Sea-girt castle on a crag near Aberdeen, the ‘granite city’
North of Aberdeen, glowing sands carried from the Cairngorms by the River Dee have been spread along the coast to form a 10 mile swathe of beaches and dunes. To the south, by contrast, ancient cliffs are cut by little bays almost totally devoid of sand. Tiny villages, robbed of their former fishing industries by Aberdeen, have been revitalised by commuters from the same city, a centre of the North Sea oil industry. (T) BALMEDIE
One of Britain’s most extensive sandy beaches stretches from the River Ythan for 10 miles southwards in a scarcely perceptible curve down to the River Don on Aberdeen’s northern boundary. The sands are so huge that they are never crowded. Swimming is safe all along the beach, and a section near Balmedie is marked with flags and patrolled by lifeguards.
The beach is backed by extensive dunes. The sand is fine and easily blown by the wind, and the younger dunes nearer the sea shift constantly. At one point just north of the car park at Balmedie a section of young dunes has been blasted inland by the wind, drowning older established dunes and forming a miniature Sahara Desert. Older dunes further inland are anchored by coarse grasses such as marram and lyme, while further inland still the dunes have a permanent covering of herbs, grasses and flowers. Visitors are requested not to disturb the patches where new grass has been planted. A dozen burns cross the sands, where some 60 species of plants and 50 common bird species have been recorded. Shells, too, are plentiful on the beach.
There are few roads to the beach. The major access point is at Balmedie itself, where car parks and boardwalks (which are suitable for wheelchairs) lead over the dunes to the beach. There are occasional conducted walks through the area, advertised locally and starting from the car park at 2 p.m. Another access point is Blackdog, a little-used spot just south of a rifle-range, where red flags are raised when firing is in progress. An unpaved road ends at a tip, from which a path leads to the deserted beach.
North Sea oil gave Aberdeen the greatest boom in its history. When oil prospers, the city’s docks teem with vessels serving the needs of the industry, and helicopters thump back and forth between Dyce Airport and the rigs. Bustle is no new feature of Aberdeen’s life, however, for the city has long been a major seaside resort and one of Britain’s largest fishing ports. The fish market comes to life at 4 a.m., with sales starting at 7.30 a.m. Merchant vessels handling cargoes from potash to granite use Aberdeen harbour; quayside roads and two bridges provide vantage points for watching the busy scene at the mouth of the Dee.
Union Street, a mile of shops, offices, banks and restaurants built in the 19th century, gives Aberdeen a fine centrepiece. Much of the city is built of granite blasted from the immense Rubislaw quarry 2 miles west of the city centre. Flecks of mica make the silver-grey granite glitter in the sunlight, providing a good framework for the glorious displays of roses and tulips that light up the roadsides for eight or nine months of the year. The city has several times won the Britain in Bloom competition.
Modern Aberdeen contrasts with the little enclave of Footdee, pronounced ‘Fittie’ locally, that guards the northern shore of the harbour entrance. The huddle of little grey buildings was designed as a model village in the early 19th century, with the help of the fishermen themselves.
Northwards from Footdee runs the esplanade, an extensive shoreline recreational area. The long beach, divided by groynes, is backed by an open area with a fairground, playground and golf course. At the northern end of the esplanade, the River Don swings under the Bridge of Don. The river, with its sandy banks, is a popular place for fishing for flounders, eels and mackerel; but swimming in the fast current is not advisable.
Aberdeen’s other attractions include 3,000 acres of park, including Hazlehead, where there are a golf course, maze and zoo. Among the museums, art galleries and concert halls are Aberdeen University’s Museum of Anthropology, and Provost Skene’s House, which re-creates everyday life in former centuries. South of the Dee stands the Girdle Ness lighthouse, designed by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the author R. L. Stevenson.
South of Nigg Bay, a footpath that can also be used as a cycle track follows a switchback course for 2 miles above a string of cliffs and rocky coves. The isolated Altens Haven is reached by scrambling down a steep track from an abandoned fisherman’s house, or bothy. The clifftop footpath continues southwards, but stops short of Cove Bay.
The road descends from the village to a picturesque harbour tucked into the lee of cliffs. Boats are pulled up on the shingle shore. A good-sized quay, with salmon nets drying on poles, makes the harbour doubly secure against high seas.
The local pronunciation of this tiny village gave its name to Finnan Haddies, a lightly smoked haddock. In the 19th century, the Factory Act forbade the traditional method of smoking haddocks over open cottage fires, and the village almost died when the smokehouses of Aberdeen took over the industry. The village is now a commuter area for Aberdeen.
Access to the shore from the village is not easy. A road leads down to a fish-farming research station, but there is no parking. Walkers may follow a path through the station to two rocky coves and on round the cliffs to Portlethen.
