Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Don from Persley Bridge to Donmouth

Saturday 14th July,

Is it possible for a river to be working class? Aberdeen, in the broad sense of things, sits between two rivers, the River Dee and the River Don. The Dee of course is famous for being the playground of Royalty and their associated hangers-on, for salmon fishing and deer stalking and all those pursuits that most ordinary people like you and I find mysterious and faintly distasteful. The Don on the other hand always leaves me with the impression that it has a bit of an inferiority complex when compared with its aristocratic brother. Don't get me wrong, I love the upper reaches of Donside almost as much as Deeside. The villages are just as pretty, the countryside is just as stunning and I'm sure the salmon don't notice the difference. And yet, somehow, I'm left with the feeling that it lacks that casual upper class swagger of the Dee.

Restricted over the last wee while with the weather and family commitments we were looking for a late morning / early afternoon walk, so we dropped the car at my son's work on the other side of the city to begin a walk along the Don for its final four miles or so to the sea. We started with a visit to a walled garden, (we believe it's called The Persley Walled Garden but to be honest I'm not sure since there is frustratingly little information on it or its history). I'm sure, though not certain, that it's been refurbished since we moved here in 1993 and an information board would be a nice addition. There's also a workers memorial, although whether it's a memorial for any specific workers is not too clear. I hate not knowing things!

Entrance to Persley Walled Garden
Nicely laid out but no information

A Workers Memorial "for those who lost their lives in industry"
From the back of the gardens we picked up the river path heading downstream. Half hidden in the trees high above the path is what was known locally as Persley Castle. But don't be fooled by its grand title as it was known as the Barracks when it was first built and was used to house children who were the sweat shop-labour in a calico-printing business. It's the Persley Castle nursing home these days. I guess they preferred that to being reminded of its original function.

Persley Castle or The Barracks depending on your take on history
The Don's claim to fame is that it was an industrial river. Even when we arrived in Aberdeen in 1993 there were still paper mills just upstream from where we now stood, (mostly gone now as well purged by the drive towards efficiency and low costs). But here on this stretch the industry of snuff mills, bleachings, calico-printing and cotton mills had boomed long before labour costs and efficiencies were a consideration for the super-rich factory owners. All gone now but although time and nature softens even the most obvious debris left behind it's still clear that this was a place of industry and it would be an interesting exercise to piece it all together again and understand how it worked. We passed the sluice control workings that would have fed the long Upper Mill Lade that brought water to the machinery of the Woodside Cotton Works where cotton manufacture was introduced to Aberdeen in 1779. By 1822 more than 3000 people were employed here. It closed in 1851.

The workings of a sluice gate that fed water into the lade on the right
One of several man-made weirs we passed over the relatively short distance we walked

What's left of the lade control gates
We walked with the river on our left and the dried up lade on our right until we came to a bridge with what looked like the remains of control gates. The interesting thing being that the date on the steelwork was 1918 so I assume the lade was still being used long after the cotton mills closed. Needless to say there was no information for the casual visitor as to why or what or when. Surely Aberdeen could do this better. We continued on along the path, now becoming more overgrown, until we arrived at a cleared meadow. In the middle of this meadow were two great flywheels on steel frames built for the Grandholm Mills and powered no doubt by the water from the mill lade. I was kind of expecting them as I'd seen photographs before, but it didn't make them any less impressive. Again there was no information or explanation. Pity really.

Impressive but no explanation
It would be nice to understand what they did
 The riverside path eventually came to an end at the Grandholm Bridge, now privately owned and closed off to general traffic. On its south side is Jacob's Ladder, a narrow set of 66 steps leading up from the river that takes its name from the biblical story of Jacob and his dream of a stairway to heaven. It probably meant something different to the mill workers though as they made their way back home after a hard day's work! Both the original set of steps and its newer and wider replacement are closed off and overgrown now but are still visible.

