Aberdeen the Silver City – an irresistible guidebook recalls the past

‘Aberdeen the Silver City with the Golden Sands’ is the title of this guidebook from 1950, when post-war visitors were happy with just a trip to the beach. A priceless example of how the city folk promoted themselves back then. And all quotes here are genuine. (Well, you couldn’t make them up.)

Published in 1950, this dog-eared faded Aberdeen guidebook with its special prose style was in a box of books my father had bought from a roup (Scots: auction.)

Since then, it’s been on my own bookshelf for years – because I really want to go to the place it describes.

Stillade Makes Thirst a Joy’.

Trams still glide there, while the Northern Cooperative Society ‘can supply your every need while in the Granite City‘ and ‘Stillade Makes Thirst a Joy’.

Take me back to that Aberdeen the Silver City, when the Gordon Highlanders were an army regiment and not a museum. Also, the approach to the city via the long-gone hairpin called the Devil’s Elbow, on today’s A93 between Blairgowrie and Braemar, had the mystery of a remote alpine pass.

Aberdeen the Silver City 1950 guide - front and back covers
Aberdeen the Silver City 1950 guide – front and back covers

I must emphasise that all quotations from Aberdeen the Silver City guide (cover pictured here) are verbatim. I’m not making any of this up. For example:

‘For whatever your tastes…..the stimulating vigour of the sea, or the bizarre stimulations of the town – Aberdeen can cater for them all.’ 

Yes, that’s the curious writing style of 1950.  It sounds like one of those patronising voice-overs from the old Pathé  newsreels you find on YouTube. (I only mention the YouTube detail in case you think I remember the newsreels first time round.)

Big granite city – in the south

Anyway, as it happens, I was born and brought up in a little Scottish town that was even further north than Aberdeen. It meant that Aberdeen was for me – as a child – the big granite city in the south.

And it’s funny now, looking back on the Aberdeen of my childhood, how I never associated the place with the bizarre or the stimulating, as quoted above.

The only curious thing I can remember was a joke shop somewhere up George Street. But then, maybe for grown-ups it was different.

A ‘translucent pearl set in platinum‘ What?

The old guidebook, the production of the Corporation of The City of Aberdeen’s Publicity Department recalls a vanished age, before the invention of understatement.

This ‘translucent pearl set in platinum‘, this ‘sun-kissed’ Aberdeen the Silver City offered the ideal holiday. It even gives the recipe.

First, it says you must get up early to see the fishing boats land their catches. Mind you, some tourism literature of much more recent times still unfathomably recommends this.

A touch of glamour in 1950 Aberdeen
A touch of glamour in 1950 Aberdeen. The shameless hussy.

Thereafter, the guide coyly suggests ‘you can eat a small part of the cargo you saw being landed’

(It implies that 1950s tourists had the appetites of a school of killer whales. I blame the rationing, just ending.)

It then states that afterwards, at ten o’clock, you have to make for the beach. ‘After a swim, let yourself dry in the sun’. 

In this post-war period of austerity, perhaps holidaymakers were too poor to own towels.

Rough position of Aberdeen the Silver City.
Rough position of Aberdeen

Spending the time in Aberdeen

The day is far from over. After golf, tennis or bowls, ‘recalling the great days of Drake’ (What?)‘…comes a bus trip through mountains and streams’.

Let’s see, under the heading of popular sports, be assured that ‘Riding stables fringe the town’. No industrial estates and oil support pipe-yards in those days. 

‘Is there anything more pleasant than a fine horse and a brisk canter over moorland?’ 

Looking back to those far-off gentle times, was this a fair question to ask a family from deepest Glasgow on their precious once a year holiday?

In any case this Aberdeen the Silver City guide suggests that a walk along the two-mile promenade ‘before breakfast, lunch or tea, will…..produce a feeling of exhilaration seldom experienced’.

Aberdeen the Silver City – by moonlight

Let’s skip the history chapter, except for admiring Marischal College, ‘a poem in granite….at its most regally splendid by moonlight’. 

(Weirdly enough, in the 2020 Visit Aberdeen website for autumn I read that you can still ‘Expect famous Granite architecture lit by moonlight‘. What? Do they still think Aberdeen looks better in the dark?)

Anyway, we can plunge back into the seaside, which gets a whole section to itself.

