Marischal College Aberdeen: ‘Granite City’

Aberdeen is an old cathedral city in North East Scotland. Situated on the North Sea coast it stands between the mouths of the Rivers Don and Dee and is the administrative centre of the Grampian Region. Fishing has always been important as has the working of local granite. Other industries included shipbuilding, paper making, textiles, chemicals and engineering. Within the United Kingdom the city’s economy is now largely linked to the North Sea oil industry.
‘The Travellers’ Dictionary’ quotes H.C. Morton, In Search of Scotland, 1929 … Aberdeen impresses the stranger as a city of granite palaces, inhabited by people as definite as their building material. Even their prejudices are of the same hard character. The beauty of Aberdeen is the beauty of uniformity and solidity. Nothing so time-defying has been built since the Temple of Karnak. *
British poet and Laureate, Sir John Betjeman (1906-84), who took a keen interest in Victorian and Edwardian architecture, described Marischal College as “{bigger than any cathedral, tower on tower, forests of pinnacles, a group of palatial buildings rivalled only by the Houses of Parliament}.
{{Marischal College}}
Founded in 1593 by a Scottish nobleman George Keith, 5th Earl Marischal (1553-1623), it was created as a protestant alternative to the older King’s College founded in 1494. He is said to be one of the most important men of his day in Scotland. He was sent as ambassador to Denmark in 1589 to negotiate the marriage of James VI of Scotland to Anne of Denmark. In the same year he rebuilt his family seat of Keith
Marischal and also constructed new buildings at Dunnottar Castle. He was Royal Commissioner to the Parliament of Scotland in 1609.
In 1837 all earlier buildings on the site were removed due to their deteriorating condition. In 1858 the two colleges were merged to form the University of Aberdeen while retaining their separate names. Medicine and Law were taught at Marischal and Art and Divinity at King’s. George Keith attended King’s College and completed his education at the Calvinist College in Geneva, Switzerland.
The College stands as a prominent city landmark and symbol of the peak of Aberdeen’s working granite industry. It was built on the site of a medieval Franciscan Friary disused after the Reformation. Following the creation of Edinburgh University without ‘papal bull’ or official edict, it was Scotland’s second post medieval civic university. Upon completion of extension work to the College in 1906 it became the second largest granite building in the world after the Escorial Palace near Madrid.
It is listed as a British protected building, large and impressive predominantly Tudor-Gothic granite collegiate complex based around a central quadrangle and courtyard. At 400 feet long with an average height of 80 feet, its scale, quality of design and the distinguished work of principal architects marks it as a building of considerable importance and the culmination of 200 years experience working with granite. The building façade is adorned with historical coats of arms of Aberdeen. Within the national context the skyscraper Gothic style, also used with great effect at the Edinburgh Scott Monument, encapsulates both the religious idealism and civic confidence of late nineteenth century Scotland.
Sessional Papers of the House of Lords (1839, Vol. XXXVII) record a number of decisions about salaried academic and other appointments at Marischal College. Until 2008 the Marischal Museum at Marischal College was open to the public. The building still houses closed displays and the collections can be viewed online in a virtual museum.
The College was leased to Aberdeen City Council and after extensive renovation was opened as its administrative headquarters in 2011. A number of wall charts and images present the history and particular features of the College. Aberdeen Coat of Arms and armorial plaques are enhanced by the recently cleaned façade giving the stone its original sparkle of the silver or ‘Granite City’. In contrast the blackened
granite of the adjoining church is witness to the lasting environmental and other damage caused by centuries of heavy industry. Before conversion a range of archaeological work was carried out by the Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. (Part of A Group with Greyfriars John Knox Church).
{{by Ita Marguet, June 2014}}
{Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in this text. It follows a visit to Aberdeen and the Marischal College building (April 2014). * A vast World Heritage religious temple site in Luxor, Egypt.}