Aberdeen Mercat Cross 



Aberdeen Philatelic Society: Aberdeen Mercat Cross

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Aberdeen Mercat Cross

The Mercat cross has been used as the society's logo since the 1960's. The first example of its use of which we are aware is on the cover and insert designed for the ASPS Congress of 1967, which incorporated a reproduction of the Mercat Cross. The Cross was chosen as logo as it was briefly the site of Aberdeen's Post Office from 1821 to 1824.

The logo now appears on stationery, certificates exchange packet booklets, the postal auction catalogue, and it has also been extensively used on this website. A detailed history of the Mercat Cross, by G.M. Fraser, was given in the Scottish Historical Review Volume 5, published by James Maclehose and Sons of Glasgow, in January 1908, and this is reproduced below:

The Market Cross of Aberdeen

The market cross of Aberdeen, the finest and best preserved of all the seventeenth century market crosses of Scotland, occupies a site in the Castlegate of the city on which a market cross has stood since, at least, the days of Robert the Bruce. Like other towns, Elgin, for example, at the present day, Aberdeen once had two crosses. One was the 'fish cross' in the east end of the Castlegate, round which the fisher folk displayed their wares until the removal of the fish cross in 1742. The other, situated at the western end of the spacious market place, was known as the 'flesh cross' from the circumstance that the booths of fleshers stood near it for many years in times when flesh meat was allowed to be sold on only certain days of the week.

The present market cross dates from the year 1686. About the previous crosses very little is known with certainty, apart from the fact that at the Reformation the 'crucifix' on the market cross of Aberdeen was so much a stone of offence to the zealous Reformers that they 'dang it doun,' as they did also the sacred symbol on the market cross of Old Aberdeen. But while little is known of those earlier crosses themselves, we know them as the centre of many notable events in local and national history.

The celebrations most familiarly associated with our earlier market crosses were the rejoicings on the occasions of a royal visit, royal birthdays, coronations, and such like. We are often told how, on such occasions, as William Dunbar tells of a visit of Queen Margaret to Aberdeen in 1511, that 'The Croce aboundantlie ran wyne.'

It was a form of celebration that subsisted for a very long period of time, and it is curious that when the present cross of Aberdeen was moved from its former to its present site in 1842, a pipe was found running up the centre column, from which it was supposed wine flowed on some occasions of the kind.

The supply of wine, however, that ran on such occasions was not quite so plentiful as is popularly supposed. No doubt, at the coronation of Charles II., when the whole country made extravagantly merry, no less than 'twa punsheoners of wyne, with spycerie in great aboundance,' was dealt out at the market cross of Aberdeen. But that seems to have been exceptional. On the birth of a prince to James VI., the amount of wine distributed at the cross was five gallons, and when a royal Duke was made a burgess of the town in 1594, the only expense incurred was 4 Scots 'for a galon of wyne spent at the croce.' It was often the case that only a very limited number of persons partook of the wine that flowed at the market cross. Thus, amid the great popular rejoicings that took place in Aberdeen at the absolving of the Earls of Huntly and Errol, after their rebellion in 1595, only eighteen persons drank of the wine at the market cross, who followed the practice, still indulged in sometimes, of breaking their glasses when they had finished.

The market cross, as the centre of burghal life, was naturally often the scene of punishments when it was desired to make a public example of any specially gross offender, or any specially heinous offence. In 1563 two Flemings were ordered by the Magistrates of Aberdeen to be taken to the market cross and have their right hands struck off, for cutting the cable of a ship in the harbour and stealing the 'cutt'; but the punishment was remitted by the Town Council on the culprits appearing at the cross and bringing the cut cable with them, and by holding up their right hand and giving praise to God and thanks to the Council for the favour that had been shown them.

Twenty years later, two persons convicted of adultery were sentenced to be bound and exposed at the market cross for three hours, thereafter to be burned with a hot iron on the cheeks and banished from the town. In 1617 a person was pilloried at the cross and banished from the town for insulting one of the baillies; and in 1640 a female, for unbecoming behaviour, was sentenced to be scourged at the cross, to be drawn in a cart through the streets, bearing a paper crown on her head, the bellman going before proclaiming her offence, and her banishment from the town.

