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Fochabers: St Mary’s RC Church

James Bruce & Co., 1843 — organ surveyed June 2023

Technical summary

Casework, design and construction
The Gothic case design of the 1843 Bruce organ found here became fairly standard for this builder’s small organs. It is likely that most organs with this case design were built for residences. The larger casework at St Gregory’s RC Church, Preshome,[i] was more typical of the builder’s design for churches. Several other examples of the larger design still survive, notably at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Inverness (1840). The larger design was also probably used at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Chapel (now Cathedral), Aberdeen in 1817, but was later replaced.

That Bruce took some trouble to explain the difference between church and chamber organs in his letter of 12th September 1842 to the Rev. Wm. Caven at Fochabers suggests that this case may have been at first destined for another location, perhaps a house, but was constructed and voiced in Edinburgh as a chapel organ for the sake of economy, as Bruce emerged  from his third insolvency. One pointer to a change of use is the square filled-in stop hole above the Open Diapason at the treble end, suggesting the organ was originally to have had an extra stop, perhaps requested by a different client, although it could alternatively reflect a simple error by a craftsman

As with nearly all small Scottish-made organs built between about 1810 and 1870, the external casework is independent of the working part of the organ and can be removed without leading to major malfunction. In England by contrast the external case of small 19th century instruments can double as a  building frame.

Before the Gothic design was adopted by the first Wood/Bruce firm (Muir, Wood & Co. fl. 1798-1818),  one or two experimental small organs were made. The Muir Wood organ built for Howbury Hall, with a non-Gothic cabinet design, and the reservoir at the top of the case (!), is now in the USA and may be seen and heard elsewhere online. It was probably after visiting Carlisle on the firm’s tuning visits, and seeing the Avery organ of 1807 at Carlisle Cathedral, that Bruce developed his characteristic Gothic design, which he used throughout the remainder of his career.

The Fochabers case matches quite closely the cases Bruce built for the Edinburgh residences of Thomas Thorburn (1841 – later at Howgate, now in Friesland) and Dr. McArthur (c.1830s – after ten relocations now in Appin). Other broadly similar Bruce examples include Carlops Church (1820s), Dalkeith St. Nicholas, small organ (1820s) and Glasgow University Concert Hall (1830s). There were other organs by Bruce’s freelance staff (and followers) which also followed this design closely: for example those at Ramsdell, Pittenweem, and Barthol.

The lower case at Fochabers comprises plain panels of pine which fit into the building frame topped by an impost with a flat top – a couple of inches wide – extending round left, front and right sides of the organ. The keyboard is retractable, and a panel which hangs down underneath the keyboard can be folded up and has the potential to be locked so the whole instrument resembles a Gothic cupboard. This panel is hinged to the lower panel and held in place by horizontal catches. At the rear, the organ is enclosed by plain panels, two upper and two lower; these now form the only practical access for tuning and maintenance, as a light fitting has in recent years been fixed to the central Gothic panel at the front, preventing its removal. The rear panels bear some graffiti made in the past by organ blowers during musical breaks in the Mass. One inscription notes the passing of pope Benedict XV in 1922. 

Until the 1970s the casework was veneered over the grain, but this veneer was scraped off by a priest, as witnessed by organ builders Michael Macdonald and John McCarron in the late 1970s. The wood in the console area remains veneered, with some parts (e.g. stop jambs) made of mahogany and stop knobs of rosewood. The top of one  façade panel also retains veneer.

As with most examples of this style of case, there are five detachable Gothic sections of façade which comprise the upper case front. On this organ they are all flat; on some instruments by Bruce like Eyemouth Lodge the outer two panels form towers. All the pipes on display on these instruments are dummy flatbacks, decorated with gold leaf. The ornate finials at the top of these facades are generally not made of wood, but are pieces of painted plaster made to appear like wood – some of which are missing here. Only on some larger Bruce church organs – like at Preshome – are the finials carved out of solid oak. The designs of the Gothic panels are fairly standard on most small instruments made by the Scottish builders: Wood, Bruce, Renton, Christie, Ewart, Wishart and Mirrlees. Naturally, there were minor variations between the builders. David Hamilton sometimes deviated in a major way from this design, as at Fasque (1846); elsewhere, for example the organ now at Inveraray Parish Church, he adopted the standard design.

At Fochabers, three drawstops are located at the treble end: Open Diapason at the top, then Stop Diapason Treble and Stop Diapason Bass [all 8′] at the foot. At the bass end there are four stops: Fifteenth [2], Twelfth [2 2/3], Principal [4] and Flute [8]. The stop ivories have printed stop names inscribed and match those of other original Bruce script designs. The stop trundles and associated transmissions are all of Bruce’s fairly solid half inch-square dimensions. There are three combination pedals, designed in Bruce’s standard shape – rather like a lady’s shoe. The combination action works effectively at both treble and bass ends of the organ. To the left of the combination pedals is a crank for blowing the organ with the left foot with a further crank to the left side of the organ for a second person to hand-blow the organ. This feature is currently disconnected but would require only a little work to reinstate, though there are signs that an unsuccessful attempt to restore this in the last thirty years has been made. The hand blowing lever survives.

