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Aberdeen Town House including Municipal Offices, Council Chambers, Court Houses and Tolbooth, Castle Street and 2 Broad Street, Aberdeen

A Category A Listed Building in Aberdeen, Aberdeen

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Latitude: 57.1481 / 57°8'53"N

Longitude: -2.0947 / 2°5'40"W

OS Eastings: 394370

OS Northings: 806358

OS Grid: NJ943063

Mapcode National: GBR SCY.46

Mapcode Global: WH9QQ.SLQK

Entry Name: Aberdeen Town House including Municipal Offices, Council Chambers, Court Houses and Tolbooth, Castle Street and 2 Broad Street, Aberdeen

Listing Date: 12 January 1967

Last Amended: 7 February 2017

Category: A

Source: Historic Scotland

Source ID: 406609

Historic Scotland Designation Reference: LB19990

Building Class: Cultural

Location: Aberdeen

County: Aberdeen

Town: Aberdeen

Electoral Ward: George St/Harbour

Traditional County: Aberdeenshire

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Aberdeen Town House was built in 1868-74 by John Dick Peddie and Charles George Hood Kinnear. It incorporates the remaining part of the Tolbooth of 1615-29 by Thomas Watson of Old Rayne at the east, and includes the City Chambers to Broad Street, added in 1975 by the Aberdeen City Architect's Department, with Ian Ferguson and Tom Campbell Watson as its chief architects.

The 1868-74 Town House is a 4-storey and attic, 16-bay, Scots Baronial turreted municipal building with an advanced 6-stage corbelled and bartizaned square-plan, 5-stage clock tower with a spire to the west. The building is situated on a prominent corner site in the city centre and is of grey granite ashlar. It has a base course, string courses, cill courses and a parapet. The ground floor has segmental-arched arcading and there are smaller, round-arched openings at the first floor. There are small gabled roof dormers with finials.

The Castle Street elevation has a central 6-panel 2-leaf timber entrance door. The central 5 bays have double-height segmental-arched openings at the second and third floors with bipartite windows and multifoil openings above. An advanced bay to the far right has the Tolbooth behind it. A vertical metal sundial is set high on the wall to the far right and carries the motto UT UMBRA SIC FUGIT VITA (Life flies like a shadow). The tower to the far left has a round-arched doorway with steps leading to a timber and glass revolving entrance door with semi-circular fanlight above. Above the entrance is a corbelled balcony and the 5th stage of the tower has with louvred openings with clock faces set in the gables above. The spire is finialled and crocketted.

The 17th century Tolbooth is a rubble, square-plan castellated tower with corbelled balustraded parapet and clock faces on 3 sides and which is partly enmeshed in later buildings. Its polygonal steeple has blind round-arched openings and a decorative lead spire. It is internally connected to the 19th century Town House to the west.

The windows on the street elevations are predominantly plate glass in timber sash and case frames. The roof has grey slates and there are tall, narrow, coped ridge chimney stacks.

The interior was seen in 2007 and has an impressive decorative scheme with detailing dating from the 17th and mid 19th century. The municipal offices and courts have a central granite imperial stair with a galleried landing and there is a further tall open-well spiral staircase with a decorative cast iron baluster and timber rail. The main reception hall has timber panelling, a fine decorative timber hammerbeam roof and a minstrels' gallery. There are other timber panelled rooms with coffered ceilings, one of which has heraldic shields. There is decorative plaster cornicing and 4 and 6 panel timber doors throughout and several large classical, granite chimneypieces. The courts are largely modernised, but one court has timber pews, gallery and bench. The Tolbooth has stone-flagged floors, a narrow spiral stair, several small internal rooms, some of which are vaulted with original heavy timber iron bound yetts. There is a remnant of round-arched pilastered arcading at the west wall and a timber bell frame.

The City Chambers to Broad Street is linked to the Town House by a raised corridor. It is a 4-storey, flat-roofed building, dated 1975, with paired vertical full height columns and contrasting grey walls. There are pilotis to the north, forming an open space under the first storey and there is curved advanced first floor window at the west elevation. The majority of the windows are narrow vertical openings.

