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Union Street - Concept and Cost

In 1796 Charles Abercrombie, a County Roads Engineer and Surveyor, suggested an incredibly bold plan. He proposed to remove the top of St Katherine's Hill and build a huge viaduct over the Denburn valley. This ambitious project began in 1801. The resulting 60-foot wide viaduct was one of the Engineering feats of its time and was completed in 1805. It was named Union Street after the Union between Britain and Ireland.

At the close of the 18th Century, Aberdeen still looked much like a medieval Burgh. A maze of crooked streets, low bridges, hilly terrain, and bleak unsettled landscape dominated a town that was little changed from James Gordon's 1661 Description of Bothe Touns of Aberdeene. The town was still perched between Gallowgate Hill, Castle Hill, and St. Katherine's Hill, a loose collection of narrow streets winding between three and four storey buildings with no clear gates or focal points beyond the Mercat Cross that stood, as it does today, at the Castlegate end of Broad Street.

Union Street concept began after 1794, when a town council meeting asked the Surveyor Charles Abercrombie to find a way to connect the original steep, muddled Medieval streets of Aberdeen to the surrounding countryside. His plan was for 2 streets, 1 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 which crossed over the Denburn valley. 

James Gordon - Map of Aberdeen 1661

The Magistrates had long lamented the odd boundaries and crooked roads of the Burgh and met with the Surveyor Charles Abercrombie in 1794. This meeting was intended to provide an estimate for the creation of several possible new streets and ways in which access to the Harbour and Markets of Aberdeen could be eased, and the town be opened up to convenient travel from the south and further north.  Abercrombie's results, sent from Glasgow in December of 1794, laid out 3 options for the improvement of the town's streets.  The 1st option outlined was intended to cover level ground from the Bridge of Dee to Marischal Street and from there to the Castlegate, following the line of the River. Low property prices at the Harbour as well meant that constructing a road through the 1st line would not burden the town financially.  The advantage of level land to work on was weighted against the necessity of creating a high breastwork of stone and banking to raise the road above the level of the tide. Further, the prospective road's position at the Harbour side of town allowed little in terms of wider regulation and grid-patterning of the town's roads, and entering the town by Marischal Street was seen as essentially circumventing Aberdeen in order to gain entrance.

The 2nd plan involved partially filling in the Harbour, constructing a vast causeway carrying a road running from the wharf end of Marischal Street to the south shore of the Dee and beyond, raised 10 feet above the level of high tide. The earth to construct this causeway was to be taken by wheelbarrow from the bottom of the Harbour to save money.  Some task! This road, as the 1st option, was mostly outside the Aberdeen area, and offered no advantage to improving the town beyond creating a simple and demonstrable link to Stonehaven.   In Abercrombie's opinion, this would gain the town an excellent road at a high price, but leave the Mediaeval, cramped, centre of the Burgh untouched.

The 3rd option took the road from Bridge of Dee to Justice Mills and then onto the regular level ground lying between that point and the Denburn, and then forming a 3-arch bridge to cross the Denburn and make a straight wide road leading directly to the Mercat Cross past St. Nicholas Kirk and through the heart of Aberdeen itself; 15 feet of height was to be cut from St. Katherine's Hill, and the low Wynds (Correction Wynd and Carnegie Brae) were to be covered over with arched bridges to bring this new street level with Castle Street. The further advantage of this proposal was the option to expand West of the Denburn, building the City outwards on a more regular plan in the vein of Edinburgh's New Town or Glasgow's grid pattern.  Within this plan the option was put forth that, should developing the west end of Aberdeen prove to be undesirable, a road could be run down from Correction Wynd to the waterside, and the Harbour Road listed as the 1rst option could be partially developed in order to keep Aberdeen as a City east of the Denburn and north of the Dee.

