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Eight hours on the Granite Mile: What I learned walking Union Street and hearing from concerned locals

A collage of images from Craig's day on Union Street. Top left, is looking down Union Street from the Music Hall to Castlegate. Bottom left is Craig walking past the Capitol building and to the right is the Town House clock.
Reporter Craig Munro spent eight hours on Union Street. Image: Mhorvan Park/DC Thomson

I can now tell you precisely where the pavements on Union Street change from one material to another.

I’ve now read the plaques for Caroline Phillips, Sir Alexander Ogston and James Clerk Maxwell twice over, and then once again for the sake of it.

I now know when the lunch crowds start to dribble towards their chosen cafes, when they become a full-on rush, and when they start heading back to the office with food in their bellies.

At 8.53am on November 4, I set foot on Union Street, and I didn’t step off it again until just after 5pm.

Busy Union Street on a Friday morning. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

The goal was to get a feel for the struggling street ahead of an emergency summit aimed at staving off its decline tomorrow.

And speaking to residents about their hopes and fears for the city centre, I was struck by how many expressed reservations about visiting at night.

By the time the sky was dark, I’d heard a horror story set in a charity shop – and learned from a busker which other UK city Aberdeen is most like.


The Town House clock tower strikes nine. Image: Craig Munro/DC Thomson

Just last week, our office windows were being battered by fierce autumn winds and rain.

So I was relieved when my initial walk down the quiet street just before 9am was lit by cloudless blue skies.

A woman crosses the Union Street junction with Market Street. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson


The clock tower strikes ten. Image: Craig Munro/DC Thomson

Time to lay out some ground rules.

Wandering onto Castle Street, I decided, was OK. It’s very hard to tell where it ends and Union Street begins, so it would be hard to police myself.

However, I’d be careful to avoid stepping on any of the tributaries, like Union Terrace or Belmont Street.

Even humble St Nicholas Street would count as an infringement.

The silhouette of man walking past the music hall, taken from the other side of Union Street.
A man outside the Music Hall. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

To the best of my ability, it would be solid Union Street pavement or shops for a full eight hours.

On my first walk along the full length, I noticed the banners above the street had been taken down, presumably to make way for the Christmas lights.

It was a reminder that despite the dry weather, winter was still coming. I’d packed a hat and gloves just in case.


St Mary’s Cathedral just off Union Street at 11am. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

By 11am the lunchtime numbers started to swell.

At one point, our photographer Kami was approached by a man who asks to have a go on his camera.

It was the first of several slightly unsettling encounters with members of the public through the day.

And later, while speaking to a couple named Alec and Shirley Watson outside Caffe Nero, I heard for the first time a sentiment that would be repeated throughout the day.

“I feel safe on Union Street at this time of day,” said Shirley. “But I wouldn’t come down at night.”

Union Street sign at Gilcomston Church
The Union Street sign at Gilcomston Church. Image: Craig Munro/DC Thomson

I knew it would be dark by the time I finished, so I felt the initial rumblings of concern. What was the problem with the street?

“It’s terrible, absolutely disgusting,” Alec said.

“Shopfronts are dirty, shops are empty, they have a terrible mess inside if you look in the windows.

“They need to clean the buildings up, try and get people into the shops with the reduced rents for a start.”

Craig walking forwards, with Union Street's McDonald's in the background.
Crossing the junction with Back Wynd. Image: Kami Thomson/DC Thomson

The need to clean up the street’s facades has been recognised before, though that effort is complicated by the need to find out who owns what site.

Business rates, meanwhile, are set by the Scottish Government and are due for a revaluation next year.


A clock at the entrance of the Music Hall strikes midday. Image: Craig Munro/DC Thomson

Having stood outside for three hours already, I was feeling the chill and decided to visit the Union Cafe for a cup of coffee.

While there, I started talking to two women who asked not to be named but who did not hold back with their assessment of the city centre.

“You feel like you have to have your wits about you,” said one.

She had come into the area for a visit to the opticians, and said there wasn’t much to attract her otherwise.

Taking a coffee break at the Union Cafe and Bistro. Image: Craig Munro/DC Thomson

The other woman told me: “A friend of mine was in a charity shop, on Union Street.

“This woman came up outside and started laying into a binman who was just doing his job.

“My friend is in the charity shop as a customer, and the person who was working said, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to lock you in.’

“They’d had this female before, and she comes in and wrecks the place, taking things off the shelves.”

She continued: “So my friend is locked in this shop until the woman goes past, and she asks why they don’t call the police.

“But the woman in the shop says they used to do that, but they don’t come out now.

“I couldn’t believe that was happening in Aberdeen.”


The clock at St Nicholas Kirk at 1pm. Image: Craig Munro/DC Thomson

A crow was picking away at chips and curry sauce that someone had dropped at the bottom of Chapel Street.

