The superb Aberdeen Maritime Museum stands on the aptly named Shiprow overlooking the north side of Aberdeen harbour. Admission is free, and this is THE place to come to find out more about the maritime heritage on which this city's fortunes have historically been built, and on which they continue to be built.
The museum itself is a fascinating building in three parts. Part of it occupies the historic Provost Ross's House, built in 1593. A second part is housed in Trinity Church, a grand but long disused edifice. But the core of the museum, straddling the gap between the two other buildings, was built in 1996 and is almost entirely fronted in bluish glass. This mix of very old and very new may not sound immediately appealing, but the overall effect is an extremely impressive one.
Within the museum you flow effortlessly between the three different buildings, but by no means seamlessly. An effort has been made to retain a much more traditional look and feel within Provost Ross's House than in the central core, while within the shell of the church the designers have managed to strike a happy medium.
For the past quarter century or more, the story of Aberdeen has been the story of the oil industry, and this is told in great detail and very effectively within the Maritime Museum.
Without a shadow of doubt, the most impressive single exhibit is a 1:33 scale model of the Murchison Oil Platform. The model itself is 8m or around 25ft high and extends all the way through the core of the museum, with the upper parts of the platform extending above "sea level" on the museum's third floor. Here you can see the above water parts of the model, initially built to help design the layout of the real thing in the late 1970s. But perhaps more impressive, and certainly more vertigo-inducing, is the way the model was completed down to seabed level specifically for display in the museum in 1995.
What this model does more than anything else is bring home the sheer scale of some of the engineering battles fought, and won, in the drive to locate and extract oil off Scotland's coasts. The Murchison Oil Platform the model represents started producing oil in 1980 from its location about 120 miles north-east of Shetland. It was named after Sir Roderick Murchison, the eminent Scottish geologist. What the model reveals is what the photographs you normally see of oil rigs conceal: in this case that the metal structure supporting it extends some 500ft below sea level to the sea bed below. On the actual rig, the four corner legs are fixed to the sea bed by 32 piles, each weighing over 250 tonnes, and the rig is designed to withstand 100ft waves and 150mph winds.
What even this magnificent model cannot show is that what is happening beneath the sea bed is an even greater achievement. The Murchison Oil Platform controls over 25 oil wells drilled some two miles down into the sea bed to reach the level where oil is present, and from these wells it produces around 150,000 barrels of oil each day. It is perhaps little wonder that man's achievement in obtaining oil from these often hostile waters has been compared in scale to NASA's Apollo program of Moon landings. The difference, of course, is that far from turning our backs on the North Sea as we did on the Moon, North Sea Oil has developed to become a very important factor in the UK economy over the past three decades: and it continues to be today.
If this one exhibit brings home the scale of the enterprise in the North Sea, there are many others which help complete the picture of our involvement there. One area shows a tableau of frenetic activity in the drilling deck of an oil rig, while another shows what life is like in an accommodation module. Another nearby section is devoted to an essential component of life offshore, the helicopters that transport personnel between shore and rig, and between rigs. The history and development of the oil industry is also covered, as is diving and underwater exploration. Perhaps the most remarkable thing, however, is that as you view the exhibits about the oil industry, you only need to turn round and look out of the panoramic windows in the central section of the museum to see the industry going about its day to day business in Aberdeen harbour, with the bustle of oil rig supply vessels driving home the point that oil remains very much the basis of the economy of the city, and the country more widely.
But while the museum does give a great deal of prominence to oil, it certainly doesn't overlook the many other strands of Aberdeen's maritime heritage. Perhaps the most important is given over to the three thousand or more ships built in Aberdeen between 1811 and 1992. In the museum and in the website they have devoted to this project you can find out about Aberdeen's great shipbuilding companies and the vessels they built.
Much of the material about shipbuilding in Aberdeen is displayed on the Trinity Church side of the museum on the second floor. On the floor above it is a gallery given over to the development of Aberdeen as a harbour, from the earliest times to the present day. Again, the chance to look out of the window at what is being described is a tremendous asset.
Provost Ross's House is home to a number of exhibitions displayed in a more traditional way in keeping with the building. On the second floor is a room devoted to the clippers, the fast sailing ships that did so much to make the world a smaller place during the 1800s. There is also a space here for special exhibitions.
Down on the first floor you find two more rooms given over to specific aspects of Aberdeen's maritime heritage. One examines the story of fishing and whaling, and the Aberdonians whose lives were tied up in it. Meanwhile, the North Boats Room looks at Aberdeen's traditional (and continuing) role as the main terminus for steamers, and more recently ferries, serving Shetland and, to a lesser degree, Orkney.
All of this is probably enough to work up a thirst, and possibly a hunger to go with it. It is therefore worth knowing that the ground floor of the Trinity Church building is home to the Leading Lights Café. The ground floor of the central portion of the museum houses the reception area and an excellent shop.