Aberdeen: A Bit More Than a Rural Village

 woodside Works

I don’t wish to carp but at the recent showing of the Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil it was said that the Industrial Revolution had pretty well passed Aberdeen by – that apart from a bit of shipbuilding Aberdeen was by and large a feeder-servicer of the rural economy.   This is simply wrong- perhaps an inability to see that the huge agglomerations of industrial capital and labour of the west of Scotland, and say Manchester, were just partial aspects of the bigger picture of the Industrial Revolution which was effectively occurring with degrees of intensity elsewhere in Britain.

The bit of shipbuilding that Aberdeen did centred for a brief period in developing the revolutionary tea clipper.   Yes Aberdeen did not and could not build the yards found on the Clyde nonetheless it had an industry which survived into the later 20th century.   In the era of wooden ship building it did compete but as first iron and then steel became the material of choice it lost advantage to those manufacturers close to iron-steel founders which of course tended to be close to coal supplies.   But of course these later developments are at the far end of the period classically designated as the Industrial Revolution.  

If we take textiles which was the industry often accepted as the archetype of the revolution, Aberdeen was a significant player with thousands of workers employed in cotton, flax and woollen manufacture:Grandholm, Broadford, Bannermill and Hadden’s by the Green being some of the most significant.

Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire granite which can be found the world over was quarried, hewn and polished in Aberdeen. Nowhere else in the UK could compete with the industry in northeast Scotland. It grew through the 19th century employing thousands and as early as the 1830s steam power was introduced to manufacturing here in Aberdeen.   Beyond this we can identify further thousands employed in industrial processes such as chemicals, engineering, comb manufacture (possibly the largest in the world) and paper making.  

If we take industrialisation up to the end of the 19th century, well beyond the classical Revolution, even fishing was being organised on an industrial scale with the introduction of steam trawling which agglomerated capital in a new way and introduced a wage-laboured proletariat to the industry.

We can all acknowledge that Aberdeen was not the west of Scotland.   No huge steel mills, no huge shipyards but within the constraints of resources and geography the city was most definitely industrialised.   In Aberdeen industries were created using new large motive power; there was the growth of an industrial working class with all the conflicts which were to be found elsewhere in Scotland.   The city did service the rural sector, and with its harbour became the export point for farm produce but it was certainly more than a larger version of Turriff.

 

Contribution from Textor

4 Comments to “Aberdeen: A Bit More Than a Rural Village”

  1. Certainly the pattern of industrialisation of Aberdeen was significantly different from that of Glasgow and its hinterland. The movement of population, for example, was not largely of displaced Irish and Highland labour. It seems that much of the movement into the city came from rural and coastal parts of the North East. Perhaps this, with the relative isolation of the North East (at least until the coming of the railway in 1850) contributed to that characteristic of the area, namely a tendency to hold to itself and to be occasionally self deprecating to the point of hiding, as they say, talents under a bushel. This can be an attractive feature but pushed far enough appears as lack of confidence and self-belief. Compare this with the more gallus Glaswegian and the very strong self-identity of that city, particularly as expressed in radical-labour tradition; although at times this might degenerate to “miserable” heritage. Irrespective of Aberdeen’s more canny side it must be said that the city has a history of class struggles against often paternalistic employers.

    As to the point about Trump, there were, it seems to me a number of things working there: whilst “business leaders and local politicians” certainly welcomed the man to the sandy beach but so also did the greater part of locals. This was not how it was broadcast by the BBC which portrayed the opposition as reflecting the larger feeling of the area. Another case of poor journalism by the BBC. In the early stages the opponents of the the development also overstated with their cries of lack of democracy when the decision of the planning committee was overturned. They did their case no good in failing to see that, whatever one thinks of liberal democracy the full Council trumps, you might say, committee decisions. As for questions of whether Dundee’s or Glasgow’s great and good would have been as welcoming as Aberdeen’s, well I see no reason why not (unless they thought popular opinion might undermine their political power); would it not be more likely that where industrial decline marks a city so there is more chance of them reaching for an economic lifeline? With the V&A extension going to Dundee, and being well aware from personal experience how the “creative industries” seriously exaggerate visitor numbers etc, that portion of “incoming capital” might well turn out to a very thin porridge for the city economically. I would hope for the Bilbao bounce but maybe the “open embrace” by local politicians and the arts community, whilst generating a great space for locals might fall well short of the benefits envisaged. And I would imagine similar questions might be asked about Glasgow’s various past attempts to become a hub for creative industries and through these regenerate a dying industrial economy. Whether its landed capital or industrial capital I would take it as given that you get screwed.

  2. As the person who made this erroneous comment – I stand corrected. I am aware of the industrial heritage of Aberdeen and should not have been so flippant in my remarks. A better way of putting things might have been to observe that large-scale industrialisation never took place in Aberdeen. Be that as it may, the essential point of the observation was to reflect on the culture of north-east business leaders and politicians in welcoming incoming capital (oil & trump) with little critical reflection. A healthy skepticism of the rash claims made by Trump would, in my view, have been the response of post-industrial locales such as Dundee and Glasgow rather then the open embrace of a city that has not known industrial decline on a large scale.

  3. I used to live in Ivory Court, Hutcheon Street which is a converted comb mill with gorgeous cobbled courtyard and spiral staircase.

    • When I was in museums I saw it after it had been restored and it looked beautiful. It’s great when old buildings find a second life for new generations while having their character retained and where thought is put into making them attractive and not solely functional. Textor.

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