Abercrombie's proposals for the North entry were substantially more modest. The existing road to the Bridge of Don through Old Aberdeen was universally considered to be of very poor quality, though Abercrombie thought that little cutting or banking would be required to guide a level road from the Mealmarket to the Don. As with the future Union Street, Abercrombie's future King Street was also intended to be built around, expanding new and regular streets on a grid around the initial incising lines from the Mercat Cross to the rivers that confined Aberdeen.

After some prompting on the part of the town's Police Commissioners, the Council met and acted upon Abercrombie's recommendations. Plans were drawn up for proposed north and south entrances to Aberdeen, and funds were raised for purchasing properties that lay in the path of the new streets through the cluttered roofs of the old town. Proposals to bridge the Denburn and design the streets and houses were submitted, and crews, architects, and engineers were employed to rejuvenate Aberdeen.  This undertaking was put into motion without levying of any tax or other attempt to raise public funds, and construction proceeded slowly, and not without errors. Further, as Union Street grew, the town found that acquiring ground in the street's path became an expensive necessity.  The town's debts mounted as Union Street – expected to recoup its costs swiftly as with Edinburgh – remained something of a white elephant, and the town's debts had reached a staggering £250,000 by 1817.

Though creditors were called in and Trustees were appointed to safely keep the town's ledgers, this situation did not last forever – within 7 years, Aberdeen was solvent again, its debts were paid, and Union Street became a defining feature, if not the defining feature, of the Granite City.


It is easy to forget that Union Street, lined with buildings on both sides, is actually supported on huge granite arches from near the Castlegate to around Crown Street Only by using the old mediaeval roads on a lower level can you begin to get a concept of the scale. (Look at the arches from Correction Wynd and the Green, then view the massive span of Union Bridge over the railway and the diversion of the Denburn through Culverts)

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 pipework was completed on Deeside. The vaults are not only 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 humped many thousands of bags of Kerr’s Pinks and Arran Banner in and out over their shoulders or under their oxters.

It is said this is the root of the mean image the city gained through "music hall" jokes. With the administration bankrupt, influential visitors to Aberdeen had to do without the expected Civic Reception.

23rd March 1789 - The future intended South Entry to the City - Union Street from Putachieside to the Denburn and Westward. The line of the Denburn is shown in blue, and the green line represents the proposed course of Union Street. Netherkirkgate is shown in Brown at the top and sweeping down beneath St Nicholas Chapel is Carnegie Brae to Putachieside with St Katherine's Hill outlined Bottom left.  It appears to be schematic rather than to scale.  Various Plots of land that are deemed for inclusion and demolition are enumerated.  The plan is agreeable to the opinion of and approval of Charles Abercrombie.  The Castlegate and Broad Street end of Union Street – the maze of narrow winding streets referred to by Abercrombie is visible beneath the green and red lines showing the future street's layout. The red markings on each side of the street show ground marked for building on.  Union Street Viaduct and Union Bridge are the essential components which enabled 19th Century Aberdeen to be opened up to the West. The viaduct and the 40 metre span bridge are major feats of engineering and bold and imaginative town planning. The bridge carried Union Street over the Denburn Valley.

The bridge began in 1801 to designs by David Hamilton, the Glasgow based architect, for a 3-arched bridge. These plans was found to have some design faults and Thomas Fletcher, the architect for the Trustees concerned with the new building plans for Aberdeen, submitted a new design for a single span arch. Thomas Telford made some suggestions as to how these designs could be improved, including the battering of the Piers, but it is as yet unclear if these suggestions were adhered to. The road above the Bridge was widened in 1905-8 by William Dyack, who inserted steel spans to the sides of bridge. This work was overseen by William Kelly who added the Parapet and the leopards statuettes. The Parapet was manufactured by Walter McFarlane & Co at the Saracen Foundry in Glasgow. Scotland had a thriving, productive iron founding industry in the latter half of the 19th century and Walter McFarlane and Co, Glasgow was an architectural iron foundry with an international reputation, whose designs found their way to countries across the globe. The South side of the bridge was further widened in 1964 when a row of shops were added but totally obstructed the spectacular view from the bridge.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013