10 fascinating facts about Aberdeen

Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire will wait for you, #ABDNwillwait #stayathome. 

1. Marischal College, founded in 1595 by Earl Marischal George Keith as a Protestant rival to Kings College, Old Aberdeen, was the first university to be founded without the support of the Pope, and first to be endowed by royalty, i.e. James VI.  The 1906 frontage to the college, designed by Alexander Marshall McKenzie, is the second largest granite structure in the world, succeeded only by the medieval Escorial Palace in Madrid, Spain.

2. The city’s Music Hall, designed by premier architect, Archibald Simpson in 1820 and remodelled in 1859 by James Matthews, was the venue for the first ever demonstration of the “cinematograph” by Robert Paull in 1896.  Paull was a precision engineer who had modified Thomas Edison’s “moving picture” device in order to project the images on screen. Stage magician, David Devant had invited Paull to join him on a UK tour to show off this new form of entertainment. Paull’s “movies” included a view of traffic on London’s Westminster Bridge, cyclists in Hyde Park, and the arrival of the Paris express. This inspired William Walker and William Dove Paterson to create their own touring “cinematographs” with content created by Aberdeen’s first filmmaker, Joe Gray.   

3. The song most associated with the city The Northern Lights of Aberdeen was written by Mary Webb who had never visited Aberdeen before. It became the anthem of the Tivoli Theatre and later beloved of football fans at Pittodrie, but the song and its tune was the result of Mary’s husband William “Mel” Webb’s friendship with Archie Lee, a BBC journalist who he’d worked with in Aberdeen during the war. Mel, a Canadian, was too old for active service, but wanted to do his duty, so he was stationed at the Torry Battery anti-aircraft station. Mary’s colleague, Winnie Forgie, who was a native of Aberdeenshire, was homesick when they met in the kitchen of the London hospital where they both worked. Mary, an accomplished pianist and composer all her life, offered to write Winnie a song to remind her of home. Mel wrote to his army buddy asking him to confirm a story he’d told of seeing the Aurora Borealis. Archie replied saying his mother, a native of Orkney, pointed them out when they were on holiday there, calling them the Mirrie Dancers. The familiar lyrics “When I was a lad, a tiny wee lad, my mother said to me, come see the Northern Lights my boy, they’re bright as day can be”, come from Archie’s memories. Mary wrote the tune, claiming it had come to her “out of the ether”.  Archie helped the Webbs get the music published and arranged for Scottish tenor, Robert Wilson to premiere the song at the Albert Hall. Sadly Mel died of Parkinson’s Disease and never saw the performance. Robert was shocked to hear Mary had never been in Aberdeen and asked her to be his accompanist for the Scottish premiere at the Tivoli in 1953. The song was a huge success, but after a few years, Mary disappeared from the public eye. Aberdeenshire journalist, Jack Webster, rediscovered her just weeks before her death at 88 from a stroke. She could still play The Northern Lights despite her ageing fingers.  Jack managed to have her piano transported to Aberdeen, where it was on display at the Music Hall for many years. Mary’s ashes were spread at the old Garthdee crematorium in 1994. 

4. The forerunner of CALA Homes, the City of Aberdeen Land Association, founded in 1875 by ex-Provost Alexander Anderson, was the first Scottish company listed on the London Stock Market.  CALA was Anderson’s lucrative method of developing the lands of Rubislaw and Torry which he owned. It functioned as a “land bank”, selling the feus to potential developers. Ultimately this lead to the city’s expansion to the west and south, Rubislaw being a grand suburb with huge neo-Gothic follies, and Torry allowing the development of the harbour, estuary and a new industrial sector including the Brickworks, shipyards and of course, Victoria Bridge.

5. Dr Alexander Ogston, grandson of Alexander, Aberdeen’s earliest soap manufacturer, introduced carbolic spray to the city’s hospitals. Ogston was a friend of Glasgow-based surgeon, Joseph Lister, who had begun to promote “aseptic” environments for hospitals, vastly cutting death rates after operations. Ogston’s students teased their professor for what they believed was his excessive use of the spray, inspiring among them a little ditty: The spray, the spray, the antiseptic spray / A.O. would shower it morning, night and day/ For every sort of scratch/ Where others would attach / A sticking plaster patch / He gave the spray. Ogston was also the discoverer of Staphylococcus aureus which we now know today as MRSA.

6. Aberdeen had the first Police Commission in Scotland. The Police Act of Aberdeen was passed in 1798, drafted by local entrepreneur and government reformer, John Ewen. Although a police “force” of constables was not introduced until 1818, there were night and day “patroles” that enforced law and order. Ewen’s Police Commission worked with the council and magistrates to take care of the cleanliness and lighting of the streets, employing “scavengers” to remove refuse. This is where we get our modern-day “scaffies” from. 

7. Craiginches Prison in Torry had the dubious honour of executing the last man in Scotland. On 15 August 1963, Henry John Burnett was hanged for the murder of Thomas Guyan, with whose wife Margaret he’d been having an affair. Harry had burst into the middle flat in 14 Jackson Terrace belonging to his lover’s grandmother with a shotgun and blasted Tommy at point blank range in front of Margaret, her grandmother, and her two children.  Margaret and Harry fled the scene only to be stopped by the police on the Ellon Road. The execution was carried out by Britain’s last hangman, Harry Allen.

8. Aberdeen GP, Dr Mary Esslemont, was the first woman president of the Students’ Representative Council at Aberdeen University in 1922. She founded the Royal College of General Practitioners and was the only female to be on the committee advising the government in the founding of the National Health Service. She was a supporter of rights for mothers and children, the consultant gynaecologist at the city’s Free Dispensary, and was made a CBE for her medical endeavours.

9. Entonox, aka nitrous oxide, was created in 1961 by Aberdeen’s Dr Mike Tunstall. Recruited by Sir Dugald Baird, who had been researching nitrous oxide’s application as an analgesic, Dr Tunstall had been working in Portsmouth as an anaesthetist. Although “laughing gas” had already been identified by chemist Joseph Priestley in 1775, the 50/50 mix had never been previously achieved. With help from local ice-cream maker, Donald’s, Tunstall super-cooled both nitrogen and oxygen then mixed them to create the world’s most appreciated anaesthetic for which women in labour are eternally grateful. Entonox is now part of the paramedics’ arsenal against pain at accidents, helping to calm patients for transport to hospital. 

10. Aberdonian-born Louisa Innes Lumsden (1840-1935), daughter of Clements Lumdsen, local advocate, was in the first cohort of women to graduate from Cambridge.  She went on to be the first female headteacher of St Leonards School, St Andrews, which prepared women for entrance to higher education. While there, she introduced the game of lacrosse to her girls, having seen it played in Canada on a business trip to Montreal.  Louisa was also appointed warden of the first ladies’ hall of residence at St Andrews University in 1895.  She would return years later in 1911 to receive an honorary LLD.  Meanwhile, Louisa threw herself into the cause of women’s suffrage as president of the non-militant Aberdeen Suffrage Association.  She delighted in her new activity, travelling all over Aberdeenshire, explaining the benefits of the vote to working class women.  She died in her 95th year, having been created Dame Lumsden a decade previously.  Her birthplace is now occupied by the former Northern Insurance Building at no.1 Union Terrace, better known to locals as The Monkey Hoose, designed by local master mason, John Morgan.

Compiled by Dr Fiona-Jane Brown, Company Director, Hidden Aberdeen Tours.

Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire will wait for you, #ABDNwillwait #stayathome. 

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