Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Mystery of Downie's Death

On Tillydrone Avenue there is a rubble-built sandstone obelisk, it's just in front of the Wallace Tower at the edge of Seaton Park.  Last year the council finally got its backside in gear and cleared away the overgrowth of trees and foliage to redisplay this monument, they even cleaned it, turning the area back into a visitor attraction rather than a junkies' drug den!  But never mind that...

The monument has a plaque at its base which proclaims that it is popularly associated with the story of Downie the Sacrist, had previously stood in a garden in the old Berryden estate and was moved to its present position in 1926 - meaning it had been there long before Dr Simpson, the local historian saved Benholm's Lodging (to give the Wallace Tower its real name) from destruction in 1963/4 and had it moved from Netherkirkgate.

The intriguing motto on the stone further confuses matters:
I cannot tell how the truth may be, I say the tale as 't'was said to me
So, who was Downie the Sacrist and why does he have a strange monument associated with him?

Firstly, a sacrist or 'sacristan' was a minor church official whose job it was to look after the communion utensils, ring the bells for services, dig graves and generally maintain the fabric of the building.  Kings College, Aberdeen University had sacrists from its foundation by Bishop William Elphinstone in 1495, their duties extending to ensure the students got their rising and curfew bells - you were expected to be up at 5am as a 15th century student, go to your first church service of the day, all before breakfast, and 4am in the summer!

A Sketch of Kings College before the 1825 remodelling took place 

The sacrist would have unlocked the doors of the college in the morning, allowing non-resident staff to enter.  Students had dormitories within the college and had an extremely regimented life, and considering boys who came to university in those days were as young as 14, it is no surprise to discover that they rebelled against such stringent discipline!

Stan and Ray - university sacrists (image copyright, University of Aberdeen)

Today's sacrists, Stan and Raymond, are fine lads who don't have to dig graves and don't have to get up at stupid o'clock, but officiate at graduations and other official ceremonies throughout the university calendar.  They are employed by the university estates team.

However, George Downie was one of those early sacrists, probably from the late 18th century, when the library was moved to the nave of the Chapel - that is on the left side of the quad when you enter from the front of Kings College - in 1776.  He had a reputation for being officious and a sneak, no student could misbehave on Downie's watch!  It got to the point where some of the older boys decide to play a trick on Downie in revenge for his spoiling of their fun.

It was a night when the masters and professors were invited to a grand dinner in the New Town, and only Downie was on duty.  The students jumped him, putting a blanket over his head, and dragging him into the library.  When the blanket was removed from his head, Downie was horrified to discover that the library had been set up like a court room, and the boys present were all dressed in their academic robes and masked to hide their identities.  He was informed he would be tried for his 'crimes' against the student body, and so began a litany of complaints from the witnesses as to how Downie had annoyed them over the years.  The 'judge' finally declared that the sentence of the court was death.  Downie shrieked and protested that the joke had gone far enough and would they please let him go and he would not tell the masters what they had done.  But to no avail, the 'court' would not be moved.  Enter the 'executioner', cloaked and hooded, carrying a large hatchet not unlike the old axe that 'John Justice' the town executioner carried.

Downie was forced to kneel before an empty basket and informed that on the stroke of midnight, the sentence of the court would be carried out.  Downie shook with fear and begged them to stop, but as the chimes of the clock in the Town House at the top of High Street rang out, the axe man stepped forward to Downie's side.  'May God have mercy on your soul', he intoned as he lifted the blade.  WHACK! The axe fell.

But it wasn't the blade that hit the old man's neck, rather a wet cloth which another student quickly supplied as part of the prank.

They weren't prepared for Downie's reaction - he collapsed.  They could not rouse him, and realised that the shock had been too much, he had died of fright.  The students scattered.  The ring leaders returned the furniture to its place and hauled the unfortunate sacrist's body out of the college, using his keys to unlock the gates.  They buried the body just outside the wall of St Machar Cathedral where a large mason's mark of a star in a circle in the stonework made a handy reference point for the shallow grave.

Next day, Downie's wife came to see the principal, exclaiming that her husband had not come home that morning, and wanted to know what had happened to him.  The search which went on for several days but proved fruitless.  The student body was called together and the principal demanded to know the cause of Downie's disappearance.  Of course, no-one spoke, mindful of the 11th commandment 'thou shalt not grass'.  The only punishment that the principal could issue was something to show that the students were under disgrace.  He ordered for their academic gowns to be shortened from calf-length to knee-length, as a visible sign they had done wrong.  Since that time until the days passed when students had to buy their gowns from the local college clothiers, everyone knew that the students of Kings College had different gowns to those of other universities.

That's the story, but how did it come about?  A bit of evidence-gathering is now required.

According to the university's records there never was a George Downie or Dauney employed as a sacrist at any time.

The story seems to have been attributed to student Robert Mudie of Monymusk around 1825.  Why did Robert start this outlandish tale of accidental death?

  1. His father had been a sexton at St. Machar's Cathedral, and may have been the source of the burial part of the tale, with the mason's mark in the wall, which still exists to this day.
  2. His grandfather had worked as a sacrist at Kings College.  Perhaps he had heard the story or invented it as a scare story to spook younger employees?
There is more evidence in the 'cairn' or monument's original location at Berryden.  The estate, once known as Berryhill was owned by Alexander Leslie, chemist to trade, in the 1780s, he was also the heir of the Leslies of Powis, his ancestors had been responsible for the building of Powis House near Kings College in 1697, and his descendant John Leslie would build the Powis Towers at the gate house in the 1820s.  Alexander's friend, John Ewen, was a bit of an eccentric, he was a writer of folk songs, and The Boatie Rows is attributed to him.  He also liked follies - structures that were just for show, sometimes aping Grecian temples or medieval towers - and G.M. Fraser, the Aberdeen City Librarian noted that he had built three follies in Berryden (where Sainsbury's is today) with Leslie's permission.
  1. A stone grotto, inside which the walls were decorated with Copernicus' theories of astronomy
  2. A stone 'crown' or double arch
  3. A 9ft rubble cairn which stood inside the arch
The last 'folly' is Downie's Cairn!  Long before it had any inscription, here it stood in the gardens of the Leslies of Powis.

Also, at the same time the same group of intellectuals I mentioned in an earlier post, were responsible for the Castle Spectre, that magazine full of poems, stories and sketches.  Could it be that John Ewen contributed the story to the magazine to the delight of the spookily-minded residents of the Galleries?  Ewen's folly predates the original play which the Forbes' family used as inspiration for their magazine, but who is to say that they did not hear the legend and include it, or that Ewen sent them it, attaching his monument to the tale, a few decades after it was built.

The monument has clearly lost some height in its move to Tillydrone, and who put the inscription there? And who was the source of the motto? The words have been attributed to Mudie, but where did he get them from?  If indeed Mudie is responsible, even he may have been able to find the story in an old copy of the Spectre and told his grandfather who spread it around the university staff, that motto appearing in the text or indeed, sounding very much like an old storyteller's codicil as to the veracity of his words - so indeed we finish on that - I cannot tell how the truth may be, I say the tale as 't'was said to me... 


  1. Around the university there are signs saying things like "No food or drinks can be taken into this classroom. Sacrist." I worked out the Sacrist must be some sort of jannie but never knew exactly where the name came from. Thank you!

  2. The Catholic church still has sacristans. They can be quite a nuisance to other worshippers, if they're not kept in their place.