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Brig o' Balgownie (Polgouny)

Construction began in the late 1200's and the Bridge was completed by 1320. It is thought to have been commissioned by Bishop Cheyne or Robert the Bruce. It was renovated in 1605 and replaced in 1830 by another bridge 500 yards downstream. It provided an important link to the north-east of Scotland.

Fishing at sea and on the Don and Dee was carried out by many people including John Penuyr (1461) and Andrew Brabnar, a fisher who lived at the Brig o' Polgouny (Balgownie) in 1508. Hand lines would have been used for large fish and nets for smaller ones.

The Auld Brig o' Balgownie, crosses the Don, 2½ miles N by W of Castle Street. A single Gothic arch, narrow and steep, of 67 feet span and 34½ high above the black deep salmon pool below, it is commemorated by Byron in Don Juan, where a note records how a dread prediction made him pause to cross it, and yet lean over it with a childish delight. For he was his mother's only son, and the prophecy runs:-

'Brig o' Balgownie, black's your wa' (or, though wight be your wa'),
wi' a wife's ae son. and a meer's ae foal,
Down ye shall fa' !'

In 1605 Sir Alexander Hay left lands of a yearly value of £2, 8s. 5½d. to keep the Auld Brig in repair: its accumulated funds amounted (1872) to £23,153, though out of those funds in 1825 was built the new Bridge of Don, 502 yards lower down, for £17,100. With five semicircular arches, each about 86 feet in span, this last is 26½ feet wide and 41 high.

The Brig o’ Balgownie is built on a constriction of the River Don on a stable geological feature immediately downstream of a meander loop and upstream of the river’s final reach to the North Sea. The Don is tidal at its crossing. The bridge has a span of 67 feet and stands 34 feet above a salmon pool mentioned by Byron in the poem “Don Juan”. The bridge was called The Bridge of Don until it was superceded in 1830 by a larger bridge about five hundred meters downstream. That new bridge assumed the appellation. The Brig o’ Balgownie is a single and elegant Gothic Arch of mortared granite and sandstone. Construction began around 1290 when Bishop Henry Cheyne commissioned Richard Cementarius to provide a design. It appears that the building was interrupted by The Scottish War of Independence because the bridge was completed in 1320 under the direct command and expense of Robert the Bruce, using the banished bishop’s emoluments.  The original purpose of the crossing may have been to assist English military consolidations in Moray and Buchan, which occupations were of course voided at The Battle of Bannockburn. The Bruce may have had his own, but similar, strategic aims in view.

De-industrialisation of the Don Valley has led to improvements in river water quality and the planted saplings have of course matured. A third road bridge has been built to the Brig’s West, and the old bridge is now restricted to cyclists and pedestrians only.

Balgownie Bridge Road and Don Bridges in one frame

Big O' Balgownie

Brig O' Balgownie
Dod Dow Website

Built into a buttress at the west end of the Bridge of Balgownie, on the south side, there is a slab with a shield and an inscription. The shield bears three small shields, the Hay coat-of-arms. In the centre there is a small square, for a difference from the shield of the chief family. Above the shield there is the letter S for Sir. and at the sides A and H for Alexander Hay. Below there is the following : —


In the year 1605 Mr Alexr Hay, Clerk of the Register, from innate love for his country dedicated £27 8s 8d Scots, to be paid yearly at Aberdon from certain crofts for upholding this fabric.

Sir Alexander Hay's Mortification
All the land in Scotland originally belonged to the Crown for the nation and at the Reformation all grants of land for public religious services no longer to be performed reverted to the Crown. In 1587 an Act of Parliament annexed to the Crown the temporalities of all benefices ; but the usual liens were reserved for the clergy, with their manses and glebes, and the bishops' residences. At the Reformation the chaplains and vicars of the choir of St Machar Cathedral held lands, feu-duties, and annual rents, which reverted to the Crown; but the chaplains and vicars of the choir were allowed by the Lords of the Council to retain their dwelling in the Chanonry and to draw their revenues as before during their lives. Alexander Hay, one of the King's servitors, holding the office of Director of the Chancery, had coveted their properties and had got the promise of them from the King during his life. The chaplains and vicars, however, still remained in possession and, though Hay had been at great expense and trouble to establish his right to the properties and to secure the title-deeds, lie had derived little benefit from his grant, and the King was induced in 1574-5 to give him the chaplains' properties in perpetuity. A long list of feu-duties and rents with the lands from which they were payable, is given in " liegistrum Magni Sigilli," under date February 10, 1574-5, No 2360. It contains the names of many places in ancient Aberdeen which have now dropped out of use. The reddendo or return for the grant was Id of rent, with the obligation of upholding the Bridge of Don or paying annually for that purpose £20 Scots. Alexander Hay died in 1594, and probably he had never contributed anything to the maintenance of the bridge, because he had not got full possession of the chaplains' revenues.

