accurate in important matters, but that they have a weakness for entering into minute details, and it is therefore by mistakes in trivial things that they can most easily be detected.

The church of the city was known at home as the Church of St Nicholas, and abroad as the Church of Aberden. In 1157, the date assigned to the bull, there were in Aberdon and Aberden two churches - the Church of St Machar and the Church of St Nicholas or Aberden - and no more. Any person who, with Cosmo Lanes, asserts that the bull is "undeniably authentic" must explain away the 3rd church. In the Book of the Church of Scone the name of the city is made Aberdon in the foundation church of the Abbey of Scone. This mistake indicates that the Cathedral had been instituted before 1113 or 1114.

After the establishment of the Cathedral the Bishops must have for some time directed the business of their own churches. Then came a time when the Bishops seem to have been drawing the revenues of St Nicholas but taking no concern with the service of the church. In 1345 Bishop William Deyn, recognising that this was against the law of the Catholic Church, set apart from the revenue of St Nicholas ten merks annually to be a stipend to a vicar. In 1488 there is mention of a curate, who was a different official from the vicar. The first authentic notice of the existence of St Nicholas Church is in 1294, when two burgesses of Aberden endowed a chaplainry at the Altar of St John because they had come into possession of lands bequeathed for that purpose by Richard, a mason (" Registrum Ep. Aberdon ", I. 35). A statement of the rental of the altar of St John, dated 1501, mentions that the altar was founded by Richard in 1267 (Chartulary of St Nicholas, I. 50).

To this altar belonged a croft from which flowed a spring called St John's Fountain.

In 1340, William de Strabroch, Burgess of Aberden and Laird of Roveran, conveyed by charter to the altar of St James in the Church of St Nicholas six merks annually for providing a chaplain ("Registrum," I. 67). The payment was made a burden on a property in the Castlegate, held of the King for public military service, the usual mode of holding feus in a burgh. This charter proves that a memorandum of benefactions in the Chartulary of St Nicholas (T. 12-18) cannot be trusted in the matter of dates, for it puts this gift in 1401. The memorandum states also that in 1351 William Leith gave to the church 2 great bells named Lawrence and Maria. Next year he presented to the church a sacerdotal vestment of blue velvet; and in 1355, with the help of other citizens, he built a choir on the south side of the nave, extending from St Leonard's altar to the west end of the nave, and he bequeathed a sum of money to build a similar choir on the north side of the nave. Choir, in the common use of the term with us, means the singers or the place where they sit; but occasionally, as it does here, it means an aisle or extension of the nave.

These aisles had been fitted up as small chapels, each containing an altar. The windows on the sides of the nave had been taken out, and each window space had been made the entrance to a little chapel. This had been done because there had been a desire among wealthy people to have an altar to which they assigned annual revenues from houses and lands to support a chaplain, who should in all time to come say prayers weekly for them and their families. Upwards of thirty altars are named as having been in St Nicholas Church. They were the means of supporting a large staff of chaplains.

From sketches of the church in Gordon's Map of 1661 we see that it consisted of 3 parts - a nave, 2 transepts, and a choir. Along the south side of the nave extended an aisle with its roof sloping from the wall of the nave. At the distance of one bay from the west end we see the wedding door. The aisle does not come close up to the south transept because the east most bay was required for a door into the nave. It is mentioned that there was a window in the east end of the aisle. There had been, after William Leith's death, an aisle along the north side of the nave.

James Gordon - Map of Aberdeen 1661

The transepts rose higher than the nave, and they had windows of large size in their gables. The south transept was called the Choir of the Virgin Mary, because in the east side of it there was a long altar dedicated to her. To the south end of this transept there was added 16 feet to afford space for another altar dedicated to St. Lawrence and Ninian. The memorandum of benefactions says it was built in 1356 by William Leith; but in "Antiquities of Aberdeen and Banff" (III. 43) there is a copy of a charter (dated 1342) in the charter chest of Fyvie Castle endowing a chaplain to officiate at the altar. This charter was given by William Meldrum to provide for soul masses for him and his relations. It shows that the altar was founded before 1356; but William Leith may have built the addition to the south choir and erected the altar, and arranged with William Meldrum to endow it.