The interior was seen in 2007 and has a 1970s decorative scheme, including a cantilvered steel staircase and a double-height, timber panelled council chamber.

Statement of Interest

Aberdeen Town House, including municipal offices, court house, Tolbooth and city chambers, is a significant example of civic architecture and is of outstanding importance because of its fine and influential Scots baronial design with exceptional interior scheme, conceived by the highly respected architects Peddie and Kinnear. The imposing scale of the building with its landmark tower and its striking grey and white 1975 extension, dominates the east end of Union Street in Aberdeen city centre. It incorporates an early 17th century Tolbooth, one of the oldest buildings in Aberdeen and its integration with the newer Municipal buildings provides a connection between the old burgh of Aberdeen and the new-found confidence and wealth of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is the embodiment of civic affairs in Aberdeen.

Age and Rarity

Aberdeen Town House largely dates from three periods; the Tolbooth of 1615-29, the substantial remodelling and extension of the Town House from 1868-74 and the new City Chambers from 1975.

In 1616 Thomas Watson, a mason from Old Rayne in Aberdeenshire, was employed to build a Tolbooth in Aberdeen. A Parliamentary Act, passed in 1597, required all burghs to erect prisons and the Tolbooth was also the place where tolls and customs taxes were collected and where the burgh council held their meetings. Over the next 200 years the Tolbooth was extended; a steeple was added in 1629 and the tower extended in 1704. In 1818-20 a new court house to the north of the town house was built to designs by John Smith, which involved the rebuilding of the south (street) elevation of the Tolbooth and completing significant internal alterations. Smith's Town House and court was replaced by the Peddie and Kinnear building and only the prison tower, or wardhouse of the Tolbooth remains. The large scale Ordnance Survey map of 1866 shows the layout of the former Town House, with the courtroom to the rear. In 1975, the building was extended to the north by the city's Architect's Department and this extension houses the City Chambers.

By the second half of the 19th century there was a growing impetus for improved municipal buildings and many town halls were built or extended, including Aberdeen, Edinburgh (1859 and later) and Glasgow (circa 1890). Also, as part of a comprehensive review of the adequacy of Scottish sheriff courts under the Sheriff Court Houses (Scotland) Act of 1860, the accommodation at Aberdeen court house was found to be inadequate, and it was recommended that the Town House be redeveloped as part of an improvement scheme. The local administrative body at the time, The Commissioners of Supply, appointed a committee to obtain plans for a new sheriff court and Town House and a limited competition was held in 1861 between the Town's architect William Smith, James Matthews and Peddie & Kinnear, with the latter's elaborate baronial design being chosen.

Royal Assent was given to the Aberdeen County and Municipal Buildings Act 1866 which gave permission for a court house for the county and city of Aberdeen; a hall for public meetings; a Town House for the City with offices for Staff and a building for the accommodation of the Police Commissioners and their staff. Work commenced in 1867 on the demolition of buildings on the site (including the old Town House) at the junction of Castle Street/Union Street and Broad Street.

The development of the court house as a building type in Scotland follows the history of the Scottish legal system and wider government reforms. The introduction of the Sheriff Court Houses (Scotland) Act of 1860 gave a major impetus to the increase and improvement of court accommodation and this provision of central funding was followed by the most active period of sheriff court house construction in the history of the Scottish legal system and many new court houses were built or reworked after this date.

Court houses constructed after 1860 generally had a solely legal purpose and did not incorporate a prison, other than temporary holding cells. The courts were designed in a variety of architectural styles many relying heavily on Scots Baronial features to reference the fortified Scottish building tradition. Newly constructed court buildings in the second half of the 19th century mostly dispensed with large public spaces such as county halls and instead provided bespoke office accommodation for the sheriff, judge and clerks. At Aberdeen, however, the court and its associated rooms are integral to the large building of the Town House, and the court accommodation lies to the rear, with the Council rooms to the front.

