Little is known of the music at St Nicholas during the Middle Ages. What is know is that there was an organ present, as indicated by an entry into the Burgh Accounts in 1437, recording a payment of 26 shillings and eight pence “for blowing the organs.” Thereafter, there are several indications in the records (including the dismissal in 1533 of the entire choir, save one aged chaplain) that high standards of music and behaviour were expected from the chaplains and choir boys. A further indication comes with the appointment in 1544 of John Fethy to “have charge of organ and sang schule.” A contemporary of Fethy’s noted that he was “the first organist that ever brought in Scotland the curious new fingering and playing on organs.”
The Reformation brought some great changes, but these were not as completely negative as has sometimes been alleged. Certainly the organ ceased to be used for worship and in 1574, the civil authorities ordered that it should be dismantled and sold for the benefit of the poor. However, the latter part of the instruction seems to have not been obeyed as, two hundred years later, the pipework was found stored in St Mary’s Chapel.
In the meantime, two of the early post-Reformation Masters of the Sang Schule wrote tunes for the metrical versions of Psalms, which was being produced by, among others, one of the ministers at the Kirk, John Craig.
After a time in the mid-17th century when singing was clearly flourishing, there was a considerable period of decline in music. A change for the better began after 1745 – not in the city, but in the Aberdeenshire countryside. When a choir came in to give a demonstration in St Nicholas in 1755, the Kirk Session strongly disapproved of the performance and forbade “in all time coming” the introduction of new tunes. But they could not stem the tide of change. By 1823, the East Kirk had its own tune book in four parts. The West Kirk followed some 16 years later. But there were still no organs.
In 1878, a survey of the West Kirk congregation indicated that a majority were in favour of the introduction of an organ. The offer of Henry Willis to build a two-manual instrument for £670 was accepted. It was opened on Easter day, 1880, and still forms the basis of the present fine three-manual instrument of 31 stops (resulting from an enlargement by the same firm in 1927).
The instrument in the East Kirk is of a different character. Also of three-manuals, its 69 stops are extended from 12 ranks of pipes on a principle pioneered by Compton Company, which built it in 1936. Currently it awaits restoration as part of the Mither Kirk Project. It replaced an earlier instrument of 1887, which was built by Wadsworth of Manchester. That organ originally had two manuals, which was later enlarged to three by the local firm of Lawton in 1902, but never proved totally satisfactory and was judged to be worn out by 1935.
As part of the equipping of St John’s Chapel by the oil industry, a chamber organ, made in 1818 by the Liverpool firm Bewsher and Fleetwood, was obtained and is admirably suited to the space in which it is set.
Our Organist is Kyle McCallum who is a well-known presence in Aberdeen and North-East music circles. Having graduated Bachelor of Music from Edinburgh University a long time ago, he has spent many years as a conductor, organist and accompanist, giving recitals in cathedrals, churches and castles across the country. He has also served as President of both the Aberdeen and District Organists' Association and the Scottish Federation of Organists. Kyle is delighted to have the honour of playing in this historic Kirk and presiding over its fine Willis organ.
Norman Marr, the previous organist to the Kirk of St Nicholas Uniting, passed away on the 21st of June, 2015 after many years service to this and other congregations.