Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire is a region overflowing with art and culture. A dazzling range of art galleries, museums and theatres, many located in the imposing granite buildings which are enduring symbols of the city, certainly won’t disappoint.
At its heart is Union Terrace Gardens, nestling below the imposing backdrop of three of Aberdeen’s finest granite buildings. Together the Central Library, St Mark’s Church and His Majesty’s Theatre known locally as ‘Education, Salvation and Damnation’ provide the key to the evolution of the region’s cultural life.
With such a prosperous heritage, there are many splendid places that capture the colourful history of Aberdeen- – the impressive turreted Town House on Union Street; the castellated Citadel at The Castlegate and the striking grandeur of Marischal College. In old Aberdeen you can discover the past by visiting 500 year old University Kings College and St Machar’s Cathedral. Old Aberdeen, which surrounds the University, is like taking a step back in time, with its tranquil cobbled streets and narrow walkways.
Museums and Galleries
Art enthusiasts will love Aberdeen. The city’s Art Gallery, which was opened in 1885, houses a wonderful collection of Scottish and international works and contemporary exhibitions. It is the largest public gallery in the North of Scotland and one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. A beautiful granite building with a striking marble lined interior, it houses a varied collection of works of art, including outstanding examples of Modern Art, and work by the Impressionists and the Scottish Colourists. Visitors can also see contemporary craft, Aberdeen silver and a wide range of decorative art and there are regular changing displays and special exhibitions, events and activities.
There are also many smaller galleries worth seeking out within the city and Aberdeenshire, while local artists are often displays on the walls of the region’s restaurants.
Marischal Museum holds the principal collections of the University of Aberdeen, comprising some 80,000 items in the areas of fine art, Scottish history and archaeology, and European, Mediterranean and Near Eastern archaeology. The permanent displays and reference collections are augmented by regular temporary exhibitions. The museum is in the old building of Marischal College, on Broad Street, the second largest granite building in the world (after the Escorial, Madrid) which will soon also become the headquarters of Aberdeen City Council.
The 16th century Provost Skene’s House is now one of the city’s few remaining examples of medieval architecture. It contains an attractive series of period room settings, recalling the graceful furnishings of earlier times. The displays include a suite of 17th century rooms, a Regency Parlour and an Edwardian Nursery. Visitors can also see a unique series of religious paintings in the painted gallery, where scenes from the life of Christ can be found on the ceiling.
The Tolbooth on Castle Street was built between 1616 and 1629. Formerly known as the Wardhouse, it was a gaol for those awaiting either trial in the adjacent court or punishment. Now the home of Aberdeen’s Museum of Civic History it focuses on the history of crime and punishment within the city. Here you can visit the original cells where witches, debtors, criminals and felons spent their days. The Museum features an extensive programme of events for all ages with a variety of talks on aspects of local history and exhibitions featuring objects related to Mary Queen of Scots, James VI, crime and medieval instruments of punishment.
Situated on the historic Shiprow, the award-winning Aberdeen Maritime museum also incorporates Provost Ross’s house, which was built in 1593. The museum tells the story of the city’s long relationship with the sea, from the days of sail and clipper ships to the latest oil and gas exploration technology. This unique collection covers ship-building, fast sailing ships, fishing and port history and is the only place in the UK where you can see displays on the North Sea oil industry. It includes an 8.5m (28 feet) high model of the Murchison oil production platform and nineteenth century lenses from Rattray Head Lighthouse.
On the outskirts of the city The Gordon Highlanders Museum is home to the regimental treasures of the world-famous Gordon Highlanders and tells the exciting story of one of Scotland’s best-known regiments, while in the countryside near Maryculter, Blairs Museum of Scotland’s catholic heritage displays an interesting collections of paintings, church textiles, silver and Jacobite memorabilia, including a full length memorial portrait of Mary Queen of Scots dressed as she was on the day of her execution.
