Sighting the Triple Kirks

Prologue

In June 2013, the inaugural Famulus journal was published, to a tiny print-run of 25 retail copies. I contributed an essay about the Triple Kirks ruined church in the centre of Aberdeen, Scotland. The future of the site has long been debated, with developments proposed and quashed every couple of years. However, Dandara have now stated their intention to redevelop the site, flattening all but the spire, which itself will be subsumed into a glass-fronted office block. It will be called ‘the Point’; which calls to mind the tatty cinema complex in Milton Keynes of the same name – although this is to be demolished too, according to Wikipedia. (I used to visit this cinema as kid. That metal pyramid exoskeleton seemed enormous to me then, reaching up in to the clouds. Sadly, as an adult, its size is somewhat diminished and puny-looking). I am republishing my Triple Kirks essay here, to share that special structure/non-structure, soon to be lost to the developer’s vision.

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Sighting the Triple Kirks

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Contrary to most of the other grand old buildings of Aberdeen city centre, this one is not composed of granite: that hard, cold rock that so easily mimics the sky above (or is it the sky that mimics buildings below?). The Triple Kirks is a brick building. Bricks of deep vermillion; small bricks: pre-metric. Small and long; flat.

The Triple Kirks was hastily built in 1843 by Aberdeen’s architect son Archibald Simpson. The Church of Scotland was in crisis, with serious concerns that the Kirk’s spiritual piousness was being too intertwined with political, secular matters. The Free Church was formed during this Disruption (capitalisation intended) to counter the established church’s politicisation, and buildings were needed quickly. The Triple Kirks was built to house three congregations; these three churches being united through the use of a single steeple, with each church arranged around the central spire in a pinwheel style.

The site selected was on the edge of the Denburn Valley: at the time, a swathe of lush picturesque greenery, with Den Burn at its centre. The flame-red spire serving to add that so-valued human addition, which was thought to only improve existing natural beauty. Previously, and for seventy years, a weaving factory occupied the site. From here came the red bricks that forms the spire (plus some further brick from demolished fisherman cottages at Ferryhill). One of those employed at the former factory was William Thom, Weaver Poet of Inverurie. In Lines Written at Ravenscraig1, he talks of the ruins on the banks of the River Ugie:

        Bring ivy wi’ its peaceful green,

Gae hide ilk hoar, unhallow’d stane;

They maunna bloat you bonnie een

                                That watch the gushin’ Ugie

Unlike the Ugie, the Den Burn is now hidden; culverted to make way for a rarely-used dual carriage way. Along this valley there also runs a train line. But across from this there still remains a shadow of the green Denburn Valley, in the Union Terrace gardens. The eyes of the steeple still watch across the valley: not at the plash of water, but the sporadic flow of car and train. In writing that poem, William Thom unwittingly foretold the fate of the building that was made from the demolition of his employment. The once hallowed, but now unhallow’d red brick of a spire that no longer serves its purpose: as an antenna to heaven; as spiritual beacon for the people below. The churches themselves now pulled down, left empty and roofless, or converted to pub, nightclub, dance studio.

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The church that still remains, but is roofless, is supported by the angular symmetry of modernist scaffolding. In a north facing wall, the wooden frame in the window place has shifted. Its pointed arch outlines skewed against the vertical walls and the order of the scaffolding. The space within these roofless walls is out-of-bounds. But today the service yard for the adjoining pub is quiet, so I sneak in. A piece of rotting chipboard is all that prevents access. I pull the board away, just enough to be able to see the rear of the walls. Despite the relative ease of getting this view, it feels like an act of subversion. I am looking on the wrong side of the walls. Sometimes developers might get in here, and birds have free reign to fly over the walls, though perhaps not the aesthetic wherewithal for its uncanny appreciation.

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Another time, when viewing the north wall from the ‘right’ side, that is, the outside, I can see tiny footprints. There is a thin lie of snow, lying like a white quilt, all smooth undulation, but with small tears where precocious grass pokes through. A single line walks towards the wall, by a bird unseen. Perhaps, after all, birds do have a curious interest in this wall. Or maybe it was for the thrill of leaving a trail in the snowy blanket: a kind of colonisation of an untainted canvas; a territorialisation. Perhaps it was searching for food; though deep down I suspect it’s all of these reasons, and none. (What is a reason, anyway, other than the purposeful deliberation of action; a passing-of-the-moment for time-rich, experience-poor human beings?).­­

Who made this path? I wondered. I hear there are peregrines that roost in the lofty spire. All I have ever seen are pigeons, clucking out of the only-partially-boarded belfry openings. But perhaps these are sly peregrines; venturing out only when necessity dictates. Maybe this trail is an elusive marker of this bird. But then, perhaps not. I am resigned to assume I see the marks of pigeon or seagull talons, and no more. Peregrines are migratory after all: perhaps I will see them in the summer.

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ImagePeregrine falcons are the most kingly of the birds: in medieval times, it was only the king who was allowed to use a peregrine for hunting. They are fast too (indeed, the fastest bird) – flying at over 200 miles per hour on its way to its prey. And so back to the snow-path. Why would the peregrine, with its keen eye, be strolling about the ground? This bird is not one of horizontal strolling, of scrubbing about in the dirt looking for scraps of barely edible debris. They are of verticality; for it can only be through the plummet-from-height that they could achieve those speeds. Where else could these birds roost but the tall, slender spire of the Triple Kirks?