Proclamation at the market cross was at one time held to be an essential element in the promulgation of a new law. Indeed, we find the Scots Parliament in 1581 solemnly dis- cussing the question of how far the public were bound to observe Acts of Parliament unless they had been proclaimed at the market crosses of the chief burghs throughout the country. And in order to remove all doubt, an Act was passed that in future all statutes should be proclaimed at the cross of Edinburgh only, which publication was held to be 'als valiabill and sufficient' as if the publication had been made at the market crosses of all the shires within the realm.

Notwithstanding this Act of 1581, practically all national proclamations continued to be made at the market cross of Aberdeen and in the other larger towns as well. One of the most singular was made only two years afterwards, 1583, when the national authorities were taking alarm at the use being made of the new printing press for the issue of anonymous political squibs in the form of ballads and other publications. Proclamation was made of an Act of the Privy Council that 'Na prenter sail presume or tak upoun hand to prent any buikis, ballettis, sangis, rymes, or tragedeis, ather in Latine or Inglis tounge, unto the tyme the same be sene, vewit, and examinat be wise and discreit personis depute thairto.'

One of the earliest proclamations of which there is a record in Aberdeen has some resemblance to the Act anent undesirable aliens of a few years ago. It was in 1348, and embodied an Act of Parliament then passed prohibiting Flemings mariners excepted from resorting to Scotch towns for business purposes and so depriving Scotch merchants of legitimate trade in Flanders. The original proclamation is one of numerous ancient documents still preserved in the charter room of the Aberdeen Town House, with its seal in white wax still entire.

Before the old cross of Aberdeen was removed, a very interesting and solemn ceremony took place there, which recalled the exploits of the great Montrose. The execution of Montrose took place at the market cross of Edinburgh on 2ist May, 1650. He was captured in the end of April, and was ordered by the Estates to be hanged at the cross. Says a contemporary record: 'This sentence wes punctuallie execute upon him at the Mercat Croce of Edinburgh upon Tysday, the 2ist day of May, 1650, and he hangit upon ane high gallows, maid for the view of the pepill more than ordinar,. with his buikis and declarationnis bund upon his bak. He hang full thrie houris; thaireftir cut doun, falling upon his face, nane to continance him hot the executioner and his men. His heid, twa leggis, and twa airmes tane frae his body with ane aix, and sent away and affixit at the places appoyntit thairfoir, his body cassin in to ane lytill schoirt kist, and takin to the burrow muir of Edinburgh, and bureyed thair amang malefactouris. His heid was spiket on the Tolbooth.'

About a dozen years after Montrose's death, his son and successor petitioned the Town Council of Aberdeen as of other places where the Marquis's limbs had been exhibited to restore for decent interment one of the dismembered limbs of the Marquis, which had been exposed on the Justice Port of the town and afterwards buried in St. Nicholas Churchyard. The Council agreed not only to restore the dismembered limb, but to make some measure of public atonement in the doing of it. Accordingly, guns belonging to the town were brought up to the market cross, and were discharged while a procession of the Town Council and inhabitants of Aberdeen, carrying the recovered limb in a coffin, marched from St. Nicholas Church to the Town House, where the remains lay in semi - state till arrangements were made for their transport to Edinburgh for interment in Holyrood. The town suffered much from Montrose both when he was a Covenanter and when he became a Royalist, but by 1661 popular opinion had given him that martyr's crown which has remained with him ever since.

It was shortly after this, in 1664, that the Town Council of Aberdeen felt the necessity of providing a more imposing market cross. 'Taking to consideratioun,' says the register of their proceedings, 'that notwithstanding this burgh is ane of the most antient royall burghs of this kingdome, the mercat croce thairof, which should be ane ornament thairin is farr inferior to many meaner burghs; therfor ordanes the dean of gild to caus mak up the mercat croce of the said burgh in the west end of the Castellgait with hewin and cut stanes, according to the stane and forme of the mercat croce of the burgh of Edinburgh, and to caus bring home stanes, and to do everie thing thair anent.'

The new cross was not actually begun till 1686, but in that year John Montgomery, of the rural Aberdeenshire parish of Old Rayne, who had, however, formerly been a prominent member of the mason craft in the burgh, contracted with the Council to provide this fine new cross for the sum of 100 sterling, with 7 14s. additional for the making of a wooden model. It was to be strictly according to the design of the then existing market cross of Edinburgh, 'with chops underneath.'