A brass tablet in the west side of Drum's Aisle was put up in 1836 to the memory of William Leith in the belief that he was buried near it, but as he was buried in front of the altar of St.. Lawrence and Ninian his tomb must be much farther south and farther east than the tablet. Leith regarded St Lawrence as his patron, and besides naming a bell after him, he named his eldest son Lawrence. Between the two transepts rose the lofty church spire, resting on 4 arches supported by 4 pillars, well buttressed by the side walls of the transepts. There was a door with a porch in the east side of the south transept.

The choir seen in Gordon's sketches is not the original one. From remains of its foundation laid bare in 1837 the first choir had been a narrower shorter building, with a round apse.

The demand for private altars had called for a larger chancel, and an enlarged new building was provided and opened in 1498. It had been about half a century in building, having apparently been begun in the time of Bishop Ingelram (1440-1459). No doubt he   as parson of St Nicholas - had contributed to the work, and his successor Thomas Spens (1459-1480) gave his second tithes annually; but the next bishop, Robert Blackader, offended the town by refusing to do likewise.

Before the new choir was begun St Mary's Chapel was built at the east end of the choir, on a site excavated in the steep bank. It afforded space for three or four altars. When the new choir was built its east end extended over this chapel, and there was a stair from the aisles of the choir down to the chapel. Gordon's sketch shows that the new choir had aisles, which had been occupied by small chapels.

Before the Reformation some change had been made on the west end of the nave. There was originally a door in it; but in 1537 the west gable was taken down and rebuilt with a window.

After the Reformation masses in the little chapels had been prohibited, and the altars had been removed. Structural repairs being required, little attention had been paid to the interior for a time. In the Jesus Chapel, on the west of the wedding door, the back of the altar was not removed till 1584, and the window in the chapel being broken the floor was covered with earth and grass-grown.

By and by the church was got into repair and cleaned out, and the accounts show that there had been a large congregation. At the Revolution in 1688 King William had not made up his mind to abolish Episcopacy, and before the abolition came in 1689 the ministers of Aberdeen had resolved to adhere to the old form. They were deprived of their livings, but many of their congregations followed their example and became Nonconformists. The old St Nicholas Church in the nave being depleted of its congregation was neglected and became so ruinous that it was abandoned in 1732; but the congregation was accommodated in the Trinity Church by arrangement between the Incorporated Trades and the Magistrates ("Hammermen's Court Book").

In 1746 it was occupied by the Duke of Cumberland when on his way to Culloden, and it continued to lie in ruins till 1750, when it was rebuilt. It was opened in 1755 under the name of the West Church.

Though there is in Aberdeen records very little notice of the Reformation till the year before it was ratified by Parliament there are in the Chartulary of St Nicholas some indications of want of harmony between the Church and the people. There is observable on the part of the citizens a reluctance to pay annual dues from properties for religious services, founded by their ancestors; and on the part of the ecclesiastics there was pounding for these dues. After the Reformation it appears from cleansings and repairs which were necessary that the fabric of the Church had been neglected and that filth and rubbish had been allowed to accumulate in and around the church. In the beginning of 1560, the Lairds of Mearns and Angus came to Aberdeen and, having destroyed some of the Convents, were proceeding to attack the church, but they were driven off. Some lead had been stolen from parts of the roof, which had to be temporarily replaced by divots, but lead was got from Berwick to repair the roof properly.

After the Reformation the Choir was separated from the transept by a stone wall. It now became an ordinary preaching church and was called the New Church; but by 1837 it was counted old, and it was taken down and rebuilt and was called the East Church. It was brilliantly lighted at night by a device called a sunlight, placed in the ceiling.

There was a large number of jets of gas under a reflector filled with water to keep it cool. Unfortunately, in 1874, the water on one occasion became exhausted and the roof caught fire, causing the destruction of the Church and the Steeple.

