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Aberdeen & Aberdeenshire

Aberdeen’s 1964 typhoid outbreak gave way to the creation of the festival designed to change the city’s fortunes

Bon-accord Fortnight, later renamed Aberdeen Festival, was designed to help the city recover from the 194 typhoid epidemic.
James Wyllie
festival parade on Union Street
The Aberdeen Festival Parade makes its way down Union Street.

With the typhoid outbreak firmly behind them, city bosses were desperate to find a way to bring people back to Aberdeen.

After three people died and hundreds more were hospitalised, visitors were reluctant to head to the north-east for fear of the infection.

An advertisement for Bon-accord fortnight that was featured in The Press and JournalBut the city was clear and civic leaders drew up plans which they hoped would put it “right back on the holiday map” during the trades’ fortnight.

They settled upon the idea of a two-week tourism extravaganza, and would lay on a wide variety of activities and events to appeal to as broad a church as possible.

“Aberdeen for me!” the front page of the newspaper professed in the days leading up to the celebration.

“This is the reaction expected from holidaymakers, tourists and day-trippers who are caught up in the gay whirl of Bon-Accord Fortnight.

“For two weeks, all roads lead to Aberdeen, the carnival city.”

A programme of events was drawn up by hoteliers, business leaders and transport operators, beginning with a brightly-coloured parade through the city centre on Saturday, June 25, 1964.

Crowds lined Union Street to see the Aberdeen Festival parade in 1968.

They said: “The city will be gay with bunting and flags and the organisers are hoping ships in Aberdeen harbour will be dressed overall on the opening day.”

Over the two weeks that followed, pipe bands took to arenas in Union Terrace Gardens and Hazlehead Park, youngsters flocked to the beach for sporting competitions and open-air dances were held almost every night.

Crowds were also treated to a Majorettes display, a softball exhibition from US troops stationed at Edzell, and a watersports show.

1970 Aberdeen Festival Queen contest held in Union Terrace Gardens, with crowds of onlookers
The finalists in the 1970 Aberdeen Festival Queen contest, watched by throngs of onlookers at Union Terrace Gardens.

It even crowned its own Aberdeen Festival Queen.

‘It has been a remarkable transformation’

The events came to a close with a celebration at the beach featuring a fireworks extravaganza and the spit-roasting of a whole ox.

At its conclusion, then Lord Provost Norman Hogg called for the Bon-Accord Fortnight, later renamed the Aberdeen Festival, to become an annual event.

A fire-eater with a seated crowd watching.
Stromboli the fire-eater wows the crowds at the 1970 Aberdeen Festival.

He said: “There is no doubt about it that we are a city which wishes to attract as many visitors as possible, and as has been proved this year when we got reasonable weather, people are prepared to flock to Aberdeen.

“I am sure no-one would have believed two months ago that Aberdeen would have been packed out at the end of July and the beginning of August, and that visitors to the city would be unable to obtain accommodation.

“It has been a remarkable transformation.”

His words resonated throughout the city, and the Aberdeen Festival became a mainstay for decades afterwards.

In the years following, events including a canoeing regatta, horse-jumping contests and kipper barbecues were added to the agenda.

The celebrations were still going strong in 1971, when north-east journalist Gordon Casely wrote: “Music, sport, the parade and a firework finale allowed barely time for an odd production or two to be staged in the Arts Centre

“Although the canine competition ‘Whose Dog Has the Waggliest Tail?’ emerged as something of a talking point.”

Aberdeen Festival parade
The Scottish Cup and Britain in Bloom Rosebowl both featured in the 1970 parade.

Interest in the festival did begin to wane. The Press and Journal reported in 1976 that organisers had received just 20 applications from groups wishing to decorate floats for a parade, rather than the usual 70 in the preceding years.

It also added that a children’s art competition had been launched to design a cover for a commemorative programme, but noted: “Not a single entry has been received.”

The festival continued through the 1980s, laying on entertainment including performances from Haddo House Choral Society, writing masterclasses from prominent authors and even had a visit from the Red Arrows.

Ian Henwood and Julie Cowell with a a pop group constructed from Meccano at Aberdeen Festival
Ian Henwood and Julie Cowell marvel at a pop group constructed from Meccano, showcased in 1987.

It came to a close in 1993, overtaken by other city events including Aberdeen International Youth Festival.

Despite this, many still have fond youthful memories of hot summers celebrating the city’s triumph over the typhoid outbreak – hoping their children and grandchildren may be able to do the same in the coming years following the containment of coronavirus.