As I mentioned in my previous post, we did not originally plan to spend much time in Aberdeen and did not really know much about the city or it’s history. Our intent was just to fly into Aberdeen and then quickly head out towards Inverness. Naturally, most people want to see Inverness or Edinburgh but really, how often do people list Aberdeen on their list of places of must visits for history or anything else? I will be the first to admit that we were initially quite disappointed when we had to alter our plans and eliminate Inverness from our tour. Our first depressing and foreboding thought was one of, “Well this is just great, now we’re stuck in Aberdeen for three days. What are we going to do with three days in Aberdeen?” At the time, we really had no other choice but to rather petulantly and grudgingly accept our fate and try to make the best of it. At the end of three days however, we were complaining because we did not have enough time to see everything. My personal thought as I left was of how and when I could make another visit!
The disaster that led to our longer stay in Aberdeen was actually one of fate or the powers above intervening on our behalf. It provided us an opportunity to explore, discover and appreciate a city that in my personal opinion does not get nearly enough credit for it’s historical importance or it’s present day contributions. What I want to do is share some of what we discovered and maybe change your mind about Aberdeen. Hopefully by the time I’ve finished, you will be interested and inspired to look at this city not just as a stopping or transfer point on your way to those other places, but as a destination in itself.
First, let’s look at why we even decided on Aberdeen as our starting point for our trip rather than one of the other flight options. Our original plan was to do a driving tour. We knew we wanted to visit Inverness as well as Edinburgh so when we looked at the map, we saw that Aberdeen would be a good option. It is located on the coast a few hours north of Edinburgh and also only a few hours from Inverness. The drive from Aberdeen to Inverness would take you along the Castle trail. The Aberdeenshire area of Scotland is most famous for the number of Castles located there (My main reason for wanting to back)!
This is a map showing various sites of interest close to the Aberdeen area. Yes, there are even Standing Stones nearby- I will be doing more research on them!
This map shows Aberdeen in relation to Inverness and Edinburgh. I do want to add here that because of the way our plans were altered, we were unable to fit Inverness into our schedule. It is very easily doable to take the train from Aberdeen to Inverness, then train from Inverness to Edinburgh. When I checked the train time, it states about a 2 1/2 hour trip from Aberdeen to Inverness. That is not the purpose or focus here though so I am not going to go further into it here other than to say that our experiences with the train and bus systems were great. I will definitely go that option in any future trips!
Now you understand our main reason for choosing Aberdeen as starting point and why we were looking at it as just a quick stop over. Fortunately, we were inadvertently rewarded with that unexpected longer stay to get to know Aberdeen better!
What we found in Aberdeen was a fascinating history that stretches back at least 8000 years. Besides that history, we discovered a city that is friendly and welcoming but not a kitschy, over done or over crowded tourist magnet. There is a wealth of history to be explored here but that is not it’s truest wealth, asset or value.
1969 considerable deposits of crude oil were discovered in the North Sea. Since then, North Sea Oil has come to eclipse Aberdeen’s traditional industries, employing an estimated half a million people living in and around the city. Aberdeen’s port has been improved and developed to serve the off shore oil rigs with the result that most of the fishing fleets have been moved along the shore to Peterhead. Economically this so called “European Oil Capital” has left other Scottish cities behind – indeed, by some accounts it is the wealthiest area in the UK outside the southeast of England.
Aberdeen is a Scottish success story. Any visitor to the city will be impressed by the lively bustle of its streets and the ceaseless activity in the port. The impact of the petroleum industry is undeniable, but in some senses it should not be seen as a development which entirely breaks with the past: Aberdeen has always been a successful port city and has always had an internationally minded economy. Today this University City is home to around a quarter of a million people and provides cultural diversions for all ages. For the visitor its grand granite buildings, which shimmer like polished silver, its distinctive neighborhoods, its harbour and sandy beach, provide other, more natural, attractions.
