4.3 Documentary evidence for the structure and appearance of the Aberdeen friary

A number of comments and conclusions can now be made concerning the exact location of the friary in the Green and of the topography immediately around it.

The first part of this discussion centres around three descriptions of parcels of land in the area of the Green, all dating to the mid fifteenth century. First, dated 5 October 1444, was an action raised in the Baillie Court of Aberdeen by Sir Robert Roulle, the chaplain and procurator of the Altar of Saints Laurence and Ninian in St Nicholas church. The action was in respect of an unpaid annual rent of 6s 8d from 'a land in the Green, between William Coutis land on the north and the wynd along [the] Carmelites walls on the south…' (Cooper 1892, 326). These two lands, that of Coutis and that pertaining to the altar must therefore be located to the north of the Carmelite friary. The second document dates from 8 January 1453 and refers, again, to the land of the altar of Saint Ninian, which was bordered on the north by the land of William Cowts (Coutis) and on the east, south and west by public vennels (ACA, Council Register V, Part I, folios 171, 176 and 184). This second document again shows that two plots of land (burgage plots) lay in front of the friary. However the friary was separated from the more southerly of these lands by a public vennel which ran along the front of the friary. This vennel would have allowed entry to the friary. The vennel itself would have been accessed by the vennels to the east and west of the two plots of land to the north of the friary. These two vennels would have come off the road called the Green (or as it was often known the King's Highway). The grander title for the road indicates its higher status and that it may have been paved. The three vennels may have been of a lesser status and may not have been paved, although this is a purely conjectural point. The third charter merely confirms the details as given: on 20 February 1456 Thomas Blinsiell endowed the altar of Saint Peter in St Nicholas church. Part of this endowment was money from the land of William de Coutis, which was described as lying between the land of the altar of Saint Ninian on the south and the public highway on the north (Cooper 1892, 99). A conjectural reconstruction of land holding in the area is given in (Figure 12).

Unfortunately, there is no evidence about the use of the lands to the north of the friary. However one charter, dated 17 August 1490, refers to an annual rent from a land 'now waste and almost uninhabited…', described as being on the north side of the house of the Carmelite friars (Cooper 1892, 32). It is unclear which of the two lands to the north of the friary is being referred to here. What is implied is that the land at one point had been inhabited. This pattern of lands being inhabited and then falling out of use only to be reclaimed later is common in the medieval burgh. The friary was bordered to the south by land which was prone to flooding from the river Dee and which as a consequence was not developed. The lands to the west and the east of the friary occasionally appear in feu charters, but details of what purpose the lands were put to are scarce (see Section 4.5.2).

The nature of the division of the plots of land to the north of the friary may, however, have changed over time. In the Books of Assumption there is a reference to 'the land of John Hill lying in the Gren Gait between the lands of the Carmelite friars of the said burgh on the south and the King Street on the north parts pays yearly 6s 8d.' (Kirk 1995, 419). Thus after the Reformation there may have been only one land to the north of the friary. There are two alternative explanations for this: either, first the two lands to the north of the friary had become amalgamated or second the Carmelites themselves had possession of the land immediately to the north of the friary. There is archaeological evidence that the Carmelites did continue to build and develop their site in the sixteenth century (see Section 2.4).

As we might expect, the friary probably had a number of devotional statues within the church, and elsewhere within the complex, but extant manuscripts reveal only two of them. On 18 February 1275, Gilbert Fynch left 3s 6d to purchase wax for votive lights to be placed in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary (Anderson 1909, 13 and Copsey 1995, 46). This grant was later confirmed by his son, William, in 1285 (Anderson 1909, 13). Whilst later, on 27 October 1321, there was a grant for candles in front of the Virgin's statue (Anderson 1909, 14 and Copsey 1995, 46). Copsey suggests that the friary also contained a statue to Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary (Copsey 1995, 85). The statue of the Virgin is not surprising given the centrality of the Virgin to Carmelite devotion and also the importance of the Virgin in Aberdeen. Unfortunately there is no evidence relating to other statues around the friary.

