Sunday, 8 September 2013

Tam Framper's Manse - Medieval Intrigue Leads to Haunting?

Old Aberdeen’s Chanonry reeks of mystery and antiquity as one wanders down past the high-walled 19th century mansions towards St. Machar Cathedral, yet in medieval times, it would have looked completely different.  The street name referred to the manses of the “canons-regular” or prebendaries of the cathedral; historian William Orem describes their duties “they were the parsons of the churches in the country, and had curates under them who performed divine service at their respective churches.”  One canon’s house in particular was known as “Tam Framper’s Manse”, because, Orem tells us, “it was haunted”.  

Bishop William Elphinstone
The first manse was built by Canon Thomas Edname, the prebendary of Clatt Parish, around the late 1400s.  The next incumbent, Canon John Scherar is singled out as one of the churchmen who helped Bishop Elphinstone create the design for Kings College Chapel in 1505.  The name Framper is a complete mystery, but there are stories of a ghostly figure seen gardening in the old manse plot.  After the Reformation, the manse belonged to Alexander Hay, Secretary of State to James VI.  The following inhabitants might have been the source of the haunting as their time at Clatt Manse was not a happy one.

Alexander Gordon of Strathdon was the third son of the 5th Earl of Huntly.  His grandfather had died of a stroke after the Battle of Corrichie in 1562, the 4th Earl’s forces being defeated by the Earl of Moray, James Stewart, the queen’s half-brother.  Alexander’s father had luckily gained a pardon and the Catholic Gordons prospered again despite James VI’s Protestant stance.  Alexander’s wife was Agnes Sinclair, who was Countess of Erroll in respect of her first husband, the late Andrew Hay.  They married in 1588, and took ownership of the Clatt Manse, the same year Alexander’s elder brother, George, the heir, married Henrietta Stewart, who was a cousin of the king.   

5th Earl of Huntly
from Myheritageimages site
Yet by 1591, Alexander’s brother had ordered their eviction from the manse which was carried out in spectacularly cruel fashion by another cousin, Harold Gordon of Haddo.  On the 28 July that year, as the couple would later complain to the Scots Privy Council – the medieval equivalent of the Scottish parliament – that Haddo had “violently put forth their servants, goods and other items and took possession of the property”.  What had the pair done to upset the Earl?  

The rift between the brothers may lie in the fact of George being accused the following year of involvement in the “Spanish Blanks Conspiracy”.  A number of secret letters had been discovered which were bound for King Philip of Spain, asking him to invade Britain and restore Catholicism.  The Spanish Armada had been defeated and shipwrecked in 1588, thus the Spanish monarch would have welcomed a plot of this nature from his Scots allies.  Co-accused with the Earl of Huntly were William Douglas, Patrick Gordon and Francis Hay, 9th Earl of Erroll.  The latter was Agnes Gordon’s stepson.  Her first husband, Andrew Hay, had been married to his cousin, Lady Jean Hay, of which Francis was the product.  Agnes clearly cared about him, as she would later find herself on trial for aiding Francis after he had been outlawed.  James VI was very lenient with the conspirators, yet by this time George had already evicted Alexander from the manse.  Was it then a knee-jerk reaction even before the plot came to light? Did Francis or Agnes threaten to reveal the treachery? George was clearly angry about something, to order such a humiliating action against his own brother, thus it may have been rooted in fear of Agnes’ unpredictable stepson.

That does not fully explain the origin of “Tam Framper” or any supernatural activity at the property.  However, many ghost hunters revel in the supposition that hauntings usually follow at the site of a violent incident, so was Tam Framper the Gordons’ gardener who had tried to prevent Haddo’s eviction and perhaps died in the attempt? 

No.12, The Chanonry, the site of Clatt Manse, is now a seven-bedroomed mansion, that is Tillydrone House, but perhaps Tam likes to come back every so often and ensure the flowers look pretty, just as his mistress, Lady Agnes Gordon preferred in more peaceable times.    

The beautiful Tillydrone House - on the site covering Clatt & Mortlach Manses

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Murderous Malcolm & the Mither Kirk

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.

St Clement's: Fittie's Forgotten Kirk

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?   

Where are the Bodies Buried?

We Know Where The Bodies Are Buried – a catalogue of lost internments
Fifty years ago, on 15 August, 1963, Henry John Burnett was hanged at Craiginches Prison for the murder by shooting of Thomas Guyan, with whose wife, Margaret he had been having an affair.  Burnett had the dubious honour of being the last man in Scotland to be executed.  A few seconds after 8am on that fateful day, executioner Harry Allen operated the lever which opened the trapdoor beneath Burnett’s feet and sent him into Eternity.  Forty-five minutes later, his body was removed, certified dead by a doctor, and was buried in the prison grounds following a short, private service. 

