Secret Aberdeen by Lorna Corall Dey
Secret Aberdeen belongs to Amberley Publishing's series on UK towns and cities which tantalises readers with some rare historical delicacies.
I did not compile the information for this book under any misconception I was revealing actual secrets but with the intention of bringing to the forefront of public attention people and incidents long forgotten which deserve a higher profile in the story of this city.
The story of Aberdeen could be told in innumerable ways for its history stretches back so far and episodes from its past are so many and varied that interpreting them is surely infinite. It is the oldest corporation in Scotland; its Royal Charter was bestowed by King William the Lion in the twelfth century and it became a thriving trading port with the Continent but what you will find in Secret Aberdeen are snapshots of more recent chapters of the city's life which reflect something of the character of its people and the influence it has had on the wider world since the 18th century.
There are no intentional links between the sections of the book but more observant readers will detect them for in a small city there are inevitable confluences of occurrences and personalities.
William Cadenhead's The Book of Bon-Accord is a wonderful resource for all sorts of nuggets that are available for anyone interested in history but for today's reader his language can be a barrier and so all the better for translation into a more familiar idiom. What he has to say about something as simple as supplying a city with water became the starting point in our story before it veered into howffs and bars, long gone and faded from public memory, that were once lively and raucous escapes from gruelling work and bleak, pitiful homes for a few short hours – where fortunes were made and lost and drinking tastes changed by century from French wines to whisky, the juice o' the barley. Hard drinking and dry humour; the timberman who drowned while negotiating his dangerous cargo down river from the forests of Deeside to the consternation of the local publican who claimed he'd never known him pass that way without dropping in for a drink.
We find out that the oil and gas capital of Europe enjoyed an earlier gas boom (not always terribly safe), in the nineteenth century, which began privately in a small way before being bought by the council and finally nationalised as part of British Gas. Then there was Stinky Miller's, notorious in Aberdeen, it was a very successful off-shoot of Aberdeen's town gas.
There is a chapter which picks out some of the many industries in Aberdeen which contributed specialist machinery and expertise to the British Empire including ones involved in the development of processing chocolate and coffee, which you might think about while you nibble on that chocolate bar and sip on your latte. If Aberdeen does not strike you as having been an industrial town then think again, its influence has been immense. 'Most dams start in Aberdeen' claimed an advertisement for the engineering company J. M. Henderson and that sentiment might have applied to so much more.
Of all the 100 illustrations in the book, selected for their rarity, that which excited me most was one I had never come across before, a coloured lithograph of a pro-reform demonstration on the eve of the Great Reform Act of 1832, on the Broad Hill at Aberdeen beach. It is not only a fine illustration but an important record of an event little-known and I am glad to have managed to include it in a section on popular agitation which takes in Chartism, the Suffragette movement as well as featuring the first publication of documents relating to the Aberdeen Parliament.
Dr Mary Esslemont, Professor Dugald Baird and Lord John Boyd Orr lived, worked and contributed enormously to health in Aberdeen, Scotland, Britain and across the world. Aberdeen was at the forefront of women's and children's health provision and in the expansion of family planning services offering free contraception and advice and it was in Aberdeen that life-saving cervical smear tests began. Aberdeen was also where experiments were carried out providing free school milk to young impoverished children before being taken up by the rest of the UK – one of the earliest influences of John Boyd Orr whose input into the wartime diet resulted in a population healthier at the end of the war than at the start. He went on to become the first Director General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and a major figure in the battle to alleviate world hunger.
There is no space to write about the heroes who risked their lives to save the ancient Mither Kirk with its largest carillon of bells in Europe when fire broke out in 1874 – but it's all in Secret Aberdeen.
Lorna Corall Dey's new book Secret Aberdeen is available for purchase now.