The Wallace Tower – Not just any banishment but Marks & Spencer banishment

Wallace Tower  Mention the Wallace Tower and some smart Alec’s bound to chip in, it’s nae the Wallace Tower, it’s Benholm’s Lodgings, to which the appropriate response is, aye I ken but it’s bin the Wallace Tower for well over a century so it’s earned the name Wallace Tower. If someone turned up at my house and insisted it was so and sos because they’d lived there a few decades ago I’d tell them where to get off, wouldn’t you? Built for Sir Robert Keith, whose brother the Earl of Marischal founded Marischal College (once a separate university from King’s College) the house was also known as Keith’s Lodgings. Given its long existence – 500 years – it has seen a lot of comings and goings. For most of that time it occupied a prime position the corner of the Netherkirkgate (the lower gate or port into the town – the Upperkirkgate being the higher up gate), above Carnegie’s brae, which came to be known as the Wallace neuk (corner). At one time the area was known as Putachieside. The home of Lord Forbes at Keig by Alford used to be known as Putachie.  Lord Forbes kept a town house in Aberdeen, near Benholm’s Lodgings and  referring to the area by his country house name stuck. It was near where the Aberdeen Market is now… beside Putachie’s house – Putachieside. I hope you’re still following – and one of the streets, which ran from Carnegie’s brae towards what is now Market Street (or as near as damn it) came to be called Putachie. Putachie has gone. The Netherkirkgate has gone. The Wallace nook has gone. The Wallace Tower has gone. The Wallace name was used when a bar of that name occupied part of the building when it was slap bang in the centre of town not in its present location on a grassy knoll at Tillydrone. The low hill it stands on is the remains of a Norman motte. As for the  name it’s possibly a corruption of wally meaning well (a nearby well-house) with the diminutive ie or y wally hoose or well-house for folks uncomfortable with the Doric. This is all a long way from the Wallace Tower’s current abode at Tillydrone. It’s a fine enough site for this fine wee building but for many Aberdonians of a certain vintage – it’s not its home. Home should be, they believe, somewhere close to the vanished Netherkirkgate – maybe close to the Upperkirkgate… maybe it could have occupied pride of place, or second place to Skene’s House in Marischal Square but then there is no longer to be a Marischal Square so it can be added to my banished list.  Putachie has gone. The Netherkirkgate has gone. The Wallace nook has gone. The Wallace Tower has gone. Marischal Square has gone before it’s ever been. Rewind…why did the Wallace Tower go west? Think Marischal Square – what’s driving this corporate carbuncle? the ugly face of capitalism silly. It was a similar situation back in the swinging sixties. Marks & Spencers wanted to expand their store across from the Wallace Tower and councillors sucked on their pencil tips and thought how old fashioned this auld rickle of stanes looked in what could be a modern shopping precinct. What to do? Before you could say pretty fine example of a late 16th early 17th century rubble-built  Scottish tower house it was howked up and trundled on the back of several lorries far enough away from the city centre that those pencil sucking councillors were no longer reminded that Aberdeen did once have some very fine buildings indeed. The M & S extension turned out to be a not-so-very fine a building or even a half-decent building but who cared? This was the 1960s and anything went then, even prefabricated lookalike every other prefabricated buildings that littered every other town’s high streets. Still, as we know when it comes to Aberdeen city centre it’s a case of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.  Actually I don’t really mind the Tower being at Tillydrone for it is a good enough spot, at the edge of Seaton Park, but look at it – no, really look at it. When did you last see anything of architectural importance in Aberdeen look this bad? Well how about last week – and Westburn House. As far as preserving historically important architecture/introducing high quality contemporary buildings to the city Aberdeen councils would get straight As for corporate delinquency. Here we have boarded up windows to prevent another empty building falling victim to vandalism – the petty kind that ends up in courts and fined not the kind that is carried out on a large scale by local authorities. The original Benholm’s lodging house was constructed as a unique Z-plan tower house that was used as lodgings. In the late 18thC a wing was added and various adaptations have been made. At one time a balcony was built to provide grand views across the south of the area. There have been many plans to get the Wallace Tower back into some kind of useful existence but all fall through. It’s not connected with The Wallace … Aye we ken. Wallace never came this far north… So you say.  Since it is in Tillydrone it would be good if that community could make something of it but everything comes down to having sustainable funding in the end. Given that it is so close to the University it might find a use but not at its loss of it as a public asset (although the Council might question that and presumably regard it as another liability).

You can see the z-plan – or not. Corbelled features. Two round towers. The sculpted knight isn’t Wallace… they insist Aye, we ken, fit exactly IS yer problem, min? Who the rough and ready figure of a knight in a recess is no-one knows. It isn’t Wallace that’s for sure – William Wallace and his dug.  It might be Wallace and Gromit. That is a joke by the way… in case the pedantic echo is still on my case. Some think it came from the nearby St Nicholas graveyard. Whatever’s its provenance it is a rude representation of a Scottish knight with his favourite cur by his feet. He used to hold a sword – the knight not the dug that was made from a bent bit of metal. Definitely not worthy of The Wallace. Who he was we probably shall never know. Wouldn’t it be grand if it turned out his name was actually Wallace. He’s been broken and repaired and painted and broken and painted and repaired and broken.

A remaining armorial panel is not in the finest condition but at least it’s remaining.

Gunport quatrefoil.

