Wednesday, 23 November 2011

March Stones 58 to 60 ABD - Froghall.


Celtic Place-Names in Aberdeenshire
John Milne, 1912
FROGHALL: Cheerful place. Frogail, merry, cheerful.

The branch line from Kittybrewster to our harbour’s massive rail terminal, one of many “Waterloos”, lies in near-desuetude, the almost-gleam of the rails betraying the only occasional robust creeping of freight wagons slipping in the dark of the clanking night towards the Berryden loop and access to main-line rail and away. Cargos to or from who-knows-where, who knows for what? Rare, seldom seen. Hardly considered.

Negotiate the dust and roar and hurry of the motor traffic at the Powis Terrace/Bedford Road junction and traverse either of two pedestrian footbridges over the railway cutting and onto Elmbank Terrace, there to get away into another world. Always and everywhere, it seems, to be on the wrong side of the rails is a condemnation. But here, walking with care to find the town’s ancient boundary stones - the “March Stones” (see note below) - to be on the wrong side of these tracks offers a kind of relief. The area, called Sunnyside to the north, Froghall to the south seems becalmed in a doldrum which is somehow away from the rest of Aberdeen; separate - a forgotten triangle of neglect. Benign neglect. This town is busy, too busy - so to walk down a quiet residential but non-suburban street, which has become like a woonerf-by-accident is a rare pleasure here. So easy to forget that walking and talking with your pedestrian companions is one of life’s simple riches, free wealth - for over the last small handful of years, since the oil-price first surpassed one hundred U.S. Dollars per barrel, this town-that-likes-to-think-it’s-a-city has gone into resource-extractive overdrive. Drill baby drill. This involves lots of people driving around the place as fast as they possibly can.
The boastful and offensive Aberdonian saw: “Recession? What recession?” - which revels in the high oil prices which cause such misery elsewhere - is played out on the less and less stately avenues and boulevards of our town as the cherished-plated out-of-scale machine-people machine the streets into crumbling gravel, milled to dust and reaming the pot-holes of their muck. So finding any pleasant outdoor spot in Aberdeen which is not intrusively besmirched by the constant traffic swish and foom has become a practical impossibility. It is always with us. As the autumn progresses and the trees now have shuddered away near the last of their leaves, not even our town’s parks offer a refuge from the continual susurration-roar of the busy people busying about being busy in the service of business.

58 ABD
Walking through becalmed Sunnyside/Froghall is relief. This unremembered triangle has, for whatever happy confluence of reasons, been rendered non-permeable to motor-traffic flows. Strolling calmly and slowly, each other’s words are listened to and considered in the unhurried luxury; the stroll of ideas as one step goes in front of another. In this way, and along these ways, progress is made as we make progress through the locality. The landscape of the built environment and its elements is assimilated in its relationship to us, in those elements’ relationships to each other. We insinuate ourselves and our thoughts into that landscape, we can be still in the resonances of the insights we gain, which in turn centre and still us farther yet. Still, centred, moving. An expansive unity of experience moving on and through the inner urban landscape.

59 ABD
The once-impressive villas, merchant-manors of nineteenth-century traders or capitalists, overlook the near-redundant branch line in the cutting below Elmbank Terrace - the street where boundary stones 58 ABD and 59 ABD are found. Were the original proprietors of these impressive properties overlooking an interest in the cargoes traversing or capital embodied in the short-lived Aberdeenshire canal which - almost immediately obsolescent upon its foundation - in turn established the foundation of the railway now occupying the cutting? Behind the villas, an industrial area fallen on hard times. Aberdeen’s still-born jute industry died with the canal, monumental masonry exhausted with the granite quarries. Traces of those industrial waves remain; in the street names - Canal Road and Jute Street (where we find boundary stone 60 ABD); and the industrial heritage evident in the built environment - the workers tenements clustering round the industrial area, the traces of rail sidings and platforms, the hand-cranes and unworked slabs in abandoned mason’s yards. And now, second (or third?) wave light industry, transient, almost gone too. Motor-trade, builders’ merchants, carpenters, telephone engineering depot, all in various stages of decrepitude. We smile to each other in the acknowledgment that there is beauty here. There is allure in the craquelure of peeling paint. There is dusty beauty in the modernism of a redundant telephone exchange used as a stationery store, forms no longer following function. There is delight to find a pedestrian permeability up a snicket behind bollards and there is a thrilling unity to the right-angled granite canyons that are the never-identical ramifications of the Aberdeen Victorian tenement template.

The edges form as industry constantly revolutionises itself and all that is solid melts into air. The edge is the difference between something and nothing. Residential development encroaches, people come and go, and come again. Will the Dutch disease event-horizon, the overriding exigency of oil-industry urgency suck all the capital of our town down-hole, to die dissipated and exhausted in (or exported from) a peripheral industrial estate? Or will something new, some novel enterprise yet to be conceived, re-occupy the dormant heart of Froghall - the "cheerful place"?

60 ABD

Development Opportunities 

Tenements - Old.

Flats - Newer

Apartments - Newest

Tagging not new - 'JJ 1879'

Test Department

wood berd
Goods    Pioneer
Every day is like Sunday.

Note: The “March Stones”

Confirmed in his Great Charter of 1319 (an ancient document which founded the real-estate and political power regime which prevails over the polity in Aberdeen to this day), in 1315 Robert the Bruce endowed the Burgesses of Aberdeen with a huge estate of land - known as “The Freedom Lands”. The medieval burgesses were a powerful group of men: police and army and lawmaking body and local authority all rolled into one, With a royal mandate behind them, their monopoly on force enabled them to enforce a monopoly on trade. They were the burgh. How our concept of freedom has changed.

The extent of this "gift" of land from Bruce (which required an annual rent to be paid to the crown - heh, some gift!) can be seen around Aberdeen today. Often mistaken for milestones, the engraved numbered stelae which lie hidden in plain view around Aberdeen mark the boundary between the gifted estate and the hinterland beyond - Kincardine to the south, Mar to the west and Buchan to the North. Bruce had occupied Aberdeen in 1307 and 1308 while he laid waste to a large part of that hinterland.

The Harrying of Buchan was a devastating event for this area, characterised by its (surprisingly modern) ruthlessly systematic nature. This was a policy, managed and executed with businesslike efficiency; entire towns like Ellon were completely eradicated, livestock and crops were burned in the fields, infrastructure was dismantled and dissipated. Some historians say that so complete was the destruction that the innate and potential wealth of Buchan was damaged for centuries after. A terrible and exceptional act of vengeful spite, unparalleled in these islands before or since.

Small wonder the Aberdonians cowered and offered Bruce whatever he wanted. The fearful and pusillanimous capitulation of Aberdeen's burghers (who had been loyal to the English crown until the pogrom in the hinterland) no doubt, in time, pricked Bruces' conscience and lead to his eventual largesse towards our town. According to the Aberdeen City and Shire website, the ordinary people of Aberdeen also "furnished" Bruce with "large supplies" of cash, food and other goods. Under what levels of terror and sword-edge compulsion was this "furnishing" obliged? In this context, the "gift" of the Freedom Lands more than a decade later might be seen as a form of belated conscience-stricken compensation from Bruce to Aberdeen's craven burghers.

The numbered stelae boundary markers which show the edges of that “gift”, the Freedom Lands are known as March Stones ("march" being the Old Scots word for "boundary”).


Peter Burnett said...

19th Century taggers. I'm happy now :)

Peter said...

Nothing can prepare us for the strangeness of the past. Perhaps that's why it is so readily buried? These stones are like mountain peaks poking through the surface of our modern world... dig deep and read!