Aberdeen City HER - NJ90NW0019 - ST MACHAR'S CATHEDRAL

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Main Details

Primary ReferenceNJ90NW0019
NRHE Card No.NJ90NW9
NRHE Numlink 20216
HES SM No. 90001
HES LB No. 19957
Site Form Standing Structure
Site Condition Complete 2
Details Cathedral and churchyard. This cathedral is named after St Machar, probably a legendary disciple of Columba. The legend goes that Columba instructed his pupil to evangelise the Picts of the north and to found his church at a river which crooked like the top of a bishop's crozier, or staff. So the story relates that the cathedral was founded here at some point in the seventh century. However, documentary evidence shows that the bishop of Aberdeen was first based at based at Mortlach near Dufftown and was transferred (or translated) to Aberdeen in the 12th century (as part of David I's reorganisation of the church). However this would not be to rule out the possibility that there had been an ancient church on this site, or at least in this general location. The survival of the so-called 'Seaton Stone' (on display in the Cathedral) may be indicative of a Christian presence in this area from the 7th or 8th century. According to tradition, the bishopric was translated to Aberdeen in 1125, under the episcopacy of bishop Nectan. The first historical evidence shows that the bishopric was here and functioning in 1150 under bishop Edward. It may be safely assumed that the first cathedral on this site dates from between 1125 and 1150, or immediately thereafter. There is no evidence as to why this particular site had been chosen for the cathedral in the early to mid 12th century. It may have been the case that the site was chosen because it had ancient (or more recent) Christian connections. Nothing survives of the earliest cathedral (or conjectural earlier church) on this site. The cathedral that we see today is the result of an ongoing building project through and beyond the medieval period. Bishop Cheyne's (1282- 1328) building work on a choir was interrupted by the Wars of Independence. Most of the bishops of the Cathedral added different parts. For example Bishop Ingelram de Lyndesay (1441-1458) added a stone roof and ornamental paving to the cathedral. Bishop William Elphinstone (1488-1514) arranged for completion of the central tower with belfry and spire and a choir, which may have been incomplete at the time of his death and covered the roof with lead. The heraldic ceiling was installed by Bishop Gavin Dunbar (1518-32). In a Cathedral endowed with many treasurers the ceiling stands out as one of its greatest. The wooden ceiling is composed of three rows each featuring 16 armorial bearings; making a total of 48. The northern most row is composed of the arms of the Scottish Kings and nobility, the middle row is composed of those of the ecclesiastical dignities of the time and the final row contains arms and bearings of various European sovereigns. All of these are seen in procession to the King of Kings. The ceiling is complemented with a frieze that starts at the north-west corner of the nave and lists the bishops of Aberdeen from Nectan (1131) to William Gordon (1560). This is followed by the Kings of Scots from Malcolm II to Queen Mary. The list of Kings omits John Balliol as monarch, clearly an indication of the politics of the time when the list was completed. Many of the pre-reformation records of the church also survive. This includes the bishops' 'chartulary', published by the Spalding Club in the 19th century as the Registrum Episcopatus Aberdonensis. It contains a number of fine illuminated letters but its real value lies in the light it casts on the working of the bishopric in the medieval period. After the reformation many of the ornaments and treasurers of the cathedral were spirited away into various hands, including those of the Earl of Huntly. Huntly remained a steadfast supporter of the old faith in the years after 1560. St Machar's lost its position as a Cathedral and became a parish church (although this position would be subsequently altered twice more) and much of its lands were sold off (or alienated) leaving it impoverished. The English conquest of Scotland after 1650, under Cromwell, had a great impact on the Cathedral. Cromwell's troops took stones from the now abandoned choir of the Cathedral to build a bastion on Castlehill in New Aberdeen. This weakened the central tower and after more undermining, the tower collapsed in 1688, taking with it much of the transepts: it remains as the ruinous east end to the Cathedral to this day. In the 17th century a common loft (or high level gallery) was first constructed in the cathedral and this was followed by exclusive lofts being constructed for the Earl of Huntly, King's College and the merchants of Old Aberdeen as each sought to demonstrate their position in society with a grand loft. After the final triumph of Presbyterianism in 1690 St Machar's was finally relegated, again, to the lower position of parish church. As Old Aberdeen was a bishop's burgh this left the town in some disarray lacking the facility to elect magistrates, although this was soon rectified. Various memorial stained glass windows have been added to the Cathedral in subsequent years including the First World War memorial window, designed in 1924 by Douglas Strachan, depicting the triumph of good over evil. The organ in the north aisle is by Henry Willis and was installed in 1891, whilst the font dates from 1954. The church was restored 1926-9 by A Marshall Mackenzie. The East Window is by AGR Mackenzie, 1947. Renovation work in in 1986 uncovered a piscina in the north wall of the church. A vault uncovered during reflooring in the north aisle as covered over by new flooring. In 1990 cleaning of the 16th century heraldic ceiling enabled photographic recording of its decorative features. A watching brief was carried out by Aberdeen City Council Archaeological Unit in March 1997 on works to rebuild part of the north wall of the cemetery. Several 19th - 20th century gravestones forming part of, or adjacent to, the wall were dismantled. Two pieces of moulded stone were recovered although it was not clear whether these had been built into the wall. A watching brief was carried out by AOC in 2005 during headstone stabilisation works within the east, south and west divisions of the graveyard. No significant archaeological remains were encountered. A watching brief was carried out by Cameron Archaeology in May 2018 during works to remove the pews. Although of limited depth, the works revealed an uppermost section of wall foundation on the south side of the seating area. The entrance in the southwest comer of the churchyard as a pair of gatehouses designed by John Smith and completed in 1832 (see NJ90NW0586). A watching brief was carried out by Cameron Archaeology in July 2020 and April-May 2021 during the excavation of 15 mainly hand-dug trenches to allow access to existing drains for various works. Disarticulated bone was recovered from all of the trenches, indicating prior disturbance (mainly when the drains were inserted or repaired) but no articulated burials were revealed. In two trenches the ground was lowered next to the medieval church down to the original ground level and masons' marks were recorded on granite blocks. These were all the same marks (or parts of them) which had been recorded previously in the building and most appear to be of 15th century date. Also recorded is some of the trenches were the foundation of the south and west walls and buttress foundations. The bones have been reinterred. The churchyard contains 10 First World War Commonwealth war graves.
Last Update15/02/2024
Updated Bycpalmer
Date of Compilation13/09/2017

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National Grid Reference: NJ 9391 0876

Event Details

Event DateEvent TypeOASIS ID
1986 Watching-Brief
1997 Watching-Brief
2018 Watching-Brief camerona1-328875
2020 Watching-Brief
2021 Watching-Brief

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