Aberdeen Districts



The Woolmanhill and Gilcomson - A Little History!


It is not possible, in present limits, to review fully the multitude of associations that cluster around the Woolmanhill. One remembers that, in the sixteenth century, it was one of the places where the Wapinschaw took place. Again, it was one of the outer boundaries of the burgh beyond which town's-people were not to pass for the purchase of country produce if thereby their neighbours were likely to be forestalled. Sometimes it was the scene of conflict, as on that occasion, in 1587, when the Laird of Balquhain and his followers there by the magistrates and citizens in armour. In 1647, huts were erected in the Woolmanhill as an outlet for a town stricken by plague, a frequent and devastating visitant. Between 1400 and 1647 we have a record of no fewer than thirty-two distinct visitations of the plague in Aberdeen. On that last occasion it broke out at Pitmuxton, having been brought thither by a woman from Brechin. The inhabitants were convened by the Magistrates and Council in the Greyfriars Kirk, and the customary (ineffectual) steps taken to stay the spread of infection, but through most part of the year the trouble raged virulently. It is said that no fewer than 1760 of the inhabitants of the town and suburbs were carried off in that dreadful time, in spite of all that could be done "for the weill and saiftie of the distrest toun."

Up till nearly the middle of the eighteenth century the Woolmanhill remained outside the burgh. By that time Scotland was awakening to the merits of the Hospital system for the treatment of the sick. In 1736 the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh was incorporated. Three years later a movement was started in Aberdeen. Woolmanhill was selected as the site, the Magistrates and Council granting the necessary ground, and on New Year's Day, 1740, the foundation stone of the Infirmary was laid where the Royal Infirmary still stands, and in little more than two years thereafter the new building was opened for patients.

But that was only the beginning of changes in the district. Beyond the Woolmanhill stretched the hamlet of Gilcomston, one of the most ancient suburbs of Aberdeen. The very name takes us back to the twelfth century, and its mixture of Celtic and Saxon is an indication, at least, of the racial character of the inhabitants of the Aberdeen neighbourhood as the light of history begins to dawn. The dubiety that has long existed as to the origin of the name Gilcomston, is amusingly illustrated in a fifty-year old "Survey" of the city.

"Going northward (from Schoolhill) through Skene Square you may notice, within a garden on your left, Gilcomston, viz. - the stone from which this suburb has its name. Some will have this 'Gilcom' to have been one thing and some another; the truth is, few or none can tell whether he was 'saint, sage, or savage.' The stone stands about seven feet above the ground and there is another smaller one at a shorter distance. The appear to have been of Druidical erection."

It would be very interesting to know what kind of hamlet existed at Gilcomston in the twelfth century, but of that no record has yet been, or is likely to be found. The probability is that the semi-Celtic settlement, such as it was, disappeared wholly as the Celtic element passed away from the immediate neighbourhood of the burgh, leaving only the name, as in so many other places in the vicinity, to tell of what had been. Our earliest references to Gilcomston tell merely of agricultural or grazing land, or, among other things, of disputes regarding moss-land in the neighbourhood of boundaries which were always ill-defined. The property passed through many hands in the middle centuries - the town always keeping a tight hold on at least certain portions of it. In the sixteenth century it was the property of the Gordons of Pitlurg. In 1632, through a charter granted by John, Earl of Mar, the lands of Gilcomston came into the hands of the notable Aberdeen family, Menzies of Pitfodels, and in 1672 the Scottish Parliament granted a ratification in favour of William Menzies of Pitfodels, to the lands and barony of Pitfodels, "As also all and haill the lands of the toun of Gilkhamstoun, with the milne, milne-lands, multurs, and sequills therof, Togidder with all and sundry toftis, croftis, outsettis, pairts, pendicles, and pertinents of the same." Only a year afterwards Sir Andrew Fletcher uncle and tutor of Menzies of Pitfodels, sold the lands of Gilcomston to the town for 26,500 merks, 1452 4s 5d sterling. As pertaining to one particular branch of the public revenue or another, Gilcomston remained for many years the property of the town.

The commencement of the actual feuing of the lands of Gilcomston dates from that eventful period, 1748, when the Town Council enacted "that proper persons be appointed to put the lands of Gicomstone in several lots as the Council should think proper." Houses very quickly began to spring up, and by the end of the century there was a considerable village where Upper Denburn and Jack's Brae are still, with the outlying hamlet and quarries of Loanhead, near the present site of Loanhead Terrace. Francis Douglas (1782), called it a "fine village," but those who are familiar with the wretched remains of it will rather agree with Kennedy when he says - "Although the ground on which it (the village of Gilcomston) is built is possessed many local advantages favourable for the situation of the town, having a fine sloping exposure to the south-east, with a small stream of water running through it, yet no plan whatever was adopted, either for laying out regular streets, or for building the houses upon any uniform design. The consequence of neglect in this respect has been buildings, in general are mean, and very irregular. For many years the village of Gilcomston maintained its air of separateness from the rest of the town, and indeed it was only in the last half of the nineteenth century, when the tract of ground known as the Belleville nursery began to be cut up and formed into streets, that the suburb became in a real sense a part of the city proper.


Historical Aberdeen
By G M Fraser

Burgh map based based on
James Gordon's plan of 1661
(ref: City by the Grey North Sea
by Fenton Wyness)