The Japanese Connection
One of the most influential of the region’s historical figures is Thomas Blake Glover, (1838-1911), the founder of Japan’s mighty Mitsubishi empire. His family home, Glover House, can be visited at Bridge of Don on the outskirts of the city. Thomas Blake Glover is today revered in Japan as being one of the founders of modern Japan. He had a crucial role in the industrialisation of Japan and in the introduction of Western developments in manufacturing, while helping to overthrow the Shogun and restoring the rightful heir to the Imperial Throne of Japan. His personal life may also have provided the basis for the Madam Butterfly story, immortalised in the opera by Puccini.
The house has been recreated as Glover would have known it in the 1860s. A guided tour will help explore Glover’s story, and visitors will see an authentic Victorian Parlour, Dining Room, Bedroom and Victorian Kitchen, as well as admiring Samurai armour and other Japanese memorabilia.
Music and Theatre
The Music Hall has been the heart of entertainment in the city for over 180 years. Formerly the city’s Assembly Rooms, it was designed by the celebrated architect Archibald Simpson. It now features more than 200 performances a year from pop to country and classical to contemporary and regularly plays host to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and the BBC Scottish Symphony orchestra, as well as a variety of pop/rock concerts and the annual Aberdeen International Youth Festival.
For larger ‘stadium’ style events, Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference centre is the North’s premier facility for major rock and pop concerts, sporting events, public shows and exhibitions.
Aberdeen’s music scene includes a variety of live music venues including pubs, clubs and church choirs. The bars of Belmont Street are particularly known for featuring live music. Ceilidhs are also sometimes held in the city’s halls.
His Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen, which first opened its doors in 1906, continues to attract an eclectic range of top quality theatre productions from West End musicals to opera, ballet, contemporary dance, drama and much more. Acclaimed performances of Grease, Chicago, Miss Saigon and Equus have all been enthusiastically received by sell-out audiences.
For art house cinema and independent productions, head for The Belmont Picturehouse on Belmont Cinema, and don’t forget to take a look at Aberdeen Arts Centre, the venue for the region’s many excellent drama groups which reliably stage first class musical theatre and drama.
Events and festivals
Aberdeen is home to a host of events and festivals including the Aberdeen International Youth Festival (the world’s largest arts festival for young performers), Aberdeen Jazz festival, Rootin Aboot (folk and roots music event) Triptych (Scottish music) and the University of Aberdeen’s literature festival, Word.
Inspired by over half a century of rich musical tradition under the direction of Lady Aberdeen, the Summer Music Festival at Haddo House has also become a firm fixture in the Aberdeen City and Shire cultural calendar,
Cultural influences within the region may have been many and varied and all warmly welcomed, but the Aberdeen character remains firmly grounded in the traditions of the past. The local dialect Doric is often celebrated in poetry readings and literature, there are many highland games throughout the region which keep alive the traditional ‘heavy’ sports such as caber tossing, while highland dancing and bagpipe or fiddle playing are still popular choices with youngsters taking up music and dance.
If you are lucky enough to be visiting for Hogmanay, the Stonehaven Fireball Festival is a unique event not to be missed. To welcome in the New Year, a procession swinging huge fireballs over their heads walks through the town before flinging their fireballs into the sea. Street entertainment and a firework display add to the atmosphere.
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island while staying in Braemar in the summer of 1881 and Lord Byron lived in Aberdeen in his early life, attending Aberdeen Grammar School. Named George Gordon Byron after his grandfather, George Gordon of Gight, an Aberdeenshire laird, Byron bore Royal blood, descended through his mother from King James 1. In his epic poem, Dark Lochnagar, he described the ‘steep frowning glories’ of one of Deeside’s most famous mountains.
South of Aberdeen you’ll find the Lewis Grassic Gibbon visitors centre, which celebrates the life and times of the region’s most noteworthy literary figure. Grassic Gibbon grew up in the village of Arbuthnott in the early 20th century. His most famous work, A Scots Quair, and in particular Sunset Song, document his life there and have become a Scottish classic.
The Word Festival, one of Scotland’s most popular literary events takes place each spring. With readings, discussions, music, art and film it has played host to many celebrated authors such as Irvine Walsh, Lionel Shriver, Deborah Moggach, Iain Banks, Ian Rankin, Lynda La Plante, William McIllvanney, Richard E. Grant to name just a few.