William Thom wrote Lines Written at Ravenscraig, and imagined that ruin looking down on the Ugie; perhaps now the eyes of the peregrines look across the Denburn Valley and Aberdeen beyond: the Eyes of the Triple Kirks. It was, after all, the ancient Egyptian god Horus, that peregrine-deity, whose right eye gave us Sun Ra, and the left the moon; whose symbolism paved the way for the Christian all-seeing eye. An all-seeing eye for the city, but one that is not moved by human actions. A passive eye that, perhaps through generations, sees the rise and fall, the stasis and flux of development and abandonment of human activity.

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Archibald Simpson died in 1847 and his friend James Giles created a posthumous portrait of Simpson sat in a study, in front of the Denburn Valley, including the Triple Kirks steeple2. Viewing this painting, it is not obvious whether the view depicted is that of an earlier painting James Giles made, placed into the scene, or if it supposed to be a view through a window. One thing is likely: there is not a room that would have given such a view of the valley and kirks. But the fact that Giles used this view is testament to both his, and Simpson’s, attachment to the Triple Kirks. Walking through the centre of Aberdeen, reminders of Archibald Simpson’s achievements abound. Giles could have chosen any number of buildings to frame his friend. But the Triple Kirks was used for that living image of Simpson.

Like a memorial bench, we take up that view that was so important to the one being remembered. We embody the passed, as we recognise that which was dear, and so too it becomes dear to us. And we embody the past too: the Triple Kirks are entirely identifiable, but it is clear to see the Kirks as they were built, not as they stand now.

But does this painting really show them “as they were built”? For a start, this is a make-believe drawing room, in that it almost certainly did not have this view. And the Triple Kirks was built to house the new Free Church as it splintered away from the established kirk. But instead we get an image of a timeless-looking church tower (indeed, the steeple was modelled on one of the two towers of the 13th century Church of Saint Elizabeth in Marburg, Germany), with the lush folding greens in front. Archibald Simpson himself looks at peace in the painting, with a gentle half-smile, looking on to his drawings. The church, both above and with the nature of the valley; Simpson beyond the petty ecclesiastical arguments, yet intertwined with them by proximity. Perhaps this is a painting of desire, where the church is as tranquil as the greenery, and Simpson is alive, and smiling.

But of course this cannot come to pass. Death follows life, as ruins follows structure. But as long as ruins remain, the remembrances are painted and constructed, space is appropriated unexpectedly, there will always be lines of sight. Sightlines to see, and to remember, to imagine, and to recreate, and create anew. For now at least, “Simpson’s spire soar[s] above oblivious: it has a stout granite heart within its brick skin, after all”3.

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Notes

1 Appears in Thom, W., 1847, Rhymes and Recollections of a Handloom Weaver, London: Smith, Elder and Co. Page 109

2 For an image of this painting, see http://tinyurl.com/Archibald-Simpson (accessed 10/04/2013)

3 Brogden, W.A., 2012, Aberdeen: An Illustrated Architectural Guide, Edinburgh: Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland. Page 59.

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Impression: Afternoon to Gloaming

Today, Aberdeen was blessed with something of a summery day: what will surely be the last sun-and-warmth day of the year. Passing the digital thermometer display at the oil careers office, I was informed that the temperature was 20C. Wikipedia says the average temperature in July is 18.3C, while the highest temperature ever recorded was just shy of 30C. For temperatures to apparently reach 20C in October is quite the achievement: especially considering there was a big snowfall this time last year!

Buoyed by the conditions and soft sun, I decided to take the long route home from work. I work near the beach, so I first set off for the old village of Footdee (pronounced Fittie), so to follow the coast north, from the mouth of the Dee to the mouth of the Don. The tide is in as I start walking. I first start on the tarmac path on the top of the sea wall, and am quickly mesmerised by the waves crashing into the concrete. But these swells and troughs are not the rhythmic breathing of a sea (which have been conveyed superbly by Fife Psychogeographical Collective); these are intermittent, unpredictable. I see the water rising up, and approaching fast, but not always breaking and creeping up the sand. When the waves do break, they crash loudly into a concrete groyne, and I stand mesmerised for some fifteen minutes, as I lean against the wooden fence on the path. I think about what causes this sound and remember watching the extraordinary BBC documentary The Secret Life of Waves.

Mindful of the time, I start to walk. But this tarmac path is too far from the beach. I climb down the steps to the sand and take off my shoes and let the cold foamy water cover my feet. It seemed to be a summery day, but some things give away the autumnal time of year. For one thing, the light has already started to fade. Another: the skenes of geese as they hohn hohn hohn overhead. They are coming from the north-northeast, and I wonder if they are from Shetland, Orkney or even Scandinavia. The amusement park with its rollercoaster and big wheel are also closed for winter, with flocks of birds fly around and through the closed rides.

Hardly anyone is on the beach. Despite the warm sunny day, few people make it down the steps to the shingle-and-sand, although there are more people on the path above. Out to sea I can see gunmetal grey clouds. In the distance, squally showers, that never touch land. There are multiple ships out on the water too, mostly taking heavy equipment to the rigs, as well as a passenger vessel heading north, presumably to the Northern Isles. But I’m not drawn to these long views. My attention keeps coming back to the beach and its pebbles, to the foreshore and the bobbing gulls, and those crashing waves. I notice the changing colour of the water. Out to sea it’s deep grey, much like the clouds above. As it approaches the shore, a water green, and finally, golden-brown as the sand is swirled and swept up.

As I approach Donmouth, the light has dropped considerably; all that remains is a darkened walk along the river’s bank and home. And I smile as I do so, thinking of this final fine walk this side of next Easter.

Donmouth to North Sea, Aberdeen

Donmouth to North Sea, Aberdeen