Every time I visit Aberdeen, the sun is shining. Although I am assured that this is rare enough, the Aberdeen of my imagination sparkles with quartz-flecked granite, sudden weather and a cold, blue sea.
With time to spend exploring last week, and an unshaken conviction that I take the Scottish sunshine with me, I set out on foot to wander through the cobbled streets of Old Aberdeen, down to the river Don and, eventually, to the sea. This part of town is home to the university, one of the oldest in the country. As my Scotsman loves to point out, for a moment in the C16th, the city of Aberdeen had as many universities as the whole of England. The buildings, made from hard granite, have none of the crumbling benevolence of their English contemporaries; the crisp details of their carvings creates a strange dissonance with the knowledge of their age.
I love it here. I daydream about moving into one of these old granite houses, working in the wonderful Elphinstone Institute, wearing woolly cardigans and drinking Speyside malts by an open fire in the evening (the Scotsman mutters darkly about Aberdonian winters, but for the sake of this daydream I am choosing to ignore him).
Past the old town, just South of the Don, the city beach is bounded by a golf course, of course. I do my best to avoid it, skirting around the edges of the manicured turf to reach the seafront. Regular signs punctuate the concrete esplanade – guidelines on how to avoid upsetting the dolphins and porpoises that live around the harbour (“DO NOT try to swim with the dolphins”) and field guides to some of the birds you might see here: oystercatchers, eider ducks, gulls and terns.
If I told you how clean the white sand beach is, up here in the oil capital of Europe, you would never believe me. You’ll have to visit, to see it for yourself. When you come, be sure to stop for fish and chips in one of the wonderful chippies where they fillet and batter the fish in front of you before frying it to crisp perfection. If you’re feeling brave (or lean) try one of the other deep-fried delicacies for which Aberdeen is famous. I particularly recommend the battered pizza. If you’re feeling even braver, you could compensate for all those calories by swimming in the freezing sea. It is the height of summer when I visit; people are out walking and playing on the city’s silver sands, and no-one, but no-one, is venturing into that water.
As I walk along the sand, I see a ship leaving harbour every 10 – 15 minutes; some to the oil rigs, some to the Orkneys or the Shetland isles. Aberdeen is very much a working place, a city that still prospers on the industries from which it grew: fishing and maritime trade, and – of course – the North Sea oil.
At the edge of the beach, by the mouth of the Don, are three granite frames sculpted from the local stone by Lourdes Cue and donated to the city by Mobil in 1984, at the height of the oil boom. A small brass plaque tells the name of this sculpture – “windows to the sea” – and little else besides. Beneath the frames are flowers, laid by unknown hands. I pause here for a while, and wonder.
The Scotsman, in its article on Aberdeen art, has this to say about the sculpture: “If you wish, you can think about how all our views – mental and physical – are limited by the frame imposed by our genes, our history and the way our brains are structured.” The sculpture allows us, physically, to view the vastness of the waters through a cultural frame; somehow, for me, the frame becomes a window through which those left behind wait and watch for their loved ones to return. So many of them never make it home.
Some days later, as we leave the city, we switch on the radio to hear news break of the Super Puma helicopter ditching in the North Sea. In my mind’s eye, I lay a flower for the fallen at those frames. The sea still claims its victims, as it always has, and always will.