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Rebecca Buchan: Don’t wait until Aberdeen’s heritage is under threat to fight for it

There has been public fury over the misuse and misplacement of historical Aberdeen artefacts in recent years and months (Image: DCT Media)
There has been public fury over the misuse and misplacement of historical Aberdeen artefacts in recent years and months (Image: DCT Media)

A few months ago rumours started to circulate in Aberdeen that dozens of granite blocks, which once formed the grand staircase in Union Terrace Gardens, had disappeared.

It was not initially clear how the tonnes of stone had been removed from the Victorian park, currently under construction. However, concerns started to rumble that they may have been taken away to a local quarry to be crushed.

The rumours, which is all they were, seemed to start a chain reaction among the public, who were nothing short of outraged.

The steps were eventually tracked down to a local businessman’s garden by our reporter, Alastair Gossip. It emerged they had been placed there for “safe keeping” by builder, Graeme Cheyne.

But, the whole saga did something to unite residents – in anger.

An investigation was later launched by both the council and the police, to try to work out how part of our heritage was allowed to be misplaced so easily. It should be stated that it was ruled there were no criminal shenanigans going on.

But, people still wanted answers. Why were the steps removed? Why was this allowed?

A few months later, another scandal erupted as it emerged that thousands of artefacts and paintings were reported “missing” or “damaged” from Aberdeen’s award-winning art gallery.

Again, furious calls were being made for the council to explain what had happened to these relics of our city’s history.

Then, last week, the same sort of murmurings started to brew when old iron signs pointing to some of Aberdeen’s most iconic landmarks ended up for sale on a local antique dealer’s website.

Let’s proactively preserve our past and bring it into the future

All of these incidents have made me contemplate the importance of heritage to the north-east.

Having observed the behaviour of the citizens of Aberdeen over the last decade pretty closely, it’s clear that if there is anything to incite feeling in the people, it’s when our heritage comes under threat.

I must say, it is often nice to see the unity that our culture brings. For example, the Tillydrone Community Development Trust have banded together to ensure the restoration of the Wallace Tower in Seaton Park.

A colourised photograph of Wallace Tower  in Aberdeen’s Netherkirkgate, taken in September,1954 (Photo: Aberdeen Journals)

It once sat proudly overlooking Netherkirkgate but, in the early 1960s, Marks & Spencer lodged plans to expand their store. It was then decided the Wallace Tower would be moved to Seaton Park in the Old Town.

A poll run by the Evening Express at the time found that 90% of participants did not support the move, with the public desperate to keep the landmark in its original location.

An editorial in the Press and Journal published years later bemoaned the loss of the building from the city centre. By then, the council was reluctant to rent out Wallace Tower, in case tenants used their right to buy the property.

What’s the use in our history being moved, brick by brick, across town, only for it to lay and decay?

We accused the city of “monkeying about with its half-decent buildings” and said: “The only reason for moving the tower to its present site was because Marks and Spencer wanted the corner of the Netherkirkgate and the town council was so bowled over with excitement at the prospect of St Michael underwear on tap that it agreed on the scheme.”

The B-listed monument has sat there, deteriorating, ever since. But the trust hopes to transform the tower into a local asset with a cafe, community hall and offices.

The new group of volunteers is making some movement, not only to preserve our past, but to bring it into our future. After all, what’s the use in our history being moved, brick by brick, across town, only for it to lay and decay?

We all care about our heritage

When plans were initially mooted to transform UTG, there was uproar and concern over spoiling that Victorian heritage. However, the gardens were going the same way as the Wallace Tower – largely unused and falling into disrepair.

It is hoped that, after months of construction work, they will reopen to the public this year. I sincerely hope it is the start of us embracing the past and using it to enhance our future.

We already have excellent examples in Aberdeen of how our city can grow with our heritage.

These include the renovation of Aberdeen Art Gallery (now named the best building in Scotland), the works to Provost Skene House and the repurposing of Marischal College.

Let’s also not forget about the Music Hall and His Majesty’s Theatre, which have both undergone redevelopment in recent years to bring them into the modern world.

Broadford Works in Aberdeen (Photo: Kenny Elrick/DCT Media)

But why stop there? Woolmanhill Hospital and Broadford Works are currently sitting, unused and degrading, and there would appear to be no real urgency from their owners to remedy that. Meanwhile, Bon Accord Baths is reliant on volunteers to get it back up and running.

These places, too, are part of our cultural history.

And, while we make plans to rejuvenate Union Street and our beach area, it’s important we look at the foundations we already have.

We all care about our heritage, and so we should. It should help make Aberdeen a place for future generations to be proud of.

Rebecca Buchan is City and Shire Team Leader for The Press & Journal and Evening Express

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