The Snow Kirk, Old Aberdeen

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After last December’s revelation that John Menzies of Pitfodels (1756-1843) had a wife,   your Editor thought readers might like to know more about where she was buried.   My article on ‘The Snow Kirkyard: Old Aberdeen’s Hidden Gem’ appeared in the February 1985 issue of Leopard.    Third in a series on local Catholic traditions, it was easily the best illustrated, by Diane Morgan as Editor.   John Slezer’s 1688 ‘Theatrum Scotiae’ showed the Snow Kirk with a corbie-stepped gable, and its roof on, against a background of better-known buildings.   One of Diane’s trademark out-takes from Parson Gordon’s 1661 map completed the first page illustrations.   They are reproduced in her book Lost Aberdeen.


In Old Aberdeen (of the villages project) Diane also had something to say about ‘Aulton folk ... secretly attending mass in its ruins...’ – my sort of thing – balanced by the avoidance of St Machar burial fees and its use as a meeting-place, for children as well as adults.    Another item I did not have to hand twenty-one years ago was J. M. Bulloch’s 1906 list of those buried in the kirkyard.    It is used here to make something different out of what starts as original article:


‘No stranger fate has befallen any of the historical possessions of Aberdeen than has overtaken the Snow Churchyard.  Its name is familiar to every intelligent person in the city yet remarkably few know the exact location of the graveyard, and the number of visitors who have actually been within the gate must be quite infinitesimal.’


This is how the city’s head librarian G. M. Fraser began his account of the Snow Church when writing Historical Aberdeen in 1905.   Today’s intelligent Aberdonian is less familiar with a name which is completely unknown to the city’s many incomers.   Though dismissed by Bulloch as ‘quite readable so far as it goes’, Fraser’s account can bear further quotation:

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‘Unless you steal surreptitiously through the garden ground of the Professor of Church History, nearly opposite King’s College, you must, in order to reach the Snow Churchyard, pass through such a gateway and such an approach as might form the approach to the Valley of Humiliation itself ... Visitors must bring more than guidebook knowledge with them in order to find any pleasure in their visit.’   Today you go in the gate of Johnson/Crombie Halls and turn left, the College Bounds slum which troubled Fraser having long since been cleared.


What is now a churchyard was originally the church itself.   Our Lady of the Snows derives from Bishop Elphinstone’s veneration of the Virgin Mary and his familiarity with the second-ranking church in Rome – Sancta Maria Maggiore ad Nives.   There is a chapel at Corgarff, still in use, named for the same miracle of snow in a Roman August.    So much for the name, which has come down through five centuries as the Snow Kirk.


It was built as the parish church of Old Aberdeen so that the Cathedral and King’s College Chapel could be left free for more ceremonial functions.   The relationship can be described in terms of bells.  St Machar boasted a peal of 14; King’s began with 15 but relinquished two of the smaller ones to the Snow.   Sundays and feast days must have been joyful with these many chimes.  Only the two Snow bells were popularly identified by name: ‘Schochtmadony’ meaning pull Modanus (a local saint whose name is in Pitmedden) and ‘Skellat’, which simply means a small bell.


Although built as a parish church, the Snow lost that function when its congregation was merged with St Machar’s in 1499.   Although intended for students it continued to draw local people to worship, so that the merger had to be proclaimed again some eighty years later.   The Rector of Snow was the University Grammarian who taught Canon Law as well as Latin.    His position was described in the University’s founding charter:


‘Foreseeing and knowing that the fruits of the said church will be slender ... every student in our said new College shall pay to the Rector of St Mary and his successors ... at the Paschal feast four pence: and with the poor [students] the said rector or vicar shall compound amicably.’   In return for his church’s slender endowment the rector said mass once a year for the souls of King James IV and Bishop Elphinstone.


The building’s plain appearance and reputation caused Protestant Reformers to ignore it when the Angus men marched north to assail St Machar’s.   Quarter of a century after Edinburgh’s Reformation Parliament the congregation had to be placed more firmly under Kirk control, along with their neighbours from further up the road to Aberdeen:


‘The parochinneris of Snaw and Spittal be compellit to resort to the said kirk of Machar to heir thair the evangel preichit, the sacraments ministrat and discipline exercisit, as their awin proper parochin in time to cum ... with power to the said college of Aberdene to dimoleishe and tak doun the ruinous walls and tymber of the present kirkis of Snaw and Spittal now abusit to superstition and idolatrie.’


Catholic worship survived in an area where many influential people, starting with the Marquis of Huntly, were none too keen to carry through the intentions of southern politicians.    And whatever state the Spital’s church may have been in, the Snow was far from ruinous in the illustration of 1688.    By then, however, the state of the walls was less important to the ‘Aulton folk’ than what had become hallowed as a place ‘within the whilk their friends and foirfathers were buried’.


Burying was controversial.  Edicts of the local authority give us an idea of the battle for hearts and minds which went on for more than a century after Mary Queen of Scots was executed.   Aberdeen Burgh Council repeatedly sought to limit the number of people attending funeral wakes, and to deny the bereaved family’s right to offer hospitality: the sweetmeats known as ‘drogues’ were banned, along with desserts, but it was the liberal offering of strong drink on these occasions which really offended the burgesses.


