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Union Street

Union Street was developed after 1794, when a town council meeting asked the Engineer Charles Abercrombie to find a way to connect the original steep, haphazard network of Medieval Streets of Aberdeen to the surrounding countryside. His plan was for two streets, one of which would run from Castlegate to the Denburn and the other which would run from the Castlegate to the North of the town. The former became Union Street. This was a particularly difficult project to complete as the street had to cut through St Katherine's Hill at the East end and be built on a series of arches culminating with a large bridge at the Denburn. The street was to be lined with classical buildings, but the initial idea of having a long, uniform classical design that each new house would have to conform to was abandoned, as it was realised that different purchasers would require some control over the design Some variety was therefore conceded. 

Union Street is a much tinkered with major street and former shopping thoroughfare in Aberdeen.

It is easy to for­get that a full half-mile of Union Street, from the Adelphi to Diamond Street, is an artificial creation

It was built, along with the adjoining King Street, in the beginning of the 19th Century under plans suggested by Charles Abercrombie to provide an impressive entrance way into the City, and nearly bankrupted the city when it was built. Union Street in particular was intended to provide an impressive approach into the city from the south (and west); previously the route had been via somewhat tortuous wynds via the Hardgate, Windmill Brae and the Green.

The street is approximately one mile long (0.8 miles) and a feat of Civil Engineering skill involving the partial levelling of St. Catherine's Hill and the building of great arches to carry the street over Putachieside.

This picture is the taken at the junction of Union Street with Market Street to the left and St Nicholas Street to the right, Trams abound and a single decker Corporation bus provides an alternative service for passengers.  Polite signs guide the pedestrians away from making perilous diagonal crossings.  Montague Burtons graces the corner at the top of Market Street.  Sun Blinds allow clear vision into shop windows and prevent goods deteriorating in UV light.  Flat caps and sandwich board men abound while cars enjoy greater freedoms.  Seagulls have yet to abandon the sea and become foraging pedestrians themselves.  The grand facade of the new Commercial Bank of Scotland dominates the corner opposite the old queen with superb corinthian columns.  A central lamp is suspended above the centre of the intersection.  Classic Dormer windows indicate the on going use of Attics as living space.  St Nicholas Lane is just visible C1938

Below the arches of Union Street are catacombs which have been sectioned off, just like the subterranean closes in Edinburgh’s Old Town, or lock-ups under old railway arches. A great 'tattie' store lay almost directly under the old Trinity Hall, 30 feet under the street – there were also cold stores used by meat traders in the New Market – and in 1958, a newspaper article reported that spare parts for the plumbing system of Balmoral Castle were still sitting in a plumber’s store, 100 years after the pipe work was completed on Deeside.

The vaults are secure, their temperature is stable, and they are close to the market – but changes in level mean that modern forklift trucks and lorries are excluded, so that the 'tattie' merchants must have humphed many thousands of bags of Kerr’s Pinks and Arran Banner in and out on their ample Shoulders.

Today, the arches and nearby streets host a variety of uses, including nightclubs. Buried in solid masonry catacombs with good acoustics, the sound systems can be cranked right up without offending anyone, and the only clue to their existence are the crocodiles of party people who queue impatiently in the cold night air with little clothing to protect them.

The Denburn Valley was crossed by Union Street by the Union Bridge (constructed 1801–05), which has a single span arch of 130 feet (40 m).

There are long-term plans to fully pedestrianise Union Street from Union Terrace to the Castlegate

In 1964 a food poisoning outbreak occurred, this was due to the sale of contaminated meat from a shop (William Low & Co) which was on Union Street. The disease was typhoid imported in a can of Corned Beef from Argentina which had a split seam and had been cooled in foul river water. After the food poisoning outbreak the food shop closed. The name of the report of the government enquiry is the "Milne Report".

Early illustration of the completed bridge c1805 shows St Nicholas Kirk in the background with Belmont Street.  The Blind and open Arches are apparent with the latter to disappear behind new construction work.  The viewpoint would appear to be in the Crown Terrace area overlooking the Windmill Brae entry to the Green over the Bow Bridge.

