Posts tagged ‘Music Hall’

June 12, 2017

Aberdeen Music Hall: British Nationalism and the Light Fantastic

Music Hall 1859

Inside the Music Hall 1859

Guest blog by Textor

On April 26 1820 Aberdeen was witness to one of its grandest processions of the early 19th century. With great pomp and even some circumstance around 1500 men (no women) formed orderly lines and marched westward from the heart of the burgh at the Castlegate to Union Bridge above the Denburn and beyond to the site designated for a new Public Hall which would become known as the Music Hall. Laying of the hall’s foundation stone, as it turned out, became an occasion for celebrating local and national pride but first let us establish our historical bearings.

The economic and political disturbances of the wars with France were over. Stability, growth and progress seemed possible and probable with the United Kingdom – Britain (often conceived as England) to the fore. The Public Hall was a sign of this confidence. And where better to show such confidence than on Union Street? Here was a street slowly but surely becoming the grand carriageway for traffic to the city centre and it continued beyond the old town in a semi-rural setting; well away from industry, overcrowding, noise, filth and disease. As one commentator said of the area –

On the whole a more dry, healthy, and eligible situation for Building, is not to be found in the vicinity of the Town.

1828 Plan Union Street

Site of the Music Hall between Golden Square and Union Street 1810

Whether for a new villa or grand public hall the land west of Union Bridge was full of prime sites, ripe for speculative development. As the street was very underdeveloped any impressive new building would stand in near splendid isolation – an emphatic visual sign of confidence and good taste not to mention ostentation.

To note in passing, when the west side of Broad Street was recently cleared to reveal for the first time Marischal College in all its architectural glory (or folly depending on taste) how easy it would have been to emulate the architectural commitment of Georgian Aberdeen but no sooner did we get a tantalising glimpse of what might be than it was snatched away as Willie Young and his Council cohorts spurned the notion of giving the city an iconic architectural facade. Instead they gave Aberdeen the monotony of uninspired glass and steel boxes; like cartoon characters with cash signs in their eyes their vision saw money to be made from the cleared site.

Those private investors in the 1820 hall were also motivated in part by commercial concerns – of what they might make from shares in the enterprise. But they at least recognised that site and architecture mattered. Designs were invited including from Aberdeen’s two foremost architects, Archibald Simpson and John Smith. They were men with established architectural reputations and just as importantly their local work had given them a strong sense of what could and could not be achieved with granite, the local building stone. This is important as the very hardness of the stone and the low-technology available to masons imposed severe limitations on the ornamental styles possible. Granite lent itself to the austere rather than decorative exuberance of freestone architecture. The Aberdeen Journal praised the submitted designs, saying they exhibit a chaste imitation of the simplest style of Grecian Architecture, to which the celebrated Granite of this County is so admirably adapted. Simpson won the commission: local man, local stone, local pride.

And here we are at April 1820. Men assembled, about to march. And not just any men. They were Freemasons. Changed days. Long gone are the times when masons assembled with banners and regalia to march through the town to mark civic occasions or for the funeral of a lodge member. Tradesmen, professionals and aristocrats were proud openly to display their Masonic beliefs. European Freemasons might have been tainted by notions of radicalism and ideas of popular democracy but here in 1820 Aberdeen participants, whether operative members or those drawn from higher social circles were intent in showing loyalty to the Town and to Britain (Crown and Country).

James Duff 4 Earl of Fife (2)

James Duff, 4th Earl of Fife

Heading the Masonic dedication was James Duff 4th Earl of Fife, Depute Grand Master of Scotland. The Earl had fought under Wellington in France; he was a friend of the British King although this did not stop him voting against a Royal tax policy in Parliament. His “liberal” views led him to support Catholic Emancipation and vote for parliamentary reform in 1832. He seems to have been a bit of a loose cannon and far from being in the same reactionary mould of Wellington and his cohorts. But like the Iron Duke he was a staunch patriot.

Duff’s speech to fellow masons was replete with a mixture of calls to patriotism and hinted at concerns particular to his neck of the woods which was Banffshire. With an estimated crowd of 10,000 gathered Rule Britannia was sung, followed by a Masonic blessing of Cornucopia, May the all-bounteous Author of Nature bless this city with an abundance of Corn, Wine, and Oil. The Earl of Fife then got stuck in, telling the multitude, those close enough to hear, how pleased he was at the local initiative and especially happy that the investors had not been obliged to resort to foreign artists to furnish the design for the Public Rooms. Simpson’s work was admirable, he said, as was the industry of Aberdonians, making gems from barren rock, meaning turning brute granite into a material for wealth, utility and beauty.

Local History 010

A more familiar picture of the Music Hall on Union Street now an urban setting

A landowner with a reputation for his willingness to listen to claims or complaints from his tenants on his Banffshire estates James Duff applied himself to their problems and the fact that disparities of wealth were about to be highlighted with the construction of the large neo-classical hall. The granite edifice might well give employment to many quarriers and masons around Aberdeen but at the same time standing on its prestigious site clearly visible from Union Bridge the hall embodied difference and exclusion: its doors were open only to those with wealth and social connections, made more obvious by its countryside setting. James Duff got straight to the point –

…although it was constructed more immediately for the purpose of innocent festivity and
amusement, the wants of the poor and indigent would not be forgot by those within its
walls, who might tread upon the light fantastic toe, and lead the mazy dance; the situation of the public charities of the place would be considered, and liberal contributions made to relieve the distressed . . . and thus prove that, although they [the poor] could not partake of the festivities for which the Building was about to be erected, those who enjoyed them were not unmindful of their privations, but anxious to alleviate them; thereby conveying to them some of the fruits of the social scene, and sweetening as far as is in their power, the bitter cup of their adversity, to receive their blessing in return.

