According to local historians over the last two centuries, the “Mither Kirk” of St Nicholas dates from the twelfth century. However, due to carbon dating evidence gleaned from an archaeological dig in the foundations of the East Kirk, it would appear that the church’s true foundations date back a whole century earlier.
Alison Cameron, the lead archaeologist on the dig which was completed in 2005, explained that the carbon dating process is skewed here in the North-East due to the fish-rich diet of our Iron Age forebears, thus a date around AD 1060 is most likely for the stone apse around which these graves, mainly of children, were found. This means that Aberdeen had a major place of worship built of stone one hundred and eighteen years before it became a royal burgh.
William the Lion’s charter of 1178 to the citizens of Aberdeen is also thought to have been a re-confirmation of his grandfather David I’s 1136 grant of similar rights to the bishops of “Aberdon”, i.e. Old Aberdeen. Aberdon had been granted the status of bishopric in 1124, in preference to the settlement based between the Dee and the Denburn rivers. This suggests that there was a stone church in Aberdeen already, thus the new bishop, Nechtan, who had come at the monarch’s request from the old bishopric of Mortlach (modern-day Dufftown) in Banffshire, concentrated on planning a cathedral for Old Aberdeen instead.
Enter now the character of Malcolm Canmore; depicted as a hero in literature, but in reality was from a line of men desperate to get their hands on the Scots throne, as they were not part of the main royal clan. Malcolm “Ceann Mór”, his Gaelic nickname meaning “great leader” (or simply “big head”), defeated and slew his rival Macbeth at the Battle of Lumphanan in 1057. Historically, Macbeth was the total opposite of Shakespeare’s villain in the infamous “Scottish Play”; he and his wife, Gruoch, were both descended from earlier Celtic kings. In terms of the Celtic form of succession, whereby a new “Ard Righ” or High King was chosen from the royal clan, rather than necessarily being the king’s son or daughter, the Macbeths thus had a better claim to the throne than either Malcolm or his father, Duncan.
In 1065, after seizing the leadership, Malcolm established the new bishopric of Mortlach in Moray, Macbeth’s home territory where the latter’s supporters were the biggest risk to the new regime. Such a decision meant Malcolm could control his enemies both spiritually and politically. However, perhaps the new ruler felt guilty for spilling the blood of his enemy? After all, Scots kings were anointed, and thus their leadership blessed by the Almighty; king or not, Malcolm had committed a mortal sin for which he had to find a way to atone. Was it he then who gave a grant to the ancient settlement by the Denburn for a stone church? And indeed, was it a murderer who chose the dedication to St Nicholas? In later generations, Malcolm’s descendants lavished grants on monasteries and churches all over Scotland, so did he start a trend in order to demonstrate he was not just a terrorist who had seized the throne from the rightful leader?
Whatever the truth, the physical evidence tells us that Aberdeen’s earliest known stone church was built around the time Mortlach was established by Malcolm III. His son David I was responsible for translating the bishopric to Aberdeen in 1124, thirty years after Malcolm’s death. Suddenly David’s choice now makes perfect sense, as he no longer needs to keep a strict hold on Moray, and wants the church his father had founded to be at the centre of a new burgh.
This new light on the city’s earliest times shows that not only had there been continuous settlement from the Stone Age around the Denburn, but that Christianity had been part of its culture since the sixth century following the religious foundations of travelling missionaries like Machar, Ternan and Fittach/Fittick. The “Mither Kirk” therefore has been the central place of worship for Aberdonians for over a thousand years, perhaps partly due to one man’s desire to atone for sin.