Babbie Law's - 1885 the lady licensee Babbie Law left this spot which still bears her name.  Babbie Law's Corner was on Holburn Junction, looking towards Alford Place (right) and Holburn Street (left), next to Holburn Central Church in its original form (left), Babbie Law's Corner Sweet Shop (centre) and the United Free Christ's College (right). Babbie Law's corner was redeveloped in 1885.
Christ's College, Alford Place. Designed by Thomas Mackenzie 1850. It was a building to train ministers for the Free Church. Now occupied by "The College" bar (2007).


Castle street Tram at the Junction


One of Kelly's Cats, on the northern parapet to Union Bridge in Aberdeen
We have traffic jams to thank for these pompously posed, chest thrusting, stand to attention leopards who have their superior majesty removed by the occasional cigarette end (a Tabbie for the cat) being inserted in their tightly pursed bifurcated lips by thoughtful Aberdonian Smokers.  They sought to restore a more acceptable countenance on the smug wee Corporate beasties.  Sadly this is not recorded faithfully in the image we have here but a sight of that inspired act of desecration will make you LOL should you get the chance to witness or perform it.

The side of the Bridge that was further extended to provide an arcade of shops and deny the southern view to pedestrians had the Leopards and panels removed and these now grace the the Winter Gardens in the Duthie Park.  Little is known of the master caster William Wilson of Monymusk,

Walking the Mat

- the favourite evening entertainment for Aberdonians in  Temperance Aberdeen where pubs closed all day on a Sunday was to walk out in your 'Sunday Best' the full length of Union Street from end to end till it was last Bus Time - (10.30pm on a Sunday)


Bunches of Girls and Lads would link arms and walk the pavements flirting and laughing in the hope of catching someone's 'eye'.  Couples would also swank around on the street scene to be seen on and do their Window Shopping and catch their joint images in the large Glass Windows.  A delight for wee bairn's to run in and out of couples hand in hand and jink  through the groups of lads and lassies and perfecting skills worthy of a Rugby Player moving their centres of gravity and pivoting shoulders to brush through tight gaps.  One dodge was to ask for change of a sixpence from the lads and they would hand you a pile of pennies to impress their girl with their generosity and refuse the higher denomination coin.  One had to develop a good memory for faces so you didn't ask the same guy twice and blow your scam..  This was clearly the streets busiest night for pedestrians and not a pub, shop or cinema was open such was the grip of Church and Temperance Societies.

As for ‘walking the mat’, the young people of today would gasp in astonishment if you were to suggest such an unsophisticated activity for a Sunday night. Some might say that one would more likely get a mugging than a kiss from a bonny lassie.

YMCA - With increasing membership the meetings of the Association were transferred from the Bon-Accord Session  House to the Round Room of the Music Hall, and later to rooms at 183a Union Street, where with commendable enterprise programme development followed.  In 1873 the Association moved from the Music Hall Buildings to premises rented at 183a Union Street where rooms solely for YMCA use could be used. In 1874, Messrs. Moody and Sankey paid their first visit to Aberdeen, and the city was stirred by the revival.  Mr Moody directed attention to the importance of the YMCA and pleaded for its receiving a far greater measure of public support.  With this a movement was started for the purchase of a suitable building in a prominent position, with ample accommodation for the headquarters of the Association.  It wasn't long before the YMCA purchased 198 Union Street (pictured right) which it occupied and maintained a building on that site until the 1980s.  In October, 1923, a large gathering attended the official opening of the new gymnasium situated behind  the Hostel in Golden Square.  In 1952, one of the members, James Shearer, after a period of training in London, left for India to serve in the Mission to Lepers. 
THE  SECOND CENTRE - 13  Dee Place. The  transfer of the Boys' Work to Dee Place in 1950 was an important event. A YMCA. Hut at Donibristle Air Station became available and this was transported in section to ground acquired at Dee Place.  This commodious but was adapted as a boys' club with accommodation for gymnasium, canteen, library, and recreation rooms.  Included also was a Fellowship Room presented by Lieutenant-Colonel J. H. Gordon, in memory  of his brother, Major Douglas William Gordon, of The Gordon Highlanders,  who was killed in action in June, 1940.  It was organised in the familiar house system, the boys being grouped in four houses: Ythan, Morven, Cruder, and Ardo. The competitive element between the houses stimulates interest in the various games and activities. These include Physical Culture, Games, Woodwork, Music, Photography, Stamp Collecting, First Aid, Camping, etc. After the War activities were gradually restored to normal. During a period of seven years, George H. Simpson (AKA 'Commie'), as Mr. Miller's successor, gave devoted leadership, providing a well balanced programme with a spiritual purpose. Quiet and unobtrusive in his leadership, he proved a friend and guide to the boys under his care.  In acquiring the Skene Terrace Halls as a permanent headquarters for work among boys, a long cherished dream has been realised in the provision of hall and rooms suitably equipped for extensive youth work. The formal opening of the new Club on 11th October, 1958

