… I ever seen? The wistful 1963 country song “Abilene” popped in my head walking around Aberdeen. OK, so maybe “prettiest town” is over the top – for both towns! – but Aberdeen is full of treasures, some obvious, some hidden. I bet that after your own visit, you’ll hear that song in your head and get a bit wistful too, remembering good times in the Granite City!
I’d been to Aberdeen before and can confirm it’s not known for fantastic weather. Once, traveling around Scotland by train longer ago than I care to remember, I got stuck for an extra 2 days, as a snowstorm shut down all rail – in April! Today though, I lucked out with a cool, crisp and clear day in Aberdeen – even sunshine, and that in mid November!
I mentally thanked the weather gods for smiling on me, as this was going to be a long day outdoors. How long? Well, I had some 16 hours to kill in between an early morning arrival on the Northlink ferry from Shetland and a midnight departure on the Caledonian Sleeper to London. Pretty neat though, like getting 2 days for the price of one, and no lodging cost.
On track for storage
The docks are conveniently across from Union Square with its attached Aberdeen Central Station. I walked off the ferry and made my way over. The larger UK Railway Stations have “Left Luggage” offices and I aimed to store my backpack until my midnight train departure. Tip: make sure you check the Left Luggage closing hours: you don’t want to miss the cutoff to get your bags back!
The Left Luggage staffer was a true local older Aberdonian. He was in the mood for a chat; my good fortune, as he had several great tips to enhance my walkabout. I went with his recommendations and saw things I’d otherwise have missed. Can’t beat local advice!
Name that toon
Fun fact: the Granite City isn’t Aberdeen’s only nickname. Per Ian Rankin’s crime novel “Black and Blue” in the awesome Inspector Rebus series (see my Rankin’ Edinburgh blog), it’s also “Furry Boots Toon”. Because it so cold you have to wear furry boots? Nope. Read it out loud and think locals asking you “Furry boots are ye from?”
Fittie on foot
Left Luggage Guy’s first recommendation was “Fittie”. As he explained it, the official name of this neat old section of town is “Footdee” – but everyone pronounces it as “Fittie”. They even put “Fittie” on their business signs and such. Fittie is an old fishing village, quirky and colorful, lots of seafaring history, and old links to Scandinavia. These days, Fittie is a protected conservation area.
With a spring in my step after getting rid of that heavy backpack, I set off and walked back along the Port. Aberdeen in general is pedestrian-friendly with sidewalks in most places, from narrow to wide enough for a family side by side. This area though was old and narrow, so I couldn’t avoid a bit of street walking. But, hardly any traffic this early, so all good. Walking east, it’s about a mile and a half from Union Square to Fittie and the coast.
Approaching Fittie, I turned from Waterloo Quay onto Wellington Street, where I noticed one of those signs: the “Fittie Bar”. As it was early am, it was not open yet, so I can’t give you the insider’s scoop on them.
Lovely lanes and cool cottages
Turning right on York Street, I entered Fittie proper and rambled along the narrow lanes. The old houses and cottages were built in as sheltered a manner as possible, to shield from the usually serious North Sea winds and rains. Today’s residents clearly take pride in using color, wall decorations and displays, and the like.
Scottish Maids and Zulus
Many of the cottages have nautical themes, celebrating Aberdeen’s glory days as a centre of shipbuilding in the 1800s. Two famous ships were the herring drifter “Zulu” and the schooner “Scottish Maid”, ships I’d run into again later today.
The residencies have lots of pretty flowers and plants – not easy to keep going in this climate – and some feature unique themes. I wondered what the story is behind the “Butterfly House”…
Want to live in Fittie? I did not see any “For Sale” signs but there was one “To Let” aka rent!
At the coast, close to the Pier, you’ll see the War Memorial. I try to make a point of stopping at these, having served in the Army myself, and pay my respects. We are privileged people to be able to travel and visit in freedom, thanks to the sacrifice of so many long-gone but not forgotten heroes, especially in the UK, way back to WW1.
Food and ferries
You can only walk as far as the gated Marine Operations Centre, along the water of the Port and the River Dee. Nice views; you might see a Northlink ferry chug out to Lerwick (Shetland) or Kirkwall (Orkney). Also here, the Silver Darling restaurant provides a pleasant spot for a meal or just a drink.
Fittie for a king
Fun fact: Fittie was built in the mid 1800s as a fishing village. Architect John Smith who planned its layout also designed Balmoral Castle, the Scots home of Britain’s Royal Family.
Time to leave Fittie. The Left Luggage Guy (I should have written down his name) had recommended walking the Esplanade, northwest along the coast, and so I did. The views were awesome! Sandy beaches with walkers, dogs enjoying a run. A kid flying a kite in the strong wind, on this school day, the little truant! But hey, the sun was out, and with nary a little sprinkle of rain, can’t blame him. We’ve all been there … right??
In the distance, colorful supply ships anchored, riding the waves.
