Friday, 29 October 2010

Aberdeen's Freemen. And Freewomen. And Freeship?

While writing yesterday's post about the Doupin' Stone and its association with the Burgesses of Aberdeen, our research touched upon Aberdeen's contemporary "Freedom Ceremony" which is descended from the investiture of Burgesses; a ceremony which has its roots in the 12th century.

Whereas once the freemen burgesses were subject to a ritual humiliation hazing ceremony at their initiation, were then required to pay the monarch for their position and were also obliged to take up arms and give their lives if necessary in defense of the burgh; today, those granted the freedom of the city must merely submit to an agreeable lunch at the Music Hall or Beach Ballroom. At which lunch we doubt very much whether the initiates are required to bare their arses for a doupin'. But - hey, who knows? Maybe they are.

There's a page on the Bugesses of Guild website which gives a list of the freemen of the city invested since the 19th Century. Mostly men - but there are some women, a handful of organisations (mostly military) and one ship(!). There are some fascinating highlights, which provide telling insights into the mindsets of the contemporary city worthies who made up the awarding committees. The bestowing of titles is, of course, subject to the fashions of politics, economics and sociology. So we can, to an extent, plot the direction of these concerns in the minds of the city fathers by having a look at the list of those who have received the honour.

Our eyes were firstly drawn to the racist South African statesmen Jan Smuts; white supremacist and advocate of racial segregation who was invested in 1942. Of black Africans Smuts said: "These children of nature have not the inner toughness and persistence of the European, not those social and moral incentives to progress which have built up European civilization in a comparatively short period."


He believed that black Africans were immature or incomplete as human beings, in need of the patronising guidance of white people - like 'special' children or clever pets. This was the white man's burden which he had manfully and heroically volunteered to take upon his shoulders, and for which it appears he was honoured by Aberdeen. Ugh.

In 1984, we attempted to put all that behind us by investing Nelson & Winnie Mandela. Good. Unfortunately, they did not show up for the ceremony. 

The 'Freedom' title in the modern era is, of course, purely honorary and ceremonial; intended to show that the bearer has performed exceptional service to the city and the community. People like Andrew Carnegie, who endowed our Central Library and Thomas Johnston, socialist politician, long-serving chancellor of Aberdeen University and creator of the North of Scotland Hydro Electricity Board - fantastic! Other names to be proud of include John Mallard - who was instrumental in the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron electron tomography (PET) - and Dugald Baird who did much for the health and liberation of women through the advancement of reproductive health, access to family planning services and obstetrics via his position of Regius Professor of Midwifery at the University of Aberdeen. (Though there is a bit of innuendo around Baird with regard to his alleged interest in eugenics.)

But the granting of honours like these can lay bare a cravenness in the awarding body - a forelock-tugging obsequiousness which hopes that a bit of the sheen of the awardee will rub off on the city. An inversion of the concept of bestowing an honor; the process becomes one of seeking the honour of endorsement by a notable figure of the dayFor this reason we see the honour being given to people who have never had anything to do with Aberdeen. People like Nelson Mandela, who we mentioned above, people like Sir Henry Morton Stanley ("Dr Livingstone, I presume") and Mikhail Gorbachev who, as far as we can see, was awarded the freedom of the city simply because he showed up one cold day in 1993. At least he did show up.

In recent years, we've also seen the honour being granted to showbusiness and sporting names; Alex Ferguson, for one. We also note that Buff Hardie, VIP (Very Important Pitmuxtonian) and some friends of his are Freemen of Aberdeen. We very much approve.
Looking Buff
In 1992 HMS Scylla, a Leander-class frigate, was granted the freedom of the city for the services she performed protecting Aberdeen fishery shipping during the Cod Wars with Iceland. Later, Scylla was deliberately sunk to become Europe's first artificial reef.

There she goes.

The awarding of the freedom to this artificial reef shows great foresight on the part of our city fathers, as today's predominant industry will, one day soon, become the world's largest archipelago of artificial reefs. Although this is not UK Oil & Gas' preferred route for the decommissioning of offshore oil and gas infrastructure - it is one which is already well-travelled. The oil-industry buzzword euphemism is 'derogation'.

Derogation in action

Thursday, 28 October 2010

March Stones 28 to 31 ABD - Borrowstone and Wynford - The Doupin' Stone

It's been a while since we visited stones 26 and 27 at Brotherfield, so it's good to get back in the groove tracing the markers of Aberdeen's medieval border.

It's a considerable physical gap between stones 27 ABD and 28 ABD too; two miles distance along the Brodiach Burn - which is a significant watercourse and was probably taken as sufficient marker of the Burgh boundary. So the council say, anyway, on their leaflet "Aberdeen's March Stones Trail" (PDF).