Throughout our stay, we observed that the city seems to be undergoing massive renovation and construction in just about every area from the outskirts of the airport to the city center and all points surrounding it. Do not let that deter or sway you from visiting the area! Our taxi driver pointed out that this work is all much needed and deserved by the city that has contributed so much financially to the UK and it’s about time they got something back! He took all of the construction in stride and gave us a pleasant and much amusing trip from the airport to our hotel near the city center. I have to say that everyone we encountered during our stay was friendly and helpful with suggestions and commentary about their city. One other added bonus- everything was less expensive than in Edinburgh!
As I’ve pointed out, we didn’t know much about the city so one of our first stops was the Tourist information center located near the city center. They went out of their way to help us with everything from free maps to writing notes and directions on the map for us, to giving advice and directions on using the bus system along with which bus to take to different areas. They also offer a variety of day tours to activities and sites outside the city making it very easy to many of those sites if you’re not driving. One added suggestion on the bus system that they pointed out- besides the city buses, there are buses going to many of the outlying villages and sites you might want to visit. We did not have extra time for those options but the staff will happily fill you in on how to get to certain sites- such as which bus to take, where you can catch the bus and what times they run. Because we knew so little about the city or it’s history, they suggested we start with a quick tour of the Tolbooth museum which happens to be right across the street from them. I did mention that there is a great deal of renovation and construction going on throughout the city- the Tolbooth block/building is no exception but do not let that deter you from your visit!
The Tolbooth Museum is one of Aberdeen’s oldest buildings and one of the best-preserved 17th century gaols in Scotland. It features displays on local history and the development of crime and punishment through the centuries. It provides a unique experience in the form of its atmospheric 17th and 18th century cells, original doors and barred windows. Displays include the Maiden and the blade of Aberdeen’s 17th century guillotine as well as some animated cell inhabitants. Regarding the animations-they were not scary. This is not a spooky type tour. I have heard a few people comment that they were a bit disappointed or let down as they were led to believe it would be more of a ghost, haunting or scarier type experience with more visual effects. If that is what you are looking for, this does not fit that category. It was a bit eerie and haunting but in a realistic way of getting a feeling of what it was like to be incarcerated here back then.
While the supposed main focus or purpose of the museum is it’s history as gaol or jail, it does provide an excellent introduction to the history of Aberdeen. It is a free tour and probably takes less than hour to do… we spent a bit longer in there because we had an excellent tour guide who was very informative and gave much additional insight to the overall history. The first half of the tour is about the history of Aberdeen with displays and dioramas of the earliest beginnings of the area that originally consisted of two separate villages. Once our guide realized we were very much interested in the history, he probably went into more depth on it than usual. He seemed rather excited to share the added history with us and we enjoyed all of it! During the first portion of the tour, we learned about some of the early events and people that had connections to Aberdeen. These important connections go back as far as the Picts and much of the history can be found around Aberdeen yet today. The legend of Saint Machar tells that Machar was a companion of St Columba on his journey to Iona. God (or St Columba) told Machar to establish a church where a river bends into the shape of a bishop’s crosier before flowing into the sea. The River Don bends in this way just below where the Cathedral now stands. According to legend, St Machar founded a site of worship in Old Aberdeen in about 580. He ministered to the Picts around Aberdeen. For this reason he was described anachronistically as the first Bishop of the see of Aberdeen. The church was also the site for another legend surrounding William Wallace. After the execution of William Wallace in 1305, his body was cut up and sent to different corners of the country to warn other dissenters. His left quarter ended up in Aberdeen and is buried in the walls of the cathedral.
Robert the Bruce also had a connection to Aberdeen. In 1136, David I began the development of New Aberdeen north of the River Dee, and the earliest charter was granted by King William the Lion about 1179, confirming the corporate rights granted by David I, which gave trade privileges to the burgesses. This charter is the oldest surviving charter. The city received other royal charters later. In 1319, the Great Charter of Robert the Bruce transformed Aberdeen into a property owning and financially independent community. Bruce had a high regard for the citizens of Aberdeen who had sheltered him in his days of outlawry, helped him win the Battle of Barra and slew the English garrison at Aberdeen Castle. He granted Aberdeen with the nearby Forest of Stocket. The income from this land has formed the basis for the city’s Common Good Fund, which is used to this day for the benefit of all Aberdonians.
