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Painting is a signpost to the ancient origins of our city.

Byline: Dr Fiona-Jane Brown

ALMOST a century after Malcolm III might have helped finance the building of the very first Kirk of St Nicholas in an attempt to atone for the murder of his rival, Macbeth, Malcolm's son, David I of Scotland was issuing a charter confirming the rights of Old Deer monastery to hold its lands free of tax.

One of the signatories to David's charter of 1152 was a certain "Gillecoaim", the Pictish chief of a settlement known as "Gillecoaim's Toun", the direct origin of Aberdeen's Gilcomston.

At the junction of Skene Square and Baker Street, a curious pub sign above the door of the Gilcomston Bar illustrates Gillecoaim's wooden keep situated on a man-made mound above his tenants' cottages.

A water-filled moat surrounds the motte and bailey and a little bridge leads to a sheep pasture near to a stone circle. Each element in the painting has a basis in fact.

Gillecoaim's Toun stood near one of the earliest permanent settlements in the Lochlands, evidenced by the presence of a Neolithic burial cairn dating from 4000BC.

Remains of the cairn were still visible in 1780, as it was then removed to make way for a Boys' Industrial School which stood on Hill Street.

The pupils of what was the forerunner of Oakbank played around two standing stones, obelisks orphaned from that stone circle in the pub sign.

Dating from two millennia after those first inhabitants, the circle represented a change in sacred worship. The dead were now cremated and their ashes buried inside the space. The "Stones of Gilcom" disappeared when the school closed.

By the time Gillecoaim's clan settled, the area had well-established farmland and connections to the sea via the many nearby watercourses which fed the old loch of Aberdeen.

The latter was a glacial meltwater pool which stretched between what is now Loch Street, Spring Garden and Crooked Lane.

The moat in the painting may well have been the Gilcomston Burn, as according to the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historic Monuments Scotland, Gillecoaim's motte was located around Mount Street.

The burn, which flows through Westburn Park and then meanders down underneath the Woolmanhill Halls of Residence, was another feeder of the old loch.

The chieftain may have channelled it around his little community as a form of defence. The cottages would have been an early form of "but-andben" with one part reserved for the livestock and the other for the family.

The painting suggests they may have had stone walls and thatched roofs, which is entirely possible by this period in history. If so, then Gillecoaim's folk must have felt secure enough in their "toun" to build more permanent dwellings. With sheep, farmland, and physical reminders of their Stone Age ancestors all around them, Gilcomston's inhabitants represented a significant settlement established long before the Castlegate and the Green were developed.

It is likely that the Green was still a tidal mudflat where the local fishermen moored their boats at the time Gillecoaim was building his motte and bailey.

Gilcomston therefore represents one of the earliest districts of Aberdeen, yet by the time Union Street was built, it had been transformed into an industrial landscape of mills and factories.

It is still possible to trace the ancient topography in the modern landscape with the help of street names which echo the historic sites. Beginning at the Gilcomston Bar, the road climbs up Baker Street in a distinct slope.

To the right, the tree-covered, grassy space at the foot of Hill Street is significantly higher than the road, which would have rendered the site of the stone circle clearly visible in an open landscape.

Travelling towards Mount Street the elevation continues to increase, which confirms the artist's impression of the motte standing above the stone circle.

History is always directly under our feet, and with the occasional signpost, like the Gilcomston Bar's wonderful illustration, we can glimpse a view of our city's ancient origins.

CAPTION(S):

Beginnings Gilcomston Bar sign is a portal to the past and features a treasure trove of facts about the origins of the city

Past times Site of the Stone Circle of Gilcomston, once a centre of sacred worship, which features in fascinating pub painting
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 6, 2014
Words:705
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