It's a beauty!
The Leopard Magazine has an excellent article on the history of the March Stones by Chris Croly, which we recommend. Suffice to say that, broadly, the March Stones mark the boundaries of the 'Freedom Lands of Aberdeen'. It is said that once Robert the Bruce had cleared the royal forests surrounding the city of all the interesting and valuable/tasty game, having no further use for the hunting grounds, he 'gifted' them to the Burghers of Aberdeen. For a yearly rent. Ha, some gift!

It actually comes as a surprise that, after nearly 700 years, the locations of the westernmost boundary stones remain rural and agricultural in character. In some cases, completely undeveloped. So, as we've said before, if you're going to go looking for these stones, you do so at your own risk. You will get wet and dirty, your feet will sink into bogs, you will tear your clothes (and possibly your skin) on barbed wire. You will find yourself clambering over consumption dykes and rubble cairns and you will become mentally and physically exhausted from the search. A moderate level of fitness (at least) is required. Moreover, you will need to get across farmer's fields, so check that you're familiar with the Scottish outdoor access code (PDF). Stones 28 to 31 are situated along the line of the Brodiach Burn and then Littlemill Burn, accessible from Blackburn Road which runs between the Skene Road and Clinterty, west of Brimmond Hill.

A field at Borrowstone Farm

28 ABD

Stone 28 ABD is on (very) boggy rough ground to the NW of Borrowstone Farm. We met a lovely asian couple tending their garden at one of the houses built just off the access road to Borrowstone. They were fascinated to hear about the March Stones and the fact that there was one very near to their house. They knew a bit about Robert the Bruce, of course, what with him being a world-famous historical figure and all, but it delighted them to learn about the personal and political connection he had to the parcel of land where they lived. The woman instantly grasped the psychogeographical background to our odyssey in search of the markers - she understood it was "anthropology and geography; the past tied to the present - all in one". The husband then tried to sell us the house! No really, he did.

Wynford Farm. Ring the bell and buy some beef.
Stone 29 ABD is about a kilometre farther north along Blackburn Road, in the SW corner of the field immediately north of Wynford Farmhouse. Wynford is an certified producer of organic beef, so the fields are usually occupied with livestock. Be sure to check in at the farmhouse and let them know what you're up to.

29 ABD
Stone 30 ABD is farther north along Blackburn Road again. Its in the SW corner of a field opposite the T-junction with the road which leads up between Brimmond Hill and Elrick Hill.

30 ABD
In the same field, to the NE, you can't miss Stone 31 ABD which marks The Doupin' Stone.

31 ABD and the Doupin' Stone
The Doupin' Stone was where candidate burgesses of Aberdeen were ritually humiliated as part of their initiation. In a ceremony which appears to be a bit like fraternal 'hazing', the novitiate - his backside (doup) bared - would be dropped repeatedly onto the stone in the presence of serving burgesses. We're not sure whether this procedure demonstrates homoerotica or homophobia on the part of the burgesses. No doubt they would then all get drunk - all boys together - just like rugby clubs today.

The medieval burgesses were a powerful group. In return for bankrolling the monarch, they were granted the privilege of enforcing his writ in the burgh by force of arms. They were a police and army and lawmaking body and local authority all rolled into one, with a royal mandate behind them. Their monopoly on force enabled them to enforce a monopoly on trade. They were the burgh.

Today, the Burgesses of Guild in Aberdeen is just a social club but with the cachet of high-status exclusivity, like a working man's club but for the bourgeoisie. It has this in common with the Seven Incorporated Trades of Aberdeen.

Saucer mark on Doupin' Stone

Witter (survey) holes on Doupin' Stone

View of Wynford from base of Brimmond Hill.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

The Fourth Dormant Lion

A little while back, we wrote a post about the stones which were to have become guard herald lions, standing proud on the parapets of the King George VI bridge on Great Southern Road.

The project having been interrupted by the Second World War, three of the stones now languish lugubriously in the Sculpture Garden at Hazlehead Park.

We walked past the fourth 'lion' the other day. Aberdeen Civic Society used the stone to create a memorial to Archie 'Pech' Simpson, iconic Architect of Aberdeen. The memorial sits in the central island of Bon Accord Square, at the heart of Simpson's neo-Grecian vision for the rational development of Aberdeen.

ARCHITECT 1790-1847

Aberdeen Civic Society
April 1975

Guarded by a ring of steel in the form of parked cars, moss growth on the flagstones shows that this spot is seldom visited by those on foot.

