Occasionally here I write about maligned places, those locales that don’t have that much to shout about. Oftentimes they are the places I personally slag off and on Friday I went to one of them: Aberdeen. Scotland’s third city is a place I know well. I have a relative who lives up there and in visits to see them, I have explored much of the city. Indeed there is a running joke in our family about being dragged to visit the Maritime Museum. I visit Aberdeen about once a year and it’s usually enough, particularly when the Art Gallery is currently being refurbished. The Art Gallery, incidentally, is great with a great selection of Scottish Colourists and French Impressionists. It also has a scaled down version of Nathan Coley’s sculpture ‘There Will Be No Miracles Here’, which I think being one of those humanists should be put on the entry arch of the planet.
But the Art Gallery’s shut, reopening in late 2017. Some of its collections are being shown in Drum Castle, one of the National Trust for Scotland’s many Aberdeenshire properties and also one of the more interesting. That, however, is too far out of town to get to, sadly. It doesn’t leave that much to do. Luckily I am a resourceful person and filled an afternoon in Aberdonia no bother at all.
The train from Glasgow left from Central owing to the engineering works at Queen Street and took a diverted route through Lanarkshire before hitting Stirling, Perth, Dundee and all that on the way north. It passed through Mount Vernon, a suburb of Glasgow in the East End, which had an unusual tower just outside the station, and also took us through Coatbridge, passing the wonderful Summerlee industrial museum and the Airdrie Tyre Centre, in Coatbridge, and with a Reliant Robin plonked on top of a pillar outside. Surely a Reliant Robin, a three-wheeler suggests you need less tyres rather than more? Also, having a place called the Airdrie Tyre Centre in Coatbridge is a wee bit cheeky, given the often febrile nature of Monklands. At Stirling, near to the station was a building called the Engine Shed which I had heard about without registering precisely where it was. It is being developed by Historic Scotland to be a conservation centre. Also, in Stirling was possibly the best advertising poster I’ve seen recently, actually for the aforementioned Summerlee, with the slogan ‘It’s no’ auld, it’s vintage’. Class.
The journey from Glasgow to Aberdeen takes in no fewer than five of Scotland’s seven cities, with only Inverness and Edinburgh missed out unless Scotrail want to divert the train any further. If you don’t like cities, the rest of the journey is brilliant, through rolling fields and hillsides in Perthshire and on the edge of teetering cliffs in Angus and through Aberdeenshire. One of my favourite bits of the journey is just after coming out of Dundee, passing through Broughty Ferry with its Castle, passing close to the Tay as you survey the mouth of the estuary, Tentsmuir Forest and Barry Buddon. Beyond was Carnoustie, which had shows since it was the Easter holidays, and Arbroath which felt like something out of the 1950s with Pleasureland and kids on a small train waving to us on the big train. I’ve always liked passing through Montrose, the Basin at one side and the town on the other. Randomly, one of the catch-up programmes I watched on this journey was all about Montrose’s place in the Scottish Literary Renaissance in the 1920s and 30s, led amongst others by Christopher Murray Grieve, known to history as Hugh MacDiarmid, and James Leslie Mitchell, otherwise known as Lewis Grassic Gibbon whose Sunset Song magnificently captures the cadences and landscape of the Mearns which I soon passed through en route to Aberdeen.
I had a plan. I wanted to have a walk along the Beach Boulevard, down to Footdee, a pretty fishing village, and back to Union Street. That was precisely what I did, heading out of the station and through the docks. Randomly I passed Theatre Lane, in the midst of warehouses, and a temperature gauge which was definitely faulty. It said the right date but indicated that it was 12 degrees, which, to put it bluntly, was bollocks. Aberdeen rarely reaches that in high summer and it certainly wasnae on Friday. The walk along the Beach Boulevard was great. I stopped at very regular intervals to watch the waves and particularly how they seemed to climb up the tidal defences before clattering back down. There were folk still playing about on the beach and a fair few walkers too, competing with the shows and attractions across the way. Footdee, or Fittie as it is known in the Doric, is beautiful, a concentration of narrow lanes arranged in a concentric pattern. It’s a grid, basically. Being a Weegie, naturally I approve of this method of street design. It is also great with interesting gardens and architectural features throughout.
Union Street is a shopping street and I wasn’t bothered so I headed up past Marischal College, which used to be part of the University and is now the HQ of Aberdeen City Council. It is a granite fortress, one that could probably double for Gormenghast, and remarkably it has even been stone-cleaned, another very Glaswegian quality. It’s not the most fabulous building anywhere but it is strangely beguiling and worth looking at, just to make sure you are seeing things properly, especially when you notice the coats of arms above the doorway.
After this, I had an hour so walked down to the harbour, briefly tempted by the ferry for Orkney and Shetland, and the Maritime Museum. It had to be done. The displays about oil are a bit too much for me but luckily there are other things to see, including the very first exhibit you see as you walk up the stairs, a lens assembly from Rattray Head lighthouse. Rattray Head is on the shipping forecast each night, on the inshore waters bit ‘Rattray Head to Berwick-upon-Tweed’, and it is not so far from Aberdeen, near Peterhead. It being a bit of a lighthouse, naturally I spent the most time there and got a few photos while I was at it. There was also an exhibition of old toys and games, including characters from The Magic Roundabout, a programme I know well from my childhood waking up early and watching old-school cartoons that were clearly conceived by folk on the weed or worse, and toys of Big Bird (from Sesame Street) and Kermit the Frog. Given the Hibs result yesterday, I can only concur with Kermit: it’s not easy being green.
So that was Aberdeen. It was all right, really. It is one of the many places I go to where I couldn’t ever see myself living but sometimes you need variety in your life. When I was walking to the Beach Boulevard, I came up with a list of things I like about Aberdeen. apart from the waves and Fittie, obviously. They included: Stuart MacBride’s novels, the fact you can get a direct bus to Glasgow, the regular train links to Glasgow and at least it’s near the sea. Good enough for me.