A steep road leads down to a small cove hemmed in by cliffs. Portlethen was once a •f:- ‘ V ‘ Hit!of ‘•. Qu4r/itfaW ‘•• ‘ ‘ ‘ f..:’. %: ‘Resiroental MUSEK
A REGIMENTS PROUD HISTORY One of Scotland’s most famous regiments, the Gordon Highlanders, has its museum in Aberdeen. Raised in 1794 by the Duke of Gordon, the regiment has a proud and colourful history that vividly comes to life among the banners, uniforms and weapons displayed in an old mansion house in Viewfield Road.
From the charming, white-painted village, which dates mainly from the 19th century, a road leads downhill under the railway to a dramatic foreshore: a scattering of bays and grass-covered pinnacles linked by a path. There is a fine view northwards along the coast which has spectacular rock formations, including stacks and deep caverns.
Muchalls Castle, set back from the village up an unpaved road signposted from the A92, is a fine example of Scottish architecture of the 17th century. It is noted for the plasterwork in the Great Hall which bears the coat-of-arms of the Burnett family. A tunnel once led from the castle to a smugglers’ cove known as Gin Shore; it was blocked in the 19th century. The castle is open on occasional days in summer.
At the point where the A92 turns inland, close to the railway, a turning east down a small track leads to a golf course, which is bisected by a ravine. The ravine opens on to two pebbly coves, hidden by grassy cliffs from the golf course above. busy fishing village where boats were launched from the shingle beach, but the local fishermen were unable to compete with the large trawler fleets of Aberdeen and Peterhead and the village is now the hub of a new community for people working in Aberdeen.
A road from the tiny hamlet of Downies comes to a dead end near the clifftop, with parking space for two cars. A superb short walk leads on to hillocks that give fine views over the rock-girt Cammachmore Bay. A steep rough track leads down to the cove.
A steep road leads down to a good-sized bay, with three fisherman’s bothies, where the Burn of Elsick gushes into the sea over a shingle foreshore.
A breakwater built when the village was a busy fishing port has been removed, and its stones set on the hillside above.
A path leads on beside the golf course for 2 miles to Stonehaven, with glorious views over the rolling clifftop scenery and Stonehaven Bay.
The northern end of Stonehaven is devoted to entertaining the holidaymaker, with a caravan site, amusement park, swimming pool and fine open beach. To the south is the Old Town, with its ancient and picturesque two-basin harbour. The Old Town retains the bustle, charm and intimacy of an old-fashioned fishing village, with boats packing a quayside crowded with lobster-pots and fishing gear.
The oldest building in the Old Town is the 16th-century Tolbooth, now a museum containing relics of local archaeology and history. The Tolbooth was the scene of a celebrated local incident in 1748 when three Episcopal clergymen were accused of breaking laws established after the English victory at Culloden, according to which Scottish
OIL ‘ISLANDS’ THAT
CREATED A BOOM ON THE
Far out in the North Sea, giant man-made islands tower above the waves on iron legs, and from their decks men probe the sea-bed for the most precious commodity of the modern industrial age – oil. In less than a decade the green waters that were once only the lonely province of deep-sea trawlers became home to a new industry that brought new prosperity to north-east Scotland. Ports along the coast, hit by the declining fishing industry, were now supply depots for the oil rigs, with Aberdeen the ‘capital’ of this vast enterprise and the exploration headquarters of many firms. A large part of Aberdeen’s harbour was adapted to meet the needs of the supply and service vessels that shuttle to and fro between the mainland and the rigs, making thousands of trips a year, and the air lanes out of Aberdeen Airport are the busiest in Britain after Heathrow.
Since 1971, when oil was first discovered under the North Sea, more than 20 oil platforms have gone ‘on stream’, pumping oil by pipeline to the mainland or directly into tankers; and the search for oil goes on, with numerous drilling platforms sinking new wells. Out in some of the most treacherous waters in the world, platforms may have to withstand winds of 120 mph and the pounding of 100 ft waves. To build them, fabrication yards were established at sites such as Nigg Bay on the Cromarty Firth, Ardersier on the Moray Firth, Methil on the Firth of Forth and Loch Kishorn on the west coast, where there is space and deep enough water to float and manoeuvre the massive structures. ministers were not allowed to hold services for more than five people. When the ministers were imprisoned in the Tolbooth, mothers smuggled new-born babies up to the prison window so that they could be baptised through it.
A walk along the promenade to the north leads to the village of Cowie, with its own small harbour. An earlier village on the site, said to have been created a Royal Burgh by David I, was destroyed by fire in 1645 on the orders of the Duke of Montrose, a Royalist supporter during the Civil War.
On the hill above Stonehaven to the south stands a war memorial which offers one of the best views in the area – an all-round panorama of Stonehaven, the adjoining coast and the hills inland. The war memorial, accessible by footpath from the A92, is a circle of pillars and pediments – but it is unfinished, symbolic of the unfinished lives it commemorates.