Grandholm Bridge

The Original Jacob's Ladder
We made our way up from the river and through the housing estate until we got to what is the top of a hill called originally the Motte of Tillydrone. This is the site of a 12th century fort that stood guard over a ford across the Don. Atop this hill now is a building called Benholm's Lodging, better known to Aberdonians as Wallace Tower, (there's no connection to the great Scots hero though). In 1963 the building was taken down from its original site in Netherkirkgate and rebuilt stone by stone here on Tillydrone Hill.

Benholm's Lodging or the Wallace Tower
Couldn't find any information on this fella, but he looks as if he's been around a while!
We made our way down from the tower towards the great fortified church of St Machar's Cathedral. We had hoped to visit the church and maybe get a few photos of the panelled roof, but some inconsiderate couple were getting married and I don't think they would have been too impressed with us gate crashing.

St Machar's Cathedral

The panelled ceiling in St Machar's, (from a previous visit).
We made our way back to the river by taking a detour through the nearly lovely Seaton Park. I say nearly because there are bits of it that are really lovely, but then there are bits that don't quite make it. The sheltered gardens are lovely but the open grassy areas are just OK. Apparently the area was used as a racecourse in the 19th century and the last race was run in 1928.

The best bit of Seaton Park

Back to the river
We picked up the river path again as it wound its way between the river and the University halls of residence until it reached the Brig o' Balgownie. As ever the history of the bridge is obscure. The most popular belief is that it was commissioned by Robert the Bruce although whether this is true is open to debate. What is known is that it was built in the late 13th and early 14th centuries and has been described as "one of the most hauntingly beautiful Gothic survivals in Scotland".  It's certainly picturesque.

Brig o' Balgownie
We crossed the bridge and walked past the cottages that made up the Cot Town of Balgownie, now all nicely refurbished and modern. But the first of these was known as the Black Nook Alehouse and took its name from the Black Nook Port, a dark pool to the west of the bridge, where evil spirits are said to have lured passers-by to their deaths.

Black Nook Port
On that happy note we re-crossed the river at the new Bridge of Don and made our way down and onto the sand where the river finally meets the sea. Interestingly the new bridge of Don and the Old Bridge of Don stand side by side, with north bound lane using the old bridge and the south bound lane using the new bridge. There's no sign of this from the road of course, it's a secret only to be seen from under the bridge(s).
The Bridge of Don from the beach
This had been one of those walks that happened for no reason. We had dropped the car off and needed to make our way home so walking at least some of the way seemed like a good idea. It turned out to be an interesting few hours, although very frustrating in some areas due to the lack of any information on the stuff we were looking at. We left the car around 10 o'clock and reached the beach just before 1 o'clock, so not long but a lot of history to get through.

More Photos


  1. That's an interesting walk. And those wheels standing in the middle of nowhere are fascinating. They look like they have been belt drives for something. Have they been placed there for the public's appreciation, or are they in their original locations? Either way, they are impressive reminders that even in the depth of the countryside people laboured to make other people rich.
    Cheers, Alen

  2. A Pirie is written on the lade gates - A Pirie was one of the companies that owned the paper mill at Stoneywood which is the only paper mill still open in Aberdeen. There are lots of old photographs, equipment and a comprehensive timeline exhibition in The Papeterie which is also the retail outlet at Stoneywood Mill.

    1. Hi there, Thank you for looking in and filling in some of the blanks. It's really appreciated. I didn't know about the exhibition but will now take the time to go and find it. Again thanks for taking the time to comment................J

  3. Hi there

    I took this walk today with my son, we saw the big wheels but as we walked over the little white bridge we found ruines of a building of some sort. My boy would like to know what this was. I have done some research but all I can find is this whole mills idea but according to old maps, its at the other side of the river where the mill has been recorded. I saw something that said it was old barracks that housed the workers, i cannot seem to find any mention of old ruines.Can anyone help me with this. its certainly not the old mill. Can you mail me many thanks

  4. between the flywheels and jacobs ladder