The reservoir is of a double-rise design, with wedge-shaped feeders underneath for hand or foot blowing. The leather of both components appears to be in good condition. The present electric motor feeds into the reservoir from the rear of the organ, but there are signs that this once fed into the treble side of the case.

The mechanical action from the keyboard comprises key sticks of some 18 inches long, which raise stickers pulling down splayed backfalls which transmit the action to the wider length of the chest. The backfalls are attached to pulldown wires beneath the main chest. When the keyboard is removed from the organ completely – as it can be – the stickers would fall out, were it not for little leather patches stuck to the front of the stickers (not the sides of the stickers, as with most English-built organs of this period). The leather patches prevent the stickers falling through a wooden rail above the back of the keys. On occasion, the patches fall off and have to be re-attached.

The manual compass starts at low GG, a practice soon to change, as the C compass became established. The top of the compass, as with most Bruce organs is g”‘ (only David Hamilton had a habit of stopping at f “‘). The key fronts with their tiered appearance are not unusual; the keyboard jambs are of a design fairly standard throughout the UK at this period (again, this was soon to change).

The pipework mostly sits on one main chest, with the larger pipes conveyanced off and standing in small independent racks or mini-chests at the sides and rear of the organ. Like most organs of this type, the layout is rather cramped, with larger pipes seemingly crammed in to whatever space is available, depending on their size.

Pipework and pipe-markings
Stop Diapason: comprises stopped wooden pipes throughout from GG and AA to g”‘. Most of the larger pipes are on the bass side, although the GG pipe is in the right hand corner. Bass pipes excepted, all the stops run chromatically from left to right. The top thirty notes have pierced stoppers, but the piercings have a minimal effect on pitch, judging by the progressive pipe lengths on the soundboard.

Open Diapason: from GG to F#, the pipes of this stop are shared with those of the Stop Diapason. From G to B, the Open Diapason has independent open wood pipes, inscribed as such – the three naturals are on the bass side, while the two sharps are on the treble side. G is marked “Gamut”. The pipes from c to g”‘ are open metal, running chromatically from left to right. Nearly all the metal pipes in the organ had tuning slides added sometime between 1975 and 1993.

Principal: this stop has its own open wood pipes from GG to BB (four notes) marked “Pr” plus note letter. Then from c to g”‘ the pipes are open metal.

The Twelfth and Fifteenth stops are metal throughout the whole compass. Two of the Fifteenth pipes in the bass have been badly damaged by buckling within the last thirty years and are stored inside the case at the bass end. These could be restored and reinstated. Above the note g, the pipes of the Fifteenth stop are – unusually for Bruce – made of tin, a material which only Hamilton invariably used, from 1836 to 1863. 

The 8 foot open Flute pipes running from g to g”‘ are distinguished by their mahogany caps, a feature of Bruce’s wooden pipe manufacture elsewhere. The wooden pipes of other stops on this organ do not have caps of a different material. The tuning flaps of the (open) Flute are metal. Only the lowest note (g) has the word “Flute” written on it.

All the pipes inspected – metal and wood – have careful and moderate nicking. The pipe feet have a fairly wide aperture, as befits a church instrument. Scaling is probably slightly wider than many other small organs of the period.

The wooden pipe markings have been made by scraping a small patch of veneer off each pipe and inscribing quasi-printed note names in upper case writing. These were categorised as set 3 in the BIOS Journal 21 of 1997 where the identification of these instruments is studied.[ii] These markings are also found in the Howgate/Friesland instrument (1841), Edinburgh St. Patrick’s RC Church (1835), Glasgow University Chapel (c.1830s) and Monnickendam Grote Kerk (perhaps c.1830).

The metal pipe markings are surprising: while some of the ranks have the standard inscriptions we associate with some of Bruce’s instruments (e.g. the note d on the Open Diapason), many of the markings found here are unusual. The letter “f” is (in general terms) the most distinctive of the seven notes of the scale, and here – uniquely – this letter on the metal pipes of both the Principal and Fifteenth has a loop at the foot. The only other Edinburgh organ builders to write “f” like this with a loop were Samuel Letts (fl. 1800-10) and David Hamilton (fl. 1824-63). There are two possible explanations for this, one that Bruce had acquired some Hamilton pipes, and the second that David Hamilton’s younger brother James (1813-92), having worked with the Hamilton family firm (1841 census), and then having fallen out with his brother – practising dentistry by 1845 (Edinburgh directory) – had temporarily joined Bruce’s company c.1842. James Hamilton may well have been taught to write by the same teacher as his older brother. No other organ by Bruce so far inspected has an “f” with a loop at the foot.

On the Principal stop we also find, unusually, an upper case “A” of a sort normally found on wooden pipes rather than metal.

There is no Swell box here. Bruce advised against it here as it might restrict sound egress, though it is also possible he was just short of time and labour.

[i] [accessed 30/05/2023]

[ii] “Early Nineteenth Century Scottish Chamber Organs: Pipe Markings and Other Identifiers”, BIOS Journal 21 (1997), ed. Dominic Gwynn, pp 136-149