Monday, 13 June 2011

Built on Seven Hills

starring Andy Rudgley - photo by Angela Matthew

... Rome was, so was Edinburgh, and indeed, our own Granite City was... sort of.

Aberdeen's origins stretch back into the post-Ice Age era when the hunter-gatherer peoples chased the deer, wild boar and wild cow (breed called an Auroch) around the hill which would later be known as 'Gillecoaim's Toun'.  So from 8000 BC to early medieval times, approx 12th century, there were people living in the Gilcomston area, so you have the first hill - GILCOMSTON MOTTE for want of a better name, its own epithet lost in the mists of time.

Gillecoaim was a Celtic-speaking chieftain (P-Celtic, closer to Welsh than Gaelic) who bore witness to the charter given by King David I of Scotland to the monks of Deer Monastery in Aberdeenshire, which was dated 1152.  He and his neighbour Ruaraidh, who was the local 'mormaer' or sheriff of Mar, both signed their consent to the king's charter written in Latin.  Ruaraidh is recalled in 'Ruthrieston' today.

David's great-grandson, Alexander II who was king from 1214-49, granted his royal dwelling near what had been Gillecoaim's 'motte' (the word for a mound or mount - hence we have Mount Street which recalled the hill and its fort which he would have inhabited) to the Dominican Friars.  That property was on ST. JOHN'S HILL - better known to us as WOOLMANHILL, because the wool merchants and sheep farmers did their dealings there.  St John's Hill probably marked the edge of St John's Croft, the arable property belonging to the Knights Templar who lived in Castlegate (Hill number 2 and counting!).

The Dominicans were popular because they were known as educators, or 'the teaching friars'.  They set up a sang school to teach their local choristers to sing, and also have a basic knowledge of reading and writing so they could read the music and words!  This school was later named a grammar school after the Reformation of 1560, which provided education for local boys - this stood at the front of where Robert Gordon's College stands today on SCHOOLHILL (Hill number 3).

Dominating the later medieval landscape of Aberdeen was ST KATHERINE'S HILL, where the Constable of Aberdeen Castle, John Kennedy of Kermuck endowed the Order of St Katherine of Siena, a nunnery and chapel in 1242.  The hill was heavily populated right through until modern times (that was Hill 4).

The Castle, which Alexander III had built, the son of Alexander II, from approximately 1249, was also constructed on a hill, CASTLEHILL, funnily enough!  It may have been called Watchtower or Watchman's hill previous to the building of this first stone castle, as there is mention of towers where locals could watch for Viking attacks from the sea (Hill 5).

Behind the Castlehill was the HEADING HILL - where traitors where beheaded using a nasty local invention called 'The Maiden', a form of guillotine.  Witches were burned, thieves were strangled and miscreants done to death in the valley between the two hills. (That's the top bit of Virginia Street if you're wondering - which carries the dual carriageway down to the harbour)  If you were lucky, you might just be hanged on the GALLOWHILL which is near Trinity Cemetery today. (Hills 6 and 7)

When Union Street was built from 1800 onwards, these hills had to be levelled off at various points to carry the piers which would in turn carry the road, much like a suspension bridge does.  It's much less obvious now that our city was built on seven hills, but as you can see, all of the areas I've mentioned have housing, business properties or roads on them today.  St Katherine's Hill is probably the saddest loss as the gentle slope up Shiprow hardly gives an idea of its height - Market Street might better help you imagine it tower over the Mither Kirk of St Nicholas!

Oh, there were another two hills - WINDMILL HILL which was at the upper side of Windmill Brae where a working mill stood from the late 1600s until the late 1800s, and Crown Terrace Baptist Church stands on the site today and PORTHILL which was where the Gallowgate Port or Gate stood... so we've even got two more hills than the great monolith that was Rome!

So - here we are again, with dates:
  2. (South Mount Street - dates from at least 12th century)
  3. WOOLMANHILL/ ST. JOHN'S HILL (Woolmanhill, Skene Square - dates from at least the Neolithic period 4000BC onwards)
  4. SCHOOLHILL (Schoolhill, Blackfriars' Street - from 13th century)
  5. ST. KATHERINE'S HILL (Adelphi - from 13th century)
  6. CASTLEHILL (Castlehill - from 12th century)
  7. HEADING HILL (Hanover Street - from 12th century)
and our three candidates for no. 7:

  • GALLOWHILL (Park Street - from 15th century to 18th) However, the Gallows was outside the city boundary, so perhaps it doesn't count for the medieval one) 
  • PORTHILL (Gallowgate/ Seamount Court/ Porthill Flats - 15th century until present) Definitely INside city boundary.
  • WINDMILL HILL (Windmill Lane/ Crown Terrace - as a mill 17th - 19th century) Land probably belonged to the monastery after it belonged to the Royal family)

Porthill is thus probably best to be described as hill number 7 being inside the medieval boundary and marking the way to the gallows.


  1. QI indeed. I'll look forward to more similar posts ... What about the Coney Hill at the beach? Was that outwith the city? And what was Aberdeen's relationship with Old Aberdeen in medieval times?

  2. Cheers, Pablo, I will see what else I can do and add your comments to my ever-growing list of topics. 'Coney' or 'Cunningar Hill' was either the Broad Hill or the one that the City Hospital was built on. Let me recommend 'Walkin' the Mat' by Ron Winram, who added many wee anecdotes to this photographic record. As for Old Aberdeen, you'll have to come on the tour sometime!

  3. There are also Tullos and Torry hills! basically this wis a hilly place!!

  4. Awesome! Any info on Kingswells?

  5. Not sure about Kingswells, other than its the source of the Denburn. I will see!

  6. Very interesting. Quick question. How do we know Gillecoaim was P-Celtic speaking and not Q-Celtic speaking? He has a Gaelic name. I would have thought that the more powerful folk in the 12th century north east would have spoken Gaelic in much the same way as, today, the Scots of the north east is being diluted by SSE, from the more affluent groups in society downwards. That is certainly my experience anyway. Great blog.

  7. Hiya - having done a few Celtic courses, I have always believed that the more prominent tongue in the east of Scotland was the p-Celtic, hence the placenames 'Aber' 'Pit' and 'Carden', but you're probably right that Q-Celtic, i.e. Irish, had taken precedence by then. I just wonder though, since our 'Scots' is so different to the tongue elsewhere, that the Gaelic spoken is different too? Certainly the Gaelic that is in the Book of Deer which records the monks' land grants from the chiefs was called 'Aberdeenshire Gaelic' - Dr Seumas Grannd is researching this at the moment, and found even up to the 19th century, Gaelic speakers in the east of Scotland showed strong influence from Scots and the older tongue (P-Celtic) which is similar to Welsh. Of course, no-one can prove what the Neolithic folk spoke! Thanks for your kind comments though!