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The Common Good of the City of Aberdeen

Origin and History

The Common Good Fund may be said to have originated in the grant by King Robert the Bruce on 10th December, 1319 of the whole of Stocket Forest to the Burgesses of Aberdeen for the payment of a yearly feuduty of 213.6.8 Scots (17 sterling) and reserving for himself and his heirs only "the green growth of the great trees and the game."

The Forest of Stocket, thereafter known as the Freedom Lands, consisted of a solid block of land to the west of the City, measuring roughly six miles by four miles. The Burghers in this area thenceforth paid their tack duties to the City Treasurer instead of the Crown Office, and even in those early times, the Stocket lands must have yielded a fair revenue for burgh purposes.

The finances of the Common Good suffered a severe check through a serious fire, which destroyed part of the town in 1326. To help the citizens, the Crown remitted a certain portion of the feuduty payable in respect of the Stocket lands for a space of ten years. Further financial trouble arose when Edward I of England completely devastated the City, and the Treasurer of the day reported that "no maills could be obtained as the enemy had complete possession".

The next landmark in the history of the Common Good is in 1551, but for the hundred years before that date, it is on record that the finances of the Common Good were very seriously strained in order to give suitable hospitality to the Scottish Kings when they visited the Burgh. In 1551, the Council purchased the favour of Mary, Queen of Scots, with the sum of 2,500 marks for the privilege of a Crown Charter conveying to the Council liberty to feu the Freedom Lands. This method of managing the Common Good was entirely new, and, although the feuduties then fixed were in all probability fair value, yet it has been said that the Common Good was the poorer from the alienation of this patrimony.

The Reformation with its sweeping changes was the means of adding a little to the Common Good in the shape of a multitude of small annual rents formerly payable to the Church and various monastic institutions within the Burgh. The greater portion of the City's share was in Greyfriars Place in Broad Street, but to the credit of the Council of the day it can be said that they made an enlightened gift of this area to Earl Marischal to enable him to found the college named after him. On the whole, the Reformation transactions were unprofitable to the City for the Common Good became chargeable for the stipends to the Ministers of the new faith. Of this charge the Common Good managed to rid itself in the 1920's by the payment of a capital sum.

The City again found itself in financial difficulties about the year 1640, due to the Civil War, and to a serious out-break of the plague. In 1651, the debt amounted to over 600,000 Scots. The Government of the day granted the City various financial concessions with the result that, by 1712, the debt had been reduced to about 40,000 Scots.

The first chain of office known to have been worn by a provost in Aberdeen was purchased in 1760 and paid for from the Common Good Fund.

About the year 1800, the necessity arose for having several new streets opened, especially for a new entry to the City from the south and the north. A special Act of Parliament was passed in 1800 empowering the formation of certain new streets and interposing the credit of the Common Good as security to the lenders who supplied money for carrying out the works. The estimate of the cost of the works was 42,000 sterling, but there was no clause limiting the borrowing in the Act, with the result that in 1816 the debt amounted to over 170,000 sterling. At that date, the Treasurer was due over 57,000 in respect of accumulated interest unpaid, and in 1817 the demands on the Treasurer became so pressing that he had to suspend payment.

On 3rd March 1820, the whole Common Good, together with the new street property, was conveyed to twenty-one persons as Trustees for the Treasurer's creditors. When the Trustees took over, the total debt amounted to 237,000 of which there had been borrowed from various funds under the administration of the Council 70,000, the balance being borrowed from 570 individual creditors. Under the new management of the Trustees, the unfued ground along the new streets was taken up very quickly, and by 1825 the revenue had increased to such an extent as warranted the Trust being brought to an end. Thus, after eight years, the whole of the Common Good, together with the new street property, was reconveyed to the Treasurer, and the affairs of the treasury came to be again managed by the proper authority. As matters turned out, the laying out of the new streets was a profitable speculation.

In 1877, the progress of the Common Good received a check by an action raised by the University, in which they obtained a reduction of the feuing of the reserved Lands of Torry to the Treasurer by the Master of Mortifications for an annual payment of 50. This represented a loss of 17,000.

The history of the Common Good in the later part of the 19th and 20th century has been largely uneventful. During the period, assistance from the Common Good was given to many City projects including:

  • University Extensions: 10,000
  • New Greyfriars Church: 19,000
  • Cost of Aberdeen Corporation Water Bill 1910: 19,000
  • Robert Gordon's Technical College and recently for Building Fund: 3,000
  • New Grammar School: 13,263
  • Drum's Aisle and St Nicholas Spire: 8,383
  • Art Gallery Building: 7,862
  • Art Gallery Extension: 3,000
  • Union Terrace Improvements: 5,412
  • Road at Girdlenes Relief Works: 5,390
  • Esplanade Relief Works: 2,000
  • Outlays in connection with the First World War: 4,161
  • Public Library: 2,000
  • Royal Infirmary Buildings: 1,000
  • Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Fund: 1,000
  • North of Scotland College of Agriculture for the purchase of Craibstone: 1,000
  • Joint Hospitals Scheme: 15,000
  • Fish Market Extension: 73,000

Since 1880, the Council has, through the means of the Common Good, spent large sums on the purchase of ground in, and in the immediate vicinity of, the City. They purchased and laid out for feuing purposes ground at Esslemont Avenue, Westfield and Ferryhill, Hilton, Hazlehead and Kincorth.

In addition to the contribution of 15,000 to the 'New Infirmary' Scheme, the Common Good gave a site at Burnside and Foresterhill extending to some 66 acres for 20,140.

The Common Good also sold land for the erection of the Sick Children's Hospital, the cost being 6,050.

Hazlehead Estate was bought for 42,500 in 1920, and Kincorth Estate, extending to 632 acres, was purchased in 1928 at a cost of 45,000.

The buildings at the corner of Union Street and Market Street, and Union Street and St Nicholas Street, were bought in 1918 for 33,160. The sites were sold in 1928 for 53,500, but very necessary street improvements were effected. The property, 127/131 Union Street, was bought for 20,000 in 1928: the stair to the Green was improved and the property was re-sold in 1933 for 23,500.

City Improvements of various kinds have been rendered possible by the purchase of properties in anticipation of schemes being proceeded with.

In the past the Music Hall buildings were "rescued from the hands of a south purchaser" by the intervention of the Common Good, on behalf of the citizens.

It might be said to be an indication of the careful stewardship of the successive Town Councils that the surplus assets of the Common Good have modestly, but steadily, increased over the years until, as at 31 May, 1975, they are recorded by the City Chamberlain as amounting to 2,558,220.