As you approach Aberdeen's suburbs, the outline of the grey 'Granite City' looms across the wide River Dee valley.
The Dee once formed the city's southern defences and the Bridge of Dee, the first bridge over the Dee, completed in 1527 and widened in 1840, still carries traffic over the river to Holburn Street which connects with the Aberdeen's principal thoroughfare, Union Street. Alternately, carry on east towards the harbour and join Union Street at its eastern end. Either route affords the opportunity to appreciate the unique building material and architecture that characterise this imposing northern Mecca.
At one time, there were around 100 quarries in and around Aberdeen. Now there are only two and granite for Aberdeen's newer buildings has been imported from Cornwall. The hard, glistening stone became Aberdeen's trademark to the world and two families of architects were largely responsible for the city's clean-cut appearance. Archibald Simpson designed many of the civic buildings along with John Smith who, around 1804, designed several of the more classical structures near the town centre. His work so impressed Prince Albert that he was commissioned to design the royal castle at Balmoral.
Aberdeen has, over the past 20 years, been dubbed the 'Houston of the North' due to the tremendous boom in oil production from the North Sea. Fortunately for Scotland's third largest city, it was well placed to serve this new industry and has gained from it in many ways. Unemployment in Aberdeen stands at only around 4 per cent. Some say that Aberdeen's rugged and propitious northern spirit has been taken over by an avaricious, commercial attitude but the essence of Aberdeen is probably, like its tough granite buildings, quite robust and should withstand this modern onslaught.
The 'Flower of Scotland' is another more recent epithet given to the city, perhaps to try and soften its image of hard granite and hard working oil men. Every spring and summer there are explosions of colour along the city's streets and in its many parks. In March and April, 11 million daffodils form rivers of efflorescence throughout the city. Aberdeen has won the Britain in Bloom contest so many times that it has been barred from the competition.
A true Aberdeen accent referred to as 'the Doric' can be as hard to follow as any foreign tongue, even for other Scots.
Aberdeen Harbour is a fascinating place to wander at most times, but early on a weekday morning it provides a spectacle that takes place around the fish market where the fresh catch is auctioned. The local fishing fleet is now much reduced with only around twenty trawlers using Aberdeen Harbour, leaving room for the many oil supply vessels. This is the most modern, medium-sized harbour in Europe with three main docks.
Aberdeen is linked to Lerwick in Shetland, Orkney, the Faro Islands and now Norway by P&O's ferries sailing regularly from the harbour.
The New Maritime Museum, situated on the old cobbled street of Shiprow, has recently been much-extended incorporating Provost Ross's House, the third oldest building in Aberdeen, constructed in 1593. The £4 million development highlights the drama of the North Sea industries using models, paintings, touch screen consoles and audio-visual theatre.
On the northern shore of the mouth of the River Dee stands the conservation village of Footdee, pronounced locally as'Fitee'. Built in the early 1800s when the original fishing village was demolished to make way for harbour extensions, it is still a very close-knit community. All the houses face inward onto two squares so as to ward off the worst of the north-east winds.
A No.14 bus from Union Street bound for 'Sea Beach' will take you there, otherwise drive towards the beach and turn right until you meet the harbour.
From the outer harbour walls a group of bottlenose dolphins frequent the river mouth and are often seen. Along Beach Esplanade there are various diversions such as Codona's Amusement Centre and the Beach Ballroom as well as recommended cafes and ice-cream parlours. The beach comprises clean, fine sand and the sustained breakers provide sport for the largest windsurfing club in Great Britain.
As the capital of the Grampian area, renowned for castles, it is surprising that Aberdeen no longer has one of its own. In the early 1300s the city's fortification was burned to avoid occupation by the garrisons of Edward I. Aberdeen's castle lay just beyond the foot of Union Street, the busy main thoroughfare linking the older part of the city to its westward expansion.
