Thursday, 14 April 2011

Thin Places Delineated at the Broad and Gallows Hills

A couple of months ago, we were on Aberdeen's Broad Hill to visit the innovative and subversive art installation: "By Order of Me".

Some of the artworks invite the viewer to consider the psychogeographical aspects of our situation ("You make the world the world"), as well as the psycho-historical aspects of the location ("Just think - there used to be bears here"). Go along with an open mind and time on your hands, observe the signs and you'll see what we mean. The installation is to remain in place until the end of the year.

It was a most raw February day when we were there, with a high tide battering hard against the esplanade which forms the sea-wall protecting the links from the North Sea. We walked under the esplanade and between the beach and the Broad Hill, then traversed the Trinity Cemetery up to the summit of Gallows Hill. Our interpretation of and interaction with the landscape inspired by the artifacts and the topography of the area.

Under the esplanade
Esplanade surveillance cluster.
For your safety and comfort.
From the top of Broad Hill, we see some remarkable views over the town lying to the west and, it being a prominent landmark, we're not surprised to find both an OS Trig Point pillar and a granite boundary stone at the hill's summit.

South face "R"
Both photos are of the same stone, we think it marks the boundary of fishing rights, the incised groove runs west to east pointing seaward. The inscribed letters will be the initials of the proprietors of the fishing rights. We're not certain of this, so if you know better, let us know...

North face "ND"
Traces of the foundations of recent structures can be seen in the low-lying flat links land - now a cricket pitch - beneath the hill. The area was heavily militarised during the Second World War, reflecting one of its historic uses as a convenient open and flat place to hold wappenshaws - "weapon-showings" - mustering of men under arms to satisfy clan or feudal lords that a suitably large, fit, well-equipped and bellicose corps of men could be gathered to execute their war-like bidding. We can't say whether the marks we see are the outlines of military camp structures and emplacements, or whether they are to do with the more conducive sporting and leisure uses of this land, which have included horse-racing, livestock shows, football, golf, galas and markets.

Impressions of previous land-use.
The shifting patterns of land use in this marginal zone between the town and the sea reflect the dynamic nature of this littoral zone itself. It is said that from time to time in pre-history the mouth of the River Don would become silted up and its waters would flow southwards, innundating the area now occupied by a links golf course and exiting to the North Sea somewhere around the latitude of the Broad Hill. Recent geographers doubt this assertion, the impervious clay bed of the links being at too high a level to allow the river to flow all the way south to the Broad Hill before finding an outlet or re-breaching its established one. However, the past undoubtedly saw the area characterised by a dynamic and shifting landscape with boggy quicksands, tidal lagoons, freshwater and brackish lochs (the Canny Sweet Pots - a bastardisation of Gaelic roughly translating as "the head of the settlement by the deep pools of water) fed by the Powis Burn and Banstickle Burns, which now run in underground culverts beneath the links. At their confluence, those burns became known as the Tile Burn which had a tidal flow allowing sea-going vessels to navigate some half-a-mile inland to the 18th century tile and brick works which gave the burn its name.

On the day when we visited, when a very high tide and a storm blowing in from the sea caused the waves to bluster and batter against the sea wall with more violence than we'd ever seen before, it was very easy to imagine a similar day in a time before modern sea defenses, the water inundating the land and reconfiguring the shifting sands, lagoons and watercourses.

This feeling of impermanence; of the diaphanous edge between something and nothing - the delicate balance between certainty and inconstancy which we felt and experienced as we stood braced against the onshore gale surveying the foreshore - put us in mind of the concept of the "Thin Place" in Celtic spirituality and the early Christian church. I've heard there's a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, and that in the "thin places" that distance is even smaller. The early Christian church in Ireland, in Wales and in Scotland sought out these "thin places" for pilgrimage and in some cases to co-opt the sites and plant their missions on the foundations of pre-existing spirituality.

We feel that others have felt the same about this site throughout the history of our town and perhaps before. On the western slope of the Broad Hill, descending into a hollow and then ascending up to Gallows Hill is the Trinity Cemetery, which hosts a unique monument to people who've willed their remains to medical science for research.
The increase of knowledge and the advance of medicine
An ancient scabby dog-shit strewn right-of-way leads up the side of the graveyard to the summit Gallows Hill. As if to emphasise the theme of changeability and inconstancy, as we mounted the summit, the weather changed dramatically, the skies cleared and the sun shone strong and low in the late winter sky.

