Friday, 21 June 2013

The Denburn Valley – 10,000 Years of Occupation

Looking down over Denburn Road from Union Bridge up towards Woolmanhill Hospital, it is difficult to imagine that once this area consisted of tall, grassy riverbanks, a wide, flowing river and a vast loch stretching across one hundred acres between Skene Square, Spring Garden, Loch Street, St. Andrew Street and Woolmanhill.  Yet this was the Denburn Valley at the end of the last Ice Age, and archaeological evidence tells us that our hunter-gatherer ancestors made seasonal camps here.  Wild boar, deer, bears, wolves, all roamed freely and some were likely to end up skewered by a hunter’s arrow to feed his family.

The identification of a Neolithic burial cairn on what is now Hill Street demonstrated to medieval residents that farmers had settled on the site from c.4,000BC.  The cairn was only removed in 1780 when the Boys’ Industrial School, the forerunner of Oakbank, was built.  For another century, two obelisks, known as the “Stones of Gilcom” remained in the school’s exercise ground until the site was cleared for tenements. 

Pre-industrial settlers were known to harvest the seagulls and geese which nested on the loch banks for food; indeed Spring Garden was named for its fertile ground in which vegetables were grown.  But by the 1630s, a council report showed that the water was “filthy, corrupt and defilet by folk again washing clothes, waste water draining from the gutters and other sorts of uncleanness”.  It would be 1706 before a plan was mooted to provide the city with a cleaner supply directly from Carden Haugh spring which flowed up from the Denburn near Cherrybank mansion – today, the car park of Carden Place Medical Centre. 

The last portion of the valley before the Denburn flowed out into the Dee had become a popular spot for bleaching linen, used mainly by the residents of Mutton Brae, the community situated on the slopes below Belmont Street and the Triple Kirks.  The Corbie Haugh (Crow’s Hollow) on the far bank featured the Corbie Well which provided refreshment for the washerwomen as they pegged out their sheets on the grass.  The coming of the railway however would do away with this leafy spot.  The new single track from Kittybrewster was laid out in 1867, which connected Aberdeen with the Highlands, by then patronised by royalty.  The council realised that they should beautify the old valley to make an attractive approach to the new Joint Station, thus plans were drawn up for an ornamental garden terminating at Union Bridge, in situ since 1803.  The “Denburn Gardens” as they were originally named, were landscaped in 1879.  By 1899 they were enclosed at the Rosemount side by the new stone viaduct which replaced the old iron footbridge over the Denburn near Black’s Buildings, now the theatre car park. 

The gardens became a fashionable place to “promenade” for Victorians and Edwardians; there was a bandstand where concerts were held, chess/draught boards were painted on the high paths below Union Terrace near Robert Burns’ statue, and children were eternally amused by the movement of locos along the track between the Joint and Schoolhill stations. 

 The Denburn, once the lifeblood of the prehistoric settlement, was culverted by the 1960s to carry a new road, the single carriageway replaced by a dual one in 1993.   The whole history of the community built on the mouth of the Denburn – the most likely derivation of Aberdeen – is quite literally under our feet, or at least our car wheels.  The river gave food to the Mesolithic folk, the valley protected the medieval city, the ornamental landscape made a pretty view for English visitors heading to the Highlands, and the gardens were a source of entertainment and relaxation to hardworking locals across two centuries.  As the kernel of our civic existence, we do well to think very carefully about the future of the Denburn Valley.    

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