The only cross that can now compare with the market cross of Aberdeen is the cross of Preston, Haddingtonshire a county rich in interesting market crosses; but although Preston cross is sixty years older, having been erected in 1617, it lacks the grace of the Aberdeen cross, with its open arcade, and the latter is unique in having sculptured on its octagonal sides, above the arches, portraits of Scottish monarchs, with the royal arms and the arms of the city. From an architectural point of view the cross is not pure, but reflects the mingling of the 'styles' that went on all over the country in the Jacobean period.

Like the Preston cross, as also the ancient and long since demolished market crosses of Edinburgh, Dundee, and Perth, the cross of Aberdeen was built of solid masonry underneath the arches, and 'chops' were located there (it once accommodated the Aberdeen Post Office), from which a needy Town Council drew a modest revenue for a century and a half. In 1842, as already stated, the cross was removed to a more eastward site on the Castlegate, and on its being rebuilt on its present site the arches were left open, and the graceful appearance of the structure was thereby very much enhanced.

This was, it may be said, the second rebuilding of the cross. In 1821 the Magistrates ordered it to be thoroughly cleaned and repaired. After operations were begun, it was found necessary to take down the whole structure, and re- erect it from the foundation. Although great care was taken, the beautifully floriated Corinthian column which rises from the centre of it unfortunately fell, and was broken in three parts. It still stands, however, and the careful mending of 1821 is easily discernible. At that time a singular discovery was made in regard to the unicorn which surmounts the central column. When the cleaning operations began the whole structure was black with the grime of years, and seemed to be made entirely of sandstone, as had been agreed upon, but as the cleaning went on the unicorn began to assume a whitish tint, and it was then found that it was made of pure white statuary marble.

We have already noted some of the punishments that were inflicted at the market cross. The most curious episode of this kind is said to have taken place soon after the new cross of 1686 was erected. It is told of Peter Gibb, father of James Gibb (or Gibbs, as he came to be called), the noted Aberdeen architect, designer of the Churches of St. Mary-le- Strand, St. Martin's-in-the-Fields; the Senate House, Cambridge; Radcliffe Library, Oxford, and other well-known buildings, that, being a Roman Catholic, and something of a wag, he wished to cast some ridicule on his Protestant fellow-townsmen, and so named one of his two terriers Calvin, and the other Luther. The Magistrates are said to have publicly reproved him, and sagaciously ordered the two dogs to be hanged at the market cross.

The public records of Aberdeen contain no reference to this, but they do make mention of an incident which happened at the market cross in 1745. When the Jacobites possessed themselves of Aberdeen in that year, they obtained the keys of the market cross, from which they proclaimed Charles Edward king. Meantime, a party of them had seized Provost Morison, whom they dragged to the cross, but they completely failed to make him drink the health of the new sovereign and had to be satisfied with pouring the wine down his breast. From the resistance he made, Provost Morison who was the father of Dr. James Morison, originator of the Strathpeffer Spa was afterwards known as 'Provost Positive'

The Aberdeen market cross narrowly escaped complete destruction in the early years of last century, when many, even of the leading citizens, looked upon it merely as an obstruction on the street. Fortunately, it was saved. It is now cherished as perhaps the most interesting of the older structures in the whole neighbourhood. Within the last few months, by order of the Magistrates and Town Council, it has undergone a process of repair and cleaning, and the milk- white unicorn once more keeps guard over the grim portraits of the Scottish kings.


The complete book from which the text above is taken is available for download here

The Mercat Cross - our Logo

The Aberdeen Philatelic Society logo above shows the Mercat Cross during the period 1821 - 1824 when it served as the city Post Office.

Photomechanical print of Castle Street and municipal buildings, Aberdeen, dated between c 1890 and c 1900 from the Library of Congress, showing the Mercat Cross in the foreground. A much higher quality version of this is available here

A Valentine's post card from the mid 1900's


The Mercat Cross in 2011

Aberdeen Journal 16 April 1823 advertisement to lease the Mercat Cross presently occupied as the Post Office

Advertisement from the Aberdeen Journal,16 April 1823, issue 3927