Welcome to Aberdeen
Situated on the North Sea coast, between the Rivers Dee and Don, Aberdeen forms a natural port which has drawn people for around 8000 years. Aberdeen's geography is reflected in the name: meaning either “mouth of two rivers” (a corruption of “aber da-aevin”) or it is a compromise between Aber-Don and Aber-Dee (“mouth of the Don/Dee”), combining the name of the city's two rivers. Aberdonians have always looked out to sea: in expectation of the return of loved ones, in fear of attack or simply to allow their reflections to be stirred by the ever shifting waters of the North Sea. Aberdeen has been shaped by the waves breaking on its shores and by what the tides have brought and taken – as well as by the toil of its people.
Aberdeen City Centre
About 6000 BC, the first settlers reached Aberdeen. These hunter-gatherers, who set up home around the estuaries of the Dee and Don rivers, left little that can give us much insight into their ways of life, with the exception of their "shell middens" - the rubbish they left behind. Around 3000 BC, during the Stone Age, their descendants cleared the forest area around their homes to grow crops and raise livestock. They also built burial cairns, the remains of one of which has been unearthed in Rosemount Place. Around 2000 BC the "Beaker People" arrived from the Rhine lands. They were thus called because they were buried, upright, with beakers full of liquid at their side, presumably to make their journeys to the afterlife more comfortable. They also fashioned articles from copper, bronze and gold. It is the Beaker People who built the mysterious stone circles that can be found in the Aberdeenshire area. Examples include the Cullerlie Stone Circle, Midmar Kirk Stone Circle and the East Equhorties Stone Circle. They have also left their genetic legacy in the area: their brachycephalus heads can still be seen in a large number of Aberdonians today.
Around 400 BC there were new waves of Celtic migration: these peoples arrived in Aberdeen from the south. Settlers, old and relatively new, had formed into loose tribal societies by the time the Romans made their first forays into Aberdeenshire, less than four centuries later. The Romans named the locals "Picts" meaning "painted people" and founded a marching camp in Gilcomston, which they called "Devana". In 84 AD, Agricola, the Roman governor in charge of Britannia, leading a force of some 40,000 men, fought and defeated the united armies of Caledonia (the Roman name for Scotland) in the battle of Mons Graupius, near the peak of Bennachie in Aberdeenshire. Agricola's troops were supplied through the port at Aberdeen. But this victory only demonstrated Roman military superiority over the Picts: the Romans were not overly concerned with dominating these peoples, only with containing them.
When the Romans left the British Isles a power struggle began which would result in the emergence of the islands' earliest kingdoms. Aberdeenshire would become the power base of the northern Picts. These early kingdoms and British Christianity developed over the same time period, a fact underlying a symbiotic relationship between the two developments: political (or military) power as well as the "ideological" force of Christianity would be needed to forge complex, stratified but coherent kingdoms. Accordingly, there are numerous ancient Christian sites in the Aberdeenshire area: Fordyce, Deer (where the Book of Deer was written) Mortlach, Fyvie, Methlick, Clova, Monymusk, Dyce, Tullich and Banchory are amongst them.
An Economic Dynamo
In the 17th century (and perhaps earlier) Aberdeen was Scotland's second city. But while political power resided in the south, Aberdeen was the kingdom's economic dynamo. The catalyst for Aberdeen's development was the port. Aberdeen exported salted fish, hides and, by the 13th century, was Scotland's major exporter of wool to the continent. Making use of its status as a Royal Burgh, the city forged trading links with Germany and the Baltic, as well as becoming increasingly involved in trade around the British Isles and to the Scandinavian zones to the north, which at this time included the northern isles. By the 15th century, Aberdeen was Scotland's leading exporter of salmon. From about the 1850s, whaling became a major industry. Aberdonian whalers sailed as far as Greenland in search of these giants of the ocean until the practice was restricted by the 1946 Whaling Convention.
By the 18th century Aberdeen's industry was thriving. Paper, first made in Aberdeen in 1694, reached new heights of production. The woolens, linen and cotton industries gave employment to many Aberdonians. At the same time locally quarried granite began to be exported around the world. Flax-spinning, jute and comb making factories also rose to prominence in 18th century Aberdeen while the distillation of Whisky reached industrial proportions. Shipbuilding was another industry which employed many Aberdonians. However, the distance of the city from iron fields meant that when the industrial era started to grip Scotland, Aberdeen was not in a position to compete with cities such as Glasgow in central Scotland. After Glasgow industrialised, Aberdeen lost its position as Scotland's 2nd city. Nonetheless, many of those industries which developed in the 18th century, and before, still contribute a great deal to the local and national economy.
