Although there is evidence of prehistoric activity in the area of Old Aberdeen, the settlement remained small until the 12th century, when the church became a cathedral. It is said that the original church was founded by a disciple of St. Columba and it is this follower, St. Machar, who the cathedral is named for. With several periods of rebuilding, St. Machar’s Cathedral grew in size and power but was ultimately to decline following the Reformation and then damage from Cromwell’s troops in 1650. Today it is a High Kirk rather than a cathedral, as there has been no bishop since 1690.
The area around St. Machar’s is known as The Chanonry, as is the photographic cobbled street running to the south of the cathedral. This part of Old Aberdeen was where the clergy lived — all the Chaplains and Canons who were needed for the Cathedral to function. Unfortunately, most of the older buildings were destroyed after the Reformation and replaced in the 18th and 19th centuries, but much of the area remains laid out on a similar pattern to that which existed in the medieval period.
The Merchant Quarter
After Old Aberdeen received its charter, the area south of The Chanonry began to be developed for the business and merchant community, centred around the Town House and the Mercat Cross. The current building dates from 1789 and is now owned by the University and run as a museum. The streets in this part of Old Aberdeen were made wider in order to allow market stalls to be set up. The Mercat Cross was medieval in origin, but damaged during the Reformation and again during the Civil War. It was finally sold off in 1788 but a fragment was restored by the University and after initially being installed in a different position is now back where it was hundreds of years ago.
There were seven incorporated trades in Old Aberdeen, each containing many different sub-trades and these guilds held considerable power. The list of the guilds provides interesting clues as to the crafts that were deemed important. In order of founding, these were: Weavers, Bakers, Tailors, Hammermen, Shoemakers, Wrights and Coopers and Fleshers. Evidence of these guilds can be found all over Old Aberdeen, such as at Wrights’ and Coopers’ Place, or in the buildings they funded.
The Trades also founded hospitals, something that had traditionally been the domain of the church but these were not the hospitals we know today. Instead they were places where the poor could rest or even live, sometimes with stipulations that, for example, they only be used by ‘…a few aged relicks and maiden daughters of decayed gentlemen merchants or trade burgesses…’ This example is from Mitchell’s Hospital, an early version of a care home which can still be seen today close to St. Machar’s.