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  • A-Z of Aberdeen by Lorna Corall Dey

    Places-People-History

    “I’m really intrigued by this one and have been pretty distracted by it all day.”

    Castlegate. (A-Z of Aberdeen, Amberley Publishing)

    The words of a reporter from Aberdeen’s Evening Express on receiving a review copy of A-Z of Aberdeen. Such a positive response from someone fielding innumerable publications straight off the press is heartening for, by its nature, the A-Z is selective and subjective and might have proven to be too personal, too close to me as the author. It appears this has not been the case.

    Aberdeen Grammer School. (A-Z of Aberdeen, Amberley Publishing)

    Compiling A-Z of Aberdeen I was something of a hostage to fortune, for Aberdeen is a city with a long, long recorded history, and during the last thousand years or so many great lives were lived, and countless notable events occurred. As I explained in the introduction to the book the areas covered were picked because they were of special interest to me or stood out in the context of Aberdeen. In the end one hundred and twenty-five topics were included, many illustrated with photographs, but another volume could easily look quite different. Indeed I had to remove several entries from the original draft due to sheer lack of space.

    As a historian my natural inclination was to head back in time – trawling through out-of-print books or old newspapers for lesser-known anecdotes or detail which will add flourish to the contents. To find curiosities that will stick in the minds of readers.

    William Wallace, Guadian of Scotland. (A-Z of Aberdeen, Amberley Publishing)

    I love quirky items such as the story I stumbled across of a natural feature which has disappeared from the city and was known as the Roon O (Round O.) The O was a dip in the landscape formed by boulders scouring away at land during the last ice age in what became the area of Ferryhill. Once a little church was said to have stood upon the Roon O. One night its minister and elders were indulging in a spot of illicit gambling when a great flash of lightning lit up the kirk and Auld Hornie (the Devil) was seen dancing there as church and its sinners were drawn down into hell. Perhaps pause for thought for those residents living in the vicinity of the Roon O today.

    Being a city renowned for its education Aberdeen has been a cradle of many a great intellect – people who influenced politics, science and social thinking not only in Scotland and the UK but across the world. Aberdeen has always been an outward-looking town with its mercantile tradition but also because of its two universities and their strong links with prestigious European seats of learning. Some of the greatest minds who contributed to that remarkable intellectual force of the 18th century. The Scottish Enlightenment, honed their intellects in Aberdeen – such as Thomas Reid who founded the Scottish Philosophical School of Common Sense and the innovative educationalist, George Turnbull.

    Trawlerman in the 1970s. (A-Z of Aberdeen, Amberley Publishing)

    Several of the cities curiously named places and buildings get mentioned in the book such as the Monkey House and Monkey Brae, the Vennel, Patagonian Court and Froghall. There are tragedies, too, such as the high loss of life from the whaling ship, Oscar, when it sank at the mouth of the harbour. That was a natural calamity but another tragedy that was man-made was the despicable treatment of innocent women and men convicted of witchcraft in the town who were dipped into the harbour from the cran (crane) or partly strangled and burnt.

    Aberdeen being a Scottish city there are the inevitable unicorns – an ancient emblem of the nation. As a former shipbuilding port the odd zulu is included for good measure. Ships carry cargo and maritime trade in and out of Aberdeen has been controlled through the institution of Aberdeen Harbour notably the oldest surviving recorded business in the UK with records stretching back to 1136. The city is also the proud home of the oldest surviving co-operative business, Shore Porters’ Society, dating from 1498.

    Aberdeen rowies. (A-Z of Aberdeen, Amberley Publishing)

    Ten centuries after Ptolemy of Alexandria recorded a place called Devana by the River Diva (Dee) on his 2nd century globe, the community later known as Aberdeen has flourished as an international city of trade, engineering, fishing, woollens, granite, ideas. A vital servicer of the British empire, the UK centre of oil and gas production while retaining its unique character because of its relative isolation from the central belt of Scotland. This is a place where a distinctive dialect of Scots known as the Doric is spoken.  Doric has its own vocabulary and pronunciation, the result of the many peoples who lived around this part of Scotland from Scots to Scandinavians and perplexes many a visitor to the area.

    Another vital ingredient that demanded inclusion in the book is that culinary delicacy that is quintessentially Aberdeen – the rowie, roll or buttery. The origins of this half bread, half pastry are unknown although some suspect they were produced as an alternative to bread for the city’s fishermen away at sea for days at a time. David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones (once Zowie Bowie), developed a taste for the rowie when he spent part of his childhood in Aberdeen with his city nanny, Marion Skene. Nowadays Duncan makes his own rolls which prompts the expression ‘from Zowie Bowie to Zowie Rowie.’

    This is a real dip into book packed with information but as the reporter quoted at the top commented it isn’t an easy book to put down either.

    Lorna Corall Dey's new book A-Z of Aberdeen is available for purchase now.

  • Secret Aberdeen by Lorna Corall Dey

    Secret Aberdeen 1 Suffragette Helen Fraser campaigning in the 1908 Kincardineshire by-election (courtesy of Aberdeenshire Libraries)

    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.

    Secret Aberdeen 3 Jopp, wine and spirit merchants. James Jopp was the Lord Provost who presented Dr Johnson with the freedom of the town in August 1773. (Secret Aberdeen)

    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.

    Secret Aberdeen 4 Little-known lithograph of a demostration on the Boradhill in 1832 (courtesy of Aberdeen City Libraries)

    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.

    9781445649146

    Lorna Corall Dey's new book Secret Aberdeen is available for purchase now.

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