Aberdeen City HER - NJ90NW0022 - BRIG O' BALGOWNIE

Print site NJ90NW0022 Feedback on site NJ90NW0022

Main Details

Primary ReferenceNJ90NW0022
NRHE Card No.NJ90NW4
NRHE Numlink 20161
HES LB No. 20067
Site Form Standing Structure
Site Condition Complete 2
Details Bridge built circa 1320, repaired circa1444, largely rebuilt in the early 17th century and repaired in 1861 and c.1867 when buttresses were added to the approaches. The brig o' Balgownie is composed of a mixture of granite and sandstone and is over 18 metres in height at its highest point. It was the only route into Aberdeen from the north until 1927. Over the centuries the bridge has attracted attention from historians, artist and poets alike. It features, for example, in Byron's poem, Don Juan, in the line 'The Dee, the Don, Balgownie brig's black walls'. To this Byron attached a footnote telling of how he and his mother would walk to the bridge. The stone bridge was probably the successor of earlier wooden bridges. In turn they probably succeeded earlier fords across the Don. No trace of any of these earlier structures have survived. It is normally said that the bridge was built either in the 1290s or in the early 1300s. The story normally runs that the bridge was started by Bishop Henry Cheyne and then finished by Robert the Bruce. It has ben suggested that Cheyne was an enemy of Bruce's and that he fled his See at the approach of Bruce's forces and that Bruce seeing the bridge half finished sequestered the bishop's revenues to have it finished. This story has evolved over the centuries and exists in a number of different forms. A recent addition to the story argues that the bridge was built by Richard Cementarius. The earliest version of the story occurs in a charter dated 1605 written by Alexander Hay. In this he says that the bridge was entirely built by Robert the Bruce whilst Parson Gordon writing some fifty years later admitted 'no man can certainly tell who built it…'. Elements of the story do ring true: Cheyne had sworn fealty to Edward I of England and he was allied with the Comyn family, enemies of Bruce's forces. It certainly seems to be the case that he fled Aberdeen at the approach of Bruce's troops and the involvement of bishops' in the building of medieval bridges has been well attested elsewhere. However there are no documents which pertain to the building of the bridge or which cast any light on the question of who built it. Hector Boece in his Lives of the Bishops of Aberdeen spends much time detailing the involvement of the bishops of Aberdeen in the building of the Bridge of Dee but does not mention any involvement in the Bridge of Don, which would be odd if they had been involved. It is telling that it is the Council of the Royal Burgh of Aberdeen who, throughout the medieval period, are concerned with repairing and maintaining the bridge and there is no evidence of the involvement of the bishop. However as there are no documents pertinent to these questions it could be the case that the bishop of Robert had been involved. Boece does relate the story that Bishop Cheyne when he fled his see had left the building of the choir of St Machar's Cathedral half finished and that Robert the Bruce used the bishop's revenues to finish that work. Perhaps in this story lie the origins of the later story about Bruce and Cheyne: indeed the story of their involvement does not seem to pre date Boece's work. From the 15th century the history of the bridge becomes quite easily traceable in the historic record. In effect the history that can be traced is really the history of on going need to repair the bridge. On 4 September 1443 repairs were organised by Sir William Ettale and completed by Laurence Holles. Ettale was chaplain of the chapel at the bridge. The repairs effected by Holles were presumably either a stop gap measure of simply of a very poor quality. It is only ten years later that the bridge was again in need of repair. In 1453 the Dean of Guild of Aberdeen organised repairs totalling some £31 15s Scots: in the accounts for these repairs the majority of the money was paid to masons. It was over a hundred years before the bridge was again repaired: in 1560 the Town Council used money gained from the sale of silver plate from St Nicholas church to pay for repairs. This underlines the fact that the bridge lacked a fund to pay for its ongoing need for maintenance and repairs. This was an underlying factor in the history of the bridge for the next hundred years. In 1587 Aberdeen appealed to the Scottish parliament for aid to repair the bridge. This appeal was turned down and the Council had to stent (or tax) its own inhabitants for 400 marks. In 1596 a second stent was taken up. During this period the Council appealed repeatedly to the barons of Aberdeenshire and to the ministers of the churches in the shire: they argued that the bridge was necessary for the economic welfare of the region as a whole and that responsibility should be shared throughout the region. To be fair the council did recognise that it was 'most necessary' to themselves and that even with shared responsibility they would still pay the bulk of the costs. The pleas fell upon deaf ears: by 1604 the bridge was in a dilapidated state. A workman had been hired to estimate the cost of all necessary repairs: the bill stood at 5000 marks, or £277 15s 6d Scots. At this point Sir Alexander Hay of Whytburgh became involved: Sir Alexander recognised that there was a need to create a bridge fund. He mortified the sum of £27 8s 8d to form such a fund in a charter dated 1 February 1605. A stone plaque was affixed to one of the south west buttresses of the bridge in recognition of Hay's bequest: the plaque, although weathered, remains to be seen. Despite this beneficence the bridge still required a lot of money to repair it. This money was got by several means: a tax which had been uplifted to send to the protestants of Geneva (to the tune of 800 marks) was diverted. An appeal to the ministers of the shire yielded results: the Presbytery of Deer produced £175, two ministers from Aberdeen raised £120, the principal of King's College raised £96 whilst the Presbytery of Buchan raised £16. As a result the Council could go ahead with its repairs: three contracts were issued between August 1607 and 1611 which saw the bridge completely rebuilt. The contracts were all with William Massie and Andrew Jameson, masons; Jameson was the father of George Jameson the so called Scottish Van Dyke. The first contract of 1607 was to rebuild the north east of the bridge at a cost of £363 7s 6d; the second of May 1609 for the south east of the bridge and new lead and iron work was for £465 17s 8d and the last in 1611 was for the west and all of the buttresses was for £300. The bridge that we see today was the result of these three contracts. Hay's fund was first used in 1616 to buy new cobbles to lay on the road over the bridge. Aberdeen Council managed Hay's fund particularly well and augmented the original bequest with investments and lands: in 1704 the fund stood at £713 whilst by 1824 it stood at over £20,000. By the early 19th century a new bridge was urgently required. The demands of increased volume of traffic were making the old bridge redundant. This lead directly to the building of the Bridge of Don a little further to the east along the Don. A bronze plaque on the bridge records its history.
Last Update13/01/2021
Updated Bycpalmer
Date of Compilation13/09/2017

Easting: 394141.718292688, Northing: 809608.442044992

Google Map for NJ90NW0022

National Grid Reference: NJ 9414 0960

Event Details

Excavations and Surveys

Artefact and Ecofact


Ecofact Notes

Monument Types

Monument Type 1Monument Type 2Monument Type 3OrderProbability