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Issue 63 - Exploring the Granite City

Scotland Magazine Issue 63
June 2012


This article is 6 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Exploring the Granite City

Charles Douglas visits this successful East Coast city

Aberdeen has been nominated as one of the five most successful UK cities because of its high level of employment, abundance of skilled workers, and overall signs of prosperity.

Whether this is an accurate appraisal or simply a promotional handout, Scotland’s Granite City, so called for its fine buildings fabricated from grey granite, is the third most populous urban conurbation in Scotland and certainly looks good in all weathers.

Fine boulevards of imposing buildings dressed in silver-grey stone quarried locally have made this one of Scotland's most impressive city destinations, given a tremendous boost during the 1970s with the discovery of substantial offshore oil fields. From that moment on, Aberdeen was recognised as a boom town and capitalised on its assets as never before.

In doing so, it has successfully held it’s own by effortlessly blending the old with the new. A visit to the 500 years old University King’s College, or to Provost Skene's House, Aberdeen's oldest private town house, proves my point. The Aberdeen Art Gallery displays internationally famous works by impressionists Monet, Pisarro and Renoir, and there are a host of fabulous visiting exhibitions throughout the year. The Aberdeen Heliport has become one of the busiest commercial operations of its kind in the world, and Aberdeen's busy seaport is the largest in the north-east of Scotland, annually handling around five million tonnes of cargo, valued at approximately £1.5 billion.

So how best to pass 48 hours in Aberdeen to take in the best of the old and the new?

Let's begin with the principle visitor attractions.

The City’s award-winning Maritime Museum brings the history of the North Sea to life with displays and exhibitions on the offshore oil industry, shipbuilding, fishing and clipper ships.

Provost Skene’s House in Guestrow (between Broad Street and Flourmill Lane), dates from 1545 and today houses an attractive series of period rooms settings, recalling the elegant furnishings of earlier times. Visitors can inspect an intriguing series of religious paintings in the Painted Gallery, changing fashions in the Costume Gallery, and enjoy a light snack in Provost Skene’s Tearoom.

Then there is the Tolbooth in Castle Street which houses Aberdeen's Museum of Civic History and features displays of crime and punishment, local history and archaeology. The Gordon Highlanders Regimental Museum in Viewfield Road tells the story of this fine Highland Regiment from its involvement in the Napoleonic wars to the modern day.

The Marischal Museum in Broad Street is the second largest granite building in the world. The museum was founded in 1786, with material donated by generations of university graduates, collections that range from Egyptian and Classical antiquities to non-Western ethnography and Scottish prehistory, and they rank alongside the largest in the world.

Satrosphere, located in Constitution Street, is a hands-on science centre. A former tramshed, it is filled with exciting exhibits, science shows, workshops and special events in anticipation of the British Science Festival 2012 which is to take place here from 4th to 9th September.

Then there is the Blairs Museum, in South Desside Road. Formerly a school for Roman Catholic boys, It now houses an important collection of Catholic treasures. The most famous items relate to the House of Stuart, notably personalia relating to Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Blairs also has on display the Memorial Portrait of Mary Queen of Scots, painted after her execution and saved from the mob at the time of the French revolution.

On the waterfront, there is the Torry Battery, built between 1859 and 1861 at a time when Britain was at war with France. This defensive position gives views across the North Sea and it formed the main defence for Aberdeen Bay and Harbour. Initially armed with 200lb of Armstrong Guns, the iron support workings can still be seen.

A surprising achievement, given its location on the North Sea, is that Aberdeen's 45 parks and gardens, and their outstanding floral displays (which have been known to include two million roses, 11 million daffodils and three million crocuses), have naturally made the City a winner of the Royal Horticultural Society's Britain in Bloom 'Best City' the award on ten occasions, and the overall Scotland in Bloom competition 20 times.

Although not exactly inviting at certain times of year, Aberdeen's spectacularly sandy beach lies east of the city centre, a two-mile sweep of clean, golden sand stretching between the mouths of the Rivers Dee and Don. In the years before cheap package holidays abroad, this was considered a top British holiday resort, but everything is cyclical and in recent years it has been coming into its own again. One of the attractions here is the Grampian Eye Big Wheel, nicknamed the Aberdeen Eye. It has 20 Gondolas, each of which has room for four people. The wheel is 100 feet high and provides access to some stunning views out to the North Sea and around Aberdeen City and Bay.

According to Aberdeen's on-line visitor information, Union Street is the gateway to over 800 shops, from the latest designer fashions to traditional Scottish crafts, all the best known high street names have outlets in the city and are found in all of the five main indoor shopping centres. The newest is Union Square, convenient to bus and train stations and open to 8pm weekdays. The Mall Trinity, St Nicholas and Bon Accord are the largest, whilst the Galleria and The Academy have a range of more intimate boutique style shops.

As for eating out, a reflection of Aberdeen's international clientel is that food outlets and restaurants are represented from all corners of the globe - Mexican, Italian, Greek, Indian, Thai, French, Hungarian, and not least, from Scotland itself. Aberdeen also provides a wide range of entertainment and events.

The Lemon Tree in West North Street is a fashionable café bar, theatre, comedy club and live music venue all rolled into one, and it bills itself as ‘Aberdeen’s answer to the Edinburgh Festival all year round’. If you’re looking for inspiration take in the arts and visit a gallery or two, see a film or go to the theatre. Aberdeen has long attracted the ‘big names’ of ballet, opera, TV and West End fame, as well as the giants of rock and pop. It also boasts its very own Highland Games.

Aberdeen is a rich playground for activities and it hosts a number of major sporting events such as the Aberdeen International Football Festival, which attracts hundreds of youth players, and the City of Aberdeen Bowling Tournament, a competition featuring some of Scotland’s top outdoor bowlers. Sport enthusiasts can take part in their favourites sports - relax in the surrounding countryside with activities such as golf, fishing, wind-surfing, tennis, horse-riding and walking.

A great outing for the kids is the Storybook Glen set amid 28 acres at Maryculter, a magical world of make-believe and fun for all ages. More than 100 nursery rhyme and fairytale characters are to be found here amid a wealth of flowers and plants, majestic trees, secret waterfalls, exotic animals and fairytale houses.

In common with all of Scotland's cities, Aberdeen is encroached upon by spectacularly beautiful countryside, and there is easy access to visit great clan castles and a wealth of locations of historic significance. A few suggestions.

A popular inland tour is a visit to the National Trust for Scotland's castles of Mar, namely Midmar, Fyvie, Castle Fraser, Cragievar and Crathes, all resonating with Highland clan history.

Do not forget that just down the road is Queen Victoria's beloved Balmoral which opens its grounds to the public when the Royal Family is not in residence.

You might also contemplate an excursion to the Macduff Marine Aquarium which features marine life from the Moray Firth, Scotland's largest bay.

Visitors are able to inspect hundreds of native fish and invertebrates which are normally only seen by SCUBA divers who brave the chilly waters of the North Sea.

At Oldmeldrum is the recently revived Glen Garioch Distillery which was built from local Aberdeenshire granite stone in 1797 in the developing village of Old Meldrum. The visitor centre is open Monday to Friday, but pre-booking is advisable. At Alford is the Grampian Transport Museum displaying vehicles from the 19th century to the present day. To the north is the bustling fishing port of Fraserburgh and The Museum of Scottish Lighhouses, consisting of the first lighthouse built on mainland Scotland and a purpose-built museum. The highlight of a visit is the forty five minute guided tour to Kinnaird Head lighthouse.