St. Clement’s: Fittie’s Forgotten Kirk
Standing in the Beach Retail Park, you might just catch a glimpse of a curious turreted building peeking over the modern corrugated iron roofs. This is the old St. Clement’s Church of Fittie, designed by the man who was also responsible for the layout of the “fisher squares” in 1809, “Tudor Johnny” Smith, Aberdeen’s first city architect. The pretty, neo-Gothic spire with its intricate spindles echoes another of his designs, that of Nigg Kirk at the top of Wellington Road.
St Clement’s was once the central place of worship for the fishermen and their families who lived in the old hamlet of “Pockraw”, now lost under Wellington Quay. When the “new” Fittie was constructed, an earlier church stood on this site, having been repaired in 1787. For two years it had been entirely ruinous, and Baillie Copland decided to invest in its repair. The canny councillor provided the funds in exchange for the rent of the glebe lands and the pews for the next twenty-one years. He made a shrewd exception for those he knew could not afford to pay; “save for the poor fishers of Fittie who are free.”
This ancient church, dating from some time in the mid-fifteenth century, also benefited from investment by local worthies in 1632. Such luminaries as portrait artist, George Jamieson and burgess, George Davidson of Pettens freely donated sums to refurbish the medieval kirk. Davidson, a noted landowner who had come from humble beginnings as a hawker, financed and supervised the building of an enclosing wall for the kirkyard in 1650.
The first mention of a church dedicated to St Clement here is in 1467 when the local priest, Fr Bannerman petitioned the council to provide straw to repair the thatch roof. The congregation consisted mainly of “white fishers”, as in 1498, they declared to the council that they were willing to pay two shillings a year to the maintenance of their chapel. The choice of dedication was also significant; like Nicholas, Clement was associated with seafarers. He is reckoned by the Catholic Church to be the second pontiff following Apostle Peter. He was martyred by being tied to a sea-anchor and thrown overboard. The “Mariners’ Cross”, an anchor with a prominent cross-piece is Clement’s symbol.
The nineteenth century Protestant ministers were no less flamboyant than the old saint; Alexander Gammie describes some of them in his Churches of Aberdeen. The Rev John Thomson, who took the charge in 1787, just after Copland’s much-needed financial intervention, was noted not only for his extensive tenure of fifty-one years, but his eccentric behaviour in the pulpit. He would throw his head up to the ceiling at the start of a sermon, and as he announced the first sentence, would cast his eyes down to the floor, and stretch out his hands from his waist. His parishioners described it “like a hen holding her head up after drinking”.
Rev Walter Carrick, who hailed from St Andrews and held the shortest tenure, delighted the Fittie folk with his powerful oratory. Journalist William Carnie reported “In his preaching, he drew very effective illustrations from the heavenly bodies in their courses, and to see him, pale, spare of form, wrapt in his work, his outstretched arm, with finger pointing heavenward during a fervent burst of adoration, was a pulpit picture not to be soon forgotten." Carrick died less than six months into the job.
The present kirkyard has some fascinating headstones including a number of military monuments dating from as early as the first Afghan Wars. 31 year-old Dr William Balfour, an assistant surgeon was killed in 1842, and is remembered on an impressive table-tomb recording his loss during the retreat from Kabul of the 44th Regiment of Foot. John Sutherland McIntosh, only 19, died in France in February 1918, his proud, but sorrowing parents recording on the grave “He died for King and Country.”
Now bereft of its congregation, St Clement’s stands alone amid a mass of industry and commerce, yet losses at sea are as relevant today as they were to the medieval fishers who pledged to maintain their kirk all those centuries ago. Perhaps a prayer to St Clement would not be amiss even now?