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City Wells and Water Supply

No city in the empire is supplied with better water for every domestic purpose than Aberdeen. It was not, however, until after the lapse of many centuries, the adoption of various imperfect expedients, and a world of local contention, that our citizens bethought themselves of applying to the River Dee, as the source of a never-failing supply of an element indispensable to their health and comfort.  I have thought it may not be deemed uninteresting to give a history of some of the earlier projects for furnishing the city with one of the prime necessaries of life. In ancient times the wants of the community, in the respect referred to, appear to have been supplied either from draw-wells, or from the various burns which traversed the town, the waters of which then flowed in all their primitive purity. 

Before the Reformation it was customary to dedicate wells either to the Virgin or to some favourite saint Hence,
St. Mary's Well, which gave name to Marywell Street of the present day ; St. John's Well, still dispensing its limpid stream in the neighbourhood of Gilcomston Church; and the Angel Well, near Hanover Street, which was probably dedicated to St. Michael. Each of the four Monasteries formerly in the town had its well, all of which have been discovered in the course of modern improvements. That of the Trinity Friars  was immediately underneath the eastern wall of the Charter-room erected by the Incorporated Trades.

The Corbie Well, on the Denburn, is so called from its flowing from the base of what was anciently named the Corbie Heugh, where part of an old forest afforded shelter for a 'parliament' of rooks. Tradition has it that the old trees were cut down to furnish timber for building the steeple of St. Nicholas. In the ancient Bead House was a large well, which recently remained in a house in Correction Wynd. It probably supplied the water required for the ceremonial of the adjacent church of St. Nicholas.

James Mackie and John Burnet agreed, in 1706, to build the first fountain at Cardenkaugh Well or Garden's Well for £10 sterling

The Garden Nook Well, still to be seen, was dedicated to the Virgin, and probably quenched the thirst of our "ancient forefathers" in the heat of their sports in the contiguous Play Field. Among the old draw-wells for common use was one situated in Park Street (close by No. 17), near the corner of East North Street. This was made in 1558, when licence was given to William Ronaldson and his neighbours to dig a well without the Thieves' Port (Justice St), provided it were enclosed with a wall of stone and lime. Elderly citizens recollect this well. It was of great depth; and the water was raised by means of a bucket, rope, and wheel. The loch appears to have anciently supplied water for domestic purposes. In process of time, however, it became unfit for such uses. In 1632 the municipal authorities, -
"considering the great necessity wherein the neighbours of the town stood through want of pure and clean water to serve their houses and that the most part of the water wherewith they were served, coming only from the
loch, was filthily defiled and corrupted, not only by the gutters daily running into the burn, but also by litsters [dyers], and the washing of clothes, and the abusing of the water in sundry parts, with other sorts of uncleanness,"
- came to the resolution that fountains should be erected at the public expense for a proper supply of water. For this purpose the Burgesses of Guild agreed to be taxed ; and Thomas Garden, convener of the Trades, promised 1000 merks Scots, for himself and in name of the Trades, for the furtherance of the work. Not a little water was at this time required for the brewing of ale. Even about a century earlier, there were no fewer than 150 " brewsters" in the town.

The scheme of 1632, however, was never carried into execution, in consequence of the civil commotions, from which Aberdeen suffered so much for nearly half-a-century. The population was about this time nearly 9000 ; but towards the end of the 17th century it had decreased to 6000. So the citizens were forced to put up with such water as they had, supplies of which were distributed by licensed water-carriers. In 1655 William Ingram and William Steven paid 10 merks yearly for the privilege of being "burne beirers." In 1682 another proposal to erect fountains proved as unsuccessful as that of 1632. In 1706, however, a similar project had better speed. Bailie Stewart was "ordained to buy as much lead as would be sufficient for pipes and cisterns for bringing water from Garden's Well." The work, however, went but slowly on, for, in 1708, the Town Council, "considering the many retardments that Joseph Forester, plumber, had met with in bringing in the water, allowed him the sum of .200 Scots, with 36 of drink money to his servants." Joseph's servants, although labouring to supply the community with fair water, seem to have had no fancy for the exclusive potation of it themselves. A century earlier their labours would probably have been beguiled by a tune on the bagpipes, a sort of creature-comfort which was liberally supplied by the town piper to the workmen employed on the old south pier. (Music while you work). James Mackie and John Burnet agreed, in 1706, to build the first fountain at Garden's Well for £10 sterling. About this time William Lindsay was appointed overseer of the new fountains, with a yearly salary of 200 Scots.