There is considerable evidence concerning altars within the friary church. As with the statues we might also expect there to have been more than the documents reveal. First there is the altar to 'blessed Virgin…'; the evidence for which comes from a benefaction by John Crab, dated 24 March 1350 (Anderson 1909, 16 and Copsey 1995, 59). This altar was still in existence in 1482, when Alexander Menzies requested 'an anniversary at the principal altar of the blessed Mary…with candles and lamps lighted…' (Anderson 1909, 47, Copsey 1995, 59 and UA MS M390/18/8). As with the statues this altar reflects the main devotion of the Carmelite friars which is further reflected in the altar to the Virgin's mother. That altar is mentioned in a grant by Gilbert Fechat and his wife Isobel Myrtoune, dated 26 June 1506 (Anderson 1909, 65, Copsey 1995, 60 and UA MS M390/13/7). Finally there is the altar of 'the Holy Cross…', the evidence for which comes from a grant by Richard Forbes, dated 4 November 1478 (Anderson 1909, 45, Copsey 1995, 57 and UA MS M 390/17/5).

Therefore, we can be certain that there were at least three altars. As to the lay out of these particular structures it may be supposed that the main, or high, altar was located at the east end of the choir. However, the two other altars may have been located in the west end of the church, in the nave. Randla comments that a 'typical feature is the placing of side altars in front of the partition wall or screen' (Randla in Sarnowsky 1999, 263). There is plenty of historical evidence to support this customary partitioning of the church. For example, on 10 February 1400 David de Scroggis requested that an anniversary mass be said for his late wife, Isabel of Turyne, 'in their choir and that the place where she is buried…' (Copsey 1995, 58 and Anderson 1909, 22 and UA MS M390/16/6).

There were also bells in the friary, possibly connected with the church. These were in existence by the sixteenth century according to the historical evidence. On 26 September 1500 William Bowchane left money to the Carmelites for a mass to be said in memory of his wife, but with the bells to be rung on the previous night (Anderson 1909, 60 and UA MS M390/9/18). Later, on 29 March 1519 Robert Scrogis, when similarly leaving money for an anniversary mass for his wife, stipulated that the bells should be rung on the previous night (Anderson 1909, 73 and UA MS M390/9/12). On 19 March in the following year Patrick Leslie made the same stipulation (Anderson 1909, 73 and UA MS M390/9/9). What remains entirely unclear from this is how the bells were accommodated within the friary. A bellcot on its own would have accommodated only one bell, perhaps then this is some indication that there may have been a bell tower, although no archaeological evidence was found which would have any bearing on this point. Although the Carmelite church at Linlithgow may have had a bell tower, it is not possible to extrapolate from this to a general rule for Carmelite friaries (Randla in Sarnowsky 1999, 264). Also, although the historical evidence only shows the existence of bells in the sixteenth century it is probable that they were in existence long before then.

The remainder of the buildings in the friary would, as has been noted, been laid out as three ranges defining an internal cloister. Randla comments that for the Scottish friaries the ordering of the conventual buildings was done in accordance with the usual layout of monastic institutions. She noted: 'their need for conventual buildings were similar – every friary had a chapterhouse, a sacristy, a refectory, a kitchen and household buildings…' (Randla in Sarnowsky 1999, 270). A number of buildings are mentioned in the extant historical sources. A late 13th century grant stipulates the following buildings were to be erected: church, cloister, refectory, dormitory, infirmatory and kitchen (Copsey 1995, 45). It is not clear when those buildings were constructed but it is possible that at first they were wooden buildings which were replaced by more elaborate stone structures as time passed. Certainly in the 15th century the west range was upgraded (see Section 2.3)

Copsey refers to the friary as having had a library. Copsey also notes that this particular friary was a centre of learning. He notes that it served as a 'studium', with this association it may then be supposed that they had a library (Copsey 1995, 65, 69-70). The friars themselves would undoubtedly have read and studied either within their own cells or dormitory area or within the cloistered area. Nevertheless, storage space for the books would still have been required. Moreover, somewhere for teaching would also have been required.

The friary complex would also have housed a number of other ancillary and incidental buildings (Section 10).


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