The walls had originally been harled and presumable painted in the old Scots tradition. As of March this year planning permission for a change of use from residential dwelling to mixed use as a community cafe and office was being sought. The Wallace Tower which has undergone so many guises including lodging house, bar, tobacconist, snuff merchants was once upon a time a council house, gadzooks, rented out, controversially, to someone who would later become a councillor and Provost. It surprised some Aberdonians that the rent for such a unique cooncil hoose was the same as for ‘any other three-bedroomed council house in the city.‘ (The Herald 3 Oct 1996) but when this tenant vacated the Tower no-one else was given the chance to rent it but we were into the era of selling off council homes so the council did well to avoid falling into that trap with the Wallace Tower. I’ve been inside the Wallace Tower once or twice and it wasn’t particularly attractive as a home – stairs to everywhere and fitted out in 1970s drab but that is just decoration and doesn’t detract from its importance as a medieval tower-house. There is no question the Wallace Tower is a ‘lost gem’. It lies forlorn and unused. Largely ignored. Unwanted or rather unaffordable for those who would love to bring it back to life.

14 Comments to “The Wallace Tower – Not just any banishment but Marks & Spencer banishment”

  1. A well researched & written narrative about the ‘Wallace Tower’. It has to be said the said tower is in a picturesque location now, though a wee bit overlooked & forgotten about, plus… “jist nae in the richt place”.. Too many city councils in the 50’s & 60’s thought they knew best with regards their toon centres. Preferring the wrecking ba to consolidating & preserving what they had in situ. Again favouring commerce & the £££s to the coffers to history and remnants of the past in their true context.. You just look at what’s been lost, to what’s in their place.It’s enough to mak ye greet.

    • Hi Wayne, many thanks and I agree with you. Trouble is the quality and interests of councillors and local authority bureacrats but it’s always the way of things. Thanks for reading the blog. L

  2. Wandering home from the pub tonight, I found a print in beautiful old plaster frame labelled Wallace Neuk, Aberdeen by D. Macdonald leaning up against a tree. It was a sweet little find, glinting in the evening sun. I just had to bring it home and learn more.

    I bumped right into your column. Thanks for the story and photographs! I enjoyed them very much.

    Does anyone know anything about the artist, D. Macdonald (S.A.)? I would appreciate learning more and, of course, anything to do with the history of the Aberdeen area would be fun to read about as well. (Haddon Hall from the Bakewell Road and The Ferry Boat Arriving are two other works by the same artist, I believe.)

    Hope all is well with you. Here in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada restaurants and pubs are just beginning to allow sit down guests as we enter Phase Two during the Covid-19 pandemic. I felt doubly lucky tonight… 1) to get out for a pint and a meal and 2) to find a little treasure to research for entertainment. Thing have been a bit dull for the past two months.

    Thanks for your help!

    • Hi Carole, what a wonderful and uplifting story. Thank you for sharing it. It must have felt like one of those moments that happens in life when you either grab at it or walk by. I hope you’ll gain some little insights into a place to far away from you and so different. Are you in Victoria, Vancouver Island? We stayed there once in the home of a former colleague of my husband. Stunning place.

      As far as your picture is concerned there are two scenes of the Wallace Tower which are fairly well-known but I don’t know which one you’ll have. Don’t know any more about the artist. I tried Aberdeen City Library collections – they have a fairly good site called Silver City Vault, Aberdeen but there’s no information on Macdonald. I tried Aberdeen Art Gallery site but its not very good and I drew a blank there as well. Perhaps he was an amateur artist, there were lots about. You might find something in Google books or Internet Archive but that will be a stab in the dark.

      If I could recommend a couple of my own books about Aberdeen, the titles are on my blog page – probably Secret Aberdeen and the A-Z of Aberdeen – available on Amazon – book and kindle, I think but there are lots of others. Actually there are excellent old, out-of-print histories freely available on Google books so that could be enough to whet your appetite.

      Enjoyed reading about coming out of Covid lockdown. I hope it goes well for everyone in BC. Our First Minister is just starting to open things a tiny amount but not as far as opening pubs and restaurants yet. We’ve had an awful lots of loss of life so many of us are willing to wait a bit longer in the hope of really getting on top of this awful pandemic.

      Stay safe.

  3. My great great grandfather owned this building when it was Wallace Tower in Aberdeen. He lived there as well and started his family in the building, having my great grandfather within those walls. I hope to visit one day. It is such a big piece of my family history.

    • Fascinating, Katherine. The tower certainly has a long and interesting past. It is a pity that what remains of it has been abandoned lately with so little effort put into preserving it and creating a new function to extend its life. Hopefully you will get to visit it- although it is no longer open to the public you might be able to pull strings, given your family connection. L.

  4. Well if you think Aberdeen suffered some corporate vandalism you should see Inverness. At least they didn’t turn the Wallace tower into landfil.
    That said, the bittie in front of M and S is indeed crapsville UK, it could be central Rotherham_ Slough_Hull, anywhere really, epic provincial anodyne… Crap. It has a certain small toon ambition which makes its failure worse.

  5. I agree with u in every word Aberdeen has some beautiful buildings and the council have gone and thrown up horrid buildings hiding a heaps of landmarks

  6. Thanks Jim Bathgate for your comment but as I cannot verify what you say I can’t publish your comment for legal reasons. I do recognise some of it and am familiar with part of your story. L

  7. I’m sure at the right to buy Coonsillar Wyness attempted to buy it!

  8. Interesting and informative.

  9. The aforementioned Provost’s wife somewhat soiled her Socialist credentials when she submitted her stories to The Press and Journal during the year long journalists’ strike.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: