When I first arrived in Aberdeen in 1968, I couldn’t believe my luck.
For someone who loved ships and the sea it was all I could hope for. Firstly, I noted a good omen. I don’t think of myself as an egotist, but all the local vehicles, especially the buses, bore my initials in their main registration. In my four years stay, I would not only meet lifelong friends, but also my would-be wife. Yes, it had everything, but the wife and such things would come later, fi rst to grab my interest was the port. Straight out of the Railway station, in those days, arrivals were hit by the sight and the perfume of pine resin from thousands of tons of Scandinavian and Russian timber stacked in the open on the quays, an aroma that constantly wafted up to the nearby main shopping streets of the city centre of this magnifi cent place. Of course, I must mention the fi sh or more pungently the fish-meal plant on the harbourside which, again, would permeate the air and it was fortunate indeed the stacked timber tended to keep that in check. Certainly, my aural memory was of timber first and fishmeal second.
And it was a truly multinational port. Russian timber ships were common enough everywhere, but in addition here, there were major Russian bulk carriers, modern engines aft types with phosphates for fertiliser for the Scottish agricultural industry, another major ingredient in the Port of Aberdeen’s thriving inventory. Pulp for paper was another while a large quayside tank-farm installation ensured fuel oil for marine, city and country use was well catered for. Good old fashioned coal was still in relatively high demand and this was shuttled every few days by locally owned MV’s Thrift and Ferryhill in from Methil, Blyth and Seaham to be grabbed into trucks on the Aberdeen dockside for topping up city stockpiles.
Speaking of ‘coals to Newcastle’, there was a local equivalent as a number of Swedish freighters were bringing in granite – yes granite to ‘The Granite City’. And lovely old ships they were. I recall the blue funnelled Montrose and Monarda of the Monark Line.
But the hammer and sickle funnel emblem was a very common sight and big Russian deep sea trawlers and some Polish ones were often in port, not least for fuel and water, but not to land their fi sh – that was required back home in Murmansk, Gdansk and Leningrad. I do recall their bulk fresh water motor tankers would fill up at Aberdeen for the distant fi shing fleet they would replenish later.
These were the heady and worrying days of ‘the cold war’ and a friend of mine of a very cerebral nature, with perhaps more brains than sense, having learned to speak both Czech and Russian took to going aboard the Russian ships which apparently often seemed to carry a ‘commisar’, ie someone who would look after the crew’s political health (or perhaps just spy on them). If he was lucky, he would fi nd the said commissar and berate him about the then recent soviet clampdown on Czechoslovakia and other anti-libertarian transgressions of the communist state. He may not have been welcomed aboard everywhere, but seamen I think often like to revel in a robust exchange of views and he always survived such exchanges without bloodshed. But Aberdeen then was that sort of place.
Coming to the present day, Aberdeen Harbour is expanding with a new harbour on the south side of Girdleness which will serve several strands of port traffi cs including oil service work and the Northern Isles ferry business and may also attract cruise ships. So what is perhaps my favourite city and port has changed hugely in my lifetime. It is still recognisable as its former self, but for how much longer I am not sure. It has proven to be a remarkably dynamic place and its transformation with its AHEP – Aberdeen harbour extension project continues.