By Tim Lambert
Aberdeen in the Middle Ages
The name Aberdeen probably comes from the word aber (meaning mouth of the river) Don. Aberdeen was probably founded by the 8th century AD as a fishing settlement. However, by the early 12th century Aberdeen had grown into a town. One sign of this came in 1136 when the burgesses (merchants and craftsmen) of Aberdeen were given the right to charge a tithe (a tax of one 10th of all goods) on ships entering or leaving the harbor and by then it was a busy little port. Exports from Aberdeen included salted fish, hides, and wool.
Then in 1137 Aberdeen was given a bishop, another sign of its growing importance. Finally in 1179 Aberdeen was given a charter. (A document granting the townspeople certain rights). Aberdeen continued to grow and by 1264 it had a castle. The first mention of a provost of Aberdeen was in 1272. In the early Middle Ages, there were actually two settlements, Old and New Aberdeen. In the late Middle Ages, they merged together physically but they remained legally separate.
By the year 1200 Aberdeen may have had a population of around 3,000. That might seem very small to us but by the standards of the time, it was quite a large town. There were 4 main streets in Medieval Aberdeen forming a cross. The market was held by the Denburn.
In the 12th century, some of Aberdeen’s inhabitants were immigrants from Flanders (roughly modern-day Belgium). They would have spoken French.
During the Middle Ages, the people of Aberdeen lived by fishing or by weaving, and dyeing wool or by working leather (some of them were skinners, tanners, glovers, and saddlers).
The church was very powerful in the Middle Ages and its presence was everywhere. St Machar’s Cathedral was built in stages in the 14th and 15th centuries.
During the Middle Ages, there were friars in Aberdeen. (Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to preach). The Trinitarian friars (known as red friars because of the color of their costumes) arrived about 1211. The Dominican friars (known as black friars) arrived about 1221. The Carmelite or white friars arrived in Aberdeen in the late 15th century.
Furthermore in the Middle Ages, the church ran the only ‘hospitals’. In 1363 a leper hospital was founded outside Aberdeen on Spital Hill. In it, monks looked after the lepers as best they could. This dreaded disease slowly died out as the centuries passed. The last recorded leper was in the early 17th century. In 1168 another ‘hospital’ was founded where old priests and poor people were given food and shelter.
The 14th century was a troubled time for Scotland. However, according to tradition, in 1306, the people of Aberdeen helped Robert the Bruce by entering the castle and killing the defenders. Later the town’s motto became Bon Accord, which was the password on the night the castle was taken. Robert the Bruce rewarded the people for their loyalty to him by granting them one of his hunting forests. The revenue from the forest went into a common fund.
However, in 1336 Aberdeen was burned by an English army. Worse in 1350 the Black Death came to Aberdeen. It may have killed half the population of the town. In 1401 a disease called the ‘pest’ came to Aberdeen. It is not certain what this disease was, it may have been typhoid, but it killed many people.
Despite these setbacks, Aberdeen grew into a large town by the end of the Middle Ages (at least by the standards of the time). The population of Aberdeen was about 4,000. Brig O Balgownie was started about 1285. It was finished in about 1320. Kings College was founded in Aberdeen in 1495.
Aberdeen in the 16th century and 17th century
In 1536 Aberdeen suffered a severe outbreak of the ‘pest’. However, epidemics did not stop the town’s population from growing. By the early 17th century the population of Aberdeen was between 8,000 and 10,000. By the standards of the time, it was a large and important town.
Several new buildings were erected in Aberdeen in the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1542 a blockhouse (fort) was built to protect the tidal harbor. Provost Skene’s House was built about 1545. It is named after Sir George Skene (1619-1707) who was provost of Aberdeen from 1676 to 1685. In 1593 Earl Marischal founded Marischal College. The Tollbooth was erected after 1615. A steeple was added in 1629.
Aberdeen continued to be an important port. In 1607 a bulwark was built along the South of the estuary so that when the tide went in and out it would scour the harbour and make it deeper. In 1618 a large rock that blocked the harbor was removed and Aberdeen continued to be a busy port.