He engaged to erect a statue of brass on the Castlegate Well, with four "antick faces" on the corners thereof, whence water might play 'ad libitum'. This hydraulic fancy seems to have been found rather expensive; so a wooden statue, gilded over, was erected instead of the brazen image. The new wells appear to have been the favourite rendezvous of gossips, both male and female, to the great hindrance of business. In 1710 the authorities were obliged to ordain, that "stands or casks were not to remain at the wells longer than necessary."  The town sergeants were authorised to 'break casks', stands, or pans, and to make use of the brass and timber thereof for their own use; they were always bringing the broken pans to the clerk's chamber.  The latter clause seems to have been enacted in view of the possibility of any compunctious feelings on the part of the sergeants towards condemned pans, inasmuch as it was natural for those functionaries to prefer keeping entire the forfeited utensils, seeing that they were "for their own use."  At the same time persons were prohibited from washing anything at the wells ; and "all women from washing and tramping in tubs in any part of the streets of the burgh, under the penalty of 20 Scots." 

Taken down in 1841 when the Market Cross was moved further East.   Then erected in 'The Green' 1850 and re-erected in the Castle Street in 1972.

A well at the Town-House was formed in 1769, with a cistern in what had been called the Thief's Hole

Gibbs Map of Aberdeen 1888

The demand for water still increasing with the increase of the population, it was resolved, in 1766, to bring an additional supply from the " Gilcomston Spring," and to erect a reservoir in Broad Street for the water brought from Fountainhall, which reservoir still remains but re-sited. The execution of the work was committed to Mr. Selbie, plumber, Edinburgh. Now, this project appears to have been the source of much curious contention. The building of the reservoir was being proceeded with when a droll difficulty was started by certain dwellers in the Broadgate and Gallowgate, to whom a supply of mere water appears to have been a secondary object. They addressed to the Town-Council an earnest memorial, setting forth that the said reservoir "would shut up the dial-plate on the College Kirk from public view." True, there was the College Clock; but this time-measurer they charged with such "insufficiency," that its vagaries "led the neighbourhood into sundry errors and mistakes." It would seem that these worthy citizens were conscious that it required a steady clock, indeed, to keep them to time; for they candidly confessed that "an exact clock would tend much to promote regularity and good order in their quarter, an event very desirable" They prayed, therefore, that a new clock and dial-plate might be placed in front of the reservoir or Water-House. Moved by this frank representation, and duly perpending the grave necessity of providing the means of enabling the fallible, but ingenuous petitioners to keep good hours, the Council resolved to put up the desiderated clock, "in a handsome and genteel manner." This looks like a considerate wish on the part of the authorities to correct the irregularities of their petitioners with as little offence as might be to their feelings. Up, then, went the clock! but, alas! for the unfortunate memorialists!  In the course of two years, "regularity and good order" in their quarter were still found to be as "desirable an event" as ever. A dial-plate, indeed, had been administered in their case; but it was far too obstinate to yield to anything short of the exhibition of a bell, too! The merely "silent monitor" without, seems to have been as " insufficient" as that within them. What availed it to admonish them of the value of time through one sense only the sense of sight bootless o' nights, and, at any time, so liable to tantalising fits of duplexity!  No, their sense of hearing must also be appealed to. They required something striking to make a due impression.

So, "on a petition from a great number of the inhabitants, a striking part and a bell," were ordered to be added to the clock on the reservoir. This seems to have had the desired effect To this wise provision may we, doubtless, ascribe the "regularity and good order" which have ever since characterised the worthy "neighbours" in this quarter! Of elder denizens of the gossipdom, old Time has spared a remnant to enjoy well-earned ease, and a crack about days of yore, amid the tasteful amenities of suburban retirement. We may remark, by the way, that the College folks seem never to have complained of the "insufficiency" of their clock; their habitual discipline probably making amends for the free and easy system pursued by their horologer. Among other objectors to the reservoir a staid old lady complained that it "obstructed her lights" but whether of her domicile or understanding appeareth not; while a certain merchant took out an "interdict " against the unhappy building reasons not stated. Nevertheless the reservoir was completed, and did its duty; when, in the course of some 20 years, "the letting out of its water" again symbolised "the beginning of strife." In 1791 eighty citizens memorialised the Town-Council, to the effect that the water of the reservoir was "strongly impregnated with tar, in consequence of the improper mode of repairing the seams and rents in its bottom, by which great disgust was occasioned, and pernicious consequences might arise, both to the health of the citizens, and the public cisterns and pipes" Here was a monster grievance, and most disinterestedly was it urged. Not for themselves alone were the memorialists concerned, their sympathies embraced the "cisterns and pipes." 

