Although William the Conqueror never conquered Scotland, Norman ideas and practices eventually made their way up from England. New trading burghs were established in many places in Scotland during the first half of the 12th century. Aberdeen, situated near the mouth of the Dee (as distinct from the other church – St Machar’s Cathedral – and settlement near the mouth of the Don) was one of these new trading burghs.
Along with the establishment of a burgh came the need for a church for the inhabitants. The earliest mention of a church on the site of the present Kirk of St Nicholas is found in the Papal document of 1157.
Bearing in mind the close ties Aberdeen has to the sea, her citizens chose Nicholas as their patron saint, as one of the miracles attributed to him was the rescue of some sailors caught in a storm.
In 1277, we find the first named benefactor of the church. Richard Cementarius, who was also the first Civic head whose name is known, founded the altar of St John the Evangelist. The link between church and city council continues strong to the present day and one of the notable features of the West Kirk is the grand canopied seat in the gallery for the Lord Provost.
A growing burgh and a growing fear of death were the twin motives for enlarging the church in the 15th century. Not only did a larger congregation need accommodating, but increases facilities for masses for the dead was also a necessity. The expansion process began around 1477 with the erection of the new lower church – the Chapel of St Mary of Pity – to the East of the-then existing building. This was followed by an extension eastwards over it of the choir of the church. Eventually there were 32 altars in all. Works were completed in 1520.
In 1498, the enlarged Kirk was dedicated by Bishop Elphinstone, possibly the greatest bishop of Aberdeen, founder of her university and Chancellor of Scotland. (NB: The research has confirmed that at least one pillar base from this period still survives and will be incorporated into the new development). Further exploration may confirm that all ten of the pillar bases are still in situ. In addition, some of the woodwork made for the Kirk at this time survives and is incorporated into the current building.)
In 1998, the Kirk of St Nicholas celebrated the 500th anniversary of the dedication of the enlarged church with a special stained glass window at the main entrance to the Kirk, overlooking Drum’s Aisle.