Last week, the Evening Express featured Burnett’s baby-faced image on its front page, proclaiming that his remains were to be exhumed due to the imminent closure of HMP Aberdeen, as it will be officially replaced in March 2014 by a new “super jail” at Peterhead.  This is a real novelty, as all executed persons’ bodies become property of the state, and normally the relatives are never able to visit the burial spot.  However, Burnett’s surviving siblings will be given the chance to inter their brother somewhere more pleasant than the empty space outside the old classroom block of Craiginches.

Burnett’s case may sound unique, but there are other criminals whose remains are very likely still under our feet.  Craiginches was preceded by the East Prison, built in 1829, itself a replacement for the ancient Tolbooth in Castlegate.  Our current police headquarters stand on the site of the East Prison.  The latter was remodelled to become the offices of Aberdeen City Police in 1891, before the present building replaced it in 1970.

Four sets of killers’ bones lie there.  The last man to face the gallows in public was John Booth in 1857.  A native of Oldmeldrum, Booth had gone on a drunken rampage, threatening his wife with a clasp knife, believing she had been unfaithful.  He ended up stabbing his mother-in-law as she tried to protect her unfortunate daughter.  He was held in the East Prison until the day of his execution, after which his body was buried in the prison grounds.  Alongside him were the remains of the brutal murderer, George Christie, who had hacked to death Barbara Ross and her young son at Kittybrewster.  He was dispatched by English hangman, William Calcraft in 1853.  Another Burnett, James, the Boyndlie poisoner, was also interred there, after being executed in 1849 for poisoning his wife in order to marry his lover, Janet Carty.  James Robb, rapist and murderer was the only other known criminal buried there.  There is no obvious evidence that any of their remains were moved after the police HQ opened.  The Queen Street building is also due to disappear from our skyline in a few years, as plans emerge of a move for the police to new premises, so will there be an excavation then?

However, it is not only criminals who have had their bones trampled underfoot; many innocent members of the Society of Friends suffered a similar fate.  The unofficial burial ground of the Quakers on Porthill, Gallowgate, a former kailyard, which the group purchased in 1671, was firstly disturbed by the council, who fined members of the group for “improper burials”.  Thomas Milne had two of his baby sons removed from the ground and reinterred at St Nicholas kirkyard.  Eventually the persecution of the Friends faded away and they were left to remember their dead in peace.  The last internment was in 1811; the Friends built a meeting house above the site which remained there until 1907.  However, there is no mention that the Quaker dead were removed.  Thus the residents of Porthill Court, the 1970s towerblock which stands partially on the site, could still be walking over a burial ground to this day.

Historians took years to find the body of the much-maligned English monarch, Richard III; so who knows what other bodies still lie under the concrete and clay of our own city? At least Harry Burnett’s bones might finally rest in peace, a young man whom many believed at the time should have been reprieved on the grounds of diminished responsibility.

Monday, 22 July 2013

The Powis Hermitage

On a little hill at the rear of Hermitage Avenue, off Bedford Road, a curious wee building used to stand. Known as the Hermitage of Powis, it was an octagonal, harled tower with a conical roof.  It belonged to the Leslie family, the lairds of Powis; their estate stretched from Old Aberdeen’s College Bounds to modern-day Berryden.

Powis Hermitage as illustrated in David Grant's poem
Locals were puzzled by the odd little tower, and often speculated as to its purpose, especially as they sometimes saw a light shining from the tiny windows, or smoke emitting from the miniscule chimney shaft.  A hermitage must have a hermit, thus a great legend arose about a Leslie nobleman who lost his heart to a local crofter’s daughter, Mary Hay.  The story was popularised by David Grant in his poem The Hermit of Powis, first published in 1862.

The Earl of Leslie married his lowly sweetheart, despite warnings from her father that such an ill-matched couple would never know happiness.  The earl and his bride ignored the snobbish attitude of his noble friends who looked down on the crofter’s daughter, and were blissfully happy until he received a royal summons to take up arms in defence of the Scots crown on the borders.