Another reason for Aberdeen's early success may have been that it was supported by the Scottish Crown. During the 13th and 14th century Wars of Independence, Aberdeen proved itself to be loyal to the national cause. The people of Aberdeen were amongst the first to rebel against English occupation and would be firm supporters of Robert I (1274-1329). When, in 1308, Robert I confronted the English in Aberdeen, he was aided and abetted by the townspeople in entering the castle at night and killing the English garrison there. Aberdeen's motto became "Bon Accord", the password used by the Scots that night (the castle was later destroyed to prevent the English taking it again). Robert showed his gratitude, bestowing on the town no less than 6 royal charters. Robert I also rewarded the townspeople by granting them a royal hunting forest, the revenue of which would be used communally.
This fund would have proved invaluable in the years that followed: in 1316 Aberdeen was badly damaged after the English recaptured the town and torched it, in 1350 the black death killed about half the population and in 1401 a disease called "The Pest" (possibly typhoid) killed more townspeople. Nonetheless, royal approval and Aberdeen's importance as a port ensured that it would recover from these setbacks. The town's status would be enhanced further when, in 1495, King's College was established by a papal bull - this 3rd medieval Scottish University can claim to have the oldest faculty of medicine in the British Isles. In 1593, after Scotland's turbulent Reformation, Marischal College was founded as a Protestant alternative to King's College, before the two were merged in 1860 to form the University of Aberdeen. The Marischal College building is one of Aberdeen's architectural delights; it is the second largest granite building in the world (after El Escorial, near Madrid) with finely masoned stonework in a resplendent gothic style.
Marischal College was not the first, and would not be the last, building in Aberdeen to be fashioned from locally quarried granite. From the 16th century onward, Aberdeen began to develop its most distinctive aspect - a city where almost all of the buildings are fashioned from this same versatile building material. About 1545, Provost Skene's House, named after Sir George Skene (1619-1707) who was provost of Aberdeen from 1676 to 1685, was constructed on the Guestrow (between Broad Street and Flourmill Lane). The House is now an attractive period museum, with elegantly furnished rooms from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. In 1615, The Tollbooth was erected (a steeple was later added in 1629). The market cross was erected in 1686. Other noteworthy building projects included; St Pauls (1721), Aberdeen Royal Infirmary on Woolman Hill (1741), Marischal Street (between 1767 and 1773), and the Town House (1788), in Old Aberdeen.
But the most ambitious of Aberdeen's developments was to begin in 1801. Commemorating the Act of Union, between Ireland and Britain in the same year, work began on Union Street, which would bankrupt the city council but leave the city with its most emblematic thoroughfare. This unforgettable street, made entirely out of granite, runs for about a mile west-south-west, spanning at one point the Denburn Gorge, with a 40 meter arch, and is lined by impressive buildings such as the Town and County Bank, the Music Hall, the Trinity Hall, the Palace Hotel, and the National Bank of Scotland. The gothic Franco-Scottish Municipal Buildings, in Castle Street, the continuation eastwards of Union Street, must be regarded as being amongst the world's most impressive granite buildings. This architectural heritage: the abundance of silver-grey granite edifices, have given the city is most well known nickname: "The Granite City".
In 1969 considerable deposits of crude oil were discovered in the North Sea. Since then, North Sea Oil has come to eclipse Aberdeen's traditional industries, employing an estimated half a million people living in and around the city. Aberdeen's port has been improved and developed to serve the off shore oil rigs with the result that most of the fishing fleets have been moved along the shore to Peterhead. Economically this so called "European Oil Capital" has left other Scottish cities behind - indeed, by some accounts it is the wealthiest area in the UK outside the southeast of England.
Aberdeen is a Scottish success story. Any visitor to the city will be impressed by the lively bustle of its streets and the ceaseless activity in the port. The impact of the petroleum industry is undeniable, but in some senses it should not be seen as a development which entirely breaks with the past: Aberdeen has always been a successful port city and has always had an internationally minded economy. Today this cosmopolitan University City is home to around a quarter of a million people and provides a wealth of cultural diversions for all ages. For the visitor its grand granite buildings, which shimmer after rainstorms like polished silver, its distinctive thoroughfares, its harbour and sandy beach, provide other, more natural, attractions. Even when the oil deposits dry up, Aberdonians should have the confidence to realise that their city is as robust and durable as the material from which it has been constructed.