Aberdeen after the oil
Aberdeen’s oil-boom years are coming to an end. Can a new era of garden sheds, chocolate-cheese toasties and giant painted doughnuts save the day?
By Rob Crossan
Published: Tuesday 10th January 2017
"I knew guys who had two Aston Martins on their driveway and were earning £300,000 a year in their 20s. I guess when you see things like that, you know it can’t last forever.”
So muses Allen Watson as we sit amid shelves packed high with vintage paperbacks as the watery sun bleeds in through the windows of the Books and Beans cafe in central Aberdeen.
“Don’t get me wrong, the oil companies weren’t all bad,” adds Sally Reaper from SMART, a local arts agency that works with artists such as Watson on events, shows and installations all around the ‘Granite City’, which stands aloof and alone on the broad shoulder of Scotland’s rugged northeast coast.
“But the money’s just not there anymore. Oil ran this place for 40 years. Now it’s time for the cultural sector to step up to the mark. We need to show that there’s energy beyond the energy.”
Aberdeen is the Gore-Tex jacket of British cities; always practical, sometimes pricey, and seemingly able to withstand punishing climates of both the economic and meteorological kind.
Just as the Gulf oil-states of Dubai and Qatar have had to deal with a nose dive in oil prices, so Aberdeen’s reserves out in the turbulent North Sea have plummeted in value over the last three years.
Yet it’s difficult to see any ostensible economic woes in these parts. Unlike the skeletons of unfinished building projects that litter the Gulf States, there’s a resilient calm to Aberdeen’s chocolate-orange coloured sandy beaches, its retro amusement parks and the vista of silvery granite buildings which seem to have a smothering effect on noise levels.
As clouds that are shaped like Zeppelins scud across the Highland skies, it can be hard to see where the pale grey of the stout buildings ends and the mackerel carpet of the endless sky begins.
Noir-ish at times, with the scratchy squall of seagulls providing a constant soundtrack, the vibe at first glance on a rainy day doesn’t exactly entice. Yet, wandering the side streets away from the monochrome main drag of Union Street, vibrant colour rudely and wonderfully emerges.
A giant pink grinning doughnut garishly stands, painted on top of a door in a tiny 19th-century square known as The Green. Trippy, lurid and looking like something that could grace a Funkadelic album sleeve, this is one of an ever-expanding set of painted doors that have been created by Aberdeen-based artists around the city.
Mary Butterworth, the curator of the project and an artist herself, takes me on the painted door trail which takes in images including cosmic bears, baobab trees and her own Edward Hopper-esque door painting of a Hitchcock-like figure standing aloof in the shadows.
“A lot of artists and creative people were leaving Aberdeen because the cost of living was so high,” she tells me. “But this is probably the only place in Britain where rents are actually going down at the moment. I would say this of course because I don’t work in the oil industry but I really do think that there’s a huge opportunity here to move beyond us being a city that’s generally only known for one thing.”
Perhaps painted doors aren’t going to revive Aberdeen single-handedly. But the sheer array of small gallery spaces, cafés and bars that ooze imagination is the clearest sign possible that something beyond black gold is now being unearthed in this part of the world.
when the sun shines in footdee the entire community comes out to socialise
The Carmelite Hotel is another example of how the city is fast having to evolve beyond the corporate oil dollars, which, until a couple of years ago, led to the city having chain hotel rooms going for £300 plus a night, and rental rates for flats that were on a par with both London and Paris.
With the plush velvet aesthetics of a Malmaison but with infinitely more character plus a hint of Elvis-era ‘70s Vegas thrown in, this is a hotel that shouldn’t work but does, mainly due to its gargantuan suites, which come with extras ranging from football tables to circular baths. Downstairs hosts live jazz on weekends and a Waltzer table which revolves like a giant lazy Susan and stands next to a complimentary popcorn machine.
But Aberdeen’s most alluring living art project is one that doesn’t often appear in the burgeoning tourist literature. Footdee (pronounced ‘fittie’), lying at one end of Aberdeen beach, is a quite astonishing time capsule; a network of narrow car-less streets lined with miniscule ancient stone fisherman’s bungalows, wrought iron street lamps and, standing opposite each house, a gloriously ramshackle collection of garden sheds; each one a testament to the painters and artists who have recently flocked here.
Overflowing pot plants, murals of lighthouses, ceramic busts, wheelbarrows full of vegetables; come even the merest sliver of sunshine and it seems the entire community pours out of these pint-sized cottages, easels, spades and laptops in hand, to sit outside painting, typing and chatting about everything from the best cheese toastie in town (the chocolate fondue with mascarpone variety at Melt on Holburn Street is the clear winner) to the waning fortunes of the football club, which Sir Alex Ferguson managed before disappearing to obscurity somewhere in Manchester.
“I prefer to think of Aberdeen as a matron with a naughty side,” concludes Mary as we stroll along the margarine-coloured sands late in the day as the sea laps and slurps onto the pillow-soft shore. “It looks very proper and prim at first. But look again and you might just see a hint of stocking and suspender underneath.”
For more info on visiting Aberdeen go to visitabdn.com. Doubles at the Carmelite Hotel (carmelitehotels.com) start from £75 including a buffet breakfast. ScotRail run sleeper trains from London Euston to Aberdeen with returns from £80. For more information, see sleeper.scot