Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Ghosts of Castle Street #1: The Lost Street

As promised, a spooky tale to rival Downie's ghost!

If you had stood at the junction of Marischal and Castle Streets in the 1530s, you would not have been able to proceed to the harbour, as Marischal Street did not exist!  George Keith, 5th Earl Marischal and founder of Marischal College was busy sizing up the plot next to Pitfodels' Lodging for his new townhouse.  The Lairds of Pitfodels were the Menzies family, a very prominent and influential clan from the 15th century up to the Jacobite Rebellion and after.  One Gilbert Menzies is buried in the Snow Kirkyard just off College Bounds in Old Aberdeen which was disparagingly known as the Papists' Burial Ground after the Reformation.  The Menzies were Roman Catholic, and their old home at Blairs near Maryculter became a Catholic seminary which lasted until the 1980s.

Pitfodels Lodging in Castle Street was one of the earliest stone dwellinghouses in the Aberdeen of the Middle Ages.  According to Edward Meldrum (Aberdeen trained architect, historian and all-round quite interesting fellow), it was William Jameson, master mason, the granddad of our favourite portrait painter, George Jameson - who rescued the Spa Well in an earlier post - who built a stone townhouse for the Menzies in 1535 to replace a wooden one burned down five years' previously.  It had a long back garden, like many of its neighbouring houses, stretching down to the quay.  Later, the Jacobite John Menzies had a back 'hoose' extension added in 1740.  The 'court' which was accessed from the archway or close on Castle Street was called Victoria Court by the 1860s and still exists today.

All trace of the Menzies' townhouse has gone today and was replaced in 1801 by the Union Bank.  Remodelled again in the twentieth century after almost two hundred years as a bank, it is now the Court Annexe, formed to relieve some of the pressure on the Sheriff Court across the road.  However, those who worked in the bank soon discovered that the former occupants may not have entirely quit the building.

Reading Graeme Milne's fascinating collection of ghostly experiences, The Haunted North, I soon discovered that in the depths of the bank - where Pitfodels Lodging had stood - and another mysterious building Milne mentions was a bank also, contained a lost street which generated some disturbing experiences!

Milne's interviewees described a 'road' in the basement of the bank, an old stone walkway of cassies which appeared to lead downwards to the quay.  Beside this 'road' were several 'cells' with big wooden doors inset with barred windows.  Milne himself had a fearful experience having found another part of the 'road' under a building off Victoria Court - I think this was the 1740 'back hoose' built by John Adam, though Milne doesn't say that.  I quote here from The Haunted North, Milne is talking about being in the basement where this road was found along with a council factor:
"I became aware of a shadow detaching itself from the dark.  Nick with his back to it remained unaware while I stared in fright over his shoulder ... the shadow in possession of  both arms and legs moved swiftly towards us and I inwardly cringed, screwing up my eyes as if in anticipation of a blow.  The blow never came and when I opened my eyes a second later, the figure had gone..."
Milne was never able to determine what the entity had been, or the identity of the 'road', so this being a sterling QI-type fact, I decided to look further into it.

Aberdeen's earliest map is that of 1661, drawn up by Parson James Gordon of Rothiemay.  Pitfodels' Lodging was marked as no. 7 on the map, and a close look shows it was a tall building as described.  The long 'backlands' stretch downwards on the slope bounded by Shore Brae to the west and Futty Wynd to the east (sans Marischal Street at this point).  Gordon has illustrated the gardens in green and drawn trees to represent the contents, however, there is nothing to say there was not an earlier path in centuries before - Castlegate did not become the favoured site of population in Aberdeen until the 14th century, most of the action taking place in the Green on the banks of the Denburn from the days of King William's palace there in the 12th century.

Parson Gordon's Map of Aberdeen 1661 - from NLS Maps website

Speculating further, one of the poor bank employees who had been rooted to the spot in terror on the old 'road' in the bank's basement, had been teased by her colleagues that this was the road to the gallows in front of the Townhouse, or from the Tolbooth to prison ships bound for Australia.  Both of these are spurious because the sites of execution before the Castlegate where on the Heading and Gallow Hills.  Gallowshill, an anonymous grassy mound next to the Trinity Cemetery lodge, was in use until 1776, so there was no need for a road down to the harbour at all.  Condemned criminals were transported from the Tolbooth (in Castlegate in one form or another from 1394) either to the gallows via the Gallowgate of course, or through the Justice Port to the heading hill, now where the old Hanover Street School stands.

Earlier places of punishment seem to be situated around the early tolbooth, down at Regent Quay from 1191; a ducking stool is recorded for punishing "gossips" and "scolds" (nagging wifies!), but why require a road up to the town? Possibly it was just a transport road for taking goods up from ships, however, they could have easily come up Shore Brae and the Shiprow.  The back yard of either the Earl Marischal's house or Pitfodels' Lodging is where the 'maiden' or guillotine was kept when not in use, and then wheeled up to Heading Hill by those assigned to do so.  Maybe this is the purpose of the road?  If so, it would make some sense of malevolent spirits being there!

Alexander Milne - Map of Aberdeen c. 1789

Looking at the later map when John Menzies' new extension is built we can see a long sliver of space which may be this cobbled lane.  I would like to think so!  The house was meant to be three stories tall, so either the building of Marischal Street (1767) resulted in alot of these backlands being built over, which resulted in the cobbled street ending up in the basement of the bank in 1801, or Victoria Court was built over and raised up by the 1860s.  There is no way of telling unless someone goes and digs up the new holding cells in the court annexe basement!  I wonder if they did, could a geophysical survey instrument pick up the 'road' and its route?

My conclusion, a cobbled street sounds like something from the later 18th century, especially if they are granite 'setts' or cassies, as commercial granite workings don't date much before that.  So when Pitfodels Lodging was originally built in 1535, there may have been a courtyard of sandstone.  The 1740 extension must have built on top of that, and it is a sandstone causeway on which the 'maiden' was wheeled that appears in the 19th century building's basement. OR the narrow closey apparently shown on Alexander Milne's 1789 map, is a granite causeway used for transporting regular goods up from the harbour.  By the time Victoria Court is built, the 'road' disappears.

1867 OS Map - from NLS Maps collection -
note Victoria Court entirely enclosed

I would like to think the disturbances and sightings relate to the victims of the Maiden, and are even earlier than the mysterious 'road' or causeway under the Court Annexe.  If so, perhaps their spirit activities have now diminished in the face of the anxieties and sometimes arrogance of the criminals who sit in the locus of those old cells today.  Whatever the case, history is always under your feet, so watch yourself!


  1. Science may hiv unrayvel'd the mysteries o' the atom but they cannae explain this. I'll bet ye Brian Cox widnae spend a nicht doon there tae prove his point. 80P

  2. Excellent point, Phoenix, the more I think about it, more I think I'm right, that it IS the old road that lead over to the Heading Hill through the Earl Marischal's back garden too. Been past there three times today doing my tours, and I'm more certain than ever!