He found in poet James Thomson’s “Four Seasons” moral, patriotic and ideological support for his opinions and the verse from Thomson the Earl chose that day in 1820 included a call for protection of British fishing interests:

nor look on, Shamefully passive, while Batavian fleets
Defraud us of the glittering, finny swarms,
That heave our friths, and croud upon our shore.

British waters for British fishermen. The poem comes from the early 18th century but the message James Duff decided was applicable to the 1820s after seeing off Napoleon the United Kingdom must keep hold of its global maritime power or as Thomson put it, … united Britain make Intire, th’ imperial Mistress of the deep. Maritime freedom was essential as British commercial and industrial might was then in the process of encircling the globe. In the two years following the ceremony Fife backed Banffshire fish curers when they sought relief from the salt tax; similarly he backed local herring fishermen when they asked to be exempt from paying tax on imported European oak staves.

Union Street from South

Union Street from the south

But the Earl was not satisfied simply with being British. He had a double or more complex identity; two nationalities. He was British and also Scottish – from a country with its own traditions and history and this he employed to enthuse and legitimise the 1820s. Having already used the words of one Scotch poet for defence of Britannia he turned to another for fashioning Scottishness: Sir Walter Scott, prolific author and said to be the inventor of the historical novel. With a European-wide readership Scott’s poetry and novels made him amongst the most influential writers of the period. James Duff found the model and images in he sought in the romantic poem “Lord of the Isles”; a work which extols the virtues of initiative and independence as portrayed in the trials, tribulations and victories of the Bruce. Scott’s narrative tells how the would-be King of Scots defeated the foreign foe, the English. Duff drew Aberdeen citizens into the narrative, explaining that the city had played a noble role in the saga when citizens provided a place of safety for Bruce then pursued by enemy forces. “Inventing” a local history for Bruce the Earl imagined the fleeing man dreaming of Liberty at the site of hills. In the Earl’s imagination Bruce has been inspired by landscape and the loyalty of Aberdonians leading to, in Walter Scott’s words, the heartfelt cry –

Oh Scotland! Shall it e’re be mine/ To Wreak thy wrongs in battle-line/ To raise my victor head and see/ Thy hills, thy dales, thy people free.

On the face of it this was a battle-cry for a return to the former glories of an independent country. But no. The Earl told his audience that the days of the Bruce were past; events that happened in “times of Yore”. Romantic visions of medieval kings defeating foes was a great story but he and his fellow masons lived in the world of Hanoverian settlement and post 1707 Union. It was not political independence he called for but the qualities of determination, commitment, initiative and loyalty which he found in the story of Bruce to be used to strengthen the forces of commercial progress and Rule Britannia. Much like Sir Walter Scott who described, dramatised and absorbed Scotland’s distinct and turbulent past Fife’s lesson was that was then this is now and progress henceforward would come in the guise of a new identity albeit one containing the DNA of previous forms.

Union Bridge

Union Bridge complete with washing line

So James Duff 4th Earl of Fife laid the foundation stone and in doing this provided the multitude with a sense of the moral and political lights that should guide them. Finally turning to the assembled spectators he thanked them for their respectable behaviour, for their silence and proprietary of demeanour all a sure sign of the good sense of the citizens of Aberdeen.

March 5, 2012

Waiting and waiting in vain at Kingswells Park & Ride: (No) Lavvies Aberdeen City Council

Why does Aberdeen City Council ‘run’ the waiting room and toilets at Kingswells Park & Ride?

Park & Ride is supposed to provide a service to people driving distances from the Shire to avoid having them block up Aberdeen streets. People travelling distances often require to use the lavatories but Aberdeen City Council continues its aversion to providing toilets under its watch.

So arriving AGAIN at the Park & Ride (this morning) I found the waiting room and toilets locked.

Today it was sunny. Those of us waiting for the bus waited outside. There is one slim bench in the fairly open bus shelter at the stop but when it’s raining, sleet or snow the only cover is in the bike shed.

AND THERE ARE NO LAVATORIES IN THE BIKE SHED.

Every time I’ve used this Park & Ride over the past weeks the waiting room has been locked.
What do bus drivers do when they need to go to the lavatory?

Why is this facility not being run by First Bus? It couldn’t be worse than CLOSED as if often is now.

For passengers they have to cross their legs until they get into town and then it’s spot the public toilet.

Oh, and the price has just increased.

The Council encourages pubs, shops and restaurants to open their toilets because it has been closing down the council ones.

BUT TRY USING THE COUNCIL’S OWN FEW FACILITIES SUCH AS THE MUSIC HALL AND YOU ARE CONFRONTED BY NOTICES PROHIBITING USE OF THE TOILETS BY ANYONE OTHER THAN THOSE USING THE CAFÉ.

Aberdeen City Council – the people who couldn’t care less.