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From pool to spool: Watch new film celebrating Aberdeen’s Bon Accord Baths

A new film celebrates nostalgic memories of the Bon Accord Baths in Aberdeen
A new film celebrates nostalgic memories of the Bon Accord Baths in Aberdeen

Aberdeen’s stunning Bon Accord Baths, built defiantly in the war while bombs fell and much loved by generations since have been celebrated in a new nostalgic film.

Memories of Bon Accord Baths was made by musician and filmmaker Margaret Preston and premiered at the recent Baths and Experimental Use of Space open day.

The poster reads: Romances, rescues, drama, nostalgia, sports... and pies! On a background of the bath's current flaking ceiling. With a list of contributor's names also featured.
Poster for Margaret Preston’s nostalgia film about Bon Accord Baths.

In it she has gathered 50 minutes of memories and images from the Baths’ vast legion of fans, ranging from romances, rescues, sporting achievements and not forgetting the coveted cafe pies.

Joyful memories

Like so many in Aberdeen, the very mention of the huge, Art Deco baths sparks a wave of joyful memories for Margaret.

While she and her family also enjoyed Aberdeen’s Beach Baths, Bon Accord in Justice Mill Lane was where she, and countless others, learned to swim.

A selfie of Margaret Preston. Her hair is pinned in an updo and she wears a patterned scarf, while resting her head in her hand.
Margaret Preston has made a 50 min nostalgia film to celebrate Bon Accord Baths.

She and her younger sister Caroline would head there with their grandfather, entering a cathedral of granite and marble, negotiating dramatic long corridors and flights of stairs to reach the changing cubicles.

She said: “It was awe-inspiring.

“What hit you were the echoes, the warmth and the overwhelming smell of chlorine.

“It was vast, the huge windows, light glancing over the water, and so much noise glancing around.”

Intimidating at first, but a cathedral of fun once you had learned to swim and got over the initial fear of water.

A black and white image of children playing on an inflatable submarine in the Bon Accord Baths.
Fun on the inflatables at the Bon Accord Baths in 1991.

Margaret said: “It was a real family place, really busy and a lot of fun.

“My sister and I loved it, and were really competitive about who could change quickest at the beginning and end, but our grandfather always finished first.”

As teenagers, Margaret and Caroline would come to the baths to socialise with their cousins and friends.

Time out at the Turkish baths

The dynamic changed again for Margaret in adulthood, when she took time out from her busy life as a peripatetic music teacher to spend precious moments with her mother in the Bon Accord’s Turkish baths.

“It was quiet and luxurious.

“If you compare them with spas now which can be utilitarian or corporate, this was the real deal, very grand and made with the best materials.”

Love stories at the baths

With so many people working or swimming there, romance was bound to blossom.

In her film, Margaret includes the story of Mandy and Armand Sangbarani.

She said: “Armand came over from Armenia when he was 16 and fell in love with Mandy when they met in the queue for getting the medical in order to work in the baths.

A black and white still from the film, of Mandy and Armand Sangbarani. Armand leans down from his lifeguard chair while Mandy stands to the left.
Mandy and Armand Sangbarani met and fell in love at the Bon Accord Baths. Supplied by Margaret Preston

“They have three boys and three grandchildren and Armand says that to this day the name Bon Accord brings back lovely memories of great times.

“He loved the working atmosphere, sporty, enthusiastic and full of young people.

“He also saved a young girl’s life.”

Margaret also includes the story of Isabel and the late Jim Ewan.

A still from the film, featuring Isabel and Jim Ewan's wedding photo and invitation. Jim stands on the right and Isabel beams at the camera. They are both holding horseshoes.
Isabel and Jim Ewan fell in love at the Bon Accord Baths in Aberdeen and were married for more than half a century.  Supplied by Margaret Preston

“They had over fifty years of marriage and their romance was largely conducted in the Uptown Baths.”

Bon Accord rescues

There were a few rescues over the years, including one dramatic one by young lifeguard Ian Campbell, mentioned in Margaret’s film.

“Ian was a champion swimmer who learned to swim in the river Dee. He jumped in when a nurse spotted someone lying face-down at the bottom of the pool.

A still from the film. A black screen on the left reads: Ian Campell, North District Swimming "Welsh" Trophy 1975. The black and white photo on the right features a smiling Ian, holding his trophy.
Lifeguard at the Bon Accord Baths, Ian Campbell was an accomplished swimmer.  Supplied by Margaret Preston

“They pulled him out and got his heart going. It turned out he suffered from epilepsy and hadn’t told anyone.

“He was newly married too, imagine how badly that could have turned out.”

Altogether 21 people came forward to provide their memories, including Julie Wemyss whose grandfather was manager of the baths for decades.

“Julie has his letter of appointment and war diary, and still wears his long-service watch,” Margaret said.

Banned activities

The Bon Accord Baths banned activities sign.

To celebrate the Bon Accord’s etiquette, Margaret has made a series of hilarious red figures all indulging in activities firmly banned at the baths.

Who remembers No Petting?

Here’s Gogsie Groper getting handsy with Smokin’ Hot Sue.  Smoking was also banned at the baths.

Two stuffed red morphsuits. One sits, decorating with a blonde wig, in a black swimming costume, and blue pendant. Posed standing to the right, the other suit features oversized sunglasses, with hair stuck on its head to mimic male pattern baldness. It also features a hairy chest, with a large dollar sign necklace and floral shorts. They both have cigarettes attached to their hands.

By popular demand, the fun figures will be on view at the baths on Aberdeen’s Doors Open Day, September 10, 11am to 4pm.

Built to keep the populace clean

Bon Accord Baths, popularly known as the Uptown Baths, were built to provide public bathing in the centre of town at a time when many homes barely had their own toilet let alone a bath.

The architect was Alexander McRobbie of the City Architects Department.

The foundation stone was laid in 1936, and the city fathers decided the war was not going to stop it going ahead.

They didn’t do things by halves.

The baths during construction.
The baths taking shape in 1936-40. When it opened in 1940, it was on a scale not seen outside London.

It cost £37,000, or around £2m today.

The pool is 120ft long by 42ft wide, with a depth of between three and 15ft, and a diving platform 33ft high.

Raked seating for 1,000 spectators flanked the pool, making it the perfect venue for competitions.

The inside of the Bon Accord Baths when the pool was still in use.

The pool was closed in 2008 on grounds of cost.

It’s a listed building and the charity Save Bon Accord Heritage is fighting to save it, and bring it into community use for forthcoming generations of Aberdonians.