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Aberdeen the Silver City - a light-hearted look at the place before oil

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.

Aberdeen the Silver City

with the Golden Sands

The guidebook's title was Aberdeen - the Silver City with the Golden Sands. Published in 1950, it 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. Trams still glide, 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, and 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.

I must emphasise that all quotations from Aberdeen the Silver City guide (cover pictured below) are verbatim. I’m not making any of this up. ‘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 carefree writing style of 1950.  As it happens, I was born and brought up in Fraserburgh, even further north than Aberdeen, which 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. The only curious thing I can remember was a joke shop somewhere up George Street. But then, maybe for grown-ups it was different.

 

aberdeen - the silver city

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’ 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 – though, admittedly, some tourism literature of today still unfathomably recommends this. Thereafter, the guide coyly suggests ‘you can eat a small part of the cargo you saw being landed’. (It seems to suggest that 1950s tourists had the appetites of a school of killer whales.) 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.

Aberdeen – the Silver City with Golden Sands

But 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’.

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

Gosh, weren’t they all so thin in those days? Post-war Aberdeen.

Aberdeen the Silver City guides lists nine dance halls, as well as fifteen cinemas. If you weren’t completely sookit (Scots: wrinkled by water immersion) by daytime beach frolics you could also visit the swimming baths in Justice Mill Lane, only ten years old then and ‘built on Olympic scale’. (Ah, such aspirations of the old Corporation.) As if tiring of the sheer splendour of it all, the guide concludes that: ‘By night the entertainment vista of Aberdeen is limitless’– 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’ 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’ (and 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 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 soon 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.

Six decades ago, Aberdeen the Silver City was ‘famous as one of Britain’s leading holiday resorts’, or so the old guidebook claimed. Then tourism came a very poor second to the oil industry from about 1970 to the present. With the plummeting price for a barrel of crude, Aberdeen now finds itself in somewhat straitened circumstances and the media (as of spring 2016, at any rate) has been carrying stories of rescue packages, action plans and, sure enough, once again, tourism is being talked up. 

The accommodation sector has had four decades' preoccupation with the oil industry, and has recently been reacquainted with the fact that, unlike oil execs., visitors don't have expense accounts. So how will Aberdeen improve its tourism offering - when it can't even 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 golf course. (See also an Aberdeen blog piece here.)