The other three stones in situ at
Hazlehead Park

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Spectacular October

Johnston Gardens

Duthie Park

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Victorian Vandals

There's always been much talk amongst the chattering classes in Aberdeen about the Victorian "vision" of the city. About how "The Victorians got it right". About how the expansion of the town through Rubislaw, Rosemount and Ferryhill and the creation of the most iconic buildings and scenographic vistas of the city centre somehow represents a perfect moment in our civic history; an ideal Aberdeen.

Well, here at Other Aberdeen, we're always suspicious of idealism, we always feel we have to look around the back, as it were.

Those who believe that "The Victorians" could do no wrong blindly overlook some of the most egregious acts of vandalism which they perpetrated in our city. The development which the city underwent in the second half of the 19th century was done in a hurry. Some evidence remains...

Fountainhall. Depicted in the 1867 Ordnance Survey - deep in the countryside - a working estate.
Fountainhall - being devoured by the Victorian terrace of Blenheim Place which is orientated on a different line and butts rudely into the NW corner of the house, the majority of which has been demolished.

Rosebank House - above the Ferryhill Mill, just off the Hardgate.
Depicted in the 1867 Ordnance Survey with stately drive and formal gardens

Rosebank House today.
Split into flats and incorporated into a row of tenements

Granton Lodge - Off Cuparston Place (today's Great Western Road)
Depicted in the 1867 Ordnance Survey with large forecourt and extensive grounds.
Granton Lodge today.
Brutally hemmed in by tenements on Great Western Place, side-on and off-line to street.
Frontage completely obscured.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The A to Z of Aberdeen - G

G is for Golf

We don't get golf.

Perhaps it's because just as our mothers were 'golfing widows', so we were 'golfing orphans'. Our fathers got dressed up in weird clothes and then went missing on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings during our childhoods, and then came back talking rubbish.

Perhaps it's because, as a great philosopher once wrote, it is "a good walk spoiled". The root of psychogeography is, of course, a good walk. Why would we want to spoil that? Well... we wouldn't.

Perhaps it's because of the draining of wetlands and the creation of monocultures. We greatly prefer biodiversity.

Perhaps it's the trousers. Sorry, "slacks".

Perhaps because its adherents call it a sport, whereas it's actually just a game.

Perhaps its because they don't even bother carrying their own clubs these days - they get an electric robot to do it. We despise laziness.

Perhaps it's because they take themselves so seriously. Pomposity will not be tolerated.

Perhaps it's because they bang on and on and on in great detail and at length about the round they just completed, as if it's the most interesting thing in the world. It isn't - it's just a list of numbers.

Perhaps it's because of its aporcryphal acronymical exclusivity. G.O.L.F. = Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden. We despise exclusivity.

Ah, exclusivity, that's probably got something to do with our bad attitude to our so-called "national sport". There are  thirteen sites given over exclusively to golf in the greater Aberdeen area. A total of fifteen courses (twelve eighteen-hole and three nine-hole) covering a total area of 8.25 km2. We'll write that out longhand so there's no mistake; yes, eight-and-a-quarter square kilometers of Aberdeen's land is given over to a bizarre, exclusive, minority pursuit.

That's an area a bit bigger than that bounded by Anderson Drive, Westburn Rd/Hutcheon Street, the Inner city Ring Road to Victoria Bridge and the River Dee back to South Anderson Drive at the Bridge of Dee. Um, that'd be the entirety of the city centre and inner city. Just for golf. Imagine: Midstocket, Mile End, Rosemount, Gilcomston, Gallowgate, City Centre, Ferryhill, Pitmuxton, Ruthrieston and Rubislaw - all given over to golf.

A thought experiment...

The population of Aberdeen (according to the General Register of Scotland) is 202370 on an area of 186 km2 (1089 / km2)

So, if we subtract the amount of land given over exclusively to golf, we get 202370 people on a land area of 178 km2 (1137 / km2)

And, if we then allow that space to be developed by laissez faire policy, thus resulting in a mix of uses like that elsewhere in the city, we would provide housing within the city for nearly 9500 people as well as employment and services in support of that enhanced housing capacity.

So, if we abolish golf, we get better housing, more jobs and economic growth - who doesn't want that? The dog-in-a-manger golfers are holding the city back! We have just proven that golf stifles economic growth and is detrimental to our housing stock and job availability.

It's time these people got out of our city's way. It's not even as if it's a particularly patriotic pursuit, what with our "national sport"  being invented in China over a thousand years ago and everything.

