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‘We want to give back’: Oil and gas stalwarts lead volunteer crusade to clean up Union Street

The effort to spruce up the city centre begins today with the St Nicholas kirkyard, and comes from the Our Union Street taskforce.

People from all walks of life joined in, including several oil and gas professionals looking to "give back".
People from all walks of life joined in, including several oil and gas professionals looking to "give back". Image: Ben Hendry/DC Thomson

Retired oil and gas stalwarts are “giving back” to the city they have benefitted from by leading an army of volunteer cleaners.

Energy industry alumni are among the dozens of people who have joined together as part of the Our Union Street campaign.

The initiative has been formed to breathe new life into the Granite Mile, ultimately hoping to fill empty units and bring people back into Aberdeen city centre.

On Saturday, from 10am to 3pm, the community-minded crew launched the first part of their mission – cleaning it up.

The clean-up crew may have attracted some attention from passersby on Union Street. Image: Ben Hendry/DC Thomson

And the inaugural volunteer cleaning session targeted St Nicholas kirkyard, with mounds of leaves, weeds and branches bundled up and removed from the historic spot.

We went along to meet the members of the Union Street clean-up crew, and find out why they signed up to the cause…

There are grave concerns about the state of the cemetery. Image: Ben Hendry/DC Thomson

Meet the Union Street clean-up crusaders

Purple bib billowing in the wind, and casting the occasional fearful glance skywards, Our Union Street’s Derrick Thomson had been worrying about this being rained off.

But as 10am approaches, scores of people file into the grounds of Aberdeen’s ancient Mither Kirk.

A relieved Derrick praises the “hardy souls” who have pledged to spend the day there for as long as it remains, well, “dry-ish”.

The Street Union volunteers get a pep talk to start off the day. Image: Ben Hendry/DC Thomson

Leading today’s effort are Drew Russell, Mike Stokeld and Derek Reynolds – who are each assigned groups to focus on specific parts of the neglected graveyard.

As well as their passion for the city centre, the men share another thing in common.

All three made their career in oil and gas, and see the Our Union Street initiative as their chance to give back to a city whose black gold has shaped their lives.

Mike Stokeld, Bob Reynolds and Drew Russell masterminded the first stage of the campaign. Image: Ben Hendry/DC Thomson

‘It’s time to give something back’

Former engineer and senior manager Drew says: “I’ve lived here for the past 35 years and benefitted greatly from the oil industry.

“I have travelled all over the world, but always been based in Aberdeen.

“Now I’m retired, it’s time to give something back – and this seemed like a good idea.”

Bunches of branches are loaded onto the back of a truck. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson
Our Union Street volunteers arrived at 10am for the day-long session. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

It’s a sentiment echoed by Mike, a retired commercial lawyer who moved to Aberdeen amid the oil boom 40 years ago.

He says: “I have four children, all of them brought up here.

“And there’s no point complaining about the state of things unless you’re willing to do something about it.

“It just made sense to give something back, and I don’t mind organising things. I quite like it!”

Huge piles of leaves were amassed. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

‘Aberdeen has always been home, and I am very passionate about it’

Oil and gas veteran of four decades, Derek Reynolds, rounds out the trio in charge of the day.

He has been a friend of Our Union Street leader Bob Keiller for many years, and was one of the first to offer his services to the taskforce.

Big black bags were soon filled up. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

The Torry native tells me how he got his start in drilling, and retired in 2018.

Derek adds: “Aberdeen has always been home, and I am very passionate about it.

“We want to identify what’s good about it, and flag that up.

“Union Street is such a striking street. It has so much potential.”

Christine Houston getting rid of more fallen leaves. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

People of all ages pitch in to clean graveyard

There’s a speech at the start, with the volunteers well briefed on that do’s and do-nots of cleaning up a historic graveyard.

With that, they each pick up their weapons of choice from an array of rakes, shovels and secateurs and set to work.

Greetings are exchanged as the volunteers arrive and are kitted out in their purple uniforms. Image: Ben Hendry/DC Thomson

I bump into Christine Houston as she is holding open a bin bag bulging with fallen autumn leaves.

Nearby, IT worker Paul Gowans is scooping up shovelfuls of foliage to dispense inside.

Christine Houston and Paul Gowans. Image: Ben Hendry/DC Thomson

The pair, who have only just met, explain why they have decided to spend their Saturday cleaning up a chilly cemetery.

