17 May 2016
Elma McEnemy presents her pick of six crucial dates that altered the course of the history of Aberdeen.
When I first started researching and writing Aberdeen in 100 Dates for The History Press, I did not realise that each date was to be year, month and day! However, that requirement made the whole experience so much more interesting and enjoyable. Years are easily found and verified, but months and days are so much harder to establish for events long ago.
Recent dates are, of course, relatively straightforward and the book’s newest date, 3 July 2015, was confirmed by direct contact with the archaeologist who led the team which found ancient skeletons on the site of the old Blackfriar friary.
I never expected to be able to source information for really early dates. That I could do so was in effect down to one person from Aberdeen’s long history, a man linked to no fewer than five dates in the book. That man was William Elphinstone, known to generations of Aberdonians as the founder of the university. He was extremely important not only to Aberdeen, but also to Scotland.
It was he who brought the first printing press to Scotland in 1509. The first book published was the Aberdeen Breviary which contained prayers and writings about the lives of Scotland’s saints and is a treasure trove of information about the country’s early Christian traditions. It combines fact and legend and, in summary and translation, provided the earliest two dates for my own book.
According to the Aberdeen Breviary, St Columba and his disciples landed on the island of Iona on Whit Sunday 563. One of these disciples was Mocumma, also known as Machar, who brought Christianity to the Picts of the Don valley and who settled close to the estuary of the River Don in the place now known as Old Aberdeen.
The Breviary also tells of another local saint, Nathalan or Nachlan, believed to have been born on Deeside at Tullich. Nathalan led an amazing life. Legend tells of his pilgrimage to Rome, travelling with his right arm chained and padlocked to his right leg. Before leaving, he threw the key to the padlock into the River Dee. Months later in Rome, cutting open a fish he had bought to eat, he miraculously discovered the key to his padlock! On his return he built several churches on Deeside, including one at Tullich. He died on 8 January 678.
William Elphinstone was born in Glasgow in 1431, the son of a churchman who was first Dean of Arts of Glasgow University. William himself studied at University in Glasgow and Paris and in 1488 was consecrated Bishop of Aberdeen and created Chancellor of Scotland by King James III. An excellent statesman, diplomat, lawmaker and devout churchman, Bishop Elphinstone travelled widely in Europe as the King’s Ambassador.
On 10 February 1495 the Pope granted the bishop a licence for the foundation of a university in Old Aberdeen. This was the third founded in Scotland and the fifth in the UK and was named King’s College to acknowledge the wholehearted support of King James IV. Bishop Elphinstone also continued the construction of St Machar’s Cathedral and instigated work for a stone bridge to form a safe crossing of the River Dee.
When he died on 25 October 1514, he bequeathed £20,000 to ensure the bridge was completed. The same bridge is still in use today, albeit following restoration in the 1700s and a major project to widen it in the first half of the 1800s. The facings were carefully removed, a new section was added on the upstream side and on 4 October 1842 the new, widened Bridge of Dee was formally opened.
About the author
Elma McMenemy is the author of Aberdeen in 100 Dates published by History Press which features 100 key dates which shaped the city forever.