St Clement’s cemetery: Hark! from the tombs a doleful sound


St Clement’s Church

It’s taken me a long time to visit Aberdeen’s St Clement’s Kirkyard – several decades to be precise. I have tried once or twice but when I’ve thought of visiting it is usually been when I’ve been driving in the vicinity and as this busy industrial area is choc-a-bloc during the week with parked vehicles I’ve driven on past.


Undoubtedly it has looked better. This graveyard once served the people of Footdee (Fittie), from the evidence of the detritus lying around, it is now home to rough sleepers and prostitutes.

There were churches on this site before the current one, established in 1855, and for centuries this has been a place of worship for the people of the surrounding area.


Note the occupation of ‘tide waiter’ – a customs officer who boarded ships which had entered the harbour

It is believed a church may have stood on this site since the 11th century. Given its location it is little wonder that many of its memorial stones reflect lives lost to the sea, those for whom the sea was their place of work and others involved in the various maritime trades. Nautical inscriptions and decorative features such as ropes and ships combine with traditional symbols of death.

DSC03743Alexander Drysdale, a foreman at the Poynernook Factory. Note the heartfelt message of respect from his former work mates

So who was St Clements and why choose him to represent this maritime neighbourhood? He was a Bishop of Rome in the first century AD and suffered the fate of being tied to an anchor and drowned in the Black Sea hence him being adopted as the patron saint of fishermen.


Aberdeen’s or possibly more accurately Fittie’s St Clements is only one of four dedicated to the saint in Scotland.  As might be expected the church was influential in the life of its congregation; fishermen were forbidden to go to sea or buy and sell fish on the Sabbath.  This did not go down well with everyone for it meant a loss of income one day a week. Should any man ignore the church’s ruling he could expect a fine – a boat master putting to sea would have his crew and their families fined as well as himself.

St Clement’s Church became embroiled in the Disruption, the events of the mid-19th century which split the Church of Scotland, the country’s established church.


On 18th May 1843 the minister of St Clement’s, Alexander Spence, was one of many ministers who walked out of their churches in protest against the established church to form the Free Church of Scotland.

The Disruption was concerned with who had the right to appoint ministers of the kirk.  In Aberdeen it had been the privilege of the Town Council to nominate someone whereas the Free Kirkers believed no-one should be involved in the appointment of any minister other than a church’s  congregation.


The one you see today was designed by architect John Smith, in the Gothic style. It stands bold and impressive with a fine square pinnacled tower surrounded on every side by industrial sheds of no architectural merit whatsoever.

When the church was being refurbished in 1888 a brass chandelier, or gaselier, was found with an inscription, ‘given to this church by Alexander Murray, elder – 1648’. Obviously not that church but an earlier one.

A model of a ship, Saint Clement it was named, was also discovered in the tower where it had been abandoned. It had been gifted to the kirk by John Milne, the hangman.

P1000900Note the granite carved rope strung around this horizontal stone testifying the various trades associated with the sea

 Seafarers of Fittie, once separate from Aberdeen, have long been required to defend their community from attack. In 1514 it was ordained that eight men from Aberdeen’s quarters, including Fittie, should keep watch to resist ‘the old enemies of England.’

The English were one thing but the plague was more costly to life. Throughout the 16th century penalties and banishments were placed on any who might ignore restrictions over the movement of people into the vicinity.


Rope and sail makers lived and worked around here. Several stones in the graveyard feature rope motifs


It was around here that ships were built. The first clipper ship built in Britain, the Scottish Maid, came from Aberdeen.  The world’s  fastest tea clipper, the Thermopylae, was built in Fittie.


Hall was one of the main shipbuilders in the city and in 1839 James Hall in an attempt to circumvent Board of Trade regulations over ships’ tonnage devised the Aberdeen hull constructed so that cargo spaces were forward of the first point from which a vessel’s carrying capacity, therefore revenue earning capacity,  would be calculated. The result was the Aberdeen bow; curved, sleek and fast.

Hall died suddenly in 1869. It happened like this – Aberdeen tycoon, Thomas Blake Glover who settled in Japan and established the company that was to become Mitsubishi, arranged for Hall’s to build a vessel for the Japanese navy. It was a plumb contract and the Jho-Sho-Maru was well into construction when in 1869 a fire broke out in Milne’s wood yard near to Hall’s shipyard where the Jho-Sho-Maru was being fitted. People came from all around to help extinguish the blaze including James Hall who suffered a fatal  heart attack.  P1010025

For years Hall’s Carpenters’ Ball took place on Hogmanay, 31st December, usually in the draughting loft at the shipyard.  Throughout the year apprentices from the yard had some of their pay, known as launch money, put by which together with money from the company went to fund the annual social. There were few, if any, other occasions in Aberdeen where it was said a craftsman from the yards could mingle with millionaires other than at the Carpenters’ Ball.


Mair a common name around Aberdeen

Centuries of shipbuilding meant carpentry or wood carving was a popular trade. In the middle of the 19th century, around 1848, these ship carpenters or carvers from Hall’s yard formed themselves into a co-operative society, adding to a number already operating in the city.

