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10.2 Description of the church

Following the 1994 excavation, we now have the full dimensions of the Aberdeen Carmelite church, the western third having been fully excavated in 1980-1 and 1994, with the east wall having been identified in the sewer trench along Carmelite Street (see Section 3.7) (see Trench location plan). It appears that the church measured approximately 24m in length and was 7m wide, internally. As has been previously pointed out (Stones 1989) this type of long, rectangular aisleless structure is a common feature of many friary churches in Scotland, and among known Carmelite plans is apparent at Luffness, Linlithgow and possibly Perth, as well as here in Aberdeen. South Queensferry also shares that basic shape, but has the addition of a south transept: that is also a much later foundation than Aberdeen, and is therefore a product of the era in which the concept of the more elaborate collegiate parish church was flourishing alongside the long simple rectangle which served as the model for the rural Scottish church over many centuries. It is interesting that the same basic shape, used by the Carmelites for their church in Aberdeen in the later 13th century was still regarded as suitable in the early 16th century by the Observantine Franciscans for their church in nearby Broad Street. Interestingly, that shape also harked back to the form of the oratory built by the Carmelites at their first site, the Wadi es Siah on Mount Carmel in Palestine, which has been dated to two periods in the early and later 13th century, going out of use when that area was over-run by Saladin's forces in 1291. There is no evidence that the Carmelite constitutions laid down any rules about size and layout of buildings, beyond those oft-quoted statements in the rule of life granted to them by Albert, patriarch of Jerusalem, that the oratory must lie at the centre of the cells and that the prior's cell must be nearest to the gate. The Dominicans, in contrast sought to control the height of their churches, the internal furnishings and many other features, all of which were to be modest and humble (Randla in Sarnowsky 1999, 259-60).

We know that the Aberdeen Carmelite church was supported at its north-west and south-west corners by substantial buttresses, faced with sandstone imported from the Cowie area, about 17 miles south of Aberdeen, on the coast. No other buttresses were apparent in the 8.60m length of the building which was excavated in the 1980-81 and 1994 campaigns, although one can perhaps assume that at least the east end was similarly embellished. It is likely that the remainder of the walls were rendered in some way to provide a watertight surface to the outside, although there is no actual archaeological evidence for that.

There appears to have been an entrance to the church in the north wall, some 3.70m from the west end, where two moulded sandstone blockswere found. It is probable that that doorway, leading into the nave, was the one used by laypeople. We know that the door was approached from outside through a cobbled courtyard or lane which may have given direct access to the gatehouse and thence along vennels to the Green. There must also have been another entrance point to the church for the friars, leading into the choir in all probability. Whether or not there was also a night stair of some sort is a matter of speculation, although one seems to have been present at Linlithgow (Stones 1989, 80).

During the course of the excavations and thereafter, there was considerable discussion over the presence or absence of a tower at the Aberdeen Carmelite church, and of its possible nature. That does not entirely mean that there was no tower, but only the western 12 metres of the church was available for excavation. There is no doubt however from historical evidence that the friary did have bells, certainly by the 16th century, and presumably earlier. Two 16th century references (see Section 4.3) are to stipulations by grantors that the bells be rung the night before memorial or anniversary masses, which provides a charming insight into the role of church bells as purveyors of information in the medieval period, in whatever way they may have been hung at Aberdeen Carmelite friary. If there was not a bell-tower as such, as survives for example in 15th century form at South Queensferry, or within the ruins of the Trinitarian house at Dunbar, then a form of simple bell-cote might be postulated.

The immediately surrounding surface of the church was composed of neatly laid cobbles with associated drainage, bounded by walls. The cobbles were originally laid in the late 15th century, and repaired at various times thereafter, eventually, in fact, rising to a higher level than the threshold of the north doorway (see Section 3.7). Interestingly, excavation work associated with development in 2008-9 at Marischal College, Aberdeen, has uncovered portions of what appears to be a remarkably similar surface treatment surrounding the Franciscan church of early 16th century date. The high quality of surfaces in Aberdeen was remarked upon by Parson James Gordon in his Description of Aberdeen, written in 1661. He noted: 'The streets are all neatlie paved with flint stone, or a gray kinde of hard stone not unlike to flint…' (Innes 1842, 9).

It is clear from historical evidence that many of the more portable building materials from the friary complex were removed in the early post-Reformation period (see Section 2.5), but sufficient remained within the demolition rubble and elsewhere to confirm the presence of features such as stone roof tiles and grisaille windows (see Section 8.4.4).


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