Saturday, 2 July 2011

Bridge over troubled waters...

The Bow Brig
“Official receptions and farewells to important visitors to the town from the south were made here, because then, Union Street and Holburn Street didn’t exist, this thoroughfare which linked up with Hardgate, continued on over the Denburn, by way of the old Bow Brig, into the Green.  This route was truncated in 1850, for the Denburn Valley railway.” Andrew Cluer “Walkin the Mat” (Aberdeen, Lantern Books, 1980)

“This once important landmark formed the link over the Denburn between Windmill Brae and the Green and was thus the main entry to the early burgh.” Edward Meldrum Aberdeen of Old” (Aberdeen, ANEFHS, 1986)

These quotes kick off the story of an ancient route from the Cairn O’Mount, high in the hills above the Mearns, down to the river Dee, Deva or Devanah, the Romans called it — the Celtic goddess might have been in their minds, but their ignorance of the language caused them to attribute it directly to the river itself — and then over the Ruthrieston or Pack Horse briggie, so called due to its absence of parapets which might have impeded the beasts of burden and their loads, starting on the Hardgate – Hardgait that is, meaning a flat-surfaced way – and down to the city’s medieval heart, the Green.  Before 1810 there is no Union Street, no Holburn Street, the Hardgate is the ONLY route into the Green.  Aberdeen is also built on the east bank of the Denburn river; the only ways across are a number of wooden fords for pedestrians, and a fine stone bridge for those on horseback or driving carts.

Known as the Bow Brig from antiquity, the stone crossing dates rather late in the medieval era, the first being 1556, followed by repairs in 1586.  Andrew Jameson, Master Mason and father of one of Scotland’s earliest portrait painters, George Jameson, was responsible for a grand two arched bridge in 1609, the very one we see on Parson Gordon’s map, still in existence in 1661.


The Denburn river itself, originating in a farm outside Kingswells, was a glacial meltwater, and may even have started in Brimmond Hill, as it powered through Denseat, Rubislaw, Gilcomston, then made a sharp right hand turn down the Denburn Valley to the sea.  In spate even today it is a spectacular sight if you catch it through the garden of the Grammar School, or under the little bridge at Mackie Place, so long before it was culverted, it would easily have caused damage to anything in its path.  

Denburn through Mackie Place - just a trickle in summer

So Jameson’s bridge was washed away the year of Culloden.  The city had felt the wrath of both Jacobite and Hanoverian, but now no more, Scotland’s Protestant future had been assured by the defeat of the Bonnie Prince and his supporters in 1746.

The replacement came from one of the earliest mentioned city architects, John Jeans, who designed the new single arch Bow Brig the following year.  

1789 Map of Aberdeen showing Jeans' bridge connecting Windmill Brae to the Green

Jeans’ bridge fared well, being in existence come hell or high water until the end of the 19th century.  Famous missionary, Mary Slessor, who was brought up on Mutton Brae, a lost street which lead past Triple Kirks and down to the Denburn, recalled washing still being cut down from the bleach greens on the river’s ‘fast’ days, but not so Jeans’ granite edifice.

Bow Brig still happily in existence in 1867

It was forcibly removed to accommodate the new railway in the Denburn Valley.  From the data available, it would appear that Jeans’ bridge was extended and strengthened with iron girders, much like Union Bridge was when the shops were built in the 1960s, but was then replaced by the ‘Puffin’ Briggie’, an iron rail footbridge in 1910.  The iron bridge remains in living memory of many Aberdonians as it lasted until 1982 and the building of the Trinity Centre.  Children used to yell ‘The brig’s on fire!’ as the steam trains passed underneath and blasted those on it with a cloud of soot and stour.  

1911 Map showing the Puffin' Briggie when new

The iron footbridge in the 1970s still serving the old 'Kings Highway' well

Now we come to the present – the Bow Brig’s line is still traceable through the Trinity Centre car park – 



even the remains of the 18th century bridge’s stone entry piers are still visible on the Windmill Brae side!  

But after 5pm Mon-Sun and after 8pm on Thursdays for late-night shopping, the gate is firmly LOCKED, keeping ‘undesirables’ out of car park, but at the same time, blocking the ancient right of way which dignitaries of the past would have used to enter the medieval city.

Why should we be dictated to by a shopping centre management committee?  The Trinity Centre is a real ugly carbuncle from the back and blocks the once uninterrupted view of the Denburn Valley continuing down to the Joint Station.  Did we ever ask for shops on Union Bridge? Whose idea was it to ruin that nice structure too? No longer can we see the stone, encased as it is in iron and steel, unless we climb onto railway property from Union Terrace Gardens and walk down under the bridge itself!  Come on, that’s cultural vandalism! 

Never forget the Bow Brig – or the Denburn, the vital signs of our history.  I’m hoping the Scottish Rights of Way Society will have something constructive to tell me on this issue very soon.  Keep you posted.  Meanwhile, a few stanzas from a poem called The Auld Bow Brig, possibly written by Davie Duncan, as it appeared in Cluer’s 1980 publication Walkin’ the Mat, a must for any serious local amateur historian.

When manhood approached them, they a’ slipped awa —
Some gaed to the sea, some the plough for to ca’;
Ithers went to Australia, their fortunes to dig,
And forsook a’ their pranks at the auld Bow Brig.

The toon cooncillors came, when the loons were frae hame,
Tore doon the auld brig (oh! Mair to their shame);
Had the loons been there, faith, ‘the man wi’ the wig’
Durstnae touched but ae stane o the auld Bow Brig.

But it’s jist whit they dae wi’ the puir workin’ man —
Och, they tear him to pieces as soon as they can;
But stap them th’gither, wi’ their bellies sae big,
They could raise nae sic biggin as the auld Bow Brig

Picture credits; FJB (images inside Trinity Centre car park & Denburn in Mackie Place); National Library of Scotland Map Collection (Map extracts) and RAILSCOT fan site (Puffin' Briggie) - do not reproduce without permission!!

1 comment:

  1. thanks for all the information, very interesting!

    ReplyDelete