However, disaster struck Aberdeen in September 1644 when the Marquis of Montrose led his royalist troops against Aberdeen. He sent a message demanding the town surrender but a drummer boy at the messenger’s side was shot. The royalists then took Aberdeen and plundered it. Many of the townspeople were killed.
Another disaster occurred in 1647 when there was a severe outbreak of plague, which killed about a quarter of the population of Aberdeen. However, there was some good news in 1650 when the Marquis of Montrose was captured and executed. His arm was sent to Aberdeen and put on public display.
Then in 1651 English troops built a fort on Castle Hill using stones from the ruins of St Machar’s Cathedral. However, despite the warfare and plagues of the 17th century, Aberdeen grew in size and prosperity. Later in the century, some effort was made to make Aberdeen less unsanitary. In 1675 the town council introduced street sweeping. The market cross was erected in 1686.
Aberdeen in the 18th century
During the 18th century, life became more civilized and comfortable (for the well-off anyway!). From 1721 the streets of Aberdeen were lit with oil lamps. In the same year, it gained a primitive fire engine. Also in 1721 the first Episcopalian meeting house, St Paul’s, was built.
The Royal Infirmary was built in Woolman hill in 1741. Also, a man named Robert Gordon left money in his will to build a ‘hospital’. It was actually a school for 14 boys and it was built in 1743. New streets were built in Aberdeen in the 18th century. Marischal Street was built between 1767 and 1773. Furthermore, the Robert Gordon Institute of Technology opened in 1775. North Pier was built in 1780 and the Town House in Old Aberdeen was built in 1788.
Furthermore, at the end of the 18th century, a Police Act was passed which formed a body of men responsible for sweeping and lighting the streets of Aberdeen.
Although Aberdeen was occupied by Cumberland’s troops in 1746 it escaped significant damage. The town continued to prosper. In the 18th century industries in Aberdeen thrived. Aberdeen was noted for the manufacture of linen. From the mid-18th century, another industry was whaling. Whalers from Aberdeen sailed to Greenland. The blubber from whales was used to light lamps.
Aberdeen in the 19th century
In 1801, at the time of the first census, the population of Aberdeen was 27,000. By the standards of the time, it was a large town and it continued to grow rapidly. Footdee fishing village was built in 1808. By 1841 the population of Aberdeen had risen to 63,000. By 1861 it reached 74,000. By 1911 the population of Aberdeen was 164,000.
Facilities in Aberdeen continued to improve. A mental hospital or asylum was founded in 1800. The Royal Infirmary was rebuilt in 1840. City Hospital opened in 1874. Meanwhile, new streets were built in Aberdeen. Union Street was built after 1801 and Union Bridge was built in 1805. They were named after an Act of Union 1801, which united Britain and Ireland. King Street was built after 1804. Bon Accord Square was laid out in 1823. The facade in Union Street was built in 1830.
Communications to and from Aberdeen improved in the 19th century. A canal to Inverurie was completed in 1807. The railway arrived in Aberdeen in 1850. The railway meant it was possible to ‘export’ cattle from Aberdeen to other parts of the country. Steam trawling arrived in Aberdeen in 1882.
Many new buildings were erected in Aberdeen in the early 19th century. St Andrew’s Episcopal cathedral was built in 1817. The Music Hall was built in 1820. North Church was built in 1830. It is now an arts centre.
Amenities in Aberdeen also improved. In 1824 Aberdeen gained gas street lighting. While we might take streetlights for granted people at that time thought it was wonderful. Also after 1830 water was pumped from the river into public wells. From 1866 this water was filtered. Then after 1865, a network of sewers was built in Aberdeen. It became a much healthier city in the late 19th century.
The port of Aberdeen continued to flourish. Girdleness lighthouse was built in 1833 and In the years 1871-73, the Dee was diverted.