'Traditionally Built' at Willowburn

We regularly use the mostly splendid Westhill Cycleway which allows travel from Queen's Road to Skene on dedicated cycling facilities, mostly. We go mountain biking on Kingshill and Brimmond Hill a lot and like to explore the off-road forest tracks and farm access paths which the Westhill Cycleway gives us quick and safe access to along its entire length. We've written a few posts with lots of stuff about good (and bad) cycling facilities in Aberdeen over the last months.

On part of the route of the Westhill Cycleway, where it passes the Fourmile Lounge at Kingswells, we've watched with interest while, over the last year, Barratt Homes have built their 'Willowburn' dormitory exclusive development of executive suburban homes.

On their marketing materials they use the words "all traditionally built". But when we look at the developing plots, we see timber frame and rendered breeze block construction with new-tech vapour barriers and insulation membranes. Hmmm. That's not really "traditional", is it? It's a great method of construction; sustainable, ideal thermal and sound insulation properties, quick to build, partially pre-fabricated, etc. Very good, naturally we approve. But it is not traditional; the history of that type of timber frame construction on any sort of commercial scale in this country goes back only about 30 years. It is modern.

Yet the first thing you notice when you look at a plot nearing completion is that Barratt have done their usual thing; the thing that they are know for, they ape the local vernacular. So, we see brand-new homes which are high tech and modern in their construction, but which look like ghillie's cottages from an Victorian sporting estate in Aberdeenshire. What looks like painted wooden fascia is self-coloured plastic. What looks like slate tile is ceramic. What look like cast iron guttering and downpipes are extruded polymer. What looks like a compound sandstone lintel with an accent keystone is a single-piece moulded block of coloured concrete.

So, when Barratt say "traditionally built" what they really mean is "as modern as cost efficacy allows but traditional-looking". This bending of meaning in pursuit of pastiche confuses us. We are nonplussed. It is as if Richard Branson were to dress up his Virgin Galactic spaceship to look like the Kon Tiki Raft

Even more confusing; Barratt - being Barratt - also offer the houses in 'move-in condition'; decorated and furnished in the prevailing 'contemporary moderne' aspirational style. You know the look; like a chavvy motel room or mid-market themed restaurant in an out-of-town shopping mall. Why the contemporary interior when the exterior looks so "traditional"? Who does this appeal to? And why? 

My grandmother, god rest her soul, used to live in one of the 1960's skyscrapers at Stockethill. An ultra-modern flat in an ultra-modern building, which she filled with frills and lace and anti-macassers and chintz and paisley and velvet and Victoriana. Even as a child, I noticed that this juxtaposition provoked an odd feeling which I now know to be called cognitive dissonance. What's going on now at Willowburn (and elsewhere) is like an opposite or inverse of this. My grandmother was an old woman, surrounding herself with the familiar possessions and artifacts which had followed her through all the various homes of her life. The people who will move into the Willowburn houses will doubtless be modern people living modern lives with modern jobs. They will, perforce, have all new cars and possessions and artifacts - the latest available on the upgrade cycle we're sure. Yet they will chose to live in a suburban simulacrum of a rural residence once occupied by people who led a bucolic way of life which is now long gone. And even then they will likely make the interior of that residence look like that which would be better fitted to an ultra-modern urban apartment.

Pretense upon pastiche, imitation upon hyperreality.

Our heads are spinning.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Justice Mill Lane

We've mentioned the redevelopment of Justice Mill Lane a few times over the last months. Something we've tried not to do is prejudice our own opinion of the new buildings before they have settled into their use and made their presence felt in the wider urban environment through modified transport usage, work patterns, economic ripple effects and so forth.

Left to right: 
Travelodge (looming over Bon-Accord Baths), IQ office (Glass ziggurat), Radisson Park Inn Hotel.

Of the three major developments which have been progressing towards completion through 2010, two - the Radisson Park Inn Hotel and the IQ office development - are now complete and the third - a Travelodge budget hotel - appears to be on final fix. The Radisson is the only one of the three which is operational at the time of writing. And it looks quite nice inside. If you like that sort of thing. We'll go along for an omelette or club sandwich in the cafe-bar soon and report back. This is not a restaurant review blog, but in that instance we'll make an exception. Maybe. A neighbour of ours had a lovely big fluffy grey cat called Radisson, so that might prejudice our review because we loved him.


The gigantic IQ office ziggurat also appears to be complete. We like the idea; we would greatly prefer to see office occupancy in the city centre - in the traditional Central Business District - than see continuation of the current trend which has speculative office 'campus' developments proliferating on out-of-town greenfield sites. 

Justice Mill Lane frontage Radisson Park Inn Hotel and IQ offices.

