Monday, 3 October 2011

The Bridge That Flitted

It's hard to believe that 150 years ago there was no Rosemount Viaduct, and the famous trio of buildings, Education, Salvation and Damnation, aka the Central Library, St Mark's Church and His Majesty's Theatre, had not even been thought of.  The much-maligned Union Terrace Gardens had not even been planted out!  The west bank of the Denburn Valley was a wooded slope nicknamed the Corbie Haugh after the abundance of crows, rooks and other corvid species which nested there.  Centuries further back, visiting merchants and traders left their horses and ponies to graze in the Corbie Haugh, content in the knowledge that the Blackfriars of Schoolhill had a grand view of the copse and any attempt to interfere with these beasts could be swiftly dealt with.

Fast forward to early Victorian Aberdeen - the east bank of the river is dominated by the community of Mutton Brae.  A tiny hamlet with its own internal streets, shops and access to the 'Cathedral of the Disruption', i.e. the Triple Kirks, Mutton Brae was the home of Mary Slessor, who would eventually become the beloved surrogate mother to many poor foreign orphans when she went to Calabar as a Christian missionary.  Mary recalled her life in the shadow of the great kirk and the swift-flowing Denburn; still in the open, the river was prone to spring floods, and had in its time destroyed Andrew Jameson's double-arch bridge and the old Spa Well in its fury.  The banks of the Denburn were used by the folk of Mutton Brae, Denburn Terrace and Black's Buildings as bleach greens.  The drying poles were sometimes pulled down by the force of the flooding water on what Mary described as 'fast days'.

1867 OS Map - copyright National Library of Scotland

To access the bleach greens, the folk would cross the Mutton Brae footbridge down into the valley.  This is the bridge we concern ourselves with today - before the new Rosemount Viaduct was built, and even before Rosemount Place was laid out, the crossing over the railway was via this little bridge.  Stone arches decorated with intricate wrought iron trellis panels carried the walkway down into the valley, but not over the river, there was another footbridge nearer the new Union Bridge for that purpose.

the Old Mutton Brae footbridge - with Black's Buildings and Woolmanhill behind -
image copyright Ron Winram/ Andrew Cluer (Walkin' the Mat)

The bleach green would have been a site for work and gossip - the local wifies catching up with their neighbours' doings and casting aspersions on the cleanliness of folk's washing!  The bairns meanwhile could play in the wide open space, perhaps paddle at the edge of the river on a slow day, and enjoy a cup of fresh mineral water from the Corbie Well.  This other lost inhabitant of the Denburn Valley stood near to its present site, the remains of which are hidden by a council planter at the foot of the garden steps below HMT today.  The well was decorated with other reminders from Aberdeen's past, a lampost from the old Bow Brig of 1747; a weather vane and fragment of the great bell 'Auld Lowrie' from St Nicholas Kirk, both of which were casualties of the spire crashing to the ground in the fire of 1874.  It had a lion's head over the tap and a bowl to catch the water.  Two iron cups were suspended from chains attached to the top of the well house.

Copyright unknown but acknowledged to the original bearer

In those days, Skene Street and Skene Terrace terminated at Black's Buildings, nearest Schoolhill, and the street layout looked entirely different.  There were still tenements and shops all along Blackfriars Street, which would later be swept away when the new Cowdray Hall and War Memorial were built.  The council, never happy unless aping their grander neighbours in Edinburgh or Glasgow, decided to capitalise on the railway and build a more suitable viaduct.  With the new road, completed in 1883, they could create a new public library to satisfy the city's educational and literary needs.  The central library, originally a symmetrical construction was completed with a huge injection of cash from the famous Scots philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, in 1892, the same year that St. Mark's church was completed, being the congregation from the south part of the once single St Nicholas parish.  It was 1907 before the theatre came along and added to the now well-known trio on the viaduct.

By the start of 1890, Mutton Brae had been swept away in the name of progress, and along with it, the need for the little footbridge, as the new Rosemount Viaduct was connected to the new pleasure gardens of Union Terrace by a grand granite staircase.  The memories of the medieval valley were fading, and so the powers that be decided the footbridge was redundant, and by some strange miracle was transported - in a much shortened form - to Duthie Park and there it remains today as a bridge over the ornamental ponds.

High and Dry - no water flows under this bridge!
The Mutton Brae Bridge is still a stunning little feature, but the old ponds leave it high and dry, a monument to obsolescence.  Despite the fact of being 'flitted' and thus saved, the bridge looks bereft of purpose, and will continue to do so if the council do not spend some of their recent lottery grant on restoring the ponds in the park.  Miss Elizabeth Crombie Duthie would be horrified to know her gift of a green space to the city in memory of the male members of her family slain in conflict was so run down and depressed.  Even the tarmac on the pathways is cracked and neglected.  So, waken up people! Fix this park before you lose it too and someone takes a bucket of concrete to it!  This isn't so much the story of a bridge that flitted, but a reminder that maintenance of the remainders of our heritage is an on-going commitment, not something you do once and forget it.

Still in fine fettle, just a mite shorter than it used to be!!

Spare a thought for the Mutton Brae Bridge and its other architectural companions in Duthie Park, including the McGrigor monument (originally in Marischal College Quad), the Carden Haugh cistern house (from Carden House) and the Taylor drinking trough and fountain near the Winter Gardens (originally at the junction of Clifton Road and Great Northern Road), which have been 'flitted' from their original positions and detached from their original contexts.  We need to know where we come from, or how can we know where we're going?


  1. Extremely enlightening reading, yet again :)Thank you! I was married in the Winter Gardens at Duthie Park-I just hope something is done to preserve and maintain it all so my children and eventual grandchildren will be able to enjoy them too.

  2. Cheers Liz, there are so many things in the park that need sorting, I hope they do it!!