Could either, albeit of mould so leaden, be expected passively to act as the harbourers, or guides of
tar water, without "great disgust!" The overseer of the reservoir was denounced as a poisoner; placards were posted on the building itself, bearing "Tar water sold here!" No faith had the citizens in the doctrines of good Bishop Berkeley, who was at the trouble to write a treatise to prove that tar water was as sovereign a panacea as Parr's Life Pills are now attested to be. An explanation was demanded of the overseer. That he was sorely puzzled appears from the fact that he gave in a "long answer." When the cistern was nearly empty not a rent appeared, but when it was full there was a "continual dropping." Despairing of finding out the mystery, he did tar the bottom of the cistern. The worthy man ultimately discovered that it was the weight of the water, when the cistern was full, that set the rent a-gaping, which of course closed when the utensil was nearly empty the cistern was at length repaired without tar, and the citizens, cisterns, and pipes were satisfied!  So much for old wells, and for some of the old frets of our forefathers. What was once cause of irritation to them, is now a source of amusement to us. We, too, shall have our turn. Our ancestors, mayhap, will be avenged of our pleasantry at their expense in the jokes cracked by a future generation on the squabbles of our own day. 

The Hardgate Draw Well near the top of the Hardgate Hill

It was constructed of granite fieldstones bonded with light brown mortar. Water was sitting in the well 1m down from the level of the road. The level of the bottom of the well was 1.7m down from the top of the stonework, although there was an unknown depth of soft silt below this level. The stones above the current water level were rusty brown in colour indicating that the water was heavily iron-rich

At the Battle of Justice Mills, the Covenanting forces under Lord Burleigh, based in Aberdeen, met the Royalist Marquis of Montrose’s troops, which included a contingent of Irish mercenary forces.

Accounts make it clear that the subsequent sacking of the town was brutal. The Battle centred around the Crabstane, which lies about 60 metres north-west of the current well site. The Battle of Crabstone, on 20 November 1571, related to a feud between the Forbes and Gordon families, also took place in this same locality not far from the edge of the town.

From a cistern in the Water-House, formed about 1766 at the mid east side of Broad Street, and fed by the Fountainhall and other streams, 187,200 gallons of water were daily obtained: but this supply proving insufficient, the police commissioners resolved in 1830 to supplement it from the Dee. A pump-house was accordingly erected near the North end of the Bridge of Dee: but its two engines, each of 50 horse-power, could daily raise through a 15-inch main no more than 1,000,000 gallons to a granite reservoir at the West end of Union Street, which, with storage capacity of 94,728 gallons, stood 40 feet higher than the street itself, and 130 higher than the pumping station. This fresh supply, too, proving quite inadequate, the commissioners next resolved, in 1862, to supersede pumping by gravitation, and to that end procured powers to abstract between 2,500,000 and 6,000,000 gallons daily from the Dee at Cairnton, 23 miles up the river, and 224 feet above the level of the sea. Similar to those of Glasgow, and rivalled in Scotland by them alone, the new Aberdeen Waterworks we planned by the late James Simpson, C.E., of London. An aqueduct from Cairnton intake passes, by tunnel, through half a mile of rock, and thence goes half a mile further to Invercanny Reservoir, in which 10,000,000 gallons can be stored, and from which the main aqueduct, 18 miles long, leads to the reservoir at Brae of Pitfodels. This, 1½ mile WSW of Union Place, and 162 feet above sea-level, can hold 6,000,000 gallons: and a high-service reservoir on Hillhead of Pitfodels (420 feet) contains about 500,000 more. Commenced in the spring of 1864, the waterworks were opened by the Queen on Oct. 16,1866: their cost, which was estimated at £103,999, had reached £161,524 in 1872. During the three months April to June 1880, the daily water consumption was 4,378,780 gallons, 4,144,000 being from the low-service, and 234,780 from the high-service reservoir: while, for the twelvemonth ending with the September following, the water account showed an income of £13,023, and an outlay of £11,426.

Invercanny Waterworks is situated on a terrace [of the River Dee] at an altitude of 60m OD, and serves to extract water from the river and to treat it before it is piped through a brick aqueduct to Aberdeen. The original Victorian intake bed remains in use.

'Pit aff i' Watter'
Despite the above engineering works some Tenements in Aberdeen were so high and lead supply pipes so restricted that the water would not reach up to the top floor. Sinks were then placed on lower landings and if the supply was turned on generously in the washhouse the water would not have the pressure to reach the uppermost storey tap.  The call would be delivered doon the stairwell or through the roof skylight window facing the wash-hoose in the 'backie' loud and firm but uttered in the local dialect - Put off the Water! - this always seemed a contradiction to me as we required it 'on'.  The first call would always be ignored then re-delivered with added venom. If this were further ignored then extra expletive words would be added to indicate the extent of one's exasperation with a suitable increase in oral volume.  Finally if all failed mither would storm down the stairs (all 6 flights) and march into the Washroom and turn off the offending running tap regardless of the immediate needs of the incumbent washerwoman  - only to return to her own sink station to hear a freshly gurgling dry tap with the water receding dutifully by gravitational defiance to its original indignantly restored course.  Neighbourliness personified.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013