Aberdeen Town House is of outstanding architectural significance, as it was the first major municipal complex to be built in Scotland since the City and County Buildings in Glasgow of 1844 and its fine Scots baronial design was immensely influential in the design of later municipal and judicial buildings in Scotland. The 1975 extension is a fine example of 1970s civic architecture and coincided with the reorganisation in 1975 of Scottish local authorities into regions with the City of Aberdeen coming under the auspices of Grampian Region. In the same period, recent unprecedented success in North Sea oil extraction had a significant impact on public building projects in the city. The Tolbooth is one of Aberdeen's oldest buildings and its integration with the two phases of the newer municipal buildings makes this building, as a whole, the embodiment of civic affairs in Aberdeen and the administrative centre of Aberdeen since the 17th century.

Architectural or Historic Interest


The interior detailing of the Tolbooth and the Town House predominantly dates to the mid-19th century remodelling of the site and is of very high quality, especially to the municipal rooms. It demonstrates the wealth of 19th century Aberdeen and is appropriate for the important civic status of this building. The detailing includes a splendid geometric staircase leading to a magnificent double height hall at the first floor and Heraldic decoration to the ceiling in the manner of St Machar's Cathedral (LB19957).

The Tolbooth cells are particularly rare as many from the 17th century no longer survive.

The interior of the 1975 extension is of a high quality design and specification, confirming the confidence of the city at this time. Of particular note is the timber lined Council Chamber and the cantilevered steel and glass staircase.

Plan form

The building sits on a corner site and incorporates the earlier Tolbooth. Both of these have informed the asymmetrical and extensive plan form of the building. The retention of the Tolbooth has historical interest. Internally, the layout of the rooms is typical in having offices on the ground floor with the more elaborate and public rooms on the 1st floor.

Technological excellence or innovation, material or design quality

As prime civic buildings, courts and town houses usually had a significant amount of decorative work on the exterior and Aberdeen Town House is no exception to this. The building is a masterful composition of Scots Baronial features with Franco-Flemish influences and demonstrates the confident adaptation of this mid-19th century country house style to public architecture. The features of this style were reminiscent of those used in traditional fortified Scottish buildings and include bartizans, machiolations, balconies, a prominent tower and crow steps, and were highly appropriate for the use in a building connected with law and justice and important municipal functions.

Peddie and Kinnear were the first to use this style for this municipal and court building at Aberdeen and other court buildings quickly followed suit including Selkirk (David Rhind, 1869-70, LB 43747), Kirkcaldy (James Gillespie, 1893, LB44108) and Greenock (1867, Peddie and Kinnear, LB34133).

This imposing tower, the continuous arcading and the ornate interior decoration all contribute to the importance of the building. The arcading is a particularly impressive streetscape feature. Rising above the wallhead at the east end of the buildings is the elaborate spire of the old Tolbooth and this is balanced by the dominant square tower of the west end.

The 1975 extension to the buildings echoes the vertical form and fortified character of the Victorian Town house in the full height double columns and the small, narrow windows. The building is also conceived on a similar grand scale and to a high specification.

The partnership of Edinburgh architects of John Dick Peddie and Charles George Hood Kinnear existed between 1856 and 1878 and it continued as a leading practice in Scotland up to the Second World War. Kinnear's earlier association with William Burn and David Bryce was a significant influence on the practice. The partnership was very successful from the beginning and there were numerous commissions for high status public and commercial buildings, schools and churches across Scotland. Aberdeen Town House is considered to be one Peddie and Kinnear's best buildings.

Thomas Campbell Watson was born in November 1914 and carried out most of his work in Aberdeen. He was the Aberdeen City Architect from 1970-1975.


Castle Street, also known as the Castlegate, is one of the oldest areas in Aberdeen and has been the market place since the 12th century. The Town House and Tolbooth are the dominant buildings in this area, emphasising the traditional civic history of the site and the tower is a major landmark in the city.

The building is situated within the Union Street Conservation Area of Aberdeen City.

Regional variations

There are no known regional variations.

Close Historical Associations

There are no known associations with a person or event of national importance at present (2016).

Statutory address and listed building record revised in 2017 as part of the Scottish Court Houses Listing Review 2014-16. Previously listed as 'Castle Street and 2 Broad Street, Town House, including Municipal Offices, Court Houses and Tolbooth'.

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