A young couple on the summit of Gallows Hill

Looking back down the right-of-way from Gallows Hill
 to Broad Hill in the backgound, North Sea beyond.
Some old maps show a powder magazine sited on Gallows Hill, and a rifle range extending down the right-of-way between Broad Hill and Gallows Hill, chiming with some of the martial aspects of this part of Aberdeen. An ancient site of execution, where the gibbet remained in place until at least 1776, the choice of this site for the storage of volatile military materiel was apt. No doubt folk would avoid the area if they could, because of its associations with crime and punishment, death and bodily corruption. The Victorian Trinity Cemetery tempers the negative psychogeographical aspects of Gallows Hill somewhat with the usual mawkish Victorian aspirations towards spiritual redemption and resurrection in an idealised afterlive of child-cherubs and young-women-as-angels. These Victorian signs and symbols strike a saccharine note with us in the 21st century, and so merely add a further freight of peculiar queerness to the undeniably singular atmosphere which is embodied in the topography, artifacts and history of this area, despite it being very close to the town centre today.

Clinging to the old rugged cross
Gravediggers baronial-gothic cottage
The hill is marked with a couple of 19th century (probably) boundary stones and a much older stone, marked with a cross. The retired grave-digger (no, really) who lives in the splendid Gothic-Victorian pavilion guarding the gates of the graveyard told us that this was a "Doupin Stone" like the one out west at Wynford, but we can't corroborate that. Aberdeen City Council's archaeology pages don't appear to have a record for it and the RCAHMS record it as a boundary stone.

Groove-incised boundary stone.

Boundary stone inscribed "TH"

Cross-marked stone
The hill overlooks Aberdeen Football Club's stadium at Pittodrie. We understand that the hill was at one time known as the Miser's Hilly, because hard-up or parsimonious football fans could watch the match free from the prominence. We suggest you read Alex Mitchell's pieces on the Ancient Burgh's of Aberdeen in the Aberdeen Voice for more background.

Remains of a bonfire on the summit
There used to be a manure works nearby to the north at Linksfield, involved in the production of fertiliser and chemicals for the leather tanning industry and bleachings. The feedstock for for the works was provided by a police stables, it's dung-heap occupying the site of the present-day football stadium, the name of which - Pittodrie - is from the Gaelic "pitt" - place of and "todhair" - manure; bleaching

The Manichean paradox embodied in the fact that the filth of manure is transmuted into an agent of purity: the bleach for the tanneries and bleachings, similarly chimes with the transformative and dynamically charged psychogeography inherent in the shifting topography of the area and how that in turn has affected our use of it. A place of comings and goings; of shifting surfaces; of things which are not as they seem; of deaths, planned and natural; of aggression and recreation; and of crime and redemption all in a "thin place", a place on the edge between the land and the sea, the edgelands between here and there; the border between the past and the future. The difference between something and nothing.


John Aberdein said...

A dead lovely piece! Had never met with this Celtic concept of 'thin places' - between heaven and earth – before. This was my primary childhood haunt: recreated passim in 'Amande's Bed', Miser's Hilly, Broad Hill, Trinity Cemetery, Pittodrie and the Links. There was/is a mix of the wild, the ordered, very playable areas and the forbidden. Sledging on the north undulations of the Broad Hill, skiting down its steep east face on squares of cardboard (or have I made that up?) Kids were supposed to keep out of the cemetery. There was/is? a grey rise-and-fall gasometer visible looking up Roslin Street across the Cemetery: did it rise because it was full of light gas or because it was empty & therefore light was the conundrum? Neither apparently.

D munro said...

Some of the markings seen in the photo from the broad hill are of a hockey pitch the circle and the 25 are clearly discenible . Im used to play on those pitches. Some of the other lines are probably cricket boundary lines from different seasons.

Anonymous said...

fond memories of growing up in erroll place in the 70s played on the misers hill lots of times and watched a few afc maches from there