After all, Aberdeen the Silver City did once proudly promote itself as the largest seaside resort in Scotland, a strategy echoed by the Aberdeen Fun Beach banner that still seems to be part of the marketing today.

Aberdeen beach scene
Gosh weren’t people thin back in 1950? In the top picture they are all so intent on enjoying their holiday that they ignore the flying saucer hovering overhead.
Beach scene, Aberdeen 1950
Women running in terror from men with knitted waterlogged swimming trunks.

Aberdeen the Silver City guides lists nine dance halls, as well as fifteen cinemas back then.

If you weren’t completely sookit (Scots language: wrinkled by water immersion) by daytime beach frolics you could also visit the swimming baths in Justice Mill Lane. The baths were only ten years old then and ‘built on Olympic scale’. (Ah, such aspirations of the old Corporation.)

A limitless entertainment vista, they said

As if tiring of the sheer splendour of it all, the guide concludes that: ‘By night the entertainment vista of Aberdeen is limitless’. This is a suitably modest slogan which I thoroughly commend to today’s city tourism promoters

(Especially in view of the fact that Aberdeen won the annual Carbuncle Awards – Urban Realm magazine – and was named as ‘Scotland’s most dismal town’ back in 2015.)

There is much more in similar style. What hasn’t changed was the need to offset the printing costs of such a publication by taking advertising.

In 1950 advertising, Aberdeen hairdressers pleaded: ‘May we give you your next Eugene?’ (Nope, no idea – the illustration looks like a lady whose head is covered in wood shavings.)

On the other hand, when eating out you could be sure that ‘If you take your Friends to Dine at Mitchell and Muil’s Quality Restaurants, the Result will be Complete Satisfaction’.(Also a tendency to capitalise at random).

Certainly, there would be no need to avail yourself of the product on the next page, where Caie and Co proclaim their expertise in gravestones. 

‘Whether it be the splitting of the atom, the building of Meteor Aircraft, or the production of Granite Memorials, precision and fine judgement are necessary’, it says as a fine example of the copywriter’s art.

Aberdeen harbour, Dec 1967
Aberdeen harbour, Dec 1967 – before oil developments. (Scanned 35mm colour slide – camera: Boots Bierette.)
Aberdeen harbour, Dec 1967
Aberdeen harbour, 9th Dec 1967. Precocious spotty adolescent (guess who) with first 35mm camera. Nope, can’t remember that day at all.

(For more scanned pics from ‘the past’ take a look at our dedicated 35mm slide page. Did I really wear flared trousers like that, I mean, on a hillwalk?)

Aberdeen And Tourism Today

Implicit in the writing of well over sixty years ago is the message that the city could not only compete with the other Scottish holiday places but in many ways outshine them.

Now, the global industry of tourism is infinitely more competitive.

In a Scottish city context, today’s Edinburgh is buzzing and has a certain status as a European destination of choice. Many years ago, post-industrial Glasgow assumed it really was ‘miles better’ and still gets results – in tourism terms – through an unswerving belief in its own coolness.

Dundee has gone through a similar process of re-invention. The redevelopment of the harbourfront and the opening of the V & A as a further focus on the city’s themes of design, innovation and discovery is sure to make a huge impact.

Seven decades ago, Aberdeen the Silver City was ‘famous as one of Britain’s leading holiday resorts’, or so the old guidebook claimed. Gradually though, tourism came a very poor second to the oil industry from about 1970 to the present.

When the price of a barrel of crude fell, c 2016, Aberdeen found itself in somewhat straitened circumstances. The media started to carry stories of rescue packages, action plans and, sure enough, once again, tourism as a saviour was talked up.

Aberdeen – missed the boat?

The accommodation sector had almost five decades’ preoccupation with the oil industry. More recently has had to remind itself that, unlike oil execs., visitors don’t have expense accounts.

And, given the turn of events back in 2020 and after, when the pandemic upended tourism totally, how will Aberdeen improve its tourism offering – when it can barely make up its mind how to improve its own city-centre?

One thing is for sure: if 21st-century Aberdeen is intending to be make that ‘leading resort’ claim again, it’s going to take a whole lot more than Donald Trump’s loss-making golf course.

(Oh, wait, he’s just been given planning permission to build another one, at a time when fewer and fewer are taking up golf. Still, he has time on his hands now.)

Good news is that Aberdeen has a great road by-pass now.

Take a look at some more of Scotland’s cities.