Have a ball or a bite
After just over half a mile, Queens Links Leisure Park looms on the city side of the Esplanade. It’s not a golf course, as one would think seeing the name “links”, but rather a complex with restaurants, a cinema and some shops. For golf, walk another mile along the Esplanade to the Kings Links public course at the mouth of the River Don.
I went in that direction but turned left into the city at the actual Queens Links Park, onto Beach Boulevard. Time for my next recommended stop. With a strong salty wind blowing in my back, I zipped up my jacket and put the hood on for a bit, couple of sprinkles again, but only short-lived. My destination was just over a mile away.
The Maritime Museum is a Must
Aberdeen is inextricably linked to the sea, from way back when as an early settlement to today’s enormous North Sea oil industry. What better place for some history and education – and refreshments! – than the Aberdeen Maritime Museum? Located at the old Provost Ross’s House, built in 1593 on Shiprow, it was opened by HM Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1985.
First things first. I bought my Museum ticket and headed straight for the teashop. A cup of lovely soup, a scone, spot of tea and Bob was my uncle. Reinforced, I started my self-guided tour.
Travel tip: the Museum provides free guided tours – but only in the weekend.
Aberdeen, a royal scene
Aberdeen was granted Royal Burgh status in 1136, one of 13 so designated by King David the First. Very quickly, Aberdeen became the most successful, and therewith wealthiest, due to its focus on international trade. In the period 1400-1600, Aberdeen expanded its harbour dramatically, introducing cranes and other for the time advanced equipment.
Through the centuries, Aberdeen remained the hub of Scotland’s north. Shipbuilding became a key industry when Alexander Hall moved to Aberdeen in the late 1700s, started his shipyard and invented the “Aberdeen Bow”, for more speed.
Hall built the “Scottish Maid”, the first-ever schooner with that feature. She was a fast ship for the Aberdeen-London route, competing with steamers. I took that earlier pic of the famous ship’s life ring in Fittie before even knowing all this, as it looked so cool.
Cuppa tea please, quickly!
Hall also built the two famous super-fast Tea Clippers “Robin Hood” and “Friar Tuck” for the China tea trade, a 14,000 mile journey. Anyone still doubt the Brits really like their cuppa tea??
Canna ye ‘yak it?
Fun fact: Aberdeen had a very unusual visitor in 1728: an Inuk from Greenland! The University of Aberdeen Museums have the kayak he’s believed to have traveled in. There are similar reports from the Orkneys and other northeast Scots spots about Inuit landings in the late 1600s early 1700s.
In 2016, Olly Hicks and George Bullard kayaked the Greenland to Scotland route to prove it was possible indeed.
A Dutch treat
Herring fishing was a hugely important industry in the 1600s-1900s for the Brits as well as the Dutch. I found neat history on that competition in Lerwick, Shetland, too. The Dutch still love their herring. The first catch of the season there is presented to the Queen/King and the first barrels sell for exorbitant prices. The “Zulu” I mentioned earlier was a Fittie type “herring drifter” of a particular built, with a straight stem but sloping stern.
Speaking of the Dutch, here’s the “Schip”! It’s Dutch for, well, “ship”. This is a so-called “votive” model from 1688, not necessarily a replica of an actual ship. Votive models were often present in churches of seafaring towns. They represent a wish and thanks for prosperous and safe voyages for the town’s fleet. In Aberdeen churches, votive models were commonly suspended from a ceiling.
The Dutch name may represent the historically close links between Scotland and the Netherlands, still in existence today, with or without Independence or Brexit. Once during the reign of the interestingly named James VI and I, before 1603 when Scotland was still fully independent, English warships blockaded a Dutch vessel in the Port of Aberdeen. England was at war with the Dutch, but Scotland was still trading and happily at peace with the Netherlands!
The “Schip” model was originally made for and hung in the “Shipmaster’s Loft” of St Nicholas Kirk: keep reading for more on the “Mither Kirk”. The Shipmaster’s Society was a benevolent organization, providing mutual assistance for those engaged in sea trade from Aberdeen. The Society dissolved in the late 1900s and it is unknown who actually built this fab model.
Have kids will travel – even to museums!
Fun fact: did you notice the cartoon-ish seagull character on the base of the votive model? It’s one of two characters – Dee and Don – who are part of the kids trail throughout the museum. Dee & Don greet visitors in the reception area where the young’uns can get a quiz sheet to fill in as they go around the building. There’s one for under 7 years old and one for 8 and older. Dee & Don images throughout the museum help kids to complete the quiz. At the end of the trail, everyone gets a Dee & Don badge to take home, along with the quiz sheet.
Two rivers run through it
Related fun fact: Aberdeen gets its Scots Gaelic name “Obar Dheathain” from the River Don (“Deathan” in Scots Gaelic), as shown at Aberdeen Central Station. The Dee in Scots Gaelic is the “Uisge Dhè”, with “Uisge” meaning water and the base for today’s word “whisky”: “uisge beatha” or “water of life”, see my whiskey/whisky blog.
