Friday, March 29, 2013

The Granite City- Aberdeen

There are a few things you should know about Aberdeen. One is that the city is made of granite and therefore has a very high background level of radiation. The locally quarried grey granite used in the buildings sparkles like silver due to the high mica content and the city is known as The Granite City or The Silver City. Unlike other Scottish cities where sandstone has been used (a delicious warm red in Glasgow), the buildings are not weathering and need very little structural maintenance on their masonry. As I have been told Aberdonians can be a bit stingey, this is a good thing.

 The  other thing you should know is that Aberdeen is Gaelic for pneumonia.
 Well, that's not really true - it means "at the confluence of the river  Don  with the sea'.
but you get the picture. It is a  bitter cold place. 
As you may have gathered I have just returned from a world tour of Aberdeen, four events over two days, a drive of 550 miles which probably sounds nothing to you guys but three days before we set off Aberdeen was cut off from all civilised society by huge snow drifts.  The librarian pointed out that  it was sunny one day last year. He referred to any good weather as a 'remission'. I decided to drive because the last time I went to Aberdeen I was chummed by another writer with a strong spring on their tongue and by the  time I got home  after a twelve hour train journey with constant chit chat, ( well chat as it was one-way, I had no opperchancity to chit back!), my ears were bleeding. The train had hit a deer - the deer was fatally wounded but had managed to knacker both the braking system and ALL the heating system on the train.

Aberdeen is the oil capital of Europe, the  third most populous city in Scotland and the natives are a hardy breed. There has been human settlement there for the last 8000 years. Remnants of a two thousand year old settlements can be seen spotted around the hills, like this 1600 century fortress where only the front door remains.

This is a fairly typical Aberdonian building in a place called Inverurie and while the lovely gray pallor gives a very light city landscape, it doesn’t exactly warm the soul. We stopped here to get a heat in the chippie. I read that  Aberdeen features an 'oceanic climate' and 'that it is  far milder than one might expect for its northern location.' I read that with a huge degree of tourist guide cynicism then I read the next sentence. 'although statistically it is the coldest city in the UK.'  So it is official.
 In high summer it has nautical twilight that lasts all night. You just won't notice it because of the driving icy rain that will be stinging your eyes and your tears will blind you.  

Driving around to small libraries in the  outlying areas,  the names of the  villages gave us a sense of the of historical romance about them: Oyne, Weet, Clart, Insch.  One of my favourites is 'Fettercairn'. I also like a place on the  road up to Aberdeen-  Findo Gask, very  Tolkienesque.  As we  made our way through drifts the  economy of the countryside became very evident. Sheep, more sheep, distillery, wild deer, pheasant, more sheep. More sheep. That's about it.

 (Many  of the distilleries around us used geese as security until very  recently. They are vicious and make a hell of a hullaballoo if disrupted. But once the housing estates got closer the residents complained and the geese joined the investment bankers in the dole queue. )

 We did notice that these small hamlets have an intense amount of house building going on, it became a talking point at events- the commuter belt of Aberdeen is stretching far now, the economy is bouncing. Wikipedia says that  Aberdeen  was the 54th most liveable city in the World, as well as the third most liveable city in Britain. All I can say is that they must have different criteria to me! 
In 2012 HSBS named Aberdeen as one of the eight 'super cities' that will lead the recovery of the  UK economy. The heliport  in Aberdeen is one of the busiest commercial heliports in the world. It was the only city in Scotland to receive this accolade as the rest of us are still looking at increasing dole queues, half built houses, ever spiraling heating bills and starting to feel rather Cypriot about the whole thing.  I've also read that one Aberdeen postcode has the second highest number of millionaires of any postcode in the UK while 20% of Aberdonians live below the poverty line. Like most of these situations, the millionaires will not be native, but those on the poverty line certainly will be.

The weather was intensely snowy, blizzardy and just on this side of dangerous. We stopped listening to the sat nav as  she confidently instructed us to  turn left- onto the road with the huge warning signs, Road closed,  ski gates closed, peril beyond this point, beware of low flying motorcycles. Yip, we were confused about that last one as well.

Here is me having a wee chat  with some natives- the highland pony ( furry, friendly and quite far from the ground) and a Shetland (furry, friendly and not very far of the ground). He is not standing in deep  snow by the way, his legs are that short! 

As a breed, the highland pony was much  loved by Queen Victoria and was bred specifically  to be the 'all terrain utility vehicle'  of its time. Heavy enough to act in harness, light enough to live off meagre rations,  hardy enough to withstand the cold and  nimble enough to ride. They are also broad enough to carry dead deer piled up on their backs.

 I thought that practice might have died out now but  they are considered environmentally friendly and no vehicle can manage the accessibility  up steep slopes and into steep forests like these wee ponies. The only person I know who farms with highlands on a croft up in Sutherland says the great thing about them is they follow you around, without being told. When they are digging peats or tattie hawking they are always right where they should be. I saw on TV recently ponies working in vineyards doing the same thing - going at the same pace as the grape pickers.  Highland ponies are  quiet steady beasts, nothing much impresses them.

Between events we drove around  Aberdeenshire  on roads with no other traffic. Slightly eerie to be so close to a major city (20-30 miles) and drive without passing another car or seeing another soul. At one point we joked that the world had ended in some terrible nuclear incident, and nobody had told us.  So either everybody was just somewhere else or.... Aberdeenshire is empty.

MIE readers are probably most familiar with Aberdeen as the setting  of Stuart McBride books and a fair bit of Ian Rankin's Black and Blue is set in Aberdeen, furry boot town as he called it.

I must go there again some time. In the summer.
Next  week I am hoping to do an all action blog on location.
I will be here.....

                                                                          loch ness

Looking for this.....

Wish me luck!

Caro Ramsay, GB 29th March 2013


  1. Beautiful photos, especially the horses. I love the pony. Poor guys, doing such hard unpaid labor.

    Those geese look frightening; no wonder they do security. So many stories about geese attacking people and animals.

    A man drowned over here in the States; he was kayaking when a goose attacked him and wouldn't stop.

    Hope you find the nessie.

  2. Geese security - does that mean they're off the menu - given a pass - at Xmas?

  3. Caro, I'm sure you'll have no trouble finding Nessie. After all, from what I see in the photo of you with the highlands, in the white one you found a unicorn!

  4. im half aberdonian half ramgateoin I blow hot&cold

  5. Hi, just read your article, very interesting and enjoyed reading it.
    I am am Aberdonian and proud of it.
    Where else can you get a city like ours not too big not too small with 21 miles of golden beach at one side and some of the most beautiful countryside in the world at the other side! Hope you enjoyed loch ness, think this was about a year ago now? Best wishes Austyn