ScotlandCropped image from Wikimedia

It was towards the close of the afternoon that we found ourselves crossing the Dee, in view of Aberdeen. My spirits were wonderfully elated: the grand sea scenery and fine bracing air; the noble, distant view of the city, rising with its harbor and shipping, all filled me with delight.
–Harriet Beecher Stowe in Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands, Vol. 1

Crossing the River Dee on April 21, 1853, Harriet Beecher Stowe was reminded of a ballad that she had learned in childhood that begins:

The moon had climbed the highest hill
That rises o’er the banks of Dee,

She did not know the author of the ballad, but it was written by John Lowe (1750-1798), a native of Kenmure in Galloway. As Stowe relates in Sunny Memories:

I never saw these lines in print any where; I never knew who wrote them; I had only heard them sung at the fireside when a child, to a tune as dreamy and sweet as themselves; but they rose upon me like an enchantment, as I crossed the Dee, in view of that very German Ocean, famed for its storms and shipwrecks.

In this propitious state, disposed to be pleased with every thing, our hearts responded warmly to the greetings of the many friends who were waiting for us at the station house.

The lord provost received us into his carriage, and as we drove along, pointed out to us the various objects of interest in the beautiful town. Among other things, a fine old bridge across the Dee attracted our particular attention.

We were conducted to the house of Mr. Cruikshank, a Friend, and found waiting for us there the thoughtful hospitality which we had ever experienced in all our stopping-places. A snug little quiet supper was laid out upon the table, of which we partook in haste, as we were informed that the assembly at the hall were waiting to receive us.

After attending an abolitionist meeting that evening, Stowe and her companions spent the next day, Friday, April 22, 1853, sightseeing in Aberdeen before taking the train to Dundee. She describes her visit in detail in Sunny Memories:

The next morning,—as we had only till noon to stay in Aberdeen,—our friends, the lord provost, and Mr. Leslie, the architect, came immediately after breakfast to show us the place.

The town of Aberdeen is a very fine one, and owes much of its beauty to the light-colored granite of which most of the houses are built. It has broad, clean, beautiful streets, and many very curious and interesting public buildings. The town exhibits that union of the hoary past with the bustling present which is characteristic of the old world.

It has two parts, the old and the new, as unlike as L’Allegro and Penseroso—the new, clean, and modern; the old, mossy and dreamy. The old town is called Alton, and has venerable houses, standing, many of them, in ancient gardens. And here rises the peculiar, old, gray cathedral. These Scotch cathedrals have a sort of stubbed appearance, and look like the expression in stone of defiant, invincible resolution. This is of primitive granite, in the same heavy, massive style as the cathedral of Glasgow, but having strong individualities of its own.

Whoever located the ecclesiastical buildings of England and Scotland certainly had an exquisite perception of natural scenery; for one notices that they are almost invariably placed on just that point of the landscape, where the poet or the artist would say they should be. These cathedrals, though all having a general similarity of design, seem, each one, to have its own personality, as much as a human being. Looking at nineteen of them is no compensation to you for omitting the twentieth; there will certainly be something new and peculiar in that.

St_Machar's_cathedralgeograph: Martyn Gorman / Creative Commons

Stowe further discusses the Cathedral Church of St Machar:

This Aberdeen Cathedral, or Cathedral of St. Machar, is situated on the banks of the River Don; one of those beautiful amber-brown rivers that color the stones and pebbles at the bottom with a yellow light, such as one sees in ancient pictures. Old trees wave and rustle around, and the building itself, though a part of it has fallen into ruins, has, in many parts, a wonderful clearness and sharpness of outline. I cannot describe these things to you; architectural terms convey no picture to the mind. I can only tell you of the character and impression it bears—a character of strong, unflinching endurance, appropriately reminding one of the Scotch people, whom Walter Scott compares to the native sycamore of their hills, “which scorns to be biased in its mode of growth, even by the influence of the prevailing wind, but shooting its branches with equal boldness in every direction, shows no weather side to the storm, and may be broken, but can never be bended.”

One reason for the sharpness and distinctness of the architectural preservation of this cathedral is probably that closeness of texture for which Aberdeen granite is remarkable. It bears marks of the hand of violence in many parts. The images of saints and bishops, which lie on their backs with clasped hands, seem to have been wofully maltreated and despoiled, in the fervor of those days, when people fondly thought that breaking down carved work was getting rid of superstition. These granite saints and bishops, with their mutilated fingers and broken noses, seem to be bearing a silent, melancholy witness against that disposition in human nature, which, instead of making clean the cup and platter, breaks them altogether.

The roof of the cathedral is a splendid specimen of carving in black oak, wrought in panels, with leaves and inscriptions in ancient text. The church could once boast in other parts (so says an architectural work) a profusion of carved woodwork of the same character, which must have greatly relieved the massive plainness of the interior.

We lingered a long time around here, and could scarcely tear ourselves away. We paced up and down under the old trees, looking off on the waters of the Don, listening to the waving branches, and falling into a dreamy state of mind, thought what if it were six hundred years ago! and we were pious simple hearted old abbots! What a fine place that would be to walk up and down at eventide or on a Sabbath morning, reciting the penitential psalms, or reading St. Augustine!