Aberdeen is also home to King’s College, one of the oldest universities in the British Isles. In 1495, William Elphinstone, the relatively newly appointedBishop of Aberdeen, petitioned Pope Alexander VI on behalf of King James IV to create the facility to cure the ignorance he had witnessed within his parish and in the north generally. A papal bull was issued in February 1495 (1491 in the calendar of the day) founding the university; a royal charter later that year recognised Aberdeen’s status as equal to that of Scotland’s two existing universities at Glasgow and St Andrews. As a former professor at the University of Paris, Elphinstone modelled the university very much on the continental European tradition. Hector Boece, a fellow professor at Paris, was awarded the status of first principal of the new institution. It would not be until 1509, with the issuance of a charter by Elphinstone, that university life at King’s truly began. Construction of the chapel began in 1498; it was consecrated in 1509 and dedicated to St Mary. By 1514, the university had some forty-two members in the form of both staff and students.
Once you finish your tour of the Tolbooth, you can easily find monuments to William Wallace and Robert the Bruce on a walk around the city. You can take a city bus to Old Aberdeen to tour St. Machar’s Cathedral and King’s College. You can also easily take a bus to another site, the Gordon Highlanders Regimental museum which I will talk about later.
The only thing you won’t be able to find is Aberdeen Castle! The Castle was situated on Castle Hill, a site today known as the Castlegate, near the City center.
You will see the unicorn throughout Aberdeen and other places in Scotland as it is Scotland’s national animal! You will also find mercat crosses in various cities of Scotland. A mercat cross is the Scots name for the market cross found frequently in Scottish cities, towns and villages where historically the right to hold a regular market or fairwas granted by the monarch, a bishop or a baron. It therefore served a secular purpose as a symbol of authority, and was an indication of a burgh‘s relative prosperity. Historically, the term dates from the period before 1707 when Scotland was an independent kingdom, but it has been applied loosely to later structures built in the traditional architectural style of crosses or structures fulfilling the function of marking a settlement’s focal point. Historical documents often refer simply to “the cross” of whichever town or village is mentioned. Today, there are around 126 known examples of extant crosses in Scotland, though the number rises if later imitations are added.
The cross was the place around which market stalls would be arranged, and where ‘merchants’ (Scots for shopkeepers as well as wholesale traders) would gather to discuss business. It was also the spot where state and civic proclamations would be publicly read by the “bellman” (town crier). The cross was also the communal focal point of public events such as civic ceremonials, official rejoicings, and public shamings and punishments, including executions. Some crosses still incorporate the iron staples to which jougs and branks were once attached. This would be the reason for it’s close proximity to the Tolbooth, which would often hold public executions right outside their door.
Despite the name, the typical mercat cross is not usually cruciform, or at least has not been since the iconoclasm of the Scottish Reformation. The cross atop the shaft may have been replaced with a small statue, such as a royal unicorn or lion, symbols of the Scottish monarchy, or a carved stone displaying the arms of the royal burgh, or, in the cases of ecclesiastical burghs or burghs of barony, the bishop’s or feudal superior‘s coat-of-arms. Thus the reason for the Unicorn at top of Aberdeen’s mercat cross.
Five crosses: at Edinburgh, Dundee, Perth, Aberdeen and Preston (modern Prestonpans) were supported by a drum-shaped understructure, known as a cross-house, with a platform reached by internal steps or ladder. In the case of Aberdeen‘s late 17th-century cross the platform is supported by a series of open semi-circular arcades.
The castle was surrendered to the English in 1295 and on 14 April 1296, the English King, Edward I arrived in Aberdeen and stayed in the castle as part of his tour of the east coast of Scotland having defeated the Scots. However the next year, after defeating the English at Dunnottar Castle in 1297, William Wallace marched his men to Aberdeen during their campaign to retake the east-coast for the Scots.
They found the English hastily preparing to leave in an armada of one hundred ships. The speed of Wallace’s arrival from Dunottar caught the English unawares and at low tide the stranded ships were attacked in the harbour, the crew and soldiers slaughtered, the cargo taken and the ships burnt. The English Sheriff of Aberdeen, Sir Henry de Lazom had been left in charge of the Castle, but during the chaos of the attack he defected, declaring it in the name of the Scottish King, John de Balliol. This account of William Wallace’s actions and victory in Aberdeen would certainly explain or justify why the English may have sent a portion of his executed body back to Aberdeen!