They called themselves the Footdee Savings Association and sold groceries and bakery products from premises at Waterloo Quay. Hall’s carpenters had their own ship, the Elizabeth, which they used to ship in grocery supplies and other sundries.


Another well-known ship-building families was  Duthie. This impressive granite casket memorial belongs to the Duthies – ship builders and merchants.

John Duthie lived in the same district as most of the workers from his yard, in Wellington Street. Known as Old John he was apparently very down to earth with a good sense of humour. One day a ship sailed into Aberdeen from Sicily with a supply of sulphur, as a speculative piece of business it appeared as there was no-one down to receive the load.


Someone advised the ship’s captain he might find a buyer for his cargo if he had a word with old Mr Duthie and so he did. Duthie thought the matter over for a moment then had a brainwave. He told the captain he knew of a man who dealt largely in brimstone (sulphur) who might be happy to relieve him of his cargo.

The captain went off as instructed to meet the gentleman, a strict Calvinist minister from one of the local kirks, who turned down the offer of a ship-load of sulphur but was thereafter known as Brimstone Johnnie.


This pink plaque can be found on a wall at the graveyard. It was put there by George Davidsone. ‘George Davidsone elder burgess of Aberdeen built this dyke on his own expenses 1650′

George Davidsone of Pettens died in 1663. He began his working life as a packman, one who delivered goods, possibly on his back, and could neither read nor write. But he died a wealthy man and left several benefactions to Newhills kirk, Fittie kirk and  St Nicholas kirk. His impressive headstone can be seen on the west wall of St Nicholas’ graveyard by the Backwynd gate.

George Davidson at St Nicholas graveyard

Davidsone who had become a burgess of Aberdeen bought the land at Pettens, Belhelvie, from George Gordon 1643 of Overblairton and Pettens.


Chief engineer John Simpson torpedoed at sea in 1917


1916 – Able Seaman Alexander Guyan, Hawke Battalion  was killed on the Western Front  on 9 December. Above is his family memorial, now sadly broken and below the official war stone.



This is a notice of Guyan’s death from a list of local casualties in an Aberdeen newspaper

George Crombie was drowned off  Tavira in Portugal in April 1882. A family of ship captains, their memorial is coming adrift.



This plaque commemorates the death in 1971 of Captain William James Erskine, a naval chief engineer who was killed during the civil war in Pakistan.  1971 was the period of Bangladeshi liberation from Pakistan after the Pakistani military junta refused to accept the results of the country’s first democratic elections in 1970 which favoured the Bengalis. It was a brutal confrontation in which intellectuals were targeted for execution. Hundreds of thousands died in this war and ten million escaped into India.

MV Mustali, built by Short Brothers of Sunderland, was a Pakistani cargo steamer owned by Gulf Shipping and was sunk in an air raid at Chalna in ’71 by the Pakistani air force.


The long inscription on Shipmaster William Bruce’s family stone has become all but illegible. Let me give you the full version.

Hark! from the tombs a doleful sound;
My ears, attend the cry;
“Ye living men, come view the ground
Where you must shortly lie.

“Princes, this clay must be your bed,
In spite of all your towers; The tall, the wise, the rev’rend head
Must lie as low as ours!”

These words were sung at the funeral of America’s President George Washington.

 DSC03726 - Copy


This unusual cast iron memorial records the deaths of several ‘beloved children of Alexander Mortimer and Margaret Spring. Scottish women did not lose their own identities and retained their single names when married, at least when recorded on memorial stones.


William Ingram, was one of several vintners in  Footdee where he traded out of the Trades Arms


A fish curer’s lovely red granite memorial


Coastguard Alexander Mennie


William Henderson, cabinet maker, in memory to his father-in-law, Alexander Naughton, a Shore Porter. Note the beautiful flower motif.

The Shore Porters Society was set up in 1498, as it says in its website ‘six years after Columbus discovered America.’ Porters or pynours, hawling goods from the harbour to the town, and vice versa. It is thought to be the oldest co-operative still in existence.


The all too familiar story of multiple deaths of young children



And again, including twins


Another ship captain. The different styles of writing including a kind of longhand create an attractive memorial


A fine possibly hand-cut image of a sailing ship in full sail onto hard granite


A custom officer’s family stone barely surviving



Another fine design of a ship on this 1820 gravestone


And again in this stone, a two-masted fishing boat of a type which commonly carried 6 crew




Finally, Soapy Ogston.


Ogston was as you might guess, a soap manufacturer in the city. Once a flax dresser he went on to produce soap and candles and you can scarcely imagine the fortune to be made in that trade. I believe James was Soapy and this stone is dedicated to Alexander, who started the chandlery business, his young daughter and grandson, also Alexander, who became an eminent surgeon.

The kirkyard ‘closed’ for burials in 1927.


The abandoned St Clement’s East Church (Church of Scotland), was proposed as home to Aberdeen city’s archives at one time and later there was a proposal to remove its roof and allow it to decay. It is decaying albeit with its roof intact. It was sold to a housing association by the council.

