Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Aberdeen: Scotland's Klondike

The ancient little northeastern city of Aberdeen, Scotland, holds a surprise or two in store for someone who expect s, after ten years of North Sea oil "Boom ," to encounter a kind of Houston-in-the-highlandsa, or a neoKlondike overtaken by a black-gold rush. Oil has been called the "invisible cargo" and Aberdeen (which, I was told by some Aberdonians, is strictly not in the Highlands anyway) evidently wants, as far as possible, to keep it invisible.

Ted Brocklebank of Grampian Television says that the city council wants, as he put it, "no dirty things" in Aberdeen. the city is happy, indeed eager, to house the prestigious headquarters of the industry, and it has made available wide areas of land for new industrial estates and new housing, most of it the cheap-looking, little-box variety cropping up with a look of instant impermanence and careless overcrowding wherever there is a need in Britain today. And the city is willing to release yet more land. Shell, BP, Chevron, Occidental, Conoco, BNOC -- virtually all the major oil companies -- are here and they are planning new growth after a two-year period of comparative consolidation in what promises to be a second "miniboom" over the next year or so. All kinds of oil-related companies have also opened large quarters in Aberdeen , or on its expanding periphery, however, says Mr. Borcklebank, the less attractive effects of oil have to go elsewhere -- up to the coast to Peterhead, for instance.

About these ads

On a recent short visit to Aberdeen it did seem clear that, on balance, the Granite City can still sparkle proudly and cleanly when the sun shines (and it does, occasionally). It has kept its identity and shows more signs of prosperity than devastation, few or no signs of industrial pollution or indiscriminate development, and is apparently well in control of its destiny.

Springtime is persuasive, and the spectacular carpeting of crocuses on banks and in parks adds its own dressy, carnival note, relieving the hard gray of the buildings. But aberdeen itself seems to have a high standard of tidiness. It is, perhaps, rooted in the Scottish character. The city was prosperous, of course, long before oil: Fishing and agriculture were main industries, but so were granite, ship-building, and textiles to a degree. Perhaps its relative isolation, abetted by poor approach roads apparently little improved in the oil decade, explains Aberdeen's self-possession.

Old Aberdeen (once a separate burgh) with cobbled streets and medieval houses near the university and cathedral remains an intact historical showpiece. The stone-faced houses of later centuries also seem to predominate in central Aberdeen. A city whose first royal charter was granted in the 12th century may be slightly less willing to change than houston, Texas.

Nevertheless, its population (included within a 20-mile radius) has jumped more than 25,000 to 280,000 since 1971. Its airport has expanded enormously, with a L9 million ($20.3 million) face lift. Helicopter traffic is as busy as anywhere in the world and is expected to increase in the 1980s. Hotel and guest-house trade has expanded, and it flourishes all year instead of catering mainly to summer holidaymakers. Some farmers have made a lot of money by letting their land for the storage of pipes and other oil-industry hardware. Some homeowners are moving and renting the houses as office space. Students at the university and colleges find accommodations more and more difficult to find.

In spite of all this growth, however, the long-time Aberdonians I met showed no desire to leave, even though they were quick --perhaps slightly too quick -- to say how much they disliked the changes of the last ten years.

The fact is, many of these changes have also occurred in places unconnected with North Sea oil. the disappearance of favorite family-run shops on the main shopping street, for example, and their replacement by uniform and anonymous chain stores: This has happened all over Britain. Or the different pattern of tourism: Aberdeen has a beautiful beach, which used to be crowded every summer with visitors from south Scotland and northern England. Many of them now head for the much warmer beaches of southern Europe, on "cheap" package holidays. The expensiveness of hotels in Aberdeen has probably contributed a little to this move away, but other British resorts have witnessed something similar -- or so argues Gordon Henry, director of Aberdeen's development and tourist information.

The lives of many older Aberdonians seems scarcely altered by the arrival of the oil people. A lady of 90 I met (who vividly remembers a vanished Aberdeen social life in the days when young women and their mothers used to receive afternoon visitors "at home," or went visiting themselves -- polite occasions when there was much talk, but emphatically "no gossip") could truthfully observe very little physical change to the area she lives in. A couple in their 70s also seemed little affected -- though the value of their house had gone up, and the increased flow of traffic was bothersome. "you've got to walk down to a 'green man,' Mrs. Bessie Dorward said, laughing, "if you want to cross the road." She had also noticed that people with houses or rooms to let now advertised for "company lets only." "They do that," said her husband, "because they have a comeback if there's any damage done to the house."

