In this blog from the Annals of Aberdeen*, I’m going back to the very start of that document to discover about the city’s very earliest days, where I found out how the thread of history that runs through the centuries is still evident in buildings and places in the modern city today and, in the process, learned a lot of information about the city of which I had previously been unaware.
Although the site was settled by hunter-gatherers around 6000 BC, and the Romans were also here in the first century AD, present-day Aberdeen was originally the parish of St Nicholas, but the actual date of its founding “being very remote cannot be ascertained.” There is evidence of a church in what we now know as Old Aberdeen from around 580, reputedly founded by St Machar. Legend tells how God (or St Columba) told Machar to establish a church where a river bends into the shape of a bishop’s crosier before flowing to the sea. The river Don does indeed bend in just such a fashion just below where the cathedral stands today.
You have to have a far greater knowledge of ecclesiastical history than I do to understand some of the language used in the Annals. For example, they tell us that, “The vicar of St Nicholas was generally the sixth prebendary of the cathedral; but it appears, from the cartulary of the church, that, on some occasions, a prebendary of another cathedral had been preferred to that dignity: for we find, in the year 1519, that John Dingwall, prothonotary and archdeacon of Caithness, filled the office of vicar of Aberdeen.”** Of course, we still have the historic Kirk of St Nicholas in the city centre. There is a papal document from 1151 that refers to a church on this site and the reason that St Nicholas was chosen is that the city’s proximity to the sailor in a storm.
The first vicar of Aberdeen is the man who we have to thank for what is now the oldest building in the city. His name was John de Kyngorne and he “fixed his principal residence at Kirktown of Seaton, in the parish of Saint Machar, about a mile distant from Aberdeen, where there was a small church dedicated to St Macarius, (Machar) and where he erected a lodging, afterwards dignified with the name of the bishop’s palace. One of his successors, of the same name, commenced the erection of a cathedral only about the year 1357, on the site of the old church, which was demolished. Hence this place, having become the seat of the bishop, was distinguished as the city of Aberdeen and, in subsequently ages, was known by the name Old Aberdeen.”
St Machar’s Cathedral still stands, with some of its stones dating back to the thirteenth century, but one of the (many) things I didn’t know until I researched this, was that when William Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered, one of his ‘quarters’ was sent to Aberdeen and it’s now (or at least his left arm) reputedly buried in one of the walls of the Cathedral.
Julie Skinner, Resourcing and Benefits Specialist, RGU
* a historical record of the city from late 13th to early 19th centuries, available online if you wish to explore it further.
** For your information (and mine, because I had to look it up) a ‘prebendary’ is an ecclesiastic attached to a cathedral, a cartulary is a collection or list of documents and a prothonotary is simply a principal clerk.