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In the 18th and early 19th centuries the Church went through long periods of decline and restoration.

Decay & Rebuilding

The opening couplet of an inscription placed on the wall of the nave in 1672 sums up the character of the building (at least in the eyes of Aberdonians) at this time:

“Sant Nicholas’ stately structure here doth stand. No paroch kirk can match’t in all the land.”

Despite that tribute, the nave (or Auld Kirk) was showing considerable signs of decay  little more than half a century later. In 1732, it was declared to be unfit for worship and ten years later, the roof caved in. 

The religious and political changes accompanying the deposition of James VII in 1689, had resulted in the removal of the Episcopal superstructure from the church. But Episcopal and Jacobite sympathies remained strong in the North-East and when Episcopally-inclined clergy were outed (as happened here), considerable parts of the congregation went with them.

It may be supposed that both the will and the means to keep the building in order were reduced. Eventually, after the Jacobite threat had ended in 1745 (during which time Cumberland’s army stabled their horses in the Kirk!), a start was made to rebuild the nave.  Plans had been gratuitously obtained from James Gibbs, an Aberdonian who had a distinguished architectural career in England. The outcome was the West Kirk, which opened in 1755.  Today, it retains the layout and many of the fixtures and fittings of the time, providing a prime example of the Reformed “choral square,” which places the pulpit at the heart of the space so that everyone can properly hear the preaching. 

Rapid population growth in the early 19th century lead to a division of the hitherto single parish of St Nicholas, into six. Three new parish churches were built, including one for the North Parish and one of the two ministers from the East Kirk moved to this new building.

One of the two ministers previously serving in the East Kirk moved to the new building.  His remaining colleague desired a building similarly unimpeded by pillars in which to exercise his oratorical powers and persuaded the town council, against the advice of their architect, to demolish the mediaeval choir and build a replacement, which was completed in 1837.

In 1829, the granite colonnade was added along Union Street, designed by John Smith, the first city architect, in honour of John Forbes, a local philanthropist. This colonnade gave the Kirk even greater prominence in the city and provided a grand entrance. 

After a fire gutted the East Kirk in 1874, it was rebuilt and is presently a faithful restoration of the original 1837 building. The restoration also found the present 196-foot granite tower and spire replacing the mediaeval tower, to which a led-covered oak spire had been added in 1508. 

The church possesses several items of furniture and a number of smaller articles made from oak salvaged after the fire and also, in some cases, from bell metal.

At the time of the 1874 fire, there were eight bells in the tower, hung for change ringing.  After the fire and subsequent restoration of the building, council, churches and citizens came together to provide a carillon of 37 fixed bells, played from a large keyboard. Because of a wrong formula in the bell metal, the bells were scarcely audible until they were recast and re-hung in 1952. Two years later, 11 bells were added to provide the present total of 48.  The carillon found a place in the Guinness Book of Records in 1994 as the largest in Great Britain. Its largest bell weighs 4.6 tonnes and is the only one that can (by motor) be swung.


Decay & Rebuilding
Late Victorian Prosperity
Twentieth Century
New Millenium
Significant Artefacts
History Timeline
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