Planned over 200 years ago, Union Street's construction nearly made the city bankrupt and it is worth observing more closely the bridges and buildings that span this once very uneven terrain. Union Street is the main shopping precinct with the enclosed Bon Accord and St Nicholas Centres housing most popular shops.
The east end of Union Street and its adjoining streets are marked with several of the best examples of Aberdeen's architecture. Provost Skene's House, near the shopping centres, is a restored domestic building dating from 1545 and now a museum of civic life with furnished period rooms and a painted chapel.
Around the corner on Broad Street stands the neo-Gothic Marischal College, the second largest granite building in the world. It houses Marischal Museum, a remarkable display of items collected by the University's graduates from around the world as well as tracing the history of north-east Scotland from prehistoric times.
Founded in 1593 as a Protestant University, although the present-day buildings date from the nineteenth century, Marischal is regarded as the finest achievement in granite masonry. The building is in need of a clean-up to emphasise its fine, filigreed spires but it is, never the less, most impressive. There is a current rumour that it might be bought and converted in to a hotel.
Schoolhill is an appealing side-street just beyond the St Nicholas Centre with arty shops and the Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum in its purpose built building of 1884. It has a good collection of paintings, sculpture, silver, glass and hosts a variety of temporary exhibits.
The house of James Dun is across the road. He was the master of Aberdeen Grammar School in 1769 and his home now houses modern art exhibitions along with audio-visual presentations and information of the town's history.
Further up and into Rosemount Viaduct is the gracious, solitary shape of His Majesty's Theatre, a delightful Georgian building and the city's main concert hall with seating for 1,500. At the west end of Union Street where it joins Holburn Street and off to the left near the cinemas, you will find the Sratosphere, an imaginative science and technology encounter with plenty of hands on experiments for kids of any age.
As a spin off from the oil industry and its wealth, there are plenty good restaurants in Aberdeen. One of the best at the west end of Union Street is the 'Courtyard of the Lane' in Alford Street. The lower Martha's Vineyard Bistro is a lighter, simpler menu while the Courtyard upstairs is more serious.
Accommodation in Aberdeen tends to cater for business visitors and is generally expensive through the working week, but very good deals can be found at weekends.
From the centre of town, it is around a 15-minute bus ride to Old Aberdeen using a number 20 or any bus going north on Kings Street. If you are driving, follow Kings Street to St Machar Drive on the left and the Chanonry, the narrow lane leading to the heart of Old Aberdeen, is on the right.
This is the most historic part of town that was, in fact, an independent burgh from 1489 until 1891 and it still maintains its own Town House. It also retains its air of independence with narrow, cobbled streets and well preserved seventeenth and eighteenth century architecture, quite dissimilar from that of the more modern city.
King's College and its chapel, founded by the Bishop William Elphinstone in 1495, are the main focus of the area. The chapel is diminutive but most impressive with the original carved stalls lining the chancel and nave and an intricately carved rood screen. The stained glass windows are by Douglas Strachan.
Adjacent is the King's College Visitor Centre which presents a multimedia display of the university's history over 500 years. It has a restaurant and rather refined little gift shop.
Following the cobbled Chanonry north to St Machar's Cathedral, this structure was founded in AD580 by Machar, a follower of St Columba, as a centre for their northern propagation of Christianity.
The present cathedral's foundation dates from 1130 although it was considerably larger than the twin-spired west front left today. The central tower collapsed in 1688. Inside is a splendid heraldic ceiling of the sixteenth century with nineteenth and twentieth century stained glass.
St Machars sits on the edge of Seaton Park with its riverside and woodland walks. The Brig o' Balgownie spans the River Don much as it has since 1329 when it was the main crossing of the river. The poet Lord Byron who stayed in this area, often crossed it and stared into its 'pool of bewitchment'.
Anderson Drive is the main circular route around Aberdeen
and this leads on to the A93, which passes through Cults, Peterculter and Maryculter
and the beginning of Royal Deeside.
Thursday, December 26th, 2019
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