The Union 1707
Uniting the kingdoms of Scotland and England had been proposed for a 100 years before it actually happened in 1707.  From the day when James VI of Scotland and I of England had been crowned it was expected that the parliaments would eventually unite.  Suspicion and mistrust between the two countries had prevented the Union throughout the 17th century.  The Scots feared that they would simply become another region of England, being swallowed up as had happened to Wales some four hundred years earlier.  For England the fear that the Scots may take sides with France and rekindle the 'Auld Alliance' was decisive.  England relied heavily on Scottish soldiers and to have them turn and join ranks with the French would have been disastrous.

When the Darien Scheme collapsed and with Scotland in financial chaos, William III played his hand and bribed the Scottish MPs, Lords and Ladies with cash incentives. If they would vote to unite the parliaments, then the king would give them some of their lost money back. Many of the Scottish gentry jumped at this chance to recoup their losses.

An ill fated Merchant Adventure Expedition of 3 fleets of ships to the mosquito infested Darian Isthmus near Panana (a new Caledonia?.  Only a handful survived the return journey. Scotland had paid a terrible price with more than two thousand lives lost. Together with the loss of the £500,000 in investments the Scottish economy was almost bankrupted. It has been argued that the Darien Scheme crippled the country's economy to such an extent that it triggered the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament and led to the 1707 Act of Union with England to create Great Britain. A mere coincidence, or had the English insight and withdrawal from the scheme been deliberately engineered to ensure its Scottish Investors failure?

Robert Burn's thoughts on the Act of Union
Robert Burns reading his bitter but beautiful poem more often heard these days as a folk song "Such a Parcel of Rogues"  It derides those members of the Parliament of Scotland who signed the Act of Union with England in 1707, comparing their treachery to the country with the tradition of martial valor and resistance commonly associated with such historic figures as Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. It has continued to be associated with Scottish Nationalism and also been referenced in other situations where politicians' actions have gone against popular opinion. Written in 1791,  It contains the lines 'We're bought and sold for English gold' -- Such a parcel of rogues in a nation! echoing the sentiment that Scottish landowners, bankrupted in part by the disastrous Darien Scheme, sold out the Scottish nation for their own financial gain. The melody and lyrics were published in James Hogg's Jacobite Reliques of 1817 (no. 36).  He also wrote in standard English, and in these his political or civil commentary is often at its most blunt.

Fareweel to a' our Scottish fame, 
Fareweel our ancient glory! 
Fareweel ev'n to the Scottish name. 
Sae famed in martial story! 
Now Sark rins over Salway sands, 
An' Tweed rins to the ocean, 
to mark where England 's province stands -- 
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation! 

What force or guile could not subdue 
Thro' many warlike ages 
Is wrought now by a coward few 
For hireling traitor's wages. 
The English steel we could disdain, 
Secure in valour's station; 
But English gold has been our bane -- 
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation! 