The rock on which Dunnottar Castle stands was fortified from the 5th century, when it was a base for one of the earliest missionaries, St Ninian. The present castle was built up from a 14th-century structure, and played a role in Scottish history on several occasions. In 1645 the 7th Earl Marischal of Scotland, a Covenanter, retreated to the castle on the approach of a Royalist army led by the Duke of Montrose. The earl refused to parley with Montrose, who wreaked terrible revenge by burning all the earl’s lands.
Another dramatic incident in the castle’s history occurred in 1651 when Cromwell’s Roundheads were besieging the castle to wrest from it the Scottish Crown Jewels, which had been put there for safe keeping. The regalia, however, were secretly lowered over the walls to a fishwife, who smuggled them in a basket past the surrounding Roundheads to Kinneff Church, 6 miles to’ the south.
In 1685, during Monmouth’s rebellion, 122 men and 45 women were taken prisoner in the castle and herded into a gloomy cellar only 15 ft by 51 ft, known as the Whigs Vault. There they remained for several months, and many died. The vault survives largely unchanged, a dank and sinister place with algae on its semi-circular roof.
The castle fell into decay in the 18th century, but has been partially restored this century and now forms a dramatic tourist attraction. There is a spectacular approach from the mainland down the cliff and across the beach before rising again to the castle. A spine of stone once connected the castle rock to the mainland, but this was cut through by the castle’s defenders for added protection. Inside, the store-rooms, kitchens, armouries and central keep, all clearly labelled, reveal that the castle was more like a fortified village than a single building.
PLACES TO SEE INLAND
Crathes Castle and Gardens (NTS). 15 mites W of Aberdeen, 16th-century baronial castle, with gardens. Daily in summer, gardens all year
Castle Fraser (NTS), near Dunecht. 16 miles W of Aberdeen, off A944,16th-17th century. Afternoons in summer.
Drum Castle (NTS), near Peterculter, 10 miles W of Aberdeen. 13th-17th century mansion. Afternoons in summer.
Brent field platforms is towed to its site off the Shetlands from the Norwegian fiord where it was built. The platform when set in position on the sea-bed, with its massive superstructure complete, stands in 460 ft of water and is 824 ft tall from top to bottom -the height of a 75-storey office block. The three concrete legs are surrounded at their base by cells which give the platform buoyancy lohile it is being towed. The cells are used as storage tanks for the crude oil when the platform is seated on the seabed. The legs are hollow; two of them carry drills and pipes while the other contains pump platforms and the distribution pipes which feed the oil to the storage tanks.
WHERE THEY ARE From a point east of Edinburgh northwards to beyond the Shetlands the oil fields are strung out across the North Sen, following the strata of sedimentary rock below the sea-bed that holds the crude oil like a giant sponge. Each field consists of a platform or a group of platforms, equipped to drill and produce oil and in some cases natural gas. Some platforms pump the oil direct to another platform where it is stored. From there it may be fed to floating mooring points to be loaded into tankers, or it may be pumped to terminals ashore.
At Sullom Voe in the Shetlands oil is received from Brent, one of the largest fields, where liquid gas (LPG) is separated from the oil and both products are loaded into tankers at the terminal’s jetties. Natural gas is pumped from Brent direct to a gas terminal at St Fergus.
Pipeline to mainland
PACKAGED FOR EFFICIENCY The steel superstructure of an oil-production platform such as the huge Brent D Platform is made up of separate modules which fit together like a child’s building toy. Power generators, oil processing and pumping units and control rooms are sandwiched beneath the main deck, which has an area of some 3,500 square yards. Above the deck is a three-storey accommodation unit for up to 200 men, a helicopter landing pad, the flare tower to burn off excess gas and the drilling derrick. As many as 40 drillings may radiate from one main drillhead and descend as deep as 2 miles through water and rock. Some of the wells are used to inject water or gas back into the porous rock to force out the oil. Each platform may produce more than 100,000 barrels of oil per day: a barrel is equivalent to 36 gallons. On fields with more than one platform the separate platforms are linked by pipelines before the oil is pumped to the mainland.
THE DRILLERS One drill floor worker steadies the drill pipe as it is withdrawn from the sea-bed to have the drilling bit changed, while another stands by with the power tongs used to unscrew the pipe section by section.
THE DIVERS For up to 21 days at a time, teams of divers live in chambers pressurised to match the depth of the sea-bed which may be as much as 550 ft. At the end of their shift they spend up to a day in a decompression chamber.
NERVE CENTRE In the clinical calm of the computer room a control panel constantly measures and monitors production rates, temperatures and flow rates. The computer can also pinpoint leaks in the pipeline.
AIR LINK Helicopters play a vital part in communications between the platforms and the mainland, operating a shuttle service that takes crews back and forth at the rate of thousands of men each month.