I cannot get over the feeling, that the souls of the dead do somehow connect themselves with the places of their former habitation, and that the hush and thrill of spirit, which we feel in them, may be owing to the overshadowing presence of the invisible. St. Paul says, “We are compassed about with a great cloud of witnesses.” How can they be witnesses, if they cannot see and be cognizant?

Brig o' BalgownieSource geograph: Craig Burgess / Creative Commons

Harriet next visited the Brig o’Balgownie, a 13th-century bridge spanning the River Don, of which she writes: “It is a single gray stone arch, apparently cut from solid rock, that spans the brown rippling waters, where wild, overhanging banks, shadowy trees, and dipping wild flowers, all conspire to make a romantic picture.”
She recalls the words of Lord Byron on the famous bridge, which are also noted in the 1852 edition of the guidebook Black’s Picturesque Tourist of Scotland:

About a mile from Old Aberdeen, the Don is crossed by the “BRIG of BALGOWNIE,” celebrated by Lord Byron in the tenth canto of Don Juan.

“As ‘auld lang syne’ brings Scotland, one and all,
Scotch plaids, Scotch snoods, the blue hills and dear streams,
The Dee, the Don, Balgownie’s Brig’s black wall,
All my boy-feelings, all my gentler dreams.
Of what I then dream’t cloth’d in their own pall.
Like Banquo’s offspring ; — floating past me, seems
My childhood, in this childishness of mind :
I care not — ’tis a glimpse of ‘Auld lang syne.'”

“The Brig of Don,” adds the poet in a note, “near the Auld Town of Aberdeen, with its one arch, and its black deep salmon stream below, is in my memory as yesterday. I still remember, though perhaps I may misquote, the awful proverb which made me pause to cross it, and yet lean over it with a childish delight, being an only son, at least by the mother’s side. The saying as recollected by me, was this, but I have never heard nor seen it since I was nine years of age : —

“‘Brig of Balgownie, black’s your wa’,
Wi’ a wife’s ae son, and a mare’s ae foal,
Doon ye shall fa’l'”

In his diary of their trip (published as Harriet Beecher Stowe in Europe by the Stowe-Day Foundation in 1986), Harriet’s brother Charles Stowe mentions having Black’s Tourist (p. 51). He also quotes from it in his diary about the Cathedral, without mentioning the source of the quote (p. 49). As Herriet continues:

After this we went to visit King’s College. The tower of it is surmounted by a massive stone crown, which forms a very singular feature in every view of Aberdeen, and is said to be a perfectly unique specimen of architecture. This King’s College is very old, being founded also by a bishop, as far back as the fifteenth century. It has an exquisitely carved roof, and carved oaken seats. We went through the library, the hall, and the museum. Certainly, the old, dark architecture of these universities must tend to form a different style of mind from our plain matter-of-fact college buildings.

Here in Aberdeen is the veritable Marischal College, so often quoted by Dugald Dalgetty. We had not time to go and see it, but I can assure you on the authority of the guide book, that it is a magnificent specimen of architecture.

Dugald Dalgetty appears in Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel A Legend of Montrose. King’s College, founded in 1495, and Marischal College, founded in 1593, were united to form the University of Aberdeen in 1860.

Aberdeen is known as the Granite City and Stowe and her companions completed their tour of the city by visiting “Mr. Leslie’s machinery for polishing granite” (as described by Charles Stowe in his diary, Harriet Beecher Stowe in Europe, p. 49). William Leslie (1802-1879) was an architect and builder. As Harriet describes her visit:

After this, that we might not neglect the present in our zeal for the past, we went to the marble yards, where they work the Aberdeen granite. This granite, of which we have many specimens in America, is of two kinds, one being gray, the other of a reddish hue. It seems to differ from other granite in the fineness and closeness of its grain, which enables it to receive the most brilliant conceivable polish. I saw some superb columns of the red species, which were preparing to go over the Baltic to Riga, for an Exchange; and a sepulchral monument, which was going to New York. All was busy here, sawing, chipping, polishing; as different a scene from the gray old cathedral as could be imagined. The granite finds its way, I suppose, to countries which the old, unsophisticated abbots never dreamed of.

One of the friends who had accompanied us during the morning tour was the celebrated architect, Mr. Leslie, whose conversation gave us all much enjoyment. He and Mrs. Leslie gave me a most invaluable parting present, to wit, four volumes of engravings, representing the “Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland,” illustrated by Billings. I cannot tell you what a mine of pleasure it has been to me. It is a proof edition, and the engravings are so vivid, and the drawing so fine, that it is nearly as good as reality. It might almost save one the trouble of a pilgrimage. I consider the book a kind of national poem; for architecture is, in its nature, poetry; especially in these old countries, where it weaves into itself a nation’s history, and gives literally the image and body of the times.

Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland

Robert William Billings (1813-1874) was an English painter and architect best known for his work, The Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland, which was published in four volumes between 1845 and 1852.