About these ads

There must be more renting of homes in Aberdeen than before the oil influx, though set against this are the number of oil people who have bought houses here. A certain percentage find they like Aberdeen so much that they plan to settle for life. Also, of the 13,500 who work offshore -- actually on the oil rigs --more than 10,000, surprisingly, do not live in Aberdeen or even the Grampian region in which the city is situated.The resident (if changeable and mobile) oil population consists largely of "onshore" employees, totaling more than 19,500 in 1980.

it is reckoned that 6,000 to 8,000 of these residents are American. I spoke to two from Houston to find out what they felt about living in this rather remote Scottish city -- Bob and Susan La Coste. Bob works for Vetco, specialists in the manufacture of "offshore sub-sea drilling and completion systems."

"I think the main thing about Aberdeen," Bob summed it all up, "is that Aberdeen is not like London. In London there are thousands of things to do. We're from Houston and there are as many varied things to do there.And there is nothing to do -- absolutely nothing to do in Aberdeen."

"It amazes me," put in Susan. "This is the third largest city in Scotland. . . ."

A London couple, Graham and Jane Watson, also here because of the oil industry, joined the discussion. Graham works for John Wood Group engineering Ltd., one example of a Scottish company that oil has made phenomenonally successful. the Watsons have developed a great affection for the countryside around Aberdeen. It is easily accessible (Bob pointed out that Aberdeen traffic is nothing to him, a 15-minute drive here takes an hour and a half in Houston), has tremendous variety, and is marvelous for walking. Jane said: "I am happy as long as I can visit London just twice a year."

It is very clear that all four of them (not to mention the La Costes' two children) have had to make large adjustments. BUt one way or another they seem to have come to terms with this small city which is so completely different from the large ones they are used to.

Both men have taken up golf. "After all," said Bob, "golf started here." And golf is one thing Aberdeen offers almost in excess. "And it's completely classless here." Graham comments. It is also international.

Any notion that the only foreigners oil has brought to Aberdeen are Texans is soon dispelled. Even the Petroleum Women's Club has Dutch, Swedish, and German members. "Though the majority are American, and most of them are Texans," Susan admits she has found the PWC a great help. The wives and children of oil men, they all agree, have a harder time adjusting than the men themselves, who are away at work all day.

The La Costes also dispelled any notion that all Americans come to Aberdeen simply for more money. Although Bob's company pays for all their utilities and pays the steep rent of L620 sterling a month for their quite modest house, and pays L6,000 sterling a year for their children to go to the nearby American school, they reckon that the main reason they have come is for job experience, not income. "We haven't saved any money," Bob insists, and his wife adds, "Children's clothes cost twice as much, and household goods. Everything is so much more expensive."

The English couple were also offered attractive inducements to come to Aberdeen by Graham's firm. "The first time we were up here," said Jane, "we had a flat free, a food allowance, a car. It was like being abroad."

Bob felt that they had had to live down a tendency of Scottish people to categorize Americans. The "cowboys" who had come in during the early 1970s had "built a bad reputation." But he and Susan divide the Americans who are here for the oil into two "kinds" --guess you might say they're builders of new frontiers ," explained bob, "they are the kind who never want to live in America. . . . There is a wide variety of income range of Americans here. . . . There are some offshore workers who come because they would not have the opportunity to make comparable money in the US. . . ."

Bob is in what they call "middle management," on a three-year contract -- a little like national service. "It's been an experience" was his first comment. But Susan seemed to have surprised herself, after they had been back to Houston for Christmas, by a feeling that their return to Aberdeen was like "coming home."

"I'd come back again" said Bob. Susan said she would, too, for a while, but she didn't seem quite so sure.

Perhaps it is too much to expect this small city to provide all the conveniences of living to which some Americans are accustomed. A number of their smaller demands are now met by shops selling American ice cream, hamburgers, fried chicken, even favorite kinds of mayonnaise. The cool and dull climate (Susan misses going barefoot) is beyond the city council's control, though. Gordon Henry, director of tourist information, told me that they had wanted to provide indoor sports and recreation facilities for holidaymakers -- and these would also, doubtless, suit the oil families. "But", he went on, "unlike Stavanger in Norway, Aberdeen has no local tax we can levy on oil. The city itself has no direct benefit from it. It is all taken by central government. . . ."

You can't keep politi cs out of anything.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.