O, would, or I had seen the day 
That Treason thus could sell us, 
My auld grey head had lien in clay 
Wi' Bruce and loyal Wallace! 
But pith and power, till my last hour 
I'll mak this declaration: - 
'We're bought and sold for English gold'-- 
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!                      Barometers were manufactured by Hay & Lyall of 73 Union Street Aberdeen

Admiral Fitzroy (1805-1865)
In the 19th century when death amongst fishermen due to storms at sea was considered an occupational hazard. One man set about improving the lot of the fishermen and mariners generally by making provision for barometers to be sited at harbours. 

That man was Admiral Fitzroy who, acting as first head of the institution we now know as the Meteorological Office, saw the need for a better system of maritime weather forecasting. Not only did this benefit the fishermen it also served to assist merchant shipping and the naval fleet of the day. It would appear the Admiral persuaded government that such provision would prevent loss of high numbers of men and boats at sea. 

Reading a barometer allowed fishermen to forecast weather conditions in advance of their setting sail. A significant drop in pressure would normally sound alarm bells and keep them ashore until the bad weather passed. 

Did the fishermen take heed of this new device? - The available evidence indicates that they usually did. Fishermen were skilled at predicting the weather much of the time, however, when the unexpected happened loss of life was the inevitable consequence.

Hay and Lyall also of of Marischal Street were Carvers & Gilders (to the Queen) John Hay formed his 1st partnership with the photographer George Washington Wilson, although this slowly dissolved and Hay co-founded the frame-making firm Hay and Lyall some picture and print dealers and frame makers, in Market Street & Union Street, Aberdeen. The firm provided frames for most Aberdonian artists in the second half of the 19th century, including Brough.

John Hay from 1811, Hay & Lyall 1870s to 1910s, Aberdeen. Picture Framemakers.

471-473 Union Street Adjacent to the Playhouse Cinema

If one thinks back to the Union Street of the 1950s and 1960s, it was jam-packed with shoppers along its entire length every Saturday, as was also St Nicholas Street/George Street. People dressed up to go ‘awa doon toon’, and you met everyone you knew in Union Street. In that sense, Aberdeen really was a village.

The open-air markets in the Green and Castlegate were very much going concerns. Trams and Buses went all the way from Hazelhead to the Sea Beach and back again, via Queen’s Cross,

The Castlegate, which served as the city’s main bus interchange, where you nipped off one bus and on to another.  As a result, far more people had reason to go to the Castlegate than they do nowadays. Union Street and St Nicholas Street/George Street were full of interesting, up-market shops: grocer Andrew Collie & Co. Ltd. at the corner of Union Street and Bon Accord Street; Watt & Grant’s department store; McMillan’s toy shop, under the Trinity Hall; Woolworth’s, backing on to the Green;

Falconer’s, Isaac Benzie’s, the Equitable, the handsome and elegant old Northern Co-op building in Loch Street; the Rubber Shop.

Watt & Grant Ltd, drapers, was incorporated in January 1927. Its registered office was at 221 Union Street, Aberdeen. It was open from 1882 until 1981 on the corner of Dee Street and had a luncheon and tea room. It was a subsidiary of the Scottish Drapery Corporation Ltd, a management holding company, of Edinburgh. In September 1950, Watt & Grant Ltd acquired the heritable property of 229 Union Street, Aberdeen, belonging to A & R Milne, drapers. It was decided to continue trade in that shop under that name in order to preserve goodwill. In September 1952, the Scottish Drapery Corporation Ltd and its subsidiaries were acquired by House of Fraser Ltd, department store retailers, of Glasgow. Watt & Grant Ltd was wound up voluntarily in 1953

Watt & Grant, 225 Union Street. "Three of these [cash] railways have been fitted up in Edinburgh, two in Dundee, a number in Glasgow, but until just now there has been none so far north as Aberdeen. The firm of Messrs Watt and Grant .. have been the first to introduce the railway to Aberdeen. The special railway consists of two lines of polished wood, the guage being 2 3/4 to 3 1/2 inches broad. Being very light it is suspended from the roof by wires at such a height as to cause no obstruction, and is rather an ornament than otherwise... There are 4 stations, or 5 if the cashier's desk is included. Two of them are placed at each counter... The railway is now in full working order, and is well worthy of inspection. Aberdeen Weekly Journal, 21 Nov. 1885

