Scottish Precentor



The Old Scottish Precentor.....
(the leader of the psalmody in the Scottish Church)


Among the Aberdeen Churches

Aberdeen, in the matter of its churches, is nothing if not historical, for is it not on record that, somewhere about the year 567, St Columba brought the gospel to the tribes then inhabiting Scotland north of the Grampians, and forthwith began to build churches? And it is not altogether beyond the pale of probability that among the number was the "original" Church of St Nicholas, on the site of which now stand the West and the East churches! An account of the building of these churches would be fruitful of much that is interesting, but a very few words must here suffice.

The West Parish Church is built on what was the nave or westmost portion of an Old Church of St Nicholas that "began to be builded" - this, on the authority of an old writer - "by the citizens about the year 1060." In 1732 or 1733, the old church had become unsafe in consequence of its great age, and ceased to be used as a place of worship. It lay in a totally neglected state for well nigh twenty years - till 1751, in fact, when contracts were entered into for taking down the insecure nave and erecting the present edifice. The designs for both the East and West Kirks, it should be noted, were furnished respectively by Archibald Simpson and James Gibbs, our townsmen, and at the end of four years the West Church was opened with considerable ceremony on "Sunday, the 9th day of Novenmber, 1755" - Thomas Shannon and a "hired band" leading the praise. It is worthy of mention that the freestone of which the church is almost entirely built was brought from Queensferry - a considerable distance then - at a substantial addition to the cost of the mason work. This action can only be accounted for by the fact that the working of the native granite was not so well understood as to warrant the builders attempting to put together such an edifice with the local material. It goes without saying, however, that the substitution of sandstone for granite is a blemish in an otherwise fine ecclesiastical structure. The Walls, by the action of the weather betray a black and battered appearance, but the base courses, built of Aberdeen granite, are as perfect as on the day they were laid down.

The First East Church occupied the east end of the site whereupon stood the old Church of St Nicholas. In 1352 - five years before the first stone of the Cathedral of St Machar was laid - the two bells, "Maria" and "Lawrence" ("Old Lowry"), were hung in St Nicholas Tower. The old steeple and belfry, with its peal of eight bells (including the two named), was completely destroyed by the great fire of 1874. The original East Church, which cost over 6s000 was taken down in 1837 and the present building erected.

The Music of the Sanctuary

If thus the history of the "stone and lime" is fraught with cherished associations, how much more so is that of the growth and development of the music within the walls of these sanctuaries! In this important connection, some details of the rise and progress of psalmody in the West and East Churches - principally as embodied in the appointments of several precentors - may prove acceptable.

In "A History of the Guthrie Family" the following interesting excerpt, condensed, is taken:- James Chalmers, senior, born 1713; died 1764; studied for the ministry of the Church of England. Said to have attended Oxford University. He was well skilled in the learned languages, and of many accomplishments, including music. Chalmers returned to Aberdeen in 1736. In 1740 he was appointed precentor of the Old or West Kirk and Master of the Music School. He was the eldest surviving son of Professor James Chalmer, a graduate of Aberdeen University, and minister of Greyfriars Church in 1728. During his tenancy of the "dask" Mr Chalmers published a collection of Church tunes - which, after the manner of the day, he dedicated to the Provost, Baillies, and Town Council. This publication appeared about 1748-9.

On 21st November, 1774, then, Mr James Chalmers, Jun., printer, after "having sung before the congregation" on the 9th of the same month, was duly elected precentor by the Town Council, in succession to a Mr James Pringle, resigned. About Mr Pringle there seems to be no specific information; but Mr Chalmers was the son of Mr James Chalmers, the founder, proprietor, and printer of the "Aberdeen Journal."

Mr Chalmers continued in office at the Kirk for twenty-three years at a yearly salary of 200 Scots. It would appear Mr Chalmers, in addition to his musical ability, must have been humoursome as well, for we find Burns referring to him as "a facetious fellow." Burns also, with reference to the meeting, says "There was an adjournment for a dram; though our time was short we had fifty auld sangs through our hand, and spent an hour or two most agreeably." Chalmers was high in the good graces of the select little Musical Society of his day.

In 1792, we find John Aitken, a teacher of vocal music, advertising in the columns of the "Journal" that he is now to reside in Aberdeen, and is to open a class on Sunday evenings gratis to "persons who bring with them recommendations from their ministers." Whether, in point of attendance, the class was successful or not, there are no means of knowing. The notion is, however, novel.

"After competitive trial," on 13th December 1797, Mr William Maxwell Shaw, who came to Aberdeen from Dingwall, was elected to the office of "precentor of the West Church, and teacher of vocal music in the city," at a salary of 20 for precentor and 5 as a teacher of vocal music." It is somewhat doubtful Mr Shaw was a native - some authorities maintain he was, while others seem equally determined he was not - but at least he was of Scottish extraction. For about eight years, Mr Shaw "took up the line" in the West Kirk, and then left for America, where at Boston, in July, 1805 - the year in which he resigned office - he died.

Following Mr Shaw came Mr William Milne, in business as a painter and glazier for many years in Aberdeen. Mr Milne has left little record of his six years' stewardship other than that he was a man of most retiring disposition, and the possessor of a very fair, sweet, and tuneful tenor voice.

About this period a change seems to have come over the spirit and ambition of the city fathers, for next on the list of eminent men and qualified musicians who have occupied the "lateran" of the West Church came Mr John Knott, a jolly Englishman, who served from 23rd May, 1811, till about the end of 1823. Mr Knott is said to have been a baker to trade, and came form Newcastle to Aberdeen. He was "a respectable and very gentlemanly, stoutish man, of nearly middle height, with a fine fresh complexion, beautifully-curling fair hair, and an easy roll in his gait - in fact, a gentleman all over." Mr Knott might have been "anything" between thirty and forty when he entered on his duties at the West Church. He had a powerful mellow tenor voice, and an animated, somewhat declamatory manner of singing. For some time Mr Knott had no choir, but Mrs Knott, on occasion, sat beside her husband and helped him materially in leading the praise. The good lady, it is said, "had a remarkably fine voice." Not very long after Mr Knott secured a few picked voices from among the boys of Gordon's Hospital, and the singing of the lads was characterised by "excellence and purity of tone." He was also music master at Gordon's Hospital, but does not seem to have been a favourite with the boys. In 1824, Mr Knott left Aberdeen for Edinburgh, where he was precentor for some years in the then New North Church. He died in the capital in 1837. His period of service in Aberdeen extended to about twelve years.


The Old Scottish Precentor
By W Milne Gibson