Historic Aberdeen



Aberdeen in the 17th Century....


Various covenanting bands were quartered in the city from time to time, and the magistrates were hard put to it indeed to find provender and pay for them, as they were ordered. The surrounding countryside, too, suffered. There were constant forages for food, and the castles of royalist lairds were attacked. At this time, too, that is to say in 1640, a meeting of the General Assembly of the Church was convened in the Greyfriars Kirk. It was not a meeting of note, but the decision was taken to remove all signs of popery from local religious buildings. The general opinion of the time was that little real harm was done.

But the burdens the citizens had to bear left the city almost destitute and powerless. The Gordons took advantage of this weak state to enter the town one March morning in 1644 and kidnap the provost and three leading citizens, and hold them in the castle of Strathbogie. The prisoners were liberated, however, when it was learned that a strong covenanting force under Argyll was headed northward. Argyll, too, requisitioned supplies from the town, but mercifully did not stay long.

Aberdeen was now to suffer the greatest blow of them all. The Marquis of Montrose, who had been the outstanding covenanting leader, had now turned his coat and become the king's general in Scotland. After defeating the covenanting forces at Tippermuir, he again marched north, as he had done several time before in a different cause. He crossed the river at Drum and advanced on the city along the north bank of the Dee to attempt to force allegiance to the king. He encamped on the hill where the Garthdee housing scheme is now being erected, at a point then known as the Twa Mile Cross. He sent a messenger and a drummer boy into the city, under a flag of truce, to demand surrender in the king's name, or that they should stand to arms. The chief citizens had assembled in a house in the Green, and there they rejected Montrose's ultimatum. Unfortunately, a rowdy shot the drummer boy, and Montrose, in great exasperation, launched an attack. A small covenanting force under Lord Burleigh, and all the able-bodied citizens, proceeded to the defence of the city. The two forces met near the Craibstone, and the battle was fought on the sloping ground below Bon-Accord Crescent. Montrose swept the opposition away, killing 160 of the defenders. His army of Highlanders, and Irishmen under the celebrated Colkitto, wreaked havoc throughout the city, pillaging and murdering. Thereafter all the towns in the neighbourhood were similarly dealt with. That took place in May, 1644, and when Montrose was executed in May 1650, there must have been few sore hearts in Aberdeen. 

Montrose being ousted, Huntly attacked Aberdeen for the king. The city was in the hands of a small Covenanting force under the Earl of Eglinton, as he later became. Huntly stormed the city, and in the fight which ensued the most colourful episode was the duel between Huntly's brother, Lord Gordon, and the Master of Forbes. This took place near the Broad Street. Their parties met head on, and these two fought hand to hand till Forbes was killed. Huntly won the day, but he gained little advantage, because Charles I was shortly to surrender to the Scottish army.

For some years now Aberdeen had been a battleground. It had lost many of its men, and was nearly bankrupt, so that however the Commonwealth may have been hated elsewhere, it certainly brought peace and an opportunity for recovery to our city. And it needed rest badly, for not only had it been torn between two rival parties, but it had to endure a horrid outbreak of plague in 1647 in which, it is said, 1600 people died. 

It may interest you to learn that Charles II spent some time in Aberdeen after his defeat at Worcester in 1650. It is known that he lodged in a house in Castle Street, which stood roughly opposite where the Town House now stands. Shortly after, General Monk, the Roundhead leader, also arrived. It was he who was later to restore Charles to the throne.

When Charles II was eventually restored, there was great joy in the city, for Aberdeen had always been a loyal town. Covenanting battles there still were, but they were confined to the south, and the people of Aberdeen were left to get on with their work, as they did throughout Charles' reign. But when James II abdicated, the city was troubled by bands of roving Highlandmen, after their check at Killiecrankie. They did not plunder as did their predecessors, but contented themselves with demands for provisions, for which they never paid. And so the 17th century drew to a comparative peaceful close.

But before we leave it, just a word about the Quakers. Although Aberdonians knew the horrors of persecution themselves, they were still not prepared to let the Friends worship as they pleased. They were not a numerous body, and were a quiet, law-abiding folk, yet they incurred the hatred of the mob. When they appeared in the streets they were stoned and jeered at, but they would do nothing to protect themselves. They were also cast into prison, and there were so many of them in the Tolbooth that they had to sit up and lie down by turns. Those who were shut up in the cells at St Ninian's Church on the Castlehill required candles to see their food even in broad daylight. Most dreadful was the treatment meted out to Barclay of Ury. He had been a soldier of distinction under Gustavus Adolphus, and had been honoured on several occasions by Aberdeen. Yet when he became a Quaker he was reviled in the streets, and mocked by everyone, so much so, indeed, that he became an almost legendary figure and the hero of a poem by Whittier.

Long after the persecution came to an end, Quakers still held their meetings in a small house off the Gallowgate, in the garden of which they also buried their dead, since they were not allowed the right of burial in the communal cemeteries.

Trusty and Well-Beloved
The Story of Aberdeen
by Alexander MacLeod

Marquis of Montrose