His younger son. Sir Alexander Hay, afterwards a Court of Session judge with the title of Lord Newton but then styled the King's servitor, one of the Ordinary Clerks of his Supreme Senate, succeeded to his father's rights and responsibilities in the chaplains' revenues. In 1600 he got the revenues confirmed to him by a new charter from the Crown. In 1605 he mortified to the Town Council of Aberdeen feu-duties and annual rents formerly belonging to the chaplains and vicars to the amount of £27 8s 8d Scots, annually, to be applied by them for the upkeeping of the Bridge of Don and for no other uses, as they should wish to answer to God at the last Judgment, The reason for this stringent clause was that the whole revenues of the grant were liable for the £20 for the maintenance of the bridge, and if the Town Council sold or misapplied the subjects conveyed to then the part of the grant which he had kept to himself would become liable for the whole obligation contained in the grant.

The Bridge of Don Fund
The Town Council were so pleased with the Charter that they paid all the expenses connected with obtaining it, amounting to more than £20, and presented Sir Alexander Hay with a barrel of salmon worth £40. Moreover, they put up on the Bridge the flattering inscription given above, which attributes to Alexander Hay's patriotism what was merely a discharge of a legal obligation incurred by his father. It should also be remembered that the great annual income of the chaplains was given by Parliament to the King for National purposes, and not to be given to greedy, importunate servitors. The small fraction of the revenues given to the Bridge of Don was intended to give the colour of legality to a shameful, illegal transaction, and hence Sir Alexander Hay's care to get, 1st, his right to the Grant sanctioned by Parliament; and, secondly, its approval of the Mortification as a discharge of his legal obligation concerning the Bridge. He seems to have found the collection of the revenues a troublesome business, and in a few years he sold his right in them to the Depute Town Clerk of Aberdeen; but it mattered nothing to the Town Council who held the main part of the original grant so long as their small part was paid. The repair of the bridge seems to have been completed about 1610, and after that date the Town Council had been able to save up the annual income from the mortification for a long time. In the beginning of the 17th century the rate of interest seems to have been 10%, and at that rate the annuity would have amounted to 10 times its value in the course of 24 years, to a 100 times its value in 48 years, and to a 1,000 times its value in 96 years.  In a 100 years the amount of the annuity with interest would have been over £30,000. Even at 5%, the amount in a 100 years would have been nearly £6000.

The Town Council invested the Bridge of Don accumulations, along with other funds under their management, in the purchase of the estate of Easter Skene, three-tenths of which belongs to the Bridge of Don Fund, from which an annual income of £300 is derived. Other accumulations of revenues have been lent out at interest, and the whole income of the fund, including the original bequest - £2 5s 8d stg. - amounts to £728 ; and the fund itself at present is worth about £26,523. By agreement with the promoters of the Victoria Bridge the free annual revenue of the fund goes to the reduction of the debt on this bridge, which amounts to £10,000.  By retaining a sum sufficient to erect a new bridge, if either the Bridge of Balgownie or the new Bridge of Don should fall, the Town Council feel that they may disregard the imprecation of Sir Alexander Hay against them if they turned the mortification to other uses than upholding the Bridge of Balgownie. Out of the fund they erected the new Bridge of Don, and from it they are practically paying two- thirds of the whole cost of Victoria Bridge. The bridges at Persley, Dyce, Mintray, Kintore, Kemnay, Monymusk, Towie, Insch, Newburgh, Maryculter, and Huntly, and the old bridge of Powis all benefited by the Mortification.