In the 19th century, the textile industry (linen and cotton) in Aberdeen declined. The industry moved to towns nearer the coalfields. Furthermore, whaling came to an end in Aberdeen. The oil from whales had been used to light lamps but gaslight sounded the death knell for the industry. It ended by 1858.
On the other hand, granite production continued, and in the 19th century granite from Aberdeen was exported to the USA. Shipbuilding boomed in this century. It reached a peak in the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s when clippers (fast sailing ships for transporting tea) were built.
In 1860 the 2 colleges, Kings and Marischal joined to form Aberdeen University. Many new buildings were erected in 19th century Aberdeen. St Mary’s Roman Catholic cathedral was built in the years 1860-1880. The Art Gallery was built in 1885. Grays School of Art was founded in 1886. St Mark’s Church was built in 1892. The Salvation Army Citadel was also built at this time.
Public parks opened in the late 19th century. Victoria Park was laid out in 1871 and Duthie Park was laid out in 1883. Meanwhile, in 1881, a bridge was built to Torry and the Wallace statue was erected in 1888. In 1891 the two ancient burhs of Old and New Aberdeen, which for centuries had been legally separate, were united.
In the late 19th century horse-drawn trams ran in Aberdeen. However, they were later replaced by electric trams. The first electricity generating station in Aberdeen opened in 1894. The first electric trams ran in Aberdeen in 1899.
Aberdeen in the 20th century
Facilities in Aberdeen continued to improve in this century. Westburn Park was laid out in 1901. Aberdeen football club was founded in 1903. Furthermore, His Majesty’s Theatre was built in 1906 and Aberdeen gained its first cinema in 1908.
The old industry of granite production went into decline in the early 20th century. It ceased altogether in 1971. However new industries came along. The fate of Aberdeen was changed by the discovery of North Sea oil. After experimental drilling in 1970, the council set aside land for new oil-related industries. New industrial estates were built in and around Aberdeen at that time. The first North Sea oil arrived in Aberdeen in 1975. Oil soon became the main industry in the city and it brought considerable prosperity. Another new industry was information technology, which is flourishing in Aberdeen.
Housing in Aberdeen greatly improved in the 20th century. In the 1920s and 1930s, serious slum clearance took place. Between 1919 and 1939 2,955 slum houses were demolished. Some 6,555 council houses were built. The former slum dwellers were re-housed in the many council houses built in the city at that time. Many private houses were also built in Aberdeen between the wars such as those in Kings Gate and Angusfield. The city’s boundaries were extended in 1934.
In 1928 the children’s hospital moved to its present site. In 1936 the Royal Infirmary moved again to its present site and the Northern Hotel was built in 1938. The Bon Accord swimming pool was built in 1940. During the Second World War Aberdeen did not suffer as much as some British cities. Nevertheless, 178 people were killed by the German bombing.
In the late 20th century Aberdeen continued to expand. In the 1950s and 1960s thousands of new council, houses were built in estates at Mastrick, Cornhill, Northfield, Stockethill, Tillydrone, and Hazlehead. Blocks of flats were built as well as houses.
Moreover, the centre of the city was redeveloped in the 1960s. St Nicholas House was built in 1967. The Fish Market opened in 1982. Telford Dock was rebuilt in 1994.
However, there was another outbreak of typhoid in Aberdeen in 1964 but this time there was only one death. Aberdeen was a much healthier city in the 20th century.
In the late 20th century amenities in Aberdeen continued to improve. The Trinity Centre opened in 1984. The Bon Accord Shopping Centre opened in 1990. Gordons College was made a university in 1992.
Furthermore, Westburn Park Tennis Centre was opened in 1994. Persley Walled Garden was also opened in 1997. Two museums opened in Aberdeen in 1997, The Maritime Museum and Gordon Highlanders Museum. Meanwhile, local government was reformed in 1996, and Aberdeen was made a unitary authority.
Aberdeen in the 21st century
In 2009 Union Square Shopping Centre opened. In 2022 the population of Aberdeen was 196,000.