Mary begs to accompany her husband in the guise of a foot-page, but he assures her he will return quickly. However, despite an easy victory for the Scots, Earl Leslie reckons without the amorous and ambitious Arabella Stuart — sister of the infamous Lord Darnley and thus, sister-in-law of Mary, Queen of Scots — who quite fancies the dashing Aberdeenshire laird.
Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley &
King Consort to Mary, Queen of Scots

Arabella Stuart - in later life

As the men celebrate their victory in Edinburgh, Arabella tells her brother Henry a tragic tale.  She claims that Earl Leslie has bewitched her with a love-spell, and she will not be at peace unless they are married.  The earl is summoned by the furious royal consort, who offers him a stark choice, wed Arabella, or be hanged as a warlock.  Earl Leslie admits he cannot marry, he already has a wife he loves, but when he tells Henry Stuart that she is a poor woman with no pedigree, the former retorts that such a person cannot be the true wife of a nobleman, thus Leslie must marry or perish as a criminal.

Leslie takes the difficult decision to marry Arabella.  He sends word to Mary, back in Aberdeen, who goes into shock when she hears.  She pines and starves to death, thinking never to see him again.  When the earl hears of her passing, he is horrified, believing he has caused her demise.  He warns Arabella that she cannot remedy the situation unless she can bring back the dead.  He flees from Edinburgh and disappears, leaving the lady with all his money, which she seems only too happy to spend in consolation.

Years later, a religious hermit appears on the Leslie estate, having constructed a tiny cell for himself atop a hill.  He is often seen praying and whipping himself as if trying to make penance for some unknown sin.  No-one is able to discover his identity or for what gross wrong he is attempting to atone, until he is found dead in his hermitage with a note beside his body, “This is the clay of Leslie the Earl, who sinned and suffered sore.” Unable to face his family or his father-in-law, he had ended his days in sorrow for the wrong he had done to Mary Hay.

A lovely fairy tale, yet it is just that.  Earl Leslie did not exist; the Leslies did not own Powis until the 1750s, almost two centuries after the time of the poem.  Alexander Leslie had the hermitage built in 1781 as a summerhouse which was used for parties and private concerts.  But, as the auld folk say “there’s aye water far the stirkie droons”; every legend begins with a grain of truth, so who knows what Alexander’s real purpose was behind the erection of the hermitage.  Sadly today there is no-one to ask, and the hermitage itself has long gone, having been demolished in 1927.

Powis Estate showing loci of Hermitage & Firhill Well (1818)

Thursday, 11 July 2013

The Night It Rained Fire

Seventy years ago this April, Aberdeen experienced the worst air raid of World War II; over 130 bombs fell on the city, killing 98 civilians and 27 soldiers.  The servicemen were killed by a firebomb which ripped through the mess hall at the Gordon Barracks.  Only after the war would the full horror of that raid be appreciated; of the total civilians killed due to enemy action, seventy percent lost their lives during those few hours in Spring 1943.

Dornier 217 - the plane of choice by the Germans in 1943
From late in the evening of 21 April that year, a squadron of Luftwaffe Dorniers terrorised the streets, dropping high explosives and deadly phosphorous shells.  The latter were incendiaries; used because the phosphorous pentoxide gas burned brightly and provided a beacon for further airstrikes.  Use of such a weapon was in direct contravention of the Geneva Protocol of 1929 which banned the use of “asphyxiating, poisonous gases” in warfare.  A 50kg phosphorous shell landed in Stafford Street, on the Victorian granite tenements, the old lath-and-plaster walls going up like candles as the gas ignited.  As the timbers fell down it must have looked to outsiders as if fire was raining from above.

Swanson McKenzie remembers that night.  As a mere youngster, he and his father were attempting to get home to Belmont Road, Kittybrewster.  “We were baith flabbergasted,” he said, remembering the sight of a huge hole torn through numbers five to nine, Stafford Street, including the tenement in which his grandmother lived.  Describing the scene as “eerie” as the area was deserted, Swany and his father ducked into the doorway of number four opposite, when a surprising sound broke the silence.

Stafford Street after two incendiaries fell
“We heard the dog, Maxie, my grandmother’s dog squeaking!” With that, McKenzie senior boldly dug his way into the wreckage and discovered that his mother and her neighbours were all perfectly safe in the cellar of the house. 70 year-old Andrew Webster, a veteran of both Boer and Great Wars, had ushered them all down there when the air raid siren had sounded.  Deciding it was safer to stay there for the time being, Mr Webster promised to move everyone to the nearest air raid shelter, which was across the road at the rear of number four, as soon as the debris had been cleared.