The state of the church is one thing but surely Aberdeen City Council could send out a couple of people to clean up this important and historic graveyard. Or perhaps it might be done through a community service order. It would not take that much effort to have it looking in a reasonable shape again. What’s needed is a sense of respect for the dead of Fittie.



20 Comments to “St Clement’s cemetery: Hark! from the tombs a doleful sound”

  1. Caroline ( Aberdeen) can you shed any light on why there were so many babies and children died during 1820-1870 , parents of the children also dying intheir 40s ?
    Thank you

    • Hi Caroline, thanks for your enquiry.
      There were so many reasons for people dying young in the 19th century and most of them come down to poverty. People were paid dirt poor wages so could not afford good food or housing. Poverty meant they lived crowded into rooms with lots of others from their own and other families. When one became ill others were likely to catch any infection, just as today, from spray from mouths, coughing and sneezing. Self-isolation then was not an option.
      So many deadly illnesses that have now been largely eradicated such as cholera, smallpox, typhus, measles, TB, scarlet fever, whooping cough. Vaccination against contagious diseases was not available then and so whole families might be wiped out.
      Poor people had little resistance against disease because they lived in overcrowded conditions and their food was often contaminated – milk diluted with water which was often itself filthy – to make it go further and provided greater profits for the seller. Flour for bread was contaminated by sawdust, again for greater profit for the seller and tea with floor sweepings – just examples.
      In essence poverty and lack of awareness of what caused and spread highly contagious diseases brought early death to many. We are very lucky to live at a time when we can be protected from most of the worst of these once common illnesses but as Covid 19 has proved once a new one comes along we are again vulnerable and that’s why we hope a vaccination will one day be found to protect populations. Until then, isolation is our only protection, and keeping as clean as possible – both denied the poor folk of the 19th century. L

  2. Has anyone got photos of the inside of the church if you could send them to me at j.melia2@ntlworld that would be very much appreciated. ray sandiford hope to visit again in the near future thank you

  3. wonderful history, I have many ancestors buried here, I have Guyan’s,Morrices and Baxters in my tree from Fittie..

  4. My great grandma her daughter and son are buried in St Clements ,what a beautiful. Church with a lot of history yes it should be preserved if I li end nearer I would help to clean it up

  5. With reference to: Stehen C. Due
    August 17, 2016 at 7:32 am

    [ These cemetery photos are great! I was hoping to find one of the grave(s) of Margaret Thomson (died 1811) and Alexander Thomson (died 1815). Can you help? I’m miles away in Victoria, Australia! ]

    Aberdeen & North-East Scotland Family History Society – Booklet of gravestone inscriptions at St.Clement’s Kirkyard in Aberdeen, first published in1988, records part inscription of the gravestone no: 373.
    “In memory of MARGARET THOMSON spouse to ALEXANDER THOMSON shipmaster, Aberdeen, who died 9 July 1811 aged 42 years; also 2 of their children. (followed by a verse – not recorded) Her husband ALEXANDER THOMSON who died 18 December 1815 in Kingston, Jamaica aged 48.” (followed by a eulogy – not recorded).

    I hope this can be passed on – Kind Regards, Derek Walker in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

    • Hi Derek, thanks. I’d like to help and in the past have tried to respond to readers, in fact made a special journey to St Clements for someone then heard nothing more from them but if I do get an opportunity I will try to help you out. I’m very busy at the moment and haven’t been able to blog recently but will see what can be done in time. Lena.

  6. hello, my grandfather and his family lived at number 9 north square footdee, he came to australia in 1923 when he was 22. thank you for the great history lesson.

  7. These cemetery photos are great! I was hoping to find one of the grave(s) of Margaret Thomson (died 1811) and Alexander Thomson (died 1815). Can you help? I’m miles away in Victoria, Australia!

    • Hi Stephen, thanks for looking at the blog. I’ll see what I can do when next in Aberdeen. As you’ll realise some old stones are difficult to read but bear with me. Lena

    • Hi Stephen, I went along to St Clement’s cemetery at the weekend – two of us had a good search but couldn’t find your ancestors’ gravestone. It is quite early and may be one of several that have crumbled away or lost its face.

      A local family history group have produced booklets recording all the names they can in graveyards over a vast stretch of the northeast and there will be one for St Clement’s I’m sure. I don’t have a copy but when next in the main library in Aberdeen I can have a look to see if they’ve recorded Margaret and Alex Thomson. I doubt it if it’s not extant but it’s worth a go – who knows I might just have missed it.

  8. Aberdeen’s rich fishing and boat building history doesn’t seem to be valued at all by the City. The oil industry seems to have superseded everything. I’m descended on my grandmother’s side from fishing people and I once visited the Maritime Museum behind Union Street. There were a couple of inferior Madame Tussaud like tableaux of a fisher’s cottage I think – nets, creels etc. and that was all! Exhibits to do with the oil industry dominated everything. I was disgusted.

  9. Many thanks, I have used a great deal of your photos on findagrave. I am trying to update ad many memorials as I can. Please let me know if you have any more pictures, they are wonderful!

  10. would you mind if I use some of your pictures of monuments for memorials on My family was very involved in the Aberdeen shipping industry from 1815-1950. Thank you, Scott Jack

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