It is thought the castle and fortifications were burned down by King Robert the Bruce in June 1308, during the Wars of Scottish Independence immediately following the Harrying of Buchan. Bruce and his men laid siege to the castle before massacring the English Garrison to prevent its use by the English troops of Edward II. It is said the Scots showed no mercy but “slew every man who fell into their hands. Edward I, indeed, had already set the example of executing his prisoners, and it was not to be expected that the other side would fail to follow the same course”. On 10 July 1308, English ships left Hartlepool to help the English garrison. However, by August 1308, Gilbert Pecche and the last troops had all been forced out of the city. Following the destruction of Aberdeen Castle, Bruce marched his men to capture Forfar Castle. Legend tells that the city’s motto, Bon Accord came from the password used to initiate Bruce’s final push and destruction of the castle. Bon Accord translates to Good Agreement.
In the first part of the Tolbooth’s history tour, you will find a diorama display of the earliest days of Aberdeen. At that early time, it was still two separate villages and there were three hills. The city began as two separate burghs: Old Aberdeen at the mouth of the river Don; and New Aberdeen, a fishing and trading settlement, where the Denburn waterway entered the river Dee estuary. The city was burned by Edward III of England in 1336, but was rebuilt and extended, and called New Aberdeen. The city was strongly fortified to prevent attacks by neighbouring lords, but the gates were removed by 1770.
Aberdeen was in Pictish territory and became Gaelic-speaking at some time in the medieval period. Old Aberdeen is the approximate location of Aberdon, the first settlement of Aberdeen; this literally means “the mouth of the Don”. The Celtic wordaber means “river mouth”, as in modern Welsh (Aberystwyth, Aberdare, Aberbeeg etc.). The Gaelic name is Obar Dheathain (variation: Obairreadhain) (obar presumably being a loan from the earlier Pictish; the Gaelic term is “inbhir”), and in Latin, the Romans referred to the river as Devana. Mediaeval (or ecclesiastical) Latin has it as Aberdonia. You can see a remnant of the Pictish history on a tour of St Machar’s Cathedral.
Over the centuries, the rivers were diverted at various times and two of the three original hills disappeared. Aberdeen Castle sat on Castle hill (Castlegate). This is the only remaining hill. The other two hills were Port hill where the early City Gate was, and St. Catherine’s hill which has been completely leveled. Those three hills are represented on the city’s shield of arms and on the city’s banner flag by three towers.
The second half of the Tolbooth tour went further up the stairs to the cells with history of the jail and it’s various inhabitants from some early witches, a pirate, a lot of debtors, and some Jacobites after the rebellion of 1745. As he talked about the Jacobites, our guide gave us some insight from the standpoint and perspective of ones who were not Jacobites but suffered consequences and affects of the various rebellions. His comments and thoughts gave me pause for thought and inspired me to learn more about all of the sides, the reasons and complexities of so many events taking place over the years, which combined and culminated in the last Jacobite rebellion. Most of the tour history on the cells and inhabitants dealt with the period of that last rebellion and later. If you look at Aberdeen’s earlier history and the date the prison was built, it most likely played a part in the rebellions and civil wars during the 1600s.
The Tolbooth was built between 1616 and 1629 by Thomas Watson, a master mason from Old Rayne. The Wardhouse of the Tolbooth was the prison for both the Royal Burgh of Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire until the 19th century.
Over the centuries The Tolbooth has witnessed, and often played a part in, some of the key events in Aberdeen’s and Scotland’s history. During the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, when the Duke of Cumberland stayed in Aberdeen in order to put down the rebellion here before leaving for Culloden, he posted troops on the steeple of The Tolbooth to watch out for rebels and very visibly display the reasserting of royal authority. After the rebels had been defeated at Culloden hundreds of rebel prisoners were brought back to The Tolbooth where they were interrogated. In the mid-18th century The Tolbooth was one of the many places associated with one of the darkest episodes of Aberdeen’s history. A number of Aberdeen’s merchants and magistrates organised the kidnapping of hundreds of children from both the town and countryside. These children were then stored in various places, including The Tolbooth, before being transported to the Americas and sold as indentured servants.