Meanwhile, in that shelter, also a cellar, which belonged to the corner grocer, the residents of 4 Stafford Street, including 11 year-old John Mann, knew a bomb had fallen outside, but not the extent of the damage.  John recalls his mother being very agitated as her husband had been out on ARP duty and had not returned at the usual time.  They were eventually joined by Swany’s grandmother, Mr Webster and the others from across the road, who told of their excitement.  However, the old soldier was still only attired in dressing gown and pyjamas, it having been well after dark when the siren had howled ominously across the rooftops.  John remembered him going out of the shelter, apparently to retrieve his medals from the tenement, believing that it was unlikely the enemy would double-back this way.

Andrew Webster never did return.  A second incendiary fell on the house, trapping and killing him.  George Mann, John’s father, returned just as the all-clear sounded to tell them there had been another bomb.  Last year, one of his descendants, attending my “Aberdeen Blitz” tour, poignantly revealed that all Andrew intended to do was get a pair of boots as he had been standing around in his bare feet and didn’t want to catch a chill.  There are new tenements there now, but if you look at the wall of numbers four and six, you can distinctly see the pitted areas caused by shrapnel damage from that very night.  RIP Andrew Webster.

Mash-up of 1943/2008 images of Stafford Street 

Friday, 21 June 2013

Bon-Accord; Aberdeen’s most famous battle that never was?

Aberdeen’s civic motto is a curiosity in heraldic history, as unlike many other medieval Scottish burghs which sported mottos of a religious theme, ours was a French phrase loosely translated as “good agreement”.  Heraldist, Sir George McKenzie, writing in 1680, described the motto’s origin: “the word was given them by King Robert Bruce, for killing all the English, in one night, in their Town, their word being that night ‘Bon-Accord’”.  The Lord Lyon, King of Arms made no mention of this in 1674 when Aberdeen’s coat of arms was officially recognised by his court.  Modern-day historians dismiss the tale of Bruce’s secret attack on Aberdeen castle in 1308 as a myth, especially its connection with the phrase ‘bon-accord’.  So is the recovery of what had been the late Alexander III’s local residence on Castlehill the most famous battle that never was?  To answer this we need some solid evidence.

Wind back the clock to the violent upheaval which was later known as the Scottish Wars of Independence.  With the Scottish succession in crisis and the English monarch snapping at his heels, Robert Bruce, who had a strong claim to the crown, finally seized it for himself in 1306.  Two years later he is in Aberdeen, having defeated his Scots enemies, the Comyns at the battle of Barra near Oldmeldrum.  William Kennedy’s 1818 Annals of Aberdeen states that buoyed up by this victory, Bruce led his army up to Aberdeen Castle under cover of darkness and slaughtered the English garrison.

However, in the very same volume, Kennedy quotes a contemporary letter sent by Edward II of England to Sir Gilbert Petchez, the knight he had appointed constable of Aberdeen Castle, dated July 1308, two months after Bruce’s victory over the Comyns, ordering him to “go to Scotland and aid in the relief of Aberdeen Castle which is besieged by land and sea”.  So perhaps it was no overnight raid?  Another royal missive from the same date orders William le Betour, English naval captain, to depart immediately from Hartlepool with the fleet to aid the retaking of the castle.  It now sounds as if Bruce was in possession, fending off the English reinforcements!

There is much argument as to whether Hector Boece, chronicler and principal of Kings College was correct in stating that “in order to leave no place of refuge for the English in Aberdeen, they removed all the fittings and levelled the Castle to the ground”, very shortly after routing the occupying force.  Considering that there is no further mention of Aberdeen Castle or this siege after 1308 in contemporary documents, we can surmise that Edward II, the rather ineffectual son of ‘The Hammer of the Scots’, failed to recover the castle before it was razed to its foundations by Bruce and the citizens of Aberdeen.  By 1313, the younger Edward grudgingly recognises Robert I in official communications, and would be left in no doubt after the decisive victory for the Scots which would follow at Bannockburn.

As to the veracity of our motto’s origin, I offer a personal theory; the soldiers of England were highly-trained knights of Norman descent, thus French would have been their first language.  Even the lowly Anglo-Saxon infantry would have at least recognised the tongue when they heard it.  So for Robert the Bruce to have given his forces such a phrase as the signal to attack that night showed a bit of ingenuity.  Any soldiers on duty who might have heard French spoken would hardly have suspected their local enemies were about to pounce, therefore it must have been a quick and bloody attack.

The real truth of the matter will never be known, as the council records from 1414-30, the time period when the motto was apparently chosen, have been lost.  Legend has taken over and perhaps explains why the name “Castlegate” (i.e. castle-gait, the way to the castle) still endures today.