Christine was a sales rep for the Thomson printing company, and put her faith in Our Union Street when she learned Bob Keiller was in charge.

The retiree says: “Too many people moan about Union Street and don’t get off their backsides. If an old woman can do it, anybody can!”

Council workers helped lead the effort. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

Paul works for the Intelligent Plant software company on the Granite Mile, and tells me he “really likes the idea of trying to improve the city centre”.

“It’s been in a bit of a sorry state in recent years,” he adds.

Former Shell boss ‘giving back’ as part of Union Street clean-up team

Soon enough, I meet another oil industry stalwart.

Ken Robertson, a former asset director for Shell, and wife Catherine, are tipping armfuls of branches into the back of a council truck.

Catherine and Ken Robertson are branching into volunteering. Image: Ben Hendry/DC Thomson

Ken says: “We have time on our hands, and we want to help make Aberdeen a better place. It has become our home.

“We want to give back. You can sit back and complain, or get involved to make it better.”

With a chuckle, he adds: “I can’t play golf every day…”

Ken cleaning a bench. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

Who else is volunteering to help bring sparkle back to city centre?

Sisters Edyta and Aga Szpakowska, from Poland originally, are desperate to help improve the city.

Aga works in HR, while Edyta is an admin assistant for Aberdeen University.

Aga and Edyta Szpakowska. Image: Ben Hendry/DC Thomson

They have previously joined community clean-ups at Seaton Park and Duthie Park, and are dedicated to sprucing up the city centre.

Richard Stephen moved to Aberdeen from Huntly in the 1970s, working in the Douglas Hotel before moving into oil.

He feels the centre’s decline has been “evident” in recent years, but knows “it can be a stunning city”.

Former pub boss on why she is helping

Carol Munro was manager of Aberdeen institution Dizzy’s from 1969 to 2015.

From behind the bar of the fondly remembered nightspot, she has seen the city’s economic rise and fall.

Carol Munro doing her bit. Image: Ben Hendry/DC Thomson

While attending an Our Union Street public meeting at the Music Hall in June, she decided to sign up.

She says “I’m from Aberdeen, and I have seen it through it all. I was a member of this church before it closed too.”

‘Aberdeen just needs a bit of love’

Recruitment guru Karen Molly is scraping a congealed mass of leaves from the grass in another corner of the kirkyard.

She is “really passionate about Aberdeen, and getting it in a better place”.

“I’ve got four kids and this is their home,” Karen says.

“Aberdeen has so much potential, and so many beautiful areas, it just needs a bit of love.”

Karen Molloy is dedicated to the cause. Image: Ben Hendry/DC Thomson

‘I want city centre to be a better place for my children’

Meanwhile, head of the Tinto architecture firm, Richard Tinto, is taking a break from weeding to tell his family to head down.

Satisfied the weather isn’t too adverse, he wants his five and three-year-old children to join in.

Richard Tinto gets stuck in with a sweeping brush. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

Richard adds: “I’m going to get my tribe to come down, we want to have a nice city centre for their generation. Things like today can help make that happen.”

Why start with St Nicholas kirkyard?

It may seem odd that the taskforce’s first foray is into the graveyard just off the Granite Mile.

But Derrick explains that council cleaners “do a good job of Union Street itself”.

The volunteers were told that the graveyard, however, was something they could use some help with.

Derrick Thomson helping out by scooping up some leaves. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

And Derrick adds that it fits well with Our Union Street’s aims to make more of the unloved “jewel in the crown” of the city centre.

Meanwhile Mike adds that today’s effort has been handed a timely boost, coming just days after the city won gold in Britain in Bloom.

In little more than an hour, the fast-acting crew had cleared up huge mounds of foliage. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

He thinks the St Nicholas kirkyard could, and should, be a landmark Aberdonians are proud of.

“I like history and archaeology, and would love to have trails pointing out parts of local heritage – including this graveyard,” he explains.

Leaves being swept from graves. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

What areas of Union Street do you think most need spruced up? Let us know in our comments section below

How YOU can join the Union Street clean-up crew

As I say my goodbyes, we are interrupted by a visitor who has ventured in from Union Street.

“How can I help?” he asks, with some urgency.

With that, Derrick is off to find him a purple bib as he explains what’s required (and how to get a warming cup of tea or coffee).

You can learn more about joining the volunteer force here.

Read more about Our Union Street’s five “action areas” to rejuvenate the Granite Mile.