By the fall of the steeple the bell called Lawrie (Lawrence) was smashed. The fragments were bought by John Blaikie and Sons, who made them into a bell for Mannofield Church. One fragment may still be seen hanging on a pyramid in Union Terrace Gardens.

St. Nicholas Bells, 1887. The great fire of 1874 swept through the East Kirk of St. Nicholas, totally destroying the oak and lead steeple and sending the great bells crashing to the ground. A decade later, the citizens of Aberdeen combined to replace the bells with a great peal of bells cast in Belgium. The bells arrived at Aberdeen Station, Guild Street on May 11th 1887 and were paraded through the city with great pomp and ceremony.

In 2 years the damage had been made good, and the church was reopened in 1876.

The East and West Churches stand in a graveyard of nearly 2 acres, which is separated from Union Street by an Ionic façade, erected (1830) at a cost of £1460, and measuring 147½ feet in length by 32½ in height, with 12 granite columns, each consisting of a single block, and with a central archway. These churches occupy the site of the collegiate St Nicholas, which, as built between 1200 and 1507, had a 9 bayed nave (117 feet by 66), a transept (100 by 20), and a 7 bayed Choir (81 by 64), with a trigonal apse over the crypt of Our Lady of Pity. At the crossing a tower rose, with its oaken spire, octagonal and picturesque, to a height of 120 feet: and in it hung three great harmonious bells, of which one, 'Lawrie,' bore date 1352.  After the Reformation the roodscreen gave place to a wall, and St Nicholas thus was divided into two churches, the West consisting of the former Nave, the eastern of the Choir, and the Romanesque transept between (known as Drum's and Collison's aisles) serving as vestibule. The West Church, having become dilapidated, was rebuilt (1751-55) from designs by James Gibbs, architect of the Radcliffe Library at Oxford and of the Cambridge Senate House: 'but as if,' says Hill Burton, 'emphatically to show that the fruits of his genius were entirely to be withdrawn from his own countrymen, the only building in Scotland known to have been planned by him, this church in his native city, combines whatever could be derived of gloomy and cumbrous from the character of the Gothic architecture, with whatever could be found of cold and rigid in the details of the Classic.' The East Church, too, was barbarously demolished, and rebuilt(1834-37)in Gothic style: but on 9 Oct. 1874, its roof and interior were destroyed by fire, along with the spire and its peal of bells, increased by 5 in 1859. The total loss was estimated at £30,000, the West Church also being much damaged by water: but all has been since restored, and at a cost of £8500 a fine granite tower and spire erected (1878-80), 190 feet high. The churchyard contains the graves of Principal Guild, Blackwell, Beattie, and Campbell: in the West Church are marble monuments by Bacon and Westmacott, the effigy of Provost Davidson, who fell at Harlaw in 1411, a curious brass portrait-panel of Dr Duncan Liddel, executed at Antwerp in 1622, from a drawing by Jamesone probably, and the tombstone of Provost Menzies (d. 1641): whilst, in the southern transept, a small brass to Sir Alexander Irvine of Drum is dated 1400 (Proc. Soc. Ant. Scot., 1876, p. 450).

In 1715, the day after the Old Pretender was declared king at the Mercat Cross, elections were held for a new Council. Those loyal to the Hanoverians absented themselves whilst the Jacobite Councillors met in the East Kirk of St Nicholas in order to elect a Rebel Council: they elected Patrick Bannerman as Provost and John Leslie, John Burnett, William Simpson and John Fyfe as Baillies. Writing his memoirs later, the brother of the Earl Marischal declared that this was done in order to shake off the ‘double yoak, and [to] free themselves from slavery and  usurpation by the restoration of king James III…’. It has been reported that during the 1745 rebellion  Cumberland’s troops stabled their horses in the West Kirk of St Nicholas, which at that time was derelict. Both the West and East Kirks used by the Jacobites have since been replaced, the West Kirk in 1755 and the East in 1837-8.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013