It is clear that right from its opening in 1881 the members of this splendid new church in Aberdeen’s west end were prepared to take music seriously. There was a choir from the very beginning but there being no organ the music was led, as was the then custom by precentors whose job was to prepare the choir and to train the congregation in the art of unaccompanied singing. By 1887 there was strong pressure for the installation of an organ, for which most of the money was raised by subscription. Showing great good sense the church commissioned Henry Willis I (Father Willis) to construct the organ.
He was the foremost builder of the day and his instruments have always been prized - in Aberdeen his work can also be seen and heard in the Music Hall, St Machar’s and Rubislaw. This was an interesting and intelligent move. There must have been other firms tendering for the contract, who would have doubtless been offering to provide larger instruments at the same or less cost. But in 1887 the church went for quality, with two consequences, firstly the instrument has lasted well and still sounds thrilling, and secondly, for over 125 years Fountainhall at the Cross (formerly Queen's Cross) organists have been regretting that there was never a third manual, which is something one would expect in a church of this size. The third manual was ‘prepared for’ - you can see the third keyboard in old photographs, the idea being that, when funds allowed, pipes and action for this third manual would be installed. Naturally we are still waiting, though when the instrument was rebuilt in 1955 the dummy third manual was removed, since then, as now, the notion that such an extravagance would be vouchsafed was plainly ridiculous. The 1955 re-build repositioned the instrument in the west gallery where it speaks clearly into the body of the church. The work was done by Rushworth & Dreaper and included the adding of a fine set of high pressure reeds for the Great and Pedal. A renovation of the interior was undertaken for the church’s centenary in 1981, and one of the features of this was to bring the choir downstairs so that they could properly be heard and more effectively lead the singing.
The console thus had to come downstairs too, since the organist has to be in close contact with the singers. The main problem with the present arrangement is that there is an acoustic delay between pressing a key and hearing the sound, which is not insignificant, and which can cause problems for players not used to it. Indeed some music with very rapid figurations or complex rhythms remains difficult even by expert players.
In 2014 a comprehensive overhaul of the organ and the action was undertaken by the firm of John R. Lightbown & Sons, South Shields. This involved installing a solid-state transmission system, renewing the bellows leather, and, vitally, remodelling the Great chorus to include a Twelfth and a two-rank Mixture. The effect of this work has been remarkably successful. The tonal structure is now complete and the dynamic range is now much wider.