Out-of-town offices oblige the salaryman cubicle-jockey to clock up carbon-intensive commuting miles; reverse-commuting out of the city every day. We worry that this is one of the factors which helps condemn the traditional city centre to rot and vacancy, blight and decay, for lack of passing trade; lack of effective demand at pavement level. Moreover, more journeys by car erode the livability of our city which (some have forgotten) is actually charmingly compact and pleasantly walkable. It rains very little in Aberdeen, but, know what? Even when it does, umbrellas are available. So are overcoats and jumpers for when it's cold. Overcoat manufacture used to be a big part of the industry of this town, as it happens. But that's in the past, and we really don't want to turn back the clock. In today's global economy, it's better for everyone that overcoats are made elsewhere - we're all information-economy knowledge-workers in Britain these days. Mostly.

We reckon that today's knowledge worker (for such is what all office workers surely are, no?) should either be teleworking via broadband and skype and crackberry etc or, if actual - rather than virtual - 'facetime' (ugh) is really required, what better place could there be for office accommodation than the city centre? Knowledge workers in the city centre generate and distribute wealth firstly through the value added by their work pushing pixels around in the electronic sweatshop and secondly via their consumption of ancillary products and services which are also located in the city centre, close to the office electronic sweatshop. From the sandwich shop to the pub, from the bookshop to the boutique, all benefit from the passing trade of customers who are in the city centre for a different primary reason. 

On the flip side, the office workers benefit from the proximity of these services to their place of work - how convenient! And the city benefits from the mixed-use built environment created by a vibrant culture of pavement-level human-scale enterprises. Through this mix, the opportunity exists for new business and personal relationships to develop through a process of serendipitous accident or coincidence - the fountainhead of creativity.

By contrast, the out-of-town 'campus' concept de-humanises its workers by making them access the workplace by car, by spatially dislocating them from their place of residence and by divorcing them from human-scale interaction with other enterprises and their surrounding environment. The cubicle becomes a cookie cutter of conformity; the knowledge worker is forced into a monoculture and so creativity is stifled. Perhaps this is what the developers of out-of-town offices are wrongheadedly trying to engineer into the workforces which will occupy these campuses; compliance, acquiescence, surrender. Salaryman robot people.

Aberdeen Gateway - out of town, between Cove and Findon

Axcess Aberdeen - out of town, west of Portlethen

Westhill Business Park - out of town, south of Westhill

The completed IQ building looks not bad. But it is for the moment unoccupied and mothballed. Let's hope it gets tenants soon; a huge chunk of capital like that squatting at the west end of the city centre has the potential to regenerate the whole of the area.

IQ southern elevation

Reception mothballed

Now that the Justice Mill Lane builds are largely complete - formwork struck and scaffolding dismantled, roads re-opened and services commissioned - we can begin to think about the visual impact of the buildings on this important city centre site.

The view of Justice Mill Lane from the glen of the Holburn is radically altered, and not for the worse. The new terraces are visible from many points south, creating a dramatically and intriguingly scenographic vista drawing the eye to the west of the city centre. We do, of course, feel sad for the Bon Accord (Uptown) Baths, which are overwhelmed by the new development. Next to the dramatically contrasting upright slabs of the Travelodge, the glazed ziggurat terraces of the IQ, and the chequerboard and dental cladding of the Radission, the baths now look rather hangar-like and drab; a dated industrial shed, it has not aged well. It pains us greatly to write these things, but the truth is the truth. It is difficult to see how the baths can survive. Nothing good will last forever.

Bon-Accord Baths dwarfed by Traveloge and IQ

All our lives the Justice Mill Lane and Langstane Place corridor - historic though it may be - has been an unpleasant, dirty, drab and shabby canyon. It was as if the city centre was showing its semi-industrial arse to the pedestrian or road-user. Now, with the completion of these major buildings, along with other more modest developments further east, we begin to see the emergence of a different, brighter and more vibrant streetscape; significantly altered with new generous pavements contrasting markedly with their cramped predecessors. The more we look, the more we see a modern, clean aesthetic beginning to win over the former dirty, industrial, run-down, blighted and vacant area. 

Ironically, immidately across the road from the Radisson and IQ, the rear aspect of the now defunct Jumpin' Jacks nightclub, formerly the Capitol Cinema, is now one the most egregiously run-down examples of vacant blight in Aberdeen city centre. We can only hope that some group of developers and bankers can wrangle together regeneration capital for the Capitol soon. Ahem.

Not so good

However... these are only early impressions. We reserve the right to change our minds as all three buildings come on-stream and their full impact becomes clear over the months and years ahead. 

We have one significant gripe...

This is the pre-development artist's impression:

This is as-built.

The actual building is far more prominent and muscularly present from the Langstane Place viewpoint than early submissions suggested it would be. Bit naughty.