Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Inspecting the Castle Spectre

No's 4-5 Mackie Place  c. 1880s - image copyright, Ron Winram

No's 4-5 Mackie Place 2011 - image copyright FJB

Mackie Place, you ask, far's that?  An anonymous little cul-de-sac off Skene Street which got its name from hide-skinner Robert Mackie, who owned the land and rented it out during the late 1700s, making him a 'bunnet laird', i.e. a minor landlord.  He was friends with John Jack, manufacturer who owned the land which was named Jack's Brae and Hardweird.

Mackie Place is odd though, if not for its eccentric architecture, then for its bohemian former residents!

Maybe it was because the Denburn flowed freely through the area that they believed they were a little enclave of free thinkers, but the folk who lived in 'The Galleries', no. 6, Mackie Place, which is now no more, certainly liked to have fun both intellectually and and childishly.

The White House - Mackie Place

G.M. Fraser in his Aberdeen Place Names suggests that 'Galleries' is the corruption of the Gaelic for 'the hollow of the flowing water' which indeed it is, and since the Celts more often than not named places for their topographic description, it is very likely this is true.  Enter the Forbes family (probably pronounced 'For-bez'), a gang of clever, but eccentric, and probably Romantic Edwardians who lived in the Galleries.  They had their own printing press called The Mackie Place Company, which produced a monthly periodical for twelve years called The Castle Spectre.

Why this name? One, the Forbes' house was harled, thus it shone white in sun and moon light, and perhaps gave rise to the name of another neighbouring street 'Whitehouse Street' as it was so prominent at the time, and was rumoured to be haunted.  Standing five storeys tall with its curious 'ogee' or 's' shaped gable, which is reflected in the smaller building which are the remaining properties no.'s 4 and 5 Mackie Place, it's no wonder local residents thought it a tad spooky!

Two - 18th century Gothic novelist, Matthew Lewis had written a play called The Castle Spectre in 1796.  Although more famous for his horror novel The Monk, the play wasn't well-received.  Literary Gothic, which includes the likes of Frankenstein and Dracula was like marmite, you either loved it or hated it!  The Spectre in question is the ghost of the castle heiress's murdered mother - the girl, Lady Angela, is being held captive and forced into marrying her uncle (no concern about incest then?), while her boyfriend, Sir Osmond is trying to attack the castle and free her, meanwhile, the ghostly mother is hanging about trying to protect her daughter.  Fantastically melodramatic plot!  No wonder Jane Austen thought she'd have a go at a pastiche of the Gothic style in her spoof novel Northanger Abbey.

The Forbes family would probably have been fans of Mr 'Monk' Lewis, as the stories, poems and epigrams were perhaps of that romanticised, we might say mawkish type.  If you want to check, G. M. Fraser, who was the city librarian, mentions that the collected volume of the Spectre is in the Central Library archives!!

The family and their literary friends, many quite young children, would enjoy themselves on dark nights by dressing in sheets, sticking scary-faced neep lanterns with candles therein along the walls and in the hedges, and generally jumping oot at passers by with loud whoops and wails like the chorus of the damned.  They were only keeping up the reputation of the White House after all.  The Forbes' obviously were tenants of Robert Mackie as Ron Winram mentions in Walkin the Mat that the town watchman daurna gaun further than the foot of Jack's Brae on nightly duties - the 'Night Watch' was the beginning of Aberdeen City's police force and began in 1818, helping us to date the activities of the inhabitants of The Galleries.

To get back to the houses - both the Galleries and no.'s 4-5 were built after 1760, and apparently bore a strong similarity with Raeden House which used to stand near Westburn Road (before the road was built and it was Midstocket!).  There were no houses round about in those days - Skene Place wasn't built, either was Esslemont Avenue, you were practically in the countryside if you lived there, and once the Bridewell or West Prison was built in nearby Rose Street, it wasn't somewhere to be wandering at night for fear of escapees!  The peaceful wee hideyhole on the Denburn would still have been a haven of luxury for the literary set of the White House.

So if you go walking along towards the Grammar School, pass in front of Skene Place, the large block of 19th century tenements, and look for the little stone dyke, turn down and cross the bridge into a time warp of the days when the Prince Regent was running Britain, the mad old King George was at his last, and a set of intellectuals could find their verses quite happily received by others lovers of poetry and prose.

I finish with a verse from Miss Forbes, the daughter of the family:

 Beneath two giant willows that stand before our door
 The Denburn runs so sweetly with its green and silvery shore
 But sometimes it is flooded and then then torrent's roar
 Is like the sound near Buffaloe where hearing is no more
 When down comes sticks and turnips and tumbles down the wall
 Oh! what a hurry scurry when you think the bridge will fall!

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