By Alex Mitchell.
I have been much taken by two illustrated postcards I bought for 10p each in the Ferryhill Library. They depict the long-gone building popularly, if erroneously, known as the Wallace Tower; a once prominent feature of the Netherkirkgate, and are intensely evocative of the old medieval Burgh of Aberdeen, long-predating Union St., King St., Market St., Bridge St., Holburn St. and the later 19th century development of the West End.
The site of Aberdeen has been inhabited since about 6,000 BC. There was a settlement known to the Romans as Devana and identified as such in Ptolemy’s Systems Of Geography of 79 AD. They knew the rivers Dee and Don, which used to conjoin on the Queen’s Links, as the Deva and Devona. Some scholars derive ‘Aberdeen’ from the Pictish-Gaelic aber-devan, meaning ‘at the meeting of two rivers’. It is likely that Roman fleets used the natural harbour at the mouth of the River Dee (Deva) in preparation for their great battle of Mons Graupius against the Caledonians in 83 AD. Thereafter, Aberdeen developed as two settlements: the Royal Burgh of Aberdeen from the mid 12th century which developed around the natural harbour at the mouth of the River Dee and the Episcopal Burgh or Kirk-toun of St. Mary’s from 1498, later the Kirk-toun of Aber-don, which grew up around St Machar’s Cathedral and King’s College and later became known as Old Aberdeen. The two burghs did not become one until 1891.
Trade outside the Burghs was banned. For the residents of a Royal Burgh, the feudal superior was the King himself.
The medieval township was well established as an un-walled trading community by the mid 12th century. Aberdeen was granted the status of a Royal Burgh by King David I (1124-53), with concomitant rights and privileges relating to manufacturing and trade. The effect was that Aberdeen was permitted a degree of autonomy in the conduct of its affairs although it had to conform to the accepted mercantile and burgh law common to England, Scotland and northern France. The trading and other privileges of the older Royal Burgh of Perth were granted to Aberdeen.
It should be realised that markets, fairs etc. could be held only by permission of the landowner or feudal superior. This meant in practice that trade in agricultural and other products could only take place in the fairs and markets of the Burghs which became processing plants for the products of the rural hinterland. Trade outside the Burghs was banned. For the residents of a Royal Burgh, the feudal superior was the King himself. There were none of the usual feudal obligations to any local Earl or lesser landowner but taxes were payable to the Exchequer.
The most powerful of the townsfolk were the burgesses; generally merchants and traders, who had commercial privileges. Only burgesses could own and operate businesses as well as having certain civic responsibilities. Most of the early burgesses came from Flanders, northern France, England and Lothian, bringing with them skills and expertise hitherto lacking in Scotland. They spoke many different tongues, but settled on English as their common language. The burghs became enclaves of English-speakers and their use of English spread outwards to the surrounding hinterlands. In addition, the Royal Burghs, which were almost all east-coast seaports like Aberdeen, Dundee, Perth, Leith and Berwick, had a legal monopoly of trade with foreign countries; in return, the burghs were responsible for the collection of the duties levied on both imported and exported goods and for remitting these revenues, plus sundry rents, fines and tolls, to the Exchequer. The burghs thus became the main source of revenue for the kings of Scotland and, in consequence, the burgesses became men of national significance.
Six members of the Menzies family were Provosts for a total of eighty-three years out of the 16th century alone
Aberdeen’s earliest extant Charter, detailing its privileges, rights and responsibilities, is that granted by William the Lion, grandson of David I, about 1171. In 1211, William the Lion granted his palace in the Green to the Trinity or Red Friars for use as a monastery. The Dominican or Black Friars and the Carmelite or White Friars settled in the same area whilst the Franciscan or Grey Friars had their monastery adjacent to the Broadgate; hence various street and place names still in use in our own time. The Burgh had become an efficient municipal organisation by the 14th century. Its first recorded Provost was Ricardus Cementarius, Richard the Mason, in 1272.
The Burgh had a system of higher and lower courts and a Council drawn from the burgesses of the Merchant Guild of between 12 and 24 members and other officers, sergeants, treasurers etc. In practice, the Council became a self-perpetuating oligarchy dominated by the Menzies family of Pitfodels; successive members of which served as Provosts of Aberdeen for 114 of the 212 years from 1423 to 1635. Six members of the Menzies family were Provosts for a total of eighty-three years out of the 16th century alone including (one such) Thomas Menzies. He served three terms (of) in office – the longest for the period 1547-75 totalling forty years. Aberdeen became something like a European city-state with a single ruling family whose autocracy was, however, subject to the constraint of other burgesses such as the Rutherfords, Chalmers and Cullens.
There was a degree of dictation from the Court and Parliament in Edinburgh and, occasionally, an attempt by neighbouring landowners like the Forbeses, the Gordon’s or the Seton’s to take over the Burgh or to seize some of its possessions. Substantial sums of what amounted to protection money were paid to these families, to keep them at bay.
The Gordons of Huntly were by far the largest and most powerful of the local landowning families and it was to them that the Burgh looked for protection and support. There was a close working relationship between the (burgess) Menzies family and the (aristocratic) Gordons of Huntly to the extent of intermarriage. In 1545, Thomas Menzies resigned as Provost to be succeeded by George Gordon, the 4th Earl of Huntly – the only peer ever to hold that office, albeit for a period of only two years.
But, for most intents and purposes, the Burgh was both independent and autonomous; the more so because of the grant to the Burgh in 1314 by King Robert I (Bruce) of the Royal Forest of Stocket. This became the basis of the Common Good Fund and guaranteed the Burgh a substantial source of revenue such as could finance significant investments and improvements thereafter. Another of the many benefactions from Good King Robert was the Brig o’ Balgownie, built at his order across the River Don in 1320 to facilitate trade with the lands of Buchan, Formartine and the Garioch.
King Robert’s daughter Matilda married Thomas Isaac, the Town Clerk of Aberdeen, and his (Bruce’s) sister Christian latterly lived and died in Aberdeen. These things are indicative of the Bruce’s close relationship with, and affection for, the Burgh of Aberdeen and its citizens.