E & M's - Esslemont and Macintosh were one of Aberdeen's oldest department stores. It was founded in 1873 by Peter Esslemont, a Lord Provost of the city and originally traded at premises on Broad Street.  The building to the right, No.s 26-30 Union Street were originally built as offices for the Aberdeen newspaper, the Daily Free Press. When they amalgamated with the Aberdeen Journal in 1924, Esslemont bought the property. 32-38 Union Street was the home of Sangster and Henderson, drapers and house furnishers. They went out of business in 1926 and Esslemont and MacIntosh moved into this property, selling their property on Broad Street to the Council.  It was a sad and sudden end for a store that had enjoyed a long history, established in 1873 when Peter Esslemont and William Macintosh merged their businesses into one. For over 130 years, the store had remained in the ownership of the Esslemont family, the connection only ending when E&M was sold to Owen & Owen in 2005.  At the time, company chairman Pauline Esslemont suggested that “being within the Owen & Owen group will strengthen E&M’s position as the pre-eminent department store in Aberdeen, highlighting the challenges that it already faced as as an independent store within a competitive city centre. When Owen & Owen fell into administration in March 2007, E&M was the only 1 of its 4 stores not to be saved.

John Falconer & Co

Falconer's was founded by Alexander Falconer in Narrow Wynd in 1788, moving to Queen Street in 1801 . It was inherited as John Falconer and Co on his death in 1828 by 3 nephews. They moved to 23 Union Street. In 1871 his nephew George became sole proprietor, whose son William assumed that position in 1889. In 1871 the business leased the ground floor of the Royal Hotel, part of the existing building at 65 Union Street and purchased the entire whole Royal Building in 1883.  Various enlargements added Ladies Outfitting and home furnishings and the staff grew to about 80. The company traded until 1952 selling everything, from kilts to afternoon teas, when the House of Fraser took over, keeping the name until 1975. The store has been extensively enlarged and modernized over the years, maintaining over 200 years of service.

Watt & Grant, Falconers, Esslemont & Mackintosh, Andrew Collie, Gordon & Smith, Mitchell & Muil, Ledingham and Kennaway, had set up shop in Union Street, where you could buy just about anything, from a side of beef to a bicycle

McMillans - 2nd Trinity Hall Building -  William Stewart, became the manager there at the start of the century, presumably retired in the 20s but maybe later. His son, Douglas, was due to ‘succeed’ him but died in the 1930s.  William Murray, worked there during the 20s, maybe 30s, in the sports goods section, but also died in the late 1950s.  It was memorable for its toy displays in the arcaded windows.

Silversmith - Henry Elkington, in the 1830s. It operated under the name G. R. Elkington & Co. until 1842, when a 3rd partner, Josiah Mason, joined the firm. It operated as Elkington, Mason, & Co. until 1861, when the partnership with Mason was terminated. The firm operated independently as Elkington & Co. from 1861 until 1963. It was then taken over by British Silverware, Ltd.. In 1971 British Silverware, Ltd. became a subsidiary of Delta Metal Co. Ltd.

On 6 & 7 May 1964, the Union Street William Low Branch Delicatessen used a tin of Argentinean Corned Beef that had not been fully processed correctly (the can seam wasn't sealed adequately and the meat had been infected with Typhoid as it had been cooled using untreated river water). Due to the fact that the meat was sliced using a universal mechanical slicer which contaminated other meats.  Approximately 500 people were diagnosed in Aberdeen in 1964 with suspected Typhoid. Massive public and domestic hygiene precautions came into play. William Low was never successful in the City again with their branch closing in the City only 3 years later.  The disease was dubbed 'Typhoo' after the local popular tea brand such is the Doric Humour.




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Last modified: 01/09/2013