Seventeenth-century Presbyterians regarded all burial services as ‘popish’, and more so when they took place by torchlight.   The authorities took strong exception to the night-time burial at the town’s kirk (St Nicholas) of the Laird of Drum’s daughter.  The Irvines of Drum were prominent papists.   Thirty-five years later (in 1705) the pressure was still on to discard old customs when the Council demanded ‘from each person who shall burn incense or perfume at the burial of their friends in church £4 Scots, or in the churchyard 40/- Scots’.    As in medieval times, the gentry were buried indoors and commemorated by armorial monuments, while ordinary people lay in unmarked graves outside.   In 1671 King’s College started to charge £8 for the Snow Church and ‘ane dollar’ for the cemetery beyond the walls.


No record of burials exists prior to 1776, but by the beginning of last century (when the charge was 13/4 for burial - within the walls only) 160 names were registered.   All but 13 date from before 1880, and the graveyard was declared full in 1934 when an 85-year-old spinster was buried alongside her parents.    Fraser the librarian, making an exception of the Pitfodels stone, dismissed the rest as having ‘singularly uninteresting inscriptions’.   The members of Aberdeen’s family history society, currently undertaking a graveyard survey of north-east Scotland, would probably disagree.   Bulloch’s discovery, through King’s College, of a Catholic record of burials made all the difference.   This remarkable document can be consulted in the April 1906 issue of Scottish Notes and Queries.   It is remarkable for the way it gives meaning to stones and even to unmarked graves.   There can be nothing like it in north-east Scotland.   One of the earliest recorded interments was that of Bishop James Grant.   Previous bishops had been buried inside a roofless chapel near Fochabers, but he died in the Castlegate of Aberdeen.   Bishop John Geddes, who shares the grave, suffered years of painful paralysis in the same house before his death in the last year of the eighteenth century.   His nephew Charles, who was to win the affection of Aberdonians as ‘Priest’ Gordon, nursed him through the last stages:

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‘Sometimes the sick man needed his assistance twenty times a night.   Charles was on one occasion so much exhausted that he fainted while in the act of lifting his uncle from the bed to his chair.   They lay on the floor helplessly, the Bishop uppermost, till his nephew recovered consciousness.   No wonder the uncle promised to thank the nephew on the Day of Judgement.’    Mr Charles Gordon was laid to rest in the same tomb 56 years after his bishop.   On the day of Priest Gordon’s funeral so many townsmen and women came out to pay their respects that the procession was still leaving the Castlegate when the head of the cortège reached the Snow Kirk.   Redcoated soldiers of the 19th Highlanders presented arms as the coffin went by.


The St Peter’s pastor was renowned for his couthy use of Scots in the pulpit and beyond.   The Rev. James Sharp, by way of contrast, was the first of the area’s priests to have a settled preference for the English language.   He became ‘procurator’ or bursar of Blairs College when John Menzies of Pitfodels gave the estate to the Church, acting in tandem with his brother John who was the institution’s first president.   ‘Sharp’s tablet’ marks the grave of both.   Sad to say, the bodies of no fewer than six young men were brought from Blairs to what became known as the Students’ Grave.   Note the old place-name: ‘1839, August 22.  Robert Paterson, student at Blearews, was buried in the Snow Church yeard in the Grave on the South side of Capt. George’s Grave, on the line with Rankin’s stone.’

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Graves are so carefully located in this way that a 3D map could readily be constructed, with early burials at the lowest level.   Proximity to north or south dyke, or to one of the named stones, guided anyone who wanted to say a prayer for the deceased.   Inscribed tombstones for all would never have worked in the available space.   There is the feeling of an extended family, not least in relation to clergymen who had no issue:  ‘Miss Rankin lies under their own stone at the head of Bishop Grant’s.’   John Rankin’s Stone was a regular landmark; his daughter, who died in 1816, ran a school for young ladies in Aberdeen.


Captain David George is only one of the army officers named – evidence that it had become possible (after centuries of penal legislation) for a Catholic to be commissioned.    Malcolm Bulloch gives us the career of Captain Daniel Gordon.   He came in from the Dutch service in 1794 and entered the regular British Army after service with the Northern Fencibles and the Aberdeenshire Militia.



The old church yard became a focus in death for the families of country gentlemen:  Wilson of Glasgowego defeats me, but not Leslie of ‘Pitkapple’, Menzies of ‘Concregie’ or Concraig (in the parish of Kinellar, purchased by the Blairs man’s uncle), Kyle of Binghill, Menzies of Pitfodels.   This is the stone which - uniquely - interested G. M. Fraser on account of its Latin dedication, along with the arms of Gilbert Menzies who ‘yielded to the fates’ in 1669.

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For the sake of our family’s long period of residence in Ferryhill (and also its sheer poignancy) my own favourite grave is that of an army officer called Condell who lived at ‘Fonthill-place, near Aberdeen’.   It is close to that of Thomas Sangster, Esquire, Advocate in Aberdeen: ‘1840.  January 28.  Josephine, infant daughter of Major Condell, was buried in their own Grave at the head of Mr Sangster’s.’   The body of young Frederick Condell was already in it.   Within six years these two small children were to be joined by a second Frederick, aged three, and by ‘Major Condell’s infant son Henry’.  Requiescant omnes in pace: May they all rest in peace.


Contributed by Alasdair Roberts.

Recent Photographs by Mike Morrison (November 2009)

 List of burials in the snow kirk