The River Don and the River Dee flow into the North Sea about two miles apart. Over the past 1500 years the angle between them has slowly been developed into Scotland's third city, Aberdeen.
The original settlement, often referred to as Aberdon, lay at the northern end of today's city, on the south bank of the River Don. This probably existed in Roman times and stayed in use after Julius Agricola's army briefly passed through in AD 84 (see our Historical Timeline). Certainly there was a settlement here that was sacked and burned by marauding Danes in the 900s. This area is now better known as Old Aberdeen or Aulton ("Old Town").
It was David I who created "New Aberdeen" in 1136. This built upon an older settlement on the north bank of the River Dee and ought properly to have been called "Aberdee". It's been suggested that "Aberdeen" was a compromise that drew together the separate villages overlooking the Don and the Dee.
Aberdeen grew quickly in size and in importance. It gained a castle before the end of the 1100s, a leper house in 1197; a market in 1222, a friary by 1240, a grammar school by 1250, a second religious community by 1270, and a hospital by 1300. Meanwhile, Old Aberdeen gained St Machar's Cathedral from the 1130s.
The city saw bad times as well as good. There were two serious fires in the 1200s. The castle was destroyed, and its English defenders killed, by Robert the Bruce in 1308. Edward III of England badly damaged the city in 1336, and the black death arrived in 1350.
Worse followed three hundred years later. By 1639 Aberdeen was the second largest city in Scotland after Edinburgh. But in that year it was occupied by five separate armies in quick succession. In 1644 the Marquis of Montrose's army killed 160 Aberdeen residents. And then, in 1646, a quarter of the population was killed by the plague.
But after each setback, Aberdeen first recovered and then resumed its steady growth. The real cause of this growth lay in its importance as a port. This dated back as far as its use by Romans to support their army at the time of the battle of Mons Graupius in AD84. By 1300 Aberdeen was an important wool exporting port, and had established strong trading links with Germany and the Baltic. It also featured increasingly as a port for the shipment of goods around the coast of Britain and to the northern isles.
Connected to its port was Aberdeen's importance as a centre for the fishing and shipbuilding industries. In the 1400s Aberdeen was Scotland's leading exporter of salmon. By the 1820s the focus had shifted to whaling with 20 ships based in the new, enlarged and much improved harbour. More harbour improvements followed over the following decades. In 1870 there were over 200 fishing boats based in Aberdeen, many catching herring.
By 1914 the fishing boats had changed from sail to steam and increased in size, and their number had increased to 250. A range of industries had also grown up in the city to handle the huge amount of fish being landed. One very early spin-off from the harbour was the creation in 1498 of the Aberdeen Shore Porter's Society, whose lorries can still be seen on roads of the north east over five centuries later. In the 1980s the increasing demands on Aberdeen's harbour space for oil exploration and support vessels led to the migration of much of the fishing fleet up the coast to Peterhead.
The first of Aberdeen's shipyards began work in 1790, and they concentrated mostly on vessels to be based in and around the port. These ranged from fishing and whaling boats to the later steamers, coasters and coal carriers, and the activity continued until the city's last shipyard closed in 1988. The glorious exception to a history of worthy but unspectacular ships was during a short period in the 1850s and 1860s when a number of high speed sailing clippers were built in Aberdeen. These included the Thermopylae, which once covered a world record 380 nautical miles in a day. The story of Aberdeen's maritime heritage, from the earliest days to the era of North Sea Oil, is told in the excellent Aberdeen Maritime Museum.
Other industries thrived, with wool particularly important to the city's early growth. And more domestic demands were not overlooked. In 1509 there were 157 brewers operating in Aberdeen. By 1890 the process had been industrialised and the number of breweries had shrunk to eight, though in the same year there were also three distilleries operating in the city. Today the breweries and the distilleries have all disappeared.
By 1800 the harbour had grown dramatically. The Don had been bridged since 1318, and the Dee since 1529. But the city itself had expanded in a disorganised and organic way. All this changed with the Aberdeen New Streets Act of 1800. This led to much of the centre of the city being cleared away and replaced by two major streets, King Street leading to the River Don and the north, and Union Street, running for a mile south west from the centre. Union Street required a vast amount of work, including the building of bridges and raising and lowering of land to provide a level street: and its construction bankrupted the City Council in 1817. On eventual completion it was described as "one of the finest streets in the Empire".
Today's Aberdeen is a surprising mix of contrasts, many founded in its rich and complex history. The main streets with their stunning, if austere, granite buildings remain hugely impressive. The harbour is probably larger and busier than it has ever been (though actually getting to see it in operation can be difficult). The best viewpoint is probably from one of the NorthLink Ferries that serve Lerwick in Shetland and Kirkwall in Orkney from here. The south side of the mouth of the harbour is also an excellent viewpoint, providing a vista of the city rising from behind the harbour. While you are here, remember to take a look at the Torry Battery which helped defend the city and the, slightly less obvious, ruins of St Fittick's Church.
Old Aberdeen shows its heritage and is home to the University of Aberdeen, one of two universities in the city. The other is Robert Gordon University. To the east of the city lies the open ground of The Links, complete with the new home of Aberdeen Football Club: and a long and (as you travel north along it away from the harbour) increasingly attractive and undeveloped beach. Other contrasts are, like the harbour, oil-related. These include the many new headquarters buildings for oil companies around the edges of the city: and Aberdeen airport, whose oil-rig bound helicopter traffic has turned it into one of the busiest airports in the UK creating a significant number of Aberdeen jobs.
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