Balgownie Bridge

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The Brig o' Balgownie was known as the Bridge of Don until 1827 when it was bypassed by a larger bridge, downstream. Prior to that, for about 400 years the old bridge had been the only way north out of the city. The huge, single, elegant, 22 metre span Gothic arch rises to 12metres above the water with a gentle incline to the centre. The voussoirs and spandrels are in sandstone, but abutments, approaches and parapets are in granite, mainly ashlar but sometimes uncoursed, squared and random rubble; these clearly come from later periods. The deck is 3.2 metres wide. It has a rock foundation on either side with buttresses downstream and upstream on the approaches.  There are corbelled parapets with iron cramping on top and a strong but very irregular protruding  string course.  A small bricked-up flood arch exists between parapets on the south approaches. A plaque built into a buttress at the west end reads- “ANNO 1605 DOMINUS ALEXR HAV CLERICUS REGISTRI EX INNATO IN REMPUBLICAM AMORE 27 8 8 SCOTICOS EX QUIBUSDAM AGELLIS QUOTANNIS AD ABBREDONIAM HUIC FABRICAE SUSTENTANDAE DEDICAVIT, a record that in 1605 Alexander Hay, for love of his country, dedicated £27 8s 8d Scots, to be paid yearly at Aberdeen, for maintenance. The panel's location implies a 17th century date for the buttress.  A quaint ancient roadway descends to the north bank; this may have been the earliest approach road.  

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There is a cherished view that Balgownie Bridge is the oldest bridge in Scotland. This is speculative, as is the case with other contenders. The bridge is reputed to have been built by Robert the Bruce (d.1329) or by Bishop Cheyne (d.1328), or by both of them contributing at different times. Richard Cementarius, King Alexander III's master mason has also been proposed as the architect, although he became Lord Provost of Aberdeen in 1272 which was before Robert I or Bishop Cheyne were born. Henri Cheyne (le Chen) who held the see of Aberdeen, was a strong supporter of John Balliol and of Edward I of England.  The bishop conducted an extensive renovation of St.Machar's Cathedral (about 500m from the bridge) and although for obvious reasons, he was no friend to Robert the Bruce, it appears that they reconciled their differences.  In 1322 Pope John XXII excommunicated Bishop Cheyne for his unapologetic support for the King. There was certainly room for collaboration between the two on any such project.

It is said that the bridge was built in 1320  but it is very hard to find any contemporaneous evidence for this, nor for any firm indication of the bridge's sponsor. Robert the Bruce was the author of many charters, some  relating to Aberdeen, yet none seem to be linked to the bridge. Macfarlane presents a report, transcripted from Latin,  dating from around 1590: "..it has one bow,  but a very great one….the builder is unknown.”

 The first written history of Balgownie Bridge was by Alexander Hay in 1605, who attributes its construction exclusively to King Robert on the foundation of a 1318 Act of Parliament, titled: — "Carta restitutionis Iloberti liegis Henrico Episcopo Concessa" In fact, although this Act details much of the confrontation between the King and the bishop, it does not mention the bridge at all. There was no substance to Hay's authoritative assertion about Balgownie but that has not prevented its repetition though the centuries. Around 1665 Parson Gordon wrote “ No man can certainly tell who builded the bridge of Done”. This is still a fair conclusion, but the implication from all this is clear: in the early 17th century the bridge was already regarded as extremely ancient.

The earliest bridge may have been in wood, as was mostly the case in the 13th century, although vaulted stone bridges were beginning to arrive.  Exchequer Rolls tell of major work being done in 1444. The bridge was largely rebuilt in 1605 thanks to the same Alexander Hay who had also brokered the Bridge of Don Fund in 1574, as noted on the buttress inscription. This investment lasted 250 years and finally financed the construction of a second Don Bridge in 1827. In the floods of 1829 both bridges were threatened by the deluge. An enormous whirlpool developed at the old bridge. Both survived intact. There were further repairs to the old bridge in 1861, 1877, and 1912.

The present structure is certainly pre-16th century in style. However, it would have been a spectacularly innovative build in the early 14th century, because of its size of span. There are no other Gothic arches of such size in Scotland,  and in England although there are many  14th century pointed bridges of note, none has a span of that size.   However, there are some impressive arches from the period in Europe, where many more ancient bridges have survived to the present day. The Puente del Diablo in Spain (1283) has a 37metre Gothic span (see Structure section) and the Ponte della Maddalena in Italy (circa 1300) is of similar size, though segmental.  The Trezzo sull'Adda in Lombardy, completed in 1377, had a stunning, single 72m segmental arch and held the record for the largest span for four hundred years. So it is not inconceivable that appropriate skills from Italy were imported to Aberdeen in the 14th century. However, such a stone bridge over the Don would have been an impressive showpiece construction meriting a lot of attention and at least a mention in church or government documents. A later 15th century date is more likely, which would still make it the oldest surviving complete bridge structure in Scotland. Nor would it necessarily be the first bridge at this location.


Dec. 2012                                      Site last updated  November 2017