I decided to do a full walk up and down the street, to check how busy each of the shops were during what I thought would be the lunchtime peak.

With a few exceptions – such as Primark and the supermarkets – I saw empty storefronts and mostly empty stores.

McDonalds Union Street beside empty storefronts. Image: Craig Munro/DC Thomson

Clothes shops in particular seemed to be struggling to pull in more than a couple of people at a time, with workers rearranging displays to appear busy.

The cafes and other food outlets were doing well though, and it was nice to see the independent venues appearing just as popular as the chains.

Getting hungry, I paid a visit to the cafe at Charles Michie’s Pharmacy and ordered myself a baked potato.


The famous clock at the former Bruce Millers shop on Union Street at 2pm. Image: Craig Munro/DC Thomson

Mark Grundy has been playing his guitar for passers-by in Aberdeen for several years now, between spells busking around the country.

His improvisational and funky style sets him apart from most of the others in the Granite City’s admittedly small pool of street musicians.

“If you play music, you become involuntarily aware of things,” he said.

“So you feel how folk are reacting to it. Sometimes it’s not so great, but sometimes it’s up to me to play well and cheer folk up a bit.”

Mark Grundy performs outside Poundland on Union Street
Mark Grundy performs outside Poundland. Image: Craig Munro/DC Thomson

It’s true that Mark has an almost unique perspective on the street, observing the people he entertains just as they observe him.

While we were talking, a man came up and ran his fingers along Mark’s strings, saying the guitar was out of tune.

When he didn’t get the reaction he wanted, the man started sounding aggressive, and only backed off when he was told I was recording for the interview.

The statue of Edward VII gazing down upon Union Street.
The statue of Edward VII at the end of Union Terrace. Image: Craig Munro/DC Thomson

“I tend to come out in the morning, I don’t particularly like later on because it does get a bit hairy,” Mark said.

Once again, those rumblings of concern about the coming darkness.

The busker added: “I busk other cities, but Aberdeen’s definitely the most interesting.”

“It’s closer to London. It’s very insular, introverted, private, slightly indifferent, the way people act.”


The Music Hall clock at 3pm. Image: Craig Munro

What is with that bench outside Pret A Manger?

Who is it for? Why is it there? It’s the only bench on the full length of Union Street, and it’s protected by that daft little fence.

I decided it was put there solely for people-watching the folk drinking outside Soul across the road.

The bench outside of Pret looks across from one side of Union Street across to Soul, with a metal fence located in front of it
The bench located outside Pret on Union Street, facing Soul. Image: Craig Munro/DC Thomson

Most of the chips and curry sauce from earlier on had disappeared – unclear if it was thanks to a street cleaner or the crows.

I was trying to distract myself from the fact the sun was very clearly beginning to disappear at this point, with the sky above the West End starting to glow yellow.

As we moved closer to sunset, which was around 4.15pm according to Google, there seemed to be more people at bus stops than on the street itself.

There was no doubt the crowds were thinning out. What was on the way?


Bruce Millers clock at 4pm. Image: Craig Munro/DC Thomson

As I entered my final hour on the street, the only buildings lit by the sun were the granite towers at the eastern end: the Town House, the Tolbooth and the Citadel.

I couldn’t deny how lucky I had been with the weather. A day either side and I would have been stuck in some miserable showers.

A seagull on a bus stop, silhouetted by the setting sun. Image: Craig Munro/DC Thomson

I had been expecting the streets to get emptier and emptier as it got darker, eventually leaving only the people who frightened some of those I had spoken to.

However, I instead watched as Union Street gradually got busier and busier.

And the people who were appearing represented Aberdeen in all its diversity: a range of ages, of races and – yes – of circumstances.

From Castlegate looking down Union Street at dusk, with the Town house clock tower on show.
The street at dusk. Image: Craig Munro/DC Thomson

The pavements were soon packed once again, full of folk heading home, having a browse through the shops, or looking for a pub or restaurant.

While I’ve no doubt the street, and the city more widely, have their problems, it’s clear the people aren’t going to just leave it alone and let it crumble.

We haven’t reached that point – yet. But it’s equally clear changes must be made so Aberdonians can get the Union Street they deserve.


The Town House clock tower at 5pm. Image: Craig Munro/DC Thomson

When I returned to the same spot as eight hours before to watch the Town House clock strike five, I remembered a man I’d earlier seen taking time lapse footage of it.

Like him, I’d taken the time to appreciate a very familiar site from a few different angles to see if it offered anything new.

Tomorrow, more than 150 experts will meet at the Douglas Hotel to do the same, with the aim of tackling the decline of Union Street and putting it on a better path.

And although the public is unable to attend the emergency summit, The Press and Journal will be there to keep you informed of what comes up.

The best ideas that are raised will get an undisclosed sum of money from Aberdeen Inspired so they can be progressed – before time runs out.