Robert the Bruce & the Bridge
In the narrative clause of the Deed of Mortification Hay says -
History testifies that the Stone Bridge over the water of Don was built by command of Robert Bruce, which bridge seems to be falling into decay because there is no annual provision for its maintenance. History nowhere testifies anything of the sort. The statement has no other foundation than an Act of Parliament, dated December 18, 1318, titled: — "Carta restitutionis Iloberti liegis Henrico Episcopo Concessa," Charter of restitution given by King Robert to Bishop Henry [Cheyne]. It is given at full length in " Registrum Episcopatus Aberdonensis " (1. 44), and the substance of it is that the King in a full Parliament held at Perth remitted a hostile feeling which he had conceived against Bishop Henry of Aberdeen, and which had led him to arrest in the hands of all the Officers of the Crown and the Provosts and Baillies of Burghs north of the Forth the temporalities of his office. These were now to be restored to the Bishop for the future, along with any arrears not paid to the King's Officials. There is not the slightest indication of the offence which the Bishop has committed, nor of the use to which the revenues of his Office had been applied. The Bridge of Don is not mentioned, and there is nothing said to show how many days or years the arrest lasted, or whether the sum withheld was large or small.  Nor does what is known of the Bishop throw any light on the King's rancour against him. Though he swore fealty to Edward I. at Berwick, and again did homage to him at Aberdeen, and afterwards at Berwick, on the other hand he was present at a great meeting of the Clergy held at Dundee in 1309, where they issued a declaration in favour of Robert Bruce, King of Scots, with whom his faithful people said they wished to live and to die. And after his remission we find the King appending to a document in addition to his own seal that of Bishop Henry and some other seals, because they were better known than his own. There is, therefore, no ground for attributing the erection of the Bridge to Robert and no evidence that the cost of its erection was defrayed from the sequestrated temporalities of the Bishopric of Aberdon. The Act seems to be a forgery.

The "Legend" of the Bridge
All old alliterative and metrical triplet by an unknown "poet" but in folk-lore ascribed to Thomas the Rhymer, runs:-
Brig o' Balgownie, though wight is thy wa',
Wi' a mither's ae sou, on a mear's ae foal,
Down shalt thou fa' !

"Which may be paraphrased : -
Oh Brig of Balgownie, though now in your youth your sides are strong, yet you will inevitably grow old, and a day will come when you will be so frail that your back will be broken by the weight of a single rider. The day of fate will come for you when the rare coincidence shall happen that a man who is the only son of his mother attempts to ride over you on a horse, the only foal of a mare.
Byron in " Don Juan," Canto
x. 18, shows that he had learned to repeat the versicle in his residence in Aberdeen, though he had partially forgotten it. He says :-
As " Auld Lang Syne " brings Scotland, one and all, Scotch plaids, Scotch snoods, the blue hills, and clear streams, The Dee, the Don, Balgownie's Brig's black wall, All my boy feelings, all my gentler dreams ....

In a foot-note to the stanza he says : -
The Brig of Don, near the " auld toun " of Aberdeen, with its one arch, and its black, deep salmon stream below, is in my memory as yesterday. I still remember, though perhaps I misquote, the awful proverb which made me pause to cross it and yet lean over it with a childish delight, being an only son, at least by my mother's side.

Thomas Blake Glover's Balgownie Home

Merchant, Industrialist and Entrepreneur - Balgownie to Nagasaki
Born in Fraserburgh and educated at the Chanonry School, Old Aberdeen, he travelled to Japan in 1859 and later imported the 1st steam locomotive. He helped to establish the Mitsubishi Nagasaki Shipyard and received the Order of the Rising Sun from the Emperor in 1908.
Thomas Blake Glover was destined to become one of Victorian Scotland's most successful and influential industrialists. 

He was born at 15 Commerce Street, Fraserburgh on June 6, 1838 the 5th of 8 children to Thomas Berry Glover and Mary Findlay and spent his early childhood in the North East fishing town.  Glover was 13 years old when his father settled in Bridge of Don, as Chief Coastgaurd and his name appears on the register of Chanonry House School (The Gymnasium), Old Aberdeen, for the year 1854.  It was there that he began working for a trading company and travelling the world.  Glover's family home in Scotland, Glover's House, 79 Balgownie Road, Bridge of Don, Aberdeen is now open to the public as a restored Victorian House, telling the Glover story. 

Braehead Cottage was built in 1850 and remodelled to form a Villa, known as Braehead House, in 1863. The The house was given in Trust by Mitsubishi in 1997 and has been restored to its 19th century appearance with many original details and features. A memorial plaque to Glover was unveiled on the front wall in 2006 This house was even used to smuggle out Japanese rebellious youth to be educated in the UK, which includes their 1st Prime Minister  Ito Hirobumi (1841 - 1909) and many more.  Though the achievements of this Coastguard's son are surprisingly little known in his native North East Scotland, in Japan, Glover is celebrated in Japan as a National Hero. His house in Nagasaki is 1 of Japan's most popular tourist attractions with nearly 2 Million visitors every year. In contrast, his birthplace didn't fare so well. During World War II a bomb hit 15 Commerce Street Fraserburgh, and razed his old family home to rubble.  He also had a residence in the Shiba Park area of Tokyo.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013