Regarding the Tolbooth’s involvement in that darker part of Aberdeen history- the child slavery mentioned above, the Tolbooth museum was more recently involved in opening the curtains of that shrouded more secret history. On 11-06-07 the city of Aberdeen pulled back the curtain on a dark part of the cities history. At the Tolbooth Museum “Open to the Public” they had re-enactments of a very dark part of Aberdeen’s past history and helped to tell the stories of those children. You can read the story of one of those abducted children here:
The Tale of Peter Williamson http://unknownscottishhistory.com/articleseventeen.php
The Tolbooth stopped being used as a prison in the 19th century and was replaced by Aberdeen’s first ‘modern’ prison, the Bridewell, built on what we now call Rose Street. The Tolbooth remained in use during the time the Bridewell was opened and after, when the Bridewell was replaced by the East Prison on Lodge Walk, as a holding prison. The Tolbooth survived when the new Townhouse was laid out. The front of The Tolbooth was encased in granite, but the rear of the building still shows its original sandstone with its 17th century battlements.
For anyone interested in history, this museum is an excellent introduction to the history of Aberdeen. It was my first stop on the way to learning about Aberdeen’s long, turbulent past and how it fit in with the rest of the many events that shaped and forged what Scotland has become today. My only caution to those visiting the museum- it is not suitable for anyone with mobility difficulties as the only way to reach the museum is by way of very narrow medieval type spiral type steps up to the different levels. Because of the building, there is no way to provide any assistance or other option to reach the upper levels- my meaning in this- there is no way for them to say install a lift or elevator. It is also probably not suitable or appropriate for young children who would not really understand much of the history presented.
You can plan your visit to the Tolbooth for early in the morning and then head out to all of the other sites of interest within the city. After our visit to the Tolbooth, we went to the Maritime museum which was fairly short walk from city center. This museum gives you a great history of Aberdeen’s long connection to the sea as a port city from it’s earliest beginnings to it’s present day importance in the oil industry. There are a number of hands on activities for children and it also currently has a toy history exhibit which everyone will find interesting and fun!
After the Maritime museum, we went back up to city center and embarked on a self guided walking tour of the city. The maps provided by the tourism office were excellent and we found it easy to find our way around the city. We stopped at St Nicholas Kirk which is easy to spot due the Arches. It is close to city center and you really can’t miss it!
We continued our walking tour and eventually found the William Wallace monument. It was a long walk but we had a beautiful day for it and the city was full of sites and scenery to view.
Later in the afternoon, we returned to city center and headed out in the opposite direction with a trek down to the harbor, the old fishing village neighborhood of Footdee or Fittie. The guidebooks and tourist info are a little misleading about this area… it is not a living history village but is an actual residential neighborhood with it’s buildings still being those old stone cottages from the days of the original fishing village. It was a nice walk down to the harbor and beach though. You can walk along the seawall walk behind the cottages towards the beach area.
On our walk back up from the beach we found a great little pub called Fittiebar. You won’t find this pub/bar on the tour guides. It is not one of those trendy touristy type places, it is in the working neighborhood of the docks. There is nothing fancy about it. It is a casual comfortable working class place to grab a pint, a plate, relax and probably enjoy the company of regulars and friends. The menu is on the board listing the specials for the day, though the Bartender/server did laugh and mention that one of these days they get posh and order some real menus… My personal advice- don’t change a thing! Possibly the best part of the experience was seeing her mix up the batter for our fish with an addition of beer from the tap!
That was our first day in Aberdeen! In my next post, I will share more of our stay in Aberdeen along with more of it’s history. This awesome Granite city so full of interesting history that I am intrigued and fascinated with all of it! As I mentioned in the beginning, everyone is so interested in the other cities and places such as the Highlands and Edinburgh that Aberdeen and the area around it does not get the attention it deserves! I look forward to returning and exploring more of it.