Spanning the River Don below Seaton Park in leafy surrounds is Scotland’s oldest medieval bridge. Historically an ancient highway, as well as the subject of folklore and poetry, today the bridge is among the last reminders of early medieval Aberdeen, and serves as a useful byway and occasional jumping spot on sunny days.
The Brig o’ Balgownie dates back to 1286 and took over 40 years to complete. Made from Aberdeen’s signature grey granite, combined with sandstone, it consists of a single Gothic arch.
Today, the bridge is something of a landmark for students at the nearby University of Aberdeen, being the place from which many graduates jump upon completion of their courses. The injuries sustained by these revelries are such that the university has issued a safety warning on the subject. ‘Tombstoning’ as it is called, is strongly discouraged, particularly as at its shallower moments, the River Don is only around 17 feet deep and contains many obscured rocks.
More famously, however, Lord Byron pays homage to the place in his epic poem Don Juan:
As ‘Auld Lang Syne’ brings Scotland, one and all,
Scotch plaids, Scotch snoods, the blue hills, and clear streams,
The Dee, the Don, Balgounie’s brig’s black wall,
All my boy feelings, all my gentler dreams
Of what I then dreamt, clothed in their own pall,
Like Banquo’s offspring;—floating past me seems
My childhood in this childishness of mine:
I care not—’t is a glimpse of ‘Auld Lang Syne.’
- Lord Byron, Don Juan
In a side note to the poem, Lord Byron recalls crossing the bridge in his childhood with his friend, and being both reluctant and delighted to cross, as he knew the legend, which (in his own words) goes:
“Brig o’ Balgownie, black’s yer wa’;
Wi’ a wife’s ae son, and a meer’s ae foal,
Doon ye shall fa’.”
The proverb tells that an only son crossing the bridge on a horse that is also an only offspring will cause the bridge to collapse. A sentiment that is lost today, replaced instead with a pretty and minimalist Gothic arch over which one may walk or bicycle and enjoy the view of the river below.
Know Before You Go
A meander through Seaton Park, following the river or the signposts will lead you there. Alternatively, you can start at the mouth of the Don on King Street and work your way back along the river.