A well-oiled industry
When oil was discovered under the North Sea bed in the mid 1900s, the city experienced a huge economic boom. Today, Aberdeen has over half a million oil-related jobs, but production is peaking. While Aberdeen is still the “Oil Capital of Europe”, it sees dangers to its high dependency on that economy. The City Council is making efforts to increase the industrial focus on R&D, aiming to become a more general “Energy Capital” instead.
Fun fact: Aberdeen boasts the largest heliport in the world. Located at Aberdeen Airport in Bryce, a few miles north, the latest helos can even make it to platforms off the Shetland Islands. To quote Arnold: Get in da choppah now!
An Aberdeen amble
After the Museum, I went weaving my way through downtown. There is so much to see here! Town Hall, the Mercat Cross at Castlegate with its unicorn at the top.
The “Gordon Highlanders” monument at Castlegate, named the “Finest Regiment in the World” by none other than Winston Churchill himself.
On to Saint Andrew’s Cathedral, the Arts & Theatre Centre and Marischal College, with its statue of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, and the true “Braveheart”: don’t get me started on Mel Gibson’s movie’s making people think that’s William Wallace! It’s no’!
Fun fact for the craft beer crowd: Brewdog’s flagship Brewdog Bar is right at Marischal, on Gallowgate.
The Mither of all Kirks
Continuing the walk, next up was the Kirk of St. Nicholas, founded in 1150AD. This church is known as the “Mither Kirk of Aberdeen” and was one of the largest Burgh Kirks in Scotland. The Burgh grew rapidly and in the 1600s, the Kirk was split into East and West.
Fun fact: the West Kirk was designed by native Aberdonian architect James Gibbs, who also designed St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London.
Aberdeen’s oldest pub
Inspired perhaps by the pecking pigeons at the Kirk, I was starting to feel rather peckish myself. To do something about that, I popped into Bistro Verde on The Green, across from the Aberdeen Market building and next to Aberdeen’s oldest pub, the Old King’s Highway, established in 1741. Had a nice soup, perfect on a cool and crisp day!
Back to Left Luggage
By now, the sun decided to call it quits, and dusk came around. Summer days are really long this far north but in the off-season, it’s the reverse: shorter daylight, something to keep in mind for your travels. I walked through the Aberdeen Market, checking out the shops and offerings, making my way back to Union Square.
I fortunately remembered my own tip about the Left Luggage office’s closing time! My guy had gone off-shift and I retrieved my bag, asking the substitute to please pass on my thanks again.
Milling around the Mall
The Union Square Mall is very large! Lots of shops, coffee spots, restaurants and a 10-screen cinema.
And, very convenient, there’s a Jurys Inn, with an entrance right in the Mall, great for train travel. I wasn’t staying there – but can confirm the Lobby has free WiFi…
Not giving an Insch to Granite or Steel
On a side note, here’s this blog’s book report, as I do! I am heavily into Scots crime fiction: “Tartan Noir”, a term first launched by Ian “Rebus” Rankin. Aberdeen features in another Tartan Noir series: Stuart MacBride’s “Logan McRae” crime novels. The first book was 2005’s “Cold Granite”, as per Aberdeen’s nickname the “Granite City”.
MacBride’s books are dark and occasionally graphic and grueling yet also totally humorous and hilarious. Very Scots. The hapless protagonist Detective Logan “Lazarus” McRae is helped or rather hindered by characters from DI Insch and DCI Steel to the dreaded Inspector Napier of Professional Standards and sleazy lawyer Sandy “Hissing Sid” Moir-Farquharson. The nicknames and Scots expressions alone are worth reading the series for.
Steel yourself for Tufty
There’s also the standalone “Now we are Dead” from 2017, featuring the former DCI Roberta Steel, now demoted to DS, with perennial sidekick Tufty. Boatloads of “Tufty-isms”: I has a like! Check out Tufty’s hilarious map of Aberdeen…
The Logan McRae series proper stands at 11 proper books plus a collection of short stories. Book 11 came out in the USA in 2018 and is titled “The Blood Road”. Sometimes book titles change from English English to American English, good to be aware of when ordering from the UK versus the USA. As the series goes on, McRae gets posted to other northeast locations near Aberdeen, so I may need to go back and explore some more locales one of these days! The next book is expected in May 2019.
Hear that lonesome whistle blow?
So, closing it up, let’s go back to “Abilene” by singer George Hamilton IV. I still had that song in my head after this long day! George was inducted into North Carolina’s Country Music Hall of Fame in 2010. A few years later, on September 17th, 2014, he passed away at the age of 74. But as they say, his music lives on, and this song will for sure.
Allow me a paraphrased tribute to George, playing with his song’s lyrics: “Do you sit alone most every night, watch those trains roll out of sight? Think you need a change of scene? Try Aberdeen, sweet Aberdeen!”
My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. It’s what you’d experience yourselves. Note that the company does not necessarily share my opinions and views. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine (except where credited as noted), as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
Feel adventurous? Enjoy shaking your head? You can now subscribe directly to Con’s Corner, but don’t blame me for a sore neck!